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Remembering the Holocaust: Doing Justice to its Memory

Aug21

by: Donna Nevel on August 21st, 2017 | 2 Comments »

I used to think about the Holocaust all the time. It didn’t happen so long ago. Six million Jewish people were murdered not so long ago. Millions of other people were also targeted and murdered, including those from the Roma and LGBTQ communities and those who were disabled, as well as communists and other political activists, and many others.

As a young woman, I worked for the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and heard stories of survivors from across the globe. I had their stories etched in my heart and deeply in my soul.  I learned that Never Again meant that we had to fight with courage and dignity so that it would never again happen to Jews or to anyone, anywhere.

Several days ago, I saw Paula Vogel’s play, “Indecent,” about the Yiddish play, “The God of Vengeance,” written in 1907 by Sholem Asch. “Indecent” is so deeply moving and multi-layered that I felt compelled to see it a second time. The central character, who tells the story of the play’s performances, is the stage manager and former tailor, Lemml.  Lemml traveled with the play from Europe to the US (where it was shut down for “indecency”) and back to Europe.

There is a scene towards the end that continues to haunt me. The scene has Lemml and the actors wearing Jewish stars and performing the play—the God of Vengeance”in an attic in the Lodz Ghetto right before they are exterminated by the Nazis.

I was not only haunted by seeing the Jewish stars prominently displayed on the actors as they performed with such soul and passion in the attic. I was also haunted because I realized that, in recent years, I had pushed out of my heart, the stories, the experiences of those Jews who lived their lives and then were destroyed by the brutality of the Holocaust. My heart sank as I watched the scene, feeling overwhelmed with emotion, realizing I had allowed my feelings and memories to shut down. I knew I had done this, unintentionally, in reaction to the way the Holocaust has been so abused and mis-used by the Israeli government and its supporters to justify Israel’s behavior, and, in effect, the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe), the expulsion of approximately 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and land before and during Israel’s creation.

I won’t let that happen anymore.

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Oh Crap! I’m Triggered Again, Part One

Aug20

by: on August 20th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Holding steady when the ground is moving is normally part of my stock-in-trade.People often ask me for something to help put their own fears into perspective. Usually I am willing and able to oblige. Mostly I try my best to see the bigger picture, and mostly that effort pays off.

But not now. I was staying more or less centered until a few days ago when something caught me off-guard. In the middle of a conference call, I got a text message carrying information that turned out not to be true, that the Barcelona terrorist who mowed down 13 lives like grass had been heading for a kosher restaurant on Las Ramblas, hard by the assassin’s abandoned car. It was an intense activation, hard to control despite my wish to hold to decorum, despite the fact that everyone on the call had been talking about their fears for their own communities’ and others, their responses to the nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville and the havoc they wreaked. When I rang off, a bit of research led me to conclude that the location of the car was likely a coincidence, that even though ISIS hates Jews, the attack did not target us directly.

Ashamed, I apologized to my colleagues for spreading false information, then gave myself a talking-to. Oh, crap! I’m triggered again, and not only that, but right now I am super-susceptible to recurrence.

I borrowed the title of this series from a shrink who offered it as a way to call in the awareness and acknowledgement that start to diffuse reactivity. You know what I mean by reactivity? I’m talking about that rush of terror or fury or both that overwhelms brain and body when something pokes its finger into an old wound, flooding the inner world with elicited memory, elicited pain.

Do you want to know why I was so easily and massively triggered by a stray rumor?Let me suggest four readings. First: Eric Ward’s important essay “Skin In The Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism.” This piece was written by a non-Jewish African American who has studied and worked against white supremacist movements for many years. He exposes in detail how “antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism,” how it is the cornerstone of their racist ideology, and how this is often neither understood nor believed despite ample evidence.

I read Ward’s piece when it was first posted to Political Research Associates’ site at the end of June, six weeks before white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, VA, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” inspiring one of their number to use his automobile as a weapon, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring others,.

When you’re done with “Skin in The Game,” read “Jewish Fear, Love, & Solidarity in the Wake of Charlottesville” by Jonah S. Boyarin, published on the Jewschool site a few days after the events in Charlottesville. Among many other closely observed depictions of fear, love, and solidarity, Boyarin writes:

Jewish fear is the recurring silence from non-Jews about the explicitly, particularly antisemitic language and behavior of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. It is seeing, with rare exceptions, only Jewish friends of mine posting on social media when Jewish cemeteries are vandalized or when the Boston Holocaust memorial was destroyed this week for the second time this summer.

