Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

The Kevin Mitchell Theory of Jewish Continuity

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by David

There’s a new Pew survey that seems to be prophesying doom for the American Jewish community. The most alarming figure, for those who care about these sorts of things, is the 58% intermarriage rate among Jews in the United States. The number is of course even higher for the non-Orthodox Jews who struggle to keep members. In the past, the Jewish community has employed harsh rhetoric to try to prevent intermarriage, comparing it to “finishing Hitler’s work.” Today, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, as well as some Conservative, have come to see the error in this approach, and are maximally welcoming to the non-Jewish spouses in intermarried couples. Still, the numbers on Jewish retention, across non-Orthodox denominations, among children of couples in-married and intermarried, are not promising. For those communities to survive, new rhetoric is needed. An unorthodox approach, if you will. Let me present to you: The Kevin Mitchell Theory of Jewish Continuity.

Kevin Mitchell was a professional baseball player in the 1980s and 1980s. He played infield and outfield for several teams, was rather injury prone, but quite good in the his prime. In 1989, he hit 47 homeruns, won the NL MVP and along with Will “The Thrill Clark” led the San Francisco Giants to the World Series, where they lost to the earthquake and the Oakland Athletics. He was also, according to this 1997 Sports Illustrated profile, quite a goofball.

For our purposes, however, Kevin Mitchell’s most important contribution came in October of 1986, in Game 6 of the World Series. He played for the Mets then who were facing the favoured Boston Red Sox. The Bosox led 3 games to 2, and went into the bottom of the 10th inning of Game Six in New York with a 5-3 lead. What happened next was one of the most famous/infamous moments in baseball history, a Met rally culminating in Red Sox firstbaseman Bill Buckner’s error leading to a Met victory, followed by a series clinching victory in Game 7.

With two out, Gary Carter got the Mets’ first hit. But who got the second? None other than Kevin Mitchell up to pinch hit. A base hit to centerfield. He would go on to score the tying run that inning. Asked about his at-bat years later, he said:

Damned if I was going to go down in history as the man who made the last out. 

That, precisely, is the attitude the Jewish community needs to inculcate in terms of advocating Jewish continuity. Not harsh rhetoric about Hitler and the Holocaust. Indeed, nothing about intermarriage at all. Keep it simple, stick with baseball. We don’t need a homerun. We don’t need everyone marrying rabbis and sending their kids to the yeshiva. Just keep the rally going. Keep it alive. You’re intermarried? Ok. All we need is a base hit, even a hit by pitch. Just get on base. How? Maybe give your kid a copy of a Philip Roth bookTake your sons and daughters to a Jewish museum. Play them an old recording of Jackie Mason. You don’t have to win the game outright. But don’t let that game end. Think of Jewish history as a late-inning rally, a brilliant, hilarious, exciting, yet potentially tragic rally, where you don’t want to make the last out. Make Moses and Kevin Mitchell proud. Now let’s stop counting numbers and put those rally yarmulkes on.


Written by David Weinfeld

October 15, 2013 at 15:45

Another Dreyfus Affair Moment for France? Musings on American and French Antisemitism, and the Jewish Diaspora

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by David

I was about to write a post about conservative blogger Brooks Bayne’s antisemitic rant directed towards Sandra Fluke’s boyfriend Adam Mutterperl, when I read the news about the horrific shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, that left four dead, including three children. We don’t know for certain that this attacks was motivated by antisemitism, but it seems likely, and kind of makes the Brooks Bayne nutjob variety seem less threatening, even if a Bayne is an admitted gun enthusiast.

What to make of these incidents? Is the recent shooting a Dreyfus moment, a wakeup call to French Jews, and Diaspora Jews in general? Contrary to popular myth, the Dreyfus Affair in France, did not launch Theodor Herzl’s Zionist beliefs, though it certainly helped reaffirm them. For those who don’t know, in 1894, French Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason, convicted, and imprisoned in solitary confinement on an island in French Guiana. Eventually, new evidence came to late proving Dreyfus innocence. The “Affair” really began in 1898, when author Emile Zola wrote J’accuse and blamed French antisemitism for the mistaken conviction. Riots rocked France, dividing the population between those who supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards, generally liberal and secular), and those who condemned him as guilty (the anti-Dreyfusards, generally conservative and often religious). Eventually, in 1899, Dreyfus was retried, convicted for a second time, but then pardoned by the French government, though he was only fully exonerated in 1906.

