Mondoweiss March 10, 2009
By Philip Weiss
None of us can doubt that Jewish genius transformed the 20th century. Finance, science, psychiatry, media--do I really need to go through all that part?
Now we are in IQ freefall, for two reasons related to Zionism. 1, Israeli culture is altogether mediocre. 2, Diaspora culture is now reduced to arguing that black is white, i.e., that Israel is blameless. This exercise is not only a great insult to Jewish tradition, it is pointless.
1. I know literature. This weekend at my parents' house I was reading Kafka's letters to his first mistress, Felice Bauer. It goes without saying that Kafka transformed literature in the 20th century, and yes, Kafka was a cultural Zionist. He was caught up in the central-European movement in the 19-teens, even as he observed that the Zionists had small heads.
My point. Kafka was against political Zionism because he understood it would transform the Jewish presence in society. It would make Jews the administrators of a nation rather than inhabitants of one. I think he anticipated that Jewish nationalism would call on the worst aspects of Jewish society.
Kafka's sense was correct. None of Israel's cultural achievements is much to write home about. Everyone talks about David Grossman and Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua. I don't know about Yehoshua and Grossman has always seemed pretty-darn-good, what I've read of him, but Oz (I've read his memoir) is just not that impressive. If he were writing in the States, he would have less of a reputation.
The sad truth is that Israeli culture is remarkable for the very quality that Kafka despised in administrative culture in Central Europe--its toughness, thuggery. Consider that Israel's most famous contribution to world culture is Dana International, a transsexual singer who was launched to international stardom by the Eurovision song contest in 1998. Kafka he/she ain't.
I don't mean to be making jokes here. This problem is actually inherent. Chas Freeman recently noted at a discussion of the two-state solution that all the smart Israelis are coming to New Jersey and all the messianic militaristic Jews are moving from Brooklyn to the West Bank. Jews like Diaspora life. The brain drain is a real problem for Israel.
(And the best work out of Israel, the incredible journalism of Haaretz, and the new historians from Kimmerling to Pappe to Shahak, is all of it oppositional in character.)
2. That brain drain is matched by a more significant brain drain: the tremendous burden placed on American Jewish intellectuals, journalists, writers, you name it, to stand up for Israel here. Dershowitz says that supporting Israel is our "secular religion." I don't need to go down the list here, but a lot of smart Jews are recruited in this belief, just about any smart Jew who makes it, including regrettably the likes of Steven Pinker and Michael Chabon and his wife, and it's not good for Jewish genius. It's the opposite of genius: it's orthodoxy. It elevates second-rate racemen thinkers like Michael Oren and Marty Peretz and grants rabbinical status to a very smart and often-nasty propagandist, Alan Dershowitz, who has repeatedly tried to destroy people's reputations.
Proving that the Israel lobby is marketing black as white is the everyday business of this website, so I don't want to reprove that here. Just look at the video Adam posted yesterday from the landgrab in that West Bank village on Sunday. It is disgusting. Purely disgusting. These are thuggish Jews ethnically cleansing land in my name. This is all that any Jew needs to know about Israel right now. Arguing that this sort of behavior is justified is deeply intellectually destructive. It is an insult to Jewish tradition. In fact, it has closed the door on our great 20th century tradition. One of the lessons of the last 10 years is that Jewish gifts are not genetic, or not strictly genetic. They are cultural, and exist in time. Spinoza said similar things when he challenged the idea of the chosen people 300 years ago and was excommunicated for it; he saw greater promise in European liberalism than in Mosaic laws. Well now we have imparted our great cultural gifts to this great country that accepted us, and others are learning to be as textually analytical as our traditions made us. When I meet the young Iranian-Canadian scholar Nader Hashemi, who has studied Chomsky, or young Palestinian students who have studied the talmudical Norman Finkelstein to sharpen their wits, and they quote him and expand on him, they remind me of my Jewish gang in the Ivy League 30 years ago -- outsiders with big brains, and a lot to prove. Meanwhile Jewish intellectual life is largely dominated by neoconservatives, who in addition to being wrong about the ability to spread democracy at the point of a gun, are not sincere about their motivation.
I said at the beginning that the hasbara exercise is not only stupefying, it is pointless. The world is on to Israel's chopping-down of olive trees and slaughter of Palestinian children. It's over. The exercise is over. The U.S. is waking up, witness the fabulous Ellison- Baird-Holt teach-in at the U.S. Capitol, led by Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, with congressional staffers crammed in the doors.
I'm a hopeful person. So the question is, What should Jews do now about our fabulous disgraced tradition of honest intellectual inquiry? How do we recover?
The answer is pretty obvious. At that teach-in in the Rayburn Building, a Jew took a prominent place, Dan Levy. I haven't been able to listen to his remarks in the first video (they were inaudible), but I'm sure he wasn't arguing with one thing that Brian Baird and Keith Ellison and Rush Holt observed (and let me note, Holt and Baird are scientists by training, men shaped by the Jewish century). Levy is an honest man.
That's the answer: turn to the smart young Jews who see what is happening in Palestine, and embrace them and encourage them. Embrace J Street, with which Dan Levy is involved; they are doing good work, along with Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek and Israel Policy Forum. Embrace any organization that was appalled by Gaza's "awfulness," as Michael Walzer, who understands the perils of nationhood, has put it.
Embrace young Jews like Lisa Adler, who was featured in that amazing anti-AIPAC event in LA, and the anti-Zionist scholar Jack Ross, and the activist Hannah Mermelstein. Or my partner Adam Horowitz, who, responding to hecklers at a Temple U. event last week who shouted, "Mr. Horowitz, what do you think of the two-state solution?" responded calmly and thoughtfully in a way that brought tears to my eyes. Adam's going to post that answer soon here.
I am not a spokesman for Jewish communal life. I'm an intermarried, assimilating Jew with a strong sense of Jewish intellectual tradition, which I will always try and honor here, but if I could impart a message to the communal types it is: wake up to what is happening in world opinion and then turn the great Jewish tradition of compassion on the Palestinian people. The American Jewish community here has been the chief obstacle to Palestinian statehood and self-determination; that's an American Jewish achievement. Jewish organizations have the power to end that disgraceful legacy tomorrow. And then they could recognize and embrace the common humanity of Palestinians, and start bringing young Palestinian intellectuals to this country to study, and to learn from our example, once again.