Category Archives: Judaism

On Victor Frankl’s neo-Stoicist humanist accommodation to the Shoah

This neo-Stoic celebration of an ethics of responsibility that says that anyone can handle anything if they have enough faith, is false. Frankl shares this conventional view of God (or “meaning”) and the camps with Bruno Bettelheim and others. It announces a denial of the vulnerability (and mortal finitude) that is so much of what makes us human, in the name of the noble desire to overcome oppression and end its unnecessary suffering. It leads to neoliberalism, and is well refuted by Primo Levi in his own writings on the camps, unsurpassed for their moral realism and lucidity in describing the figure of the “Musselman,” and by Giorgio Agamben’s philosophical meditations on this in “Remnants of Auschwitz,” which stands as the most rigorous philosophical study of the Shoah to date. The truth of the matter is rather more interesting than the traditional inspiring, homiletical purpose befitting a sermon that is Frankl’s. It is the Levi/Agamben position that is more authentically Jewish, while the other and more popular position only seems to be, and in fact is closer to Christianity with its soteriology that renders ethics a purely psychological matter. In this regard, Judaism knows something that Christianity tends to forget: that man is a social and political animal.  Levi, one of the survivors who eventually would suicide (do the humanists of Frankl’s kind blame him for this sin and the despair behind it?), and whose complete works were recently made available in English translation, titled one of his books recounting his experience at Auschwitz, “The Drowned and the Saved.”  Just as one does not need a salvation to live a good life, drowning, perdition, damnation are conditions that we know, especially now, to be real enough that we can do without the moralizing.  Sermonizers, who do, or can, fulfill a useful role, may as well limit themselves to urging people to simply live the best lives they can; it is not an either/or matter such that a life would need, as in St. Paul and Luther, to be “justified.”

Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl Explains Why If We Have True Meaning in Our Lives, We Can Make It Through the Darkest of Times

Notes towards a Jewish philosophy after Deleuze and Badiou

Which philosopher or theorist in the 20th century is the most liberal, the freest? I think Gilles Deleuze. The African-American writer Ishmael Reed once said he wished that more Americans would look to native sources like jazz instead of to France. But actually Deleuze is the most philo-American of French thinkers (he preferred American and, oddly, even English, literature to French), and of course you cannot get a philosophy that is more like jazz than “A Thousand Plateaus” and “What is Philosophy?” (Both of which he wrote with Felix Guattari).

When I write my book “Towards a New Jewish Philosophy” I will include a chapter on Deleuze, which I hope to add to the book’s provocation since most people would tiresomely reiterate “Levinas, Levinas, Levinas, and maybe Derrida.” Sure, but are we going to opt for welcoming the stranger that we are to ourselves and the world is, and so for nomadology, or not? Set tables are, you know, oh so medieval. If the great question is the ethical one of how to live a good life, and thus, what is a life, the first principe in approaching an answer is that there is no rule book for living exactly. Of course there are obligations, and I’m ok with 613 I can understand and that are all subject to elaboration through careful study (God would withdraw any of them if a rigorous moral philosophy proved it wrong) –which beats 6000 that require a legal staff to inform you of only to avoid liabilities. If Levinas is right that God is an infinity (because Being is) and not the author of a totality, then the perfection of the world is not the eventual reiteration of the salvific plan of a Book, as even territories have no perfect maps but Being is not a territory, whatever your cosmology.

Badiou may well misunderstand infinity in relying too much on set theory. The problem with the Cantorian approach to infinity is that it is for him it is sets that are infinite, but actually any set is only unlimited in its count but is bounded and counts in some particular way, and that makes it limited, and so finite. The root here is the chaos/cosmos relation with the latter dependent on the concept or conceptual name. (A name that is not conceptual indicates a person independently of properties, and so God and so human persons, both persons without qualities). Badiou has too much faith in concepts. And yet we do not want to retreat to the antinominalism and antinomianism of, say, Buber. Badiou is a Platonist, and all Platonism refers to concepts or forms, such as images, as primary. His argument for atheism is: God is an idea of the infinite, but the infinite is really secular and so not transcendent because it is really finite. Totality and infinity may be both figures of Bigness and thus Power or Availability, and if not, what, and how? Badiou looks to ontology (theory of Being) to decide the ethical question; again, I am inclined to side with left Heideggerians like Agamben (perhaps most clearly in “The Coming Community”….)

I take some hope from the embedded tendency of the French to use the term “interesting” to indicate what is good. We Americans want the “real” or the “true” or…. (and the religious perhaps want the holy, if anyone knows what that means anymore. I think that art captured aura long ago and religion is powerless to recolonize it because of our imaginary museum and the practically infinite multiplicity of Books, that have forever displaced all ideas of “the Book” (and author, authority, or origin as legitimating Being or value). (Derrida and the other left Heideggerians win that argument, among others; and yes, this is liberating! I would feel poor if I did drudgery all week and lived for a couple hours stolen from the night of study of the Great Text. But I live in the age of mechanical reproduction and the non-scarcity of an information economy. …)

There is an emergent new paradigm. We don ‘t have it, but it is in formation. Among other things, it already can be seen to include spectacular developments that rearticulate the division between the secular and the sacred.

So anyone tells you they are returning to “tradition” and find everything there, tell them we don’t advocate not reading the classics, but — well, send them to me, to my school, or give them my site address and bid them wait ten years for the book.

How Judaism has failed the Jews: Reflections on Norman Cantor’s “The Sacred Chain”

I have been reading historian Norman F. Cantor’s excellent book on Jewish history, “The Sacred Chain.” Cantor makes a compelling case for the failure of the decisively influential stands of thinking in the Jewish world going back to antiquity, their failure to do the one thing that, in various times of crisis (when the early Christian church was competing with Judaism before Constantine; and in the critical moments of 1096, 1492, 1648, and then the 19th and 20th centuries), might have led to different outcomes: such fewer people abandoning Judaism for Christianity, and the faith of most Jews and institutions supporting it being more relevant and useful to their needs.

The simple story is that Cantor thinks that always in the various diaspora sites, a substantial number of Jews became very successful and prominent, and what this generally did was to make them conservative. Conservative by the standards of what might have been had Jewish intellectual life been less exclusively tied to traditional sources, such that it might have involved more successful fruitful encounters with philosophical, scientific, and artistic ideas and trends in the larger culture.

