30 August 2006

And in other news

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is a bit late, but nonetheless, it seems he got the memo. That would be the memo with talking points drawn from Victor Davis Hanson’s recent column for the National Review titled “The Brink of Madness” (published 4 August 2006 and available here) in which he recasts the contemporary “western” fight against Islamic terrorism as akin to the battle against fascism during World War II. Hanson’s principle complaint is that too much of the west is in appeasement mode, making the current situation appear eerily similar to the betrayals of the 1930s. In strong terms, he frames the argument as follows: “But what is lost sight of is the central moral issue of our times: a humane democracy mired in an asymmetrical war is trying to protect itself against terrorists from the 7th century, while under the scrutiny of a corrupt world that needs oil, is largely anti-Semitic and deathly afraid of Islamic terrorists, and finds psychic enjoyment in seeing successful Western societies under duress.”

Rumsfeld, having clearly read Hanson, takes a similar line in a speech he gave yesterday in Salt Lake City. The Associated Press quotes him as saying “I recount this history because once again we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism,” and he referred to the pre-World War II period as “a time when a certain amount of cynicism and moral confusion set in among the Western democracies,” leading to appeasement of Hitler.

In many ways, I agree: there is too much waffling, particularly in western Europe, about terrorism, terrorists, and how to deal with the them; oil is certainly a corrupting influence; and there is far too much joy coming from these professed Islamists over the suffering of other humans at their hands, which seems strongly inconsistent with the values of Islam. That said, Hanson proposes no specific solutions or precise battle plans to combat what he sees as appeasement, so it is hard to know what he really intends for the west to do. In the case of the recent Israel-Hizbollah war, he says Israel should have fought harder and more aggressively. Presumably he believes, as does Rumsfeld, that in Iraq and other places where there are known terrorists, the US and the nations of Europe should also be more aggressive. Hanson also talks about potential terrorism and terrorists here in the United States, abusing our open society for their evil purposes.

However, the Iraq war is not going very well, the Israel-Hizbollah conflict was, at best, a draw (if not a Hizbollah victory – victorious for merely for having survived), and some new ideas for how we choose to face and fight the problem are necessary but completely lacking. In the United States, the USA Patriot Act has been passed and re-affirmed, giving the government forces great powers to round up terrorists, and not to appease them, while the Bush Administration plays on our fears as a security measure of its own. What more does Hanson want? To arbitrarily remove every Muslim from the United States and prohibit them from coming back? Given his solid attack on anti-Semitism and the scapegoating of Jews, it seems odd to turn around and make a scapegoat of a different religious minority. Likewise, for Rumsfeld: having gotten the U.S. bogged down in Iraq, is he nonetheless calling for attacks on Iran and North Korea as a means to prove America has the guts to not to appease?

Whatever the solutions to these problems look like, whatever Hanson’s and Rumsfeld’s visions of aggressive non-appeasement, it must also be consistent with the values that make western society where Hanson, Rumsfeld, and I all choose to live. If we espouse, act on, and create our own version of a repressive, fascist society, we have lost the war – and will have done it to ourselves, to boot. So what is it, exactly, that they want?

27 August 2006

Fair-Weather Values

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

In an article about the growth of European anti-Israelism, The Economist recently noted that “many [on the left] now attack Israel with all the zeal of a convert.” (“To Israel with hate – and guilt,” 19 August 2006). In the United States, though, it seems that an opposite syndrome has taken hold – or so a few people would like to believe: that “lefties” are deserting en mass the ranks of pro-Israel peaceniks to become pro-Israel hawks or “realists.” For a prime example of the new devotee to the cause of Israel First-ism, one need look no further than Thane Rosenbaum, whose piece in The Wall Street Journal, “Red State Jews – Mugged by Mideast reality.” helps set a new public standard for this appalling change in perspective. The blog Kerckhoff Coffeehouse proudly crowed about “this mea culpa by a former Tikkun editor in the Wall Street Journal,” further stating that Rosenbaum “is waking up to the reality that maybe the Arabs don’t want peace after all.” The blog then goes on to list a number of links to other, similar change-of-heart pieces.

