Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Flotilla, Zionism and Diaspora Jewish Continuity

with 2 comments

by Weiner

A little bit ago, Wiz directed us to a fascinating piece by Daniel Luban on the flotilla fiasco and American Zionism. My views on the incident are similar to Lubban’s and many others’ on the Left: the raid was a morally dubious disaster, though the blockade itself is far more tragic than what happened on that boat. The blockade unfairly and immorally punishes Palestinian civilians, and neither that raid nor the blockade itself has made Israel safer. On the contrary, the incident has fanned the flames of anti-Israel sentiment and made Hamas stronger.

But that’s actually not what interests me here. I’m interested in a more abstract picture, which is when I began reading Luban’s piece, I noticed that one word was decidedly underused: Jew. It was all about Zionism, but not much about broaders question of Jewish identity, until this paragraph towards the end:

I suppose at this point I should relate anecdotes about my bar mitzvah or travels to Israel, tell shtetl stories about my ancestors, proclaim my love of latkes and klezmer and Woody Allen and Philip Roth. I should talk about “Jewish values” and how my views on Israel-Palestine are an extension, not a renunciation, of these values. I should try to reassure you, in other words, that I am not a deracinated or, worse, “self-hating” Jew; that I am one of “us,” not one of “them.”

But Luban is not here to talk about Philip Roth. So he went on:

But I won’t talk about these things, not because they are untrue, but because they are irrelevant. One of the least attractive features of the debate as it has been conducted in the Jewish community is the constant insistence on changing the subject from the concrete political issues at stake to issues of Jewish identity and Jewish self-understanding. It is the worst kind of narcissism to insist on talking endlessly about our feelings rather than the political realities that stare us in the face. So I will not dwell on my “feelings” about Judaism, my “relationship” with Jewish identity, because these are simply distractions. Either the Gaza blockade is just, or it is not, either the Lebanon war was wise; or it was not; either the U.S. should bomb Iran, or it should not; either the two-state solution remains viable, or it does not. To reply to these questions with invocations of Judaism or anti-Semitism or the Holocaust is sheer non sequitur, and when someone does so it is generally a sign that they have no good answers. As for the charge of self-hatred, it may once have had bite, but today it has lost its sting. It comes off as desperate, even silly, and I can’t find it in me to muster an answer to it.

Luban is right. The flotilla raid and the blockade are bad, whether you like Seinfeld or not.

BUT, and here’s the but, I don’t think it’s a non-sequitur, in terms of a larger discussion of Zionism, especially when postulating that “maybe liberal Zionism isn’t worth saving,” to invoke the idea of a Jewish cultural identity, and discuss that identity’s relationship to Zionism. What role should Zionism play in the sometimes practical sometimes amorphous efforts towards “Jewish continuity,” whatever that means?

This question is more than academic, not because it helps you deal with the flotilla incidents of the future, but because it helps you think about what comes after. If Israeli culture and life has become so distinct and divorced from Diaspora Jewish culture and life (especially in America) then many other questions arise: Is Diaspora Jewish culture worth preserving, and if so, how? Must it be preserved organically or should Diaspora Jews take active measures to ensure Diaspora Jewish continuity?

And this is why Woody Allen and Philip Roth and the Jewish religion  and everything else that makes up “Jewish culture” matter. Not because they inform us about the blockade. Not because Luban’s perspective on pastrami validates or invalidates his opinions on Israel. He’s right about those things. But I want to know what he sees as the alternative, if Zionism is not the way. Assimilation? An American Jewish demography that becomes more Orthodox, more politically conservative, less culturally relevant? My point is not to be alarmist: those possibilities are a long way off, if they are even real.

