Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Civil Rights Act and the Jews

Last week, on the same day as Jersey City, President Trump issued an executive order that brought American Jews under the umbrella of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It came as a bit of a surprise—to me, at least, but I think also to most—that prejudice directed specifically at Jewish Americans wasn’t already covered, but now it turns out that the situation is more complicated than I had understood. Title VI of that act specifically grants the Department of Education the right to withhold federal funding from any university—or, indeed, from any school at all—that discriminates against applicants or students based on “race, color, or national origin.” Religion was specifically omitted, apparently for fear that doing so would have constituted an unconstitutional breach of the wall between church and state. At the time, I suppose this seemed reasonable: at the height of the Civil Rights movement, the focus was almost solely on the eradication of institutional prejudice directed against black Americans. Looking back after all these years, though, that decision seems understandable without feeling fully cogent—and begs the obvious question why citizens who are being discriminated against because of any aspect of their identity at all should not be protected just as vigorously as people facing specifically racial discrimination?

And so, on the face of it, the President’s Executive Order of last week simply righted an accidental wrong and applied the protections inherent in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to Jewish Americans. After all, it hardly seems debatable that Jewish Americans constitute an ethnically distinct minority within the larger American citizenry, thus falling precisely into the category of discriminated-against individuals the Act was intended to protect in the first place. Many have reacted warily to the President’s Executive Order, some even with hostility. But opposition to the Executive Order rooted in the sense that there is something offensive or derogatory about recognizing Jewish ethnicity as no less real a component in Jewishness than Judaism itself rings false to me. Just to the contrary, in fact, is the case: the reality is that the large majority of Jews on America’s college campuses who are facing open and, at least in some cases, virulent anti-Semitism understand their Jewishness in precisely that way: as ethnicity rather than as religion. As a rabbi, I can’t say that I applaud that aspect of reality. In fact, there are many ways in which I deplore it. And yet I also recognize it as the reality of our day and, as such, something entirely reasonable and rational for the federal government also to recognize as part of the status quo. Interestingly, the text of the Executive Order speaks directly to this detail when it says that “individuals who face discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin do not lose protection under Title VI for also being a member of a group that shares common religious practices.” That only seems rational to me.

Of great interest to me personally was the President’s specific reference to the definition of anti-Semitism developed and promulgated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental organization headquarter in Berlin that brings together the resources of thirty-three different nations to promote Holocaust education and to combat anti-Semitism. And, in that context, of special interest is the connection the IHRA definition makes between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, including in its set of examples of anti-Semitic behavior “the targeting of the state of Israel, [specifically when] conceived as a Jewish collectivity,” as well as behavior and speech rooted in a basic denial of “the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor.” And also defined as anti-Semites are those who compare “contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” That the simple truth that anti-Zionism—as opposed to opposition to some specific Israeli policy—is anti-Semitism is a truth we have long waited to hear accepted by people outside the Jewish community. So that too must be adjudicated as a positive development.

Of course, nothing regarding President Trump is ever that simple or cut-and-dried. The very fact that the President announced his Executive Order at a White House Pre-Hanukkah celebration featuring Pastor Robert Jeffress, a fundamentalist minister who has said publicly that he considers all Jews doomed to hellfire for their failure to embrace his own faith, only made the scene that much weirder and creepier, and only called the underlying motive behind the announcement more into reasonable question. And, indeed, the blogosphere is awash with dark theorizing regarding the “real” motives that led to the President’s Executive Order. I’d like to consider them one by one.

1.      It was just a play for Jewish votes in 2020. I don’t find it at all unlikely that there is some truth to this. But I also don’t care. Jewish students are under attack on America’s campuses in a way that is truly unprecedented and any effort to make them more secure, more safe, and less open to overt acts of prejudice and anti-Semitism are welcome. So what if the President’s motives were sullied by the hope of personal gain? That has become a hallmark of the administration anyway, so why not be pleased that it led for once in a positive, useful direction? When a wealthy skinflint makes a huge donation to charity not because he cares about its work but solely because he wants the tax write-off, the charity still benefits.

2.      It was really meant to stifle anti-Israelism on American campuses. This was the argument of many. But the reality is that the anti-Israelism on our campuses today, often couched in support for the BDS movement or as support for the Palestinians, veers regularly and ominously into anti-Semitism. It seems ridiculous to argue that there simply is no way to express one’s displeasure with some Israeli policy without libeling or insulting the Jewish people. But even if that were to the case (which it surely isn’t), it would still be just and right to forbid those who speak out against such policies from using anti-Semitic tropes in their speech.