Theodor Herzl, a journalist, covered the story for a Viennese newspaper. He went on to lead the modern political Zionist movement. And so, we must ask, does this recent shooting in France offer any Zionist lessons? After all, A.B. Yehoshua, left-wing Zionist author and activist, has just told us again (and again) that Diaspora Jews live only a partial Jewish existence, unlike the full Jewish existence that he and other Israeli Jews live. Perhaps the most interesting (and most new and original) thing Yehoshua said this time around was “I have never heard the Jews analyze the Holocaust as a Jewish failure, which was not anticipated.”

Of course, the Holocaust was sort of anticipated, by Herzl in the 1890s, by Leo Pinsker in the 1880s, even Karl Marx’s friend Moses Hess in his 1862 book Rome and Jerusalem, where he wrote “Even an act of conversion cannot relieve the Jew of the enormous pressure of German anti-Semitism. The Germans hate the religion of the Jews less than they hate their race – they hate the peculiar faith of the Jews, less than their peculiar noses.” (I like to chide my Marxist friends by saying that Hess was much more prescient than his friend Karl, though that prescience was tragic).

So I ask again, are these recent French shooting a similar warning sign? Or are they an aberration, the work of a lone lunatic? Neocon John Podhoretz has already jumped to red alert, declaring that “Jews are being hunted.” J-Pod brings up 9/11 in his article, which made me think of the 2002 essay in The New Republic by Leon Wieseltier (certainly his best work), “Hitler is Dead.” Jews in the Diaspora should not panic.

The irony, it seems, as Yehoshua well knows, is that for the most part, antisemitism does not threaten 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 know this well.

So I’m horrified by the shootings in France. But I’m not going to go alarmist yet. Let’s focus on this incident, on who is responsible, and on honouring the victims and providing sympathy for their families. It seems like Jews are not the only target of this attacker. Let’s learn more before making sweeping judgments.

And I’m much less worried about the ravings of one antisemitic moron in the United States who thinks that “Brandeis University is one of the nation’s leading petri dishes for anti-American and neo-Marxist thought.” Has Brooks Bayne ever been to Brandeis? I think it’s more of a hot-bed for capitalist consumerism, like most educational institutions, Jewish or not (and Brandeis is not Jewish in the way Yeshiva University is, for example).

Brandeis is a great school, and indeed, one of our tentacles at PhD Octopus, Julian, actually goes there. Hey Julian, would you say that Bayne has pegged Brandeis pretty well? Do the undergrads you’ve taught ooze anti-American Marxism? Or is Brandeis one of those places where you find actual conservatives studying and teaching the humanities, at the undergraduate and graduate level? I think it’s more of the latter. I don’t want to give Bayne too much attention, and my friends Sarah and Liora have already trashed his post very effectively.

So I’ll conclude by writing that antisemitism in the US remains a minor phenomenon, in the words of scholar Stephen Whitfield, a “dog” that “did not bark,” or perhaps more accurately, barked but did not bite. Yes, there is American antisemitism, on the right and left (and yes, it can be different than anti-Zionism). It is a phenomenon that needs to be denounced, punished (in the court of public opinion, if nowhere else), and understood. But the real problem for the Jewish Diaspora’s future is assimilation, and that has been true for the past several decades.

Written by David Weinfeld

March 19, 2012 at 16:55

Obama 2012, Occupy Wall Street, and the Left

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by David

I attended an awesome Obama 2012 fundraiser on Thursday. I am a proud supporter (and occasional participant) of the Occupy Wall Street and broader Occupy movements. I see no inconsistency. The only really weird thing is that I’m Canadian, and thus my American wife needed to pay for my ticket to get in (to the fundraiser; the protests are free and open to the public).

I’m an Obama critic, from the left. I’m also an Obama supporter. Any president who cites Philip Roth when discussing the Jewish community has my vote (if I could vote). I have problems with some of Obama’s domestic and foreign policy. I also think he’s done an incredible job as president, after having been dealt a horrible hand by George W. Bush, including a failing economy, two mismanaged foreign wars, and an opposition dedicated to thwarting him without any regard to principle. I suspect my position is not that different from that of many of his staffers and campaign managers, not to mention his millions of supporters.

You can see all that has been accomplished in the video above. It’s an impressive display.

Sure, there’s a lot more to do. OWS will keep fighting. But we need president Obama on our side. Or we need a president Obama to move further along to our side. Because we know that as spineless as Mitt Romney is, he won’t move that way.

