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Ralph Seliger
Ralph Seliger writes mostly about Israel and Jewish cultural and political issues for a variety of venues.

From China With Love: Fallout of One-Child Policy


by: on August 23rd, 2012 | 1 Comment »

In recent years, I’ve come to know two single mothers with daughters adopted from China. Both girls are very aware of their origin, even as they feel strongly Jewish. Adopted ten years ago at 15 months, the younger girl is an especially beautiful pre-teen, but her mother often remarks how different she is than expected. She has a learning disability that may prevent her from living up to the stereotype of the quiet, academically-gifted Asian-American. Instead, she’s tempestuous and a natural athlete who excels at soccer.

Fang Lee at Chinese market (photos courtesy of Linda Goldstein Knowlton)

Somewhere Between” is an uplifting documentary film that relates the lives in America of four teenagers who are among the 80,000 girls brought here from China since 1989, due to its “one-child family” policy (nearly 100,000 more are adopted in other countries). The title is taken from what Jenni Lee (who generally goes by her Chinese name of Fang–pronounced “Fong”) says about her in-between identity. It debuts commercially at New York’s IFC Center on Aug. 24, with a national roll-out to follow.

Fang was adopted at five, after being left by her brother in the middle of a big city. Her sense of abandonment is especially acute, as compared with the other girls who were more typically abandoned as infants. She is the only one of the four who remains fluent in Chinese, an ability no doubt assisted by her American mother learning to speak Mandarin with her at home.

A student at Berkeley High School during the filming, she radiates a maturity and compassionate nature that should be the envy of any parent. She goes back to China with some frequency, to help orphaned and abandoned children


Jews As Minority: Less Oppressed, But Still Vulnerable


by: on August 18th, 2012 | Comments Off

Recently, I was made aware of a 2009 ZNet article entitled “Jews Are Not an Equity-Seeking Group — How Myths about Anti-Semitism Distort Human Rights in Our Schools and Universities,” by Jason Kunin – a left-wing Canadian-Jewish blogger.

Analytically, Kunin has a point: there is a difference between prejudice and oppression, and happily, Jews suffer little oppression today as compared with decades ago. But he completely discounts prejudice as the seedbed for oppression, when masses of people are effectively propagandized to give their prejudice full rein. This is what happened in Nazi Germany where antisemitism was actually less prevalent than in Eastern Europe; the Holocaust was most devastating in Eastern Europe where antisemitism was an especially popular prejudice.

Kunin also has no regard for the way in which the genocidal oppression of the Nazi era, followed by the mass expulsion of Jews from most of the Muslim Middle East, haunt Jews to this day. The fact that extreme Islamist forces explicitly target Jews–as illustrated in the premeditated killings of Lubavich emissaries during the attack on Mumbai in 2008 and the murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl (a “Zionist Jew”) decapitated in Pakistan in 2002–is a kind of oppression. For the most part, it’s not healthy for Jews to advertise their Jewishness in Muslim countries.


What’s True & Not True About ‘Jewish Self-Hatred’


by: on August 10th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

To start with, I don’t believe that anti-Israel Jewish activists are literally hating themselves. Israel has engaged in quite enough wrong-doing and morally questionable policies to explain their way of thinking. Yet I still see Jewish self-hatred as having credibility as an analytic concept, and perhaps in explaining the vehemence of such views.

Joseph Stalin; is Stalinism implicated in 'Jewish self-hatred'?

These views often focus exclusively on Israeli misdeeds without any regard for provocations and misdeeds from the other side, nor proportionate concern for far greater human rights catastrophes in much of the Arab and Islamic worlds. To cite some glaring examples: mass murders in the Sudan over the last 30 years and still occurring, Qaddafi’s blood-soaked rule and downfall in Libya, the ongoing terror attacks against civilians in Iraq and Pakistan, and the ever-growing death toll in Syria.

What got me thinking about this phenomenon was a recent piece by the conservative Jerusalem Post columnist and blogger Isi Liebler. He abuses the term to attack liberal and left-leaning Israelis and Jews, even as he denies doing this. For example, he concludes his “self-hatred” screed by warning against applying this term “indiscriminately against naïve well-meaning ‘bleeding hearts’ or legitimate critics of Israeli policies with whom we may disagree.” Yet in the scores of columns and blog posts I’m aware of, I cannot recall Liebler ever granting legitimacy to such critics.

Still, Liebler is correct that the modern phenomenon is largely a by-product of left-wing political culture. It originated with the large number of Jews who involved themselves in mass parties on the left in early to mid-20th century Europe and the English-speaking countries. (It may be noted in this connection that while never breaking through to major-party status, both the American Socialist and Communist parties had tens of thousands of members and the Socialists won about a million votes nationally at least twice.) These Jews often attempted to ingratiate themselves with their Gentile comrades by either not being overtly “Jewish” or showing themselves “progressive” by loudly denouncing legitimate Jewish concerns as “parochial” or not “universalistic.”


