Saturday, January 31, 2009

O'Reilly doesn't understand liberal Jews, either.

Apparently Dennis Prager isn't the only one who can't wrap his brittle mind around Jews supporting liberal causes. O'Doofus offers us two scintillating anti-discussions. The first one takes place with Dennis Miller in early January during the midst of the Gaza War, ostensibly in the context of defending Israel against rabid protesting hordes:

The money-quote:

O'Shmuckface: The antisemitism is over-the-top, and I can never understand... why most American Jewish people are liberal, when, every time, when Israel is attacked, the far-left takes the side of the people against the Jews.

Miller: Well I think the Diaspora has become more disengaged from the heartland of Israel over the years. I'm not even Jewish but I feel great empathy for the Jewish people over there. I agree with you, I sometimes look at the elections that go on, and I think that, "Don't you want to be on the side of the guy that's going to be more pro..."

O'Dipshit: You'd think that ever Jewish American would be conservative in this country. But they're not. And I don't know how they justify it, like that guy Dershowitz, that complete fool...

[Interlude: As soon as he mentions Dershowitz, Bill starts to foam at the mouth. This is a little funny, since some of Dershowitz's positions over the years (specifically regarding the legality of torture) are not necessarily mainstream liberal ones, and certainly not far-left-- but also because the only substantive reason Bill dislikes him is because he ripped him a new one in a book review a couple of years ago. Relevant to the discussion? Not so much.]

Some thoughts: First of all, it is funny to see two right-wing Christians discussing the supposed political blindness of left-wing Jews without the slightest shame. I can't wait until next week when the O'Reilly-Miller caucus will regroup to discuss the respective failings of blacks, women, and gays.

Second, I like the suggestion that Dennis Miller is more pro-Israel and more "engaged" with Israel than the majority of Diaspora Jews. I would never deny that there are plenty of disengaged Jews in the Diaspora (disengaged, I would add, from many facets of Jewish life, not just Israel), the idea that Dennis Miller, that paragon of depth and substance, can somehow show us the way is not terribly convincing. While there is no question that some Jews simply don't care about Israel, there are plenty of others whose ambivalence is due to conflicting values and emotions-- for instance, believing that Israel's behavior should be a model for the rest of the world to demonstrate Jewish pride and accomplishment as opposed to an embarassment and pariah on the world stage. Unsurprisingly, O'Reilly and Miller have no understanding of such a dichotomy-- all they see are good guys and bad guys.

Third, O'Reilly's contention that, given the facts on the ground, all American Jews should be conservative is just as wrongheaded as the counter-argument I sometimes hear that all American Jews should be liberal. American Jews are not a monolith, and neither is Judaism. The ideal scenario is not one where Jews uniformly vote one way or the other, but rather one in which they are well-informed and vote their consciences, hopefully with some input or guidance from their understanding of Jewish tradition and values. Even better would be a case where the balkanization of American-Jewish life was ratcheted down a few notches and people did not feel stigmatized or isolated if their politics did not match the majority opinion within their denomination.

O'Reilly's bone-headed idea that Jews should vote Republican because Republicans support Israel devalues indivudal autonomy, assumes that all Jews are robots with the same "Israel uber alles" programming, and, perhaps most importantly, perpetuates the strawman that there is only one way to be "pro-Israel." This came up last Passover at my seder, one of our (non-Jewish) guests, an old friend of my parents', is also one of the few center-right people we know. Part of what I like about this man, who I'll call J, is that he is very well-educated, reads voraciously, has good arguments to back up his opinions, and is never afraid to have a polite and relaxed political discussion. At one point during the seder, the talk got onto Israeli politics (not my doing, I was trying to keep everyone together long enough for me to have time for bentshing). We started squabbling a little back and forth and discussed the issue of evangelical support for Israel, as well as Bush's support for Israel versus what support could exist under a Democratic administration, and I said that I thought there were different kinds of support for Israel depending on the circumstances; that a true friend sometimes needs to help a nation make difficult decisions it doesn't want to instead of helping them not deal with them. J confronted me with a very simple question: do you think there is a non-military way to support Israel? I said yes, and that my belief was that Israel was safer with more allies rather than less, that the more support it had on the world stage, the more flexible it could afford to be, rather than assuming that it could not trust other countries and shouldn't care about world opinion at all, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of isolation, which could be a lot more dangerous since it then is entirely reliant on its military, and US goodwill, to defend itself.

I'm not arrogant enough to think that the conversation at my seder table was some brilliant political discussion. But I'll take a wild guess and say it's a hell of a lot more substantive and authentic than Bill and Dennis' uninformed rants about the politics of American Jewry.

Here's another recent screed. This time Bill has deigned to have an actual member of the tribe participate. Not surprisingly though, he's stacked the deck by having it be a conservative Jew who will agree with everything that emanates from his Ein Sof. Take it away, morons.

O'REILLY: "Unresolved problem" segment tonight, the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas seems to be holding, but tensions are still very high. Here in the USA, far left PBS guy Bill Moyers said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BILL MOYERS: Every nation has the right to defend its people. Israel is no exception. All the more so because Hamas would like to see every Jew in Israel dead. But brute force can turn self-defense into state terrorism. (END VIDEO CLIP)

O'REILLY: And that's his thesis. Now what makes the situation interesting is that PBS heavily markets to liberal Americans in big cities. And that includes a sizeable Jewish population. With us now to comment, FOX News media analyst Bernie Goldberg, author of the upcoming book "A Slobbering Love Affair about the Media and Barack Obama."Look, I think most of our viewers don't care what Bill Moyers says anyway. He's pretty much defined himself as on the fringe of the left. Very low viewership for his program. Doesn't really have a lot of influence anymore. But PBS, to alienate a sizeable amount of Jewish viewers, that's going to almost put them out of business.

