Thursday, December 18, 2014

Out of Clay

How loyal should Jews be to themselves, as opposed to others? As Hanukkah begins, this question lingers. After all, this in a revisionist if understandably less popular view celebrates the triumph of Hebrew tradition over assimilation. Refusal to give in to the Greeks and their lax practices and morals, at least as we get the version in Maccabees (not a canonical book of the Tanakh, but Catholics accept it for its hint of purgatorial affirmation, as an aside, in turn ironically reflecting Greek influence on the rabbinical conception of an afterlife with its hopes or fears). So, when Jews commemorate the victory of those who refused trayf on pain of death, and who then inflicted death on those they hunted down who had given in to the pagan ways and their uncircumcised fashion, do they realize the tension inherent in it? Does this undermine its family fun and, now, "co-exist" bumper sticker and postage stamp equivalent that leads us to all to wish "happy holidays" alongside the newest inclusion, equality with Eid al-Fitr? (I have yet to meet anyone who lights Kwanzaa candles, invented in 1966 by a black studies professor, within sight of where I teach.)

Michael S. Roth, reviewing in the New York Times Alan Wolfe's At Home in Exile, sums up that professor's approval of universalism against particularism, the two strains in Jewish identity which have bedeviled it for centuries, and maybe always. "Mr. Wolfe looks at Diasporic Jewry not as an endangered species threatened by aliyah (emigration to Israel) and assimilation, but as a vital and creative force that is also good for Israel. The 'best thing Jews can do to further the survival of the Jewish state,' he writes, 'is to remain outside Israel and keep the tradition of Diasporic universalism as vibrant as possible.' American Jews in particular, he optimistically concludes, 'retain a commitment to social justice in ways that resemble a biblical commandment,' adding, 'Religious or secular, universalism is part of who they are.'" So, Wolfe favors this separation as the way that, somehow, Jews will flourish, apart from the State of Israel and those Zionists who resurrected Maccabee heroes.

On the other hand, as David Remnick's "Israel's One-State Reality" (to me it feels too one-sided as it reasons that Palestinians will be satisfied with restoration of the West Bank; consider their militant dissatisfaction now in Gaza) in a recent New Yorker examines, the discontent in Israel appears to tilt the balance away from Wolfe's expectations of diasporic prosperity balanced with homeland security.

Near the end, Remnick observes a reaction common to those of us who, as in my city, see all around us the presence of Israelis who have moved away from their forebears' Zionist allegiance. They may still call themselves Israeli citizens, but their decision to emigrate proves they have taken a tangible, personal way away from the land of the particular, Eretz Israel, into the diaspora Wolfe welcomes.

"Many Israeli friends have remarked on the élite in the country—doctors, artists, engineers, businesspeople; call it two hundred thousand people—who provide Israel with its economic and cultural vibrancy. That élite is no less patriotic than the rest, but if its members begin to see a narrowing horizon for their children, if they sense their businesses shrinking, if they sense an Israel deeply diminished in the eyes of Europe and the United States, they will head elsewhere, or their children will. Not all at once, and not everyone, but there is no denying that one cost of occupation is isolation." Wolfe's observations certainly can be proven all around us, even if opponents claim pro-Israeli media dominate journalism. Anytime the New York or Los Angeles Times reports on this conflict, "the other side" protests its bias. Sympathy for Israel is weak from my observations of the wider media (if, yes, often outside the U.S. mainstream). On the L.A. Times' back pages, I read how a few left France for Israel instead to make aliyah, so discouraging was France towards any other support than that given Arabs nowadays. Any who stand with Israel, as the slogan goes, get relegated to the ranks of racists, hypocrites, right-wing fanatics, sometimes in caricatured stereotypes. The presence of Godwin's Law rapidly slips into pull quotes, cartoons of a crooked cross replacing the Mogen David, Facebook comments lambasting Israelis as tycoons and jackbooted stormtroopers. The inevitable elision of anti-Jewish attitudes under the guise of anti-Israel anger occurs, even if progressives take pains to deny this. I wonder, if ISIS had not burst into the news this same summer, if the global support for the Palestinian uprising under Hamas would have grown even more strident.

Anger at least online and in headlines came and it went quickly, if far more intensely than the previous reaction to the insurgency in 2010. This year's skew, with a flood of those charged images uploaded during Operation Cast Lead, in my FB feed tallied 99+% for Palestine and -1% for Israel, but that may reflect my own friends and the loyalties of those outside Judaism. Yet I hasten to add that nearly all of my Jewish friends who weighed in on the situation have posted against Israeli policy and U.S. connivance too; I suspect these are the types of collaborators and Hellenized fifth columnists those doughty Maccabees would have revenged themselves upon, I reckon. Nobody I know who is Jewish was happy with the results. Likewise, the BDS campaign in Europe and among the American left, mainstream Protestantism, liberal Catholics, and academia (these categories risk redundancy) gains momentum and becomes as unquestioned as was the global movement boycotting South Africa and Rhodesia for anti-apartheid regimes a few decades ago. Israel=apartheid is now an equivalence so common as to appear without comment in most of the press, in print, and on placards.

Peter Beinart in the New York Times Book Review also covered Wolfe's book and that by Joseph Berger on the Hasidim, The Pious Ones. Beinart challenges Wolfe's enthusiasm for universalism. "In 1970, 17 percent of American Jews married gentiles. Today, among non-­Orthodox Jews, it’s 71 percent." If Wolfe's love of Jews loving the Other continues to manifest itself such, not many Jews will survive to be embraced. According to a recent Pew Report, as Beinart cites, now among non-Orthodox, "43 percent of the children of intermarried parents identify as Jews. And even among those who do, only 17 percent marry Jews ­themselves." Universalism beckons, logically, to make Jews part of the wider community, but at the cost, inevitably, of their own assimilation to the norm.

Meanwhile, we will continue the haimish rituals that remind us of particularism among the universe. Candles lit, a song recalled "I have a little dreidel/ I made it out of clay" as my wife fries up oil for sufganiyot and latkes (the red squiggle under the latter as well as the former term shows not all particulars become universal in Netspeak), and our son, alone this year, will join us as he has all his life, even if his amount of presents diminished as he matures. Sons, parents, families: made of clay, the same that ha-adamah, the red-earth, vivified into Adam in an even older story. Our other son will be in Israel as soon as he gets out of college on his winter break. He signed onto Birthright as a recipient of the largess largely due to a particular billionaire who has made his stash in dubious casino deals, and who donates heavily to GOP causes tying him to evangelicals eager for Armageddon (triggered by the conversion of the Jews, or their saving remnant who survive another holocaust). An ethical debate: what I equate to a century and more of benefiting from Carnegie's libraries and Ford's foundation, Huntington's library and Stanford's university: how much does the 99% take from the 1%? Those who exploit weakness in particular, but who partially reform, if in the name of a higher cause meant for the universal good? I am sure son #2 will return next month with his own perspective on the issues I raise this damp (for once, so it's a miracle!) Hanukkah night.

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