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The Holocaust, Israel, and Trump’s Jewish Myopia

Feb6

by: Matt Sienkiewicz on February 6th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Sean Spicer standing behind a White House podium.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer

After a weekend of controversy, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was no doubt well-prepared on Monday to explain why the President had removed any mention of anti-Semitism in his statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Spicer began by reiterating the counter-intuitive notion that by ignoring the near annihilation of European Jewry, President Trump’s team, likely lead by Steve Bannon, was somehow being inclusive. The logic behind this idea is impenetrable, unless one assumes that Presidential statements have 140 character limits, making it impossible to affirm the centrality of anti-Semitism to the Nazi worldview while also acknowledging the broad range of people targeted by their hate. Just as bad, however, was Spicer’s pivot. American Jews, he suggested, have no right to be offended by the Holocaust statement for a simple, single, and seemingly unrelated reason: Israel.

Trump, Spicer articulated, is a perfect friend to both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the state he represents. That being the (much debatable) case, how could Jews possibly interpret anti-Semitism in anything Trump does? Aren’t Jews and Israelis always of the same mind? The answer, of course, is that not all Jewish people care singularly, or even primarily, about Israel. Furthermore, there’s plenty of room in contemporary white nationalism, with its fundamental commitment to racial separation, to support a nation way over yonder in which Jews wear their funny hats, eat their funny food, and mind their own business. And if this all comes at the expense of a bunch of Muslims, well, even better. It’s an ugly, unfair view of Israel, but it’s one that the alt-right can easily get behind.

Trump’s team, via Spicer, was offering American Jews a deal: Give up that part of your identity that’s so concerned with the Holocaust and accept one in which Israeli strength, just or unjust, defines what it means to be who you are. Some Jews, of course, tend to agree. Perhaps, they argue, Jewish fascination with victimization is past its expiration date. This would be true, were it not for the obvious fact that many Jews in America and beyond understand the Holocaust not merely as a defining trauma, but also as a call to action. Holocaust remembrance motivates Jews to care about the long-term security of the Jewish people, certainly. It also, however, causes Jews throughout the world to identify Jewishness with the ability to look beyond their own tribe and towards mankind. It convinces millions of Jews to donate to Jewish charities that offer their services to all in need, regardless of religion. It makes Senator Chuck Schumer, a man whose great-grandmother was murdered for being Jewish, cry when he thinks about Iraqi refugees being turned away at JFK. It helps Jews understand that a strong identity need not preclude a commitment to mankind.

The people who prepped Spicer’s response are not terribly interested in mankind or, for that matter, Jews. Sure, they can find a way to make use of them. If the Jewish people can be reduced to an ethnic clan locked in a bitter, eternal struggle with Arabs and Islam, then they fit right in. If their commitment to Israel’s Jewishness makes claims of America’s Christian Soul more plausible, that’s great. If their need to understand and accept Israeli security measures makes building a Mexican border wall appear more morally palatable then, by all means, be as Jewish as you want. But if being Jewish means looking back at events such as the Holocaust and using them as inspiration to protest the wall, fight the ban, and #resist, then they’d just as soon see that line deleted.

In a multicultural democracy, minority groups make compromises. It’s simple math. Politicians, seeking their majorities, never take the time to really understand what makes a subculture tick. Filmmakers and TV producers, aiming for a wider audience, boil their representations down, simplifying the complexity of minority life and, at times, drifting into stereotypes. This reality is unfortunate, but if it comes with a sense of progress towards respect and security, the price may be worth paying.

Bannon, Trump, et al., however, are asking for far too much and giving far too little in return. By deleting Auschwitz and offering Israeli settlements, they are asking Jews to give up the messy history and psychology that is so central to contemporary Jewish identity. Particularly in America, Jews often live in a state of constant contradiction, striving to be both tribal and universal, feeling both empowered and in a state of potential victimhood. In exchange for this difficult but very meaningful struggle, the President is asking Jews to embrace a static, one note, identity-based ethno-religious fervor for Israel. It’s a bad, bad deal. I hope we turn them down.

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Matt Sienkiewicz is a Modern Orthodox Jewish American who researches and teaches global media at Boston College. His documentary Live From Bethlehem is available from the Media Education Foundation and he can be followed on Twitter.

Do we want Democracy? Or the Electoral College?

Jan31

by: on January 31st, 2017 | 4 Comments »

It’s time to make a choice: do we want democracy or a dangerous tradition? A few efforts were made, after the last split between electoral and real, i.e.,popular votes, to shrivel the Electoral College and make sure it never stands between the people and their will again. Now it’s time to get serious and stay serious.

Consider this: how do American advisors sell our system overseas to the “less enlightened” nations where we are endlessly “spreading democracy”?