First, let me just say I always love it when Bill prefaces a discussion of something by saying, "Nobody cares about this." Not that I don't think it's sometimes true, but... well, then what exactly is the point of the segment? To talk about how nobody cares? What? Also, why would alienating Jews put PBS out of business? Are we such a powerful donor group that we have the power to shut down PBS? Since when?

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Well, as far as Moyers is concerned, I don't think he's worried about what Jewish viewers he's going to lose because, I mean, we may not want to think of it this way, but the vast majority of people who religiously tune in each week to watch Bill Moyers agree with what he says.

O'REILLY: Even Jewish viewers?

GOLDBERG: You know what? Some Jewish viewers of course are not going to like the comparison.

O'REILLY: The Anti-defamation League.

GOLDBERG: They wrote a letter... Because to call Israel a terrorist state is not something many Jews will like. But don't think Jews are monolithic on this, because I know enough Jews for whom liberalism will trump anything else. And they behave and think the way most liberals think. Not -- in other words, it doesn't matter if you're Protestant or Jewish or Catholic, they think the way liberals think. And that means some of them. Some Jews agree with Bill Moyers.

Yes, and some Jews agree with Bill O'Reilly. And most Jews probably are on some spectrum between the two, depending on the topic. I find it mind-boggling that Goldberg starts his commentary by cautioning O'Reilly not to pigeonhole Jews as monolithic, only to go on to characterize both liberal Jews and liberalism as monolithic. News flash: not only was Moyers not saying Israel and Hamas are the same, even if he had been, Moyers is neither patron saint nor Pope of liberalism. If you're going to bash liberal Jews, why not at least use a liberal Jew as your strawman?

Then they start discussing the larger liberal movement:

O'REILLY: Do you believe that the mainstream media, the network news, "New York Times," favors Hamas over Israel?

GOLDBERG: Let me broaden it out just a tad. I think the mainstream media in particular and liberals in general hate power. And that's why they don't like Israel. And, frankly, Bill, that's why a lot of them don't like the United States of America, although they would deny that. They love the underdog. And this is the part that makes me crazy. They love the underdog even when the underdog violates every one of their liberal values. The underdog, supposed underdog in this case, hides among civilians. The underdog hides its weapons in civilian areas. The underdog uses children and women and old men as shields. And the underdog fires rockets every day into civilian populations, including school rooms. And yet, liberals in America, in the media and out, this is amazing, side with the so-called underdog.

This is actually a useful and valid observation-- sort of. The analysis is accurate, but its scope is too small. There is no question that liberals are very distrustful of power. At the same time, I would argue that many conservatives are, as well-- what is the rejection of big government if not a suspicion that centralized power will be misused and lead to tyranny? The difference when it comes to distrusting power domestically is that liberals fear government power but also realize it is the only way to implement social reforms on a mass scale, so they have to figure out a way to make it work to their advantage. In theory, conservatives do not. On the world stage, things are a little trickier. Liberals do like to support the underdog, particularly the supposedly-principled "people's opposition" to corrupt or fallible governments or military structures. However, there are also conservative narratives of world events which try to spin their champions (which can also be deeply flawed and far from consistent with conservative morality-- Contras, anyone?) as the underdogs as well, standing alone and fighting the good fight against almost overwhelming odds- Reagan's view of the USSR as "the Evil Empire" versus the only other Superpower, the US, comes to mind.

Bill then moves on to bashing Europe as the land of Antisemitism part five (which actually may not be all that true anymore), and reminds us once again that JEWS HAVE MONEY.

O'REILLY: But there are two elements here. There's the anti-Semite element.


O'REILLY: Which is Europe. You know, Europe, despite what they say, they're still very anti-Semitic in Europe.


O'REILLY: My opinion.

GOLDBERG: You're right in that opinion.

O'REILLY: OK. And then there's the Moyers' far left element. And I think you nailed it that doesn't like any power at all. If you have a centralized power, you're bad.


O'REILLY: You must have done something bad to get that. So there's two elements here. But again, you know, I think that - I disagree with you. I think PBS is damaging itself very gravely.

GOLDBERG: Among regular liberals?

O'REILLY: Among a very affluent part of the population that gives them money.
Sigh. Butler, fetch me my bullion cannon. Let's see if we can't shoot some gold into Bill's house- at least we can break a few windows.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Keeping Things in Perspective

Back in the days before Dennis Miller went crazy, he made a very good comment in one of his "rant" books that has always stuck with me, along the lines of, "Isn't there something a little presumptuous in a bunch of old men telling women about what they can and can't do with their own bodies?" Miller was talking about the American Congress (at present there are under 100 out of 600 seats) but he could just as easily have been talking about the Haredi rabbinical establishment:

Hundreds of religious and ultra-Orthodox men thronged to lectures on woman's sexuality, fertility, menstruation and birth control in Jerusalem yesterday in the "Innovations in Women's Medicine" conference.

All the lecturers were men while the women, who also came in the hundreds, had to sit behind a barrier in the ninth annual conference held by the Puha Institute, dedicated to women's medical and halakhic issues.

Conference organizer Rabbi Benjamin David said he was aware that having all male lecturers address such sensitive issues was drawing fire from religious circles.

"First, we don't think that we are not sensitive," he said. "These are very professional halakhic issues and the lecturers are first-rate experts. Second, it's a matter of modesty. We are a very open institute but we have our limits and we don't think it proper for a woman to stand on the stage and address 1,000 people."

Separating between the genders at the conference as well as the intensive occupation with woman's sexual issues indicate openness, not radicalization, he said.

"We put things on the table. It shows openness, contrary to the stigmas on the religious public," he said.

Hmm. Now I know what you're thinking-- no women speakers at a women's health conference? Women having to sit behind a mechitza (could they even hear the lectures)? Shouldn't it have been the other way around-- the men should have been behind the barrier!

Anyway, I'm here to tell you to calm down. Believe it or not, this conference was actually a major improvement-- remember this?

Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar last week canceled the conference on women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce (agunot), which was due to take place in Jerusalem on Tuesday, at the order of ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.

Three months ago, Amar persuaded the Haredi sage Elyashiv to approve the conference. Elyashiv conditioned his consent on banning women from the conference.

Impressive. They went from banning women from a conference about women's issues and then cancelling it at the last minute to having it and just keeping them behind a sexiness-barrier, that's a big step. Who knows, in another two years they might have graduated to full Bachanalias. Of course, they'll keep the sheitels on. For modesty's sake.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Today, I am an American

(In which I out myself as a young whippersnapper.)

In 2001, I was convinced the world had gone insane. I had watched, horrified, as my grandmother and her neighbors poked their chads, accidentally voted for Buchanan, and sent us into a month-long deliberation over who the next President would be. I had watched the debates with friends and even though Gore sometimes seemed to be nothing more than an animated whittling project ("Lock Box"), I remember whispering to a friend when Bush was speaking, "There is no way that fool will be President."

Months later, it happened. I went to Washington with classmates as part of a protest trip and we stood, freezing in the icy rain, screaming our frustration out at the world. Our Alexandria hotel was full of students from Red States who had never met liberals, queers, Jews, or atheists. We were all of those things, and we were from San Francisco, to boot. Cultures clashed, repeatedly and often, over that week. Forced into endless pseudo-debate encounters, we debated over things like abortion rights, gay scout leaders, and, I distinctly remember, whether or not we might need to bomb Iraq anytime soon. As I recall, I spent part of that discussion slamming my head into the table muttering "morons" under my breath.

We had met the Red Staters and we seemed to be living on different planets. Nowhere was that better encapsulated than in our first meeting when we went around the room and introduced ourselves. I happened to be first and decided to lay my cards on the table. "I'm Friar Yid and Bush scares me." Every other student not from my school proceeded to label themselves "a Bush fan." Oy.

Part of what I remember seeming so unjust about the whole situation was not just how much of a boob Bush seemed to be, but simply the fact that the election had been so sharply contested, and then resolved through such questionable circumstances. The whole time we were in Washington I kept feeling as if I had been cheated, as if someone had stolen something from me when my back was turned.

So I stood on the sidewalk with my friends, and screamed. Even then, I was wary of the wackos-- the people holding swastikas or yelling about Bush being a Zionist puppet. I had a sophomoric sign of my own making pointing out the bathroom humor connections between Bush, Dick, and a man who pronounced his name "Colon".

I was conscious of politics during Clinton's last few years, but not really politically aware enough to pay close attention. Bush's two terms overlapped with my own political education as I attempted to become an informed member of the electorate.

I have always been happy to have been an American, but I have not always been proud, a development I can partially trace to my parents' ambivalence and partially to the political climate of San Francisco. I didn't know anyone who flew a flag, in the same way that I didn't know anyone whose parents had served in the military. It wasn't that they were specifically anti-American, just that they didn't wear patriotism on their sleeves.

I cannot remember Clinton doing anything positive that really grabbed my attention at the time except perhaps trying to stop the Albanian genocide in Kosovo. Under Bush, my wariness of "super-patriotism" only deepened. I was encouraged on 9/11 when he seemed to step up, and inspired by his speeches and actions immediately following those days when we went into Afghanistan and I got to see, for the first time in my adult life, what a newly-liberated country really looked like. That was the first time I remember seeing politics put into action, and it was a whole new concept. We actually could change the world around us. For a moment (one which many people have either forgotten or ignored), the most liberal spots in the country were also dottted with red, white, and blue. I was not immune, and put up a small flag in my parents' kitchen window.

However, as Bush's administration lagged on and his leadership consistently failed us over and over again, I grew ever-more-dissilusioned, the kind of bitterness all too familiar to young people whose idealism has been dashed. There was little to be proud of under a Bush administration, at least in my home. Abbot Yid demanded I take my flag down lest people think we were Republican, god forbid, or worse yet, war mongers. The message was clear: just at his inauguration, George Bush was not my President, and at least half of this country was not my own.

Today, surrounded by young children, squirming and bored, I watched as history was made. I heard Obama's words and quietly allowed myself to become ever-so-slightly inspired. I saw the National Mall, where I stood eight years ago, packed with people, including many who were finally allowing themselves to believe in their country, possibly for the first time. For the first time in a long time, I listened to a Presidential speech without mocking, talking back, or generally seething. For the first time, I believed again.

I am under no delusions that Barack Obama is going to be the political savior of this country, particularly given what he's inheriting. Neither do I believe that he is always going to be popular. But I am impressed that many Republicans and Conservatives are willing to give him a chance, and hope that he will do the Left proud and succeed more often than fall. I hope that he will lead from the center and work as a consensus builder so he can serve as a figure of unity rather than divisiveness, that we may have a chance to work together to fix so many of the serious problems we presently face. I hope that Obama's administration will reach out to the Right to encourage and inspire them, along with the Left, to make this country a better place. In short, I hope he will be the real Uniter Bush always claimed to be.

I was heartened to hear that despite the harsh campaign, there were few protesters there-- not because people shouldn't be able to protest, and not because Obama should be given a free pass. Rather, because it suggests what I would love to believe, that Obama might be able to, might in fact already have begun, moving beyond the mere partisanship of Left and Right. Not for Obama's sake, but for our own, to come together around uniting principles than endlessly attacking each other over wedge issues. I remember the frustration, anger, and even a little fear, that I felt eight years ago in Washington. I felt forgotten, uncounted, and alone. I felt like I did not matter, and that by pretending that he had consensus, Bush was ignoring me and millions like me. I would not wish that feeling on any of my political opponents. I do not want Obama to only be my President or the Left's President. Now, more than ever, we need a President for all of us.