Similarly, let’s look at Glenn Greenwald, who is mostly correct about the flotilla and many other things. Greenwald invokes “rank tribalism” to explain Jewish apologies for Israel, especially from “otherwise admirable Jewish progressives such as Anthony Weiner, Jerry Nadler, Eliot Spitzer, Alan Grayson, and (after a brief stint of deviation) Barney Frank.” And so Greenwald muses:

It will never cease to be mystifying (at least to me) that they never question why they suddenly view the world so differently when it comes to Israel.  They never wonder to themselves:

I had it continuously drummed into my head from the time I was a small child, from every direction, that Israel was special and was to be cherished, that it’s fundamentally good but persecuted and victimized by Evil Arab forces surrounding it, that I am a part of that group and should see the world accordingly.  Is this tribal identity which was pummeled into me from childhood — rather than some independent, dispassionate analysis — the reason I find myself perpetually sympathizing with and defending Israel?

Doesn’t the most minimal level of intellectual awareness — indeed, the concept of adulthood itself — require that re-analysis?  And, of course, the “self-hating” epithet — with which I’ve naturally been bombarded relentlessly over the last week — is explicitly grounded in the premise that one should automatically defend one’s “own group” rather than endeaveor to objectively assess facts and determine what is right and true.

I think Greenwald is on to something about this “rank tribalism.” But it’s not always as pernicious as he makes it sound. For some Jews, at least, preserving Jews, and Judaism, and Jewish culture, are important. And so they react with suspicion to things that, at least at first glance, may threaten those outcomes. And even if they agree with his views on those political issues, they find it difficulty to sympathize with him when we see no indication that he cares whether Jewish culture sticks around or disappears.

That’s why, when Michael Chabon, who is not only interested in Jewish culture but has actually contributed to it, makes similar criticisms, I respond more favorably, because I know that he is not indifferent to Jews and Jewishness, but simply sees the blockade, or the occupation, as obstacles to Jewish continuity. The same, of course, can be said of the Israeli critics of this policy, from David Grossman to Amos Oz.

Chabon’s brilliant piece presents this tidbit from his childhood, which must have been a near universal experience for American (and Canadian) Jews growing up any time from WW2 to the present (I certainly experienced it):

As a Jewish child I was regularly instructed, both subtly and openly, that Jews, the people of Maimonides, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk and Meyer Lansky, were on the whole smarter, cleverer, more brilliant, more astute than other people. And, duly, I would look around the Passover table, say, at the members of my family, and remark on the presence of a number of highly intelligent, quick-witted, shrewd, well-educated people filled to bursting with information, explanations and opinions on a diverse range of topics. In my tractable and vainglorious eagerness to confirm the People of Einstein theory, my gaze would skip right over — God love them — any counterexamples present at that year’s Seder.

This is why, to a Jew, it always comes as a shock to encounter stupid Jews. Philip Roth derived a major theme of “Goodbye, Columbus” from the uncanny experience. The shock comes not because we have never encountered any stupid Jews before — Jews are stupid in roughly the same proportion as all the world’s people — but simply because from an early age we have been trained, implicitly and explicitly, to ignore them. A stupid Jew is like a hole in the pocket of your pants, there every time you put them on, always forgotten until the instant your quarters run clattering across the floor.

Chabon is right that smart Jews can no longer afford to ignore stupid ones, whether they occupy the boardrooms of AIPAC or the lands of the West Bank. But we shouldn’t forget the smart ones either, and the substance of Jewish culture. Chabon, Grossman and Oz don’t want that. I don’t want that either. That’s why we oppose the blockade. What do Luban and Greenwald want? Do they care? To those questions, I have no answer.

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Written by David Weinfeld

June 19, 2010 at 16:02

2 Responses

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  1. […] by Peter Beinart’s now infamous article and the Gaza Flotilla fiasco, which PhD Octopus has certainly examined before. Of course, I had provoked this question to a certain extent, as I make […]

  2. […] Jews in the Diaspora, at least certainly not in North America. I’ve written about this many times before on this very blog. The real threat is assimilation, intermarriage, low birthrates. We all […]


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