Now some of the far left insist that dangling that lunacy of the GOP as a tactic to justify voting for Obama is cheap strategy. And that the two parties are too similar. Well, frankly, they’re wrong. Despite what they may say, there are real and significant differences between the two parties, particularly on domestic policy, that are felt by poor and working class and middle class people on the ground. Felt by women and immigrants and gays and lesbians. Huge potential differences in terms of Supreme Court appointments. And it appears that since Mitt Romney doesn’t give a rats ass about foreign policy, there will likely be big differences there as well in the coming four years. Ron Paul’s libertarianism is both cruel and inefficient and would lead to disaster, even if some of his policies are good, but he can’t and won’t win the GOP nomination. And of course if Santorum or Newt somehow became president, that would be a national nightmare. The left really would be cutting off its nose to spite its face and committing political suicide if it did not back Barack Obama 100%. And it makes me angry when radicals don’t see this, and think that voting for Obama is somehow selling out the left, or picking to best of two evils. Because it really isn’t. I’m on the left. I don’t just oppose the GOP. I support Barack Obama. And not just because it’s the pragmatic thing to do, though that is part of it, for sure.

Because really this should be, and is, a positive campaign. Barack Obama has done a lot of good. And with a free hand in a second term, not having to worry about re-election, and hopefully with a more amenable congress, he can and will do a lot more good. And when he is re-elected, because I think he will be, the left should continue to offer critical support.I don’t always agree with Cornel West, but he did say something before the 2008 election that I thought made a lot of sense. He said that if/when Obama got elected, he would dance a great dance of joy (perhaps similar to Balky Bartokomous and Cousin Larry on Perfect Strangers, though he’d do it with Tavis Smiley). And then once Obama got into office, he would become his biggest critic, holding him to the highest standard possible. West has been true to his word. I haven’t always agreed with that criticism, but I admire his consistency here.

Criticism is good. But I don’t think the left should be unnecessarily critical of Obama. They (we) should support him when he is advocating for change that we believe him. But when he isn’t, or isn’t hard enough, we should try to move him, and congress, in the direction we want. Not give up on him. Because I do think that he, along with the American people, have the ability to make the country and the world better. I’m optimistic. Great things can and will happen. But we have to get there. 

So, if you’re American, donate some money to the Obama 2012 campaign. Volunteer. And make sure you and your friends get out and vote for Barack Obama in November. It’s the only right and rational thing to do, whether you’re a radical leftist, progressive, liberal, moderate, or even a sensible conservative. Si se puede. I’m in.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 18, 2012 at 10:17

The Greats

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by Bronwen

This week I lectured on ‘The First World War and Africa’.  My students seemed to really enjoy the topic, which isn’t surprising; in a course (African History since 1800) where so much is new to first year undergraduates, the First World War is a topic they know quite a lot about and for which they have an extensive frame of reference.  This is because the First World War is constantly talked about here.  Between high school course work on the causes of World War One, and the pervasive cultural memory – enhanced by Downton Abbey and recent BBC miniseries like Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – students arrive at university with a pretty solid foundation in World War One history.

Obviously, the First World War was pretty devastating to Britain.  Not only did 2.19 per cent of the population die in the war, but over a million and a half servicemen were wounded as well.  Its social and economic impacts in the British and French colonies in Africa were similarly devastating.  Contrast this with America’s 0.13 per cent casualty rate (as a percentage of the population) and its easy to see why this is a topic that has a much greater, more lasting emotional impact here. World War I was the event that catapulted Britain – like it or not – into the modern age. Add to that the historiographical line that has made its way down to the classroom level – the futility and pointlessness of the war – and it becomes clear that all my student essays this term are going to be about the impact of the Great War on Africa.

I think all of this is interesting because, although I feel like I had a really excellent high school history education, and a fantastic undergraduate history education, I arrived in Britain knowing only a few key facts about the First World War: that it had been the first major conflict in which the flame-thrower was used; it gave rise to Egyptian nationalism; and it was a major influence on Hemingway.  My husband was pretty dismayed when I explained that in a lot of American schools, World War I is taught as basically the pre-World War II: the same actors, basically; the same plot-line from an American perspective (we come in late and end the war); and pretty much important (from our perspective) because it lines up the causes of the Second World War.  Obviously this is not the case everywhere in America, and I’m sure that if you chose to focus on this in college, there’s loads of good teaching out there.  But it is possible to come through the American education system without too much emphasis on this conflict.

Despite my explanation, I’m not sure he believed me until we (finally) watched the first season of Boardwalk Empire.  Talking about it afterward, we were commenting that if this had been a story set in Britain at the same time (1920), it would have been all about the war, the changes in society after the war, the crumbling British institutions, etc that are all the fodder for Downton drama [in fact, the first episode of season 2 of Downton drove me nuts a little because they just wouldn’t shut up about the war! even though it was supposed to have been going on for a couple of years by that point!].  Instead, the characters who fought in the war are outsiders, are really not supposed to bring it up, and are even shunned a little for having participated (especially for having volunteered).

