Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What If Israel Ceases to Be a Democracy?

Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic asks: What If Israel Ceases to Be a Democracy?
Is it actually possible that one day Israelis -- Jewish Israelis -- would choose to give up democracy in order to maintain Israel's Jewish voting majority? Some people, of course, argue that Israel has ceased to be a democracy, because there is nothing temporary about the 43-year-old occupation of the West Bank. I believe it is premature to talk about the end of Israel as a democratic state -- mainly because the disposition of the West Bank is still undecided -- but I can't say that the thought hasn't crossed my mind that one day Israelis will make the conscious, active decision to preserve the state's Jewish character instead of its democratic character (I use the word "Jewish" in the demographic sense, not the moral sense, obviously).

As I wrote last week, there's very little Israel's right-wing government has done in the past year or so to suggest that it is willing to wean itself from its addiction to West Bank settlements, and the expansion of settlements bodes ill for the creation of a Palestinian state -- and the absence of Palestinian statehood means that Israel will one day soon confront this crucial question concerning its democratic nature: Will it grant West Bank Arabs the right to vote, or will it deny them the vote? If it grants them the vote, this will be the end of Israel as a Jewish state; if it denies them the vote in perpetuity, it will cease to be a democratic state.
And David Remnick of the New Yorker says I can't take the occupation any more.
A new generation of Jews is growing up in the US. Their relationship with Israel is becoming less patient and more problematic. They see what has happened with the Rabbinical Letter [proscribing rental and sale of property to Arabs -- DR], for example. How long can you expect that they’ll love unconditionally the place called Israel [sic]? You’ve got a problem. You have the status of an occupier since 1967. It’s been happening for so long that even people like me, who understand that not only one side is responsible for the conflict and that the Palestinians missed an historic opportunity for peace in 2000, can’t take it anymore.
“The US administration is trying out of good will to get a peace process moving and in return Israel lays out conditions like the release Jonathan Pollard. Sorry, it can’t go on this way. The Jewish community is not just a nice breakfast at the Regency. You think it’s bad that a US President is trying to make an effort to promote peace? That’s what’s hurting your feelings? Give me a break, you’ve got bigger problems. A shopping list in exchange for a two month moratorium on settlement construction? Jesus [sic].
Earlier this year, Yosi Even-Kama, an Israeli student at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, produced his final project about the destruction of Israeli democracy through a right-wing revolt.
The controversial final project of a graduate of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design has Israel's religious community up in arms. Yossi Even-Kama's "State of Judea" exhibit, which has been posted on Facebook and picked up by various religious websites, is a fictional depiction of the gradual death of Israeli democracy in the years 2020-2023 and the establishment of a religious, anti-democratic state in its place.

I'm not so sure that Even-Kama's scenario is the most likely - there certainly seem to be strong anti-democratic figures in Israel today who are not religious (like Avigdor Lieberman, surely the worst foreign minister Israel has ever had). But if Israel does abandon democracy, the extreme right-wing religious Zionists will probably also play a part.

Last summer, when I was visiting Israel, a right-wing group called Im Tirtzu attacked Israeli higher education for its supposed anti-Zionist bias. They sent a letter to the president of Ben Gurion University demanding that she change certain supposedly anti-Zionist academic programs within thirty days, and advising potential donors not to contribute to the university.
The Im Tirtzu Zionist movement is threatening to deter philanthropists from donating to the Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba if it doesn't change its "anti-Zionist bias in the Politics and Government Department."

The movement sent a letter to University President Prof. Rebecca Carmi threatening to ask donors to deposit their funds to a trust fund managed by a lawyer should the university fail to meet their demands within 30 days, and replace some of the staff and change the study program.

Im Tirtzu claims that the university employs more leftists that rightists in its academic staff. According to the activists, President Carmi allowed "the academic dictatorship to gain control of academic freedom and considerably limit intellectual pluralism."

Im Tirtzu director Ronen Shoval and Erez Tadmor, head of the movement's policy and PR department presented data from a report the movement issued which found a "post-Zionist bias" in the political science faculties in various Israeli universities.

According to the report, nine out of 11 academic staff members in the Ben-Gurion Politics and Government Department are involved in political activity which champions "radical Left" agendas. It is stated that three out of 6 doctoral candidates signed a petition supporting Dr. Neve Gordon who called for a boycott of Israel. "We implore you to put and end of the anti-Zionist bias and the exclusion of Zionist students and researchers from the department."

The Zionist movement also threatened to urge students to leave the university. "We shall employ all legal means at our disposal to bring this information to the attention of current and future students as well as elements supporting the university in Israel and aboard," it was stated.

"We want them to take the report seriously, check the claims and stop burying their heads in the sand thinking all is permitted to them," Tadmor told Ynet. "Their dismissive attitude attests to the severity of the problem. I don't want them to fire lecturers. I find it unreasonable that 90% of the senior staff are radical left-wingers just as it is unreasonable for a workplace to have a complete majority of men. It's obvious there is discrimination."

The Ben-Gurion University stated in response: "The university is not in a habit of holding periodical examinations of its staff members' political positions. Such a demand and a demand to "balance" the staff members' political views is extremely reminiscent of McCarthyism and goes against the democratic principles on which the State of Israel was founded. Can it be conceived that a university or any other institution fire or hire employees on the basis of their political opinions?"
The Israeli education minister, Gideon Saar, appeared to support at least in part the agenda of Im Tirtzu. He attended a conference earlier in the year organized by the group and said that he would take their report seriously. In remarks he made to the Knesset in late June, 2010, he stated the following:
Sa'ar said: "I think that the Im Tirtzu report is important in the sense that it generates public debate. It is important to examine the issues raised in the report." In his statements to the plenum [of the Knesset], Sa'ar referred specifically to professors who have backed calls to boycott Israeli universities.

"This is something that is impossible to accept," Sa'ar said. "I have already spoken about this with the head of the Higher Education Council's planning and budgeting committee [Manuel Trajtenberg], and there will be measures taken vis-a-vis the heads of these institutions. This matter is on our agenda - and we plan on taking action over the course of the summer."

Ariel seemed to understand Sa'ar as saying he plans to investigate the charges. His office released a statement reading: "The education minister said that he plans on thoroughly probing the charges made by Im Tirtzu this coming summer."

A spokesperson for Trajtenberg refused to comment when reached by Haaretz, deferring to Sa'ar's office.

"It would behoove the education minister to ignore the report, which emits an aroma of McCarthyism," said Professor Yossi Ben-Artzi, the rector of the University of Haifa. "I hope he will understand the gravity of the very fact of monitoring and informing on lecturers, and of whether he even needs to take seriously an organization like Im Tirtzu, which causes incitement." Earlier this year Sa'ar took part in a conference organized by Im Tirtzu. "I place great importance in this gathering," he said. "Campus activism is hugely vital, and this is what you are doing. For this, you will be blessed." "I very much appreciate this work, which gives expression to an authentic Zeitgeist felt by the public and is much needed on our campuses," Sa'ar said of Im Tirtzu. "I came to tell you: God speed.
Sa'ar on the other hand did oppose the ultimatum given to Ben-Gurion University by Im Tirtzu:
Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar's office stated that, "Regardless of the claims relating to pluralism within Israeli academia and other issues, Education Minister and Chairman of the Committee for Higher Education Gideon Sa'ar discounts any move that is liable to harm donations to universities in Israel and their conditions."

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Westboro Baptist Church vs. sanity: picketing Elizabeth Edwards' funeral

Honestly, the world really is going to hell in a handbasket, as my grandmother might have said!

Elizabeth Edwards Funeral To Be Picketed By Westboro Baptist Church. Reading their insane announcement about Edwards' funeral, what seems to anger them most is that she said, "I'm not praying to God to save me from cancer."

In my opinion, what she said was admirable. Unlike so many people, she didn't try to fool herself into thinking that God would intervene to stop her cancer. NPR has an interview with Jonathan Alter, who spoke with her in 2007 about her life.
INSKEEP: When you sat down with Elizabeth Edwards how did the two of you talk about such a personal subject?
Mr. ALTER: Well, this was after her recurrence in 2007. And for those who are listening who've had cancer, had somebody close to them with cancer, you know, that it's kind of a club, almost. It's a way of looking at the world that is impossible if you haven't experienced it.
So we bonded, pretty quickly, even though I wasn't a particular supporter of her husband's campaign. And what struck me in that interview shortly after recurrence, was her brutal honesty, which I think the rest of the world came into contact with in later years.
INSKEEP: What do you mean?
Mr. ALTER: Especially struck by how honest she was on the issue of faith, which most presidential candidates and their spouses have - are required almost, by the world we live in, to talk with great sincerity about their religious faith.
And what Elizabeth said on that particular occasion, was that she couldn't see how she could believe in a god who would blow her 16-year-old son off the road and kill him in an auto accident in 1996. And that any god who could do that, was a god that she was not going to be praying to to cure her cancer. Because if he wouldn't save her son, he wasn't going to save her. And that just was reflective of the degree of honesty that she achieved after she had this horrible life experience.
From a profile of Edwards, quoted in Politics Daily:
"I have, I think, somewhat of an odd version of God," Edwards explained to an audience of women bloggers when asked how her beliefs inform her politics. "I do not have an intervening God. I don't think I can pray to him -- or her -- to cure me of cancer."

