Arab-Israeli Attack

Jeff doesn’t see why the Palestinians can’t let the Jews have just one state to call their own.

I made no formal study of the Arab–Israeli conflict growing up and no study whatever of the Arab perspective—if there even was one. On some level it didn’t matter; the Jews had been on the wrong side of history for too long. The Crusades, The Inquisition, The Holocaust—the world had done terrible things to us for as long as we had been around. We were the underdogs of history, and now we needed every advantage we could get.

The Arab-Israeli Conflict class I took in college gave me more of the story, enough to realize that the Arabs too had been spurned by history. Britain had promised them a homeland as well; one that they had reason to think would include much of what is now the Jewish State. But it was only during my time in Israel that I began to understand what people meant when they talked about Arab suffering.

Condoleezza Rice: “Har Homa is a settlement the United States has opposed from the very beginning.”

Organizations like Ir Amim offered political tours of East Jerusalem throughout the year. It was on one of these tours that I visited Homat Shemu’el, an Israeli settlement in a predominately Arab neighborhood. The immaculately kept, meticulously planned enclave looked new enough for me to imagine I could still smell the paint. Across the way was Um Tubba—littered, unpaved, farm animals everywhere, men loitering outside shacks in the middle of the afternoon—an Arab shantytown. Were these our feared rivals, I wondered? They had nothing. They could barely provide for themselves, let alone compete with a burgeoning nuclear power.

Arab neighborhood of Silwan, East Jerusalem. Photo: Debbie Hill

The juxtaposition illustrated how divorced yeshivish rhetoric sometimes was from the facts on the ground. According to a 2006 study, though East Jerusalem’s Arab residents constituted one third of the city’s population, they received only 8-11% of the municipal budget. In yeshiva this would never have been on my radar. Of course Ir Amim’s radar was subject to distortions of its own. The Arabs living in East Jerusalem collectively rejected Israeli citizenship when it was offered to them in 1967 and had boycotted municipal elections ever since. There were then very few in Jerusalem’s administration to advocate on their behalf. But granting all this, how many Arabs may have towed the line for fear of Jordanian reprisal and how many of their children may be of a different mind than their parents?

As absurd as the analogy is I can’t help but think of Abraham’s advocacy for Sodom and Gomorrah. Upon learning of God’s intention to punish both cities for their sins, Abraham challenges, “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike….Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

I won’t deny the extent to which emotions may have influenced my outlook on this subject. But I’m not convinced that emotions don’t have their place in political discourse, especially when it comes to things like conflict resolution. The Jews have been the underdogs of history, and will probably continue to be for some time. But the Arabs have been underdogs as well. They need someone to advocate on their behalf, just like the Jews do.

– D. Schwartz


Jeremy Lin and Rav Soloveitchik

Jeff is that guy who disappointingly fails to write an original thought in his first blog post.

David Brooks writes an interesting, though somewhat simplistic, piece on Jeremy Lin, religion, and sports in today’s NYT opinions section. In addition to being a Harvard graduate, the first ever Asian-American starter in the NBA, and the third coming of Christ (2nd = Tebow), who knew that he was also probably the Rav’s inspiration for Lonely Man of Faith? Take a look here (h/t everyone on Facebook).

Chosenness Attack: Reflections on the Rubashkin Scandal

Jeff believes he has been chosen to redeem mankind through his deeds.

Some 2,000 women gathered in support of former Agriprocessors tycoon Sholom Rubashkin at the end of this past month.  In June of 2010 Rubashkin, once the CEO of America’s largest kosher meat-packing plant, was sentenced to 27 years in prison on 86 counts of financial fraud. The demise of Agriprocessors, and the Lubavitcher clan at its helm, has become one of the biggest American-Jewish scandals in recent memory. (Hats off to Bernard Madoff for having outdone them all.)

Storm clouds were already gathering in 2006 when The Forward published an award-winning exposé accusing Agriprocessors of criminally mistreating its workers.  The most disturbing insight that emerged though was not that Sholom Rubashkin, then the CEO, lacked the decency one would expect from a Jew, it was that he behaved indecently precisely because he was a Jew.  The Forward reported that while, “the rabbis have their own bathrooms and well-lit cafeterias…the separate facilities for the workers…were described to the paper as damp and dirty.”  Near the end of the article Mark Grey, director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration, had this to say, “I’m continually surprised at how poorly they treat these people because they’re not Jews.”