Well, I have not seen much evidence of a mass-conversion of American Jews to this “new,” hawkish, “realistic” perspective. There have, indeed, been some high-profile, public confessions – including this atrocious encomium to President Bush – but this hardly makes a movement. In any case, as I complained recently, I feel there are already too few American Jews willing to speak out on these issues. To my mind, these public dramas may add to the inclination on the part of left-wing, pro-peace Jews to stay quiet, to avoid too many public arguments about these issues. But this hardly suggests a wholesale shift in perspective, the “newly united Jewish consciousness” of which Rosenbaum speaks. Where are the polls or surveys supporting these claims? (And as a rabbi-reader recently wrote me, there are left-wing American Jews who do speak out publicly and are critical of Israel, including Michael Lerner, Leonard Fein, and others. I take the point, and they deserve due credit; I just wish there were more like them.)

As to the substance of these recently-confessed conversions, they appear to encompass three basic points. First is that those on the left have somehow been naïve (to use Rosenbaum’s word), failing to recognize that “the Arabs” do not want either peace or democracy, and that Israel (as I have heard from a number of people recently) is on the verge of extinction. In this context, recognizing “reality” apparently means accepting these “facts” and then embracing a whole new set of beliefs and values as a result. Second, that in this new world of “reality,” there is a lot of anti-Semitism, not just anti-Israelism. Thus goes the argument that says both that Israel’s existence may provoke anti-Semitism and that Israel is one of the best protections for Jews against anti-Semitism. Third, that the United States is essentially the only country that understands this global dynamic and the true nature of the people in the Middle East and, therefore, the Bush Administration should be thanked and supported for its unflinching support of Israel.

Were it not so terribly real – real in the sense that many people have been killed or wounded on both sides of the conflict – one might call this situation tragi-comic. The converts to Israel First-ism have replaced one set of beliefs with another, but do not really have much in the way of perspective or depth with which to back up their conversions. So, as Rabbi Steven Leder and others embrace Mr. Bush for his support of their Israeli co-religionists, they forget the American tendency to be a fair-weather friend. The U.S.-Israel alliance is, to put it bluntly, fundamentally untested. Sure, the U.S. has stood by Israel at the United Nations, has sold it weapons and technology, and given it billions of dollars in aid. However, there has yet to be a war in which America has sent its troops to fight in great numbers alongside the Israel Defense Forces against “the Arabs,” many of whom would presumably come from countries like Egypt and Jordan – with which the United States also has long-standing (if complicated) relationships. With so much of the U.S. military bogged down in Iraq, would America jump – physically, not just morally – to Israel’s defense? Faced with a choice between Israel’s small economy or the wide swath of Arab-held oil, what choice would the U.S., even under the devout Mr. Bush, make at the moment of a broader Israeli war? Let us hope we do not find out, but let us also keep our perspective on U.S. support aligned with the “reality” the converts claim to desire.

Fear, however, is a great motivator – not only the fear of attack in Israel, thousands of miles away, but a more elemental, underlying fear about one’s personal safety and livelihood. In this world that Rosenbaum describes as “post-Holocaust, post-9/11, post-sanity,” fear apparently has a lot of currency, even for the wealthy, comfortable generations of American Jews – hence, presumably, the refrain about “Israel’s extinction” I keep hearing. I can only assume this is also what is behind the attempted bolstering of the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel connections and claims. As the same article in The Economist also pointed out, “there is a difference between being anti-Semitic and anti-Israel,” and that “in Central Europe, for example, there seems to be both greater anti-Semitism and more support for Israel.” Indeed, there is not much logic to the values of hatred, which makes sorting out these kind of beliefs impossible, perhaps even quixotic. Fighting anti-Semitism makes sense; fighting it in the context of educating people about “other” cultures generally makes even more sense; but fighting it by trying to strengthen a counter-balancing pro-Jewish nationalism is unlikely to be very successful, and might even backfire.