Edwards, according to Stan, laughed after describing God as "her" -- hardly a heresy and certainly understandable given her audience -- and continued on:

"I appreciate other people's prayers for that [a cure for her cancer], but I believe that we are given a set of guidelines, and that we are obligated to live our lives with a view to those guidelines. And I don't believe that we should live our lives that way for some promise of eternal life, but because that's what's right. We should do those things because that's what's right."
From an interview with Larry King:
In the weeks and months after Wade's death, she told King, "I had this idea that God was going to find some way to turn back time and he was going to be alive." She continued to ask herself, as many do, whether she had done something wrong -- did she not teach him well enough, not get him a safe enough car? And then when cancer struck, and her husband's affair was revealed, she agonized about the possibility of her own cosmic cooperation in it all.

"And I have to recognize with each of these things, they just happen," she told King. "You didn't have to do something wrong to justify them."

But she added, "You still sort of wonder: Is there some grand plan where you've done something someplace else?"

Edwards said she had to move on from such magical and negative thinking, and she quoted a line from the Bill Moyers PBS special on the Book of Genesis, to the effect that "You get the God you have, not the God you want."

"The God I wanted was going to intervene. He was going to turn time back. The God I wanted was -- I was going to pray for good health and he was going to give it to me," she said. "Why in this complicated world, with so much grief and pain around us throughout the world, I could still believe that, I don't know. But I did. And then I realized that the God that I have was going to promise me salvation if I lived in the right way and he was going to promise me understanding. That's what I'm sort of asking for . . . let me understand why I was tested."

Such openness to doubt and, in particular, to the persistence of suffering runs counter to powerful currents of American Christianity that stress the blessings (mostly material) that will flow to those who believe (and donate), as well as to the premium so many Christians place on voicing a confident and undiluted conviction, no matter what the reality.
It's that last point - the openness to doubt and especially to the persistence of suffering - that is so important. I don't think that religion should be used to shield us from the reality of suffering, to make us pretend that suffering doesn't exist - for each and every one of us, no matter how rich or successful we may end up being. We all die in the end, often in pain, often in loneliness. I don't see the point of religion which cloaks that reality. That's why the books of Job and Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) are so important - perhaps we need to read them more often, rather than wasting our time on spiritual pabulum that soothes us while at the same time lying to us.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Happy eighth day of Hanukkah! חג אורים שמח!

Enough with the serious business - here are some photos of my Hanukkah candles tonight (first two photos). The third is a close-up photo of one of the rooms on a shelf I created with my childhood dollhouse furniture - the cat crouched to strike is a new acquisition. And the fourth is my very own cat, Zachary, looking up at me as I sit in front of the computer.

Saturday, December 04, 2010


As much as I don't like the both cynical and naive reasoning that those in charge of Wikileaks give for publishing the U.S. State Department cables, I'm coming to the conclusion that their doing so is not such a bad thing. There's fascinating information coming out: about our relations with quite a variety of countries, about how Iran is seen by Arab countries, about how the Chinese government in all probability has sponsored many hackers' attacks against U.S. government targets, etc. The release of the cables is clearly embarrassing for the U.S. government (and may make diplomacy harder), but to my eyes the cables reveal the government doing a lot of things right.

And I'm increasingly disturbed by the vindictive attacks on Assange (again, as much as I don't like him), including calls for his assassination.

If you're interested in perusing the cables that have been published thus far, they are currently available at: Cable Viewer.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wikileaks - cynical and naive

Having read a few of the cables leaked by Wikileaks, I am actually more impressed by U.S. diplomatic representatives than I was before. The cables I've read are well-written, concise, and informative, and reveal a knowledgeable and skeptical attitude towards those with whom the U.S. is negotiating.

The Wikileaks site, however, introduces the cables with the following words:
The cables show the extent of US spying on its allies and the UN; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in 'client states'; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for US corporations; and the measures US diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.

This document release reveals the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors – and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what’s going on behind the scenes.
I totally disagree with the Wikileaks introduction, which I think is both cynical and naive.

It is cynical because it assumes that U.S. intentions are always, and uniquely, bad. Other countries don't spy on their allies, turn a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuses in countries with which they are allied, lobby for corporations based in their countries, and advance the interests of those who have access to their diplomats? I think that probably almost every nation with even the least bit of power does these things in their diplomatic relations. Just for an example I know about, Israel has spied on the U.S. (think of the Pollard case). Most nations pick and choose the human rights abuses they protest. I don't particularly like it, but I don't expect anything differently - national governments operate on the basis of what they perceive national self-interest to be. China, for an example, has been assiduously working on behalf of Chinese economic interests in other countries. Diplomacy is not conducted in such a way as to prove the pure motives of the nation.

It is naive because it assumes that it's possible to get anything done diplomatically without secrecy. The Oslo Accords negotiated between the PLO and Israel would not have occurred if they had been conducted publicly. Diplomats need to be able to report truthfully back to the State Department - which means they have to be able to say undiplomatic things about foreign leaders. What use would there be in sanitized cables to the State Department which don't reveal frank evaluations of foreign leaders or officials? Or which don't reveal what they really say to U.S. diplomats? I want the U.S. to be able to say different things in private than in public - that way we can propose actions that if they turn out to be a bad idea, we can later disavow and say we never thought of.  Or perhaps our diplomats can say things that we might aspire to do but cannot do at the present moment. There are a lot of good uses for secrecy in diplomacy.

Even paranoids have enemies....

Wikileaks has posted a July, 2009 cable from the American Embassy in Abu Dhabi to the State Department, which doesn't have the "Ahmedinejad is Hitler" quote but does have many interesting statements by and about Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ in the cable). This cable refers to a dinner meeting held on July 15, 2009 between Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) and Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan (ABZ). [I am starting to wonder if there was an editing error in the Times' story on the July, 2009 cables about meetings with Mohammed bin Zayed - it will be interesting to see if some corroboration appears for the quote].

Some of the more interesting details:

From the summary: "He [MBZ] painted to a nuclear Iran as an existential threat to the UAE and invoked the well being of his grandchildren while urging the U.S. to act quickly. MBZ asked for close coordination between the U.S. and UAE to deal with the Iranian threat."

On the Iranian threat: "MBZ described a nuclear armed Iran as absolutely untenable. He pointed to Iran's relentless ambitions to restore regional hegemony as evidenced by destabilizing interference in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Palestine. He believes that 'all hell will break loose' if Iran attains the bomb, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey developing their own nuclear weapons capability and Iran instigating Sunni - Shia conflict throughout the world. He said Iran is surrounding Israel - driven by ideological conviction - and will threaten Israel's existence should it go nuclear. At the same time, he described Iran's ambitions as reflecting a desire to restore Persia's great-power status, rather than driven by religious convictions." [Emphasis mine - RL]

On war with Iran: "While careful not to suQY.JQoWoRth [word is garbled on Wikileaks site] Iran, MBZ described a near term conventional war with Iran as clearly preferable to the long term consequences of a nuclear armed Iran. Without timely and decisive action by the United States, MBZ believes that Israel will strike Iran, causing Iran to launch missile attacks - including hits on the UAE - and to unleash terror attacks worldwide. In his view, 'the map of the Middle East' would change. He expects widespread civilian conflict to erupt as Iran sparks Sunni - Shia violence worldwide (including the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia which he sees as the greatest vulnerability, along with Iraq, in the Arab world). He speculated that such an event could unfold within six months time and resolved that the UAE is prepared to defend itself. He believes that an Israeli strike will not be successful in stopping Iran's nuclear program, and therefore we need to plan."

On why Israeli-Palestinian agreement is important in this context: "MBZ suggested that the key to containing Iran revolves around progress in the Israel/Palestine issue. He argued that it will be essential to bring Arab public opinion on board in any conflict with Iran and roughly 80% of the public is amenable to persuasion. To win them over, the U.S. should quickly bring about a two state solution over the objections of the Netanyahu government. He suggested working with moderate Palestinians that support the road map, and forget about the others as there is no time to waste." This is interesting to me - what he is suggesting is that when it comes to Iran, the I/P conflict isn't important in and of itself, but rather for the purpose of gaining the support of Arab public opinion in any action against Iran. As long as the I/P conflict exists, Iran can exploit it in order to gain the support of Arab public opinion.

