Monthly Archives: July 2011

A Declaration of Ignorance

By Steven Philp

Republican or Democrat, American Jews inherit a history of progressiveness concerning issues of race and religion. Yet a pledge released by the conservative organization Family Leader, expounding racism and religious intolerance uncharacteristic of our community, includes an unexpected Jewish stamp of approval. The document in question is the “Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence on Marriage and Family.” Released on July 7, the pledge is intended for Republican presidential candidates looking for sponsorship from the Family Leader, a right-wing political organization that includes the Iowa Family Political Action Committee. Their influence is not limited to the Midwest swing states; considering their affiliations with national bodies like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, an endorsement from the Family Leader is a vital feather in the cap for any Republican hopeful looking to co-opt the conservative vote. The document—grounded in a concern for the integrity of the American family— includes promises of Constitutional fidelity, a commitment to upholding “traditional” marriage values and federal deficit reduction. This is undergirded by the unquestioned locus of “faithful monogamy…at the very heart of a designed a purposeful order.” This in turn is derived from “Jewish and Christian scripture,” “Classical philosophers,” “Natural Law,” and—of course—“the American Founders.” It may be time to modify synagogue curricula; according to the Family Leader, if you study enough Torah you may find elements of the “Marriage Vow.”

While having “Jewish scripture” appropriated by a group that defines itself as a “Christ-centered organization” may rankle progressive Jews, it would not be the first time that the Tanakh has been used in defense of “traditional” marriage values. We only have to look to the recent vote to legalize same-sex marriage in New York State to find examples of recalcitrance within the Jewish community, where a number of conservative Jewish groups used Biblical text to justify their opposition to the expansion of marriage rights. What is problematic is that a Christian organization has attempted to associate Judaism with a bigoted document that not only targets the usual suspects (divorcees, single parents and LGBTQ individuals), but also sets its sites on African-American and American Muslims. The document states that despite the ills of slavery, a black person born in 1860 “was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American president.” This garnered sharp criticism from moderate and liberal organizations, including the NAACP, who pointed to the fact that historical evidence shows that slaves were often prevented from marrying, and that selling family members to different slave owners was common practice. Furthermore, the implication that life was better for African-Americans under the burden of slavery is, at the very least, inaccurate and dangerously ignorant. The outcry forced the document’s first two signatories, presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, to backpedal, according to The Huffington Post, and elicited a statement from the Family Leader saying, “After careful deliberation and wise insight and input from valued colleagues we deeply respect, we agree that the statement referencing children born into slavery can be misconstrued.” The passage has been removed from subsequent publications of the pledge.

Yet the statement concerning American Muslims is of equivalent ignorance; one of the fourteen points of the document has the presidential candidates vow to “[reject] Sharia Islam and all other forms of anti-woman, anti-human rights forms of totalitarian control.” Following the tragedy of September 11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the coexistence of Islam and the West has become a heated issue among American politicians, religious leaders and academics. One of the primary concerns—at least for conservative politicians—is Sharia, the code of personal and communal conduct for observant Muslims.  Republican presidential candidates have offered several choice sound bytes concerning Sharia: Rick Santorum called it “an existential threat” to the United States, while Herman Cain explained that he would not readily appoint a Muslim to his Cabinet because “there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government.” While neither can provide concrete examples of an Islamic takeover, they do exemplify general ignorance concerning what Sharia is.

Translated to “path” or “way,” Sharia is not unlike Halakhah—a system of laws built over time from a central religious text (in this case, the Qur’an), the teachings of religious figures (for Muslims, these are the words of Mohammed recorded in the Sunnah) and subsequent centuries of religious scholarship. It is an evolving and diverse legal tradition, with tenets that reflect denominational and regional affiliations. To be Muslim is—in a way—to practice Sharia, of the type and to the degree befitting your desired level of observance. Like the Jewish tradition, there is the possibility for fundamentalism—this is exemplified in stories of stoning and beheading popularized by the global media. Yet also similar to Halakhah, Sharia is malleable; there is room for progressivism and adaptation. In the same way that every Jew engages with elements of Halakhah—applying it to our identity in unique and productive ways, debating with our peers over its applicability in contemporary society and embracing its place (in whatever form) in the history and structure of our community—so too Muslims also work with Sharia. The similarities between the two traditions are striking, from laws concerning ritual purity, to conduct in business relationships, to customs surrounding food consumption. One would think that in the United States, Jews would have the greatest empathy with our Muslim peers when their religious code is attacked.

