Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 20, 2017

Where did I come from? The Khazar hypothesis

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 10:45 pm

When I was in high school, I always assumed that I was a Sephardic Jew since my last name was the same as the Spanish word for project (el proyecto). It was only years later that I discovered in a book of Jewish surnames put together by Czarist scribes that is available at the YIVO library in NYC (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, or Yiddish Scientific Institute) that the name was Yiddish for the counting house of a tax farmer, prevalent in the Slutsk district of Byelorussia in the 1860s.

A tax farmer was a court Jew historically, someone authorized to collect taxes for a monarch or other landed gentry for a percentage of the take. When I read Abram Leon’s “The Jewish Question” shortly after joining the SWP, I was persuaded that my ancestors were like those described in the book—people who carried out financial transactions that were banned by the church. When a Christian banking class began to emerge in the late middle ages, the old-line Jewish bankers and tax collectors et al were banished from Spain, England and elsewhere. They headed east to Poland and Russia, where feudalism persisted. From various accounts, I have learned that the most vicious pogroms of the 19th century were carried out against tax collectors on estates owned by the Russian and Polish aristocracy who had little contact with the serfs they exploited.

The only alternative history of the origins of the Ashkenazi Jews is based on Khazaria, a Jewish kingdom that existed from 800 to 1000 AD. The most famous account of the kingdom is found in Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe” that I read when it came out in 1976. Based on scholarship that the Jewish establishment, particularly those identifying with the Zionist project, dismissed as nonsense, the book argues that a Turkic-speaking nomadic people decided to adopt Judaism as a way of establishing an ethnic/religious identity that would serve as a firewall against Christianity to the West and Islam to the East.

Up until recently, I assumed that Khazaria was in the eastern regions of Turkey that they call Anatolia. But I was quite surprised that the kingdom was north of the Black Sea (Turkey lies to the south of the sea) in a geographical region largely occupied by Ukraine.

This I learned from reading in Paul Magocsi’s fascinating 894-page “A History of Ukraine”. In the chapter titled “The Slavs and the Khazars”, Magocsi describes the Jewish state as a place where the pagan Slavic peoples began to flourish under a regime that provided a stable, peaceful and tolerant environment for different faiths in the same manner that North African Muslim states around the same time provided a haven for Jews. Magocsi writes:

Living within the protective shadow of the Pax Khazaria, the Slavic tribes on Ukrainian lands were spared for a while the worst nomadic invasions from the east, and, as a result, between the seventh and ninth centuries they were able to expand their agricultural and trading activities. But despite such protection, some Slavic princes began to resent their vassal-like relationship to the Khazar rulers. For the longest time, however, the Slavs were not united, and no individual tribe had the strength to confront the Khazar Kaganate. Building up the necessary strength became a possibility only in the mid-ninth century, with a new development in the region of Kiev. This development combined local forces with a group of leaders from Scandinavia — the Varangians — and the result was the eventual consolidation of a new power known as Rus’. How did this new phenomenon arise? Or, to cite the opening passage of the Primary Chronicle, the most famous discussion of the subject, what was “the origin of the land of Rus’, [and of] the first princes of Kiev, and from what source did the land of Rus’ have its beginning?”

It was up to Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev, to assemble an army to break the power of the Khazars and begin the process of creating a Christian empire over the territory once ruled by the Jews. Vladimir was a scion of the Viking royalty who had expanded their influence eastward over the nomadic Slavic tribes and the rest is history.

After reading Magocsi’s account, I decided to have a look at Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” that was published by Verso in 2009. As you might glean from the title, Sand rejects the notion that the Jews who came to live in Israel as part of the Zionist colonizing project had little biological ties to those who lived in Palestine in the time of Jesus. In a nutshell, he believes that the Khazar Jews continued to live in the same way as they always had but under Christian rule. You might ask yourself how they ended up speaking Yiddish, a language with obviously close relations to German. He says that this is a result of some German Jewish inflow into the area. Since the educated elites from Germany were socially superior to the native Jewish population, their language and liturgy eventually became hegemonic. I doubt if any of this will ever be resolved short of an exhaustive archaeological project that few Jewish scholars—mostly in sympathy with Zionist ideology—would bother to undertake. It is better to continue with the old time legends and myths about the Red Sea being parted, etc.