Another July, 2009 cable, recounts the 7/19/09 Gulf Security Dialogue working dinner hosted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. More relevant remarks on Iran:

"MbZ reiterated his belief that an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iran was increasingly likely, saying he was convinced the Netanyahu government was prepared to act against Iran, and that he agreed with Israeli intelligence assessments regarding how close Tehran is to achieving its nuclear ambitions. The Iranian response to a pre-emptive strike, predicted MbZ, would be attacks on U.S. allies in the region, foremost among them the UAE; Iran may also unleash terrorist cells against western interests around the world. ASD Vershbow explained that the USG assessment differed in timeframe -- we do not anticipate military confrontation with Iran before the end of 2009 -- stressing, however, that denying Iran's nuclear ambitions and stemming its efforts to achieve regional hegemony were foremost among U.S. international security concerns." We have now arrived almost at the end of 2010, and there still has been no military confrontation with Iran.

"Ahmedinejad is Hitler" - Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi

On the other hand, the Wikileaks documents do reveal a fascinating group of Middle Eastern nations that agree on the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran: Israel (of course), the king of Bahrain (which is the base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet), king Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who implored the U.S. to "cut off the head of the snake," and military leaders from the United Arab Emirates (the defense chief, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi called Ahmedinejad "Hitler" in July 2009). See the short discussion by Jeffrey Goldberg - "The Saudis are Neocons."

I looked for the full text of the document that details the words of the Crown Prince about Ahmedinejad, but it doesn't appear that the Times has published it yet.

Update on November 29: a commenter provided the reference - it's in the July 23, 2009, cable from the Abu Dhabi embassy (, in the section entitled "Afghanistan - Neighbors Not Doing Enough." I missed seeing because of that headline. Here's the full text:
MbZ criticized other regional leaders for playing both sides and for "dating" Iran. MbZ compared the current situation to pre-WWII Europe saying, "Ahmedinejad is Hitler," and neighboring capitals believe erroneously that they can prevent Iranian retaliation by playing nice or signing agreements with Tehran. "They think the are backing the winning horse," MbZ explained, emphasizing that if they think that by appeasing Iran they will avoid Iranian retaliation "then they are seriously mistaken, Sir."

Who elected Julian Assange?

As Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs says (European Newspapers Begin Publishing Wikileaks Docs), "I don't recall voting for Julian Assange. As he sets himself up as the arbiter of government morality, and recklessly reveals secrets that will distort and vastly complicate international relations, and very probably cause innocent people to suffer and die, who will hold him accountable? Who does he answer to?"

Amen. I'm glad that someone with public visibility, like Charles, is asking these questions.

The New York Times, which is one of the newspapers publishing these documents, has redacted some of them, both on the grounds of protecting private citizens named in the documents whose lives might be threatened, and on the grounds of protecting American intelligence efforts.
The Times has withheld from articles and removed from documents it is posting online the names of some people who spoke privately to diplomats and might be at risk if they were publicly identified. The Times is also withholding some passages or entire cables whose disclosure could compromise American intelligence efforts.

Monday, November 22, 2010

SBL – an increasingly confessional Christian scholarly society?

Upon reflection about this year’s SBL annual meeting, aside from my own pleasant experiences of meeting friends and going to intellectually stimulating panel sessions, there were also things that bothered me about the conference. Ron Hendel, earlier this year, wrote a cri de coeur against what he saw as the increasingly confessional (especially conservative evangelical Protestant) and less critical approach to biblical scholarship at the SBL. (It was published in Biblical Archaeology Review and is available at his website for download - I was skeptical of his critique, because that was not how I experienced the SBL. I spend most of my time attending sessions organized on midrash, or early Jewish and Christian mysticism, Bible and Qur’an, early Jewish and Christian relations, and the like – and in these sessions scholars approach their research from the relevant critical perspectives. This year I noticed a marked difference – the increased presence of explicitly confessional panel sessions at the SBL, usually organized by outside groups. In the program book I noticed sessions organized by the Society for Pentecostal Studies, the Society of Christian Ethics, the Institute for Biblical Research (six total sessions), the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, the GOCN Forum on Missional Hermeneutics, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, and the Academy of Homiletics. The Academy of Homiletics held nine panels on Friday and two on Saturday.

The first meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research, their annual lecture and reception, was held on Friday evening. N.T. Wright, of the University of St. Andrews, gave the annual lecture, on “The Kingdom and the Cross,” which was preceded by “scripture reading and prayer,” led by Helene Dallaire of Denver Seminary. The reception was sponsored by the InterVarsity Press. If I had been interested in hearing Wright’s lecture, I would have been made very uncomfortable by the explicitly confessional nature of the session.

The group’s website ( describes its mission: “The Institute for Biblical Research, Incorporated (IBR) is an organization of evangelical Christian scholars with specialties in Old and New Testament and in ancillary disciplines. Its vision is to foster excellence in the pursuit of Biblical Studies within a faith environment. The achievement of this goal is sought primarily by organizing annual conferences, conducting seminars and workshops, and by sponsoring academic publications in the various fields of biblical research. IBR's conferences, seminars and workshops are open to the public and its publications are available for purchase.”

The Society for Pentecostal Studies sponsored four sessions. On Saturday, their 1:00 p.m. session was on “Charismatic perspectives on the Hebrew Bible.” Their Monday 9:00 am session was on “Pentecostal-Charismatic Hermeneutics.” The Monday 1:00 p.m. session was “Charismatic Perspectives on the New Testament.” Judging purely from the session titles, the point seemed to be to give an explicitly Pentecostal perspective on various biblical books – not from the perspective of one studying about Pentecostalism, but of people utilizing their own Pentecostal faith to interpret the Bible.

The group’s website ( describes its mission as follows: “The Society for Pentecostal Studies began in 1970 and is an organization of scholars dedicated to providing a forum of discussion for all academic disciplines as a spiritual service to the kingdom of God. The purpose of the society is to stimulate, encourage, recognize, and publicize the work of Pentecostal and charismatic scholars; to study the implications of Pentecostal theology in relation to other academic disciplines, seeking a Pentecostal world-and-life view; and to support fully, to the extent appropriate for an academic society, the statement of purposes of the World Pentecostal Fellowship.”

In addition to a number of sessions organized by confessional groups, the book display was dominated by presses presenting predominantly Christian perspectives, or university or trade publishers that sent only the books they appeared to think would appeal to people coming from a particular Christian perspective. There have always been a certain number of presses or other organization selling books and other materials from an explicitly confessional perspective, but the percentage (in my eyes) was higher than it had been before.

I am Jewish. Since I started going to AAR/SBL meetings as a graduate student in 1985, I have always felt welcomed at the SBL. My religious identity (or whether I had a religious identity at all) seemed irrelevant to the society of scholars who were interested in studying the Bible and other early Jewish and Christian religious texts together. I felt that I was joining a group of people who could speak and do critical research across differences of religious affiliation and practice. Perhaps I was naïve. The field of biblical studies has certainly been marred (and fatally damaged, some people might argue) by a wide variety of forms of prejudice and institutionalized discrimination. It has been used to foster even the most virulent forms of racism, as when Protestant biblical scholars in the Third Reich used the tools of scholarship to support the genocide of the Jews (see Susannah Heschel’s book, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany []).

Nonetheless, my experience of the SBL has been very positive. In the years that I have gone to the annual meetings I have seen Jews, Christians, people of other religions, and people without any religious belief or practice cooperating in the study of texts in a way that once would have been impossible. It was not necessary to be a Christian, or pretend to be one, in order to be an active participant in discussions at the SBL. Will this continue to be true? In my view, it is essential to the mission of the SBL to be a scholarly society where the religious commitment of scholars is irrelevant to their participation in any panel discussion at the annual meeting. I would be just as opposed to separate tracks of programming organized by a Jewish group that required a commitment to traditional Judaism as I am to the tracks of programming that now exist that appear to be limited to evangelical Protestants or Pentecostals. I think it is time for the SBL to dissociate itself from such groups and reaffirm its commitment to scriptural study beyond confessional boundaries.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

SBL Sunday November 21

Today was another pleasant day at the SBL. I went to the morning session of the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism section, and heard papers on merkabah elements in early Christian writings (Ascension of Isaiah and Hebrews), as well as a review of the new book by Bogdan Bucur, Angelomorphic Pneumatology: Clement of Alexandria and Other Early Christian Witnesses.

In the afternoon, in lieu of going to sessions, I went to the book display and got several expensive books from European publishers - Mohr Siebeck and Brill. It's still a wonder to me how university presses in the United States still manage to publish scholarly books that cost much less than these excellent European presses. I've published several articles in books from these presses, and their cost is always much too high to recommend to anyone to buy them. I also had a good time talking to a friend of mine about Jewish Studies and especially about the definition of the word "Jew" - at what historical point can we start speaking of "Jews" and not "Israelites"? We agreed between ourselves that the term becomes relevant - to refer to an ethnic-religious group - in the books of the Ezra-Nehemiah, specifically pointing to the returning exiles who go from Babylonia to the Persian sub-province of Yehud after the decree of Cyrus in 538 B.C.E. Obviously, others disagree, and argue that the term only really becomes meaningful in the time of the Maccabees in the second century B.C.E., or even later in the first century C.E. or afterwards.