Today, I am an American, and proud to be one. I am happy for my country and its people. I am proud that we have risen above our history and affirmed our values through action. We have shown that we DO mean what we say- that the words "All men are created equal," and that "America is a land of opportunity" are more than just pat phrases. If Obama can become President, then perhaps we really are living up to the promises we have made to ourselves so many times, and are capable of doing more. That will be his, and our, challenge in the years to come-- to stare at the forces of inertia, apathy and fear, the same ones that said that a black man or a "quasi-Muslim" could never become President and say, "yes we can." We must apply the same resilience to all of our other problems in desperate need of solutions- "yes we can" to improving our economy; "yes we can" to ending poverty; "yes we can" to getting universal healthcare; "yes we can" to ensuring equal rights for GLBT Americans; "yes we can" to creating humane and efficient immigration reform; "yes we can" to battling our enemies without compromising our moral values; "yes we can" to cleaning up our government, and many other battles we will face along the way.

Herzl said, "If you will it, it is no dream." Obama has proven our country has the will, and that dreams can, and do, come true. Once, for a short time, Bush had the country's will as well. Sadly, he squandered that chance by reaffirming the status-quo, lest our enemies win in changing us through terrorism and fear. It is time for us to realize that by choosing to change ourselves for the better, we will all win.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Help me out Here...

What the hell is this guy talking about?

What is the Halacha about clapping on Shabbat. Does it matter if it is in shul or not?

It is forbidden to clap hands on Shabbat if not by a Shinui - on the back of ones hand.
The Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 339 and the R"ma both tended to be maykel [lenient], in order that the people who clapped would not be committing a sin.

The reason for the Isur [prohibition] is so as to stop one from fixing a musical instrument on Shabbat. Nowadays, when we do not know how to fix instruments there is more reason to be Matir [permissive].
First of all, I didn't realize that it was possible to fix an instrument by clapping one's hands. More importantly, however... WHAT?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Gaza Thoughts

It's been difficult to decide how I feel about what's going on in Gaza. I find it is sometimes easier to watch everybody else's reaction and to compare/critique their points of view than to offer your own. That said, here we go:

First of all, I am not disgusted with Israel. I want to make that clear. I reject the idea that Israel must be "holy" to the point of destruction. While the Israeli death toll during the past ten years has remained thankfully low (especially compared with Palestinian casualties), there is truth in the often-repeated claim that few countries would put up with a foreign nation attacking their citizens on an almost-daily basis. There is also no reason why Israel should be ashamed to put the lives of its citizens first, which is the way all countries operate. Is it the ideal? Certainly not. The ideal would be that we all value each other equally, and incidentally, didn't spend our time killing each other in the first place. However that does not tend to happen in real life, and it is unfair and dishonest to dogpile on Israel for failing to live up to an imaginary standard that no one else follows:

In San Francisco, Jewish protesters joined pro-Palestinian forces this week as hundreds gathered outside the Israeli consulate to make their voices heard, some carrying signs saying "Gaza = Warsaw Ghetto." Among them was Jack Fertig - known to many in town as performance artist Sister Boom Boom - who said, "I'm descended from Holocaust victims, and we need to identify with the oppressed, not imitate the oppressors."

I understand identifying with the oppressed, however it is unjust to create an idealized moral code exclusively for one group by virtue of the fact that they know what it's like to have a lot of their family and friends die. As much as everyone would like the Jews to be the most moral people on earth, sanctified by the Holocaust into perfect pacifists, that is not the course that history took. Rather than retreating from the world into a monastery, the Jews chose to create a country in a hostile neighborhood, to stay within the world. Which also means they had to adjust to the imperfect, Machievellian standards of survival and advantage. This is messy moral territory, but Israel has never had the luxury of being as good or holy as everyone (including many Israelis) would like to be.

Second, I am angry that Hamas continues to have as much support as it does despite the fact that it seems to prefer fighting with Israel over improving the lives of its people. While I originally was optimistic (or at least hopeful) that participation in government could turn Hamas into a pragmatic and responsible organization, as it did with the African National Congress and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Hamas has demonstrated this is not going to happen. It has also made it clear that cease-fires are not viewed in its ranks as a time to evaluate their situation and work for resolution to the conflict, but rather as tactical maneuvers to re-arm and prepare for the next stage in their long war with Israel. As such, I find that I am not very sympathetic to those who now clamor for a cease-fire, particularly since that seems to be just what Hamas wants. Hamas is hurting, and that is a good thing.

Third, I am encouraged that there are some voices in the wilderness, including those in the Arab world, that are saying what everyone already knows: Hamas exploits their people's misery, and does not really give a hoot about their welfare. When it comes to saving or improving Palestinian lives or trying, even just trying, to kill Israelis, Hamas' choice is clear. All of us who hoped that the election of Hamas would change things, who said we had to at least give them a chance, have seen the results. We gave Hamas a chance. We gave them a chance to change their views, to support peace, and so on. It turns out they meant what they said the first time. Their goal continues to be the same as it always has been; death to Israel.

Fourth, I will not say the IDF is perfect, or that Cast Lead is perfect. It clearly is not. I am very disturbed by the fact that Gaza is so dense, and that there is nowhere for the residents to run, making it all the more likely that civilians will be hurt and killed. I am also worried that despite the fact that I think Israel is justified in giving Hamas a pounding, this operation may be futile in the long-term.

Fifth, while I think Israel has justification for what it is doing, it is too easy to put all the blame on Hamas by saying the Gaza deaths are "their responsibility" becuase they're the ones firing the rockets. Hamas is firing the rockets but we're the ones bombing Gaza. It may be justified but it is still our hands pulling the trigger. We may have ways to justify it but we must still acknowledge our role in it.

