Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Literary Roundup: Two poets

Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Jewish poet, feminist, has written another book that should sit on all our bookshelves. For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book is Ostriker's most recent book of essays addressing the and re-interpreting six of our richest biblical texts: Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Jonah and Job. Many of these are wells from which modern midrashists and feminists have drawn much water, but Ostriker is able to revisit many drawing new inspiration and showing how many of our traditional readings of these texts leave out a great deal that lies as subtext, and from which we can draw new strength and meaning.
Some of the readings address battles which have largely been fought, and which younger feminists, even younger Jewish feminists may feel are over. Yet, the truth is we keep revisiting them: in the secular world, when new movements form to try to make contraception illegal once again; in the Jewish world,women are still outnumbered as institutional leaders, presidents, and rabbis, in both worlds, getting paid less and receiving fewer benefits, being penalized for having children, and being constantly bombarded by bad science about how we ought to go back to the home. And of course, the battle is not won: not in Judaism, where there are still branches of Judaism in which women do not count, communities in which women have been so under pressure as those who lead men astray that against their rabbis' wills, they have taken on wearing clothes that cover them more thoroughly than any Muslim full-body covering, some even covering their eyes and being led about inthe street by children.And of courswe, there is a world full of other traditions, religions and societies in which women remain bound, hand and foot by men to whom they did not wish to wed, where they live only to serve, to husbands (in the sense of that word: one who dominates or cultivates) to whom they remain property.

From her essay on Song of Songs:

"Open to me," Says the lover, but women understandably hesitate to do so. "I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?" Better to stay safely in one's place, not make waves. For what happens -according to respected Jewish tradition- to a woman who goes public with her spiritual need, whose yearning is larger than a kitchen, who does not hide behind a mehitza? What happens to the learned Beruria...Her devoted husband Rabbi Meir instigates one of his disciples to seduce her in order to prove that women are flighty. When the disciple finally overcomes her resistance, she kills herself for shame, but no one seems to think Rabbi Meir should be ashamed....What happens to women at the Wall? We are not speaking of allegory here, but real life. Women who dare to pray aloud with Torah in hand at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jeruslem, have been spat on, cursed, called whore. They have had chairs thrown at them, they have been beaten up and hospitalize, and they - they, not their assailants- have been arrested. ....As it is uncannily written, "The Keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.

Literature Roundup: Jabotinsky

In the Times Online, appears a lengthy review by Geoffrey Wheatcroft of no fewer than 6 books on Israeli and her history: Jacqueline Rose's THE LAST RESISTANCE, Colin Shindler's THE TRIUMPH OF MILITARY ZIONISM: Nationalism and the origins of the Israeli Right, David Goldberg's THE DIVIDED SELF: Israel and the Jewish psyche today, Victoria Clark's ALLIES FOR ARMAGEDDON:The rise of Christian Zionism, Yakov M. Rabkin's A THREAT FROM WITHIN: A century of Jewish opposition to Zionism, and Jimmy Carter's PALESTINE: Peace not apartheid
The review is long and rangy, starting and ending with a focus on the complicated and largely unknown major Israeli historical figure Jabotinsky. As he says in the review,

But the conflict in the Holy Land is still more dissonant in this regard. It is the single most bitterly contentious communal struggle on earth today (something which itself casts an ironical light on the aspiration of the first Zionists to “answer the Jewish question” by “normalizing” the Jews and removing them from the pages of history); it must receive more media coverage than India, which has a population a hundred times greater; it inflames acute passions. And yet it sometimes seems that the more strongly people feel, the less they actually know about the story of Zionism. Maybe it should be a requirement for anyone who wishes to hold forth on the subject to write first a few lines each on Ahad Ha’am, Max Nordau, George Antonius – or Vladimir Jabotinsky.

If not many Europeans or Americans know who “Jabo” was, Israelis certainly do. He remains the most charismatic, fascinating and controversial figure in the history of Zionism, and in the state to whose creation he devoted his life, but which he never saw. Born in 1880 in Odessa, he was converted to the Zionist cause as a young man by tsarist persecution, became a tireless publicist and organizer, and helped to create the Jewish Legion which fought with the British against Turkey during the First World War. In the 1920s he broke away to found the uniformed youth group Betar, and then the militantly nationalistic right-wing brand of Zionism he called Revisionism, in opposition to Chaim Weizmann and the general Zionists, and to David Ben Gurion and the Labour Zionists of the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine.

From Betar would grow the Irgun Zvei Leumi, which waged an armed campaign against the British and the Arabs – in British and Arab eyes, a terrorist campaign – in the ten years before Israel was born. When Jabotinsky died in American exile in 1940, he had not seen the murderous horror that engulfed the European Jews, the creation of the Jewish state, or the legacy of his own movement. The Irgun evolved into the right-wing Herut party, which was not merely excluded from office but veritably anathematized in Israel for the first quarter-century the state existed after 1948, but which, now in the guise of Likud, took power at last in 1977 under the old Irgun leader Menachem Begin – and which descends to the present administration.

His reviews cover books that are not only historical, but which also, importantly link that history and Israel's roots in Jabotinsky's vision, to the domination of today's Israeli politics by the heirs of Jabotinsky -literal heirs.