Thus, not only does Cantor dismiss Cabalism as irrational (while interestingly pointing to parallels at its origin in the same place and time, 12th century Southern France, to the Christian Cathar Hersey which Denis de Rougemont has famously argued poised modern European culture by introducing morbid ideas into its understanding of romantic love, which begins with the love poetry of the Provencal Troubadours around the time of the First Crusade, which itself was influenced by the Song of Songs and medieval Arabic love poetry by Muslim and Jewish writers. The link is that both Catharism and Cabalism have roots in Gnosticism and Manichaeanism, which maintains that the world is evil in essence, and the divine forces of light are tools for its redemption from darkness). He also thinks that Judaism — if not, of course, secular Jewish thinkers, whatever it means for a work of thought to be Jewish — consistently failed at a theoretical level to produce a credible adaptation to the society of the time and the most useful and inspiring forms of thought within it. This is an almost black and white matter with regard to medieval philosophy and the Jewish participation in it, claims Cantor. Judah Halevi and others have little to offer besides poetry, and Maimonides is, philosophically, not our contemporary in the way that, along with all philosophical classics, arguably Aquinas, influenced by him, Scotus, and others are.

In the modern world, of course, assimilation meant that most Jewish minds of note were not in the rabbinate and what enchanted and excitement them was things other than the Talmud. In my field, philosophy, the difference is very striking and stark: There is a rabbinical canon of “Jewish philosophers.” Most of them are rabbis, they write inspiring 300 page homiletical sermons. Some are worth reading. But with one exception, in the last 100 years, only one deserves to be called a philosopher in a sense that the scholarly world of philosophy can recognize, and that is Emmanuel Levinas. There are other great Jewish philosophers, but no one calls them that, and no one at a rabbinical school will likely be assigned to read any of them. Most are political philosophers. (In my forthcoming – it may take a few years – book “Towards a New Jewish Philosophy,” I will argue that where Judaism most did and does differ is its politics.

The Jewish idea of God is different from characteristic Christian and Muslim ideas and the difference has to do with notions of power. The consequence is that Jewish theology at least potentially approaches social and political domination, injustice, and liberation differently. And it must. When that is recognized, other things will begin to fall into place. And we can finally say goodbye to the conservativism of the entire religious Jewish world as we know it today. The answer lies not in nationalism (though I see no reason to oppose the nation-state idea either; there is no alternative to “ours” except living in “theirs” and that will be so as long as there are not only nations but nation-states). All of the nihilist (in the Heideggerian sense) solutions of communitarianism, nationalism, familialism, or textualism (the authority of the text) must be seen as copouts and dead-ends. (A truly liberal Judaism of course values communities and families, but the -isms overstate the case in an intellectually dishonest or at least heteronymous mode of appealing to such things epistemically to legitimate belief based on some region of the way things are — the most un-Jewish idea imaginable). My argument will be philosophical, and this can allow for interpretation of texts, and of the meaning of various social forms, but the starting point cannot be them but a set of principles grounded in pure reason.

My polemic point is not that Reform and Conservative Judaism are doing so much as they are already dead, as intellectually they have nothing to offer. This is the fact: Reform Judaism sought to modernize it in ways that ultimately led nowhere (in part because no one is a Kantian anymore, at least not in Hermann Cohen’s idealizing sense).

And if I really have had too much to drink and it shows in my writing this, let me exit gracefully for now by saying that if I cannot solve this problem, maybe a bunch of us can, and certainly some good work has been done. I just find it annoying that I can go one of these nice synagogues that has nice music, a good sermon, and I like what they have done with the prayerbook. I understand that you cannot really expect to meet anyone there. I understand that most religious Jews are just interested in their careers, and families, and people like me don’t belong or are into strange fiery tomes and thinkings, and philosophy, which I study and take very seriously, is my own private enterprise, while if you probe a bit you find that these are people whose thinking is watered down Kant and Kierkegaard, via the “Jewish philosophers” who are mostly in the older German and not the more recent French and Italian traditions of Continental philosophy (to which almost all Jewish theology belongs).

Almost nowhere in Judaism today is there an interesting or relevant politics. Many liberal American Jews believe in “social activism,” but ultimately that is empty. It’s another private enterprise, and one that is encouraged.

What happened is nothing less than this: Most successful Jews today are either in business or one of the professions, or academia. The former group gets lots of opportunity for self-congratulation, and that is a major part of Cantor’s point. And the great Jewish minds have long abandoned Talmudism and the rabbinate for the universities. No one can complain about this, except that you can easily feel a disconnect if you are one of these intellectual types (if only because you find it annoying to be bored) and then you realize that you walk into a synagogue, almost any, and here people are reaping all the advantages of the Haskalah, which is why their thinking is usually at best a watered-down Kantianism, sprinkled with notions that they have gotten from the homiletical readings popular with many middle-class Jews and marketed to them, including homiletical and inspiring rather than critical forms of history, which is one of Cantor’s complains. And sprinkled with references to this or that historical factor that is homiletically pertinent. Maybe no connection needs to be made. But if you went, as I did, to a leading university and there studied in a humanities field, where some really exciting experimental thinking was going on, and then you meet your neighborhood rabbi and he or, increasingly she, is very nice and a bit helpful in some merely practical way, and suddenly you feel as in a time warp. So my question is: What would be a good way of catching up, if not to 2017, maybe to 1970? Please tell me, and don’t be embarrassed if you have to say no: Do you believe there is anything important to be learned from the 20th century or not? It seems to me that you are, like T. S. Eliot, holding out fragments from the distant past to shore against our ruins, and truth be told, you no more believe in the 20th century than the ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn who have shielded themselves from it.

I think that philosophy as a discipline sets the standards and forms of thinking clearly about anything at all. Debates about religion or politics or anything else of consequence should be formulated with reference to philosophical positions and arguments. When rabbis are not well-trained in philosophy, they must fall back, for example in any pastoral counseling context, but also in their sermons, upon argument by authority with citation of proof-texts.

And the question of assimilation is never whether or not, nor more or less; it is how, meaning to what. To which elements of the larger (not definitively Jewish) environment? And by what means (confronting these of “those” texts with which of “ours,” and in what way?

American Jews are not too assimilated; they are mostly assimilated in the wrong way. The reason is that an environment is both social and culture. Assimilation to a society is adoption of its mores and folkways and/or those of a professional career. Assimilation to a culture is understanding and using works of art and ideas that are in substantial measure a critique of the society that they are part of. And these are very different. The one, motivated by the desire for success and comfort, is intrinsically conservative. This is not bad, just limiting. The other will tend, as it has for many Jews in academia, towards the left. It will tend towards the experimental and the avant-garde.

Certainly, the idea of chosen-ness partly means being or being part of an avant-garde. The only thing that has changed there is that outside certain practices particular to us that we may (or may not) wish to maintain, and which are separative, like kosher, shabbat, circumcision, and the ban on intermarriage, with regard to most things that are normally found on either side of a social boundary, the borders are fluid. And this is true of all identities in the contemporary world, and for this reason. (It is true of gender except when it comes to meaningful differences that are anatomical).