U.S. Immigration raided an Agriprocessors plant in 2008, arresting nearly 400 illegal-immigrant workers. Six months later, Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy.

Then, in another Forward article published in 2008, a similar sentiment was expressed, this time by a rabbi:

Yossi Jacobson, who moved to Iowa to represent Chabad and watched the Rubashkins settle in, said there was a lot of baggage to overcome.  ‘In Crown Heights or in Boro Park or in Flatbush, it’s always the goyim and the yidden. That’s how it is, you know? We don’t do nothing with the goyim. We don’t even go to their schools. We don’t wave to them, because we don’t even know them, and they don’t want to know us.’

Of course, much of this attitude can be easily chalked up to a long, harrowing history of anti-Semitism.  But I think there’s an element of tribalism endemic to the structure of Jewish identity.  If the Jewish nation is indeed a Chosen one, as the Hebrew Bible claims, then all other nations are well, not.  The big issue is not that Mr. Rubashkin treated his workers like second-class citizens; it’s that he may have been acting in “good faith,” insofar as non-Jews are second-class citizens.  This is not to say that Mr. Rubashkin represents the attitudes of all Jews.  Nor is it to say that there aren’t many elements of the Jewish tradition, both biblical and rabbinic, that advocate for a more universalist worldview.  But the issue remains: are there elements of Jewish Chosenness that would inevitably lead someone like Sholom Rubashkin to marginalize the concerns of those who are not Chosen?

Sholom Rubashkin is currently serving his sentence in Otisville, New York. Photo: AP

There are those who argue that the Jews were not simply Chosen but were Chosen for Something.  Chosenness indicates not ethnic superiority, but allegiance to a higher calling – the path of utmost righteousness.  But of course, this too can only have hierarchical implications.  If God has chosen the path of morality for Jews, does that mean it is a path closed to all others?  Even if Jews are merely meant to lead all others to this path why should they alone be fit for the task?  If it is because non-Jews are somehow less fit then Chosenness is a racist creed after all.  If it is for no reason that Jews have been chosen, then Chosenness is an utterly arbitrary distinction, a word without content.  It was for reasons like these that Reconstructionist thinker Mordechai Kaplan sought to eliminate Chosenness from the Jewish catechism.

Perhaps it was also for these reasons that in 2008, when Sholom’s older brother Moshe was arraigned for illegally housing hazardous chemical waste in an Allentown, Pennsylvania textiles plant, he responded by launching into an irrelevant “stream-of-consciousness oration…about the history of the Jewish community in Crown Heights.”  He did not, as The Village Voice reported, even touch on Allentown, though he was accused of having endangered it.  If Jews were chosen to uphold a higher standard, then both Rubashkins have abandoned this standard in the pursuit of it.  That, as I see it, is the crux of the issue.  When you’re Chosen, either you never let yourself forget it, or you never remember why.

– D. Schwartz

Daniel Gordis Attack

Jeff is that guy  who “makes the weaker argument appear to be the stronger.”

In May of this past year Daniel Gordis, The Shalem Foundation’s acting president, addressed the J-Street Leadership Mission to Israel and Palestine, criticizing the advocacy group for several of its positions and calling its place in the pro-Israel tent into question. Gordis’ remarks sparked something of a controversy, so much so that Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J-Street, felt compelled to rebut them in the form of an opinion piece he later published in the Jerusalem Post.

The majority of those who have weighed in on “In the Tent or Out,” the column based on Gordis’ address, have focused on its content: Gordis’ analysis of the conflict,  the facts he cited and the general thrust of his arguments. Instead, I want to focus on the form that these remarks took, on the way Gordis made the points he did. The Greeks have a word for this, for the way in which one makes points in a debate.  The word is rhetoric.

I find Gordis’ rhetoric to be manipulative in the extreme. And, as luck would have it, there’s a word for this as well, one that, appropriately enough, derives from the Greek tutors who bore it as their title.  The word is sophistry.