(The flaw in this whole Zionist-protectionism argument has, anyway, been one willingly ignored. The theory is that a Jewish state could not only offer a safe-haven to Jews from other countries, but that it could, implicitly and explicitly, offer protections for Jews in other countries. Israel has met the safe-haven test, taking in Jews from Russia, Iran, Morocco, and many other places where Jewish lives were threatened. But to see how poorly this global Jewish protector role meets the test of logic, first imagine that American Jews are imprisoned in camps in California and other western U.S. areas, the way many Japanese-Americans were during World War II. Now try to imagine Israel’s military response. How would or could Israel protect or rescue these imprisoned American Jews? It probably couldn’t, any more than it could have forcibly freed the Jews trapped in eastern Europe and Russia under the Soviets.)

There are other “realities,” political and military in nature, which also go unaddressed by these converts from the peace movement. In focusing narrowly on the challenges faced by Israel, for example, there is occasionally some recognition that the Bush Administration may have used the recent Israel-Hizbollah conflict as a proxy for a potentially broader war with Iran; but presumably this is seen as OK since Iran is also Israel’s enemy. Little is said, though, about the bigger geo-political picture, such as the ongoing fight to control oil reserves and to make sure that the U.S. is more strongly-positioned to meet its fuel needs than, say, an energy-hungry, rapidly-growing China. How might this be influencing America’s philo-Israeli policies? Nor is there much “realistic” analysis of the impact of American support for the same Arab regimes that are, potentially or theoretically, problematic for Israel – like Egypt. Sure, Israel and Egypt have a peace treaty, one likely to remain in effect as long as the American-supported Mubarak regime stays in power. According to the logic of this new crop of “realists,” Egypt must be grouped with other Arabs in contributing to the existential challenges faced by Israel, but – oddly! – none seem to be calling for a cessation of American aid to Egypt. I guess that’s “reality.” (Much more realistic, philosophically and practically, is Alex Sinclair’s recent article in The Jerusalem Post, “Two Conflicts, two victims,” 22 August 2006.)

Finally, and most importantly, I want to say to Mr. Rosenbaum, Rabbi Leder, and others of their persuasion, that criticism of Israel, criticism of Israel’s racist, anti-Arab policies or its zealous and disproportionate attacks on Lebanese civilians and infrastructure in this most recent war, and condemnation of its nearly-forty-year occupation and oppression of Palestinians ... this is not about being idealistic – and therefore, by implication, unrealistic or naïve. The criticism of Israel by American Jews like me stems from having ideals, values that a community of Jews around the world strive to live up to, and to validate by action and word. It does not mean Jews going like lambs to the slaughter when threatened or oppressed – but it also means taking care that, in their zealousness not to be lambs, that Jews do not then become the slaughterers either.

Adhering to these values does not minimize the validity of self-defense, but it means that such defense must be handled appropriately, proportionately, and with great care. We must not only say that we value each and every life equally, Jewish or Arab, but we must act it – and act it regardless of the words and deeds of “the Arabs” themselves. If we abandon these (Jewish) values, having been (as The Wall Street Journal headline writers put it) “mugged by reality” then we become – bluntly – no better than our so-called enemies. Perhaps from that “realistic” perspective, Jews in Israel and elsewhere will, seeing themselves under attack, wage a more effective battle against our enemies and, in the near-term, appear victorious.

But Judaism is a religion of peace, and I am not the only one who thinks so: as Rosenbaum himself wrote, many Jews “share the profound belief that killing, humiliation and the infliction of unnecessary pain are not Jewish attributes.” When peace is in the offing, as in the 1990s, with the Oslo Accords, it is easy to believe in the importance of working for peace; it is undoubtedly more difficult when so many aspects of the conflict look so negative. Yet we must try. How sad that contemporary events have lead some American Jews to betray the values of peace in favor of what is sure to be a disappointing – and perhaps self-fulfilling – new “reality.”