I do not wish to suggest that synagogues should become little universities employing a hundred or more scholars and encompassing every interesting idea many of us can relate to. What I suggest is the more limited consideration that Judaism and its rabbis are today largely excluded, by the design of their profession and places of worship, from almost all of what is happening in the world today in the world of ideas, in the “spiritual” world (in the European sense: that of the world of ideas and thinking), that truly matters. And that, while I have no proposal on how to remedy this exactly, apart from suggesting that rabbinical seminaries teach or require prior study in philosophy and that this have the same degree of rigor traditionally accorded Talmudism. For look what Reform and Conservativism have done: By carefully cultivating a territory that is almost entirely irrelevant to the modern world they were both so eager to join and truly be part of, they have condemned much of American Jewish culture to disappear, if they continue on the same course, in perhaps a couple of generations. And all of the efforts that rabbis and Jewish community leaders worried about this have been undertaking are doomed because they assume that the solution to the problem is to repackage the ancient and medieval Jewish thinking that is still what is known as Judaism today.

Cantor hints that one reason for the conservatism of American Judaism today is the influence of the Jewish billionaires. I do suspect that much of the unquestioning American “Zionism” is partly a displacement and distraction. Israel is not under any immanent threat and has not been since 1973. Of course it needs to exist. But our politics should not be exclusively defined by the Israel/Palestinian issue nor by philanthropy and pleasant-sounding appeals about milquetoast social concerns that can be aired from the pulpit. For generations now, most Jews who are doing much that is interesting are not religious and could not want to be. Why is that? The rabbis want to sell them in more attractive packages what these people are smart enough to already know that they don’t want, certainly not if that’s all there is. The conservative faction has defined being Jewish in terms of Judaism and defined Judaism too narrowly. And yet, most of the things they want to cling to are fine, they just are not enough. And so the destiny will be that soon most Jews will either be non-religious in principle, or very minimally so indeed, and indeed, that is already the case. Either way, the religion is becoming irrelevant. At the very moment when, in the last couple of generations, philosophical theology has become interesting again, and in exciting new ways. But to study philosophy rightly you have to risk yourself, not cling to the shore.

Tentatively, my book will discuss a number of secular philosophers, Jewish and non-Jewish, mention some of the religious ones in passing only (as deserved), and will among other things attempt to “redeem” a political philosophy based on various sources including several 20th century Jewish philosophers who are not religious. I realize I could easily wind up writing a book that has only the most tenuous claim to a connection to Judaism, and tomorrow that may or may not matter to me; I have been reading some things that make it seem relevant. But then I will return to my starting point: A Jewish philosophy worthy of our time will be a political philosophy and vice-versa. Talmudism, Cabalism, New Ageism, and also Zionism are all in my view not really political. We don’t have a coherent politics, and that is because we don’t have a philosophy, or set of philosophies.

The question of the possible role of philosophy in Judaism has been raised since Philo in the first century. It is a vexed problem, and no less than Levinas and Leo Strauss have both claimed that “philosophy is Greek,” and Judaism can dance with it but only at arms length and not marry it. Maimonides thought differently, but he really is a hermeneutical commentator and not philosophically rigorous. Levinas is the sole figure I can think of who really does belong solidly in both camps. Spinozism is a live option today and as with Heideggerianism (and perhaps Kantianism and Hegelianism), it is by no means clear that it is a position that it places any adherent (for philosophy has adherents! It is an object of belief, of course; philosophy always claims to present what is “true,” though it asks for an allegiance that is essentially cognitive and cannot be demanded or commanded) must abandon the “faith.” Faith in what? Well, I will of course have to define what I take to be the proper Jewish idea of God, and some other things. Including, if not starting, with what he all too often is in Christianity and to my thinking cannot be: An omnipotent will who guarantees the good. The reason this is wrong is only secondarily because of “the problem of evil.” It has to do with the problems of injustice and that form of justice that is liberation. The contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben quotes in one of his books an Islamic Sura which presents the question where God was before the creation of the world. The answer is that he is with the oppressed.

God is all too easily identified with the state of things and the state authorities who represent it. Solving this problem is no easy matter, since notions such as “the people” (or, indeed, “we (or they), the oppressed”), perhaps precisely in being posited inevitable as authoritative principles on which effective action might be legitimated, they are also forms of “God.” God is his own worst enemy, and ours, because justice is as easily domination and liberation, and maybe intrinisically both. God had to be reminded by the first person who knew him well, Abraham, that it might be unjust to destroy the unjust if there might be just ones among them. Just try and sort this out in contexts where it is not easily sorted out by grouping persons. (That is, what if some are not wholly good or bad?)

The question of the role of Judaism in a philosophy is a form of the question of philosophy’s relationship to artistic (or textual) and historical “conditions.” Jewishness is always defined or understood with respect to the religion or to Jewish history. The essential features of Jewish history that make it distinctive are all already presented in the Torah and Bible. But philosophy is not hermeneutical exegesis. Rather, it always treats textual and historical exemplars as having “a vote but not a veto” (Kaplan), as at best presenting possibilities that are suggestive for a philosophical thinking that starts and ends with propositional truth claims that are grounded entirely in other such claims. Philosophy can have no non-philosophical presuppositions. Philosophy’s relationship to non-philosophy is that the latter gives it things to talk about. But any hermeneutic elucidation of an idea found in the text has only possible, perhaps even probable, validity, and that is how philosophy must treat it. A philosophical elucidation of a canonical text has not succeeded if it shows us what the text means but does not persuade us that this claim is true (or false), and in some way that we must care about.

Judaism’s idea of God was unique in not being essentially identified with authority, legitimacy, and domination, as in much of Christian theology and still much thought of God in Judaism. The Jewish God is a fullness and perfection in idea who rules without controlling Being (Nature and History) conceived as Lacking. This idea proved stronger than religion itself, because the Jews were always a minority, at least outside their proper territory in the diaspora where most of them have lived and still prefer to, and were always subjected to injustice, or liable to be, so that they could never long forget this, even if they abandoned received or traditional ways of thinking about and coping with this condition. The most fundamental ideological claim is simply that the way things are is the way they ought to be, and religious and non-religious Jews generally have intuitively refused this equation, if only because so much in their history and condition makes it difficult not to. And so, to begin with, the theological problem of God is the problem of injustice: As Abraham put it, must not the God of justice be just? Abraham presents a case that God has apparently not considered, though it is plain enough. God has made a judgment that is correct enough on its own terms, but what about “this”? There is something he seems to have overlooked. The Christians and Muslims have a tendency to say: But of course, God is just; he is what he is. This is the empty tautology of A=A, the way things are is the way they must be because it is the way things are, and what else is there? That is, possibility depends on necessity. But God’s famous enigmatic “I am what I am” which he says to Moses conjoins, in the Hebrew, two tenseless statements of the verb. (Doris Day’s song in Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” makes this “Que Sera, Sera,” whatever will be, will be, meaning that destiny is at most a fate unknowable in advance). In traditional theologies, His knowledge and wisdom are superior to ours, so we should defer and have faith and submit to his will; for “everything is the best in the best of all possible worlds,” and idea that Voltaire in the 18th century already could see, as is obvious today, is an obscenity. Judaism says instead: God must be just, for he is what he will be; that is, his promise, which requires our participation, ties what is possible or morally necessary now to our (possible) understanding of what must be and so can. Historical time is being’s lack of its own perfection. (And this is not, as in the Manichaean theme so often taken up in Christian and Muslim thinking, and recently by governments in the Cold War and beyond, a struggle of good and against evil that is thus a contest of wills, where each will is a knowledge in full possession of its objects.) The Jewish God is temporal (Bergson; and, perhaps, with Whitehead, processual), while the more common theological positions in the other religions and sometimes in ours are spatial and so static, conservative, and reflective of a desire for power more than love and freedom. They counsel a contentment that seems to us inadequate, and that is because Christianity at its origins, which was an accommodation to empire, was depoliticizing and psychologizing, solipsistic in its confident soteriology, which is why it had to oppose love to justice. And this is one reason why we must struggle with God in struggling with the world and its people, including ourselves, wresting a future rather than waiting for it, as if all we needed were reverential wonder, grace, miracles, and receptivity to the given and gifted character (as in the Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion) of a Being that is not just essentially good but wholly so (and maybe requiring only the right perspective).

