Wednesday, April 28, 2010

I'm not blaming the victim, but...

...but watch me while I do just that.

That's pretty much the gist from this speech, given by a Gerrer Hasidic Shoah survivor a year ago, and posted on this blog, whose name ironically enough means "Unity of the Heart". Apparently it was posted in March, well-before Holocaust Memorial Day, but given that I neglected to write a post for the occasion, I think it's appropriate that I use it for this belated purpose.

First, to the blogger's credit, he realizes that the speech is going to piss people off and tries to cushion the blow beforehand.

A people that has been devastated by the Holocaust will not find a morally acceptable rationale for focusing on one Jews choice as juxtaposed against that of another Jew. When those Jews had nothing to compare the horrors they were about to endure with anything that had gone before.

That said we Jews today should have no illusions as to the depths of monstrosity the nations of the world are capable of descending to, there is no room for compromise or excuses.

So, in other words, "We have to be careful when discussing the Holocaust, and we don't want to blame anyone for their choices, but that said..." huh? Why is the "that said" necessary? You really could have thought this introduction out better.

Here are the troubling passages from the survivor, Mordechai Raz:

My grandfather was burnt in Treblinka with all his family and their ashes covered the land of Poland.

This all happened because Jews did not listen to the words of the Gerrer Rebbe.

Really? That's why it happened? Wow, thanks for clearing that up. Incidentally, three are a lot of historians (and idiot ideologues) I need to call.
The Im’rei Emes warned the Jews of Poland 100 years ago to buy land in Palestine just as he and many of his followers had done.

Then, the Gerrer Rebbe told the Jewish people to run and escape to Palestine with whatever they had- ‘Even in their slippers’. But my grandfather, Moshe Shalom Karp, and many men like him didn’t listen to him.

Not to be rude, but when exactly did the Gerrer rebbe start telling people to "escape?" I know he started establishing institutions in Israel in the 20s, but he didn't get out of Poland until 1940, when the Nazis occupied the country and it was becoming extremely difficult to leave. If he had some foreknowledge or intuition that things were going to get bad in Poland, why wait until the war broke out to leave? Or, a better question-- why leave so many people, including his brothers, eldest son, and his grandchildren behind? Surely the rebbe's brothers could have bought some land, too! I can't help thinking this sounds like revisionism to justify the fact that while some rebbes fled and "cried," their followers stayed and died.

Back to Mr. Raz:
We had lived there for a thousand years and so many felt comfortable to buy land in Poland, in Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow, Lamze, Bialystock, Katowic, Sosnowic, Bendin Czestechow and many other cities in Poland, and also in Berlin, Nuremberg, Munich and other cities in Germany as well as Vienna in Austria.

Many other leaders, including Harav Moshe Blau from Agudat Israel in Jerusalem, Jabotinski, Harav Moliver, Gershon Koren from Bnei Brak and many other Rabbis from Palestine tried to persuade Jews from Poland and Germany to buy land in Palestine.

Those Jews who listened to them, now have grandchildren who are now wealthy in Eretz Israel, especially in Tel Aviv, in suburbs like Florentine, Lillinbloom, Shuk a Karmel etc, and also Bnei Brak, Petach Tikvah, Yerushalaim etc.

Those who didn’t listen to the voices of the Rabbanim at the time, stayed in Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz, Birkenhaus, Bergen – Belsen etc.

Their ownership of Polish land was meaningless and made no difference.

I'm sorry, this is just unfair, dishonest and classist. First of all, most Jews in Europe, Poland in particular, were way too poor to buy land anywhere, period. Second, if you were going to buy land, yes, it does make kind of practical sense to buy some in the country where you live as opposed to somewhere you have no plan to ever go. Just saying. Third, ownership of land in Israel was also meaningless by the time Jews were under Nazi domination. They didn't care, and having a deed to a parcel in the desert wasn't exactly protection from Nazi atrocities or death. (Nor, incidentally, did not owning land in Israel doom one to die.) The whole focus on buying land in Israel is a bizarre red herring.

I know Mr. Raz wants to show that his rebbe was really smart and that if people had only listened to him they would have been a golden ticket to safety and life, but the reality is that this is simply not true, and is not a fair point to criticize people for.

Even though there were many wars with the Arabs, these [Gerrer] Rabbis and their followers didn’t leave Eretz Israel, and they tell everyone not to leave Eretz Israel.

