The republic of Tel Aviv v. the other Israel: Kulturkampf or class warfare?

A standard portrayal of Israel today – especially from educated, well off secularists – is one of a cultural battle between forward-looking Tel Aviv and the sundry backward forces elsewhere in the land. Tel Aviv, in this description, is the secular Hebrew city that the most liberal of Zionists wanted to build; the rest of the country is haunted by primal faith and tribal loyalties. (Alternatively, Tel Aviv is the land of debased Israelis; Jews loyal to tradition live elsewhere.) In 1996, after the Rabin assassination and Netanyahu’s victory, there were a spate of suggestions in the punditsphere to divide the country into Israel and Judea, an idea revived after the Gaza pullout.

I’ve never liked that neat division between secular and religious identities – it doesn’t fit me, and it doesn’t fit most people I know. Would I have to live on the border of Israel and Judea, with a bookshelf on one side of the house for Kant and Sophocles and a shelf on the other side for Talmud?

But a conversation I had today with Shlomo Swirski, the academic director of the Adva Center for social research in Tel Aviv, gave me a very different view of the geographic split.

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Guilt is not genetic

Knesset Member Shelly Yachimovich of Labor says she’ll skip German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech, in German, to the Knesset, Ha’aretz reports. Arieh Eldad of the far-right National Union, to do her one worse, said he’ll wait for her to start speaking, then stand up and leave the hall.

“I can’t bear the thought of hearing German in the Knesset,” he said. “This is the language my grandparents were murdered in.”

Eldad’s promise to insult has a certain internal logic. He belongs to a political camp that treats nations as organic units, erasing the individual. The fact that Merkel was born nine years after the Holocaust is irrelevant. For him, Germanness is guilty.

Yachimovich has no such excuse

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The Demolition Drug: Does Destroying Terrorists’ Homes Work?

A large photograph on the front page of today’s Ha’aretz shows border police holding back a few dozen young Jewish right-wing extremists who wanted to march into the village of Jabel Mukaber. That’s the home town of the terrorist who murdered eight students at the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva a week and a half ago. The demonstrators were demanding that the army demolish the home where the terrorist’s family lives.

Immediately after the bloody attack, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak promised to check to see whether the army could legally demolish the terrorist’s house. The implication was that, if the lawyers okayed it, that’s what Barak would do.

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Getting the Treatment Right: Conventional and Alternative Medicine

What makes a medical procedure scientific? What makes it quackery?

Unlike many of my friends, I’m a conventional medicine guy. I don’t have any patience for homeopathy and reflexology and the like because they have no scientific backing. And as a writer about science, I’m convinced that the scientific method-which in the case of medicine centers on random controlled testing of therapies, drugs, and procedures-is the best tool we have for determining what treatments are effective and what are not. There’s really no rational argument you can make that would lead to any other conclusion.

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On Spitzer, the neo-liberalism of misled progressives, and the Book of Esther

Recent news about the ex-governor of New York has revived debate among my progressive friends about the proper legal approach to prostitution.

To this debate, I offer a memory of walking through Bangkok 20 years ago. My wife and I had been in the town a week, interviewing the city’s Jewish ruby dealers. One evening, on a side street in the gem district, we passed an open door under a neon sign and I glanced in. In a waiting room, several men stood looking past a glass wall. Beyond it was a sloped gallery, where women sat in theater seats wearing black bikinis or thin slips. And each wore a round, numbered badge, so a client could ask for lot 23, or 37. Even if the women had the human form, they had the function of merchandise, of animal commodities.

The scene conjured up some lines from Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”:

A man’s body at auction
For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale,
I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business.
Gentleman, look at this wonder
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it
For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years…
In this head the all-baffling brain
In it and below it the making of heroes…

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‘How to Prove You’re a Jew’ – Afterthoughts, aftershocks

Obama Converts to Judaism” says a headline on Huffington Post, which I found via the eternally alert Laura Rozen at War and Piece.

Buffeted by criticism of his controversial Christian pastor while continuing to quell rumors that he is a Muslim, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill) took a bold step today to settle questions about his religious faith once and for all.

