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Renewing Jewish Culture or Excommunicating Jewish Thinkers?

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Dear friends,

One of the tactics that has been used by some elements of the official structures of American Jewish organizations has been to attempt to "excommunicate" some critics of Israel by calling them "self-hating Jews" or "enablers of anti-Semitism."

I will take up the implications of the "self-hating Jew" epithet in another letter. On the other accusation, there has recently been a firestorm when the American Jewish Committee attacked a number of progressive Jews as enablers of anti-Semitism. In response there has come a wave of civil-liberties-style criticism of the AJCom for these smears.

But my critique is not only that this particular action of the AJCom is inane and vicious, but that the AJCom's whole bearing for the last decade or so has been destructive of Jewish values and culture, and that its policies toward the Middle East have endangered Israel.

(It wasn't always so. I remember in the '80s when the AJCom was defined by brilliant, creative, and courageous staff like Ira Silverman, tz'z'l, Marilyn Braveman, Irving Levine, and Marlene Provizer.)

Interestingly, among the people the AJCom slandered were the playwright Tony Kushner, the poets Adrienne Rich and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, the historian Daniel Boyarin, and the historian Tony Judt.

What is especially interesting about these people is that they have made major contributions to Jewish culture that criss-cross the lines between Israel and Diaspora and religious and secular Jewish culture and identity.

Kushner's play Angels in America is, I would say, a major twentieth-century Kabbalistic text (not about but of Kabbalah); his musical Caroline, or Change offers a non-schmaltzy look into Black-Jewish relations in the South; his screenplay for the film Munich raises some complex questions of Jewish ethics and the Israel / Diaspora dichotomy.

Rich, an extraordinary poet and essayist, won a major award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and has opened deep explorations of a feminist Jewish culture, so that some of her poems have been used in contemporary religious liturgies in ways she would not have planned or imagined. She is enriching Jewish and world literature with a lifetime of powerful and penetrating poems, shaking people out of their assumptions.

On honoring her in 2003, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture said:

Adrienne Rich's eloquent, provocative voice challenges conventional assumptions about sexuality, race, language, power and culture. ... Her prolific work is infused with the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam ("repairing the world") in its resistance to racism, militarism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. Among her works reflecting her Jewish identity are "Yom Kippur 1984," "Eastern War Time," "Sources," "For Ethel Rosenberg," and the essays "Split at the Root" and "History Stops for No One" (on the poetry of Irena Klepfisz). Rich identifies strongly with the tradition of the Jewish Left. She played a key role in the progressive New Jewish Agenda movement, co-founded the Jewish feminist journal, Bridges, and is editing a selection of Muriel Rukeyser's poetry for the Library of America.

Melanie Kaye/ Kantrowitz has transposed into an English-speaking Jewish world some of the socialist, anti-religious, anti-Zionist, and strongly Yiddishist sensibilities of the Yiddishe Arbeiter Bund (the Jewish Workers Union) that led many aspects of the Russian revolution of 1905 and was crushed by the Bolshevik Party after the Soviet Union was born.

Boyarin has contributed extraordinary scholarly studies of sexuality in the Talmud, and of changes in gender and other social constructs during the historic crises of Judaism as both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity were both being born, and as Judaism was facing Modernity in Vienna at the end of the 19th century.

Even though most of these authors see themselves as secular, they have contributed in unexpected ways to the renewal of Jewish religious thought and practice as well as to secular Jewish culture.

In the last decade, what has the AJCom done for Jewish culture? It has endlessly kvetched about intermarriage, instead of creatively addressing what it means to enrich Jewish culture and spirituality for all our families.

But this is not surprising. For AJCom sees no value in major contributions to Jewish culture that come outside the conventional box of defending Israel and keeping Jewish lineage pure. Indeed, the AJCom implicitly sees these crossing-the-line contributions as a threat to its own one-dimensional definition of Jewish values: For the AJCom, the only test of Jewish value is whether one wholeheartedly and single-mindedly supports the policies of the Jewish State. It is anathema, with almost all the weight that word carried in medieval Christian practice, to question those policies and to agonize over the conundrum of how to uphold the democratic values of the Israeli Declaration of Independence and affirm the Jewishness of the state at the same time. Yet it is precisely the policies of the Jewish state that are undermining its Jewishness in both demographic and ethical terms. And these policies the AJCom does not criticize. Nor does it dare address the conundrum of Jewish-and-democratic. Why do I make this accusation?
  • Because through both complicity and silence the ACom supported the disastrous Iraq war, which has killed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, weakened America, torn holes in the Constitution, increased the level of terrorist attacks around the world, and served as a Petri dish for training terrorists for attacks on Israel.
  • Because through both complicity and silence they have supported the unmaking of Israel as a Jewish state. They have supported the settling of hundreds of thousands of Israelis in Palestinian areas in ways that every day make it more and more difficult to disentangle the communities so as to achieve a decent two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Because they are trying to prevent any examination of the questions these writers have raised about the democratic-and-Jewish conundrum, and its corollary whether a Jewishly focused state can ever make peace and achieve security in the Middle East.