The gerrer chasidim are the biggest patriots of the nation of Israel until this day!
Wow. I don't even know what to do with this. I suppose it's an instructive look at Mr. Raz's mindset, if nothing else.

You know, I feel almost bad for fisking a Holocaust survivor. But you can't give a talk in which you criticize people for essentially not being rich and important enough to buy land in Israel or have large groups of followers agitate for exit visas on their behalf and then turn around and pat yourself on the back like this:
My speech is not about advice or opinion, but about history, and a message for future generations.
I'm sorry,Mr. Raz, no dice. Yes, Israel is important. Yes, being able to read "the writing on the wall" is important, as is having "back-up plans" for emergency or extraordinary situations. But there was no logical reason to follow the rebbe's advice. Buying land was not the act that saved people. Being able to physically leave was. And it is unacceptable to chide the victims for not having had enough money to buy their way out. When you make this connection, when you say the Shoah happened because they didn't "listen," you're not just twisting the truth and using other's suffering to enhance your rebbe's image. You're also suggesting that all those people's deaths were their own fault because they were poor. That is simply beyond the pale. My relatives don't deserve this kind of commentary. And neither does your grandfather.

Get some copy-editors

Did the Jewish Week editors forget how to read? I'm not sure what else could explain these bizarre typos.

This first one was not so bad:
Blossom Schecker, who attended the program said, “It really got me thinking. They call it a democratic country, but how democratic is it? The Orthodox community is so strong and in such control that if you are Reform or Conservative, you are not recognized by the state. As an independent person, it would be impossible for me to ever live in Israel. It is discouraging because I don’t things are going to change and this is a problem without a solution.”
This next one was really, really bad:
A senior Hamas leader has condemned the cartoon video released by the terrorist organization’s armed wing showing Gilad Shalit returning in a coffin.

Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas on Monday condemned the video showing the captive Israeli soldier’s father wandering deserted streets looking at billboard after billboard of Israeli leaders promising to work for his son’s release.

As Noam Shalit shouts “No!” at the sight of the flag-draped coffin, he jerks awake inside a protest tent and realizes it is a dream. “There is still hope,” reads the closing caption of the video, followed by the symbol for Hamas.

The cartoon was captured in a cross-border raid nearly four years ago and is being held in Gaza.
Um, no.

...Incidentally, Jewish Week? Referring to a gay person as "a gay" is kind of passe.
Obama may again try to make a historic appointment, when he did last year by choosing Sonia Sotomayor, a Hispanic from the Bronx, Sarna says. This time: maybe an Asian or gay. “Race and gender are much more important. We are clearly beyond a ‘Jewish seat.’”
Just FYI.

Edit: Apparently illiteracy is contagious.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Get some perspective

Richard Silverstein has an interesting, by which I mean exasperating, story, about rightwing hack organization Im Tirtzu's latest posterboy, Amir Benayoun. Benayoun spends the whole song bemoaning the "hate" and betrayal of the IDF by the Israeli left. I mostly want to focus on Benayoun's ridiculous lyrics, but I do think it's interesting that Silverstein notes that Benayoun was not allowed to serve in the army due to his criminal record. Apparently Benayoun's particular brand of patriotism consists of being a criminal thug, going BT, then pretending to be holier than thou while accusing his ideological opponents of hating the state. Good to know.

Here's the translation to Benayoun's song. Translation by Silverstein & some friends (could be wrong, I don't know. Other versions here and here.):

I am Your Brother

I preserve your identity
I protect your children
I put my life on the line for you
and you spit in my face

After they failed to kill me from the outside
you come and kill me from inside
I haven’t seen my mother in a month
neither my son nor my house nor my wife

I always charge forward
with my back to you
[but] you sharpen the knife
more than anything, this thought burns my soul
and you, how come you still don’t understand

I am your brother,
you are an enemy
you hate me
I love [you]
when I weep you laugh behind my back
you are killing me
why, you are my brother

I am the future
you are the past
and the present is broken between us
I go hungry for you
you gorge yourself and over-imbibe [reference to Deuteronomy 21 in which Israelite is stoned to death for such 'sins']
when my throat is dry you drink liquor
my lips are always sealed for your safety
but you deliver me to the foreigner [meaning gentiles--reference to Goldstone, NIF, Anat Kamm]

I am your brother, you act like an enemy
Why? You’re my brother

[Narrator intones prayer: He who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
May He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Forces
Who stand guard over our land and the cities of our God
From Lebanon to the desert of Egypt
And from the Great Sea [Mediterranean] unto the approach of the Aravah
On the land, in the air, and on the sea

For it is the Lord your God who goes with you
To battle your enemies for you to save you
Now let us say: Amen

Honestly, about the only good thing you can say about this tripe is that it's so hyperbolic and one-sided that you have to hope it doesn't convince too many people who don't already subscribe to its views. But here are some interesting ironies I found:

1- Who in Israel relies on the army to "preserve its identity?" Hint: not the Left.