While most Ashkenazy Jews like Golda Meier or David Ben-Gurion would likely not make such a claim, it was doubtful that any of them would acknowledge being descendants of the Khazars who were Turkic converts to a faith that had one foot in traditional Jewish liturgy and the other in an alien culture that persists to this day, if you look carefully for it. Rejecting implicitly Abram Leon’s thesis that the Jews of Eastern Europe had fled from France, Germany and England, Sand writes:

At the center of the Jewish townlet stood the synagogue, with a double dome reminiscent of the Eastern pagoda. Jewish dress in Eastern Europe did not resemble that of the Jews of France or Germany. The yarmulke—also derived from a Turkic word—and the fur hat worn over it were more reminiscent of the people of the Caucasus and the horsemen of the steppes than of Talmudic scholars from Mainz or merchants from Worms. These garments, like the long silk caftan worn chiefly on the Sabbath, differed from clothing worn by the Belorussian or Ukrainian peasants. But any mention these features and others—from food to humor, from clothing to chants, connected to the specific cultural morphology of their daily life and their tory—scarcely interested the scholars who were occupied in inventing the eternal history of the “people of Israel.” They could not come to terms with the troublesome fact that there had never been a Jewish people’s culture, but only popular Yiddish culture that resembled the cultures of their neighbors much more than it did those of the Jewish communities of Western Europe or North Africa.

I was intrigued by the reference to yarmulke being derived from the Turkish. Wikipedia states that the word probably from the Turkish yağmurluk (“rainwear”), though it could also be from Medieval Latin almutia (“hood, cowl”).

In terms of the fur hat, that is probably a reference to the shtreimel worn by Satmar Hasidim. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it is of Crimean Tatar origin, which is consistent with Sand’s account of how many Khazaris ended up in Crimea.

A Jew in a shtreimel

One of the more interesting discussions of the Khazarites can be found in “A History of the Jews”, written by Ilan Halevi who was a high-ranking Jewish member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. His discussion of the linguistic affinities between the long-gone Jewish state and other ethnicities is intriguing:

Some of these groups, however, took control, for considerable lengths of time, major communication centres, establishing around them short-quasi-states which entered into contact with the neighbouring empires in complex relationships of clientage and suzerainty, essentially on the imperial need for human barriers against the main body of the wave. For both Byzantium and Persia, the Ghassanid and Lakhmid Arab tribes had played this role of frontier guards against the tribes of the desert. It was against this background that there appeared, in the 6th century, on the west bank of the Caspian Sea, the kingdom of the Khazars. Originally the term “Khazar” did not describe a particular ethnic group: it was a sort generic name for all the Turco-Mongol peoples on the move in this region. It seems that the word itself derives from a Turkish root meaning “nomad” in which case it would be a Turkish equivalent of the Arabic bedu (Bedouin) describing, within a multi-tribal language, not an ethno-linguistic group, but a sociological category, the occupation and way of life of whole populations and even, at the extreme, a value system based on the specifity of this mode of organization. Thus, the Khazars were called Kaissak in the Urals, and Kazakh on the borders of China and Afghanistan where the Russian revolution would establish Kazakhstan; from their name would come the name of the Cossacks and the English word “Hussar”. But the Turcoman peoples of the Volga and the Caspian or the Crimea, whose own ethnic names were the Kalmyks and the Khirghiz, the Uzbeks and the Bashkirs, the Tatars called Tartars and many others, were, at the time of which we are speaking, Khazars on every criterion.

The only other linguistic item worth mentioning is that the king of the Khazars was called the Kagan. That’s the same name of the Supreme Court justice as well as many other Jews living in Brooklyn and elsewhere. If there was any justice in the world, the Zionists should have stayed out of the Middle East and come to Brooklyn instead—the real homeland of the Jews.

