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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Beinart Tries to Square the Circle

Peter Beinart has written a provocative and courageous article in which he calls on "liberal" Zionist Jews to amend their notion of Jewish identity in order to reject separation from the Palestinians and to embrace equality instead. He has timed the article with the impending though delayed Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, territory seized in the 1967 war and in which Palestinians have no rights whatsoever. Annexation will formalize what Israel has become de facto in the eyes of most of the world: an apartheid state.

Kudos to Beinart for his latest step in placing justice for the Palestinians at the top of the liberal Jewish agenda. In doing so he renounces the two-state resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which he had supported, in favor of some kind of single state--a binational democracy or confederation--in which Jews and Arabs live together with equal rights. As he puts it:

Monday, August 03, 2020

Regarding Seth Rogen: Some Feelings Ought to Be Hurt

When actor Seth Rogen, an atheist of Jewish heritage, announced that he no longer supports Israel -- "I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life" -- he was criticized for his apostasy. (Being an atheist does not constitute Jewish heresy, but breaking with Israel does.)

Then, during a call with Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog, Rogen learned that “many Israelis and Jews around the world were personally hurt by his statement, which implies the denial of Israel’s right to exist." Herzog says Rogen apologized, explaining that his comments were meant to be humorous.

But Rogen has "distanced himself from a statement from the Jewish Agency that claimed [he] had 'apologized,'" the Times of Israel reports. That must mean he wasn't just trying to be funny.

I stand with Rogen. His comments about Israel were spot on. I too was told lies about Israel growing up ("a land without a people for a people without a land") -- but I hasten to add that the people close to me did not know they were lies. I'd bet Rogen would say the same thing.

I am also happy to hear that he did not apologize for his comments. Why should he? The State of Israel came into being through the systematic dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians. Many Jews know this and criticize Israel for it. Not only that: many Jews would have been uncomfortable with the idea of an exclusivist Jewish state even if Palestine really had been a land without a people. (Rogen expressed the same view.) Reform Judaism was explicitly founded in the 19th century in opposition to the ideas of Jewish exile, diaspora, and separatism.

But what I most want to focus on here is Herzog's statement that Rogen had "personally hurt" Jews and Israelis. I assume he meant that Rogen had hurt their feelings. My question is: if someone's feelings are hurt by condemnations of injustice, why should anyone care? Are some people's feelings more important than other people's very right to live free and dignified lives? I don't think so. Some feelings ought to be -- need to be -- hurt.

This preoccupation with not hurting feelings is at the root of the ominous cancel culture and the burgeoning informal PC constraints on free thought and free speech. If you look hard enough you will find that these unfortunate things originated in attempts to inhibit good-faith criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinians by stigmatizing the speakers as anti-Semites.

As long as we're talking about feelings, let's do a full accounting. Yes, I'm sure Rogen hurt some people's feelings. But I'm also confident his courage to speak also made Palestinians, anti-Zionist Jews, and other champions of justice feel more hopeful. Why don't their feelings count?

Connections and Parallels in Jewish History

I've been reading Rebecca Goldstein's engaging book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. On pages 106-07 I found two historical facts that I found noteworthy because of their connection to or parallel with things that happened either in antiquity, as reported in the Hebrew Bible, or in the 15th century. 

Goldstein writes, "In 1492, Granada, the last Moslem [Spanish] holdout, fell to the Christians. Now it was only the Jews and the backsliding conversos [Jews who had converted to Catholicism] who spoiled the royal vision of a unified Christ Spain." In less than three months King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella began the process of expelling from Spain Jews who refused to convert. "Considerable numbers" did so," Goldstein writes. Some 100,000 to 150,000 had to leave. The penalty for staying and not converting was death.

Two aspects of this are especially interesting.