2- "You spit in my face." Watch the news. At the very least we can agree that spitting in soldiers' faces appears to be a bipartisan activity. (Gush Katif?)

3- "You sharpen the knife." Really? Let's take a census and figure out which political demographics have the guns.

4- "I am your brother/You are an enemy/You hate me/[but] I love"

No denying there are Israelis who hate the IDF. But the really scary rhetoric about demolishing the state and going after "traitors" ain't coming from lefties.

5- "When I weep you laugh."

Who was cheering Sharon's coma?

6- "You gorge yourself, etc..." My memory's gone again... remind me, which Israelis get paid government subsidies to live in large houses they otherwise could never afford? Ah yes, all those liberals.

Get over yourself, Amir. You can bitch about the left all you like. But the real ones "killing you-- and the army-- aren't the left-wingers. The sooner you realize this, the better off you'll be.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Being Even-Handed

I know I take a lot of jabs at Haredim. But I don't want people to think I am under the illusion that non-Orthodox, or secular, Jews, can do no wrong.

So in the best tradition of removing the timber from one's own eye, I present... a secular Israeli who is a complete asshole.

During his program "Non-Stop Radio", Gazit called the Haredim "leeches," "parasites" and "worms", saying they should be sent out of the country or else kept within their own neighborhoods, disconnected from the national water and electricity grids.

Take note, people: I'm saying it loud and proud. This guy is a jackass. The fact that some Haredim are jerks (or act like jerks) is a legitimate point. The fact that they have special privileges in Israeli society that others might see as really unfair is also a legitimate point. Bashing an entire community, however, to the point of dehumanizing them and advocating expelling them from their country, is so far past the line of decency that you might as well be in a different time zone.

Here's a hint for Mr. Gazit: Israel's biggest problem isn't the Haredi sector. Neither, for the record, is it the Mafdal sector, secular sector, or even Arab sector. It's the fact that every time a mob of idiots does something stupid, rather than trying to seek out reasonable spokespeople within those communities and try to work on strengthening relations between the different groups in Israel, people instead circle their respective wagons and start bashing whatever group or denomination the idiots crawled out of-- thereby alienating everyone in that group even further. If you're lucky, they may even start screaming about libel and try to get you charged with incitement, thereby wasting everybody's time and attention, not to mention taxpayer money.

Honestly, the only silver lining in this whole incident has been the comment from Uri Orbach, who appears to be the only MK who is capable of keeping his head along with a sense of humor:
MK Uri Orbach said to Ynet, "The Israeli public is mature enough to avoid rising to such childish provocations. Cursing settlers and stalking Haredim who didn't stand to attention during the siren (marking Israel's Memorial Day) is so outdated, almost like listening to Gabi Gazit."
Wise words.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Truth, History, and Community

Earlier this month there was an article in the NY Times Magazine about Roman Vishniac, famous Jewish photographer of the shtetl. Alana Newhouse basically concluded that while Vishniac's pictures had been genuine, many had been staged and his captions deliberately deceitful. Why? Because Vishniac's employers, the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, wanted him to represent the Jews of Europe as poor, traditional folk who desperately needed the help of their American cousins. So what he came back with were almost unanimously pictures-- or descriptions-- of poor Orthodox villagers.

Some bloggers suggested that maybe this wasn't that important. Others, such as John Rabe and myself, disagreed. My biggest point was that the Vishniac pictures were more than academic history, they were personal to a large number of American Jews, many of whom never got a chance to see the Old Country, and never will. Vishniac's popularity, to a degree, was because he was thought to be giving us a glimpse, a contact point, with that society. The revelation that Vishniac was fibbing-- cutting out the middle-class and anyone who wasn't visibly Orthodox, for instance, not only hurts the Jewish community personally, it also robs us of the richness of our past, and feeds into the "Fiddler on the Roof" version of Jewish history that continues to be a thorn in the side of the American Jewish community.

The Vishniac story is important because truth matters.

