Why Jonathan Pollard?

After Netanyahu demanded the United States release Jonathan Pollard, I argue that Bibi’s appeasing his right-wing base and ask:

Why is there a Pollard card? Why does a convicted spy so inspire the right’s imagination? Why were there “We Want Pollard Home” signs all over Jerusalem for Obama’s visit? The answer, I think, is that many Israeli Zionists—especially religious ones, and especially American immigrants—who have a hard time facing the reality of a comfortable, assimilated American Jewry, prefer the cultural icon of a persecuted, ethnically loyal Pollard.

Here‘s the fuller story.

Why They Hate Us

Why have people hated the Jews? David Nirenberg takes a crack at this one in his impressive, immense history of Anti-Judaism—which I reviewed for the Forward—arguing,

Anti-Judaism frequently reflected not the presence and activities of real, living Jews, but the importance of “Judaism” as a concept in a broader structure of ideas. Using Marx’s pivotal essay, “On the Jewish Question,” as a framing device, Nirenberg argues that Christian, Muslim and secular Western societies produce the idea of “Judaism,” in Marx’s phrase, “out of their own entrails” — that is, to express the unpleasant corollaries of their cultural ideals, satisfy the needs of conceptual systems and think through important abstract binaries.

For the rest, read on.

Two Brief Notes

First, I wanted to register a short piece I wrote on the Newseum flap for Open Zion, entitled “Can You Bomb Hamas Propagandists?”

Second, in the back of my mind, ever since writing a long piece about Modern Orthodox parody of Lady Gaga, I’ve been wondering what to do with this video, in which a Haredi wedding band introduces newlyweds at their party to the tune of various Lady Gaga songs, then transitioning into standard Hasidic “simcha” (celebration) music. It’s significantly less semantically dense than the parody I wrote about above, but I found it oddly draws me, and I’ve never understood why.

Here’s a quick thought. I think part of the video’s draw, especially compared to the layered ironies of the Modern Orthodox parody video (many of which play on the power and gender hierarchies of both the Orthodox and secular worlds), is that of Haredi naivete. We commonly assume that Haredi naivete is valuable largely insofar as it allows Haredim to appreciate their Jewish rituals, text, and traditions more simply, directly, etc. (I’ll bracket for the moment all the manifold ways it’s harmful.)  But here, what’s poignant about Haredi naivete is that it allows them to experience our music simply and directly. These men are dancing to Lady Gaga without a second thought about what they’re hearing. That is, they’re actually participating in a cultural ideal surrounding American popular music (an ideal which we could call, borrowing a title from one of the Lady Gaga songs they’re quoting, “Just Dance”). Further, it’s an naivete inaccessible many of us who are supposedly closer to the secular lifeworld that produces Lady Gaga, because of our heightened attention to the various messages, problematics, etc. of popular music.

I’m not sure if others found that video as entrancing as I did. But I suspect I did because, hidden between the charm of Haredi innocence and cluelessness is the irony that they seem to have found a shortcut into mass American culture, a culture which, because of my Jewishness or intellectualism, I find elusive.

Orthodoxy, Modernity, and “The Genius”

My review of Eliyahu Stern’s The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism is up at The Forward:

Would you confuse Moses Mendelssohn and the Vilna Gaon, sometimes called the fathers, respectively, of Reform and Orthodox Judaism? Certainly not if you had seen their pictures. It’s hard to mistake Mendelssohn, with his clean-shaven cheeks and curly, uncovered hair, for the Gaon, usually depicted with flowing beard, enormous black kippah and prayer shawl. And it wasn’t just their getups. Mendelssohn, an 18th-century German Jewish philosopher who mingled with famous playwrights and bested Kant in an essay competition, is known for bucking rabbinic authority and beginning the Jewish Enlightenment. The Gaon, on the other hand, though Mendelssohn’s contemporary, spent most of his life secluded in study, writing recondite commentaries on the classics of rabbinic literature and ignoring the non-Jewish Lithuanians around him. The division between the two men — and by extension, between modernity and tradition — seems pretty clear.

Yet, in his new book, “The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism,” Yale University religious studies professor Eliyahu Stern suggests that the Gaon was as fully modern as Mendelssohn.

To find out how, read on.

The ADL Needs To Be More Zionist

My latest at Open Zion:

In this season of light, let us meditate on what joins us together. Take, for example, the Hungarian anti-Semite I met on Sunday in a Budapest pub. He and I shared, to be sure, relatively little. He was fat, and I am thin. He was fiftyish, and I am 24. He believed that the Jewish lobby has pressured Obama to cut foreign investment to Hungary, thus worsening the (dismal, Jewish-banker-controlled) Hungarian economy, while I just felt lucky to have stashed my yarmulke in my pocket. Yet, as far as I can tell, there was one point on which we agreed. Had we been asked to list the “Top Ten Issues Affecting Jews in 2012,” I believe that neither of us would have included the fight over whether to hold, at this summer’s London Olympics, a moment of silence for Israeli athletes murdered forty years ago at Munich.

But the ADL doesn’t agree—to find out why, read on.

Let Their People Come

After a bit of a break from writing (as I moved to Israel), I’m back at Open Zion:

This may come as a surprise, but the Israeli government doesn’t consult me about public relations. Which is a shame, because I have an idea for some truly inspired Hasbara: let the twenty Eritreans who have been stuck for six days on the Israel-Egypt border—in the desert, mostly without food—enter Israel.

Great photo-op, of course: Israeli soldiers helping beleaguered African women, to the theme-song from “Exodus.” And we’d avoid embarrassing questions, like why a nation founded by refugees forces pregnant women to languish on its borders (and reportedly to miscarry). But those are incidental benefits. More importantly, welcoming Eritreans would powerfully bolster the case for a Jewish state.

To hear why, read on.

Self-Hatred as Self-Help

My newest review is up at the Forward:

What do we talk about when we talk about Jewish self-hatred? That’s the question Paul Reitter tackles in his new book, “On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred.” After tracing the first appearances of the term “Jewish self-hatred” in interwar Germany, and filtering out contemporary polemics, he looks for what remains. The precipitate, achieved through a painstaking literary decanting of both primary texts and secondary scholarship, is odd as well as remarkable.

“Jewish self-hatred,” according to Reitter, originally meant something positive. It was not simply internalized prejudice, nor was it a club with which to beat your political opponents. Rather, it was a distinctive, ironic and redemptive way of being: “the capacity through which the Jews could teach the world how to heal itself.”

If this seems counter-intuitive or bizarre, just read on.