I also don't buy the line that there are no (or very few) innocents in Gaza due to Hamas' election victory there a few years ago. Hamas' win was indeed a landslide, but there was still 37% of voters who didn't support them- and that's without considering people who boycotted the elections or were inelligible to vote, like, say, children. Additionally, the elections were almost four years ago- before the Disengagement, before Hamas' Gaza coup d'etat, before their Talibanization of the Strip, before the cut-off of International Aid, and before the Israeli blockade. Did Hamas get votes because of its radical agenda? Absolutely. But it also got votes for its humanitarian work, and because of its claims to be corruption-free and the idea that they would achieve more than the PA could. Gaza has disproved this, brutally. The Gazans have nothing, a development which is particularly apalling given that the Disengagement left the people there with Israeli resources and infastructures that could have been used to improve the quality of life in the strip immeasurably. Think of how many Gazan children could be fed with the agriculutral technology left in the settlement greenhouses if Hamas had used them instead of burning them to "stick it" to the Israelis and the world.

Given all this, I am suspicious of how much support Hamas actually still has among the residents of Gaza. Which begs the question- if a former supporter of Hamas decides to withdraw his support because they have not improved his life, then they cease to be an "active enemy," no? In fact they become the target people Israel should try to culviate a relationship with. However, if this person's house is then bombed, or his children killed, or starve because of no food, etc., does this make him more likely to be a friend of Israel? Of course, Israel is right to attack Hamas. The dilemma is that Hamas ensconses itself with the civilian population.There is no easy answer. The attack is justified, yet the deaths of the innocent are tragic.

In the end, it comes down to Hamas' struggle. It is always about the struggle. They prefer their war to saving their own children's lives. I would love things to be different and believe that there are people in Gaza who do want peace, but they are not Hamas. And at the moment, I don't know how to reach out to those others. I also worry about whether Hamas can truly be marginalized or forced into cooperating with Israel and the PA. Some people are saying that Hamas isn't going anywhere, and I'm concerned they might be right, since right now it doesn't look like they're interested in changing their minds, either. Which leaves us right where we started, doesn't it?

Last, there is a silver lining- the West Bank remains quiet, disproving the theory that Palestinian politics and people are monolithic. The West Bank residents see what is happening in Gaza and most want no part of it. Does this mean we can trust the Palestinian Authority? Maybe not. But we are certainly in a much better position to evaluate the differences between the two groups of Palestinians- and they are staggering. However, my fear is that this columnist's words continue to ring true in the minds of many:

The Hamas people look at the moderate-to-the-point-of-groveling leadership of Abu Mazen in the West Bank and rightly do not see any achievements that can be attributed to the policy of surrender. The head of the Palestinian Authority does not have even one small achievement that he can hold up to the inhabitants of Gaza and promise that his way does indeed pay. Abu Mazen will not inherit Gaza from Israel because he does not want to head the South Lebanon Army redux. It would be better for Israel to control the Gaza Strip; an open occupation is preferable to a disguised one. If only the PA would hand the leadership baton back to the army, that would really be better at this point, as the PA is becoming more and more of a joke with each passing day.

Hamas is seeing Israel's stick, and it is well-deserved However, at the moment, there is no carrot to speak of. The Palestinians in the West Bank have themselves, for the most part, under control. There have been few attacks in the past few months (though attempts have increased since the Gaza War, all of which have been thankfully foiled). What has been their reward? What diplomatic progress has been made? (For that matter, was anything happening on the diplomatic front during the four-month ceasefire in Gaza?) We already know that Fatah and Hamas don't get along, especially since the Hamas coup. Why not use this as momentum to re-open talks with Abu Mazen and show the Palestinians that there IS an alternative to Hamas, and that it can actually get them somewhere?

Times like these are truly discouraging for those who believe that, as in Iraq, true peace comes from both military and political means. Right now, the leaders on the ground do not seem very interested. Pound Hamas (if it will help,) but remember that it will not create a long-term solution. If we really want to show the light to the people of Gaza, we would do well to start with the West Bank. At least then we could feel optimistic that something productive is being accomplished.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Warning to Jews who Think

Do so at your own risk- Grand Inquisitor Prager is still skulking around, and I don't think he'd like what I'm hearing.

See, on the one hand, Israel is boasting about its vastly superior intel, which is helping it find the right targets instead of indiscriminately bombing Gaza to hell. This, of course, is good, since no one is praying for needless innocent deaths.

Even those who object to the war in the Gaza Strip will find it hard not to agree that this time around, the intelligence community mostly succeeded in delivering the goods. Seen in the light of the Second Lebanon War failures, these achievements are particularly impressive.

The intelligence community has thus far succeeded in preparing a rich "target bank" to serve the air force and ground forces. Accurate and precise intelligence is of particular importance in a densely populated area like Gaza, where every mistake is liable to cause the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. Nevertheless, despite its good intelligence, Israeli troops still killed dozens of innocent civilians. Particularly impressive has been the ability to identify three mosques, which stored rockets and served as meeting places for terrorists. This is no trivial matter. Mistaken information could have caused the destruction of an innocent mosque, which was not serving as a weapons store, which would have sparked tremendous hostility toward Israel in the world, to the point of forcing it to end the fighting.

...Another achievement enabled the air force to make precise hits on about 40 tunnels that Hamas exclusively used to smuggle in weapons, ammunition and diesel to generate electricity in its installations. This prevented the need to carpet-bomb the border strip along all of its 12 kilometers, which most probably would have killed more innocent civilians living along the Gaza-Egyptian border (the Philadelphi Route).

But somehow things are never that simple, are they?

However, it is dangerous and premature to boast of intelligence achievements. The longer the war, the lower the chance of continued intelligence successes.

And wait, there's more:

I don’t think Barak and I are talking about the same game. He wants a longer cease-fire and no more rockets and no more tunnels for smuggling in weapons and explosives. But look what’s bound to happen: Israel bombed the best targets in what it calls its ‘target bank’ on the first day, and by the third or fourth day it’ll be bombing sub-prime targets, and there’ll be more and more dead and wounded bystanders, and Fatah won’t be able to maintain its dialogue with Israel, and the new law and order in Jenin will fall apart, and every ounce of benefit Israel may wring from all this will be buried under a ton of new anger, new hatred.