However, it turns out there is a silver lining in all of this. And it comes from the most surprising of sources. Rabbi Avi Shafran, hardly a huge supporter of pluralism, had this insightful comment:

But communities, in the end, are like elephants, their observers the proverbial blind men, one touching an ear and concluding that the beast is floppy and thin, the other feeling a leg and imagining the subject tree-like, a third encountering its trunk and pronouncing the pachyderm a python.
American Jewry is a good example. The air of one part of that population is permeated by academic achievement, economic success and social concerns. It constitutes a parallel universe, though, to that of the Orthodox community, which extols Torah study and observance, and breathes an atmosphere of religious tradition.
In fact, and sadly, the two worlds barely acknowledge one another. Many Jews who define themselves as non-Orthodox or unaffiliated tend to view those who consider their Jewishness paramount as relics, either amusing or threatening, depending on the day and circumstance.
And all too many Orthodox Jews, especially those of us in the more insular haredi world, can be oblivious to the large mass of our distant relatives beyond the physical and conceptual ghettos we inhabit. And when we do think of them, we often see them essentially as objects of “outreach.” A laudable goal, to be sure, born of the desire to share something precious, but qualitatively removed from the deeper recognition that they are worthy of our concern and love as fellow Jews even if they never choose to live like us.
... A photographer could easily produce a volume portraying one American Jewish world or the other. Only a book, however, that portrays both (and likely several others in-between) could rightfully lay claim to the ambitious title “The American Jewish Community.”
Even within each part of the American Jewish scene, a constricted focus can be misleading. Some non-Orthodox Jews profess atheism or agnosticism; but others ponder G-d and their purposes on earth more than do some Orthodox-by-rote. And so it would be a disservice to truth to present either sub-group as emblematic of the non-Orthodox whole.
As it would to imagine, inspired by some popular media, that the Orthodox world is rife with white-collar criminals and slumlords, or harbors a disproportionate number of child abusers. We Orthodox surely have our share of scoundrels, knaves and hypocrites. But examining the dirt under the elephant’s toenails conveys nothing at all of the animal’s majesty. As a whole, measured by the vast majority of its members, the Orthodox community is precisely what unprejudiced observers come to see: a world of broad and deep religious dedication, charity and kindness.
Assuming that a group stereotype is a group description is the essence of prejudice. As the Vishniac article reminds us, even the most compelling snapshots can mislead.

Of course, Shafran's remarks aren't perfect. He still winds up talking down to non-Orthos to elevate his own community (no social concerns in Orthodoxy? Where has he been?) It's also interesting that the Orthodox world is described with specific terms and concepts-- religious education, charity, kindness, Torah study, tradition, preciousness, etc. Non-Orthos, by contrast, focus on academic achievement, economic success, and, occasionally, "pondering God". Surely Rabbi Shafran knows that charity, kindness, and yes, even tradition, are huge parts of other Jewish denominations as well?

The irony of the whole Vishniac story, as Rabe pointed out, is that in the end it's about truth. Specifically, Jews' ability to accurately document the truth about themselves, and share it with others. Shafran is right to point out that no Jewish sector has a monopoly on stereotyping the other, or on being stereotyped. But the answer to this problem is for different kinds of Jews to spend more time with each other, to debunk stereotypes. To actively seek out the truth about who we all really are, rather than reacting to every group-insult or stereotype lobbed across an ideological mechitza.

Is this something Rabbi Shafran, Agudath Israel and Cross-Currents would support? I'd love to believe it. But honestly, I'm not holding my breath. And if that's the case, Shafran's good words, like Vishniac's pictures, ultimately just wind up becoming another kind of well-intentioned fiction.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Yes, please tell me what to do

All right, I know I'm far from even-handed on the political thing, but I'd like to think I can usually refrain from ramming my opinions down other people's throats. I appreciate people that disagree with me, and actually don't mind having an intelligent discussion with those who think differently. (This, incidentally, is why I can't stand the fact that when I spend time with the conservative members of Abbot Yid's family he insists on bitching about Bush being an idiot and accusing his bothers of being racists. Both things might be true, but honestly, I'm a lot more interested in letting them speak for themselves so I can see how they feel about the issues.)

I'm not going to claim that everybody on the left, much less the Jewish left, sees things the way I do. Part of this is because I am emphatically not an activist. I don't live politics, I more saunter through it when I remember it's there. So clearly if MSNBC or Fox News or their online equivalents are your bible, you're going to take these discussions a whole lot more seriously.

