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A Spot at the Kotel Won’t Save Us: A Crisis in American Judaism

Sep6

by: Ben Lorber on September 6th, 2017 | 3 Comments »

 

“Remember the days of the world; understand the years of each generation” (Devarim, 32:7)

“…that [we] may turn the heart of the fathers back through the children, and the heart of the children back through their fathers” (Malachi, 3:24)

 

Last month, the eyes of the liberal American Jewish world were fixed on the Kotel. In a rare display of unity and resolve, leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements banded together to demand a mixed-gender space at the Western Wall, in a clear pushback against the institutional power of ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel. So deep were we stung by this bitter betrayal, that for the first time in living memory, prominent liberal American Jews even threatened to boycott Netanyahu’s government over its refusal to recognize the liberal diaspora.

And yet, even as we are united in condemnation of ultra-Orthodox fundamentalism, the liberal American Jewish world remains more divided than ever. Day after day, the establishment sounds the alarms- rates of intermarriage are skyrocketing, and more and more American Jews are publicly opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Many cease to identify with Zionism at all, as the rift between Israel and diaspora Jewry widens daily[1]. For the establishment, the idea that masses of Jews are embracing intermarriage and abandoning Israel rings the death-knell of Jewish peoplehood in America. Such gestures, according to common-sense logic, threaten to dissolve the very ties that make a Jew a Jew.

Liberal American Jewry is utterly transfixed by these crises. In the same week that the Kotel crisis made headlines, a leading Conservative rabbi shocked the Jewish world by announcing his intention to officiate at intermarriages[2], while a new report warned of a massive drop-off in support for Israel among American Jewish college students[3]. Prominent liberal columnist J.J. Goldberg evokes this creeping malaise in his recent piece, “The Rise and Fall of American Jewish Hope”, where he laments the “strange metamorphosis of the Jewish spirit over the past century, from hopeful optimism in the face of great suffering to bitterness and suspicion amid plenty…[if], for a half-century after 1917, the dominant mood among Jews in America and Israel alike was one of optimism…in the half-century since 1967, the mood has been increasingly gloomy and cynical.”[4]

My contention is that these crises signify not the end of liberal Jewish identity in America, but its new beginning. Put simply, we are in transition towards a future where our communal identity will not be defined by support for Israel, nor will it rest primarily upon markers of blood. This is progress- in fact, far from combatting assimilation, our decades-long fixation on Israel and endogamy has sapped American Jewish identity of the vitality and dynamism it needs to survive.

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Heather Heyer

Aug28

by: Paul Von Blum on August 28th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Since her murder in Charlottesville on Saturday, I have been unable to put Heather Heyer out of my mind. Every time I see a news account about her, I feel a powerful wave of emotion throughout my entire body. When I hear her mother speak of her daughter, I have to turn away; it’s too much to bear. This is not unusual for me. I felt it when nine innocent lives were snuffed out at Mother Emanuel Church two years ago in Charleston, South Carolina, by another depraved young American racist. And I feel it every time human beings die at the hands of racist violence and terror in the United States.

This murder of Heather Heyer, for whatever inexplicable reasons, brought me back to my feelings in the summer of 1964. I was a young civil rights activist and I recall hearing the news report on August 4 of that year when the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were discovered. These young men––two Jews and an African American––were murdered in Mississippi by white racists for their civil rights work in that state. Not long before, I had been in the South doing civil rights work, mostly in Alabama and Louisiana, but I had driven through the general area where these young activists had been arrested, jailed, and murdered.

It is difficult to describe the intensity of my feelings at the time when I heard the news. I can say that my reaction to the news was, and remains, intense. To put it in perspective, I had a far stronger reaction to the tragic murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner than I did a few years earlier to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I offer no apology about this comparison and I feel no guilt. I suspect that many civil rights movement veterans had similar reactions.

I’m sure that Saturday’s racist murder in Virginia has liberated powerful emotions in my personal history. I am a second-generation Holocaust survivor. I grew up in a family where my parents conveyed to all their five children that racism anywhere was racism everywhere and needed to be fought vigorously. They were powerfully involved in anti-racist work in Pennsylvania in the 1950s and they paid dearly for their activism in an era of late McCarthyism. That catalyzed my own lifetime of activism and explains my reaction to the horrific murder of Heather Heyer.

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Tolerance

Aug28

by: Aaron Ableman on August 28th, 2017 | No Comments »

I was 12 and free

but I got sucker punched by a neo-nazi

who didn’t even let me

get my boxing gloves on before getting

all Rocky Marciano on me…

All his friends laughed

while I held a near broken jaw trashed,

crying dry tears and yelling in silence

like my favorite tragi-comedian, Charlie Chaplin.