In the evening, to the reception for Rachel Elior, to honor her with the presentation of a festschrift, edited by Andrei Orlov and Daphna Arbel, entitled With Letters of Light: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Jewish Apocalypticism, Magic, and Mysticism. I contributed an article to the volume, "'They revealed secrets to their wives': The Transmission of Magical Knowledge in 1 Enoch." The reception began with an introduction by Andrei and Daphna, and continued with greetings and appreciations by the other people attending the evening - many of whom had contributed to the festschrift. Rachel then thanked all of us and talked about how she had gotten interested in the connections between Hekhalot literature and the Qumran texts - when she discovered the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice in 1987 and began to read them together with the Hekhalot hymns. I didn't know the particular story of her learning about the Songs, but I do remember her Hekhalot seminar at the Hebrew University in the 1988-1989 academic year, when we spent quite a long time reading Qumran texts, and focused upon the Sabbath Songs.

After that reception some of us left and went to the JTS reception, which was marked by the presence of good kosher food - and plenty of it! (Always an important consideration at these convention receptions).

Tomorrow morning I'm heading back to Ithaca, and won't be going to any other SBL sessions, unfortunately. This has proven to be an enjoyable conference.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Today at the SBL

I went to a couple of interesting sessions at the SBL today - the first was the morning session of the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism section, which was a book review session. The first book reviewed was Peter Schäfer's The Origins of Jewish Mysticism. James Davila and Seth Sanders both spoke about it. I was supposed to be one of the reviewers, but I was really over-committed this semester and thus was unable to complete my review. I will, however, be writing a review to be published sometime next year. They both brought up interesting critical points - you can read all of Jim's review at his blog, PaleoJudaica (there's a link to a PDF of the review). Jim's critique focused on the lack of attention given by Schäfer to the ritual, instructional character of the Hekhalot texts, which he thinks is the way we should be reading them, rather than getting involved in the old fight over whether the texts describe mystical experiences or are literary, exegetical texts. Seth's reading focused on another point raised by Schäfer, on how the biblical book of Ezekiel should be understood - again, not as giving us access to the supposed ecstatic experience of Ezekiel which provides the basis of the book, but to certain linguistic features ("the hand of the Lord" upon Ezekiel) that indicate a pragmatic effect upon Ezekiel. I hope that Seth will say more about his interpretation on his blog, Serving the Word.

The second part of the EJCM session was a review of another book, The Spirit World in the Letters of Paul the Apostle, by Guy Williams. Charles Gieschen reviewed the book, and Williams responded.

This afternoon I went to a session of the Qur'an and Biblical Literature Section. I missed the first talk, by Herb Berg, on "Islamic origins and the nature of the early sources," but was there for the other papers, by Stephen Shoemaker, Vernon Robbins, Devin Stewart, and Gordon Newby, which were all very interesting. This is by no means my field, but I am very interested in it, especially the way in which the  Qur'an takes up earlier Jewish and Christian traditions (biblical as well as post-biblical) and re-uses/re-fashions them for its own theological/rhetorical agenda. Since I don't know Arabic, it's not going to be an area that I can do my own academic research in, but I like to follow what others are doing. If I have time I'll write more about each paper.

I'm now going to seize the moment and go to the book display. Tomorrow morning is another session of the EJCM, and tomorrow night there is a reception for Rachel Elior, with presentation of a festschrift to her.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Airport security - Israel & US

I just discovered, through reading Jeffrey Goldberg's blog, that the Shin Bet (the Israeli internal security agency) has a web site! Somehow, this seems contrary to the image I have that security agencies should be secret! If you're interested, here it is: The Israeli Security Agency.

Goldberg cited an interesting terrorism case that happened in 1986, of Anne-Marie Murphy, whose Jordanian boyfriend gave her a bomb to carry onto an El Al flight. She was six months pregnant (by him). If the bomb had blown up, almost 400 people would have been killed on the flight. I remember traveling to Israel a year or two after that and going through Israeli security. The security agent asked me if I knew why he was asking me all those questions - and then proceeded to tell me the Anne-Marie Murphy story.

Today I went through the security line in Ithaca, where fortunately they don't have one of the screening machines that can see under people's clothes. We did, of course, have to take off our shoes and put our baggies of containers holding less than 3 oz. of liquid in the bin. At least the TSA employees were polite.

Society of Biblical Literature - Atlanta

I'm sitting in the Ithaca-Tompkins airport, waiting to fly to Philadelphia for my flight to Atlanta for the annual SBL meeting. I'm attending a panel organized by the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism Section, which I'm looking forward to - among other things, we're reviewing Peter Schafer's new book on the origins of early Jewish mysticism. Seth Sanders and James Davila will be presenting. That session is Saturday morning - I hope we will have an audience!

I just got back on Tuesday from another conference, held at Princeton University, about the Hekhalot Literature - I'll write more about it later. My talk was on the role of women (or lack thereof) in the circles that produced the Hekhalot Literature.

I hope to do some more posts from the SBL, writing about sessions that I've attended.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Secret Justice Department report on U.S. help to former Nazis

The New York Times has just posted to its website a secret, 617-page report prepared by the Justice Department on how the U.S. government helped former Nazis, and then prosecuted many who had come to the U.S. under false pretenses. The Justice Department ordered that the report be made, but then suppressed it for four years. Someone just gave the Times the full report, which is available at: Secret Justice Department Report Details How the U.S. Helped Former Nazis.

There is an appendix to the report that gives information about 143 Nazi persecutors whom the Office of Special Investigations, formed in 1979 to investigate and deport Nazi war criminals, prosecuted and attempted to deport (in many cases succeeding).

I have extracted the reports on those accused of committing atrocities in Latvia and Estonia, and they are copied here.

Bogdanovs, Boleslavs
Born: 1917, Russia
Died: 1984, US

Alleged Persecutory Activity: Member of the "Arajs Kommando," a Latvian death squad responsible for mass execution of thousands of civilians in Nazi-occupied Latvia. The victims of the mass shootings were mostly Jewish, but also included political enemies (those believed to be Communists), gypsies and the mentally ill. The leader of the organization, Viktor Arajs, was convicted in West Germany for leading the unit in murdering more than 13,000 people.

Legal history: Denaturalization proceedings commenced in Nov. 1983. Bogdanovs died before the case was resolved.

Detlavs, Karlis
Born: 1911, Latvia
Died: 1983, US

Alleged Persecutory Activity: As a member of the Latvian Auxiliary Security Police, he executed Jews in the Riga ghetto and chose Jews for execution in the Dwinsk ghetto.

Legal History: Detlavs never became a U.S. citizen. INS filed a deportation action in 1976. An immigration judge rejected the government’s case in 1980 and that decision was affirmed on appeal the following year.

Didrichsons, Valdis
Born: 1913, Latvia
Died: 1995, U.S. A
Alleged Persecutory Activity: Member of the Arajs Kommando (see Bogdanovs).
Legal History: The government filed a denaturalization suit in May 1988. The case settled in Feb. 1990 with Didrichsons agreeing to relinquish his citizenship. Because he was ill, the U.S. agreed not to institute deportation proceedings.

Hazners, Vilis
Born: 1905, Latvia
Died: 1989, U.S.
Alleged Persecutory Activity: Selected Latvian Jews in the Dwinsk ghetto for execution.
Legal History: Hazners never became a U.S. citizen. A denaturalization action was filed by INS in Jan. 1977. The government’s claims were rejected in 1980 and OSI handled the appeal. The immigration judge’s decision was affirmed in 1981.

Inde, Edgars
Born: 1909, Latvia
Died: 1980, U.S.
Alleged Persecutory Activity: Member of the Arajs Kommando (see Bogdanovs)
Legal History: The government filed a denaturalization suit in Aug. 1988. Inde died before the court issued a ruling. [RL: There’s obviously an error in dates here].

Kalejs, Konrads.
Born: 1913, Latvia
Died: 2001, Australia
Alleged Persecutory Activity: Officer in the Arajs Kommando (see Bogdanovs) and a guard supervisor at the Salaspils concentration camp near Riga, Latvia.
Legal History: Kalejs never became a U.S. citizen. A deportation action was filed in Nov. 1984 and he was ordered deported to Australia in Nov. 1988. His appeals were exhausted in Mar. 1994 and he was deported the following month. See pp. 469-478,493.

Kaklins, Talivaldis
Born: 1914, Latvia
Died: 1983, U.S.
Alleged Persecutory Activity: Member of Latvian District Police and director of the Madona concentration camp in Latvia. As a member of the District Police, he participated in two mass executions of hundreds of Jews and Soviet activists.
Legal History: A denaturalization case was filed in 1981. It was pending when he died.

Kauls, Juris
Born: 1912, Latvia
Alleged Persecutory Activity: Deputy chief and Commander of the guards at a Nazi concentration camp near Riga, Latvia
Legal History: A denaturalization case was filed in 1984. Kauls left for Germany in 1988 while the case was still pending. The court entered a default judgment of denaturalization.