Gore Vidal’s Contradictory Legacy with Jews


by: on August 3rd, 2012 | 2 Comments »

Vidal in 2009

Upon learning of Gore Vidal’s passing, I immediately thought of this highbrow celebrity’s flirtation with antisemitism. But an illuminating article in The Forward gave me pause about seeing him as fundamentally antisemitic. It mentioned that his live-in companion from 1950 to 2003, Howard Austen, was Jewish and that he assisted him to overcome the antisemitism of the advertising industry that had excluded him from a job in the 1950s. Vidal’s suggestion to change his Jewish-sounding family name of “Auster” to the WASP-y sounding “Austen” got him hired at a prominent firm.

The NY Times obit did not mention his Jewish controversies, but rather covered his remarkable record as a novelist, playwright, essayist and acerbic wit, often featured on late-night television talk shows. Vidal was something of a left-wing isolationist, who was even quoted as belittling Pres. Clinton’s apology for not having dispatched troops to end the genocide in Rwanda. His opposition to such humanitarian interventions was likely a result of losing the reputed love of his life, a prep school classmate who became a Marine killed at the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.

The Forward article mentioned the foreword he wrote for the anti-Zionist Israeli writer Israel Shahak‘s 1994 book that attacks Judaism as the hateful wellspring for Zionism—Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years. As it happens, Werner Cohn, now a retired professor of sociology with whom I’ve dialogued and argued over the years, published a review of this book in 1994, in Israel Horizons, a left-wing Zionist publication that I edited at the time. Despite my differences with Prof. Cohn on Israel and other matters, I value his perspective on Shahak:


Peter Beinart and ‘Zionist BDS’


by: on July 23rd, 2012 | 5 Comments »

Peter Beinart

Rabbi Michael Lerner’s May 3rd interview with City University of New York journalism professor Peter Beinart was a polite and illuminating exchange of views. It was especially interesting to see the contrast between Rabbi Lerner’s ethical radicalism and Prof. Beinart’s pragmatic liberalism. They disagree on some particulars, but obviously are in agreement in fundamental ways. For example, both agree on a targeted boycott strategy (what Beinart calls “Zionist BDS”) against Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

Prof. Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, is mostly quite good, but I fear that he–along with a majority of our dovish pro-Israel camp–may understate the extent to which episodes of Palestinian violence (e.g., Hamas and Islamic Jihad attacks during the 1990s, the frightful toll on Israelis of the Second Intifada, and the intermittent rocket and other attacks from Gaza following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2005) have undermined the trust of a majority of Israelis in the utility of peacemaking–even as Israel’s counter-measures have further alienated many Palestinians from faith in a negotiated peace.

Still, his depiction of the failures at Camp David in 2000, the pernicious and inexorable advances of the settlement movement and the ways in which Prime Minister Netanyahu resists a deal that would require a major curtailment of settlements, humbling Pres. Obama in the process—all seem spot on. Since a deal has especially been possible after Abbas replaced Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority, and the Arab League has been offering a regional peace since 2002, this is all very sad and maddening.


Are Jews the Smartest ‘Race’?


by: on July 17th, 2012 | 13 Comments »

Albert Einstein

A recent article in Haaretz, with the somewhat misleading title of “DNA links prove Jews are a ‘race,’ says genetics expert,” unveils a line of inquiry that grapples honestly with the matter of genetics and Jews. I’ve written a number of times on the controversial work of Shlomo Sand, an Israeli historian who disputes Jewish peoplehood with a highly selective review of evidence and a pronounced anti-Zionist agenda. This article provides a rational and measured counterpoint to Sand’s ideological screed.

As the article acknowledges, this subject is a political bombshell, but it also proves that it can be addressed reasonably. One should not be thrown off by “race” being in the title; the article is in no way “racist” in its analysis. It accepts that genetic differences among populations (historically separated by geography and/or cultural or political factors) are relatively minuscule, but still have a significance in terms of dispositions toward certain diseases, physical appearance and possibly other traits.

Modern racism was based on a faux-scientific mindset in the 19th century which identified nations and ethnic groups as genetically-defined races. This is what shaped Nazi race theory on Jews and other peoples whom they identified as inferior or (in the case of Jews) pernicious and deserving of extermination. It also fueled European colonial expansion and exploitation in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.


Alice Walker: NOT Antisemitic (Just Wrong)


by: on June 22nd, 2012 | 7 Comments »

Given what I know about this readership, my opinion here may be controversial. The following is a June 20 Associated Press story entitled, “Alice Walker rejects Israeli translation of book”:

American writer Alice Walker won’t let an Israeli publisher release a new Hebrew edition of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Color Purple,” saying she objects to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people.

Walker, an ardent pro-Palestinian activist, said in a letter to Yediot Books that Israel practices “apartheid” and must change its policies before her works can be published there.

“I would so like knowing my books are read by the people of your country, especially by the young and by the brave Israeli activists (Jewish and Palestinian) for justice and peace I have had the joy of working beside,” she wrote in the letter, obtained by The Associated Press. “I am hopeful that one day, maybe soon, this may happen. But now is not the time.”

There was something sweet about that last paragraph from Ms. Walker. I don’t believe she’s really a hater of Jews, especially considering that she married one; they divorced “amicably” ten years later, according to Wikipedia. But her obsession with Israel and Jewish issues is more than a little troubling.