Dictator: so how does democracy work?

American advisor: “Well, you hold elections, the people vote, and sometimes the loser gets to be President.”


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Why America is exceptional – the crowds in the street during the inauguration weekend

Jan21

by: on January 21st, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Women's March at the Texas Capital Jan 21, 2017

America is an exceptional country in certain interesting ways. Most large democracies today have a parliamentary system of government. The vast majority of democracies with a strong presidential system like ours have experienced either a period of dictatorship or a military coup at some point in their history. America has had neither of these. We’ve always had a peaceful transition of power, and even after some hard fought and contested elections, the losing candidate has always recognized the other as the legitimate winner. We’ve never had one side throw its political rivals in prison. (Admittedly the incoming president has verbally flirted with crossing both of those last two lines.) This successful history is due in large part to our concept of checks and balances – multiple independent branches of government that serve to limit the excesses of each other. When necessary, the public itself serves as the final and most important check and balance. That is what we are seeing now. When hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets in the days surrounding the inauguration of Donald Trump, they are not to be seen as sore losers, nor do they generally deny the results of the election. They are serving their role as the ultimate check and balance on a government when it appears that other traditional checks and balances will likely be ineffective. Our democracy is going to be tested like it never has since the civil war, and it will take patriotic citizens with a strong love for this country to fulfill their key role in our system of checks and balances. Our country is calling on us.

Normalizing Trump’s Authoritarianism is Not an Option

Jan19

by: Henry A. Giroux on January 19th, 2017 | 3 Comments »

The dark times that haunt the current age no longer appear as merely an impending threat. They have materialized with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Trump and his administration of extremists epitomize the dire dangers posed by those who longed to rule American society without resistance, dominate its major political parties, and secure uncontested control of its commanding political, cultural, and economic institutions. The consolidation of power and wealth in the hands of the financial elite along with the savagery and misery that signifies their politics is no longer the stuff of Hollywood films such as Wall Street and American Psycho. If George W. Bush’s reign of fear mongering, greed, and war on terror embodied the values of a kind of militarized Gordon Gekko, Trump represents the metamorphosis of Gekko into the deranged and ethically-neutered Patrick Bateman. Yet, Trump’s ascent to the highest office in America is already being normalized by numerous pundits and politicians, including Barack Obama, who are asking the American public to give Trump a chance or are suggesting that the power and demands of the presidency will place some restraints on his unrestrained impetuousness and often unpredictable behavior.


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From Trump to Umm Al-Hiran

Jan19

by: Shaiya Rothberg on January 19th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, co-founder of Haqel, holding up a picture of 100 year old Umm Al-Hiran resident Musa Hussein Abu Al Qian.

Photo courtesy of Haqel. Rabbi Arik Ascherman, co-founder of Haqel, holding up a picture of 100 year old Umm Al-Hiran resident Musa Hussein Abu Al Qian.

As President-elect Trump consummates the victory of his racist and demagogic campaign, Israel’s discriminatory demolition of homes in Umm Al-Hiran yesterday signified another step away from democracy and towards Jewish ethnic domination. Human identity – the sense people have that they are Homo sapiens and morally responsible for other Homo sapiens – recedes before our eyes in both Israel and America. Trump and Netanyahu make clear in speech and policy that too often they do not see human beings as human beings but only as particular identities, such as Jews or Arabs, Americans or Mexicans, Christians or Muslims.

According to some theories, this receding of humanity is a temporary setback in the consistent (and possibly inevitable) ascension of human identity rather than more particularistic ones. Essentially, the logic goes, since human civilization (environment, communications, politics, law, economy) is now global and thus species-wide, the species-based human identity will prevail. But for those whose homes were bulldozed yesterday in Umm al-Hiran, and for the families of the two people killed during the conflict there, anticipating a more human future is little consolation.


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A Memory of Castro’s Cuba

Jan19

by: John de Graaf on January 19th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Black and white image of Che and Fidel in military dressFidel Castro’s death on November 25 brought memories of the time, 46 years earlier, when I heard him speak in Havana. I was part of a group of anti-Vietnam War activists from Madison, Wisconsin, who traveled to Cuba with other Americans in open violation of U.S. policy. I have recently been writing a memoir, including my reflections on that long-ago trip.

In the fall of 1969, hundreds of young Americans had begun traveling to Cuba. They were part of a group called The Venceremos Brigade, volunteering to help with the great 10 million-ton Cuban sugar harvest that season. Three friends of mine were part of the second “brigade” in the spring of 1970. They returned excited by what they’d seen and recruited me for the third brigade, set for August.