Any Torah scholar— understanding that our moral structure, like Islam’s, is born of written and oral traditions—should recognize that Family Leader’s rejection of “Sharia Islam” is equivalent to forbidding “Halakhic Judaism;” this is the same as a ban on the faith tradition itself. Similarly, given the strong stance that Jews have taken against slavery and segregation—derived from our own narrative of bondage in Egypt—it is unlikely that the Jewish community would wax nostalgic on the subject position of the African-American slave. Associating the Jewish community with a document like the “Marriage Vow” to legitimize its bigotry shows that Family Leader is not only ignorant concerning the African-American community and Islam, but Judaism as well.

Glenn Beck’s Wet Hot Israeli Summer

By Adina Rosenthal

Glenn Beck is making quite a splash in the Jewish state this summer. This August, Beck will host “Restoring Courage,” a three-part event that Beck’s website describes as “an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Israel does not stand alone.” The first event will be for American Christians “to get the Christian community in America to wake up and start standing up [for Israel].” The second will be more explicitly political in nature, purportedly including Senator Joe Lieberman, GOP presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Herman Cain, and two other presidential candidates yet to be revealed. The final August 24 event that, according to the Jerusalem Post, “would be attended by more than 30 American national political figures, 70 international politicians and citizen delegations from 100 countries around the world, including Bahrain” will be held at the Southern Wall excavation site in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Beck pledges to make this event bipartisan, not a rally against President Obama and his administration. For Beck, “If it’s just an event, we failed…It’s a launch of a movement of decent, like-minded, freedom-loving peaceful people who know the answer won’t come from Washington or Copenhagen. It’s not going to come from our political leaders, but from the people. It’s a freedom movement.”

However, not everyone is quite as enthusiastic. On the American home front, Beck has received criticism, especially from left-leaning press and groups. In response to a question about Glenn Beck’s participation in a summit in Israel, Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, replied that association with Glenn Beck is “not in the interest of the American Jewish community.  Alluding to a “proven track record of anti-Semitism,” Ben-Ami concluded that “this kind of friend Israel doesn’t need.”  In a recent Huffington Post piece titled, “Glenn Beck Defiles the Holy Land,” commentator MJ Rosenberg further draws out this accusation of anti-Semitism, describing Beck as treyf who is using Israel “as a disinfectant to cleanse him of the stink of anti-Semitism, racism, and proto-fascism. Without Israel, Beck is just another right-wing bigot and crackpot. But with it, he becomes almost legitimate and so does the dangerous and ugly portrayal of Jews that has become his trademark.”

Some Israelis are not impressed with Beck’s message either, but some for unexpected reasons. An an interview with Channel 10 news last week, during the second of his three solidarity trips to Israel (the first was on Israeli Independence Day), drew criticism that Beck may not be conservative enough.  Although he told a Knesset committee that the Israeli Palestinian conflict “is about the destruction of Israel and the end of the Western way of life,” his comments to Channel 10 news that “I’m not against a Palestinian state. I’m not here for a political solution,” elicited a sharp response from nationalist parliamentarians. National Union MK Arye Eldad told Beck “I believe in a two-state solution, because I remember that there is already a Palestinian state in Jordan…Israel belongs to the Jews. We need to end the occupation—the Muslim occupation of Israel that began 1,300 years ago.” MK Ayoub Kara (Likud) added “There were never Palestinians in this area.” In addition, Beck has never advocated freeing Jonathan Pollard from prison, a cause which MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) and MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima) mentioned to Beck at the meeting.

Despite the flack Beck is receiving on all sides of the Israeli aisle, whether you like his politics or not, his heart seems to be in the right place. In a video on his website, Beck describes in detail the brutal murders of the Fogel family last March, and cites that most Americans had no idea of the atrocities as a platform for the importance of his initiative to stand with Israel. When asked about a segment on his former Fox News show dedicated to the heinous acts, Beck replied, “You have a horror show that Hollywood spends months dreaming up. You have villains like I’ve never seen before,” lauding Israelis’ courage and hope despite such suffering such tragedy. Beck also has plans to visit Tamar Fogel, daughter and sister of the victims, as part of this summer’s upcoming trip to Israel. Glenn Beck’s message is clear: “Israelis may like to hear and see that you’re not alone…There are millions of people [who support Israel] that you don’t see, because the media doesn’t want to tell their story, either.”

Love him or hate him, as MK Danny Danon (Likud) quipped, “If we didn’t have someone like Glenn Beck we would have had to invent someone like him.”