First and obviously, the Jews could be expelled in 1492 from Spain only because them Muslims had not expelled them. (England had expelled the Jews in 1290, and France did so in 1182. Portugal, in contrast, required conversion in 1497 and wouldn't permit emigration.) Muslim rule had lasted 781 years, from 711 to 1492, and for most of that time relations between Jews and Muslims were good. The Jewish community flourished, especially in cities like Cordoba. Exceptions can be found, but they were exceptions. Goldstein writes:
It was under the expansive tolerance of sophisticated Moslem life that the perfumed essence of Sephardic [Iberian-Jewish] culture had been distilled, a culture poetic philosophical, scientific, mystical, and also worldly. At certain times, among certain more fundamentalist Moslem groups, the tolerance abated. [The great Aristotelian Jewish philosopher] Maimonides, for example, had been forced to flee, as a boy with his family, from his birthplace in Cordoba when it was conquered by the Almohades, a Moslem sect that demanded conversion of all Jews. But, the the most part, Moslem ruled proved to conducive to Sephardic flourishing. [Maimonides eventually settled and prospered in Moslem Egypt.]
On this matter the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand writes in The Invention of the Jewish People that Jews had welcomed the Muslim invasion of Palestine precisely because the conqueror were not Christians. (The Muslims of course would not persecute the Jews for allegedly killing Jesus 600 hundred years earlier.) Berber Jewish converts living in north Africa even accompanied the Moors on their conquest of Spain, Sand writes. 

Thus the contrast between how the Spanish Catholics and Muslims treated the Jews couldn't have been more different.

The second thing I found interesting in Goldstein's book is Ferdinand and Isabella's reason for the expulsion. Since the monarchs gave Jews the option to convert, they clearly were not essentialists; in other words, if Jews could stay by changing their religion, they could not have been thought of as inherently bad. So why were the told to leave if they would not convert? Goldstein quotes the Alhambra Decree
We have been informed that within our kingdom there are evil Christians who have converted to Judaism and who have thereby betrayed our holy Catholic faith. This most unfortunate development has been brought about as a result of the contact between Jews and Christians.... We have decided that no further opportunities should be given for additional damage to our holy faith.... Thus, we hereby order the expulsion of all Jews, both male and female, and of all ages, who live in our kingdom and in all areas in our possession, whether such Jews have been born here or not.... These Jews are to depart from our kingdom and from all areas in our possession by the end of July, together with their Jewish sons and daughters, their Jewish servants and their Jewish relatives. [Emphasis added.]
What's interesting here is that we find virtually the same justification for the genocide committed by Joshua's forces under Yahweh's mandate after the exodus from Egypt in the 13th century BCE. Here's Deuteronomy 7:
1 When HaShem ["the Name"] thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; 2 and when HaShem thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and thou shalt smite them; then thou shalt utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them; 3 neither shalt thou make marriages with them: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. 4 For he will turn away thy son from following Me, that they may serve other gods; so will the anger of HaShem be kindled against you, and He will destroy thee quickly. 5 But thus shall ye deal with them: ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Asherim [a sacred tree or pole located at Canaanite religious locations], and burn their graven images with fire. 6 For thou art a holy people unto HaShem thy God: HaShem thy God hath chosen thee to be His own treasure, out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth. [Emphasis added.]
In both cases, then, the authorities worried that religious purity would be contaminated by by the Other's other religion. There was one big difference, however: the Canaanites were not given the conversion option, which would of course have included male circumcision. Another thing: a few of the tribes, according to the story, violated God's mandate and let some Canaanite tribes live among them. I must note, however, that by some accounts, a thousand years later, in the second century BCE, when the Maccabees ruled Judea, their conquest of the urban centers of Idumaea, or Edom (now southwest Jordan), included an ultimatum to the residents convert (and be circumcised) or leave. (See Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries Varieties, Uncertainties.)  

As they say, what goes around comes around. But, of course, the royal expulsion was a gross injustice: the Jews of 1492 Spain had committed no injustice against anyone in Palestine 28 centuries earlier.

Biblical fables notwithstanding, the Israelites were Canaanites, not sojourners, and archaeologists and historians have found no evidence for either the exodus from Egypt of an Israelite nation or Joshua's genocidal conquest of Canaan. In fact, for a long time the line between the Israelites' religion and the Canaanites' religion was faint and porous, which sometimes prompted oppression of polytheistic Hebrews by political/religious authorities striving to centralize their power in Jerusalem. Widespread monotheism did not get to the region for many hundreds of years.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