Jewish fear is if we bring up our struggle to non-Jewish comrades, we will be gaslighted and shamed into silence, because structural antisemitism functions by portraying us as conspiratorially, greedily powerful despite our repeated vulnerability to structural, white Christian male violence.

Third, read Michael Chabon’s and Ayelet Waldman’s “Open Letter to our Fellow Jews,” enacting our tradition and imperative to rebuke injustice within our community:

Among all the bleak and violent truths that found confirmation or came slouching into view amid the torchlight of Charlottesville is this: Any Jew, anywhere, who does not act to oppose President Donald Trump and his administration acts in favor of anti-Semitism; any Jew who does not condemn the President, directly and by name, for his racism, white supremacism, intolerance and Jew hatred, condones all of those things.

Finally, if you have the bandwidth for one more, read Danica Bornstein’s account of struggling to reconcile two identities, the provisional social category of whiteness and her lived experience as a Jew:

What I’m trying to say here is that the privilege that accrues during the good times is very much real, and I am not denying or hiding that. It is also true that the privilege is provisional, and can be revoked, and becomes the very thing that is used against us when the shoe finally drops.

It overwhelms me trying to explain this history and how both of these things live inside my body: the very real privilege but also the very real and repeated experiences of expulsion, scapegoating, genocide, and terror. I talk about the part that is easier, but then I end up feeling very alone.

None of these writers is identical to each other in approach, style, content, or the way they position themselves in the story, but they are all telling parts of a meta-story that has shaped my experience.

In the context of this big story of Jews in the USA, when I tell myself, “Oh crap! I’m triggered again,” I am reminding myself that despite the intense feelings I’m experiencing, I’m not truly in it alone. I’m reminding myself that I’m not alone despite the fact that so many of my colleagues on the U.S. left are quite happy to hang a label reading “white” around my neck and never hear another word about why that might not sum up the experience of disbelonging for a first-generation American whose earliest memories were explanations in halting English of why I had so few living ancestors and so little knowledge of those who had survived, and of being chased home by Catholic kids when they got to the part in catechism about Jews killing Jesus, and whose recent memories are crowded with experiences of being an acceptable target, a handy “buffer group” for multiple racial categories.

I’m reminding myself that even if I am once again attacked from both right and left for having the audacity to take the space to tell this story and the willingness to risk this self-exposure, I am not alone.

And why must I remind myself so insistently of this truth? The trajectory of all traumatic activation is the same. The person who is triggered is propelled toward extreme isolation, often into an intolerable loneliness that obscures or precludes the actual antidote to white nationalism: connection, reciprocity, collaboration, respect, generosity across lines of difference.

From what I see, my story rhymes with much of the current state of things. The white nationalists gathering in Charlottesville, Boston, and many other places overwhelmingly share certain characteristics: pale skin, male gender, Christian heritage. None of these is intrinsically the generator of evil, but the giant chickens of power and domination their possessors have birthed have been marching home to roost for a long time, lusting to punish the rest of us for daring to live our freedom. In the face of this long march, so many people I know are displaying the signs of extreme reactivity grounded in trauma: believing the inner voice that says no one else can know my suffering, no one is truly on my side, I can’t trust anyone who fits different categories of race, religion, gender, orientation, even generation. So many are locked in just this combat with would-be allies: whose perspective matters? Who has earned the right to have a say? Who understands the urgency and seriousness of the threats? Who has the capacity or right to glimpse what it is to live inside my skin?

What do you do when elicited trauma pushes you into a dark corner? For me, many things can help in the moment. Music, a walk, or a distraction—anything that disrupts reactivity long enough to allow the fear chemicals to dissipate.

But you know what helps me the most? When compassion opens a door between my heart and another person’s; when neither of us needs to slot the other’s story into a hierarchy of oppressions, judging if it deserves equal dignity or goes on the dismissible pile. When we hear each others’ stories without turning away, when we open our arms to each other. When we join together to rebuke injustice and call in the beloved community.

I’ve been thinking about trauma a great deal over the past year because it is one of the subjects of my current book-in-progress. Even if it weren’t, I’d still be thinking about trauma today because laying fresh damage on the site of old wounds seems to be our national pastime. Every day, I have to remind myself to stay aware enough to say, “Oh crap! I’m triggered again,” because without that awareness, the past prevails.