In fact, the big cultural shared moment that pushed the US into modernity in the way most like World War I for Americans is the Great Depression, an event that really didn’t affect Britain to the same degree.  For both countries, there’s a heyday for the wealthy before an almost hubristic crash, which brings about more equality and more social programs. A recent piece in the FT Magazine by Gillian Tett points out that the reality of economic austerity is much closer for those in Britain than for those in the US precisely because our big cultural shared memory of austerity in America is over a generation ago, while the memory of the pain Britain felt in the 1970s is still relatively fresh.

Perhaps, following on from Gillian Tett, this all helps to explain both countries’ recent behavior, then.  If the First World War is such a dominant theme in British life and education, maybe that explains their unwillingness to get sucked into the entangling alliances of European politics and finance.  And if the Great Depression is a strong cultural memory in America, perhaps the idea of austerity and life before safety nets, and the pre-modernity it implies, makes the total return to Gilded Age politics distasteful enough to prevent too many cuts.  Here’s hoping, at least.

Written by apini

January 27, 2012 at 08:35

Mrs G goes to Parliament

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by Bronwen

On a recent visit to the Houses of Parliament, I was struck by the differences in tone between British and American politicians.  Although there’s still the same rivalry and competition, and certainly in these times of ‘austerity budgets’, a feeling that the stakes are high, there  also seems to be more tempered feeling.  And in a totally admirable way, a sense of a government of novices.  Of course, this is not true, since as we know from Yes, Minister, government is really run by long-serving civil servants here.  But on the political side, the majority of MPs seem to have come to Parliament after another career, Cinncinatus-style, to serve their constituencies. Despite political differences, they can all have a drink together in the members’ bar.  They shout at each other in debates and Prime Minister’s Questions, but at the end of the day, they’re all trying to run a country.  Meanwhile, American politics seems to celebrate the fact that our politicians refuse to even talk civilly to one another.

As my friends here like to point out, the difference is also one of tone: in America, politics and the running of the country is a serious, dramatic business (captured in The West Wing) and in Britain, it’s the butt of jokes (Yes, Minister; The Thick of It).  I feel like this was probably the other way around in the early nineteenth century, maybe particularly under Jackson.  Or maybe that’s just me trying to hold onto an image of a scrappy, underdog America (and an evil British empire?) when in so many ways they have reversed.

But I can’t really do justice to the differences in the system, and how their perceived by both sides, as well as Armando Iannucci can:

Written by apini

January 20, 2012 at 07:46

Martin Luther King, Civil Rights, and Occupy Wall Street

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by David

Occupy Wall Street is the Civil Rights Movement of our time. I’m not ashamed to say it. I don’t think it’s offensive or ahistorical. I don’t think it dishonours Martin Luther King’s name or legacy. In fact, I think the broader Occupy movement honours MLK, and he would have been a proud supporter of it.

When I refer to OWS, or the Occupy movement, what I mean is the fight against economic inequality. That’s economic inequality in America, and economic inequality throughout the world.

Right-wingers, conservatives, even libertarian racists like Ron Paul like to claim King’s mantle for themselves. Heck even Glenn Beck tried. They say that King was all about colour-blindess. Equality of opportunity. We were with MLK until 1965″ they say, but after that, it became about equality of condition, of entitlement, the road to socialism or serfdom and some-such doomsday dystopia.

Well that’s bullshit. I say that as a student of history. That’s just wrong. Watch the clip. MLK calls for a “radical redistribution of political and economic power.” He says: “If a man doesn’t have a job or income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness.” And of course: “all labour has dignity.” And “it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”

Martin Luther King was a religious social democrat. He believed in social justice. In government assisting the poor. In supporting unions. He believed in REAL equal opportunity, which can only come about when healthcare, and education, and safety can be provided to all. He was the anti-Ayn Rand: he despised selfishness. You don’t believe me? Take Paul Krugman’s word for it. Or this awesome video by Jay Smooth.

MLK would have supported the Occupiers and the 99% movement

Some people still  might think this my analogy ridiculous and offensive. African Americans under Jim Crow suffered real, horrific racial discrimination. The suffering of the so-called 99% cannot compare, and thus cannot justify civil disobedience. Well it’s true that Jim Crow was horrible, and that America has made a lot of progress since the 1960s, thanks to people like MLK. But the poor in this country still suffer greatly. Poor people of colour still suffer worse, fighting against unequal opportunity, an unfair and brutal police system and prison industrial complex, racism and xenophobia, a real lack of safety net, and an unfair financial and economic system that privileges the wealthy. On a global level, the gap between the haves and have-nots is even more terrifying, and the racial divide is even starker. So I think all that is worth blocking a few streets, or yelling outside some buildings peacefully, and striking, and rallying, and demanding justice.