Debunking the Harry Potter Anti-Semitism Myth

By Stephen Richer

There’s no shortage of theories connecting Judaism and Harry Potter.  Entire books have been written on Potter philosophy and Torah wisdom (see Moment’s interview with Dov Krulwich), and some commentators have posited that its magicians—chosen people  misunderstood by others—are essentially Jewish.  Yet, others also a postulate a rather unfortunate perspective that J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series are guilty of perpetuating an anti-Semitic slur: underhandedly equating the book’s loathsome goblins with Jews.

The goblin-as-Jew allegation deserves assessment, partly because anti-Semitism is so serious, but also because if the complaint is true, millions of Jews, including yours truly, could not continue to happily reread and rewatch one of the greatest stories ever told.

The theory—as put forth by one its leading proponents Matt Zeitlin—is pretty simple:

The goblins, especially as depicted in the movies, are universally hooked nosed, short, unattractive, and green. …Professor Binns’ soporific History of Magic lectures tell tales of centuries of goblin oppression, segregation, mistrust, bad relations, exclusion, and revolts.  Sound like any European ethnic minority you know?  That’s right, Rowlings’ depiction of goblins reflects the type of stereotypes that are more fitting for Russia in the late 19th century or a second rate Gazan newspaper.

As further evidence, Zeitlin offers a side-by-side comparison of an anti-Semitic cartoon with the Warner Brothers’ rendition of a Rowling’s goblin:

Once the goblin-Jew connection is made, it’s easy to prove a dislike for Jews.  After all, Rowling’s distaste for goblins is quite evident.  Rubeus Hagrid – a character inclined to see the good in all people and creatures – warns Harry about goblins in the first 100 pages of the seven book series: “They’re goblins Harry. Clever as they come, goblins, but not the most friendly of beasts.” Deathly Hallows portrays goblins as impassionate neutrals in a fundamentally moral war who ironically play something of a Switzerland banking for the Nazis (Gringotts goblins).  In Goblet of Fire, goblins are more concerned with their money than the terrorization of innocents (World Cup Dark Mark raid).  And, as judged by the only goblin we really get to know in detail – Griphook – goblins are untrustworthy.

This line of reasoning seems compelling, but to foist it on Rowling and the Potter series seems unjust.  For one, Rowling does a great deal of borrowing in her stories.  She followed established conventions, endowing her dragons with fiery breath and wings, giving her trolls dim wit and powerful clubs, and her goblins with short stature, hooked noses, and greedy manipulation—archetypes that existed well before Rowling ever put pen to paper.  Perhaps Rowling drew her goblin based on the goblins in the Nineteenth Century poem “Goblin Market,” in which goblins lure and trick with “evil gifts.”  Or consider JRR Tolkein’s goblin—“A foul creature…slightly smaller, sometimes hunched over or appearing to walk and run with limps.”  Or just look up goblin in the dictionary and you find a definition that largely resembles Rowling’s creatures.  Perhaps the goblin character has its origins in anti-Semitism, but Rowling can hardly be convicted of unjust commentary for using a now-familiar Western literary character.

Additionally, the debate over whether the goblin character has its roots in anti-Semitism is wholly unaligned with Rowling’s professed views on Jews. In 2004, Rowling visited a Holocaust Museum and compared the hated “mudblood” and “half-blood” terms used in Harry Potter with the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazis: “If you think this is far-fetched, look at some of the real charts the Nazis used to show what constituted Aryan or Jewish blood.”  Rowling has also gone on record saying that her evil character—Lord Voldemort—is modeled in part off of Hitler.  Both comments won her comments of praise from Jewish organizations.

Then there are the movies—in which Rowling played an active oversight roll.  The actor that plays Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe has a Jewish mother, and the film company that produces the movies, Warner Brothers, owes its start to Hirsz, Abraham, Szmul, and Itzhak Wonskolaser (later changed to Warner).

In the eyes of this aspiring Gryffindor, we Jews can enjoy—without misgiving—the latest, and final, Harry Potter movie.

That’s one way to win the Jewish Vote

Presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann may have been hoping to endear herself to the Jewish crowd by saying President Obama has “chutzpah.”  The fact that it came out “choot-spa” may not help her quite so much.

Shakespeare’s “Merchant of NYC”

By Sarah Breger; Interview by Sophie Taylor

To stage The Merchant of Venice is courageous; to stage The Merchant of Venice so soon after the celebrated Al Pacino-led performance on Broadway even more so. The Washington Shakespeare Theatre’s production—a re-imagining of the play in 1920s New York—certainly does not lack for guts, but this madcap romp through the Lower East Side yields mixed results.