3.      It was a way of making the Civil Rights Act less potent by widening it to apply to even more people. I saw this line of thinking pursued on several websites, but I still can’t quite understand how forbidding bigotry directed at one group weakens the parallel restriction forbidding bigotry aimed at a different group. At any rate, it’s hard to imagine how broadening the Act’s base could make it weaker instead of stronger.

4.      It was a veiled attack on the concept of free speech itself. This, at least in the blogosphere, was the big one. And, as far as I can see, it’s the line of argumentation most favored by anti-Israel types who are afraid that their right to protest this or that policy of the State of Israel will now be compromised. But that is not how this anti-discrimination thing words: the laws that protect people from hateful, libelous speech delimit (and are supposed to delimit) the rights of the speaker, not the spoken-about party. In other words, if someone protesting the decision to relocate the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem cannot find a way to express his or her displeasure without veering off into anti-Semitic tropes, then that has to be that person’s problem. And that too is as it should be.

5.      It was an attack on Christianity itself. This, I find particularly scary, rooted as it apparently is in the understanding that the right of campus-based ministers to preach anti-Semitic sermons should be protected by law. It is true—and more than true—that there are many passages in the New Testament that could reasonably be labelled as hostile to Judaism. The library of early Church features an entire sub-category called the Adversus Judaeos literature, which consists of sermons and entire books written to foment disrespect, in many cases verging on hatred, of Jews and Judaism. These are legitimately understood to constitute part of the literary heritage of ancient Christianity, but it is still reasonable to expect contemporary preachers to avoid preaching sermons that propose hatred of Jews as a reasonable spiritual stance. All religions, Judaism included, have as part of their literary or cultural heritage institutions, stances, and stories that are inconsonant with republican principles of modern democracies. The existence of these do not need to be denied. (Is lying about the past ever a good thing?) But to suppose that their existence should by itself constitute an override to the prohibition of hate-speech seems, to say the very least, illogical to me.

6.      It was just an attempt to deflect attention from the impeachment hearings. I suppose we can debate whether this is likely or unlikely, but the bottom line is that it didn’t work. Nor could it ever have worked. So I’m guessing this wasn’t a real factor.

The bottom line is that I am more than pleased that the protection of the federal government will now be extended to Jewish students on American campuses. As a mentioned two weeks ago, the list of schools that have witnessed serious acts of aggression against Jewish students includes some of the nation’s most revered institutions of higher learning. The ADL has determined that the level of on-campus violence directed against Jews has risen every single year annually since 2013. Protecting victims of prejudice or bigotry is precisely what I actually do think the federal government should be doing. With all respect to Jared Kushner’s op-ed piece published in the New York Times last week (click here), I am not at all sure that the President’s motives were pure. I could probably go so far as to say that it seems highly unlikely that he was motivated solely by the desire to right a historic wrong and thus only to do good. But whatever the “real” motive or combination of motives, the Executive Order of December 11 was a positive, helpful step forward for Jewish Americans of all ages and situations, but most of all for Jewish students on America’s campuses. Nor is this a shift I can imagine future presidents undoing on ideological grounds. Whether this will really make America’s campuses a safer, better place for Jewish students remains to be seen. But that this was a step in the right direction feels obvious to me.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

More Light!

I first read The Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius, the famously gossipy and endlessly amusing historian of the first twelve Roman emperors, when I was in graduate school. Lots of the book stays with me still, but among those anecdotes he relates that I could cite in a letter that might possibly fall into the hands of children my favorite has to do, I think, with the death of Vespasian—the archenemy of the Jews of his day and the Roman most responsible for the brutal defeat of the rebellion that left Jerusalem in ruins and the Temple razed. He was dying of terminal diarrhea (which detail appeals to me for some reason) and sensed that his end was near, when, so Suetonius, he looked at the people assembled by his bedside and archly said, “Vae, puto deus fio,” which translates loosely as “Vay iz mir, I think I’m turning into a god.”  Okay, the vay iz mir part I just made up. (Although vae in Latin means roughly the same thing as that longer Yiddish expression that oddly starts with the same word.) But the rest is slightly funny, slightly pathetic: since the Romans in his day liked to imagine their deceased Caesars turning into minor gods, Vespasian apparently though he could announce his imminent demise in an amusing way by forecasting his posthumous deification. Hardy-har-har!