 

February 28, 2017

The Settlers; PS Jerusalem; The Last Laugh

Filed under: Film,Jewish question,zionism — louisproyect @ 11:30 pm

At first blush, the connection between two films about the loss of faith in Zionism and one about whether jokes can ever be made about the Holocaust might seem tenuous at best. However, without the Holocaust there would be no Israel. Furthermore, the director of that film, who is Jewish like the other two, might have something else in common. Once you begin joking about concentration camps, doesn’t that remove the sanctity that the state of Israel rests on? When British Labourite Naz Shah posted an image on FB of Israel superimposed on the USA, it was soon revealed that it was lifted from Norman Finkelstein’s website. Commenting on the controversy whether this image suggested that Jews be “transported” from Israel as they were to concentration camps, Finkelstein laughed at the comparison. The image was nothing but a light-hearted joke:

These sorts of jokes are a commonplace in the U.S. So, we have this joke: Why doesn’t Israel become the 51st state? Answer: Because then, it would only have two senators. As crazy as the discourse on Israel is in America, at least we still have a sense of humour.

“The Settlers”, which opens at the Film Forum on Friday, March 3rd, is as the title implies a close look at the settlements in the West Bank that cropped up after the Israeli victory in the six-day war of 1967. The settlements continued to grow under both Labour and Likud governments, no matter world opinion—least of all, the USA’s demand that they cease. For an understanding of American foreign policy, it is important to understand that actions count a lot more than words. When Obama said that Bashar al-Assad must step down, the blood-stained dictator must have figured out that this carried about as much weight as calling for a return to the 1967 borders.

The film is a mixture of archival footage of Israeli expansion into the West Bank and interviews with mostly elderly leaders of the land grab, who show about as much reflection on the injury done to Palestinians as a wolf does after consuming a rabbit. Maybe the wolf experiences great pangs of conscience.

The documentary shows Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook making a fiery speech to his ultra-religious followers a few days after Israel has defeated the Arab armies. He likens it to a biblical miracle and a mandate for creating a Greater Israel based on the ancient Judea and Samaria kingdoms. Today’s followers of Kook are even more ambitious. They envision a state that is bordered by two rivers: the Nile to the West and the Euphrates to the East. With Donald Trump in the White House and with the Democratic Party equally deferential to Zionist expansionism, who can say what Israel will look like a decade from now?

Kook was the founder of Gush Emunim, the fanatical ultraright vanguard of the settlement movement. His father was Rabbi Abraham Kook, who was the first Hasidic rabbi to connect the ancient theological belief in the Messiah with the modern Zionist project. He was the head of a sub-sect within the Lubavitcher sect that unlike their rivals in the quietist Satmars has been a virtual wing of the Likud Party and an abettor to its worst crimes.

As it happens, the shadow of the Kook family looms large over 20th century Jewish history. Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson, was the nephew of Abraham Kook and a leader of the Revisionist movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and which bred Menachem Begin, who was Israel’s prime minister from 1977 to 1983 and a fanatical supporter of the settlements. To his credit, Bergson opposed the Zionist establishment during WWII, demanding that Jews be allowed into the USA without regard to the consequences of Zionist colonization. Even if Lenni Brenner remains one of Zionism’s sharpest critics, he respected Bergson’s efforts.

If Zvi Yehooda Kook provided the philosophical and political inspiration for the settlements, it was Rabbi Moshe Levinger who provided the muscle and the organizational skills. Shown strutting around with an Uzi or haranguing his followers to assault Arabs, Levenger led the Zionist incursion into Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, that is described in shocking detail in “The Settlers”. When Begin was prime minister, Levinger effectively became a pit bull unleashed by his master.

Director Shimon Dotan had unusual access to the elderly settlers who felt free to reveal their brazen disregard for Palestinian rights and their own self-justification based on biblical legends. A former Navy Seal in the IDF, Dotan moved to Canada in 1991 ostensibly for political reasons. When word got out that he was going to make a film about the settlements, the Internet became abuzz with stories about the plans of a “deep leftist” to make a film that might discredit them. While most of the film is devoted to allowing the settlers to hoist themselves on their own petards, there are several Israeli leftist academics who offer the sort of criticisms you might read in Haaretz. I was particularly impressed with Moshe Habertal, who is now a guest professor in the NYU Law School.

One wonders if Dotan and Habertal have ever been willing to grapple with the reality that is hinted at in this very powerful film but never articulated—namely the inexorable dynamic that leads Israel to create settlements beyond the 1967 borders in a lebensraum type permanent aggression against Arab peoples. That dynamic existed from the birth of the state despite its socialist pretensions. Someday an Israeli might make a film based on that premise but in the meantime, “The Settlers” will accelerate that process.