"Almost unremarked in the West, Israel today has the purest Jabotinskian government yet seen."

Generously, he points out the complexities of Jabotinsky's character, acknowledginfg his increible talents as a writer: "From Theodor Herzl – whose gifts as a writer were grudgingly acknowledged by Karl Kraus in Eine Krone für Zion, his 1898 anti-Zionist philippic, and who amplified his political tract Der Judenstaat in a didactic novel, Altneuland – Zionism was always a very literary movement. It has produced no greater writer than Jabotinsky, whose translations as well as his own work helped to create modern Hebrew literature," and seems to consider Jabotinsky more generous and truthful toward the Arabs than many of those who followed. Wheatcroft certainly sees Jabotinsky as more honest with himself. He also, with a few brief quotes shows how peculiar are the modern claims that Israel's origins were not colonialist.

...the only real difference between Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion may have been that the former expressed himself in public with greater bluntness. The record confirms that. Jabotinsky insisted that there could be no foreseeable compromise with the Palestinian Arabs: “The native population, civilised or uncivilised, have always stubbornly resisted the colonists, and it made no difference whether the colonists behave decently or not”.

One of the odder claims made today by some Zionists, more likely American than Israeli, is that Zionism was an “anti-colonial” movement. Jabotinsky never pretended anything of the kind, as he made clear with his gift for vivid phrase-making, “The Iron Wall” being one case in point. When a colleague in the Legion had wondered whether, as Jews, they should be fighting the Muslims, their “uncle Ishmael”, Jabotinsky briskly replied that “Ishmael is not an uncle. We belong, thank God, to Europe and for two thousand years have helped to create the culture of the West”. And he rubbed it in harder still with the words, “The Jews came to the land of Israel to push the moral frontiers of Europe to the Euphrates”.

Indeed, as Jacqueline Rose is astute enough to notice and generous enough to acknowledge, Jabotinsky was in some ways less racist than other Zionists, in his insistence that “the entire country is full of Arab memories” and that the Palestinians naturally believed that it was their land too. We don’t know what he would have said and done in the circumstances of 1948, but ten years earlier he had explicitly repudiated the very idea of transfer: “It must be hateful for any Jew to think that the rebirth of a Jewish state should ever be linked with such an odious suggestion as the removal of non-Jewish citizens”.

The review is worth reading, and in particular, it is interesting to see him simultaneously dismiss as "pious, plodding and platitudinous, its awestruck accounts of meetings with the mighty padded out with what-I-did-in-my-holidays jottings" Carter's book, and also see it as a benchmark of those who criticized it in such shrill tones, similar to that heard over Walt and Mearsheimer's work. He begins with Jabotinsky and ends with him: the figure whose politics and passion runs through Israeli life today in a largely unseen way.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

A monster!

Apparently, a foreign policy adviser to Obama's presidential campaign
Samantha Power, claimed that Clinton would stoop to anything and called her "a monster."

She was, of course, required to retract:

"It is wrong for anyone to pursue this campaign in such negative and personal terms," she said in the statement. "I apologize to Senator Clinton and to Senator Obama, who has made very clear that these kinds of expressions should have no place in American politics."

But, man, if I were Clinton, I'd grab that monster and run with it:
"Yes! I am a monster! I am a monster of growth, I am a juggernaut! I am monstrously talented, monstrously strong..." You know, that kind of thing.

Well, let's see what happens. At this point, it's all good theatre.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Who are we? Redux

Because I am personally opposed to ever agreeing with anyone, I find myself, often, embroiled in interesting discussions with all sorts of folks. Over at JCarrot, I am having an interesting comments thread with Ben Murane (our own KFJ) about (I think) the difference between who is Jewish, and what is Jewish. The difficult part of this, of course, is that it's not a completely separate question.
Who one is affects what one does, and the reverse, as well.
I recall a famous quote by (the eminently quotable) Kurt Vonnegut, Jr:

"To be is to do"--Socrates.
"To do is to be"--Jean-Paul Sartre.
"Do be do be do"--Frank Sinatra.

Er, I'm getting off-topic here. Anyhow, so Over at the NYT , there is what is apparently another discussion of the ongoing rift caused by the stringent versus loose approach to answering the question of "who is a Jew."

The question for me is pretty fraught: I do believe that being this exclusive is ultimately untenable -but at the same time, there does need to be a certain level of internal definition of who gets to be considered "in."
The question remaining, of course, as to who is in enough, or how in they have to be, in order to make such determinations.
That's why I'm less interested in talking about who is Jewish, than what is Jewish. If one can agree on the latter, at least in broad terms, than the former can be fixed in almost any case.

Professionally, of course, I have dedicated myself to a particular kind of Judaism, and I do think that meaning inheres in Judaism in particular acts, practices and disciplines, and that there is a teleological reason for doing these practices. This doesn't invalidate other kinds of doing, but it does mean that not all doing can be accepted as within the boundaries of Judaism. And in truth, I can't really believe that anyone truly believes that anything goes. No matter how loose your boundaries are, there must be some, otherwise names become meaningless. If everything is "within" then one simply ceases to be - in simply a logical sense.

Anyhow, I invite others to pop in on the conversation, here or there.

xp to Jewschool comments turned off here to consolidate there.