Kirsteins, Mikelis
Born: 1916, Russia
Died: 1994, U.S.
Alleged Persecutory Activity: Member of the Arajs Kommando (see Bogdanovs)
Legal History: A denaturalization case was filed in July 1987. The case settled in Dec. 1991, with Kirsteins relinquishing his citizenship and the U.S. agreeing not to file a deportation action unless the defendant's medical condition improved.

Laipenieks, Edgars
Born: 1913, Latvia
Died: 1998, U.S.
Alleged Persecutory Activity: Member of the Latvian Political Police which pursued Jews and Communists.
Legal History: Laipenieks never became a U.S. citizen. A deportation case was filed in June 1981. The government lost; the decision was reversed on appeal, and then reversed again. See pp. 117-126.

Linnas, Karl
Born: 1919, Estonia
Died: 1987, U.S.S.R.
Alleged Persecutory Activity: Chief of concentration camp in Tartu, Estonia
Legal History: Denaturalization proceedings commenced in Nov. 1979. Linnas' citizenship was revoked in June 1981 and his appeals were exhausted in Oct. 1982. A deportation action was filed in June 1982 and Linnas was ordered deported in May 1983. Appeals were exhausted in Apr. 1987 at which time he was deported to the U.S.S.R. See pp. 273-297.

Maikovskis, Boleslavs*
Born: 1904, Latvia
Died: 1996, Germany
Alleged Persecutory Activity: Latvian chief of police who participated in the arrest of civilians and the burning of their dwellings.
Legal History: Maikovskis never became a U.S. citizen. INS filed a deportation case in Oct. 1976. Maikovskis was ordered deported to Switzerland in Aug. 1984. Switzerland would not allow him entry and OSI asked the court to modify its order to designate the U.S.S.R. In Oct. 1987, while that request was pending, Maikovskis left for West Germany. In 1988, Germany charged him with war crimes. His trial was suspended due to the defendant's ill health. See pp. 430, 433-434.

Sprogis, Elmars
Born: 1914, Latvia
Died: 1991, U.S.
Alleged Persecutory Activity: Assistant Chief of Police in Gulbene, Latvia. He was involved in the arrest, transportation, and confiscation of property from nine Jews, the transportation of 100 to 150 Jews to the site of their execution, and the appropriation of furniture from the houses of arested Jews. Legal History: A denaturalization complaint was filed in June 1982. The government lost the case both in the district court and on appeal. See pp. 101-105.

Trucis, Arnolds
Born: 1909, Latvia
Died: 1981, U.S.
Alleged persecutory activity: Member of the Latvian Auxiliary Police and the Security Service of the SS which guarded and beat Jewish civilians.
Legal History: A denaturalization action was filed in June 1980. Trucis died before the matter was resolved.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Lazar Gulkowitsch

Last summer, at the international SBL in Tartu, Estonia, I went to a really interesting presentation by Anu Pöldsam of the University of Tartu. She presented on Lazar Gulkowitsch, who had had a chair in Jewish Studies at the University of Tartu from 1934 to 1941 (when he was killed by the Nazis). I finally wrote up my notes of her talk.
She started by talking about the historical situation in Estonia at the time. Estonia became an independent nation after WWI. In 1924 Estonia granted rights to minorities for independent status, and in 1926 cultural autonomy was granted to the Jewish community in Estonia.

In 1929 a society to promote Jewish Studies was established at Tartu University. The first goal was to educate Jews, but it got support from the theological faculty, the rector of Tartu University, and from other Jewish scholars outside the university.

In 1934 a chair, supported by the Jewish community, was established in Philosophy at the University of Tartu. Lazar Gulkowitsch was appointed to the position.

Lazar Gulkowitsch was a scholar who followed the methods and philosophy of the Wissenschaft des Judentums. For his position at Tartu, he was recommended by Christian scholars in Germany.

He was born in 1898 in Shirin (Belorus) and studied at the Mir Yeshiva. In 1919 he studied at the University of Königsberg, where he received his Ph.D. He worked on Kabbalah for his thesis. In 1924 he was invited to Leipzig, where he lectured on Hebrew and Aramaic studies. He also continued to study at Leipzig. In 1927 he received his habilitation in Hasidism. In 1932 he was named a professor of Judaism at Leipzig, but in 1933 he was dismissed because of the Nazi racial laws.

In 1934 he went to Tartu. There were 25 students there from Estonia and Latvia. Some rabbinical students came as well for a Ph.D. in Hebrew literature. He gave guest lectures in the United States and Sweden after he got Estonian citizenship in 1937.

In 1941 he was killed by the Nazis (after the Nazi invasion in the summer of that year). He had many publications and five unpublished manuscripts. (One of his published books was Der Hasid).

In 1938 he wrote about his scholarly program. He was interested in the history of ideas – rational and mystical approaches, with an emphasis on language. He was a philologist, also interested in the philosophy of language and culture. He wrote on the formation of abstract terms in Hebrew. The term חסיד was among the central terms of Jewish culture. He covered its appearance in all aspects of Jewish literature. He thoroughly researched Hasidism, relying on texts. Discussed the peak, the ideal of Hasidism. He studied cultural-hasidic phenomena and the sociological structure of Hasidism. He had a holistic approach to it – history, language, culture, and social sciences.

Why was he forgotten?
Gershom Scholem discussed Gulkowitsch in his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. He found his approach too rational (Scholem was very critical of the rationalistic Wissenschaft des Judentums). But Scholem didn’t know Gulkowitsch’s later work in Tartu, because Gulkowitsch was isolated in Tartu until 1937 (when he gained Estonian citizenship and could then leave the country to give lectures elsewhere). He had almost no audience in Estonia. There was a lack of research resources because of financial difficulties. Also a shift from focus on the essence of Judaism to emphasis on the Jew and his life.

He might have tried to find a position in Leningrad before the German invasion. There is a story that he went to the train station with his family to go to the Soviet Union at the last moment, but then turned back and didn’t go.
I just did a Google search for Gulkowitsch and turned up an interesting article about him, written by another scholar at the University of Tartu - Urmas Nommik, in a journal called Trames: Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences (2006), which is published at Tartu. It can be read via Google Books at Trames. The title of the article is "Lazar Gulkowitsch: Relations between the Rational and the Mystical."

The abstract for another article on Gulkowitsch in the journal Akadeemia 7/2008 can be found at a website called Eurozine. This article was written by Isidor Levin.

In 2007 there was a conference on Gulkowitsch at the University of Tartu entitled: "Jewish Studies in Tartu: Lazar Gulkowitsch and his Seminarium Litterarum Judaearum Tartuensis (a Memory for the Future)." A short description of the subject of the conference:
More than 70 years are past, since Lazar Gulkowitsch, having studied and worked in Koenigsberg and Leipzig, driven out of Leipzig in 1933, came to Tartu and began to build up his institute for Jewish Studies. When only few years were granted for this institution - it was closed by the Soviet authorities and Gulkowitsch himself was executed soon after the occupation of Tartu by Nazis. It has still its special place in the history of not only the University of Tartu, but also of the Jewish Studies. We have to remind this work and make it fruitful for the future, we have to discuss, how this work begun by Gulkowitsch and his students can be carried on today.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Monday, November 08, 2010

Kristallnacht - 72 years ago

Modernity Blog posted a Youtube video about Kristallnacht, so I thought I would say something about it as well. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum has information about it: Kristallnacht: The November 1938 Pogroms.

Tomorrow night, Dr. Susannah Heschel will be speaking at Ithaca College on "The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theology and Nazi Racism." This is the subject of her talk: "During the Third Reich, German Protestant theologians, motivated by racism and tapping into traditional Christian anti-Semitism, redefined Jesus as an Aryan and Christianity as a religion at war with Judaism. The surprisingly large number of distinguished professors, younger scholars and students who became involved in the effort to synthesize Nazism and Christianity should be seen not simply as a response to political developments, nor simply as an outgrowth of struggles within the field of Christian theology, but as suggesting underlying affinities between racism and Christian theology, affinities they recognized and promoted."

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Yad Vashem - Untold Stories of the Murder Sites in the Occupied USSR

I just came across a New York Times article published last year about new research being done at Yad Vashem on lesser-known killing fields in the Holocaust: "New Looks at the Fields of Death for Jews" (April 19, 2009). One report about Liepaja is from a German sailor who filmed the killings at Skede.
One little-known case comes from a German sailor who filmed killings in Liepaja, Latvia. The film has been on view for some years at the Yad Vashem museum. But the new Web site has a forgotten video of a 1981 interview with the sailor, Reinhard Wiener, who said he had been a bystander with a movie camera.
According to part of his account, “After the civilian guards with the yellow armbands shouted once again, I was able to identify them as Latvian home guardsmen. The Jews, whom I was able to recognize by now, were forced to jump over the sides of the truck onto the ground. Among them were crippled and weak people, who were caught by the others.