That story came back to me over the last week as I received email after email about my last letter, the one in which I quoted Leonard Cohen’s song about light coming into the world because everything, somewhere, has a crack in it through which light can seep. I used that image to frame some of the good things I perceived as having happened lately, incidents or events that reminded me—in a particularly dark, distressing couple of months—that where there is darkness there can also be light…if you know where to look for it!

One writer asked me, I think seriously, if I was turning—not into a Roman god—but, in some ways even less probably, into an optimist. My regular readers know that optimism is hardly a hallmark of my worldview. Just to the contrary, I think, is the case: I have read too much—way too much—history, and particularly Jewish history, to see things other than clearly. And, at least for me, that means understanding mindless anti-Israelism not as a momentary aberration but as an integral plank of Western culture, as merely the latest iteration of the anti-Judaic sentiment that underlies too much of Western culture to be removed or even removable other than by the cultural version of a tectonic plate shift. So, no, I don’t think I’m ready to look out at the world and declare myself even a non-cockeyed optimist. And yet there have been just lately some positive, encouraging events that I omitted to discuss last week. And so, at risk of being accused of abandoning my systemic pessimism about the universe, I thought I’d risk writing about them this week. Why not? I’m on a roll!

I am thinking of two recent events principally.

The first is the conference that took place just last month in London that brought together Arab intellectuals and leaders from fifteen different Arab countries: Morocco, Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and nine Persian Gulf states, all of whom were apparently of the mind that the best way to bring peace to the Middle East would be for Arab states, as well as the Palestinians, to engage with Israel, to abandon the decades-long boycott of the Jewish State, and to welcome Israel as a partner-in-dialogue. Even casual students of the Middle East will understand easily how surprising—or rather, shocking—a development this was. And yet, there they were: journalists, artists, scholars, politicians, and scholars (including scholars of the Quran) sitting together and saying clearly that the refusal to acknowledge the reality of Israel’s existence has mostly cost the Palestinians what could otherwise have been the opportunity to build their own state with the willing, even eager, support of their Israeli neighbors.

The group has a name: The Arab Council for Regional Integration. And they have a leader too in one Mustafa el-Dessouki, an Egyptian who edits an influential Arabic-language news magazine called Majalla. More recognizable will be the name of Anwar el-Sadat, not the assassinated Egyptian leader (obviously) but a namesake and nephew whose major claim to fame—at least so far—lies in his having been expelled from the Egyptian Parliament in 2017 for not being sufficiently obsequious to Egyptian President (and strongman) Abdel el-Sisi.

I’ve read several accounts of this meeting. (To sample some, click here, here, here, and here. To hear former P.M. Tony Blair’s address to the group, click here.) All seem in agreement that these people are sincere and that they represent a real sentiment among many in the Arab world—albeit one rarely expressed in public—to the effect that the real way to pave a path into the future for the Palestinians is for Israel to be made to feel secure, thus less inclined to act solely defensively, and to foster an atmosphere of mutual undertaking and endeavor that will make Israelis into real people for their Palestinian neighbors and, in some ways even more dauntingly, vice versa. This is something I’ve hoped would happen, basically, forever—the sudden appearance of a block of respected thinkers prepared to enter into sustained, respectful dialogue with Israeli leaders that is not “about” Israel’s right to exist but rather about the ideal way for Israel and its neighbors to relate to each other, to work together on projects of mutual benefit, and to create the kind of peaceful setting in the Middle East that would benefit all concerned parties.

It’s just a beginning. It’s not even that much of a beginning. But it is something…and, as far as I can see, it actually is real. I feel buoyed, almost encouraged, slightly hopeful, marginally less pessimistic—all highly unlikely developments for someone who prides himself on the sobriety and realisticism of his worldview. And yet…here we are! Something new has happened. Where we go from here, none can say. But all can hope!

So that was the first event I wanted to bring to your attention. The second has to do with a visit just last week by some senior journalists from Iraq, Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia who came to visit Israel for a five-day visit. Organized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the guests all came from countries without diplomatic ties to Israel. But they came anyway, and this too represents a kind of sea-change—or at least the intimation of the possibility of that kind of sea-change—in the intransigency and obstinacy that has characterized even relatively liberal Arab writers when it came down to accepting the reality of Israel and understanding that the path to peace in the Middle East is through dialogue rather than violence. Yes, it’s true that these journalists, apparently fearing repercussions at home if it became known that they had been in Israel, retained their anonymity during the trip. But that only makes their visit more, not less, remarkable: here were people with everything to lose. And yet they came, partially (I’m sure) out of curiosity, but apparently also to take a principled stance against the mindless rejectionism that has led exactly nowhere in more than seventy years.

