Posts filed under ‘Politics’

Do We Stand Together? American Jewish Identity and Voices of Dissent

by Lilah Shapiro

original article posted at The Martin Marty Center, University of Chicago Divinity School

In a recent article in the Jewish Weekly reflecting on the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, a woman is quoted as saying that she envies Israelis because they have a country in which human life is so valued that they are willing to trade thousands of accused criminals to ensure the return of one man. The terms of Shalit’s release, coupled with the recent campaign for Palestinian state recognition by the United Nations, and last month’s UNESCO vote, have generated a renewed feeling of immediacy and urgency within the American Jewish community regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations and Israeli policy. Amongst American Jews there is a widespread interpretation and assertion that the brokering of Shalit’s freedom stands to remind the world of that which is special and unique about Israel as a state founded on and ruled by Jewish values. But this line of reasoning is tenuous. While the Shalit deal has allowed Jews to publicly celebrate the extraordinary value placed on human life by Judaism and, in turn–so the argument goes–Israel, it has also invited comparisons of the Israeli government’s treatment of its Jewish and Palestinian populations. Does Israel (and Judaism) place high value on all human life, or on Jewish life in particular? It is striking that many American Jews, who take great pride in their cultural relativism, outspokenness, and social justice orientation in other realms of their life, do not pose these and other important and self-defining questions. Rather they remain silent or stand firm in their public endorsement of the party line. This raises the question: Why are American Jews reluctant to publicly vocalize any critique of Israel?

I am not taking a political position, that is, I do not adopt a pro-Israel or pro-Palestine stance, although I acknowledge the likelihood that some may attempt to infer one. Instead, my interest is in the negotiation of American Jewish identity vis-à-vis Israel, in particular, highlighting the potential identity conflicts and dilemma that may arise for American Jews who are in the minority and are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. It is with more than a fleeting sense of trepidation that I write this piece. As scholars we are trained to analyze and deconstruct, making sense of and critiquing complex and often potentially controversial subjects. As a Jew, however, I cannot escape the overwhelming sense that I am treading where I should not go, and that many could find what I write to be, at the very least, the violation of a taboo and, at worst, profoundly dangerous.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the American Jewish community was far from unified on the subject of Israel. American Jewish leftists were deeply and vocally opposed to Zionism on ideological grounds, as they stood in opposition to all forms of nationalism. Other segments of the Jewish population were concerned that overly visible support of Israel would lead to suspicions regarding Jewish loyalties. Finally, on-going conflicts and negotiations over Jews’ racial status and acceptance into hegemonic American society figured into the Zionism debate.  The call for Zionistic support hinged on the notion that all Jewish people were somehow fundamentally connected and that this connection existed on a deeper, more primal (possibly biological) plane than that which is engendered by shared practices. Given that Zionism could act to confirm the Jewish people as a “race” unto themselves, and that Zion was often linked to non-western and exotic locales and cultures, there was a concern that, as a movement, Zionism could possibly undermine what was perceived as a Jew’s tenuous position in white America.

In the time since the end of World War II and the formal establishment of Israel as a nation-state, the debate and discourses of dissent surrounding all things Israel have virtually disappeared within the American Jewish community. Somehow, over time, an unmitigated and unconditional support of Israel, at least publicly, have become a fundamental component of being Jewish in America. But do American-Jews in truth uniformly maintain such unwavering and uncritical support of Israel? Many have written about the conflicts within the American Jewish community over whether, how much, and how vocally to aid African Americans prior to the civil rights movement. The arguments vary in their detail, but generally concur that in the early part of the twentieth century the liberal Jewish sensibility generated a desire to ally with African Americans, with whom many Jews identified as a co-suffering minority. However, the need to not complicate and threaten their own status within majority American culture prevented American Jews on the whole from publicly acting on this impulse. Currently, the situation of the Palestinian people has created a similar dilemma for many American Jews. However, the risk for those who harbor Palestinian sympathies is not that their status within American society may be called into question, but that they will face criticism and ostracism from their fellow Jews. To support the Palestinian cause challenges and undermines one’s status as a Jew.