And yet, maybe this is not the problem, either. Maybe the problem is class, even more than the influence of the billionaires. Most American Jews are satisfied with their lives and think this country has treated them well. Typically, they divide only on the issues of Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians, with this problem being the touchstone of all Jewish politics, in Israel and America. Yet this country has horrible problems, and most Jews don’t care very much about them. Their religious institutions are horribly and, from my perspective, stiflingly conservative. The old socialist movements died out and nothing has taken their place. The happy period of Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s is history.

Now we have arbitrary punishments, including practices like solitary confinement that warrant comparison with the Nazi death camps. (Precisely: while they do not produce physical death, they destroy the mind by destroying the brain, the degradation is drawn out in time and extremely painful, and in destroying the mind they destroy the soul and produce something like “the Musselman” figure in the camps, as described by Primo Levi and theorized by Giorgio Agamben in “Remnants of Auschwitz”). We have a health care system that is exploitative, and mental health care that mixes profitable neglect and punishment. Our educational system does not teach to people to think but only to conform and obey, at best with comfortable and betimes even greatly productive creativity, and perhaps retain a set of facts in their personal archive. We have no shared literary culture, that 19th century promise, which accompanied the birth of modern secular universal education, having been abandon in a society that has move far towards replacing the citizen with the more subject.
The universities that provided opportunities to so many young Jews and others who were intellectually inclined no longer do, and most trained scholars are unable to research or write as they have full teaching loads at starvation wages. Our popular arts of music and film are mostly just forms of advertising. The news media is entirely corporate-controlled and often overtly propagandistic. Politicians are beholden to investors in politics and lobbyists, and so their profession is essentially corrupt. Authoritarian governance is sustained by a mixture of the phony libertarianism and the medieval moralistic Biblical fundamentalism of the business and religious right-wings. Continuing racial segregation and unequal financing of schools through property taxes make overt racism, including frequent police and prison abuses, a constant likelihood. Automation is throwing people into the precariat instead of liberating them for more interesting lives. Our government continues to engage in constant overseas military operations, which often backfire, and its answer to the real terrorist threat is more domestic militarized policing and the effective elimination of civil liberties. We have a government that will rape you and then make you pay them for it. And the “liberal” rabbis want to defend this society (and the privileges of most of their congregants) and endlessly issue cautionary notes about those who want change. The shibboleths that Jews benefit from a free market economy and that socialism is dead are rather shopworn. Because God is also on the side of the oppressed. Pope Francis knows this, and many Muslims know this and get it wrong, perhaps because their Manichaeanism gets in the way. We must not oppose the rich because they are rich any more than the poor because they are poor: God is not only on the side of the oppressed, but he certainly is. But we are going to help build a better society or, I fear, go down sinking with it.

These are particularities of the present historical situation. A left politics worthy of the name today would surely be compatible with a plurality of positions in philosophical theology, or none at all. I think that Judaism and a left politics go very well together, and so do the current configurations of Reform and Conservative Judaism with a conservativism that cares not a whit for all the kinds of problems I have just summarized.

American Judaism today is almost universally quietist and apolitical. Rabbis and their congregants will have political opinions, but they are mostly uninteresting, irrelevant, or both. And this is related to the same intellectual poverty that may be the principle reason for their decline. Most synagogues today are no more relevant to any politics than most churches. Maybe God doesn’t need a politics. I say he does. What Reform did was to minimize the religious tradition and add a clause that you can fill it out with any set of supplements you like. This is part of the board nihilism of thought and “spirituality” in the modern world. Judaism, or a thinking that is true to it, is not the cause of this problem, but it might provide part of the solution. Tendencies in that direction lie almost entirely outside the realm of religion proper as it exists today, and I think the resources are in contemporary (the last hundred years) European philosophy. What this should and likely will mean for the future of Jewish difference I am not sure, though it seems to me clear that in teams of large-scale social peace, the importance of this difference will diminish as it will grow in contrary conditions. I worry more about what plants I cultivate in my garden than about how similar to mine is my neighbor’s.

Next, I will comment on what is wrong with the current official Platform of Reform Judaism, and the progressively more conservative character of each of the succeeding platforms since the first in the 19th century.

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How Judaism has failed the Jews (2): Further reflections on Norman Cantor’s “The Sacred Chain”

Postscript to my previous (yesterday) comment on Jewish historian Norman Cantor’s excellent popular, if middlebrow, book on the tale of it all: One question on which “Jewish history” may turn (In his book “Modern Jewish History” the more mainstream historical Howard M. Sachar essentially treats us to a long triumphalist narrative about the success of the Jewish bourgeoisie, identified of course with that of Jews as such) is the question of the perhaps outsized role of Jewish elites in both business and community “leadership,” religious or otherwise, and whether, to put it simply, we can only affirm capitalism and the status quo (in part because so many Jews have managed to do so well within it), or whether there is or could be any other game in town.

Cantor more or less demolishes the idea that any form of romantic Zionism could be that game, though it pretended to be for almost a century–I think a national liberation movement ends when it has become successful, and so since 1973 if not 1948 (or 1967), Zionism today does not exist, and this is a good thing, because it suffered the same ironical fate, success, as women’s and gay liberation, such that its proponents can fight only rear-guard defensive actions in the name of the supposedly constantly threatened character of the Jewish state, which certainly does have more enemies than friends but has survived through its own efforts and the alliance with the US, which cares about the balance of power in that region because of oil, ideological enthusiasms, and their conjuncture.

