American So-Called Jews

The ambiguous title of this post is an example of the brilliant commenting that takes place on the web. The full comment reads:

This article is insane, as 79% of American so called Jews. -Yigal

Here’s the article, if you’re interested. From The Forward:

Alarm bells have been ringing around the neighborhood pretty much nonstop since July 13, when President Obama sat down to talk Middle East policy at the White House with a pack of leaders from a dozen American Jewish organizations.

The meeting was supposed to help buff up Obama’s relationship with the Jewish community, which is bubbling lately with resentment at the president’s aggressive peace-processing. By reaching out to the community’s customary spokesmen, he hoped to build rapport and perhaps recruit a few backers for his policies. Instead he unleashed a whirlwind of attacks against himself, his administration and the Jews who met with him.

The critics accuse Obama of unfairly singling out Israel by demanding a unilateral settlement freeze, without requiring reciprocal Palestinian concessions, and disregarding past American promises to permit some construction. They say he is trying to curry favor with the Arab world, breaking a long-standing presidential tradition of siding automatically with Israel. Some say he is threatening the important legacy of George W. Bush. I didn’t make that one up.


If there is a substantive argument in all this, it’s the claim that Israel is being pressured for concessions while the Arab side is not. Obama himself conceded the point at that meeting. He’s now pressing Arab states for gestures to help Israelis get the medicine down. But freezing settlements doesn’t depend on that. Jerusalem is already committed to “freeze all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).” It’s written in black and white in President Bush’s road map, which Israel signed in 2003 — and which Avigdor Lieberman reaffirmed this past April 1 in his maiden Knesset speech as foreign minister. Israel was able to put off the freeze because the Palestinian Authority wasn’t honoring its commitment to crack down on terrorists. Now the Palestinians are cracking down, and Netanyahu is making up excuses.

As for Obama being the new Roosevelt, we should live so long. FDR, if memory serves, was the guy who defeated Hitler and saved the world, after the Japanese air force convinced congressional Republicans to let us join the war. If Obama has any tricks like that up his sleeve, bring ’em on.

Obama the Machiavellian

Ron Rosenbaum writes:

I think Obama is a true Machiavellian. By abandoning “axis of evil” rhetoric, and by making that Cairo speech, however anodyne it was, and by not jumping in too soon, he turned the Iranian revolution into a pro America phenomenon, rather than allow the fascist mullahs to smear it as a pawn-of-America phenomenon. Not bad for a rookie.

And he made this point two paragraphs after congratulating Slavoj Zizek on an “uncharacteristically sensible and persuasive essay.” It appears Zizek actually has a mind capable of constructing complete, semi-linear thoughts when it feels like it. So why doesn’t he do it more often?

The King of Mishaguss

Massimo Gezzi has an interview with John Ashbery at the Best American Poetry website:

MG: Once you argued that America always seemed like a foreign country to you, adding that living abroad focuses you on where you’re from. Do you still feel that America is like a foreign country? Which are the American poets and writers you most appreciate?

JA: America still seems like a foreign country to me, perhaps now more than ever before. On the other hand, I discovered during ten years I spent in France that I like feeling like a foreigner. Gertrude Stein first pointed out that living in Paris made her more conscious of her American identity. A list of American poets and writers that I appreciate would be very long if I were to include contemporaries, including younger ones whose names would mean nothing to your readers. Of the older ones I would include Whitman, Stevens, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Bowles, and also T.S. Eliot and Auden, though we’re not certain which nationality to assign to them.

A Few Thoughts on Jewishness (2)

Allow me to repeat what the Bu-Jews I know tell me (there are a startling number of them): “You cannot be a Buddhist.” Apparently, Buddhism is not a faith, but more like a non-faith. (Non-) Buddhists out there, please correct me if I’m wrong on this.

I think it is this “non-faith” factor that accounts for its compatibility with Jewishness in a way that, say, Christianity is incompatible. It’s one or the other.

The Tanakh is explicit about Jews messing with other religious ideas, most likely because Jews in those days were often messing with them. Otherwise the pronouncements against Ba’al and other minor deities lose their sense. Here’s a choice prohibition, (almost) randomly stumbled upon:

Leviticus 19.19 (קדשים): Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourself. I the Lord am your God.