When I am triggered, my capacity for rational thought is greatly diminished. This is bad news not only because of the immediate suffering it catalyzes, but because the thing that helps me most to release trauma-induced reactivity is staying aware that I am activated. Keeping part of my thinking mind free to be an observer allows me to begin distinguishing past from present. I begin to remember that the loud voice in my head—the one telling me I’m all alone in an uncaring world and they want to kill me—is not the voice of reality, the objective truth, but the over-amped voice of old pain.

My grip on my composure remains tenuous. In Shabbat services yesterday morning, we talked about the Torah portion for this week, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17). A short way into the text, we read this exhortation about how to treat the conquered who worshipped false gods: “Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.”

Aha, I thought, the Confederate statues! You get to a fresh start by wiping out the symbols of an abhorrent belief system. My mind reeled into the slam dance that’s been playing over and over on my inner soundtrack. But wait, that’s what ISIS leaders thought they were doing when they demolished the Bamyan Buddhas! (See this compendium of pictures and links for images of that and many more examples of monuments toppled). On the one hand crashes headlong into on the other hand. Both tumble into the mosh pit of my brain. I try to blink back the tears and steady my breathing, knowing that unless I can resolve this state of hyper-susceptibility, I will be cycling through that dance every day, perhaps every hour.

Coming next in the “Oh Crap! I’m Triggered” series: Free Speech Slamdance.

Odetta and Dr. John, “Please Send Me Someone to Love.”

Charlottesville and Thuringia

Aug19

by: Victor Grossman on August 19th, 2017 | 4 Comments »

The sirens and shouted curses from Charlottesville resounded all too audibly even here in far-off Germany. Little imagination was required; how well we know such brutal faces, twisted with hatred, the racist epithets and threats! Sometimes we even heard the ugly words in German: Sieg Heil!

Scenarios like that, not only as echoes from the past, have become a part of life in today’s Germany. Almost every weekend, in some town or city, we see the racists and neo-Nazis march, with their hard boots, their flags and fearsome banners, so much like those in Virginia. Sometimes just a small, hard core or private gathering with nationalist songs escalating to texts about gas and Jewish blood. But also big crowds; four weeks ago, in Themar, a hitherto unknown little town in Thuringia, 6000 gathered for a “rock concert”. One sponsor, who runs a Nazi restaurant nearby, sold T–shirts marked “HTLR”. The full name is officially taboo but, he explains with a twisted grin, it means only “Homeland-Tradition-Loyalty-Respect”. Who can object to that? Or to prices of 8.80 euro – when everyone knows that 8 is letter H in the alphabet, and 88 is code for Heil Hitler! Or ”1933” – the year the Nazis seized power. It’s all legal, OK’d by the court. Even a big parking lot was reserved for them.

Even very decent-looking citizens may join the marching, like in Dresden every Monday for two years. “Who us? Racists? We only want to defend ‘German culture’ against the inroads of those ‘Islamists!’” With slogans, songs, only now and again with torches and weapons. They called themselves PEGIDA – “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West”. Then a party was founded by an attractive young entrepreneur and an elderly, respectable professor; AfD – Alternative for Germany. It is already treated oh so fairly by some in the media – just short of favorably – and will soon have several dozen seats in the national Bundestag; it is already represented in many local and state legislatures. Like the booted men or the T-shirt singers, its main voters, its basic program is “Hate the enemies”! In Charlottesville the enemies are sometimes Jewish, but mostly Black or Muslim, but always if possible weaker, poorer – and somehow different – in color, clothing, faith. And in Germany the same: sometimes Jewish but mostly Turkish or, with the recent refugees, Arab, African, Afghani. A hijab head-covering is sufficient: “A Muslim, an Islamic enemy!”

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Getting Away with It

Aug18

by: Maggie Kast on August 18th, 2017 | 4 Comments »

You can do whatever you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.

Flannery O’Connor, in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”

How much can our heads of government get away with? Constitution-defying travel bans, revolving-door staff, governance by tweet, absconding from climate accords, cozying up to white nationalists, disrespect for everyone except the self? It seems that our world has shifted, fractured as though by a jerk of tectonic plates. It’s easy to think of our situation as uniquely off kilter, and in some ways it is, but consider the political upheavals of mid-twentieth century U.S.