Rabbi Dr. Daniel Gordis and his family made aliyah in 1998. Photo: Maxine Dovere

The majority of the issues Gordis raises are used more as opportunities for censure than for exchange.  In his discussion of territorial concession, Gordis criticizes J-Street for doubting the legitimacy of those who are hesitant; the reasons for hesitancy itself though, are never addressed.  His focus is similarly skewed with regard to the UN’s resolution on settlements.  There, the discussion revolves around J-Street’s vote in favor, not around the American-Jewish reason for being opposed.  In his remarks on the Gaza War, Gordis condemns J-Street’s protest to it but doesn’t explain the necessity of the conflict at this juncture; Gordis himself admits that Sederot had been under fire for the past eight years.  It isn’t that Gordis is necessarily wrong, it’s that he is so busy tongue-lashing his audience they have no opportunity to evaluate whether he’s right.  There is no frank, extended discussion of the arguments.  There is only a lot of indignant posturing.

But more than this, Gordis’ rhetoric sensationalizes the issues, reducing them to the starkest and most cosmic binaries.  As he opens, “Given the extent of the forces aligned against Israel…the pro-Israel camp needs a big tent.  Neither Israel nor the Jewish People will survive if we work only with those with whom we agree.”  This is how Gordis frames his remarks, not with some perfunctory gesture toward complexity, but with a reductive allusion to what he believes is at stake, the very survival of the Jewish people.

And of course, if it is J-Street’s inclusion in the tent that is under discussion, then the prospects of Jewish survival may indeed be determined by what ensues.  In few words, Gordis has made very many issues into one issue: the continuity of Jewish identity.  With this as his point of departure, it becomes increasingly difficult for his audience to navigate the nuances of each issue without being pulled into an ideological binary—you are either for the Jews or you’re against them.

Gordis makes this binary even starker later on in his address declaring:

There are groups who are clearly opposed to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state; they are our enemies.  It doesn’t matter if they are in Israel or outside, or if they are Jewish or not.  If they are working to end Israel, or to end it as a Jewish and democratic state, then they are our enemies, plain and simple. There are enemies who cannot be loved or compromised into submission….You need to show us that you care about Israel more than you care about dialogue with Israel’s enemies.

 That caring about Israel is being in dialogue with its enemies is a prospect Gordis doesn’t consider.  Instead he dramatizes the opposition between Israel and its adversaries. But this dramatization only makes it more difficult to get on with the work of coexisting with one’s adversaries, which may in fact be what is demanded of both sides in this conflict.  It is this same dramatization that also explains why Gordis feels he need only cite American-Jewish opposition to the UN resolution, without explaining its ground.

For, in the kind of image Gordis evokes, “Given the extent of the forces aligned against Israel…the only hope for survival is a big pro-Israel tent.”  Without it, “Neither Israel nor the Jewish People will survive.”  If J-Street then fails to align itself with Israel’s allies on a certain issue, it is in effect aligning with Israel’s enemies, since misalignment, or a shrinking tent, spells death for both Israel and the Jewish people.  Thus J-Street’s every departure from the party line deserves the disgrace associated with disloyalty rather than the deference accorded dissent.

I’m not convinced Gordis would actually get behind what he seems to be implying is a necessity, i.e., the homogenization of American-Jewish support.  For Gordis himself says, “You certainly don’t need to be a rubber stamp for Israeli policy….Israel desperately needs critique.”  But his rhetoric still serves to paint Israel’s critics into a pretty tight corner, especially critics such as J-Street.  As Gordis puts it, “What matters more to you – the safety of Israel’s citizens, or advancing your own moral agenda in our region of the world?”

This formulation, like the foregoing ones, reduces the conflict to one in which there are only two sides; either J-Street is for Israel’s safety or it is for some moral agenda.  Framing the issue as such makes it seem as if these two positions can only be mutually exclusive.  Moral agenda, dialogue withIsrael’s enemies—this is one side.  Part of our tent, pro-Israel—this is the other side.  My question to Gordis then is this: can there be no position in which a moral agenda and Israel’s security have equal priority?  And if so, what would it look like?  Could it be part of Gordis’ Big Tent?

– D. Schwartz