A history of the Jews that is only a social and not an intellectual history would be boring and surely would be like a social and political history of ancient Judaism that left out any thought about the classic texts that defined the Jewish people more than anything, while of course inspiring and haunting the imaginations of so many Christians. Indeed, Cantor makes two principle arguments about the Jews in the modern world:

1) Not only did all of the Allied governments do nothing to save the Jews from the Shoah, but also, Jews around the world, including in Palestine itself, and in American, England, and elsewhere (Cantor says nothing about France, which after the war held the world’s third largest national Jewish presence), did woefully little. In the case of the Zionists, they were too much preoccupied with their hopes for luring Jews to Palestine and achieving there an independent state to want to do more to try to save those European Jews who were unable to leave Europe for Palestine or who did not wish to until it was too late. Then as now there is a dominant grand narrative wherein the Shoah functions essentially to legitimate Zionism and Israel’s outsized claim to be the proper place for Jews everywhere, something that the vast majority of Jews in the diaspora have never accepted except as an ideological shibboleth which today provides a point of consistency to fragile modern identities. It surely did not help that the prevalent form of the Zionist ideology was an explicitly anti-intellectual form of Jewish self-hatred that blamed the history of anti-semitism on the wholesome and parasitical character of a diaspora Jewishness that was both too commercial and too intellectual and ought to mind the collective business by doing farming on the land and so bodily rejoining the real world of normal persons. Anyone who thinks that Jewish alienation is a moral fault to be cured with strategies of normalization is effectively an anti-semite.

2) Modernism in the arts and sciences was a heavily Jewish affair. But it never had any real influence in Judaism at all. I have argued this point with regard to philosophy, as Cantor does, in passing, also.

Like Cantor, I believe that Jewish leaders, including religious leaders, could help stem the tide of defections through intermarriage or boredom with what the religion offers, perhaps if nothing much more than a viable interpretation of what it means today, or can mean, to be Jewish were to be constructed that does not understand in such a narrow way what are, firstly on an intellectual plane, the challenges worth meeting. When I mention this to people with ties to existing institutions, I invariably get the response that maybe I should join the Society for Ethical Culture (an offshoot of early Reform Judaism that did abandon Judaism) since obviously I don’t believe in the covenant, the commandments, the holidays, Torah study, or anything else. But why on earth would anyone think that?

The causes may be related, having to do with the character of the Jewish elites and their characteristic concerns. The second problem seems to me the larger one, for several reasons. Personally, I find simply stunning the conservativism today of almost everyone who claims to speak for Jews or Judaism. I think that being overly sociological is deadly as it leads to anti-intellectual communitarianisms and the empty and nihilistic character of ideologies that cannot be critically examined and in fact have no substance. People who are in a position such that they should know better will “dire n’importe quoi,” say whatever they think suitable rhetorically.

If there is anything to which you are committed, consciously and with care and deliberation, but cannot clearly explain, including to yourself what it is you are committed to and why, and in a way that sustains critical examination, then you are an irrationalist. Maybe you appeal to an idea of “community,” or “tradition,” or familialism (in France, the right-wing Benny Levy, founder along with Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut, of an institute focused on the works of the great French Jewish philosophy Emmanuel Levinas, argued that the Jews are distinctive for having a rich family life, but of course lots of people have that, and you can very well have it with no idea of “God” or justice or liberation anything else, as is true of “community”: these are lousy candidates for names of God). The sociological reduction, especially tempting in a society like the US where scholarly thinking in philosophy has no popular appeal, as it does in France, is especially deadly. It entails an abandonment of the need for thinking at all, and so a wholesale abandonment either of the life of the mind or of its relevance outside the boundaries of one’s profession.

Cantor is audacious. For no clear reason, he singles out as representative modernists whose thought could be relevant to an intellectual renascent Judaism five Jewish thinkers who emerged around 1900, including Durkheim as well as Freud. Perhaps a book as sweeping and intended for popular consumption as his “The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews,” cannot be expect to go into much depth about this or anything in one 400 page volume full of interesting summary conclusions and no use of scholarly norms of elucidating the terms at stake in all arguments concerning all controversial claims. Suffice it to say that I would give a very list (and perhaps a long one) of modernist artists and thinkers, with no care to who was a Jew or carried Jewish identity papers and concerned solely with what I take to be the proper, intellectual responsible mode of inquiry in constructing a contemporary Jewish philosophy: Develop a body of interesting claims that are well-argued, that make ample reference to various developments in the world of ideas in the modern and contemporary worlds, that are worked out on the plane of philosophical discourse as it exists today, and that derive their claims for some measure of “Jewishness” from the implicit or explicit parentage of at least some of the key claims to Jewish texts and history
in terms of credible interpretations of them.

In Cantor’s reading, there seem to have been three kinds of elites in Jewish history until now. Until the modern period (meaning largely after 1792), the dominant elites were the intellectual elites who were essentially religious on the one hand, and secular elites who were ofter merchants or capitalists on the other. He seems to think that the creation of the state of Israel did not change this. The third elite was a secular scientific and cultural elite, which largely wound up being associated with universities. One could wonder if their importance is coming to an end. As most PhDs today are employ only to teach, at starvation wages, and given no opportunity for continued research and writing. One might put it more simply by saying that in Jewish culture there have always been the two figures of businessman and scholar, and that in the modern world religious thinking and scholarship lost its exclusive purchase on the Jewish (and non-Jewish) mind. Indeed, I sometimes think that the real question today is the future of intellectuals. I think the Jews as a people will have a future as long as they exist, as long as many are in the diaspora, and as long as there are opportunities available to them to succeed in. In the long term, there will be intellectual life as long as there are books and enough people who have access to them and leisure time to read and make something of them. In the short term, of course, the world seems dark. In America, anti-Semitism most often took other, or disguised forms, notably anti-intellectualism and anti-Communism. As I noted in my previous post on this, wherever else He may be found, God is on the side of the oppressed.

The left, it may be noted, has always been an alliance between certain kinds of intellectuals and the poor. One need only consider the Biblical Prophets to glimpse why it has so many Jews have been on the left. Indeed, the problem the Jews pose is partly that they are frequently intellectual people but who are not quite defined in their thinking by service to power.

Maybe reading middlebrow intellectual histories is the best training of the mind for enthusiastic mediocrity. But can I not at least allow myself the grandiosity of a pleasant fantasy? The fantasy that in all naivety imagines for a moment that there is something that can be done. People imagine, as Jews often have and as Holderlin suggested and some Marxists believe, that things will only get better after they only and decisively get worse. Most apocalyptic thinking assumes that. In our time, that style of thinking of course seems very dangerous. But this happens because when the state of things seems especially bad, one wants a response large and great enough to bring about a reversal, or important enough that it seems like it might.

It’s official: For Reform Judaism, “social concern” is extra credit, defines us not

Reform Judaism has an official platform that provides its defining principles. There have been four, adopted 1885, 1937, 1976, and 1999. Each new one was progressively more conservative than the last. The current one contains in it no political principles at all (beyond of course an affirmation of Zionism). The first two platforms did.

