Abe Foxman, Step Away From the Election

My latest at Open Zion, about why the ADL would do well to steer clear of politics.

I wasn’t surprised that Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, got involved in Romney’s overseas campaign. Romney, after all, is visiting Poland at the behest of anti-communist leader Lech Walesa, who won Poland’s presidency in 1990 in part by calling on Polish Jews to out themselves and asking why his opponents “conceal their origins.” And though he apologized for Polish anti-Semitism in 1991, first to prominent Jews and then to the Israeli Knesset, it was a pretty lousy apology: In his speech to World Jewish Congress leader Edgar Bronfman, Walesa insisted “there never was any genuine racially based anti-Semitism in Poland” just “discrimination and differences of interests between… Poles and Jews.” Little surprise that, in a presidential 2000 election, Walesa returned to Jew-baiting his opponent, and to saying he wished he had been born Jewish, since “I would probably be richer.” Lots for Foxman to talk about.

Wait, what? That’s not what Foxman thought was worthy of comment in Romney’s tour? Crazy. Apparently, though Foxman doesn’t think the Romney-Walesa love-in deserved a press release, he had to weigh in on Romney’s blaming Palestinian economic woes on their “culture.” Which he blessed. While Jews have “a real emphasis on education, on hard work and self-reliance,” he said, “part of the problem” with the Arab world, he said, “is culture.”

Bernard Avishai and Hussein Ibish have already pointed out why Romney’s remark is nonsense. Suffice it to say that attributing Palestinian poverty to culture—ignoring, say, the occupation’s basic inequities in resources like water or its harsh restrictions of freedom of movement—takes some chutzpah. Imagine what the ADL would say if someone blamed Jewish suffering on Jewish culture. But here’s what I want to know. Under what definition of “anti-defamation” work is defending Romney’s, well, defamation a good fit, but condemning Romney’s meeting with Walesa not worth the time?

To get the answer, read the rest.

(How) Is Archetypal Criticism Useful To A Skeptic? Part I

Blogging about Northrop Frye’s magisterial Anatomy of Criticism, which I just finished last evening on the Q train, feels a little like writing limericks about “The Waste Land.” (Which someone did.) You’re transferring a massive, carefully wrought art object into a parallel genre, one which is tiny and vaguely parodic. Still, since I’ve invested an embarrassing number of q-train rides into Frye, and I understood the book only in flashes, I feel like the least I can get out of it is a blogpost.

Frye’s self-declared goal is to arrive at a “synoptic” view of literature, that is, an overall structure of criticism which traces the central recurrent literary phenomena. The book consists, in essence, of a number of categorizations. Genres, for instance, are fourfold: comedy, tragedy, irony and romance. Or there are five “phases,” which describe the relation of the protagonist to the audience, ranging from mythic, in which the protagonists are gods; through romance—confusingly used to mean something related to but different from the above—which features superheros or demigods; high mimetic, featuring aristocrats; low mimetic, featuring commoners; and ironic, featuring anti-heros and the like.

There are several more systems like this: each is developed cleverly, and a dizzying selection of literary works—both high art and low—is employed in tracing the many archetypes. So, for instance, Freud’s master narrative is a comedy (!), just like those of Aristophanes and Shakespeare—and indeed, like Hollywood movies—and more interestingly, when Frye does the work of making smaller, more controversial divisions and evaluations, the groups and narrative affinities he described do not strictly correspond to historical periods: You may find that His Girl Friday has more in common with, say, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, than do The Merry Wives of Windsor and Dr. Strangelove (in fact, you would—the first two comedies are closer to romance, the latter two to irony).

So here’s the question. If I don’t think literature has a synoptic structure, what use is Anatomy of Criticism? I’ve been struggling to articulate where this skepticism comes from. Yesterday, it was clarified by a professor I met to talk about graduate school.

Continue reading

Obama and Bagels

Over at Open Zion this week, I ask why American Jews care about Obama’s kishkes:

So Obama is going to Israel. Like any number of my secular Jewish friends in their early twenties, our president has been persuaded that he needs to visit. On Monday, the Obama campaign announced, “We can expect him to visit Israel in a second term.”