I have asked myself the same question, as I think any seicheldik (prudent, wisdom-seeking) Jew must do today. I still believe that Jewish and universal interests and values are best protected by the pursuit of peace between a renewed Palestine and a renewed Israel -- still, and hopefully always, a state with a special connection to the Jewish people.

So I disagree with Kushner, Rich, Kaye/Kantrowitz, Boyarin, and Judt. But I don't piss on them. Indeed, their questioning has helped me think more fully and clearly. If the AJCom had taken up their ideas and explained why they disagreed -- ahh, wonderful. We would all have ended up wiser.

Meanwhile, in the six-year framework of the present crisis of America and the Middle East, who has been wiser, more p[rescient?

Commenting in December 2001 about the eerie convergence of drama and post-9/11 history, Kushner said,

"We have been abruptly plunged into horror - by [September 11] first and foremost... and by the actions of our administration as well, both here and abroad. More horror is to come.

"We need to think about ourselves, our society -- even about our enemies."

Ahh, THAT is the crime. Thinking. Inciting others to think.

Do you think that in 2001 the AJCom was suggesting that the Bush administration was preparing more horror for America and the world? Not hardly! Was it suggesting we think about our enemies? Not hardly! -- Who was right? Kushner or the AJCom?

Indeed, as recently as May 2006, after we knew all we know about Iraq, the legitimization of torture, the abandonment of New Orleans, the AJCom not only honored President Bush at their centennial banquet but listened and applauded to these remarks of his about Iraq:

If scorn were the legitimate coin of the realm, who might be pouring scorn on whom? Here are the Words of Bush that the AJCom applauded in May 2006 [The quotes, including the
"applause" notes, are taken straight from the AJCom's own Website]:

And one of the lessons of September the 11th is that this nation must take threats seriously before they fully materialize. (Applause.) And I saw a threat in Saddam Hussein. He had invaded a neighbor, he had used weapons of mass destruction against his own people, he had the capability of making weapons of mass destruction, he harbored terrorists, he was shooting at U.S. aircraft. He was a threat, and the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power. (Applause.)

Our goal in Iraq is to have an ally in the war on terror and to help that young country establish an Iraqi-style democracy. Last December, 12 million people defied the car bombers and the killers and the terrorists, and said, that, we want to live in liberty. Recently a unity government has formed in Iraq. They reached an agreement on their top leadership posts. This new government represents a turning point in Iraq, a new chapter in our engagement there, and an opportunity for progress.

... I want you to understand that the new government is yet another blow to those who hate liberty. First, it will deny the terrorists their immediate aim of turning Iraq into a safe haven from which they can plot and plan attacks against the United States and our allies. And secondly, a democratic Iraq will be a major blow to the terrorists' hateful ideology, sending a powerful message across the region that the future of the Middle East belongs to freedom. The only way we can lose in Iraq is if we lose our nerve, and I am not going to lose my nerve. (Applause.)

Even reading those "applause" lines, I would never accuse the AJCom of enabling anti-Semites. I assume they are doing the best they can, given their social, economic, and political predepositions, to strengthen the Jewish people.

But I would say that "the best they can" is falling abysmally short. I would accuse them of arrogance and the stupidity that is bred by arrogance. I do think their perspective is so shortsighted that they have forfeited the kind of respect they used to command - indeed, the kind of respect that recently brought great newspapers to pay more attention to their attack on bright lights of Jewish culture than those same papers would have given the scrawls of nasty graffiti-makers on walls of beauty and intelligence.


Shalom, salaam, peace -

(Rabbi) Arthur Waskow

Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center, a prophetic voice in Jewish, multireligious, and American life for peace, justice, community, and healing of the earth.

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