Their visit was not totally unprecedented. Last summer, a group of bloggers and journalists from Iraq and the Gulf States who came to Israel also last month as guests of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. In some ways, it was a normal trip: visits to Yad Vashem, the Temple Mount, the Knesset, etc. But this too was something we hadn’t ever seen: young writers, particularly bloggers, from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and some Gulf States traveling around Israel, seeing the people not as a faceless enemy but as actual individual men and women, attempting to understand the culture of the place and its sense of self. (To get the idea, click here for a picture of a young Saudi blogger named Mohammed Saud and Yair Netanyahu, Bibi’s son, sitting side by side and apparently getting along just fine.)

None of this is going to matter in the long run if the participants are doomed to be outliers who represent no one but themselves. But I have long hoped—even prayed—for something like this, for people on the other side to realize that the great hope for a future for the Palestinian people lies in dialogue and cooperation, not in violence fueled by self-generated despair.

Yes, it isn’t much. In some ways, it’s hardly anything at all. But you know how it works with cracks and light: even the narrowest crack has the capacity to let in enough light to change everything! As Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, approaches, that seems like a positive notion to keep in mind.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

How the Light Gets In

Some people first heard the late Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” while listening to his 1992 album, The Future. Others, probably way more, were first exposed to its haunting melody in Oliver Stone’s 1994 controversial (but also terrific) movie, Natural Born Killers, starring Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis. (For a terrific clip of the great man singing his great song, click here.) All the song’s lyrics are eerily compelling, but most stuck of all in my head is the chorus: “There’s a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

For some reason the sound of that voice (truly like none other) singing those words has been in my head for the last few weeks.

Other than the day of Thanksgiving itself, which I spent surrounded by family and the house was filled with music and light, it’s been a dismal few weeks featuring a world-wide surge in anti-Semitic incidents and a parallel, and public, diminution of sensitivity to the legacy of Shoah that feels, at least to me, unprecedented.  The vicious verbal and on-line abuse leveled at Auschwitz survivor and Italian senator-for-life Liliana Segre because she dared call for the creation of a parliamentary committee devoted solely combatting hatred, racism, and anti-Semitism was shocking. (Click here for more details.)  A recent campus-wide surge in racist and anti-Semitic incidents at Syracuse University was so intense that the university was obliged to take the unprecedented step of suspending the social activities of all fraternities through the end of the semester. (Click here for the fuller story.) Reports of intense anti-Semitism, only sometimes dressed up as anti-Israelism to make it appear marginally less odious, in places once known as bastions of civility and learning—places like Vassar College, Duke University (where the level of anti-Semitism on campus has actually provoked an inquiry at the federal level by the U.S. Department of Education), the University of Toronto, Brown University, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, the University of Virginia, San Francisco State University, and Columbia University (where the openly and unapologetically anti-Semitic Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, was greeted with a world leader’s welcome just two months ago)—have only added to my general sense of discomfort and ill ease. If you’re not depressed enough, click here to read a round-up report of the latest anti-Semitic incidents in Poland. And here to read a similar survey of incidents in Hungary. There was a time when the ADL survey released two weeks ago according to which a full quarter of Europeans harbor strongly negative attitudes towards Jewish people would have shocked me to the core. Now it just seems like more bad news. (Click here for the full story, complete with depressing specifics.) Oh, and a white supremacist skinhead named Richard Holzer was charged just last week in Denver federal court with plotting to blow up a synagogue in Pueblo, Colorado. (He pled not guilty.)

Given the gravity of the above, the kerfuffle over Amazon selling Christmas tree ornaments depicting various images of Auschwitz seems almost amusing. (And, no, I did not make that up. Click here.)

And yet, despite it all, there are also cracks through which light has lately been seeping in a bit and making the world feel at least marginally less dark, less anxiety-provoking, and less bad. So I thought this week I would focus on the cracks and the light, and invite you all to join me in looking away from the darkness for at least a few minutes. Trust me, it won’t take that long.

In Malmö, Sweden, a city whose Jewish citizens haven’t felt safe or secure for a very long time, an imam—and, at that, the founder of the city’s Academy of Islam—attended a public commemoration of Kristallnacht. It is amazing that this was considered an amazing gesture. But given the intense level of anti-Semitism in that place, his gesture was hailed not only as welcome and overdue, but truly as brave. So that certainly qualifies as a ray of light.