A recent poll conducted by JStreet, a political organization that describes itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace, reveals deep conflict and contradictions regarding the Palestinian question within the American Jewish community. The poll respondents, a predominantly ideologically liberal group, indicate that they overwhelmingly want the United States to take an active role in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, however support for such involvement drops to 44 percent when public criticism of Israel and Israeli policy is factored in as a variable. To some extent this may be a generational issue. Recent research by sociologist Steven M. Cohen on behalf of the Jewish Theological Seminary found that current rabbinical students, while exhibiting feelings of a salient and strong bond with Israel, on the whole have a more nuanced understanding of Israel’s standing and policies in the Middle East than do their older, ordained rabbinic counterparts. Similarly, the JStreet poll shows that younger American-Jews are less likely to believe that the United Nations treats Israel unfairly and are more inclined to support the notion of the U.S. voting in favor of the recognition of a Palestinian state. These sets of findings notwithstanding, there is little to no discourse on a wide-spread, public level that allows for the discussion and dissemination of this counter-narrative, even among the younger generation. The prevailing message is that Israel is at risk and that criticism and public debate will complicate and exacerbate the danger. All Jews must be steadfast and resolute in their support of Israel, firmly conveying that “we stand together.”

Without question there is a real threat to the safety and integrity of the state of Israel originating from some sections of the Arab world. Without question the seeds of anti-Semitism still, and undoubtedly will continue to, flourish in some corners of the world, both in America and abroad.  However, American Jews today enjoy a level of unprecedented success, security and stability.  When the “American” half of the identity hyphen is highlighted, American Jews frequently and productively engage in debate and critique regarding the positions and practices of their own and other governments and peoples. They do so freely, without concern for how such dialogue might impact their status, safety, or identity as Americans or Jews. When the “Jewish” portion of their identity comes into play, however, a different approach is engaged. On this one issue, the subject of Israel, a culture of fear seems to continue to hold considerable sway and, as a result, there is an expectation that support of Israel is absolute and unquestioning. For many in mainstream Jewish culture, the slightest critique of Israel, even a potentially constructive one, is construed as an anti-Semitic attack. In this context, the labeling of a person or commentary as “anti-Semitic” acts as a powerful tool to delegitimize content and, more importantly, the individual. Many Jews, regardless of personal views, choose to silence their voices rather than face potential devaluation in the eyes of their community.

There are preliminary rumblings of discontent seeping into the popular American Jewish imagination. The 2008 founding of JStreet suggests that, perhaps, a public dialogue of counter-opinions is taking shape. Some in the popular press are beginning to introduce the possibility of a critical conversation, arguing that such discourse can only serve to strengthen the Jewish people and the position of Israel. This indicates that there are some who are willing to publicly promote a position that one can be pro-peace, pro-Palestinian rights, critical of aspects of Israeli policy, and still be a valuable and productive member of the Jewish collective. However, JStreet’s current membership represents, at most, only three percent of the American Jewish population and, further, those who publicize such positions are still most often faced with a barrage of criticism and vitriol from within. Most in American Jewish society continue to perceive an overwhelming message that American Jews are not only expected, but required to project “rock solid” and “wall-to-wall” support for Israel. Put simply, for the majority of the American Jewish populace, unwavering support is seen as a foundational element not only of being an American Jew, but of being a good Jew. These themes are among the most dominant in the American Jewish master narrative. If there is little-to-no safe space to publicly express a counter-opinion, one is left to wonder about the identity implications for those who are not comfortable with the current expectations and available normative roles. For now, they are left out of the story.

References

A. Butler-Smith, “Diaspora Nationality vs. Diaspora Nationalism: American Jewish Identity and Zionism After the Jewish State,” Israel Affairs 15(2), April 2009.