We left Madison on August 19, riding on a bus to the port of St. John, New Brunswick. From St. John, we would sail to Havana on a Cuban freighter. It was tied up in port when we arrived. We climbed up the long gangplank and were shown to tightly packed bunks in the ship, where we’d be sleeping during the trip. The freighter was called the Conrado Benitez. It was named for a teacher who’d been killed by anti-Castro guerrillas during the Cuban Literacy Campaign that began shortly after the revolution of 1959. Defenders of Castro’s revolution considered Benitez a martyr.

It took nearly a week to reach Cuba. The trip down was pleasant, with calm seas, light winds, and flying fish and dolphins leaping alongside our vessel. Because our quarters were tight on the converted freighter, we spent as much time as possible out on the deck.


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“Worst Campuses for Jewish Students”: A Laughable List

Jan18

by: Paul Von Blum on January 18th, 2017 | Comments Off

View of Royce HallRecently, the Jewish newspaper, The Algemeiner, released its list of the “40 Worst Campuses for Jewish Students in the United States and Canada.” Included in this list of infamy were such internationally known institutions as Columbia University (#1 for hostility against Jewish students), the University of Chicago, the University of Toronto, McGill University, the University of Washington, Vassar College, New York University, and many others. UCLA, where I have taught for almost four decades, came in at number 6. The Algemiener list is scarcely the only one of its kind. UCLA also makes the cut from the notorious David Horowitz, who is always on guard for any sentiments, especially on college and university campuses, that offend his right-wing agenda.

The rap against UCLA often stems from an unfortunate incident on February 10, 2015. A young Jewish woman student, Rachel Beyda, was nominated for a position on the student Judicial Board. When she appeared before the Student Council, she was questioned about her religion and her ability to serve impartially: “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”

Later, Ms. Beyda was voted in unanimously and the four council members who initially voted against her apologized. This incident was unambiguously anti-Semitic and was roundly condemned throughout the campus community and through the national media. I took every opportunity personally, in class and in private conversations, to condemn the original student council action and the odious questions to Rachel Beyda. As a second generation Holocaust survivor, I am acutely sensitive to all forms of racism and anti-Semitism (and sexism and homophobia) and I always speak out wherever and whenever I encounter them.

But this regrettable incident also needs proper perspective. In various social gatherings for the past two years, I have been asked, even confronted, about the allegedly dangerous atmosphere that Jews face at UCLA. Inevitably, the first example I hear is the story of the Rachel Beyda affair. This incident was a matter of juvenile ignorance rather than evidence of systemic anti-Jewish bias on campus. University students sometimes do dumb things; this was one of the dumber things I have seen in my many years of university teaching.


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Can a Two-State Solution Survive?

Jan18

by: Joel Beinin on January 18th, 2017 | Comments Off

French foreign minister in front of officerFrench Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault hosted the foreign ministers of some 70 countries on January 15 at a Paris conference to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “re-launch” the peace process. Mr. Ayrault hoped that the meeting would “reaffirm the necessity of having two states.” France supports “a viable and democratic independent Palestinian State, living in peace and security alongside Israel.” Jerusalem would be the capital of both states. The border between them would be based on the ceasefire lines prior to the Arab-Israeli War of June 1967, with mutually agreed modifications and equivalent land swaps.

Since the 1980 Venice Declaration of the European Union (then called the European Economic Community), international opinion has gradually reached near unanimity that something like this is the only viable resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But the French initiative, like many other well-intentioned efforts, produced no concrete results. Indeed, there was no reason to expect it would.

On April 18, 2013, as Secretary of State John Kerry was launching his effort to restart Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that, “the window for a two-state solution is shutting…I think we have some period of time – a year to year-and-a-half to two years, or it’s over.” If Secretary Kerry’s words have any meaning, the two-state solution has been clinically dead for nearly two years. Nonetheless, international diplomatic activity aimed at keeping it on life support continues zealously.


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Pedagogies of Silence on MLK Day

Jan15

by: on January 15th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

One of my oldest memories growing up in Haiti under an authoritarian regime is the sound of the phrase, ou konn ki es mwen ye? Whether uttered in a whisper, loudly, with sustained bravado stretched over every syllable, or with a chuckle, the meaning was clear. For the question was simply, do you know who I am? Honestly, I had no concrete sense what that meant until years later when I became conscious of the small ways I was taught what power is, how it operates, who has it, how it was wielded, who abuses it and who dared to challenge it.

There was an ongoing joke among some adults when presidential election results were announced which favored the dictator several millions to one. Who was foolish enough to cast that singular oppositional vote? Everyone knew these numbers were a sham. Some openly voiced their contempt and paid a severe price; many creatively subverted as others remained totally quiet. Daily survival, we knew, depended upon when and how one traded their most precious commodity: silence. It had use, sign, and exchange values that could be accrued.