Orderly governance turned bizarre and dangerous in the early1950s, when I was growing up in Washington, D.C. “Association” became a crime – that is, association with anyone who might have left-wing sympathies. Interrogation, job loss, emigration and worse could follow accusation, and a mood of suspicion and fear colored every interaction. Senator Joseph McCarthy garnered attention and headlines all over the country and the world as he waved papers, claimed that X number of known Communist Party members worked in government, and accused Democratic administrations of “twenty years of treason.” At the peak of hysteria, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed, convicted of conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Russians.

I was barely twelve as our family’s friends and acquaintances began to be called, one by one, to testify before HUAC, the House Unamerican Activities Committee. We consulted the paper with queasy stomachs each morning to see who would be next. Of course there were no laws restricting your social circle or the meetings you attended, but names are what the committee wanted, and if you refused to name your friends and associates, you had to plead the 5th amendment, against self-incrimination, and the world would assume you were guilty. If you refused to name them you could be prosecuted for contempt of Congress. If you got tripped up in your testimony you could be prosecuted for perjury and convicted, like Alger Hiss, who spent five years in jail.

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To the Murdered Innocents—How America can regain Its Moral and Communitarian Soul

Aug14

by: Phil Wolfson on August 14th, 2017 | 3 Comments »

Let us all face it: We have lost it.

 

If we are not crying for the murdered woman and the injured in Charlottesville, the murdered on the Portland train, all who have been murdered, wounded and damaged by this rampant hatred, we need to turn inward and examine who we are and who we have become. We must feel our loss, our grief in empathy in order to regain our centers.

 

The old face to the world of a haven for all, an opportunity for justice and freedom, for all people’s freedom, for a constitutional civilized way of life is gone. Worldwide, the US is now seen for its oppressive might, its racism, its greed, its hate mongering exemplified by its president and government. That historic designation of the difference between the government and its people is losing its power as those who praise racism and misogyny stand at the helm with the backing of a right-wing media inflamed minority who have lost touch with even their basic self-interests.

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The Forest That Overwhelms Trump Tower

Aug7

by: Reverend Billy Talen on August 7th, 2017 | 4 Comments »

It always starts with the vulnerability of risking arrest.  The activism is the purest citizenship.  We enter Trump Tower.  We walk through the submachine guns and dogs, the body armor and the golden name of the white supremacist president that hovers in space above the door.

We are only doing what tourists do.  Ta-Nehisi Coates would say that we are walking into The Dream.  Trump Tower’s public area, where we are welcome as long as we show signs of being willing consumers of The Dream, is a 5 story high vertical mall, with gold-plated escalators zig-zagging upwards.  The hanging garden of Trump.  Fake plants on gold pillars!  We walk across the threshold of The Dream carrying the intention to subvert it and replace it with our Earthalujah!

Let’s call The Dream what it is – The Nightmare.  We have here in this building in concentrated form exactly what most Americans have everyday – the complex of responses to state-sanctioned violence on behalf of race and property and profit.  We feel the manufacture of fear, the itching-the-imagined-wound of Trump nation.  As we walk by the silent staring Secret Service we feel the fantastic imagination made by American fear – the conspiracy theories, the deadly tribalism of police, the scandal of alternative love, the remake of everyone everywhere into a monstrous “Other.”

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Games of Thrones and #NoConfederate

Aug6

by: on August 6th, 2017 | 3 Comments »

First, I must confess that I am a Game of Thrones fan. To be more precise, I am a Tyrion Lannister fan as interpreted by Peter Dinklage. I continued to watch Game of Thrones after the first episode primarily because I was fascinated by Tyrion. I love his wit and his joy of life. As the series progressed, I started to love his cunning, his morality, and his willingness to walk away from everything and to return again when he thought he could serve a leader who would be good for the people of the Seven Kingdoms.

I was and remain at once enthralled and deeply dismayed by the imagination of George R.R. Martin in the books and by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in the television series. They have conjured an entire world complete with history and religion and food. They have imaged flying dragons and a human queen who can withstand fire. They have given us a human being, the Three-eyed Raven, who can see everything past, present, and future. I enjoy the library at the Citadel, the warrior women and the dangerous queens. Games of Thrones earned an everlasting place in my heart for bringing back the great Diana Rigg as Lady Olenna Tyrell. The Game of Thrones imagination imagines an army of the dead that is the ultimate enemy of the living, and the saying of the House Stark is correct: “Winter is coming.”

My disappointment comes with the rapes of women and the torture porn. It especially comes when I look at the world these wonderful imaginings have given us, and I see a world where African or Asian people hardly exist. We have seen a few minor black characters, but it seems beyond their imagining that there could be high born black people who would have something to say about who will sit on the Iron Throne. Perhaps this would be a good starting point for a sequel as Game of Thrones, the television show, comes to an end.