In Director Ethan McSweeny’s beautifully staged production, Venice is New York, Antonio and his fellow gentry are Italian Mafioso—and the Jews? Well, they seem to be Lower East Side Hasidim. Ignoring the fact that the twenties were glory days for Jewish mobsters (think Bugsy Siegal, Meir Lansky et al.) McSweeny chooses to dress his Jews in beards and payos, playing them as insular ultra-Orthodox.  (This was especially disappointing for me, since I was secretly hoping Shylock would be a 1920s secular Yiddishist).

Shylock himself is a diminutive man, soft-spoken, the weight of the world on his shoulders. Mark Nelson plays him well as a man weary of society’s cruelty. His Shylock isn’t overly sympathetic or noble: he’s simply tired. McSweeny does not seem overly concerned with Shylock’s ambiguous morality, often rolling over uncomfortable dialogue or painful moments. In some ways this refusal to be a Shylock apologist is a brave move, leaving the audience free to look at the play through other lenses, such as class,  the complex relationship between people and money, and the issue of women as property (both Jessica and Portia are sought out both for their beauty and for their wealth).

Sidelining the Jewish question also allows us to laugh, and McSweeny does put on a funny show. The scenes in Belmont with Portia and her suitors—the Prince of Morocco as a flying baron and the foppish Prince of Aragon, a Maltese in tow—are as clever as any of Shakespeare’s comedies.

The Merchant of Venice is always a confusing and uncomfortable play to watch, and McSweeny’s production unfortunately doesn’t rise to embrace all its complexities. As one friend who saw the production put it: “I’m glad I’ve now seen The Merchant of Venice. But I never want to see it again.” -Sarah Breger

Moment‘s Sophie Taylor sat down with actor Mark Nelson to discuss the significance of setting the play in the 1920s, whether it’s anti-Semitic and how he portrays the unsympathetic Shylock.

Moment: What appeals to you about Shylock?  

Mark Nelson: Blazing poetry. And a kind of perverse integrity in a world of characters with no integrity. Also, the idea that you can care for and even root for a hated outsider— that Shakespeare actually makes us understand him. I’ve always watched the play thinking, I like the ‘bad guy’ better than the ‘good guys.’

In some ways, Jessica’s desire to escape her own Judaism is more disturbing than Shylock’s character.

I think she’s a great character, but the most interesting thing about her to me is her confusion, her ambivalence; about her father, about leaving, about Lorenzo. That love scene in the fifth act between Jessica and Lorenzo is not a love scene—it’s about betrayal. She’s wondering about what moved her to elope, what she’s left behind, and how to go on in a world that will never really embrace her.  She can’t assimilate entirely, and she can’t delete her past.

Do you see Shylock’s integrity in his refusal to assimilate?

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A Shakeup in District 9

by Theodore Samets

In Monday’s Huffington Post, Ed Koch, the former Democratic mayor of New York City, and an outspoken supporter of Israel, did something scandalous: He advocated that his former constituents in Brooklyn and Queens elect a Republican in the special congressional election taking place this September.

Koch’s principal reason for advocating this, according to his HuffPo column, is what he perceives as President Obama’s “hostility to the state of Israel.” Koch claims that by electing a Republican, the Jewish-dominated 9th district (until recently represented by the Honorable Anthony Weiner) will send a message to the president that he must “change his hostile position on the state of Israel” if he wants to be reelected next year.

Yet Koch is wrong when he claims that supporting a “Scott Brown”-style insurgency is the right tactic. Koch says he will support Republican candidate Bob Turner if he acquiesces to certain demands–committing not to cut Medicare or Social Security, for example. Who is the Democrat Koch will, in turn, oppose? David Weprin–a state assemblyman, former city council member, and according to The Jewish Week, an Orthodox Jew.

So in order to encourage the leader of the Democratic Party to be more pro-Israel, Koch wants Jews to abandon an Orthodox candidate, significantly favored by the political establishment, who last week had this to tell PolitickerNY about the “1967 lines” issue that Koch cites as his major concern with Obama:

“I think our commitment to Israel should be unequivocal,” said Weprin, when I asked about the president’s handling of the Mideast peace process and relationship with Israel. “It’s the only solid ally we have in the Middle East.”

Then, Weprin added, “I don’t think we should be going back to the pre-’67 boundaries. It’s clearly been part of Israel for many, many years.”

This just doesn’t seem like the right guy to be attacking in an effort to get the Democratic Party in line on Israel.