Though conservatives have long attacked Obama for not travelling to Israel as president, that didn’t stop them from attacking him for his proposed trip. Over at Commentary, the contradiction was particularly sharp. This month’s Jonathan Tobin, saying Obama’s vow of a second-term Israel visit “merely worsened his difficulties with Jewish and pro-Israel voters” debated last month’s Jonathan Tobin, who chided Obama for not visiting Israel. I guess we should cheer any ideological diversity at Commentary. Still, the real moral of this partisan hackwork is that the “Why won’t Obama visit Israel?” complaint, and the broader genre of “But does Obama love Israel in his kishkes?” questions, just cannot be answered by anything Obama says or does. These aren’t political argument; they’re not even really about Obama. They’re internal American Jewish anxieties, projected into politics.

To find out which anxieties, read the rest.

“The Kane Mutiny”

I defend Open Zion from Armin Rosen’s charge that we “mainstream anti-Semitism.”

On Friday, Armin Rosen, over at the Atlantic, accused Open Zion of legitimizing anti-Semitism, because we published an article by Mondoweiss staff-writer Alex Kane. Rosen found nothing prejudiced in the piece, an assessment of Israel boycotts’ effectiveness. Rather, he argued that Mondoweiss “often gives the appearance of an anti-Semitic enterprise,” and that by “carrying a byline from Mondoweiss,” we dragged “its sordid baggage” into the mainstream. Continue reading

Three Cheers For The Levy Report (Sort Of…)

This week at Open Zion, I analyze the Levy Report, and why its claim that settlement is legal is actually not so different from the supposedly lefty Sasson Report:

I’ll say this for the Levy report: It filled my inbox. After the Israeli blue-ribbon commission, headed by former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Edmund Levy, concluded that “Israelis have the legal right to settle in Judea and Samaria,” the usual suspects leapt into action. J Street wants me to “Urge US Opposition to Israeli Settlement Report,” Americans for Peace Now wonders whether it is “1984” in Israel. Lefty friends sent gripes, shrieks, and mockery (best joke so far: a takeoff on a painting by surrealist Magritte, entitled “ceci n’est pas une occupation”).

So what’s the big deal? Well, as Likud MK Danny Danon wrote on Facebook, “The report removes the values of the radical left from the court of law in relation to Judea and Samaria and buries the dangerous report of attorney Talia Sasson.” The Sasson report, commissioned under Ariel Sharon and published in 2005, revealed the widespread clandestine financial support for “wildcat” settlements (which had not been authorized by any formal governmental process, and were not necessarily on land claimed to be Israeli state-owned) by the Israeli Ministry of Housing, the Ministry of Defense, and the World Zionist Organization. The Levy report, by contrast, recommends legalizing those outposts.

Frankly, though, I think this difference is much less than either Danon or J Street suggest, and that the Levy report is so much hot air.

To find out why, go read the rest.

Ursula Le Guin On Anarchism

Ursula Le Guin’s novel, The Dispossessed, is supposedly about a dissident physicist who travels from his “ambiguously utopian” (so says the cover) anarchist home-world of Anarres, where all is shared, there is no state, and the women are liberated, to the “propertarian” Urras, a luxurious, unequal (on both class and gender lines), world from which Anarres has been long isolated.

Actually, the book largely seems to be about Ursula Le Guin. Anarres is drawn, nearly wholly, from other Le Guin novels: the laconic sages, the moral purity and simple living, the richly imagined gender egalitarianism. Meanwhile, Urras, as the back cover admits, “is a world very similar to Earth.” The book moves back and forth, chapter by chapter, between Shevek (the brilliant protagonist) as a student and young physicist on Anarres, and his mid-life visit to Urras, when he attempts to cash in on his now considerable fame to achieve some rapprochement between the two social orders.

We are, in other words, plunged into the split consciousness of the successful, but radical, science-fiction writer.  Continue reading

Right to Circumcise

In my latest at Open Zion, I defend the right of Jews to circumcise their baby sons:

I wanted to ignore last week’s German court decision, which would criminalize the religious circumcision of infants. Which should be, as a circumcised man, my right. If I really was the victim of genital mutilation, as the court seems to believe, I’m at least entitled to some privacy.

But then a New York infant was hospitalized after contracting herpes from a bizarre variation on the ritual involving direct oral-genital contact. And arguments against circumcision were given voice, not only on the far Left, but also by Larry Derfner and Noam Sheizaf, Israeli writers I read and respect.

As a religious Jew who wants my sons to be circumcised, I’m tempted to defend the practice tactically. How, after all, do you explain a covenant to someone on the outside? You just have to hold certain commitments to understand them. It feels similarly impossible to explain why I love novels or my partner.

But I do try to explain; to see how, go read the rest.