But I have to say, I do find it a little irritating when the bozos at WorldNetDaily start lecturing me on how I had better share their politics if I want to be a good Jew.

Let's start with Dennis Prager. I mean, at least he's actually Jewish. Dennis' latest waste of pixels is the usual mix of unsubstantiated crap, along with (of course), various lists that show in excrutiating detail how right Dennis must be and how if you don't agree with him you're no better than a dirty Karaite.

For instance:
Most observers, right or left, pro-Israel or anti-Israel, would agree that Israeli-American relations are the worst they have been in memory.
Based on what? What about when Eisenhower put the screws to Ben Gurion and told him to get out of the Sinai or he'd institute sanctions against Israel? Or when Bush I and James Bakker started a long-standing feud with Shamir because he wouldn't stop building settlements and they wanted to tie Israel aid to their compliance? For a guy who's written so many books, you sure don't seem to bother reading much.

Among the many indications is that only 9 percent of Jewish Israelis think President Barack Obama's administration is more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian...
Hey Dennis, why should the ideal perception be that Obama is biased in FAVOR of Israel? Incidentally, the Palestinians don't see him as being pro-Palestinian, either. Incidentally, as long as we're throwing around random polls, another recent one shows that 34 percent of Jewish Americans think Obama is a strong supporter of Israel. Does that make them all insane?

According to Dennis, sure. But most of his article isn't about why the left hates Israel, but rather why the right loves it. Here are the dumbest:

conservatives' values are closer to Israel's values than perhaps those of any other nation. As President Harry Truman said, "Israel is the embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization."

As usual, Dennis cannot be bothered to give even the slightest bit of evidence for this statement, which not only simplifies and dumbs down Israel's values (and there's a long way from Haredi anti-Zionism to Mafdal Zionism to secular democracy, just BTW), it also does the same for conservatism. Just for fun, here are a couple of huge differences between the Israeli status-quo and mainstream conservative values:

1- There is no civil marriage in Israel (so much for Libertarianism or personal choice/responsibility!)

2- Israel is officially bilingual, and has many government-run bilingual schools (there goes the English Only movement). Most Israelis speak at least two languages if not several others. For the record, as of the 2000 census, only about 21% of Americans were bilingual (and there's been a huge cultural backlash against introducing bilingualism into public schools by the right).

3- Gay soldiers can serve openly in the IDF. Nuff said.

4- In 2006, the Israeli Supreme Court required the government to recognize all same-sex marriages performed outside the country. (Whereas in the US, many conservatives are trying to ban SSM not only in individual states, but also refuse to recognize out-of-state marriages.)

In short, Dennis is once again full of crap. Oh, the surprise.

Finally, there is a fifth reason tens of millions of Americans, many conservative commentators, support Israel and worry about America if American support for Israel wanes.

To the left in America and around the world, this reason is dangerous nonsense. But for a vast number of America's Christians, many Jews and even many non-religious conservatives, it is deeper than any military or political reason. The reason is based on a verse in Genesis in which God, referring to the Jewish people, says to Abraham: "I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you."

One need not be a Jew or Christian or even believe in God to appreciate that this verse is as accurate a prediction of the future as humanity has ever been given by the ancient world. The Jewish people have suffered longer and more horribly than any other living people. But they are still around. Their historic enemies are all gone. Those who cursed the Jews were indeed cursed.

Funny, last I checked there was still this little country called Egypt... oh, and there's the Catholic Church. And Communism seems to still be hanging on by a thread, at least if you buy the arguments made by the likes of Dennis and Glenn Beck.

Let's be honest, Dennis. Part of why you can make this claim is because the Jews changed over time. Some of their enemies did as well, but you're conveniently choosing to ignore that. The fact that Jewish society in 2010 looks nothing like Jewish society in 70 CE or 1492 doesn't stop you from still considering it as the same basic thing. Yet you're suggesting that because the Babylonian Empire or Nazi Germany no longer exist as specific cultures or nation-states (never mind their descendants still being around) constitutes some kind of deep proof of Godly power. Or something.

Sure, America has by and large been quite nice to the Jews, but why this obsession with declaring things "the most blessed?" What makes America "more blessed" than Canada? Is is political or economic power? Is it culture? For that matter, what measurable criteria do you have to determine that America has "blessed" its Jews more than Canada has, or Australia? Is it that there are more Jews IN America? Who knows? Dennis isn't talking. Presumably he also isn't interested in the fact that Jews were banned from living in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire until the 1690s, or that even in places where Jews were permitted to live, they often were not allowed to vote or hold public office. Hell, New Hampshire still had a law on the books requiring a Christian oath from officeholders until after the CIVIL WAR! That's not even getting into violent antisemitism. Yes, things have been much better in the US than in many other places. But let's have some perspective, please.