...The question you need to ask is how to put an end to the miserable reality, how you can change the rules of the game. What Israel is doing now is just an enhanced version of its standard response — more planes, more bombs, bigger bombs. What’s the end game? What’s the strategy?

Even Israel's PR people are having a tough time of it...

I frequently get asked by Israelis, "why aren't we winning the PR war? Why don't people understand that this is what we have to do?" Many are convinced that there is something wrong with Israeli hasbara (public advocacy), that the spokespeople aren't effective enough, or that the Palestinians have a huge and demonically efficient propaganda machine.

Partly, of course, it's because the numbers are against it. Six hundred Palestinians dead versus nine Israelis, as of today's figures: There's just no way to make that proportion look pretty. Retired generals can drone on all they like about what "proportionality" really means in the laws of war, ambassadors can helpfully point out that many more Germans were killed than British in the Second World War, but these are theoretical notions; on television, what looks bad looks bad. (Nor do I really buy the argument that if Israel's casualties were more visibly bloody - if, say, the media showed the gory pictures of the few people who have been hit by Qassams instead of holding them back to keep the home front from getting agitated - then you could counter the stream of barbaric images from Gaza. There's just no competition.)

But the deeper reason is this: Israeli hasbara is perpetually trying to answer the wrong question: "Why is this justified?" Of course, it's natural for either side in a conflict to try to explain why it, and not the other side, has the moral high ground. But, especially in a conflict where both sides have been claiming the moral high ground for decades, nobody in the outside world is all that interested. From a foreign correspondent's point of view, it makes for boring journalism: "The Israelis said this, but the Palestinians said that." And since we're all studiously trying to be "neutral," we'll always balance your view against theirs; so the fact that you make more of an effort to explain than they do doesn't really matter.

The question the foreign media really wants answered is invariably not "who's in the right?" but "how will this round of fighting improve the overall situation?" And on that point, Israel never has a convincing argument. Given the country's long history of engaging in wars that kill many more of its enemies than its own citizens but only buy a few months or years of calm, it's a tough call to explain how this latest escapade will change the strategic balance, bring peace and prevent the need for another such bloodbath further down the line. Often that's because there is in fact no good reason: Wars are fought for short-term gains. And it doesn't help that with the constant competition for power within Israeli coalitions, it's easy to interpret this war, like many others, as a political imperative, not a strategic one.

And so when the question the world is asking is not "who's right?" but "what works?" the consistent impression Israel leaves is that it kills people because, at best, it simply doesn't have any better ideas, and at worst, because some Israeli leader is trying to get the upper hand on one of his or her rivals. And no amount of hasbara can make that look good.
The same questions, over and over again:

The mistake both sides make, the mistake that keeps the Israel-Palestine conflict going, is the assumption that death and destruction will in fact produce peace, security, and justice. In abstract terms, the Palestinians have every right to use force to defend themselves and to seek to right the wrongs they have suffered. And Israel has every right to use force to defend its population and its existence.

...Preaching to the Palestinians about the turpitude of launching missiles against Israel will get us nowhere, and neither will preaching to the Israelis about the incommensurability of the Palestinian versus the Israeli death toll. Leaders, and citizens, on both sides are quite right and justified in valuing the lives of their countrymen over the lives of their enemies. Moral condescension from writers outside the war zone whose families, friends, and fellow-citizens are not at risk will not change any minds.

If I’m to persuade my fellow-Israelis that this war is useless and wrong, the only way to do it is to show them that we are shedding blood and getting little or nothing in return. That may sound callous to the referees on the sidelines, but I’m not ashamed to say that I love my son more than my friends, my friends more than my fellow-Israelis, and my fellow-Israelis more than my enemies. What kind of father, friend, and Israeli would I be otherwise?

So, Mr. Prager, we have here several liberal Jews, mostly Israeli, all with well-reasoned and insightful views about the war in Gaza and why it may not be as fantastic as people are trying to convince us it is. Presumably you'll be shrilly condemning them next?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Memo to Liberal Jews: Dennis doesn't "get" you

Cross-posted to DovBear.

Dennis Prager has a message for his liberal counterparts in the Jewish community: What gives? In theory, Dennis' column directs this open-minded query at his old "chum" Alan Dershowitz, but it seems more designed as a general shot across the liberal Jewish bow.

Dennis asks:

Given that Israel's security is so important to you, given that you believe that the ability to morally distinguish between Israel and its enemies is tantamount to the ability to distinguish between good and evil, and given that those who condemn Israel for its "disproportionate" response to Hamas terror-rockets are almost all on the left in America and Europe, why do you continue to identify yourself as a man of the left?

Everyone who thinks sometimes differs with one's ideological compatriots. But when one's ideological compatriots are morally wrong on the greatest moral issue of the moment and perhaps the very clearest as well, don't you at least suffer from cognitive dissonance?

As always, as soon as Dennis throws out the "moral" word, I have a strong urge to vomit, preferably on his person. I suppose I could try the next best thing, which is to show him the errors of his ways.

Let's try this slowly: Much like the right, or the center, "the left" is not the monolithic Borg cube that Dennis imagines, or (perhaps) would like it to be. Not only is there a diversity of opinion within the left in general, there are also people on the left who are not anti-Israel. Dennis suggests that Dershowitz, by virtue of being a liberal, is an "ideological compatriot" with every college student, activist, or blogger that self-identifies (or which Dennis lumps together) as being "left". This is, quite simply, false. The fact that Dershowitz and a random protestor may both call themselves liberals or vote for the same President (if the latter voted at all) does not obligate Dershowitz to defend every boneheaded position they take, nor justify why he continues to call himself a liberal in light of the fact that some fellow liberals happen to be idiots. That would be like trying to hold Dennis Prager responsible for all the idiotic things said by Pat Buchanan, Lyndon Larouche or Michael Savage. Their interests rarely intersect, and it would be unfair to claim any of my three conservative strawmen's wacko followers as "true" representatives of the conservative movement in order to force Prager to defend them or "quit" his party.