Luckily, I lived next to a library

and as I was walking home that fated day

I found myself searching for answers

in the compassion of books.

As fate would have it

 

I found the Dalai Lama, Yeshua Ben Yoseph, Joan of Ark, Maya Angelou,

Abraham Heschel, Zora Neal Hurston, Pablo Neruda, Anne Frank, Nelson

Mandela… and so many of those who have overcome the craziest enemy with power of love

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Oh Crap! I’m Triggered Again, Part Two: Free Speech Slamdance

Aug28

by: on August 28th, 2017 | No Comments »

In my last essay, I wrote about the hair-trigger in my mind activated by recent events in Charlottesville and beyond. Something happens, sparks fly, and centuries of inherited trauma catch fire, fueled by the pain my young self suffered as a first-generation Jewish-American growing up in a community that made us unambiguously other.

Obviously, I’m not the only one being overtaken by reactivity these days.

We’re in a time of heightened susceptibility. This moment is throwing into high relief essential questions of value and meaning, of harm and healing. People fling them at each other like weapons: if you don’t agree with me on X, you are aiding the enemies of justice. If you aren’t with me on Y, that’s because you can never understand my pain: we may be talking about Z, but you are the real problem.

Today’s case-in-point: freedom of expression. I invite you to think along with me. Perhaps we will be able to reconcile freedom and justice without triggering the flesh-and-blood equivalent of one of those scenes in the original “Star Trek” where Captain Kirk talks a computer into a meltdown.

I have been a First Amendment fundamentalist my entire life. Now I am thinking again.

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Countering Violent Anarchists

Aug26

by: Wade Hudson on August 26th, 2017 | 3 Comments »

(Tikkun editor: From time to time we remind our readers that the articles we post on Tikkun Daily Blog, like those on our website and in our print magazine do not necessarily represent the views of Tikkun. Those views are presented in the editorials of our print magazine and in the Core Vision part of our website www.tikkun.org . When we run this notice we do not mean to be commenting on the specific article where it’s posted. In fact in this case there are many reasons to think seriously about part of the analysis below.)

Especially on the West Coast, it seems, violence-prone anarchists are notorious for hijacking peaceful demonstrations. Rarely do they organize their own demonstrations and openly call for people to fight the police or rampage through commercial districts. Instead, they hide under the cover of nonviolent marches, throw rocks and other objects to provoke the police, engage in street fighting, and then blame the police.

This pattern poses a real threat to prospects for progressive change. Witness the law-and-order campaigns of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and the rise of the Right in the 1980s. How to deal with that threat is a pressing concern.

Arguing with violence-prone anarchists is a waste of time, as is the case with any other true believer. It just reinforces their beliefs. The more they argue their case, it hardens.

The most effective response was demonstrated Saturday, August 19 in Boston. When white nationalists rallied in the Boston Common, a much larger, life-affirming, non-violent demonstration countered them. Rather than dwelling on “if it bleeds, it leads” violence, the media coverage made a positive point.

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Nazis, Jews, and African Americans at Charlottesville

Aug25

by: Jonathan Wiesen on August 25th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

On August 11 and 12thof this month, a cadre of white supremacists – made up of alt-rightists, Ku Klux Klan supporters, and ethnonationalists – converged on Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee commanded an army that fought to maintain the slave system. Like the confederate flag, his statue and those of other confederate leaders and slaveholders celebrate a history that is a source of collective grief and anguish to African Americans. The statues symbolize a living commitment to “the Old South,” a legacy of white rebellion against the North, and the extraordinary violence that accompanied white political, social, and economic control over the black population. Yet throughout the protest in Charlottesville, the white supremacists spent little time calling for a return to a segregated South or chanting anti-black slogans. Instead, they indulged in vulgar anti-Jewish invective. Swastikas were on prominent display, protesters chanted Nazi slogans like “Blood and Soil,” and they held signs that read “the Jews are Satan’s children,” and “Jews will not replace us.” Make no mistake: these were the watchwords of the rally.