Those who curse the Jews today seem to be cursed. The most benighted civilization today is the Arab world. One could make a plausible case that the Arab world's preoccupation with Jew hatred and destroying Israel is decisive in keeping the Arab world from progressing. The day the Arab world makes peace with the existence of the tiny Jewish state in its midst, the Arab world will begin its ascent.

So... Europe is doing fairly well these days because of how nice they were to us? Your faith must be really flexible to be able to do all these gymnastics, Dennis.

Israel shares America's values, such as liberty, an independent judiciary, a free press, freedom of religion, free speech and women's equality. The Arab and Muslim worlds have none of these.
Here's an idea, Dennis: go to Israel and ask some Reform Jews (or Messianic Jews) about freedom of religion there. Ask the Women of the Wall about women's equality. Ask Israeli Arabs, leftists, and rightists about free speech. Talk to Israeli journalists who operate under, and must always remember, Israel's formal military censor about free speech. Oh, and go ahead and ask all the American Jews who move to Israel and are then told that they, their spouse, or their kids aren't Jewish and are prevented from marrying, being buried in a Jewish cemetery, or converting under a rabbi of their choice. Oh, and there's that whole "Sixty years running and still no written Constitution" thing.

Yes, Israel's much better than Iran, but, again, you're spinning endless BS to inflate your argument. And not only is it getting old, it's actually kind of insulting. You don't need to whitewash Israel's real problems in order to explain why America should support it. When you do you actually undercut your own arguments. Dummy.

If you enjoyed Dennis' masturbation session on how glorious Israel and US conservatives are, you'll really love Pat Boone's call to action, which he so poetically (and Marx-esquely) entitled Christians, Jews, patriots: Arise, unite!

Pat starts by pointing out just how unhappy Jewish liberals have become with Obama. Why, Pat has all of two examples, one being the well-established fickle Ed Koch (who supported Bush II against Kerry, for, among other things, being more pro-Israel), and the other being an unnamed Jewish acquaintance, a doctor no less. A doctor, you say? Well, that's all the Jew-dentials I need.

Yes, it turns out Pat's two Jewish friends have concluded that Obama is actively demeaning and slandering Israel, and toadying up to the Arab states to try to push Israel towards a peace plan and to create an alliance against Iran.

But here's the funny thing- Israelis can't even agree on who to blame for the US-Israel settlement kerfluffle. Observe:

Haaretz: "How would you define PM Netanyahu's management of this episode - responsible or irresponsible?" Responsible-42 percent; Irresponsible-37 percent; Don't know-27 percent.

Yedioth: "Who is to blame for the crisis with the U.S.?" Israel-35 percent; U.S.-37percent.

Israel Radio: "Who contributed more to this crisis between the U.S. and Israel? Mainly Barack Obama-41 percent; mainly Benjamin Netanyahu-37 percent; both of them equally-7 percent

Israel Radio: "Do you think the American government's response toward Netanyahu and Israel was..."Justified and at a correct and appropriate level-17 percent; Justified but totally exaggerated-31 percent; Both unjustified and exaggerated-43 percent.

Haaretz: "Some say that Israel needs to stop building in Jerusalem until the conclusion of negotiations with the Palestinians, others say that Israel needs to continue building in all of the city even if the cost is tension with the United States. What is your position?" Keep building in all Jerusalem with cost vis U.S.-48 percent; Stop building in Jerusalem through negotiations-41 percent; Don't know-11 percent.

Yedioth: "Should the construction in East Jerusalem be frozen as well? Yes-46 percent; No-51 percent.

Yedioth: "Should Netanyahu extend the construction freeze in the settlements?" He should extend the freeze-44 percent; He should stop the freeze-46 percent.

Shocking, Israelis actually think their own leader might be capable of being as arrogant, pig-headed and combative as US conservatives accuse Obama of being? Wow, it's like they actually recognize that politicians can be douches regardless of what country they live in. How refreshing. (The same article also mentions a Haaretz poll which finds that 51% of responders think Obama is "fair" towards Israel. So much for Dennis' bitching.)