S. M. Cohen, “JTS Rabbis Then and Now: The 2011 Survey of JTS Ordained Rabbis and Current Students,” Jewish Theological Seminary, 16 September 2011.

J. J. Goldberg, “Conservatives reject call to leave Israel out of campaign,” Forward, October 27, 2011.

JStreet, National Survey of American Jews, July 2001.

E. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

G. Gorenberg, “Anti-Dissent Disorder,” The American Prospect, June 6, 2011.

A. Pickus “Gilad and Me,” The Jewish Week, November 1, 2011.

M. Walzer, “American Jews and Israel,” Dissent, Spring 2011.

Lilah Shapiro is a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago and a Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion. Her dissertation is entitled “Driven to Orthodoxy: Jewish identity, narratives of achievement, and family dynamics in American-Jewish culture as motivations for Teshuvah.”

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November 17, 2011 at 9:42 am Leave a comment

I’m a liberal…

John F. Kennedy included the following in a speech in 1960. Ted Kennedy repeated it:

But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

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August 27, 2009 at 12:47 pm Leave a comment

a joke about the middle east?!

A CNN journalist heard about a very old Jewish man who had been going to the Western Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. So she went to check it out.

She went to the Western Wall and there he was, walking slowly up to the holy site. She watched him pray and after about 45 minutes, when he turned to leave, using a cane and moving very slowly, she approached him for an interview.

“Pardon me, sir, I’m Rebecca Smith from CNN. What’s your name?”

“Morris Fishbien,” he replied.

“Sir, how long have you been coming to the Western Wall and praying?”

“For about 60 years.”

“60 years! That’s amazing! What do you pray for?”

“I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and the Muslims. I pray for all the wars and all the hatred to stop. I pray for all our children to grow up safely as responsible adults, and to love their fellow man.”

“How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?”

“Like I’m talking to a f—ing brick wall.”

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March 12, 2009 at 12:12 am Leave a comment

Rick Warren gets mixed reviews

Rick Warren gets mixed reviews… that’s charitable! My take is Warren totally botched the inaugural warreninvocation. Starting with Deuteronomy 6:4-9, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God…” (text of the Shema) was encouraging. But everything started downhill from there.

I predicted he would end the prayer invoking the name of Jesus, and he did. It was bothersome in the sense that it excludes all non Christians. What really stung was his attempt to invoke Jesus’ name using multiple languages including the Hebrew for Jesus, Yehoshuah. This version is most often used by the ‘Jews for Jesus’ folks as a way of pacifying or mollifying listeners. It did the opposite, raising the collective hairs of informed listeners.

The pièce de résistance (or straw that broke the camel’s back) – ending with the Lord’s Prayer. Now, there’s nothing objectionable in the text of this lovely piece. However, it is unrepentantly a Christian missive. I happen to know that Warren was coached, or at least requested, to be inclusive. Come on Rick!

But let’s be real here – Warren had to be Warren. He’s an evangelical, fundamentalist pastor. While he might think differently in private (and I think he does), he has a constituency he must serve. So, was it really Warren’s fault? I think not – I think Obama screwed up. That’s screw up number one for President Obama and I’m sure not the last. He’s entitled, and I’m sure he thought having Warren up there would broaden his appeal with evangelicals. The truth is, they still think Obama’s a Muslim. Let it go Barack… you can’t appeal to everyone. Stick with us folks who already like you!

January 21, 2009 at 8:44 pm 2 comments

Obama’s Jewish staff

Are Obama and Biden assembling a staff or gathering a minyan?

So far we have:

Rahm Emanuel – Chief of Staff – Jewish

David Axelrod – Senior Advisor to the President – Jewish

Ronald Klain – Chief of Staff to the Vice President of the United States – Jewish

Larry Summers – Economic Advisor to the President – Jewish

Paul Volcker – Economic Advisor to the President, Former Head of Fed Reserve – Jewish

Tim Geithner – Treasury Secretary – Jewish

Peter Orszag – Head of Budget – Jewish

January 19, 2009 at 6:58 pm 8 comments

ceasefire

This is a repost of a note from my friend Amichai Lau-Lavie. I’m so tired of hearing Americans vilify Israelis as a collective, as if all of them are bloodthirsty war-mongerers. This note from Amichai is more typical of Israelis sentiment than most of what we read in the world press.