“At first, they had to line up in a row, before they were chased toward the trench. This was done by SS and Latvian home guardsmen. Then the Jews were forced to jump into the trench and to run along inside it until the end. They had to stand with their back to the firing squad. At that time, the moment they saw the trench, they probably knew what would happen to them. They must have felt it, because underneath there was already a layer of corpses, over which was spread a thin layer of sand.
Yad Vashem has created a website devoted to this topic - the Untold Stories. There are several pages devoted to what happened in Liepaja.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Fascists Still Want to Kill Jews - Al Qaeda bomb plot

As Shiraz Socialist says, Fascists still want to kill Jews. The Al Qaeda plot to bomb two synagogues in Chicago is unnerving - although fortunately only that, since the bombs were found on cargo planes a long way away from Chicago.

One of the targeted synagogues is a GLBT synagogue, Congregation Or Chadash. It's certainly not the biggest or most prominent synagogue in Chicago, so I wonder how or why it was picked. Did someone in Al Qaeda in Yemen used to live in Chicago? (Anwar al-Awlaki, who is one of the leaders of Al Qaeda in Yemen, is an American and used to live in the Washington area; his side-kick is Samir Khan who is also an American).

Some bizarre articles have come out about this in the Jewish press online already. Lee Smith published an odd one in Tablet whose point I really cannot figure out (it seems to be blaming President Obama for doing something bad - but since all the president has done is to work as hard as possible against this threat, I don't understand what he's done wrong). And the Yeshiva World website headlined their story "Bomb was addressed to Chicago 'Toeiva Synagogue.'" This is an ultra-Orthodox website that apparently cannot bring itself to utter the word "gay." (The word "toeiva" means "abomination"). Disgusting.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Jerusalem 1918

For those who haven't seen it - a Youtube video of Jerusalem in 1918, just at the beginning of the British mandate.

It's from the Youtube channel of Yakov Gross, who says that it's from a Jewish family in Amsterdam.

Hat tip to Miriam Shaviv at Bloghead. It's nice to discover her blog again - I used to read her, but she seemed to have left the blogging world for a while.

Friday, October 22, 2010

More Google Earth images of Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif

I discovered a few days ago that someone has created a wonderful overlay on the Temple Mount of the Dome of the Rock, the Al Aqsa Mosque, and many of the smaller buildings on the mount, as well as the trees. It's also possible to go inside the Dome of the Rock and see the building from that perspective as well.

It Gets Better

Ithaca College participated in the "It Gets Better" campaign initiated by Dan Savage, and I was one of the people who volunteered to appear in the Youtube video. The Trevor Project works against the epidemic of suicides by young LGBT people, which is much higher than among heterosexual youth. I participated in the project because of a series of recent suicides, some of them provoked by anti-gay bullying, and also because of the horrible gay-bashing hate crime that just occurred in New York City, where a gang called the "Latin King Goonies" set upon and tortured three gay men.

Hillary Clinton and President Obama have also just made videos for the "It Gets Better" campaign: ClintonObama - It Gets Better.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Carl Paladino: our homophobic gubernatorial candidate

Carl Paladino, the rich nutcase who is running on the Republican ticket for governor in New York, just blasted forth some more hate speech - this time about gay people. He was addressing an Orthodox Jewish audience at Congregation Shaarei Chaim in Brooklyn (source: Paladino Attacks Gays in Brooklyn Speech).
“I just think my children and your children would be much better off and much more successful getting married and raising a family, and I don’t want them brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option — it isn’t,” he said, reading from a prepared address.
And then, to applause at Congregation Shaarei Chaim, he said: “I didn’t march in the gay parade this year — the gay pride parade this year. My opponent did, and that’s not the example we should be showing our children.” reported that Mr. Paladino’s prepared text had included the sentence: “There is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual.” But Mr. Paladino omitted the sentence in his speech.
One of the rabbis accompanying Paladino is named Yechezkel Roth, who is quoted on the "Jews Against Zionism" site with virulently anti-Zionist remarks (in Hebrew) on this page: Jews Against Zionism. Rabbi Roth also participated in a demonstration this summer in New York against the building of a new emergency room for the hospital in Ashkelon (on the pretext that it was being built on a Jewish graveyard from late antiquity, which it isn't - the archaeological remains clearly show it was a non-Jewish cemetery because a pagan temple was also found there). See VosIzNeias for a photo of him at the demonstration: Anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidim Protest.

Is this a man that Carl Paladino really wants to be associated with? It certainly won't endear him to the New York Jewish community, which is mostly quite Zionist.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Another gay teenager commits suicide

When is the hatred going to end?

Pam's House Blend: Oklahoma: 19-year-old commits suicide after week of 'toxic' comments

We have a long way to go

BBC News - Serb anti-gay protesters attack political party offices
The BBC's Mark Lowen: "It has got very nasty"
Serbian police have clashed with protesters trying to disrupt a Gay Pride parade in the capital, Belgrade.Police used tear gas against the rioters, who threw petrol bombs and stones at armed officers and tried to break through a security cordon. A garage attached to the headquarters of the ruling Democratic Party was briefly set on fire, and at least one shot was fired at the building. At least 50 people were injured, most reported to be police officers. A number of people were arrested.
This was the first Gay Pride parade in Serbia since a march in 2001 was broken up in violent clashes provoked by far-right extremists. While the Gay Pride parade was moving though the city, several hundred protesters began chanting at those taking part as they tried to get close to the march.
"The hunt has begun," the AFP news agency reported them as saying. "Death to homosexuals." Reports told of gangs of skinheads roaming the streets, throwing petrol bombs and setting off firecrackers as police battled to hold them back.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

When does anti-Zionism become anti-semitism?

Excellent article on "when anti-Zionism becomes anti-semitism" in Shiraz Socialist.
“Absolute anti-Zionism” can be summed up as as a one-sided hostility to Zionism (ie: Jewish nationalism) that willfully refuses to place it in its proper historical context (the pogroms, persecution and genocide of the last century), that whitewashes bourgeoise Arab nationalism and reactionary, fascistic Islamism, applies double-standards to Israel and ultimately winds up denying Israel’s right to exist, even behind pre-1967 borders.... 
What needs to be spelled out plainly is that this sort of stuff is anti-semitism, pure and simple. The fact that the people putting it about regard themselves as “left wing” is neither here nor there. [Dan] Glazebook (book reviewer for the Morning Star, the British newspaper of the Communist Party of Britain], significantly, also writes in what is probably the world’s leading “left” anti-semitic publication, the US magazine Counterpunch. In fact, the roots of this type of “left wing” anti-semitism are in Stalinism and the Stalinist bureaucracy’s campaigns against “Zionism” from the 1930′s through the 1952-3 “Doctors’ Plot” in the USSR and the ”anti-Zionist” campaign in Poland in 1967-68
In fact, given their political tradition’s foul history of promoting the “Socialism of fools“, Mr Haylett and his Stalinist colleagues really aught to be more careful about their pandering to ‘absolute anti-Zionism’: or, as it is more properly called: “left wing” anti-semitism.
Good comment also:
We could call it the anti-zionism of fools, but that sounds too mild, too much like the criticism of a few blameless ignorants. They aren’t blameless and they aren’t ignorant. They are racist scoundrels. And they have infected the left with a disease that should have died in 1945, certainly by March 5, 1953.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Why are Muslims being scapegoated?

What is happening to my country? One of the things that I was proud of after the 9/11 attacks was that Muslims in this country were not targeted by the U.S. government and that despite an increase in hate crimes against Muslims in the following year, there was not generally an upsurge of hatred against Muslims. I am sure that it was uncomfortable for Muslims then - I have certainly heard and read stories that do not shed a good light on the tolerance and acceptance of America for Muslims - but there was nothing like the groundswell of open hatred that has happened this year. No one was threatening to burn Qur'ans in the wake of 9/11. President Bush made a conspicuous point of saying that we should not blame all Muslims for the actions of a few. The Republican Party did not scapegoat Muslims en masse - perhaps because of the President's strongly expressed views.

Now, we have leaders of the Republican Party (for example, Newt Gingrich) openly engaging in anti-Muslim demagoguery that reminds me of the rhetoric historically used against Jews by anti-Semites. The former President Bush has not spoken up to reprove members of his party.

And ordinary Muslims and people from the Middle East are being turned into scapegoats for no reason whatsoever - as if they are to blame for all of the ills in American society.

The New York Times today published a very affecting article about the Muslim prayer room that used to exist at the World Trade Center before the 9/11 attacks: Muslim Prayer Room Was Part of Life at Twin Towers.
Given the vitriolic opposition now to the proposal to build a Muslim community center two blocks from ground zero, one might say something else has been destroyed: the realization that Muslim people and the Muslim religion were part of the life of the World Trade Center.