Back to Pat:
This great, unprecedented experiment in freedom and self-government we call America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Yes, right out of the Bible. As scholar David Barton has pointed out, in the 15,000 writings by our founders archived and studied by political science professors, there were 3,154 quotes, and 34 percent of them were straight out of the Bible, mostly from Deuteronomy.
David Barton? Dishonest asshat from Wallbuilders-dot-com David Barton? Personal hack friend of Glenn Beck David Barton? Hmm.

BTW, Pat- the fact that the founders quoted from the Bible... not really impressive. Especially not without any, you know, context. Nice numbers, though.
Simply and truly put, our whole system of law and government was based on Mosaic Law, given by God, and recognized as supreme and perfect by our founders.
Actually, no, because lots of the founders had no idea what Mosaic law even meant. You know, not unlike yourself. (Now, if they'd been willing to let Jews live in their colonies, maybe they could have ASKED them about these strange things called mitzvot and halacha...) BTW, you know who DIDN'T think Mosaic law was "perfect?" All the rabbis since the Pharisees.
We who believe in God and His word still are a large majority in this country.
Well sure, but a lot of that has to do with this being a super general statement. Kudos.

Our best and only hope to recover what we're rapidly losing is to rally and unite under one banner, ONE NATION UNDER GOD.

"If My people who are called by my name humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."

– 2 Chronicles 7:14

That's the health care we desperately need.

Yes, well, much luck curing your HPV with that one. I'll certainly be praying for you.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Value of Roots

Apparently as genealogy has become a more popular pastime, assorted bitter cranks have played up their bitterness about it.

Don't get me wrong. I understand this. As you may have noticed, I bitch about many, many things. And when it comes to making fun of others' hobbies, I realize that one's person's interest is another person's cult (see Smart Phones, Twitter, or anything teenagers are doing these days).

However this is a little different. This time, it's my ox getting gored.

Yes, it seems that some people are mad because they've decided that tracing your family tree is stupid. My biggest problem with this isn't that we disagree (plenty of people in my family-- and Shiksa Girlfriend's family, actually), don't get my interest in the stuff, either. (Habakkuk once commented rather peevishly, "He seems more interested in learning about dead people than spending time with living ones.") No, what irritates me is that the people bagging on family history don't even seem to have a good idea why they don't like it.

Take Neil Genzlinger, TV critic for the NY Times bitching about NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are":

I also ended up wondering if there should be a warning screen that you have to click past to enter, as on a pornography site. “You are not a celebrity, and no one is going to pay for you to go to Tuscany, Poland, Benin and other far-off places as they do on those genealogy shows,” it would say. “Also, you may find that everyone you’re related to was nothing but a drone in the vast hive of humanity, living unremarkably and dying unexceptionally, just as you probably will.”

...After a few hours of this it was apparent to me that what we need is a companion site to this one, for the more mundane among us: Because the hazard of genealogical research isn’t that you’ll find scallywags, rapscallions and miscreants in your family tree; it’s that you’ll find a bunch of ordinary folks, which as the mania for genealogy spreads will make you death at parties.

“My great-great-grandpa witnessed the eruption of Krakatoa. How about yours?”

“Well, I hear he made a pretty good mat.”

This bozo argument has been repeated recently by Sathnam Sanghera, a memoirist and writer for the UK Times. Sanghera slams genealogy for, being boring, inconsequential, and self-absorbed.

The Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker may have learnt on the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? that a grandmother a half-dozen generations back was the victim of the subject of a Salem witch trial, but most genealogists struggle to produce something even that uninteresting.
Indeed, I had to do a bit of family investigation for a book, and all I discovered was that my father’s father was a farmer, that his father’s father was a farmer, and that his father’s father was a farmer too.
And before anyone points out the hypocrisy of a memoirist slagging off genealogy, life writing and genealogy are completely different. One being the equivalent of an interest in music, the other the equivalent of an interest in hi-fi equipment.
Though perhaps a better way of putting it is that genealogy is the academic equivalent of endlessly googling yourself. Aficionados like to say their pastime is a good way of learning about history, but it strikes me as a highly solipsistic and narcissistic way of doing so.
Show me a genealogist and I’ll show you someone who is basically obsessed with proving that they come from royal, aristocratic or celebrity lineage. Creepy and boring.
Here's the problem with both of these arguments. They assume that the only thing genealogists care about is impressing other people, AND that are all people are impressed by the same stuff-- namely, scandal or royalty. Sure, this may be what some people are interested in, but it's like saying the only reason stamp collectors do what they do is because they like sniffing old glue.