The 1885 platform included a broad statement of concern for social inequality and concluded with reference to “the evils of the present organization of society.”

The 1937 platform adds some specifics. Along with calling for “the creation of conditions under which human personality may flourish,” it declares “the right of the individual to…the pursuit of his chosen vocation.”

This is wholly absent in the current platform. And indeed, by 1976 it must have been the case that Reform Judaism was so throughly identified with the professional middle class, and so satisfied with the success of its congregants in attaining to positions within it and a sufficient sense of personal life satisfaction as a result, that there simply was no need to maintain a principled commitment to any such idea.

That must be why I found that even within what I knew to be one of New York’s most liberal Reform synagogues, neither on the part of the rabbinate, or its lay leaders, or anyone else I might meet or speak to in passing, any sympathy for my own essentially secular frustrations. I am certain that they could only respond with reference to psychological and therapeutic notions. Of the kind that explicitly defined for example the supposed “politics” of the liberal Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of a magazine explicitly devoted to “Jewish spirituality” and the one-time darling of the Clinton White House. That synagogue had no politics, and its rabbi then was a neoconservative who disdained discussion even at meetings held for that purpose, endlessly extolling “community” and, when not acting like a cheerleader for Jewish identity and the warm feel of shabbat, would talk about the need to instill moral responsibility into the minds of the recipients of charity, which he suggested to me was more his concern than scholarship. A neoconservative of the “I’ve always been liberal, but…” variety, he was a Platonist who thought his congregants mostly only dimly aware of the Enlightened truth of clergy like him and like everyone in need of reminding of their responsibilities, so that, 30 years after the onset of the neoliberalism and largely Jewish neoconservativism that he had learned from his mentor the “Jewish philosopher” Rabbi Eugene Borowitz (long the unofficial head rabbi of Reform ), they would grasp the truth, hear the inner voice that he thought was that of God (some of us are less sure of this), and perform some minimal mitzvoth rather than spending Shabbat at a suburban mall. He must have been right about his congregation because over some time I found that no one there said anything interesting that I did not find horrible, and no one either had much attitude for discussion about anything. When I tried I was unceremoniously shown the door, and I decided then that I had learned my lesson. They made me feel like a bull in the china shop of an Establishment institution, and I concluded that they were right. I can go there or anywhere else for services. The rabbi’s suggestion that I become involved in their community led me to wonder, what community? Do you see a community? The assistant rabbi suggested to me that “the community” is what exists in the sanctuary on shabbat, and it is invoked into existence by “the community.” Well, sure, there are prayer minyans and the like, and then there are communities that are a bit like a polis in the sense that there are conversations and an intellectual life there. I suspect that for my purposes (which are prima facie those of a secular philosophy), I will find that today in New York or anywhere else. That means for my purposes to pray at a synagogue and make friends somewhere else. There is a bit of sadness in this. I would find it regrettable if I thought myself the last New York Jew who is at all religious who has my politics (left) and interests in the world of ideas. There are probably a hundred thousand Jews in New York in that category, almost none of them are religious, but why worry? Why should I care so much about Judaism as a religion beyond the liturgical functions of the relevant social gatherings? Of course, in that case I will belong to no community and only a social network, like most people today, and most members of that congregation or any other, in Judaism, Christianity, and elsewhere: “community” is a holy name, but in practice it means being a, usually dues-paying, member of an organization that has regular meetings of some kind; in other words, “groups.” In the strong sense of the term, communities in general are dying with the passing of agricultural villages, and the success of the Brooklyn Hasidim in creating urban shtels of the kind that existed independently of religious groupings on the early 20th century Lower East Side, this is anachronistic and somewhat artificial, and in any case is not what anyone in Reform can believe in. Those communities are essentially closed. Everywhere else, porous boundaries have given way to none at all, though the champions of identity politics speak of them, no doubt, like all religious fundamentalists, precisely because they are anxiously trying to preserve by resurrecting something that no longer exists. In the absence of sets with boundaries, there are nodes with connections, and that is the model of the network as distinct from the group. You could have networks drawn entirely from larger sets whose members meet some membership criteria but do not meet as any group. I am not sure that the shift to a network society and model of social life is an entirely bad thing. But it is a fact that when leaders and policemen of organizations speak of “community,” they are engaging in a lot of wishful thinking, and it is their organization and maybe even its fees and dues, that they are concerned for.

My community can only by one of people who have at least a working knowledge of some common texts. I will not find that at a synagogue. There isn’t one. I probably should look for it in other places, like places with people interested in that part of the world of ideas that I care about.

Maybe I should just try to become a more effective resident of New York. And write for whoever will buy the publication my articles are printed in. Finding my friends where I find them, and being very wary of organizations.

To return to my original question (though the two are related): I wonder now that so many young people who had hoped to pursue a career as scholars at one of our nation’s numerous colleges and universities are now finding themselves shut out as teaching jobs are increasingly held by adjuncts who are paid starvation wages and not given time for study and research, I wonder if this could change things at all.

Jewish history has often been one of missed opportunities. Reform and Conservative Judaism now represent nice places to worship that have no politics to speak of at all. Maybe that’s all it should be, and all anyone could want. The counterargument is: If so, then how do we explain the continuing drift of younger generations away from Judaism and any Jewish identity through intermarriage and disinterest in the religion? Why can’t more of the scholars who represent the religion be more interested in the world of ideas that Judaism if it matters at all must be part of? And why would successful Jews decide that they no longer need care about poor people because there aren’t any? Their current platform advocates Aliyah (moving to Israel) but includes no statement at all about this society, its problems, or what “we” should want it to be.

The question comes down to: Are we contented or discontented? The idea that all discontent must be psychological is simply an avoidance of this question.

The Jewish God against “his” Theory/Story (Theology) as Injustice Justification

Most discussions are impossible, because at least one of the persons will not listen (that is, consider the argument the other is making). There is no point in discussing anything if you know already that you are right.

One difference between persons who are authoritarian and those who are liberal (in the old sense) and tolerant is just that the authoritarians do not even think this is a problem.

The better part of Western culture refutes them; the larger part of its institutions confirms their view. 

Part of the problem lies with mistaken views of language. It is something more or different from a tool (for getting what one wants). More fundamentally is making sense of experience.

The Western idea of God is tied to that project. Only if that were not the case could “God” be a power that arranges and controls all that happens, guaranteeing the good as product if not process (that much of what happens cannot be considered entirely good at least without reference to the teleology of some project for which it is means to an end: This is self-evident, and the idea that one need only change his perspective on unhappiness to be happy is so patently dishonest to be unworthy of consideration). Narratival teleology and justification of what is or what happens derives from the use of tools to accomplish tasks. There is something that gets left out, something crucial for human happiness, that is left out in that scheme.