19 August 2006

Das Berliner Mahnmal

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

It has been a few years since I was last in Berlin, and among the things I was most anxious to see on this trip was the Peter Eisenman-designed holocaust memorial, formally known as “das Berliner Mahnmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas,” located just south of the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. For anyone who has not seen it, in person or in pictures, or is not familiar with the history of the idea and the project, I’ll leave the majority of that work to others; a number of articles can be found through this linked Google search. In broad terms, the design consists of a wide, square city block, filled with finely-poured gray concrete pillars of varying heights, all running out in rows; the land on which these sit is slightly rolling, creating an effect of little hillocks. There is also an “information center” that provides some history on the holocaust and the murder of Europe’s Jews, as well as on the memorial itself. While much has been made of the fact that the pillars are of varying and inconsistent sizes, this description ignores the fact that the heights do increase gradually, from the low columns on the outer edges to the high, dominating ones towards the center. People can, and do, sit on the columns on the outer edges.

After reading so much about this memorial, it was at the same time both better and worse than I anticipated. The concrete blocks are what they are; from the various articles and descriptions I have read, I had not remembered the detail that the ground rolls; the effect walking through is not one of being on an even field and that, along with the occasional tilting block, adds to the psychological impact of the design. Standing among the tall columns, I was able to look down in one direction or another and – without seeing the sights of Berlin around me – think: about the city and its history, about the war and the holocaust, and about my family’s history with all of those things. The memorial prompted me to reflect on all this, and I cannot complain about that – though, as I wrote last week, Berlin makes me think about this history anyway. It is nearly unavoidable.

However, walking around and observing other people – the kids chasing each other around, the backpacking tourists and old folks taking pictures, the (to my ears) native-speaking Germans whose families clearly came from other places (e.g., Turkey or parts of Asia) – I started to wonder whether this memorial is really necessary: whether it adds anything to the city and its history amidst so many other monuments and plaques, or if it contributes to our understanding of the horrible events it is meant to mark. This field of columns is so totally devoid of symbolism that I cannot help but wonder whether it will really be effective in the long-run. To me, and others like me, with some personal connection to this 20th century catastrophe, making us think about the holocaust is probably not a great challenge. I can only speculate about the thoughts and feelings the memorial might evoke in Germans two generations removed from the war, but given how much is taught about the war, the holocaust, and the role of Germans and Germany, they may have little problem standing amidst this field and feeling its impact. But what about the “others”: all the people for whom the events commemorated here are much more abstract, removed, perhaps even clinically historical? As much as the lack of specific symbols or imagery is an aid, allowing the mind to go where it may and without repeating the exhausted (and often exhausting) imagery common to holocaust memorials, it is also an inherent stumbling block, a gap that leaves the less-informed or less-connected visitor with no real entry point to understanding, feeling, or thinking.

There is, however, one significant symbol at this memorial: the holocaust “information center” is buried, tomb-like, underneath; we can only wonder at the intended meaning. That said, this small series of exhibitions is very well done. Instead of trying to recreate the traditional holocaust history / museum experience (also exhausted and, typically, exhausting), the curators have focused on some specific stories of German Jews and Jews from other European countries. Using these localized histories, the exhibition places the history of the holocaust in a context that I think every visitor can understand, and connects that history with the memorial above ground. I consider this a remarkable act of restraint on the part of the center’s creators, to resist what must have been a strong urge to try to recreate the scope of a Yad Vashem or a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum here in the center of Berlin. More to the point, I wonder whether the more fitting memorial might have been to place this informational component above ground: out in the open, to capitalize on the prominent position of this plot of land, to tell the world something about the holocaust in more precise terms than might be gleaned from poured concrete.

And long-term, I think an entirely different set of questions must be raised about das Berliner Mahnmal, about its permanence. Can we imagine a time when Germans, Berliners of all kinds, might want to recapture this space, as their (and our) memories evolve? This should not be taken as an act of wiping away our remembrance of the holocaust; what seems untouchable now need not always be so, and this is not holy or hallowed ground. We know that things change, that we change things in our environment as our memories evolve, and we would be foolish to deny it.