Koch’s concern about where President Obama stands on Israel is not entirely misplaced; the former mayor rightly identifies instances when this administration has not shown friendship to the Jewish state in the way previous presidents have. He’s been on this crusade for a while, after originally endorsing Obama and campaigning on his behalf in 2008. And he’s not the only Democrat concerned with the party’s trend on Israel. (I wrote on this issue a few weeks ago, and Politico’s Ben Smith, who has followed Obama’s relations with the Jewish community since 2007, raised the alarm in a much talked about piece at the end of June.)

What is the best way to address this? The Jewish community is actively engaging with the administration, and the Obama reelection campaign is working hard to promote what they believe is their candidate’s strong record on Israel. In the meantime, it seems that elevating strongly pro-Israel voices like David Weprin is a better move for Jewish Democrats than trying to tie him to a president’s policies that only some consider anti-Israel.

After all, in the same interview with PolitickerNY, Weprin also stated his support for Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democratic caucus. And who does Koch identify in his HuffPo column as a better spokesperson for his beliefs than President Obama? Nancy Pelosi.

United (Nations) We Fall

By Adina Rosenthal

Richard Falk was criticized for posting this cartoon on his blog.

Anthony Weiner may have proved that social media can reveal the naked truth, but a far more stark reality has emerged from the personal blog of the United Nations Special Rapporteur to the Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk.  Earlier this month, he posted a cartoon on his personal blog depicting a dog on a leash wearing a kippah bearing the Star of David, bloodied by chewing on a pile of bones while urinating on his owner, Lady Justice. In response, both the United States and Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League, have called for U.N. Human High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, to condemn Falk, and demanded his resignation.

Though initially denying the cartoon’s anti-Semitic connotations, as Falk himself is Jewish, he eventually deleted the post and issued an apology, claiming he did not see the Jewish star on the small image, but adding the final caveat: “I am quite aware that many of the messages were motivated to discredit me due to my views of Israeli policies and behavior.”

However, this is not Falk’s first time around the questionable comments block. In his tenure as U.N. Special Rapporteur, Falk has been accused of conflating the personal with the professional, sympathizing with 9/11 conspiracy theories through his infamous blog (you be the judge), likening Israelis to Nazis as perpetrators of a Palestinian Holocaust, and flat-out accusing Israelis of ethnic cleansing. As ADL National Director, Abraham H. Foxman, correctly points out in his letter to U.N. High Commissioner Pillay, “Mr. Falk has a long record of incendiary and blatantly biased criticism of Israel, including statements comparing Israeli defense measures to Nazi atrocities…Such biased behavior and clear intolerance is fundamentally against the values and ideals a Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council should uphold.”

But will the U.N. heed Foxman’s advice and deal with Falk? Don’t count on it. Last week, Rupert Coleville, spokesman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights  (OHCHR), told The Jerusalem Post “that the matter had effectively been dealt with, since Falk had apologized for the cartoon, and although it was ‘clearly unfortunate and shouldn’t have been there,’ it was not the place of the OHCHR to comment.”

U.N. Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer, however, disagreed with this assessment in a letter to the OHCHR, citing past precedent as evidence for such condemnation to be within the scope of the OHCHR’s responsibilities. Neuer concluded, “For the U.N. human rights system to be credible in the fight against racism, its own representatives must not be allowed to incite hatred and racial discrimination with impunity.”

Neuer makes an important point. Doesn’t the U.N. have the obligation to uphold its purported commitment to human rights and not turn a deaf ear to its representatives who tarnish this image?

Apparently not when it comes to Israel. The U.N. has a long history of singling out Israel for atrocities and ignoring actions committed against Israelis. Since its inception almost 70 years ago, the U.N. has passed well over 200 resolutions against Israel, more than any other state. Though it was rescinded in December 1991, on November 10, 1975 (the anniversary of Kristallnacht), the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 declaring Zionism as tantamount to racism.  To this day, Israel is blocked from serving on both the Security Council, unlike neighbors Syria and Lebanon, and the Human Rights Council, a post Libya held until its membership was suspended in March. Just last week, the U.N. condemned Israel for firing on Lebanese protestors, numbering 10,000, who attempted to breach the border in May, accusing the Jewish state of violating the 2006 cease-fire agreement that ended the six-week conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. In the report, U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-Moon stated, “I call on the Israel Defense Forces to refrain from responding with live fire in such situations, except where clearly required in immediate self-defense.”

 

Based on this ostensibly hypocritical track record regarding Israel versus the rest of the world, Falk’s actions and the U.N.’s response—inaction—seem to meet the status quo. For an organization that claims to be the paragon of human rights and freedoms around the world, the U.N. loses credibility due to its clear anti-Israel bias. United we stand, divided we fall; unless the U.N. gets its act together, the latter will hold true.