“I am converting to Judaism, effective immediately,” Mr. Obama told reporters…

I know this is meant humorously, because it ends with:

…the move raised the ire of one of his harshest critics, former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. “Barack Murray Obama wouldn’t be in the position he’s in if he wasn’t Jewish,” said Ms. Ferraro…

but I still wanted to zap a message to Obama warning him: For heaven’s sake, don’t do it. It’s enough he has to prove he’s pro-Israel. Must he add the problem of convincing the Israeli rabbinate that he is a Jew? Believe me, it won’t be easy.

When I wrote “How to Prove You’re a Jew” for the New York Times Magazine, I guessed it would stir interest. I didn’t imagine how much. One friend told me it had been emailed to her 20 times. She also told me she’d had a terribly difficult time proving she was a Jew when she got married here in Israel a couple of years ago, despite

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The Sinews of Our Souls: C. K. Williams’ “Dissections”

“This unhealable self in myself who knows what I should know.” A man visiting an exhibition of exposed human tissue reflects despairingly on the disconnect between  his body and his soul, and between his soul and his self.

The poem is “Dissections,” the poet C. K. Williams. When it appeared in The Atlantic in November 2002 (read it, and hear the poet recite it, here), I pasted it up on my office door. Today I took it down, and had an opportunity to reread and reflect.

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McCain, Hagee, Lieberman, Clinton, Obama: Who’s good for Israel

John McCain is coming to Israel in order to attract Jewish voters back home, James Besser reports in The Jewish Week.

It’s difficult to decide which of the Republican Jews that Jim quotes win the chutzpah award.

“No one in this race has a more consistent record in support of Israel than Sen. McCain,” said Fred Zeidman, a longtime Jewish Republican leader and a top McCain fundraiser. “He has a proven record on Israel, and that resonates with our community.” Zeidman said McCain’s hawkish stands on national security and the war on terrorism will also appeal to Jewish voters…

Is this the same John McCain who has unstintingly supported an unnecessary war in Iraq that has “aggrandized Iranian power” (to cite Israeli strategic analyst Yossi Alpher), given Al-Qaeda a base in the region, and unleashed a flood of refugees that could destabilize Jordan, a strategic partner of Israel? That’s a proven record, but it doesn’t prove McCain is good for Israel.

Not to mention the latest AJC survey of American Jewish opinion, which shows that US Jews disapprove of how the current president – embraced by McCain

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Hatred, or Judaism told backwards

The student who called me told me that he saw the poster in his yeshivah. At the top it says, in Hebrew, “The Arab enemy is within Jerusalem!” Next Sunday, it says, at the end of the week of mourning for the students killed in the attack at Merkaz Harav, “We will get up and act” by marching to the house of the terrorist in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber and demolishing it.

The particular phrase for “to act” – la’asot ma’aseh – is one consistently used by the far right for privatizing violence: The state has refrained from punishing Arabs qua Arabs, as a group, a faceless mass, so let us do it. The words carry a hint, a lynch mob murmur, of ma’aseh Pinhas – an allusion to the original angry young man, the first fanatic, Pinhas, in the book of Numbers. At the bottom of the poster are words from the Book of Esther, “To the contrary, the Jews dominated those who hated them.”

Esther is read on the holiday of Purim, which falls a few days after the planned march. The poster is a call to celebrate the holiday early with a march of angry young men into an Arab neighborhood – with a pogrom. To emulate the Jews who defended themselves from hate-enraged mobs in ancient Persia, Jews will become a hate-enraged mob in the sacred city.

It would be simplest for me to say that this is a modern aberration, a twisting of Judaism with no precedent. That’s half-wrong, though:

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The Muslims and the Banks

“This Obama, is it true he’s a Muslim?” Iris, my bank clerk, asked me this morning. My immediate reaction was to dismiss the charge scornfully. It’s an urban myth of a vile kind, I said. But as the conversation proceeded, I realized that Iris had asked the question because the prospect of a Muslim president of the United States intrigued rather than frightened her.

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More On Stories and Histories

The need to combine storytelling and historical inquiry that I discussed in my previous post obviously has implications for modern history as well. When we teach kids about Jewish and Israeli history, we can’t teach just the narrative and ignore the facts. But neither can we teach only the facts and ignore the narrative. In practice, it’s hard to find the right balance.

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