Rather, might there be a different, perhaps better kind of redemption – for Jews, for Germans, and for all people – if we can get to the point where such monuments to humanity’s mistakes are not necessary in the first place? The cliché of the post-holocaust “education” is the saying “never again,” yet the mass murder of innocents has happened with disturbing regularity in the years since 1945 (and, in some cases, before the holocaust as well). Indeed, it happens even now, with indiscriminate attacks by terrorists against innocent people from Iraq to Israel to India; it happens as a result of misguided militaries, from ... well, also from Iraq to Israel; and it happens in places like Darfur, in Sudan, the result of armed militias and racist collaborating governments.

Standing in Berlin’s memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, this is what was really on my mind: not the horrors of the past, but rather the horrors of the present, and the frightful future we all must face. The memorial makes no claims to being able to stop the murder of innocent people. How can it? Yet if that is not the message – the stark, cold, cast-in-concrete message – with which each visitor leaves, then the memorial, its creators, and we, the visitors – have all failed, together.

12 August 2006

History’s Lessons

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Here in Berlin, history of all kinds is unavoidable. Where the history of life in New York is generally left to those with long memories and longer grudges (Who of my generation remembers the original Penn Station? No one!), in Berlin it is hung like a heart on a sleeve for all to see: almost every building or street corner does something to convey to the visitor its role: in the city's history, in the development of the German nation, or to support (or, sometimes, undermine) its people. One can, I suppose, say much the same thing about other European cities – Prague or Paris, for instance, which are both older than Berlin; or Rome, which gives a different meaning to the word "history" by comparison. Still, Berlin's experiences and presentations of its history are striking.

What effect all this history has on the culture is hard to say. There are certain things that are quite obviously different, and contrasting: a society in which everyone smokes with careless abandon (or so it often appears), despite the knowledge they all share about its dangers, many people bicycle yet few wear helmets, and yet a society in which no one, absolutely no one, crosses the street against the light; a city where the subways and buses operate on the honor system (with the occasional, random checks for fare cards), but where the mere act of living in a district means registering with the police in that district (even if you haven't done anything wrong). Every nation, every society and culture, has its unique signifiers, but here in Berlin they stand out starkly as contrasts, not just national characteristics. Perhaps the contrasts are the characteristics. I suppose this also contributes to the energy of the place, and why the sense of risk – personal and societal – seems different.

While traveling, it's easy to tune out certain things, like the events of the surrounding world, though it does creep in periodically when one catches the news, such as on TVs filled with images of police at London airports. People want to talk, too, about what's happening, about Israel and Lebanon and other disasters made or in the making, things for which there seem no solutions, events we feel powerless to stop. But that may be Berlin's biggest history lesson: that things can, or could, be stopped, if the voices of the people can make themselves be heard, and if they are not afraid to speak. Generations down the line, our descendants will be wandering through different lands, foreign and native. What will these places tell them about their history and their people then? And what will they say about us, and how we responded to the challenges the world has posed?

07 August 2006

Aired Laundry Dries Faster

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

At dinner recently with a rabbi friend of mine, the talk turned to the current situation in the Middle East, and to my willingness to be critical – openly, publicly critical – of the response from the American Jewish community to the situation. My friend said that while he agrees with much of my perspective on the problems, there is a general feeling on his part that holds him back from criticizing the American Jewish community and its institutions too heavily or publicly.

The question of airing one’s (dirty) laundry in public is a long-standing one for many minority communities in many places around the world. It may even be a natural human hesitation: there are certain things best discussed first behind closed doors, where arguments can be had and debates engaged for as long as it takes to produce a solid consensus opinion. Then, and only then, can that opinion become public.

It’s been some time since I thought that we Jews living here in the US were still bound by this kind of convention. That is not because we have reduced our laundry load so significantly [many things still don’t get much discussion, like the fact that a certain Washington lobbyist who is in hot water with the Federal government was a big supporter of Jewish causes, including schools], but because our community is established enough – wealthy, well-educated, politically-engaged, and with people serving in powerful governmental and business positions – that, as with the dominant communities of the US, we can afford to have some of our dramas can play out publicly. In fact, public debate might create a thorough review of ideas and perspectives where such thinking does not currently exist.