Roger Kamenetz wrote a book called The Jew in the Lotus, about his experiences of cross-pollination. It’s a book I’ve wanted to read for some time. Sooner or later I’ll get to it.

My point, if I have one, is that Jewishness is to some extent separable from Judaism. Of course, they are linked in inseparable ways, which it has been the job of modern secular Jewish culture to discover. How far can you stray before you’re no longer Jewish? Without a formal negation, an outright refusal, a trashing of Jewish identity in all its forms (and even then, there is good reason to believe one is still Jewish), it’s a tough call. And yet, we are the ever-dying people–presumably because so many of us get interested in extending our Jewishness to include forbidden territory.

The great debate is: who will win out in the end? The fact that the future of the Jews is seen as a competition between “traditionalist” and “humanistic” should tell us all something about the nature of the problem. If there is a problem. Once it was assumed that, to be Jewish, you needed to believe in the Jewish God. That is no longer the case. Even Jewish atheism is just another galaxy spinning around in the ever-widening universe of Jewishness.

You can be good without God.

Close Encounters with the Terza Età

Ever since I turned 25 or so I’ve been making a concerted effort not to get old. I try to avoid expressions such as “Kids these days…” because I still remember what it was like to be a kid in those days. People who use such expressions are undeniably old farts by my lights, and that is my working definition of “getting old.” In the back of my mind is always Socrates skipping rope with his nieces, a pretty good example — however fanciful — of the usefulness of youthfulness.

Last weekend we were at a wedding (not ours) in Perugia. At the reception lunch, they stuck us with the over-60 crowd, which I tried to view as an opportunity to familiarize myself with lesser-known points of view. I no longer have living grandparents, and I don’t hide my fascination when Italian octogenarians tell of the bombing of San Lorenzo or of having killed a Nazi or two in the hills outside Rome back in the day. But this time conversation was less poetic. I was roped in by a woman whose face resembled an old football. She had quick, intelligent eyes. What pearls of wisdom might fall from her lips, I wondered?

I giovani di oggi…” Kids these days, again. This time I wasn’t going to take it lying down. “Kids these days what?” I rebutted. The answer was even more savage than I imagined. “They have no values, no morals. They don’t know right from wrong. It’s the parents, though. They no longer have time for their children.”

I debated with her for 20 minutes or so. I offered myself as an example (I often seem to make a handy one) of a person who grew up with working parents, who spent time in the afternoons alone after school amusing himself in front of the television, and whose friends largely did the same. Granted, many of my “friends” from those days ended up with a criminal record, but this cannot be easily blamed on too much self-reliance.

Americanate,” she tore into me. American children may be expected to be self-sufficient for a few hours a day while their parents wile away their lives making a living, but this certainly won’t fly here in Italy. Apparently, an Italian child should drink its mother’s milk until the ripe age of 40 (I know some that do), or until the mother is old enough to be spoon-fed lukewarm minestrina by her unmarried, live-in offspring.

“But do you really believe that things were better in the past? Were people more moral, were they better people?” I was pleading for an answer that would allow me to rationalize my time spent listening to a woman hell-bent on insulting me.

Assolutamente.” I should’ve seen this one coming. At this point I desisted, put on my most charming smile, and filled my mouth with truffles.

What was to be learned from this encounter with the terza età? Is humanity headed downward in an endless spiral, destined to devolve, each generation more immoral than the last? What do we mean when we talk about morals? Do I have the same morals as an eighty year-old woman from Perugia? Are we talking about real morality, or the Ten Commandments?

I suspect, however, that we do not all have the exact same criteria as to what constitutes a moral life. This I gleaned from her facial contortions when I affirmed that both my parents had been married three times. Another americanata, to be sure, perhaps the worst of the bunch. However much we agree on basic principles of good conduct — don’t steal, don’t murder — there is still much that separates us. Had I told her that I am both Jewish and an atheist, and that I have homosexual friends, I wonder if she would’ve fallen out of her wheelchair. Of course, I understand the power of taboos. I wanted to have a serious discussion, not shock the poor woman to death.

To her credit, she did tell my wife and me that we were a good-looking couple — like the Obamas. She caught me off guard, and I wondered what lurked beyond that remark. I’m still getting used to people waving the American flag instead of burning it.