While the ubiquity of Nazi sloganeering in Charlottesville may seem surprising to some, this was hardly the first time that a defense of the confederate legacy found expression in Jew-hatred. During the organization’s revival in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan made African-Americans and Jews the objects of their fury. It was common during that decade and beyond to explain the origins of the moniker KKK by its targets: “Koons, Kikes, and Katholics”. African Americans who challenged entrenched racial, economic, and political hierarchies throughout the South were often met with white violence and terror. But fears of black power often went hand-in-hand with the claim that African Americans lacked the capacities to act on their own. Instead, they were cast as the dupes of Jewish conspirators who exerted outsized political and economic influence. This claim undergirded all sorts of theories in the early decades of the twentieth century: that Jews were a kind of “fifth column” within black political organizing, whether in the Communist Party, the NAACP, or what anti-Semites derisively called the “Jew Deal.” On the other side of the Atlantic, Nazis developed their own internally contradictory theories of African American-Jewish relations. In the 1930s and 1940s, Nazis assiduously studied the model of Jim Crow segregation, which they simultaneously admired from afar and linked to Jewish power structures. In their convoluted reasoning, segregation was at once a defensible white response to the threat of racial intermixing and growing black self-assertionandthe result of trickery by a powerful Jewish “plutocracy” that had used their considerable wealth to repress African-Americans. The Jews, according to one Nazi political cartoon from the 1930s, even took special pleasure in consuming images of lynching. The cumulative effect of such theories was to cast Jews as the secret, clandestine agents behind both white dominationandblack protest.

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Akedah

Aug24

by: Richard Heiberger on August 24th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Donald-J, Donald-J!

Here am I, Here am I, the greatest that there is.

Donald-J, I want you to take your sons, your favorite sons, the ones that have signed up to respond to your every whim, who have agreed to wear the brocade and lanyard, who you love for their loyalty. I want you to take them to the highest point where they will participate in honoring the Deity.

Of course, of course. I will gladly participate in being honored. Let me get my sons. We will harness our finest B1 airships and I will have two of my support battalions accompany us.

We shall leave early in the morning and be there within three hours. We shall see the place from afar and from on high—with our eyes lifted to 42000 feet, from where all seemingly great distances appear small.

And Donald-J said to the support battalions, await here while the bombardiers and I go forward. And the chief bombardier said, Honorable Sir. And he said speak. And he said I see the planes, I see the bombs, but even here—at only three hours distance—I see not any authorized targets. Not to worry, my loyal captain. As we get even closer to the time it will become clear. And they got closer, and the bombardier noticed that the bombs have been armed but the bomb bays had not been unlocked.

And Donald-J noted that the bombardier was properly belted into his seat and he took the button into his hand, ready to press it to release the explosive hammer.

And the Conscience of the Nation called out to him—Donald-J, Donald-J. And he said, Here am I, Here am I, the greatest that there is. And the Conscience of the Nation said, lay not a finger on the button. Do not destroy the future of your nation. For many millions of descendents will descend from him and his colleagues. In them and in the work of their hands, the produce of their factories, the libraries of their writings, will the future of justice depend.

So Donald-J and his support battalions returned. They rose up and gained altitude and descended to Andrews and the District.

__

Richard Heiberger is co-chair of Pnai Or Philadelphia. For the past few years his project has been to write and understand modern mythology. His project has recently morphed into an attempt to understand the incompatible political mythologies that have led the US to our current national trauma. His day job is Emeritus Professor of Statistics at Temple University in Philadelphia. Since retiring he has been teaching one graduate course per semester, usually “Statistical Computing”.

Tikkun Sponsors Nonviolent Demonstration

Aug23

by: on August 23rd, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Beyt Tikkun Synagogue and  Tikkun magazine will convene a non-violent family-friendly anti-Nazi rally on Saturday, the day before t​he Nazis are coming to Berkeley and at the same place they are planning to hold their event (the Berkeley Civic Center Park, Martin Luther King Jr. ave in Berkeley between Center Street and Allston Way, Saturday August 26th at 3 p.m.​ Many people want to protest the Nazis, but many want to avoid the potential violence on Sunday, so we have set up a nonviolent event for Saturday. We will do an abbreviated Mincha service (mostly in English)​, sing songs of freedom and tikkun olam, and we will have a few speakers including the mayor of Berkeley. Would you please help us inform everyone on your social media lists and your persona email lists since some of them have friends who live in the Bay Area and we very much want them to come and participate in this event which will focus on saying NO to Racism and Anti-Semitism and YES to world of justice, compassion and love for all of humanity and for the Earth! The event is cosponsored by the Pacific School of Religion and it is meant to be both Jewish and interfaith. And wherever you live, consider using this model for how to protest the Nazis without risking violence. ​Tikkun is proud to have taken the leadership in making this kind of nonviolent event happen. If you need more info, call Tikkun at 510 644 1200.

Remembering the Holocaust: Doing Justice to its Memory

Aug21

by: Donna Nevel on August 21st, 2017 | 3 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.”