Take me: I started tracing my tree when I was still in middle school after my grandfather died and I realized I didn't know a thing about him, not because I was looking for cocktail party fodder. I've never specifically sought out black sheep, but I also haven't run away from them when they've come up. I've known since day one that my ancestors weren't particularly remarkable, and certainly neither rich nor famous. In short, there was no major reason anyone other than me might be interested in them. But I didn't care, because I was interested in learning about their lives, in discovering their stories and adding more dimensions to their characters.

Honestly, the concept that you would ever need to "dress up" your family history in order to make it interesting strikes me as being the height of narcissism or superficiality. Sanghera complains that he came from three generations of farmers, as if one's job is the only thing that defines you in the course of a lifetime. Personally, I love my family's stories; they're rich, they're interesting, and none of them have a thing to do with being famous. Rather, they have to do with being real, three-dimensional people, relatively normal people, with pockets of entertaining, tragic, or instructional experiences. Part of the joy of tracing the tree is that I've actually wound up being able to share new facts with older relatives that shed new light on stories or ancestors that they knew growing up.

People like Genzlinger and Sanghera want to have it both ways. On the one hand genealogists only care about finding famous or hyper-interesting relatives. On the other hand most of their trees aren't that interesting so they're really just gigantic bores. What these guys are really saying is that their view of self, family, and history is extremely superficial, and that they're trying to extrapolate their interests and, frankly, snobbery, onto everybody else. Needless to say, they're wrong.

Interestingly enough, I understand this tendency. Mother Superior Yid's sister, Bozette, is a certified megalomaniac and many years ago, decided that she was going to glom onto me, the family historian, as a way to help her ego by justifying her delusions of grandeur. She was very irritated when I wrote to her, excited, by saying that I had gotten translations of town records in Poland dating back to the late 1700s (about as far back as non-famous Jewish lineages can go in Eastern Europe). The reason? First, being Polish wasn't as sexy as being Hungarian (one of her grandparents had been Hungarian and she had been holding out for the rest of them having been, too). Second, she started getting very threatened when I pointed out that, no, we weren't rich, we weren't educated, we were actually a bunch of fairly dirt-poor merchants, including, in many cases, illiterates. She couldn't stand this and has actually manufactured false family details that she has told to her children.

Aunt Bozette, clearly, can't see past the externals, just like our two critics. The only thing that matters is social station or scandal (which provides a social class of its own). Yes, scandal is interesting, and a bit fun. And when I've found scandals here and there, it has been nice to do more digging. A few of my great-great-uncles were probably involved in organized crime. One put his kids in an orphanage after his wife died. One of my great-grandfathers was sued by the government in the 20s for price gouging during WWI. I recently found out that his father was probably a bigamist. I've even found quite a few cases of "kissing cousin" marriages (mostly in Europe). Of course, there are also various family intrigues about relatives screwing each other over, financially and otherwise.

BUT- the fact that this naughty stuff is interesting doesn't diminish my interest in my other ancestors who weren't thieves, philanderers or all-around crappy parents. I also don't mind that our closest link to any famous people is the fact that my g.grandfather's second-cousin married the first-cousin-once removed of Judah Magnes. I don't NEED famous people, sinners, or rabbis in order to be interested-- or proud-- in my family. Yes, my mother's family was from nowhere-ville, Poland. They were poor and uneducated. There were five of them. And they were also orphans. My g.g.grandfather, who became responsible for a household of eight when he was all of twenty years old, worked his ass off to bring himself to America, then all of his siblings, then all of his kids. I don't care what Sanghera says, that's an accomplishment. And the fact that his case was more common than not doesn't make it less interesting. If anything, it makes me want to find out more about people like him.

Life is hard work. It's always been hard work. But knowing the stories of my family is sustaining-- and also inoculating against all the cultural "hell in a handbasket" hysteria so common in the media these days. I've spent enough time with my ancestors to know that most people were far from perfect. Not in the 50s, not in the 30s, hell, not in the 1880s. Poor and vulnerable people have always needed to struggle to survive-- and what's remarkable, and inspiring, is that so many have found ways to do it. Screw royalty. I wouldn't trade my g.g.grandfather's story for anything.

History is made by little people, one life at a time. And there's no shame in being descended from-- or wanting to find out more about-- normal, everyday people.

Assuming this post defending genealogy from being boring hasn't bored you, here are some other treatments of this topic.