As she was being wheeled out to her car, my elderly new friend reached up, pinched my cheek and intoned: “You’re a good kid. You’ve got a clean face.” With those words, she disappeared into the sunlight. I felt oddly vindicated.

Published in The American

A Few Thoughts About Jewishness

Being Jewish is odd at times. For instance, one can be a BuJew (Buddhist-Jew), but a Jew for Jesus is out. Once there were Muslim Jews, but they were anomalous and eventually absorbed by Islam. The first Christians were all Jews, but then there was the decisive split and they went their separate ways.

But can one be a Muslim Christian, or a Hindu Muslim? I think as far as Abrahamic faiths go, at least, you can’t be two things at once. How about a Jewish-Christian-Muslim? “Y’know, I think they all had it right!” What a felicitous thought.

One factor that appears unique to Jewishness is the Jews-as-a-people/ Jews-as-a-faith paradigm. This is confusing not least of all to Jews. I don’t believe in YHWH, God, or supernatural authority in any guise, yet I am still Jewish. I find no contradiction there, though perhaps if all Jews were atheists Jews would eventually disappear. But one cannot force oneself to believe what one doesn’t believe simply because it may be a “historically conscious” choice. What to do?

Each must in the end follow his or her own conscience. The memes will take care of the rest.

Whose Catastrophe?

Dick Morris & Eileen McGann have a new book out called Catastrophe: How Obama is Fucking Up America. Now, I wouldn’t bother even mentioning this, but there is a humorous sidenote. Pick up the book, turn to the author bio blurbs on the back flap, and read for yourself:

“[McGann]…works with Dick…specializing in using the internet to win elections.

Well, kids, Obama won the last elections, and there was much talk that websites like Facebook and YouTube–to name the obvious culprits–were instrumental in pushing his campaign over the top. My question for Morris & McGann is: what elections have you won recently?

Adolf Hitler Was Not an Atheist

…but even if he were, what difference would it make? This is a ridiculous syllogism: Hitler was an atheist, therefore atheism = Hitlerism. One might as well point out that Hitler was a heterosexual, or a homo- or bisexual and come to a similar conclusion. On the other hand, it is just as unwarranted to point to all these pious Hitler quotes about God and the Saviour in order to construct another syllogism: Hitler was a believing Christian (or at least able to fake it passingly well), therefore Christianity = Hitlerism.

Atheism is not a theology or even a worldview. Atheism cannot bring society to its knees because it is not a totalitarian system. There is no danger that society will be taken over by reasonable people who test their ideas to see whether they stand up on their own or fall down flat on their face. We should be so lucky.

I just wanted to get that black on white because it is a recurring piece of nonsense when watching debates on YouTube such as this. Surprisingly,the Conservapedia (it is what it says) entry “atheism and mass murder” makes no mention of Hitler or Nazism. So go figure, even these people can’t keep it straight.

For those who persist in the unhappy illusion that people of no faith are some kind of evil muck clinging to the otherwise pristine bumper of believers on their long ride toward heaven, only to be chiseled off on the Day of Reckoning while the faithful march happily through the pearly gates to the great Cocktail Party in the Sky, I post the following video for your enjoyment.

Is Holocaust Denial a Taboo?

Mark Oppenheimer has a four-part interview with ace Holocaust deniers Mark Weber and Bradley R. Smith (not Bradley F. Smith) in Tablet, which is the moniker Nextbook is going by now. I’m linking to the first part. If you want to read it all you can follow the links at the bottom of each page. It’s worth it for quotes like this:

“You’ve read all the standard accounts,” I asked, “like Lucy Dawidowicz and Raul Hilberg?”

“Yeah,” Smith said, “that’s what I started with, I read Hilberg. I didn’t read them very closely. Because I’m not really interested in the history of the period.”

“So what are you interested in?”

“In a free exchange of ideas.”

“But you aren’t interested in trying to find out which ideas are right?”

“Not particularly. You know what I’m really interested in? Every generation has its taboo, and I happen to be here with this taboo. I happen to be here with this one. And I can see how it’s exploited, and who benefits from the exploitation.”

So there you have it: Holocaust denial as cultural revolution.