How to Care about the Disadvantaged

You may be in the presence of mere virtue-signalers if they:
  • wring their hands about police brutality without ever calling for repeal of all victimless-crime laws, which create a poisonous dynamic between police and public precisely because the conduct being policed is consensual for each party to the illegal transactions;
  • bemoan the lack of growing black-family wealth without calling for the elimination of Social Security, which imposes a regressive tax to confiscate savings that would otherwise be heritable by the savers' children;
  • lament the inadequate economic mobility of people in minority communities without condemning occupational licensing, which prohibitively raises the cost of entry into many kinds of work;
  • condemn the inadequate economic mobility of people in minority communities without opposing zoning and other land-use controls, which inflate the price of housing in areas with superior economic opportunities;
  • decry the sad state of education for minority children without demanding parental choice in an entrepreneurial free market in schools;
  • denounce minority unemployment without acknowledging that the legislated minimum wage kills jobs for people with few skills and makes the surviving jobs more onerous than before.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Available Now: What Social Animals Owe to Each Other


My latest book, What Social Animals Owe to Each Other, is now at Amazon.com. Enjoy!

Spinoza's Excommunication

Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677)

On this day in 1656, 23-year-old Baruch Spinoza (Espinoza) was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam, then the most liberal city in the world. Spinoza had not yet published any of the works that would make him known worldwide as brilliant philosopher, as well as the first to advocate separation of religion and state, freedom of conscience, and political freedom generally. He was one of the fathers of the Enlightenment and perhaps the first classical liberal.

Here is the decree, or cherem, ordering him expelled from his congregation. It was unprecedented in its severity, but note that no specific grounds are given for this treatment. Spinoza did not object to his expulsion. He Latinized his name to Benedict and went about his life as a talented lens grinder and philosopher of reason and libealism, his best-known works being A Theologico-Political Treatise and Ethics.

The Lords of the ma'amad, having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Espinoza, have endeavoured by various means and promises, to turn him from his evil ways. But having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practised and taught and about his monstrous deeds, and having for this numerous trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they became convinced of the truth of the matter; and after all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honourable chachamin [sages], they have decided, with their consent, that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel. By the decree of the angels, and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of all the Holy Congregation, in front of these holy Scrolls with the six-hundred-and-thirteen precepts which are written therein, with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho, with the curse with which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the curses which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him; the anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in this book, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven, and the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel with all the curses of the covenant, which are written in the Book of the Law. But you who cleave unto the Lord God are all alive this day. We order that no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favour, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells of him, or read anything composed or written by him.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Feds Out of Portland

Maybe no one would have noticed if Trump had sent in some FBI guys just to help guard the federal courthouse in Portland, but Trump lives by the motto "Be ominously obnoxious or go home." So he sends in unidentified agents from customs, the border patrol, and other such agencies to scoop demonstrators off the streets. Now he's threatening to do the same thing in other cities, including Chicago. State and local officials in Oregon and around the country are concerned.

Trump may like the optics in this election season. To many of us, however, it looks bloody fascistic. Let local communities work this stuff out. The last thing they need is an escalation of trouble compliments of an invading federal force.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Prophetic Jewish Anti-Zionists

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise

When Peter Beinart, a self-described liberal Zionist, abandoned the two-state resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict and embraced one state with equal rights for all, he quickly drew the ire of orthodox Zionists, some of whom went so far as to describe Beinart as a "Nazi" who favors a single state as the "Final Solution" for the more-than-century-old problem. By this, Beinart's critics mean that equal rights in the unified land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River would surely bring the extinction of Jews.

It's a repulsive smear, of course, one that well confirms what Beinart wrote in his Jewish Currents article. What gets overlooked, however, is that the early Jewish anti-Zionists, especially the founders of American Reform Judaism, warned that the incipient movement to establish a Jewish state in Palestine would nourish the anti-Semite  potentially endangering Jews everywhere, including the United States, where they enjoyed unprecedented freedom.This view was no better articulated than by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), founder of American Reform Judaism. 

Wise insisted that Jews did not constitute a single people, nation, or race but rather a worldwide religious community embracing many cultures and nationalities. Embracing one of the traditions of Judaism (which for much of its history was unified on little if anything), he preached a universalist, against a separatist, conception of his religion. This entailed the view that the human race was one people deserving of equal individual rights and freedom. For Wise, Judaism and Americanism were cut from the same cloth. (Ironically, in our time Israeli geneticists frantically and futilely search for the Jewish gene, which the Nazis also believed existed.)