At the United Nations, an organization of which I couldn’t possibly think less, the annual round of Israel-bashing resolutions produced an unexpected ray of light—or, more precisely, thirteen of them when thirteen nations that have previously merely abstained when the same resolution was introduced in past years—Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Lithuania, Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Brazil and Colombia—actually found the courage to vote against one of the General Assembly’s more egregious efforts to condemn Israel for the world’s woes. Of course, there will be nineteen (not a typo) other bills introduced in the General Assembly condemning Israel this year…but at least in this one instance thirteen countries behaved decently and reasonably. (In the final vote, fifty-four nations still abstained, just twenty-three (including the countries listed above) voted against the measure, and eighty-seven supported it. So there wasn’t much light, just some. But sometimes a single ray of light is comfort enough when the alternative would be pitch darkness, which is what I believe all rational people have come over the years to expect from the United Nations.

In France, where I was counselled against daring to walk down the street wearing a kippah just two years ago, the National Assembly (i.e., the lower house of the French parliament) voted to approve the draft of a resolution that formally acknowledges hatred of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism and which calls upon the French government to join other European nations in adopting the definition of anti-Semitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. (That definition is an interesting document to consider in its own right: click here.) And that too constitutes a ray of light.

In the U.K., where Chief Orthodox Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis took the unprecedented step a few weeks ago of issuing a statement calling the Labour Party out on its apparently endemic anti-Semitism, that party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn—who has been accused widely and repeatedly of himself harboring deeply offensive anti-Semitic attitudes—actually apologized for the anti-Semitism in its ranks. Yes, he did so only after being prodded repeatedly by a persistent reporter. And, yes, he followed up his remarks by pointing out that other parties—he specifically mentioned the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats—have had to deal with anti-Semitism in their ranks as well. But, at the very least, the man went on record as decrying the scandal that at times has engulfed his election campaign—the elections in the U.K. are scheduled for December 12—and saying, at least formally, that he considers anti-Semitism to be an unacceptable form of racism. And that counts as a ray of light too. Sort of.

And, speaking of England, there was the incident on the subway the other day that could reasonably go into the light and the darkness columns, but in which I prefer to see the light. A visibly Jewish man and his children were taking the Underground on their way somewhere when a man came up to them and started hurling anti-Semitic abuse at them and accusing them of worshiping in the synagogue of Satan. (The history of that expression, which appears twice in the New Testament in the Book of Revelation, is more complicated that it might at first sound. But that the man on the tube meant it as a nasty slur against Jewish people goes without saying.) So that’s the bad part of the story. But then Asma Shuweikh, a visibly Muslim woman wearing a head scarf, stood up and defended the Jewish children against whom the man was so openly and so viciously venting his spleen. She had nothing to gain and everything to lose. (If the man doesn’t like Jews, he almost certainly also doesn’t like Muslims.) But she saw an open act of bigotry directed against innocents and instead of looking away, she stood up for the victims. It was a minor incident—you can actually see most of it on youtube by clicking here—but we’re talking this week about cracks that let in light. And this surely was a crack through which, albeit briefly, light shone. And that counts too.

Sticking with the U.K. for a moment longer, the Anglican Church issued a momentous report just last week—one that took three years to research and compose—in which it acknowledged, finally, that centuries of Christian anti-Judaism in Europe helped create the atmosphere that made the perpetration of the crimes of the Nazis during the Shoah years possible. Nor does the report focus solely on the past, noting specifically that “some of the approaches and language used by pro-Palestinian advocates are…reminiscent of what could be called traditional anti-Semitism.” Will the average Brit read this report and take its message to heart? Probably not. But the average pastor preaching in church week in and week out—and coming over and over to the question of whether Judaism remains a legitimate religion in today’s world or if Jews by clinging to their ancient faith are actually thwarting the possibility of redemption—will read it and, I hope, feel chastened by its various implications. And that too counts as a ray of light in a world awash in dark, menacing tides.

I am not a Pollyanna in any sense of the word. If anything, I’m a pessimistic realist when it comes to considering the future of the Jewish people in the various lands of our dispersion. And yet, even despite my general tendency to expect the worst from the world (and my sense that anyone who knows anything about Jewish history could hardly think otherwise), I find myself circling back around to Leonard Cohen’s line and, eager to see the light that the cracks let in, feeling slightly better about things and at least slightly more hopeful. 

It’s been a brutal few months. There is no particular reason to expect things to get better any time soon. And yet, “the wars they will be fought again / The holy dove, she will be caught again / Bought and sold and bought again / The dove is never free. / Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack, a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in.”