Even if, as Dennis claims, ALL of the anti-Israel people are on "the left" (which I don't believe, since I doubt Islamists consider themselves "liberal"), it does not prove that the left is anti-Israel, either inherently or in actuality. This is a basic logical fallacy- all surgeons are doctors, therefore all doctors are surgeons. Frankly, Dennis should know better.

The anti-Israel element within the left should be observed, and confronted, but they do not define the left, not even the Jewish left. No one would claim Rabbi Eric Yoffie as a conservative, yet he does not hesitate to draw his own lines in the sand and take an activist group to task when he thinks they're off the track.

I support a two-state solution, believe that military action by Israel should be a last resort and welcome an active American role in promoting peace between Israel and her neighbors. But I know a mistake when I see one, and this time J Street got it very wrong.

J Street’s first statement expressed “understanding” for Israel’s motivations, and called — as I do — for a political rather than a military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nonetheless, its conclusion was that Israel made a mistake in attacking Hamas and that the United States and others must press for an immediate cease-fire.

A second J Street statement was worse by far. It could find no moral difference between the actions of Hamas and other Palestinian militants, who have launched more than 5,000 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli civilians in the past three years, and the long-delayed response of Israel, which finally lost patience and responded to the pleas of its battered citizens in the south. “Neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on right or wrong,” it said, and it suggested that there was no reason and no way to judge between them: “While there is nothing ‘right’ in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them.”

These words are deeply distressing because they are morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve. A cease-fire instituted by Hamas would be welcome, and Israel would be quick to respond. A cease-fire imposed on Israel would allow Hamas to escape the consequences of its actions yet again and would lead in short order to the renewal of its campaign of terror. Hamas, it should be noted, is not a government; it is a terrorist gang. And as long as the thugs of Hamas can act with impunity, no Israeli government of the right or the left will agree to a two-state solution or any other kind of peace. Doves take note: To be a dove of influence, you must be a realist, firm in your principles but shorn of all illusions.

You don't have to agree with Yoffie's opinions to know that his strategy is the more grown-up and productive one. Rather than or ignoring the anti-Israel left (or what Yoffie perceives as such), or apologizing for its existence, as Dennis would have him do, Yoffie prefers to openly engage, debate, even criticize. And J-Street, for its part, is free to respond right back. Both are unquestionably liberal Jewish individuals representing liberal Jewish organizations. And yet, neither are restricted or defined by each other. Grow a clue, Dennis.

Dennis' analysis also suffers because he is so vague when it comes to what constitutes being anti- and pro-Israel. While I feel like many people are sensitized to detecting anti-Israel criticism and rhetoric, defining "pro-Israel" can be a lot trickier. Forgive me, then, Dennis, when some comments of yours don't pass my stink test:

He knows that on the Internet, the most virulent attacks on Israel are on the left, while the most pro-Israel websites are nearly all conservative and right-wing, from to LittleGreenFootballs to NationalReviewOnline.
What does "pro-Israel" mean? Presumably it involves not attacking Israel, even praising it. But what about analysis? What about when Israel does things one thinks are wrong or dangerous? What is the difference between a conservative "pro-Israel" editorial criticizing decisions to talk with the Palestinians, withdraw from land, and so on, and so-called "anti-Israel" articles making the same criticisms on other topics? Put another way, how "pro-Israel" were these organizations or media outlets (if they existed) during the Rabin years? Let's be honest, people's definition of "pro-Israel" is highly dependant on what they consider to be GOOD for Israel.

Dennis concludes with an attempt to play psychologist, ironically illustrating the behavior that keeps liberals, particularly liberal Jews, from openly critiquing the movement: according to Dennis, if liberal Jews do not confront the problems (even failings) of the left, they are hypocritical, or wilfully blind. However, if liberals do admit that problems exist, the next step is to convince us that the whole left wing is worthless and the only logical (and moral) thing to do is to jump ship:

to acknowledge the moral failure of the left, especially the secular left, on most of the great moral issues of the post-World War II era – the Cold War, the Middle East, confronting (or even acknowledging the existence of) the Islamist threat – is very difficult for a person on the left, even one as analytical as Dershowitz. Secular leftism is analogous to Arthur Koestler's "god that failed." And few people want to confront the fact that the ideal, the god they bet their lives on, is a false god.

What's false is Dennis' contention that because the elusively-defined "left" of the past 50 years made mistakes (presumably the right made none), the movement is permanently doomed to ideological and moral bankruptcy. This is like when Sean Hannity attempts to link the modern-day Democratic party with Jefferson Davis.

But wait, there's more:

Second, to acknowledge the broken moral compass that guides the left is to implicitly endorse the right, especially the religious right. But that is very difficult for anyone on the left to do because the essence of the secular left is a rejection of the Christian right. That it is conservatives, especially religious conservatives, who are the most stalwart supporters of Israel, must greatly disturb Dershowitz.

There is no room for grays in Master of Nuance Prager's monochrome universe. Apparently he has never heard of the terms centrist, moderate or independent. Get over it, Dennis. We know the left is not without its problems. But we'd rather point out those flaws and move on than jump in bed with the right.

I particularly like how the "essence" of the left is so easily reduced to "the anti-right." (Man, and here I thought we actually had some ideas of our own...)