Saturday Night, Jan. 17, midnight

A bonfire was lit tonight in the olive groves outside the Latrun Monastery, not far from Jerusalem. About 30 people gathered, Jews and Arabs, adults, children, teens, for a circle of prayers, conversation, and plans for further action.

We huddled around the fire, at times standing and at times sitting, sharing painful facts and feelings, providing updates about other opportunities for hands on help to the victims on both sides of the war down south and about other circles and meetings for dialogue, promotion of co-existence, especially now. Someone prayed: Let this fire bring on the cease fire – at least for now – any progress towards peace. M. led a short Havdala Ritual – separating the Sabbath from the week, taking refuge in the fire. Wine was passed, and fresh baked challa. In the middle of a plea/prayer led by I., one of the leaders on the Palestinian side of the dialogue for reconciliation, L. received a call from A. in Gaza — local Gaza resident and UN employee. Lee put him on speaker and we all huddled even closer to hear him. ‘There is no Tomorrow in Gaza’, he said, describing some of what he has seen – only now they are starting to search through some of the rubble and expecting the numbers of the dead to rise. He emphasized the need for increased aid and supplies – milk, water, bread, blankets – whatever has been brought in is not enough.

Afterwards, I. continued his prayer and concluded with a hope – that there will be a tomorrow in Gaza, and Sederot and all over this land, and that the difficult work of healing and reconciliation – on all levels – will continue tomorrow, and the day after.

Shortly after I left the circle, about an hour later, back to Jerusalem, a unilateral ceasefire was announced by Olmert, to take place at 2am (one hour from now). Hamas shot missiles on BeerSheba a minute later. By now, I think the bonfire at Latrun has been extinguished, it has done its duty in sending out sparks of warmth and flames of hope into a world that needs it badly.

One more note about empathy. It is so difficult to be here, as an Israeli, and witness the tidal wave of refusal among so many Israelis to acknowledge (let alone take responsibility for) the devastation and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Any mention of the need to help is replied with – ‘but it’s their own fault! Why does Hamas use children as shield? What about 8 years of rockets on our children?’ I am generalizing here, and there are lots of other voices here – but the overall sense if this – us or them – and there is no room or time now for empathy or compassion towards ‘them’. What can I say to my parents and siblings and cousins and friends who have sons fighting in Gaza and relatives in the South and an overwhelming embittering fatigue from this sort of existence? Emotions harden here. No matter how ethical or moral the IDF is, how many preventive phonecalls were made to warm residents before their homes were bombed, the facts remain that a lot of help needs to happen very fast to help save lives of human beings. Period.

Enough with the either/or paradigm. It’s not working. It can be and/both. It has to be. Who cares who started at this point? Everyone is to blame and none of the babies are.

I got a long email tonight from one of the kindest and most generous women I know:

“…Why is there no uprising Against the hamas??? Where are all the arab neighbors? Don’t they see the agony?? Are we always to be blamed??

Evil, like cancer has to be removed even at the expense of healthy tissue being removed as well. NO army but IDF would warn the so called enemy that they are about to bomb the houses and please take your women and children and get out to save yourselves. I think the time has come that the Arab world instead of crying will start looking after their own.’

I should have called her but sent a quick reply instead:

Basic human empathy, that’s all.

All you say it true and sad – but – meanwhile, thousands of babies are in grave danger. Period. The aid has not been sufficient and hopefully now can increase.

Today it’s their baby and tomorrow it could be mine. A baby is a baby and is not to blame. It’s our moral duty to be compassionate to the victims and help all who in need – ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’. Doesn’t the God we believe in reminds us to remember what it was like for our people to be a freedom fighting slave camp in Egypt.