One thing unique about the Jewish idea of God is that he was a figure of promise, and even of justice as project, as in the idea of liberation, and the temporality (“history”) that underlies it; but he was never quite a figure of justification. There is no Jewish theodicy. Theodicy is pagan, or at best, technological. Totality is a form of perfection, which is a property of created things, objects of the labor of our hands.

The conclusion to the book of Job is both less and more and less than a justificatory theodicy; God’s argument there is not that Job’s suffering was really happy or necessary, a false idea he well knows Job has too much moral courage to accept.

Rather, it is only that the book about it tells only the perhaps complete story of the experience of one man, while there are elsewhere other stories of losses and gains, and from an “absolute” point of view, the story of the world and its people is larger, if not more fortunate. It is as if God were suggesting to Job that he consider this, perhaps because it might give him something else to do besides complain (or seek reassurance). And maybe too God needs Job to patient with him, as the task of creating a world that is just and happy is unfinished, and Job has merely been given to understand something of the injustice that one has to start with.

“Never again,” the American Gulag, and its use of torture

Additional thoughts the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day:
It will annoy many people if I make a comparison, and while I think in both these ways American prisons today are in fact worse than the Nazi concentration camps, because obviously in most ways the latter were far more horrible and, of course, deadly, I will just say that if you remember the Holocaust and believe that remembering means saying never again and never again never means never again what happened before but also never again anything that is comparable in any significant way. What I wish to point to is the widespread and typically arbitrary use of solitary confinement in American prisons. It is recognized as a form of torture. It destroys the soul, much as the camps did according to Giorgio Agamben, as discussed in The Witness and the Archive: Remnants of Auschwitz. The men and women responsible for this murderousness are insouciant; American culture has never been one in which people who suffer have any droits de cité; to suffer from poverty or anything else is to be a criminal in the eyes of most Americans. And we treat criminals as damned and worthless, deserving of suffering that we inflict upon with a punitive alibi in a way that is beyond measure and so does not require any measure for measure. Christianity rejected Judaism’s lex talionis on the grounds that it is a mere rationalization for revenge, but what distinguished it was the limitation of punishment; you do not take two eyes for one, and in fact you may only require the payment for one, and payment assumes a measurable and therefore limited quantity, which is one way it is different from revenge. The figure of measurelessness retaliation in the Bible is Lamech, who declares he will kill anyone who bruises him and avenge himself 70 fold. Perhaps when you eliminate measured justice in the name of humanity, Lamechism comes in the back door. But of course American punishment is not only not Jewish but is even less Christian. Unless your idea of Christianity is instituting hell on earth in order to punish everything you think is damned. But in the end religion is probably irrelevant to understanding the prison: authority in American today more and more follows a military logic and the prisoner is treated like an enemy combattant and so neither questions of justice nor of mercy can apply to him. He is the object of a state of exception.
So this is my plea: if you really believe in “never again,” help stop the use of solitary confinement in American prisons. I do not say use: like all torture, it has no legitimate use.

Piety without Authoritarianism: The Lesson of Judaism

What above all makes Freud a Jewish thinker is the way he distinguishes morality and moralism. Morality is inseparable from the desire to understand (which is as fundamental a motif in the Oedipus story as is his finding himself unwittingly entangled in horribly displaced familial relationships). Morality is always a truth or discovery or the fidelity to one, which is why morality needs literature and the arts as moralism does not.

Thus, this distinction is related to that between knowledge and thinking. Heidegger says that guilt is “wanting to have a conscience”; to look at a situation from a moral point of view is to declare that something is at stake with regard to the better and worse as manifest in the experience of ourselves and others living int he world, and so something that we must care about are responsible for doing so, and acting without a conscience if we do not. Knowledge tells you what is the case in the matter at hand so that you know what to do; thinking asks what it means, what are the practical implications of the facts in the matter at hand. These are not the same thing exactly. In part because one is merely applied, implemented, enforced. 

Authoritarian moralists are usually explicit about this: “I don’t think, I know.” And they know the truth about you: it is a guilt they ascribe to you that has no content. (To ascribe an essential guilt they must ascribe an essence, but it need not have a more than referential or classificatory meaning). It’s not something you can change, or need to understand. It is no accident that by the time of Freud’s discoveries, it was already newly but well established that certain prejudices (such as those affecting Jews, homosexuals, and in America Blacks, who were said to lack intelligence as they are now often said to lack authority) had been biologized.

The displacement from something superficial, uninteresting, and potential deadly onto something that can be the impetus and object of rigorous thought is a replay of Judaism’s founding principle that God or the holy is not where you thought he was but somewhere else. So much was monotheism was made possible by idolatry that it derived much of its energy from various refusals of immanent and obvious truths and norms. And it transformed mere authority (face it, anyone can hear a “still, small voice”; there are madmen who do and then commit crime sprees) into literature. There, the same problematic exists whenever one wants to interpret the text, say what it means: then you have the author as causal principle. The others go on reading these ancient texts, with no regard to their untranslatable poetry or the labor of interpretation, as rule books for living. That isn’t reading, because it isn’t thinking, which is why it is not an ethics.

Anger without hatred? Reflections on “anti-Zionism”

Reply to a friend on Israel:

First, we have to get away from demonizations.
What does and does not follow from the fact that certain crimes are being committed?

I once volunteered to write a press release for a pro-Palestinian group. I was told to quote both Palestinians and Jews. No one had affirmed Israel’s right to exist, so I did and quoted a phrase of my invention: “I defend Israel’s existence; I condemn its crimes.” Statements like this of course ensure that I will have no friends when this issue comes up. But on the one hand, it ought to be banal to criticize a nation’s crimes; I also condemn France’s use of torture in the Algerian war and a whole lot of other things (and I love France and the French people); I condemn the injustices of people I love and respect, not to mention affirming their right to exist.

There is a consensus among pros and contras that the question is, is Israel good or evil, and does it have a right to exist or not, because: we are in an ad hominem space. “Zionists” say criticizing us is denying our right to exist, and anti-“Zionists” affirm this proposition. And both should deny it.

Maybe the underlying logic is that of precarization. We have perhaps entered a world where everyone is existentially threatened and politics takes that as a starting point. This was true of the anti-nuclear power movement of the 1970s, and of other things.

The same Palestinian group in NY went on to oppose Israeli artists performing in NY and a Brooklyn Art Museum exhibit of both Israeli Jewish and Palestinian artists discussing the occupation. They are wrong to do so; like our “liberals,” they want to stifle thought. It is similar to the ad hominem character of our “liberalism.” You are not wrong in what you say or do but in who you are.

Yes, “Zionists” succeeded partly because of American and European petro-politics and America loves Israel not because it loves the Jews (the most ardent American Zionists are Christian evangelicals and they mostly do not) but because Israel is like the 51st state, less so culturally than Germany perhaps but more so politically.