As he watched the Zionist movement develop, Wise was horrified at what the future held. Writing in the final years of his life, he said: "The only class that will derive any advantage from the [1898 second Basel Zionist] Congress will be the anti-Semites, whose strongest argument that the Jews the world over are mere sojourners in countries, not a constituent part of their peoples, will receive expected support from the public acts and declarations of the Jews themselves."

He was not stretching the point. Theodor Herzl and his Zionist colleagues appealed for the support of European rulers by vocally assuming the anti-Semitic slur that Jews were a parasitic alien presence in the nations of the world and that the "Jewish Question" could be answered only by establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. All Jews could then be concentrated there and away from the gentiles. (I use the word concentrated advisedly.) Whether the Zionists believed what they said or were just lied strategically, they made a consequential move.

A year before Wise made his statement, a committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a Reform organization Wise founded, stated: "Such attempts [to establish a Jewish state] infinitely harm our Jewish brethren where they are still persecuted [Russia and Romania, for example], by confirming the assertion of their enemies that the Jews are foreigners in the countries in which they are at home, and of which they are everywhere the most loyal and patriotic citizens."

This point has been a staple of the anti-Zionist case ever since. It was so widely known that the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which expressed official British approval of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, lamely tried to address it by stating that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country." How'd that work out, Zionists?

When Zionists today cite Hitler's attempted Judeocide as proof that the Zionist movement should have been listened to in 1897, one can reasonably ask, in light of what the anti-Zionists foresaw: is it unreasonable to view the horrors of 20th century as resembling a self-fulfilling prophecy? In other words, notwithstanding the tentativeness of counterfactual history, might things have been different had prominent and well-connected European Jews not adopted the anti-Semites' smear that Jews were indeed parasitic aliens who could never belong to their societies and had instead joined forces with the world's liberals to promote equal rights for all?

Monday, July 20, 2020

To Annex or Not to Annex -- Is the Question Moot?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains under a cloud of personal corruption, had more or less promised to annex some of the West Bank in July. He's let his deadline slip, we've been told, because he doesn't want to proceed while his buddy Trump is preoccupied with other matters. He must need the cover, which is interesting in itself. Meanwhile leading Jewish Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer are uneasy with annexation talk, perhaps because his party is no longer solidly in Israel's corner.

So who can say when and if a formal annexation will occur? I prefer to ask: does it matter? If the state of Israel does nothing, the Palestinians of the West Bank will remain without rights, ruled under an apartheid regime either by Israel directly or by Israel's subcontractor for security, the authoritarian Palestinian Authority.

As the indefatigable Norman Finkelstein often reminds us, Israel has already de facto annexed the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which is just a big open-air prison. Under international law, when a government occupies an adversary's territory during a war, it is obliged to regard the occupation as strictly temporary. Keeping it and moving citizens into it are indisputably illegal acts. The law makes no distinction between offensive and defensive wars, although the 1967 war, in which Israel seized the Palestinian territories (which Jordan had occupied since 1948), was not defensive.

In 2004 the International Court of Justice reaffirmed this aspect of international law when it condemned Israel's occupation of the West Bank, the Jewish-only settlements, and the wall of separation as illegal.

By now, after 53 years, we are entitled to notice that Israel's occupation is not temporary. And that means the territories' status is not one of occupation but of annexation. It won't do to say that Israeli governments have tried to negotiate with the Palestinians according to the land-for-peace formula called for by the postwar UN Resolution 242. Israel has often pretended that it would be willing to give up some land for peace, but it is hard to take those gestures seriously. Every so-called "generous" Israeli offer contained so many conditions and Israeli prerogatives that the Palestinian territories would have been nothing more than a scattered archipelago of vassal districts. This is no less true of Trump's grand plan for Israel and Palestine.

The Palestinians have been victims of a cruel Israeli (and American) joke -- often with the complicity of what are laughably called their rulers, who have put their personal interests ahead of the people they claim to represent.

No wonder Netanyahu is in no hurry. He's already got what he wants. If he were to formally annex some of the West Bank, he would get flak both from those who support the long-suffering Palestinians and from his domestic right-wing, which will complain that he did not annex enough.

So as I say, what's his hurry?