That is essentially the situation (and the problem) with the “official” American Jewish perspective on Israel: there isn’t much discussion, because It Has Been Decided: we support Israel. Period. Whether it is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), or the United Jewish Communities / Federation, or many of the hundreds of synagogues and community organizations across the country, the position of support for Israel is, so to speak, holy. The rightness or wrongness of Israel’s actions does not matter; attacking Lebanese civilians, as opposed to (Hizbollah’s) military targets, does not matter; the unilateral construction of a de facto border with the thus-far stillborn Palestinian state does not matter; the forty-year occupation and oppression of another people does not matter; the disproportionate response to any attack or provocation does not matter. What matters is Israel, what matters is going to the mat for the idea that whatever Israel says is in its self-defense is legitimate, whatever Israel claims is well-founded. Who are we to question, after all?

Well, we do have a right to question, and we should. “We” American Jews (and Americans generally, for that matter) provide billions of dollars in aid to Israel every year – billions through the U.S. government, and billions more through charitable organizations supporting the continued growth of the state of Israel – and that financial support entitles us to have a role in discussing how those funds are spent. But we cannot question the actions of the Israelis if we do not first question our own actions and motivations, and if we do not work to better understand ourselves and the needs of our own Jewish community – and this is the part that is missing. The American Jewish community needs more debate, more open discussion about whether our funding of the state of Israel is, in fact, having a negative effect; whether we are enabling Israel to fight instead of encouraging it to make peace; whether we are confusing Israel’s survival with the underlying quality of its existence; whether we are betraying our own Jewish morals and values by supporting an Israeli state that has so often failed to live up to those same values – values which it also espouses in equal measure. We need more voices like Mitchell Plitnick’s, willing to confront the monolith of establishment American Jewish opinion. AND, we need to stop forwarding, blindly and devoutly, every pro-Israel e-mail that comes across our path, because these e-mails contribute to a process of rote emotional response rather than engaged thought.

I don’t know whether I changed my friend’s mind (though I would like to think that I did). But even if I did not, I hope I have (again) started the process: encouraging one person to wonder – privately for now, and perhaps publicly later – whether we are on the right track in our approach to and support for Israel. There is something to be said for keeping certain issues private until the right moment comes in which to make them public. On the other hand, our ideas, like laundry, may air out better if exposed to fresh breezes and a lot of direct sunlight.

02 August 2006


A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Or ... is it?

A little more than a week ago now, I posted an article that I titled Hydra-ology, that began with a description of Heracles’ battle against the fearsome serpent known as the Hydra. I then moved from that ancient Greek myth, drawing an analogy between Heracles’ challenging battle and evolving tactics and the mistakes that Israel and America have made in their handling of some recent (and not-so-recent) Hydra-like problems.

All is fine and dandy. And then I happened upon this blog piece, titled “If you fight [fill in the blank] it will get stronger,” posted on 2 August, a good week after my article.

Now, let’s be clear: I am not accusing anyone of plagiarism. The story of the Hydra is hardly new. So, I suppose it’s not so shocking that two people might decide to use the story as the starting point for an article, and begin their articles by filling in the background on the story. Right? Right. And of course, given the outbreak of open war between Israel and Lebanon a couple weeks ago, not so surprising that the subject of the article would be that very war, and that the author might tie it back into the story of the Hydra, even if the two articles are about a week apart. Right? Right. And, clearly, any vindication would come from the fact that, politically, we’re on opposite sides of the spectrum, this other blogger and me. Right? Right.

Well, whatever. Let me conclude with another reference that may (or may not) be relevant, one that even has tangential Greek connections: “Imitation is the sincerest flattery,” a statement attributed to Charles Caleb Colton, from his book Lacon, or Many Things in Few Words, addressed to those who think. What’s the Greek reference in there? Well, for a change, I’m not saying. You’ll have to look this one up for yourselves.