Good night. ‘

January 18, 2009 at 8:15 pm Leave a comment

Dear President Bush…

By Jimmy McCarty
January 14, 2009

This is a brilliant treatise on the Bush presidency, especially his alleged faith.

Dear President Bush,
As you approach the end of your time in the White House, I want to make sure I say,”Thank you.” Thank you for transforming my faith and my politics.

When you were running for president back in 2000, I was an ardent supporter of yours. I believed you were “God’s man” for the job and that you would restore righteousness to our nation because of your personal relationship with God and your commitment to “pro-life” politics.

I was a high school senior at the time, only seventeen and unable to vote, but I was behind you all the way. My dad, a soldier from Tennessee, loved you and so did the preachers I knew, so I did too. I wrote my high school senior thesis on the evils of abortion and was so compelling in my arguments that a few people told me they became “pro-life” after my presentation. I knew the Republican Party was God’s party and so you were God’s man. You made this clear with your references to gospel songs and saying Jesus was your favorite philosopher. If I could have, I would have voted for you.

I remember one of my all-time favorite high school teachers having a discussion with me questioning my support for you. You’ll be glad to know I defended you passionately. He didn’t understand how I could idolize Tupac and vote for you. (Ahhhh…what goes on in the mind of a biracial kid at a high school where students are called “a bunch of thugs” by the students at more “well to do” schools while also attending a conservative church!) See, I was for affirmative action and helping single mothers, but I knew abortion was the most important issue there was and you were the “pro-life” candidate, not that “Slick Willy” chump Al Gore. So, I had your back.

After graduating I began working at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. That’s right, I was working a government job supporting our military. (I even worked on the USS Lincoln before you landed that plane on it with “Mission Accomplished” emblazoned behind you. You’re welcome.) I remember when 9/11 happened. I was driving to another day at work fixing our ships and submarines when I heard about it on the radio. It was eerie. At first they said a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Sad, but to an eighteen-year-old it was an interruption to my morning music (it was the same day Jay-Z’s The Blueprint came out and I was hyped!). A few minutes later they said another plane crashed into it and they didn’t think the crashes were accidents. I arrived at the shipyard to extra security and we watched news the rest of the day. I won’t forget that experience for a long time. I was scared and I was pissed.

It was shortly after that the transformation began to happen. I was making good money (in my world $35,000 to $40,000 is really good money) but was extremely unhappy. I began to question the righteousness of preparing ships for war, and wondered if I would somehow be responsible for the blood of those killed by the weapons on board if they were used. Then you declared war in Afganhistan and Iraq. And it was then God began calling me out of my unfulfilled life to a life in ministry.

At the first church I worked with I heard a sermon about how John the Baptist was a patriot and so we should be too. The implication was clear: “Support our country and our president.” This seemed odd to me considering John the Baptist’s harsh words for Roman and Jewish authorities and his withdrawal from and harsh critique of Jewish society. How could this preacher have missed such an obvious message of the Baptist’s life? Anyways, it was at this point in my life my world began to change and I began to look at faith and politics differently.

I went to Pepperdine University. You’re familiar with it. It’s the private Christian school where Ken Starr is Dean of the Law School and your wife gave the commencement address at my graduation. In fact, she mentioned me by name in that address. I wasn’t the only one that received a degree that day because she was awarded an honorary doctorate. She seemed like a sweet and loving lady. Anyways, it’s not some bastion of liberal propaganda to say the least. But it was there my faith and the course of my life changed.

