Infiltrated by History

My latest post is up at Open Zion:

Israeli right-wingers have it rough. After last week’s Tel Aviv riot against African immigrants, likudniks like MKs Danny Danon (who said, “The infiltrators are a national plague”) and Miri Regev (who called immigrants “a cancer” and then backed off… sort of) came under fire for their inflammatory rhetoric.As well they should—but they’re hardly the only ones guilty. The same Jerusalem Post article that contains Danon’s “national plague” remark itself refers to the Africans, repeatedly and casually, as “infiltrators.” Nor it just the Post—”infiltrator” is also used by the Israeli news site Ynet and by the Religious Zionist Arutz Sheva.

The term, of course, is highly prejudicial. The first use of “infiltrator” to describe people was in World War II, in reference to military enemies; after the war, it was often accompanied by the adjective “Communist.”  It suggests concealed hostile intent and the attempt to destroy from within. So why is it now mainstream among Israeli politicians and media outlets?

To find out, read the rest.

The Alter of Beowulf

People sometimes ask me which field of literature I’d like to study in graduate school. Recently, I’ve started saying, “secondary literature.” This gets a laugh (oh, those academics, and their silly quarrels over minutia!), but I’m serious. I really love reading criticism. Literature is (among other things) my sports or politics—that is, my irrational, aesthetic love. Combing through JSTOR, sadly, is about as close as I can come these days to dissecting a game or primary with friends.

So as I read Beowulf (started this morning—two monsters down, one to go), I’ve already glanced at JRR Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which is worth the glancing. Tolkien, of course, is best known for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and second-best known as a linguist, but he was also, apparently, a fairly influential scholar of Beowulf. In particular, he seems to have started the modern literary criticism of the poem. Continue reading

Of Ghee and Welsh Mutton

Studying for the GRE subject test in literature has been wonderful. The Norton Anthology (which seems to be the standard) is like a good Indian lunch buffet: you get your small portions of super-rich entrees (ie, the actual literature), you have the light, airy condiments (the historical essays and biographical sketches), and if you want palak paneer (that Browning poem you’ve already read a million times), there will always be palak paneer. Also, if you do it right, the experience is cheap and the physical plant dingy.

The best new find so far: William Hazlitt’s “My First  Acquaintance With Poets” — the story of Hazlitt, as a young man, meeting and traveling with the explosive, charismatic, and magical Samuel Coleridge. It’s not my first acquaintance with Hazlitt. I’ve read The Spirit of The Age, his collection of profiles of English notables, including Coleridge.

“My First Acquaintance,” however, is to that profile what ghee is to margarine: lighter but more grounded, tied to organic experience but perfectly clarified. Coleridge isn’t just a flighty, quasi-mystical and bombastic genius. He’s also Hazlitt’s first encounter with greatness, an experience as revolutionary in its way as the storming of the Bastille. You get the sense that all the energy running through Hazlitt’s prose (and there’s plenty) is somehow messily tied to the bounding, exclaiming figure of Coleridge. Continue reading

Jesus: A Family Man?

My review of The Jesus Discovery was just published by the Forward. Here’re the first few paragraphs:

In 1835, David Strauss published “The Life of Jesus Critically Examined,” which debunked the miraculous elements of the New Testament and inaugurated the modern recovery of the “real Jesus.” Strauss was trained in philology and textual criticism, but he was not primarily bothered by contradictions among the different sources of the New Testament, or by the gap between those literary records and the historically verifiable events of Jesus’ life. Rather, as he wrote in the introduction to “The Life of Jesus,” what worried him was “a discrepancy between the representations of those ancient records… and the notions of more advanced periods of mental development.”

In other words, in 1835, Jesus seemed passé. It was not that his miracles were weakly attested; it was that multiplying loaves and resurrecting corpses embarrassed modern reason. If Strauss could show that the miracles were the myths of primitive ancients, he could rescue the eternal idea behind the fiction. The search for a historical Jesus was not, paradoxically, an attempt to place Jesus in first-century Roman Judea — a stew of mystery cults, imperial decadence and revolutionary violence — but to save him from that history.

Archaeological bric-a-brac makes up the bulk of James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici’s “The Jesus Discovery,” which on February 28 became the latest entry into the Historical Jesus Sweepstakes. (It is almost certainly eclipsed by now; in America, theories about Jesus spring up almost as quickly as new strains of Protestantism.) The book tells the story of two tombs in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem. According to the authors, the first tomb, which was excavated in 1980, contained Jesus’ bones. The second features an impressive Greek inscription and a drawing of a fish expelling Jonah.

Tabor is chair of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Jacobovici is a television producer. Together, their résumés give a feel for the book’s blend of footnotes and hype. They argue in great detail for the authenticity of their “findings,” which lead to innumerable technicalities: the percentage of first-century Jews named “Jesus,” for instance (roughly 4%), and the results of a DNA test of samples from the first tomb’s ossuaries (which, though inconclusive, are reported down to the last nucleobase). But the authors of “The Jesus Discovery” also have higher theological purposes.

Read the rest here.

Why Is Eli Yishai Smiling?

My latest at Open Zion:

Why is Eli Yishai smiling? By all accounts, the leader of Israel’s Shas party should be having a bad week: everyone seems to agree that the puzzling Mofaz-Netanyahu merger, while it won’t affect dealings with Iran or the Palestinians, is a death knell for draft exemptions and massive subsidies for Haredim. David Horovitz calls it a “genuine opportunity”; Jeff Goldberg thinks Kadima’s seats means Netanyahu won’t fear “the loss of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners”; here at Open Zion, Bernard Avishai’s expressed hope for a new “globalist” coalition against religious and other extremists. And yesterday, the new coalition unveiled plans to replace the Tal Law (which granted Haredim draft exemptions) with Kadima’s plan for universal national service.

Instead, Yishai praised the deal, saying, “The prime minister shared the whole move with me… the move does not contradict the coalition agreement with Shas.” Nor are other Haredim freaking out: Ynet reports that Bibi met with—and palliated the fears of—ministers from United Torah Judaism, the party of Ashkenazi Haredim. If real reform were in the air, Shas and UTJ would be bouncing off the walls.

So why aren’t they? Well, in the first place, they outnumber Kadima. In the now-hypothetical elections, Haredi parties would have won seventeen seats to Mofaz’s eleven. If Netanyahu is ever forced to choose between Kadima and the Haredim, it’s that number that matters, not Kadima’s current electoral position: the fact is, Mofaz commands fewer votes than it might seem. Worse, those eleven are a steep decline from Kadima’s earlier results (28 seats in the last elections). In the long-term, a party built on Ariel Sharon’s personal charisma and mostly made up of ex-Likudniks never had much of a future. If Mofaz hadn’t joined Netanyahu, he was headed for political irrelevance anyway.

Go there to read the rest.

Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin Whitewashes Islamophobia

I have a new blogpost up at Open Zion. Here’s a taste:

Only three weeks since Passover, and some people already need refreshers.

Over at Commentary, Jonathan Tobin argues that Islamophobia in the United States must be a myth because… look! the Muslims are breeding like rabbits. Citing newly released census data showing that the population of American Muslims more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, Tobin asks: “Is it possible or even likely that Islam would be thriving in the United States if it were not a society that is welcoming Muslims with open arms and providing a safe environment for people to openly practice this faith?”

Yes, it’€™s very possible. Let’s start with the Passover story: in particular, Exodus 1:12, in which the Egyptians discover that, “€œthe more they afflicted [the Israelites], the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad.” It looks like Tobin skipped that section of the haggadah.

Read the rest here.