Best of all is the conflation of the religious right with the religious right. Using this logic, I guess Jews should all either become atheist Communists or go join an evangelical church. Given his eagerness to beat us all with the "Judeo-Christian culture" stick, I think we can guess which direction Dennis is leaning.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Revolutionary Rabbis, part 2, or "A plea for Historical Honesty"

Got more confirmation on the Kotzker and Gerer rebbe's involvement in the November revolution of 1830. The source?

Rabbi Berel Wein:

[Footnote:] Reb Mendel's original family name was Halperin, but because of his support of the Polish national revolution, he changed it to Morgenstern to confuse and escape the punishment of the Russian conqueror. Rabbi Yitzhak Meir's original name was Rottenberg but he changed it to Alter for the same reason as Reb Mendel. Whether their support of the Poles was voluntary or coerced is still a debate among scholars.

Given that I've only been able to find mention of this in one journal article and one book on Jewish history I'd be interested to find out which scholars Rabbi Wein is talking about here (or is he just trying to hedge his bets by not openly saying the rabbis supported Polish indepence?), but I'm glad he's at least helping spread some information about a little-known part of Jewish history that has ripple-effects down to the present-day. If rosh yeshivot are flipping their lids hearing about rabbis of yesteryear just listening to Zionist lecturers, I can't imagine what certain Hasidim would think about their Alter-Alter-Alter-rebbes actively supporting the Polish independence movement and becoming fugitives in the process. Doesn't exactly provide the desired model of "otherworldlyness" or keeping the goyim at arm's length now, does it?

But wait, I found another: Rabbi Dov Ber Meisels, descendant of the Rema, author of a commentary on Rambam's Sefer ha-Mitzvot, and Chief Rabbi of Krakow and later Warsaw. A contemporary of the Kotzker, Rabbi Meisels was an arms-runner for the same 1830 uprising that caused the Kotzker and Gerer to go on the lam. He was also involved in the Krakow Uprising sixteen years later, serving as one of twelve city council members, was elected to the Austrian Parliament (where he sat with the radicals against the occupying government).

Meisels was a major figure in organizing Warsaw's Jews for Polish independence before and during the 1863 Uprising and was involved in various joint Polish-Jewish demonstrations. His activism got him arrested and deported from Warsaw in 1861. Returning a year later, he organized aid and wrote speeches supporting the Uprising as it occured and was again arrested and expelled by the Russians. Upon returning a second time, he lived under constant surveilance by authorities.

Rabbi Meisels died in 1870, and his funeral was the site of a major Polish-Jewish rally against Russian occupation. He was such a volatile figure that the army forbade printing any obituaries following his death.

What does all this show? Only that Jewish history is a lot more complicated than some modern-day arbiters of truth would have us believe. Remember that 150 years ago, "Poland" encompassed most of the European Jewish population, among them many of the most traditional and religious. These are people we have been trained to think of as merely pious, apolitical, even conservative. And some of them were. But there were also others who held some very radical positions, and who saw no conflict between being frum, or even a rabbi or rebbe, a leader and model to hundreds, thousands of other Jews, and interacting with the outside world, with non-Jews, or tangling with thorny political issues.

We should examine our past openly and honestly before enforcing our own pet issues supposedly "on the authority of our grandfathers." If we take a look at the whole picture (as some have tried to do), we find that our grandfathers and their grandfathers had a much more nuanced view of the world than we give them credit. We should not let the creative, even radical personalities of yesterday be co-opted or sanitized by the narrow views of their grandchildren today. Would the Hidushei ha-Rim even recognize his great-great-great-grandson? Would he recognize himself as he has been re-imagined in Ger haigography? Would the Baal Shem Tov, for that matter? Or the Rambam?

I am beginning to think that the great debates of our time will not focus on which denominational clique we affiliate with, but over how intellectually honest we are willing to be with each other and ourselves, and with the source material of Judaism and Jewish history. We will have to struggle over whether we decide to make truth, honesty and openness important values in of themselves, worth defending and fighting for.

The irony is that by censoring the past of "the sages", Orthodox leaders perpetuate the idea to other Jews that there is nothing interesting, engaging, or relevant in Jewish history or tradition. Then again, maybe that is part of the intent and problem-- that some would rather spread the notion of a sanitized past to keep their hold on their own communities and children and could care less if other Jews care about their heritage or not.

The problem is that even if a Jew is not Orthodox, or even no longer a Jew, their communal and family history should still be accessible to them. This is one of the reasons I am so passionate about genealogy and am intrigued by the concept of translating Yizkor books, maintaining the oral history and heritage of communities, with all the squabbles and messiness that implies-- as much as some people may not like the idea, the greatest rebbe and the grandest heretic can still be landsmen, or even family. And their tastes should not dictate what history is allowed to continue on down the line. I have no rabbinical lineage, but some of my ancestors did come from Vilna, and as such, I have just as legitimate a claim-- and right-- to the history of the Vilna Jews as a descendant of the Gaon. By the same token, their lives and histories should not be censored in order to create the image that Vilna was an "ideal" community (by whose standards?) free of strife and conflict in order to somehow honor or elevate the Gaon or his birthplace.

The same point, incidentally, applies to other historical biases present in Jewish history-- for instance, viewing all events through the prism of Zionism or proto-Zionism, and emphasizing the denigrations of the "Ghetto Jew" existence to justify the "New Jew" prototype of Herzl and Nordau, or whitewashing the complexities, setbacks, and failings of Zionism and Israel themselves. The American branch of the discipline has similar blind spots; in particular, focusing on or elevating groups of Jews from certain ethnic, class or political backgrounds at the expense of others.

The bottom line is that we distort our history at our own peril-- and now, more than ever, we, all of us, religious, secular, questioning, American, Israeli, Zionist, Socialist, Republican, Democrat, we all need history and role models we can relate to, use for inspiration, and most of all, trust. Do not purge our history of the great and creative men and women who found a way to engage with their worlds and balance their identities. Do not deny our children our history. It is our right. It is their legacy.