Jews Lament the Left at NYC Conference


by: on June 14th, 2012 | 4 Comments »

Given the hardscrabble and embattled existence of the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe and their precarious situation in Central Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a substantial Jewish affinity toward the Left, including the radical Left. This natural affinity was carried to the United States via the great migration of European Jews from the 1880s until immigration was sharply restricted by the quota system imposed in 1924. The sizable minority of Jews involved with the American Communist Party was discussed extensively on Sept. 20, 2011 at New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

YIVO followed up with a conference on “Jews and the Left” on May 6-7, 2012. A professor of political science at John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center, Jack Jacobs–an authority on the Eastern European socialist political party and secularist Yiddish cultural movement known as the Jewish Labor Bund– chaired the conference’s steering committee. His introductory remarks addressed what had drawn Jews to the radical Left, rejecting not only long-discredited racialist explanations (such as offered by the early 20th century sociologist, Robert Michels) but also the “idea that Judaism per se is intrinsically progressive….” His explanation was first formulated in The Non-Jewish Jew by Isaac Deutscher (a noted biographer of Leon Trotsky), that the Jews’ social marginality as a vulnerable minority group “enabled them to rise in thought above their societies, above their nations, above their times and generations, and to strike out mentally into wide new horizons….” Jacobs elaborated as follows:

…. The marginality of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe–signaled by the lack of opportunity for Jews in major institutions in Czarist Russia, poor living and working conditions not only in Eastern Europe but also in the U.S., the explicit anti-Semitism of right-wing political movements, and … the relative openness of left-wing movements, led some Jews in areas such as the Russian Empire, Galicia, and the U.S. to affiliate with the political left.

He concluded (perhaps darkly), having earlier noted rightward trends among Jews in Israel, the U.S. and France, that “The dramatically altered conditions in which most Jews live in the twenty-first century have resulted in very different Jewish political constellations.”


How to Write [about] Anti-Semitism


by: on June 2nd, 2012 | 17 Comments »

Wilhelm Marr, inventor of 'antisemitism'

I favor writing “antisemitism” in the British way, as one word without a hyphen. Antisemitism–a term invented by a 19th century German (Wilhelm Marr) to label his Jew-hating belief system–is an ideology, but “semitism” is not. Moreover, antisemitism is not about the hatred of all peoples who speak a Semitic language (the linguistic family that includes Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic). Consequently, it’s not a misnomer to refer to Arabs who happen to hate Jews as antisemites.

The definition of antisemitism that I most prefer is attributed to the British-Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin: that antisemitism means “hating Jews more than is absolutely necessary.” This is a wise as well as witty observation that acknowledges that Jews–being only human–are capable of all the imperfections, weaknesses, mistakes and crimes of other humans. (That Jews are ordinary human beings is in itself something that the most extreme antisemites deny.)

Jerome Chanes, historian and contributing editor of The Forward, has recently written a review of the latest in the long list of books on the subject. He concludes with the common understanding that this is a problem of non-Jews, not a Jewish problem as such. I know what he means, of course, but I disagree slightly.


New Film: Did the Kibbutz Really Fail?


by: on May 10th, 2012 | 4 Comments »

Philosopher and theologian Martin Buber characterized the kibbutz as “an experiment that did not fail.” It’s important to see the kibbutz as an experiment that is still in progress, and this, I believe, is what the new documentary movie by Toby Perl Freilich on the history and evolution of the kibbutz movement (“Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment”) does.

Rabbi Lerner’s reaction to the original version of my review of this film was a multifaceted challenge:

… the failure of the kibbutz movement [is] not because it was too ideological, but because it was not principled enough:
a) to reject the militarism that came with the 1967 war
b) to honestly evaluate their own role as taking Palestinian land
c) failing to reach out with “caring values” to Sephardim/Mizrachim who came to Israel and were treated poorly, but instead looked only inside their own communities and embraced a wrong Stalinist ideology of “socialism in one kibbutz,” rather than seriously challenging the growth of capitalism within Israeli society, and finally
d) expanding their operations by tying themselves with loans from the large banks in the 1970s and 80s which led to a financial crisis when those banks raised interest rates in ways that the kibbutzim could not pay, during the upsurge of capitalist consciousness after the electoral victory of Likud in ’77. Thus, unlike the dominant ideological explanation of the failure of kibbutzim, it was precisely their unwillingness to take seriously their own socialist roots that was at the heart of the problem. …

My response begins as follows: I do not agree with the notion that the kibbutz was too “ideological.” The kibbutz has engaged in a conscientious effort to marry a utopian vision with practical realities; this project is still ongoing, as it must be. It can be critiqued at times for failing to live up to its principles, but it has succeeded far better in this regard than Marxist-Leninist regimes, and far more humanely. For example, there was never a one-to-one correspondence between being a kibbutznik and being a peacenik, but the kibbutz movement has had a disproportionate presence and influence in the peace camp, as it has in most Israeli institutions, including in the army and in the economy. Still, since it was never more than five percent of the country’s population, and usually much less, it was never capable of being the decisive factor in Israel’s economy, foreign policy or culture.