Rather than thinking with delicious anticipation about what a sequel to the series could be, we are instead faced with an HBO announcement that Benioff and Weiss will produce a show called Confederate. The premise of the show will be what would the world be like if the Confederacy had won the Civil War and slavery existed to this day?

What? Who thought this was a good idea? (See: https://www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/535512/)

Here is where I reach the limits of my own imagination. I cannot image how anyone would think that what the world needs now is a fantasy about the enslavement of African American people continuing to the present day. How can anyone think that such fiction is appropriate when the truth of the aftermath of the Civil War is hardly known?

Let us consider the true history. After the Civil War, federal troops were stationed in the South to oversee Reconstruction. A Freedman’s Bureau was established to help the formerly enslaved to build new lives. We NEVER got our forty acres or our mule. We NEVER got reparations for hundreds of years of stolen work, but that is another essay. African Americans insisted on education, so people, black and white, can thank African Americans for the existence of public education in the South. African Americans served with honor and dignity in state legislatures and in the United States Congress. Do not believe the racist propaganda of the movies that depict freed men and women as pawns in the hands of corrupt carpetbaggers from the North.

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Wistful Eyes: Uri Avnery on the Death Penalty

Aug4

by: on August 4th, 2017 | 3 Comments »

THE WHOLE world watched with bated breath while the days passed. Then the hours. Then the minutes.

The world watched while the condemned man, Muhammad Abu-Ali of Qalqiliya, waited for his execution.

Abu-Ali was a convicted terrorist. He had bought a knife and killed four members of a family in a nearby Jewish settlement. He had acted alone in a fit of anger, after his beloved cousin, Ahmed, was shot and killed by the Israeli border police during a demonstration.

This is an imaginary case. But it resembles very much what would happen if a real case that is now pending were to take this turn.

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Why Patriarchy Is Not about Men

Aug4

by: on August 4th, 2017 | 3 Comments »

In response to my recent newsletter, which I named “Tenderness, Vulnerability, and Mourning as a Response to Patriarchy“, I received two comments from men that led me to choose to write this piece. In two very different ways they pointed me to the reality that the word patriarchy is used in many ways; that some of those ways lead to a lot of misunderstanding; and that, in the process, men in particular get targeted in ways I never wish they did. In this piece I hope to rectify this a little bit. I start with pointing to what I mean by patriarchy, since I don’t yet have a definition that I am fully satisfied with. Most significantly, I speak to what patriarchy does or does not have to do with men and what it has to do with all of us. I also aim to make it clear what my very deep concerns are about continuing within the patriarchal paradigm that’s been with us, at least those of us who are part of Western civilization, for about 7,000 years. And I end by what I believe every single one of us can do about it.

What Is Patriarchy?

One of the things that make it difficult to speak about patriarchy, or any other system, to a mostly North American audience, is that the capacity to see systems as distinct from the individuals that live within and are affected by them has been systematically rooted out of most people’s awareness. Instead, everything is seen as an individual issue with only individual solutions.

This is, sadly, also the reason for why the main accomplishments of the 2nd wave of feminism (about which more below) in the US, for example, have been at the individual level, such as access to more kinds of jobs and to education, or increased reproductive choice. There has been very little change in the system that I call patriarchy, nor have the individual changes been open to women who are darker skinned and/or of limited economic means.

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A Call to Our Communities to Stop the Character Assassinations and Attacks on Seekers of Justice

Aug3

by: Donna Nevel on August 3rd, 2017 | 14 Comments »

Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian groups and individuals, including from Jewish communities, continue to spearhead or engage in assaults upon those who dare to criticize Israel or support Palestinian rights. Palestinians and Muslims are particularly targeted.

 

These attacks against supporters of justice come as Israel continues to escalate its violence and repressive tactics against the Palestinian people.In recent weeks, we have witnessed an intensification of Israeli violence against Palestinians at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, and the people of Gaza are enduring unbearable brutality, forced tolive “in abject poverty under practically inhuman conditions unparalleled in the modern world,”B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group hasrecentlysaid.

 

Yet, the attacks I refer to are not on those perpetrating these grave injustices, but, rather, on those challenging them. This is a plea to those of us from within Jewish communities to vigorously and unequivocally repudiate these persistent character assassinations and attacks, to call them out for what they are, to examine our complicity in what is happening, and to join the call for justice.

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