My degree was in religion, but it was really a Bible and ministry degree. I learned about the Kingdom of God, the Anabaptists, inner-city ministry, and the Civil Rights movement. I have studied the lives of great Christians: Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Andre Trocme, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Desmond Tutu, Sojourner Truth, Ronald Sider, Jim Wallis, Clarence Jordan, Fannie Lou Hamer and others. I met devoted Christians, some of the most devoted I’ve known, who were loud and proud political progressives. I did service work in India, Uganda, Kenya, Detroit, and post-Katrina New Orleans. I worked for a nonprofit and a church in inner-city L.A. I was given a worldview that enabled me to make sense of all of the injustice and oppression I saw, and that worldview was Christianity. It was a Christianity different in many ways from the one I grew up with, but it is still recognizably and unabashedly Christianity.

I learned something during my time at Pepperdine: God cares deeply about the poor, hungry, homeless, downtrodden, and oppressed, and about peace, and the Republican Party’s policies don’t seem to. In fact, you haven’t seemed to, in your presidency, either. I thought you were the Christian candidate but I have failed to see Jesus in most of your presidency.

You lied, as far as I can tell (even the youngest Sunday school student knows that’s a no-no) about the reasons for going into Iraq, and are convinced that killing people is the best way to stop other people from killing people. This does not square with Jesus’ message to love one’s enemies, pray for those who persecute you, do good to those who do bad to you and renounce violence. We have lived, during your presidency, by the “smart” bomb and guns, and I am afraid we may die by them as well.

Taking from the poor to give to the rich is an evil thing to do. It is the opposite of Jesus’ declaration that his ministry, and that of Christians, is to declare the year of the Lord’s favor. (This is a reference to a policy in the Hebrew Bible where God commands Israel to redistribute wealth every seventy years so that, in effect, generational poverty is stamped out.) And yet you did just that with your tax cuts to the richest one percent of the nation. You have continually given the rich more and the poor less. In no way does that square with Christian faith.

You talked loud about giving more funding to religious (code-word Christian) organizations performing social services and backed it up with little real money. (David Kuo opened my eyes to this.) This is just one example of the way you wooed Christians with good rhetoric and failed to fulfill your promises. Using religious faith as a political tool is what history’s villians have done, and I am afraid you may be closer to that than you realize.

When Hurricane Katrina happened you stayed on vacation (I just learned today my tax money paid for you to spend one year, 1/8th!, of your presidency at your ranch in Texas) instead of getting to work. And then with black people floating on New Orleans’ streets you said you couldn’t wait to chill on the racist Trent Lott’s new porch. It made me wonder if Kanye West was right. Do you really care about black people (or poor people of any color)? God’s Kingdom is a kingdom of all nations and colors. Hurricane Katrina, and the government’s response to it, demonstrated that the United States clearly is not in many ways.

You approved of the use of torture. How can you, one who claims to call a victim of torture Lord, in good conscience condone treating human beings in the way Jesus died so that humans would never have to die in such a way?

You approved of and condoned as unregulated a free-market as possible and have watched as our nation falls into economic collapse. You encouraged excessive greed and now millions are paying the price when it proved unsustainable. Millionaires and billionaires padded their pockets with money they had no use for while literally millions are on the brink of homelessness or are already homeless. You helped build America’s house on the sand and now that the storm has come it may not stand.

One of the first jobs God gave to humans was to care for the earth God created. You have continually drawn the ire of those seeking to live this call by seeking public policy that threatens some of the little nature we have left. You have perpetuated our dependence on oil which harms the earth when taken from it and when it is used. This does not make America any better stewards of what God has graciously given us.

I have become an adult during your eight years as president, Mr. Bush. I watched your presidency closely and have renounced the politics many of my formative teachers and mentors taught me. I am one member of the generation Jim Wallis talks about that has had a “Great Awakening” and moved beyond the “Religious Right.” Your presidency opened my eyes to how un-Christian Republican public policy can be and led me to reject it as it is today. Thank you for helping me to live more like Jesus in every part of my life.

Yes, even my political life.

Jimmy McCarty is a student at Claremont School of Theology studying Christian ethics, a minister serving cross-racially at a church in inner-city Los Angeles, and a servant at a homeless shelter five days a week. He blogs at JimmyMcCarty.

January 17, 2009 at 10:25 pm Leave a comment

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