Yes, the Occupation is immoral and should be ended. Yes, Israel fights aggressive wars against the Palestinian people that it pretends are defensive wars.

No, Israel is not a mere white settle colonialism. Yes, Zionism had a rationale. Israel was settled partly by people escaping Europe, and I can understand why many Jews might prefer living in Israel to living in Germany, Russia, Poland, France, or even the United States. There are forms of de facto anti-semitism even here (where they are usually de facto).

Yes, there are practical problems with any possible one- or two-state solution. These problems could probably be solved if enough people on both sides wanted to.

Probably Israel should end the Occupation, and compensate monetarily in a generous enough way, worked out in negotiations, so that not all of the descendants of Palestinian Arabs who left in 1948 or later can have a right of return, which would soon render Israel majority Palestinian and Muslim, thus ending the Jewish character of the Jewish state. These people will have to learn to live together eventually. That they often do not is not the simple fault of the intransigent among the Israelis. It really is a complex situation. Anyone who says “anti-imperialism entails ‘anti-Zionism'” is wrong.

No, Israel is not an appropriate symbol of evil. Yes, the Palestinian people are oppressed by it. Yes, Islamo-fascism is real; read the Hamas Charter, it is a pure anti-semitic psychotic rant.
Yes, the interests of Jewish billionaires are corrupting, and they potentially conflict with the interests of ordinary middle-class Jews. This is a problem in various spheres.
I have written on this.

Jews are not always or necessarily conservatives, but there are forces that want them to be and in the last 50 years they have achieved a hegemony, for several reasons, having to do partly with urban crime and racism (and responses to the Black extremism that become dominant in its world after 1968), partly with embourgeoisification, partly with the conservative character of the rabinnate, and other things. Including Arab Jew-hatred.

There are some complexities here. One ought to be careful. Ethically and politically the issue is a minefield.

Israel came into existence after WW2 for a conjunction of reasons and causes. Interestingly, both the US and the USSR voted yes at the UN. I have known Jews who feel more at home in a predominantly Jewish society than they do in America or France. I don’t blame them. Jews have different values, at least sometimes. Jews are almost uniquely oppressed not through poverty and political subjugation so much as through hatred. This is an enduring historical fact that for 2500 years has emerged in uncanny resemblance in many different places and times.

The left internationally has for some time almost unanimously agreed with the unexamined assumption that “Zionism” is at the forefront of the global struggle for social justice. I do not believe this. I think it is placed at the forefront because there is something that seems to so many people attractive in doing so, and I think this something has something to do with how many people feel about “the Jews.” Consider since 1948 what are the greatest instances of state-organized barbarism in the world, and ask how high Israel ranks in this regard. The Gulag, Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge, America’s treatment of Blacks, the murder of 3000 people from around the world in New York through petroleum firestorms set off by hitting buildings with planes – and all because of hatred of America and Americans, Yugoslavia and its massacres, the suppression of the Hungarian and Czech democratization efforts, the more than 50 overseas wars and military expeditions in this period by the US, Rwanda, Biafra, the deaths through famine and AIDS that could have prevented, US support for Saudi Arabia, the famines in North Korea,…… and Israel is low on the list of horrible barbarism when compared to all this.

But is that an argument that can vindicate it? Like saying that our country and its government are great because Stalinism or Nazism are so bad and “we are not like that at all”? The logic of resentment always works this way: I am so great because you are so bad.

On another note, I am interested in the critiques of Zionism of people like Judith Butler.

Yes, criticism is not attack, and critics will always be attacked for attacking. And the greatest political problem is the greatest ethical one, and what most gives cause for thinking, which as Heidegger put it, is that we are still not thinking (well enough).

Israel must exist because Jews have been subject to anti-semitism everywhere else they have lived. But its existence has not been threatened since 1973. It will of course be better secured by peace than war. It is hard to welcome the neighbor when he is different, and harder still when you cannot be sure he does not want to kill you.

Yes, there are more victims of the wars on terror than of terrorists themselves. Israel has made mistakes in trying to promote its own security. One of them is that like the US it promoted Islamist groups before this came back to haunt them, and us. This includes, astonishingly, Hamas.

Israelis and Americans would be better served if the billionaire class had less clout and ability to set the agenda.

The reason Israel is singled out for the most impassioned criticism by people who may fail to speak out with equal concern about barbarism and crimes against humanity elsewhere in the world, crimes that often far exceed anything that can be attributed to Israel (though of course that itself justifies nothing), is that people hold Jews to a higher moral standard because they know that Jews themselves do. This is different from much anti-semitism, historically, which often takes the form of resenting the articulation of moral standards that many people would rather be free of.

Most oppression cannot be ascribed to radical evil. Radical evil is different from ordinary moral failure, or “sin,” because sin is like tragic moral error in that one aims at the good but falls short or realizes it in a problematic or corrupted manner. Historically, Jews did not exactly hold themselves to be above criticism or reproach.

There are here points on which “Zionists” (the word is no longer very appropriate as it designated a national liberation movement, which shared the problematic character of all such movements: once it has succeeded, it will begin to cease being liberatory and become oppressive) and “anti-Zionists” agree, and they are both wrong on this point. It is, simply, the equation of Israel (and its government’s actions and policies) with “the Jews.” On this point, Zionists and anti-Zionists agree. Of course, “Jewishness,” whatever it means, and whether it includes notions about a nation-state, means some other things as well, and perhaps foremost. The agenda was set wrongly, the wrong questions asked.

Israel should end the Occupation, pay reparations to descendants of Palestinians who left their homes during or after the 1948 war, offer large-scale aid to the development of an Arab Palestine, and grant full equality to Palestinians living in Israel proper. Israel should remain a majority Jewish state and a definably one, but not an exclusively one. It should have two national languages, like Canada. The principles of the Torah regarding foreigners, contrary to the book of Joshua which is not part of it, clearly lay out this necessity. These neighbors with very similar languages and not dissimilar religions should then make more efforts to learn from each other. People should get out of their identities, as defensive reactions to capitalism hyper-precarization, and talk about what they believe and want and why or why not.

Taking positions of abstract negation of the positions laid down by the right: this always feeds their logic and purposes. The agenda was set some time ago by the dominant factions in both the Jewish and Arab worlds, and its very terms need to be contested. It’s similar to the Cold War: intellectually it was always a matter of moral and political blackmail: If you are against capitalism, you are tacitly supporting the gulag, and vice-versa. Israel’s continued existence is not likely to be actually, as opposed to ideologically, placed into question again in the foreseeable future. The continuation of the Occupation, among other things, can be placed into question, and is being. Everywhere political discourse is stymied by existentialist assumptions: You cannot criticize what I say or do without attacking my identity; therefore, I am right to do or say what I do because of who I am. My statements and actions express, in authenticity, my very being as I am. Noli me tangere. This logic must be refused.