I was shy, and more often than not, dutiful. The fear I embodied was visible as I bowed my head in the presence of grownups. There were codes by which we all lived knowing the difference between responses that were appropriate and the ones that were not. Some words, once spoken out loud, were not only directives that provided no guarantees of whom would not disappear, or get food to eat, but could also be evidence of troublemaking that no one wish would visit their home.

In the aftermath of migration to this country (also founded on dissent), I began to relish in expressing my freedom to speak. Out. Loud. Part of it surely was teenage rebellion, another was my education — indoctrination by an English as a Second Language curriculum that sold us the American Dream. I bought it and was lucky enough to have also learned this dream, as the great poet Langston Hughes wrote, had been deferred for many — including Black minorities whose ancestors came to occupy this hemisphere by way of slavery. The system, as it were, was stacked against us. As the unstoppable human rights activist, Ella Josephine Baker so rightfully put it, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it happens.” I use to imagine I was old enough to join the March on Washington wondering what it would have felt like to be there standing somewhere in that big crowd listening to Mahalia Jackson and being inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech.

I often say I have a difficult relationship with silence because I grew up under a dictatorship. So, I never took it for granted that as unequal as we may be in the eyes of others and especially the law, ancestors and elders fought and died for us to have our rights, even though we are still treated unjustly when we use them. Since protest is as American as apple pie, it was in this American spirit that we continue to exercise that right. As fraught as life has been in this system, it remained distinguishable from living under a ruler that demanded total allegiance and loyalty. Though it wasn’t structurally possible for everyone, one could still strive towards individuation and achieve it. As long as we understood “we have as much freedom as we are willing to pay for” according to McArthur genius, choreographer Bill T. Jones. Indeed, the possibilities of participation, at least existed. For democracy, as the old saying goes, is not a spectator sport. It took work. Civic engagement is more than a marker of citizenship, it is manifestation of a sense of duty to self, community, and country.

When the Black-ish episode clip about the recent presidential elections started to circulate days ago, I began to remember how I learned my fears of silence. I grew up in a time and in a country where girls and women were supposed to be quiet. As I meditate on the meaning of MLK today, in this country that I now call my own, I can admit I speak out precisely because silence is a structure of power that I refuse to recreate. I am reminded of his wise words, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Given our history, we must consciously resist impulses that threaten to further incarcerate us in states of negation.

 

 

Carrie Fisher: A Woman of Many Parts

Jan14

by: on January 14th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

On December 27, 2016, Carrie Fisher died days after suffering a heart attack on an airplane flying from London to Los Angeles. She was sixty and known primarily for her role as Princess Leia and later General Leia Organa in the “Star Wars” movies. However, it is important to note that Carrie Fisher was much more than her portrayal of one fictional character. She was much more than a child of celebrities – Debbie Reynold and Eddie Fisher – living her life and, in the end, dying her death in the light of her mother’s star. (Debbie Reynolds died the day after Carrie Fisher.)
She was a woman of many parts, and she was more than the sum of those various parts.

In her one woman show – “Wishful Drinking” – she describes her birth. The hospital personnel were star struck with her movie star mother and her crooner father. They paid little attention to her.

She says: “When I arrived, I was virtually unattended.” She says she has been seeking attention from that moment. But Carrie Fisher was more than a Hollywood child seeking attention.

She started acting as a teenager with a role in the movie “Shampoo.” At age 19, she landed the role of Princess Leia in the movie “Star Wars.” These movies became cult classics, and people relate to Princess Leia as a brave warrior princess general, mother of a Jedi knight who has been seduced by the dark side of the Force, but even Princess Leia is more than that. She is the feminine divine in the realm of the Force.

In her most recent book, “Princess Diarist”, she writes about her experiences with fans who want her to still look like and to be a young princess. Yet, she is more than this. She knows after all these years that people see her and Princess Leia as one. She reflects upon this in the HBO documentary, “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.”

“They love her, and I’m her custodian; and I am as close as you’re gonna get. She’s me and I’m her. They talk to me like I’m Princess Leia who happened to have all these difficult experiences to go through and it’s like me fighting for the Force.”

She has had difficult experiences that many other people have also had except she spoke openly about hers. In the “Princess Diarist” she writes about her relationship with Harrison Ford when they worked on the early Star Wars movies. He was older and married and she was wise enough at that young age to know there would be no happily-ever-after with him. She writes about a love that takes her breath away and of wanting her breath back.

She writes: “If anyone reads this when I have passed to the big bad beyond I shall be posthumorously embarrassed. I shall spend my entire after life blushing.” I suspect that she will not be blushing, but laughing at her young self. I image her free of the pain and embarrassment and filled with nothing but joy.

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