Maybe that’s just me. Or maybe it’s millions of people around America and the world.

Now I’m not a religious person, and MLK was not a saint. Just because he said something doesn’t make it right. But his legacy and his lesson remain valuable. For MLK was also not a Marxist or an anarchist. He was the LEADER of a broad-based social movement. He was able to achieve real change by engaging the political process, and democratically uniting people with disparate views. This is important because individuals matter in history.

The radical activists and anarchists have done the world an incredible service by getting this movement started. But their views are often undemocratic and represent a fraction of a fraction of the 99% (remember half the country votes Republican, and the other half Democrat). We should keep protesting. But we should also engage the political process, both through the Democratic party, and external channels like the idealistic but pragmatic 99% Declaration plan to hold a National General Assembly on July 4, 2012, in Philadelphia. It’s time to find leaders, make a plan, and keep moving forward, to make sure Romney doesn’t win and that Obama doesn’t kowtow to Wall Street and the 1%.

Some cynics might also think I’m over-exaggerating the importance of OWS. “Hasn’t the movement already fizzled?” Well, no. People left and right are talking about inequality, in and outside of politics. More importantly, let’s try to have some historical perspective here. When people think about the American Civil Rights movement, sometimes they think it started in 1960s. Maybe the late 1950s. Maybe Brown v. Board in the 1954. Actually, historians like to refer to the “long Civil Rights movement.” Some people date this to the end of WW2. Or Asa Philip Randolph‘s attempt to lead a March on Washington in 1944. Or to the activism of the 1930s and 1940s, often led by socialists and social democrats and communists, linking race and class. Or Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Or the end of Reconstruction in 1876. Or the end of the Civil War in 1865. With the state of America’s hospitals, schools, and prisons, some people still don’t think it’s over.

I’m not going to rehearse those academic debates. But I am going to reiterate MLK’s oft-invoked quote: “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is a long, slow process. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen in November 2012, even if Obama is re-elected. It will take time. But we’ll get there. Let’s not let MLK’s dream die.

Written by David Weinfeld

January 16, 2012 at 12:30

From South Beach to Century Village: The Jewish History of Florida

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by David

Century Village, Deerfield Beach, Florida

Happy New Year readers! I recently got back from a vacation to South Florida. Both my parents (from Montreal) and in-laws (from Boston) go south from the northeast to the southeast for winter, because they’re Jews, and that’s what Jews do.

I’ve been to South Florida many times for winter vacation. We used to drive from Montreal, a 30-hour trip divided into three 10-hour days. A typical New Year’s of my childhood was spent falling asleep at 10 pm after watching HBO in our Econo-Lodge hotel room en route back to Canada. That suited me just fine.

Our family Florida destination was Deerfield Beach, specifically Century Village, the retirement community where my maternal grandparents rented a small, second-floor, one-bedroom apartment (with one and a half bathrooms, thank God). They would spend the winter months of the year there, which in Montreal can mean late October to mid-April. They passed away in 1996 and 1997, and my mother and her older sister (my aunt) inherited the place. They couldn’t buy there themselves at the time: Century Village rules require you to be 55 years of age to buy, but you could inherit at any age.

an approximation of the building my family's apartment is in

Century Village is exactly like it sounds. The original location was in West Palm Beach, though there are now other branches in Boca Raton, Pembroke Pines, and Deerfield Beach, the one I visit. The Century Village in Deerfield is a community of about 14,000 residents. The average age seems to be 105. People joking refer to it as “Cemetery Village.” Things in Broward County close early, but not too early for the residents to grab their early bird specials at the clubhouse restaurant. The place is fairly desolate at 8 pm, but by 6 pm, the roads are filled with seniors going on “the walk,” a half-hour trek around the Century Village oval. Shuffleboard, or Jewish curling, is a popular sport. Almost each condo unit has its own pool, but like my favourite comedian Jackie Mason says, Jews don’t typically care for swimming, preferring to “sit by the pool” (my mother is a prime example here, as were my grandparents).

Remember the Seinfeld episode about the retirement community known as “Del Boca Vista,” where Jerry’s parents stay? Century Village is exactly like that. In fact, if you want to “check in” on the app foursquare at Century Village Deerfield, you can do so under “Del Boca Vista.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

January 10, 2012 at 16:30