Opponents of the Park51 project say the presence of a Muslim center dishonors the victims of the Islamic extremists who flew two jets into the towers. Yet not only were Muslims peacefully worshiping in the twin towers long before the attacks, but even after the 1993 bombing of one tower by a Muslim radical, Ramzi Yousef, their religious observance generated no opposition

“We weren’t aliens,” Mr. Abdus-Salaam, 60, said in a telephone interview from Florida, where he moved in retirement. “We had a foothold there. You’d walk into the elevator in the morning and say, ‘Salaam aleikum,’ to one construction worker and five more guys in suits would answer, ‘Aleikum salaam.’ ”

One of those men in suits could have been Zafar Sareshwala, a financial executive for the Parsoli Corporation, who went to the prayer room while on business trips from his London office. He was introduced to it, he recently recalled, by a Manhattan investment banker who happened to be Jewish.

“It was so freeing and so calm,” Mr. Sareshwala, 47, said in a phone conversation from Mumbai, where he is now based. “It had the feel of a real mosque. And the best part is that you are in the epicenter of capitalism — New York City, the World Trade Center — and you had this island of spiritualism. I don’t think you could have that combination anywhere in the world.”

Moreover, the prayer room was not the only example of Muslim religious practice in or near the trade center. About three dozen Muslim staff members of Windows on the World, the restaurant atop the north tower, used a stairwell between the 106th and 107th floors for their daily prayers.

Without enough time to walk to the closest mosque — Masjid Manhattan on Warren Street, about four blocks away — the waiters, chefs, banquet managers and others would lay a tablecloth atop the concrete landing in the stairwell and flatten cardboard boxes from food deliveries to serve as prayer mats.

During Ramadan, the Muslim employees brought their favorite foods from home, and at the end of the daylight fast shared their iftar meal in the restaurant’s employee cafeteria.

Iftar was my best memory,” said Sekou Siby, 45, a chef originally from the Ivory Coast. “It was really special.”

Such memories have been overtaken, though, by others. Mr. Siby’s cousin and roommate, a chef named Abdoul-Karim Traoré, died at Windows on the World on Sept. 11, as did at least one other Muslim staff member, a banquet server named Shabir Ahmed from Bangladesh.

Fekkak Mamdouh, an immigrant from Morocco who was head waiter, attended a worship service just weeks after the attacks that honored the estimated 60 Muslims who died. Far from being viewed as objectionable, the service was conducted with formal support from city, state and federal authorities, who arranged for buses to transport imams and mourners to Warren Street.

There, within sight of the ruins, they chanted salat al-Ghaib, the funeral prayer when there is not an intact corpse.

“It is a shame, shame, shame,” Mr. Mamdouh, 49, said of the Park51 dispute. “Sometimes I wake up and think, this is not what I came to America for. I came here to build this country together. People are using this issue for their own agenda. It’s designed to keep the hate going.”

The people quoted in this article are good, honest people who deserve to live as securely as anyone else of any religion in this country. Why can't they?

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Sima Schlossberg and her family in Jelgava

I just found another resource to research the Jews of Latvia - the Latvian Names Project. It is an attempt to do for all of the Jews of Latvia what Edward Anders and his co-workers were able to do for Liepaja - identify the fates of Jews who lived in Latvia before the Second World War. In 1935 the Latvian census recorded 93,479 Jews living in Latvia.

I looked up the name of my relative from Jelgava, Latvia - Sima Schlossberg. She came up on the list, and so did the names of her family - names that she doesn't refer to in her letters to my grandfather. Her sister's name was Miriam, and she was born on August 5, 1909. Sima herself was born on November 27, 1911. Their parents' names were Itzik Ruben and Esther Raschel. Only the possible fate of Miriam Schlossberg is mentioned - in the Riga Ghetto.

Looking back in correspondence from March and April of 2004 (with Miriam's daughter and with a cousin of Sima's), I discover, however, that I do know the fates of the people in the family. Sima escaped from Riga in 1941 with her parents first to Russia and then to Uzbekistan. Her sister Miriam was already living there because she had fled earlier. Sima's father Itzik died in 1942 from hunger. The two sisters and their mother survived the war. In 1942, Miriam married a man named Mikhail Golod, and her daughter was born in 1943 in Bukhara. They returned to Riga in 1945. Sima worked as a bookkeeper, and in 1955 was married to a man named Nohum Bruk and moved with him to St. Petersburg. She died there in 1988, leaving no children behind. Miriam died in 1980 and her mother Esther Raschel died in 1984 at the age of 100.

I'm going to have to write to the Latvian Names Project and give them information on all of these people.

Websites on journeys to Liepaja

A number of other people have made a similar journey to Liepaja to see where their ancestors lived. I just found a website created by Arturo and Marc Porzecanski about their visit to Liepaja (among other places in eastern Europe) in 2002: Our trip. The direct link to the page on Liepaja is: Our Trip to Liepaja.

Brian Friedman created the Welcome to Avaslan website about his family in eastern Europe, including Liepaja. Like me and the Porzecanskis, he found the house where his relatives in Liepaja had lived. He also has a page on the Killing Fields of Skede and photographs of the memorials there.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Are we losing our minds over Cordoba House?

Good grief! What is happening to this country? Howard Dean, of all people, says that Cordoba House should be built somewhere else. First Harry Reid and now Howard Dean. Have they lost their minds? This is nothing but the rankest political cynicism on their part. It seems that we have to rely on Republicans like Michael Bloomberg and Ted Olson to uphold any honor for this country. (And remember - Ted Olson lost his wife on the plane that hit the Pentagon on 9/11/01).

For a concurring opinion, see Peter Beinart, America has disgraced itself.

See also Michael Kinsley, Cordoba House, Charles Krauthammer, and the First Amendment.

He writes:
Muslim American citizens have a constitutional right to build a religious and cultural center anywhere in this country that Christians or Jews may build one. This is so clear and obvious that opponents of the planned Muslim center near Ground Zero usually concede or avoid the point. Then they say that the center should not be built at this location anyway. I guess they mean that these Muslims should give up their right voluntarily--or under duress.

And why do they say this? Well, the two obvious possibilities are bigotry and political opportunism. Maybe they associate this Muslim center with the perpetrators of 9/11. That would be bigotry, since the only real connection is that both are Islamic. Or maybe, in the case of Republican politicians and right-wing commentators, it is simply a matter of taking advantage of a political opportunity that has fallen into their laps.

Both of these reasons are fairly unattractive. Is there any reason to oppose the mosque that isn't bigoted, or demagogic, or unconstitutional? None that I've heard or read.

I also heard a good interview today with Irwin Kula at Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! (I am generally not a fan of Amy Goodman, but she sometimes has really good interviews with people the mainstream press doesn't pay attention to). He's a rabbi who is the head of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, also known as Clal. Here are some of his words:
RABBI IRWIN KULA: ....But I actually think the distinction between the right to build and the wisdom to build is a very, very, very dangerous distinction. It actually is pernicious, in a way. And I would have liked the President to say something like this: "I reject the premises of the question, because I know where that question is coming from. That question is coming from already a premise that there are these terrorists and these American Muslims, and they’re equivalent. And therefore, you’re asking me about the wisdom of American Muslims, who have been in New York for a long time in a mosque that was twenty—that was within twelve blocks for the last twenty-seven years. And the very fact of the question of the wisdom is actually to presume suspicion. And so, I reject the question. There’s only two—there’s only one wisdom I care about: the wisdom of the Constitution, I care about, and the wisdom of distinguishing between our genuine enemies and American citizens."

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rabbi Kula, let me ask you about the statement of the Anti-Defamation League. It published a statement opposing the Park51 project, saying, quote, "Ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment," they said, "building an Islamic center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right." The ADL national director Abraham Foxman later defended this position on CNN.

    ABRAHAM FOXMAN: Our position basically was an appeal to the imam and his supporters. If you want to heal, if you want to reconcile, is this the best place to do it? Should you do it in face—in the face of those who are saying to you, most of the victims, families of the victims, the responders, are saying, "Please don’t do it here. Please don’t do it in our cemetery." I believe, on this issue, the voices, the feelings, the emotions of the families of the victims of the responders, I think take precedent maybe over even the Mayor’s.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League. Rabbi Kula, your response?

RABBI IRWIN KULA: I mean, I’m just deeply disappointed, and I was, you know, quoted as saying I think the ADL should be ashamed of itself. I think the sad thing here is that Abe Foxman, since 9/11, has been one of the most important advocates to ensure that there was not defamation and not prejudice for Muslims, and the shame here is that he actually knows Daisy and knows Imam Feisal for a long time. And so, what I think what we really have here is tremendous political pressure.

AMY GOODMAN: And Daisy is Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Feisal—

RABBI IRWIN KULA: And Daisy Khan, I’m sorry, yeah, the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. And what we have here is tremendous political pressure. And I’m sure the stories are going to come out in the next months of the kinds of pressures that were put on somebody like Abe. And you can see the torturous kinds of statement that he had to make about the feelings, I mean, which—anguish, and I think we need to say something, that the anguish of people does not automatically translate into public policy. And sometimes anguish and really, really personal suffering needs to be disconnected from public policy, because anguish doesn’t allow us to abandon rationality. Anguish doesn’t allow us to abandon kind of first principles about what our country stands for.

And I had two friends who died in the World Trade Center. I was very involved in this for a long time. And to be able to use the sensitivities of people to really—to really stoke fear, there’s something very cynical about that. And there isn’t such a thing as the sensitivities of 9/11 families. There are a lot of different 9/11 families, and there are not only 9/11 families who lost directly people, but there are 9/11 families who were forced out of their homes for years in the neighborhood. So, what do we mean by the "the feelings of 9/11 families"? These are abstractions used to actually stoke fear in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about Imam Rauf, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is headed, by the way, on a State Department mission for two weeks to the Middle East.... How do you know him?

RABBI IRWIN KULA: Well, kind of in the interfaith work that we’ve been doing over the last decade. I was one of the readers of his book, What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision of Muslims in America. We were in Australia recently, at the World Parliament of World Religions. You know, in the interfaith world, there aren’t that many people working at the cutting edge of interfaith. That is what’s so crazy about this story. Imam Feisal has been at the cutting edge of whatever we mean by "moderate Islam." I mean, those words weren’t even used until very, very recently. This is a guy who, well before 9/11, he had two books that are very, very important—Islam: A Search for Meaning and Islam: A Sacred Law. These are things that people need to read. And it’s so easy to take one comment out of context. Any of us who have been in the media, any one of us who have been interviewed, you can take a statement and turn someone into a radical and turn someone into a terrorist. This guy has been at the highest echelons—State Department, FBI. He has spoken in the Aspen Institute. He’s spoken in Washington Cathedral. This is—I mean, it’s really crazy.

And that’s another part of the story that’s very scary. I mean, the community board, before anything, voted this 15-0. There was an amazing conversation. In fact, there was a request from—of Daisy Khan: Could you put a 9/11 memorial inside of the—of what is now Park51? And he said, "Of course. We’re planning on doing that." And it was—this got stoked by a very small group of people, and then—what I would say is an irresponsible national leadership, whether it’s Gingrich and Palin, and then a certain element of the media. And what’s very scary is, what was a local issue that was—that was a non-issue. This is a group of people, led by Imam Feisal, that has been ten blocks from there for the last twenty-seven years. This is a complete non-issue. And so, what it really says is, what’s going on in America?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

What makes a place holy?

Charles Krauthammer begins his column decrying the building of the Cordoba House Islamic cultural center two blocks from the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan with these words:
A place is made sacred by a widespread belief that it was visited by the miraculous or the transcendent (Lourdes, the Temple Mount), by the presence there once of great nobility and sacrifice (Gettysburg), or by the blood of martyrs and the indescribable suffering of the innocent (Auschwitz).
When we speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground, what we mean is that it belongs to those who suffered and died there -- and that such ownership obliges us, the living, to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized or misappropriated.
I understand why a place that people believe was "visited by the miraculous or the transcendent" is considered holy - Krauthammer might have given the example of the Ka'ba in Mecca as well - but why does the shedding of blood visit sanctity upon a place? He conflates several different circumstances here.

Gettysburg is the site of a historic battle of the American Civil War - those who died there were soldiers fighting for a cause they believed in. Thousands died in the fighting. For Krauthammer, and probably for many Americans, the place is made holy by the nobility and sacrifice of the soldiers who died there. But are all battlegrounds sacred? What about the battlegrounds of the First World War? Guadalcanal? The Ardennes Forest (where the Battle of the Bulge was fought)? Khe Sanh? Fallujah? The battlegrounds where Iranians and Iraqis fought each other in the 1980s?

Were those who died at Auschwitz martyrs? Emil Fackenheim has argued that before the Nazi assault upon Jews, Jewish martyrdom was something that could be chosen. Jews in the Middle Ages who were confronted with the choice of converting to Christianity or being killed, and chose to die, were in fact martyrs, witnessing to their devotion to God. (The English word martyr, taken from the Greek, originally referred to a witness).

But the Jews who were taken to Auschwitz were not confronted with any kind of a choice - they were killed. Nothing a Jew could do could dissuade the Nazis from killing him or her, since the Nazis thought of Jewishness as a racial, not a religious identity. Jews who had converted to Christianity were killed as Jews at Auschwitz (and other death camps). This is why Edith Stein died there, even though she had converted to Christianity and become a nun. Catholics regard her as a martyr for her faith, but I don't think many Jews would.

Krauthammer also says that Auschwitz was sanctified by the "indescribable suffering of the innocent." I certainly think it is more accurate to call those who died there innocent victims, rather than martyrs, since they had no choice about their fate.

And he also says that the World Trade Center site is "hallowed ground" because of the suffering and death of the victim on September 11, 2001. Again, these people were offered no choice - Osama bin Laden did not appear before them and give them the choice of martyrdom or conversion to Islam. They too were innocent victims.

So Krauthammer, and probably many other people, would consider the Gettysburg battleground, Auschwitz (and other concentration and death camps), and Ground Zero "hallowed ground" because of the deaths that occurred in those places.

But can death sanctify a place? In Jewish tradition, death is the greatest source of impurity. If one touches a dead human body, or enters a house or other enclosed space where there is a body, one becomes impure. In biblical times, this meant that the impure person could not offer a sacrifice in the Temple, or even enter the area of the Temple. According to the Torah, the ashes of the red heifer are needed to purify people from the taint of death. And since we no longer possess those ashes, we are all tainted with the impurity of the dead. There are still vestiges of this belief in Jewish ritual practices. Men who are kohanim generally do not enter graveyards. After visiting a graveyard, people will wash their hands. Jews place graveyards outside cities or other areas where people live. The fact that we are tainted with the impurity of the dead means, to many religious Jews, that we should not set foot on the Temple Mount, in accordance with the purity laws of the Torah, which state that the area is still holy.

Auschwitz, the other death camps, and many other places in Europe once occupied by the Nazis are full of mass graves of Jews and others murdered by the Nazis. Many of these places have, in fact, been forgotten. During the Soviet era, in the USSR, their character was distorted by Soviet memorial practices, which did not mention Jews as victims even when all or a majority were in fact Jews.

If the location of a mass grave has been suppressed or forgotten or distorted, is it still sacred ground? How would we know that it was sacred? Krauthammer says that Ground Zero is "hallowed ground" because it "belongs to those who suffered and died there." In this formulation, a forgotten mass grave somewhere in eastern Europe is hallowed ground because it belongs to those who died there. But how would the rest of us know this, if the memory has been lost?

This is something that has bothered me for a long time. It has always seemed to me that it would be right and proper that such a place - a mass grave, the site of a concentration camp or a massacre, places where great suffering and death have occurred - would announce itself, even if we did not know what happened there, so that when we came upon it we would know that something evil had happened there, that the land itself would be marked by a psychic scar perceptible to human beings who pass by. But this is not true. When people do not know that a particular place was where a massacre happened, or that a mass grave is located there, or that once there stood a concentration camp - the land itself does not cry out to us. Unlike the biblical story of Cain, the voice of our brothers' and sisters' blood does not cry out to us from the ground. A place cries out to us only when we know what happened there and mark it as a site of death.

But does mass death caused by great human evil make a place holy? When I think of what happened at the Skede dunes north of Liepaja, Latvia, along the Baltic Sea, it is hard for me to consider this place holy. For me, it is cursed. (Again, this is a human perception, since the ground itself does not cry out to us). What the Nazis and their collaborators did there (and in many other places) to innocent people are among the most dreadful things that human beings have ever done to other people. As Krauthammer says, the suffering of those who died there is indescribable. How could the wicked actions of the perpetrators or the horrible suffering of the innocent make this place holy?

When I was there a couple of weeks ago, I didn't know exactly where the mass graves are, nor does the monument there specify where they are (unlike the memorial at the Rumbula Forest in Riga). The place itself did not speak to me, only the inherited knowledge of what happened there, which has been preserved in human memory.

So is Ground Zero holy ground? Is it hallowed by the suffering and deaths of the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack? Or is it cursed by the evil of the actions committed by the Al Qaeda hijackers? The answer depends upon one's notion of what makes a place holy. And what should then happen is determined by what one thinks is appropriate to a holy or a cursed place.

For me, the Islamic center that Imam Rauf proposes to build two blocks from the World Trade Center site does not violate the sanctity of Ground Zero - if in fact it is a holy place, sanctified by the deaths of the victims of the attacks. Aside from the constitutional question of whether the government has any right to prevent an Islamic center from being built there (which it does not, as long as it accords with the zoning regulations of New York City), the place that he proposes to build is intended to build bridges among people of different religions, not separate them or incite further hatred. It seems to me that Cordoba House is exactly the kind of center that should be built close to Ground Zero - because what we need to learn is how to live together with each other in peace.