(“The Settlers” is on a double feature with “Ben Gurion: Epilogue” that I had a brief look at. It will be of less interest but might help to give you some insights into labor Zionism, a tendency that has about as much traction in Israel as Democratic Party liberalism has in the USA.)

“P.S. Jerusalem” is a virtual companion piece to “The Settlers” that opens at the Lincoln Plaza Theaters in New York on March 17. Directed by Danae Elon, the daughter of the late Amos Elon, it resembles a home movie that is distinguished by the honesty of the director and the willingness of her family to take part in what amounts to a much realer version of the sort of reality TV you can see on the Bravo Network, famous (or infamous) for shows like “Housewives of New Jersey” that has family members airing their feuds in front of millions of viewers.

Elon’s film is much less “dramatic” than the staged reality of Bravo’s shows but much rawer because the feelings expressed by Danae Elon and her husband Philippe—an Algerian Jew—could never be written in advance.

In 2010, Elon was living in Brooklyn with her husband and two young sons when she decided to move back to Jerusalem, where she grew up. Pregnant at the time with her third son, who would be born in Israel and named after his grandfather, she felt irresistibly drawn to the “Jewish homeland” even though her father—a long time journalist at the liberal Haaretz and author of many books—had emigrated in disgust. In a 2002 article for the New York Review of Books titled “Israel and the Palestinians” that hews closely to the narrative of Dotan’s documentary, Elon ends on a note of despair:

The vast settlement project after 1967, aside from being grossly unjust, has been self-defeating and politically ruinous. “We’ve fed the heart on fantasies,/the heart’s grown brutal on the fare,” as William B. Yeats put it almost a century ago in a similar dead-end situation in Ireland. The settlement project has not provided more security but less. It may yet, I tremble at the thought, lead to results far more terrible than those we are now witnessing.

His daughter came to Israel with the same trepidations with her film is focused on exposing Jerusalem’s inequalities. She trains her cameras on Palestinians being expelled from their homes, rallies against the expulsions and the profanity-laced and often physical attacks by the sorts of people profiled in Dotan’s film.

It is a bit difficult to understand why anybody with her convictions would want to return to Israel knowing full well that it was no longer the labor Zionist fantasy her own father had abandoned. I even wonder if she went there with the prospects of making a film that would likely have dystopian undercurrents.

For the three years she was there, her husband did the best he could to fit in but not knowing Hebrew and being unable to find work as a photographer made that difficult. Towards the end, he became fed up. In a profoundly dramatic scene, he tells Danae that she has to decide between having a husband or living in Israel. Her yearnings for Jewish identity clash with his desire to live in a society that is not so cruel and racist. It took quite a bit of courage for the two to reveal the conflict that was tearing them apart.

Finally, there is “The Last Laugh” that opens on Friday, also at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. This is a documentary that examines the question of whether you can joke about the holocaust but more generally taboos in comedy.

With a survivor named Renee Firestone at the heart of the film passing judgement on the efforts of various comics to extract such humor (largely unsuccessfully), the consensus is if you are going to make such jokes they’d better be very good. One commentator makes a shrewd observation: if you are going to use the holocaust as the basis for a serious film or play, that is just as true. As someone who has seen one too many treacly holocaust films, I can attest to that.

The film has lined up a virtual who’s who of comics who have either tried to make comedy out of the holocaust or Nazis. At one point, Mel Brooks, one of the interviewees, admits that is one thing to make jokes about the Nazis in a film like “The Producers” but he could never find humor in Auschwitz. In recent years, that taboo has been broken as well. The film shows a segment from the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode when Larry David inadvertently invites a “survivor” to meet a friend of his father who was also a survivor. The man turns out to be a contestant in the reality TV show called “Survivor” where people compete on a desert island or some other rugged outpost in stunts such as foot races in an obstacle course. He tells the old man that he had it rougher than him on the show since he had to wear flip-flops while competing.

Although the film is focused on the holocaust, it is much more about the art of comedy. Listening to people like Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner and his father Mel discussing jokes analytically and soberly would be worth the price of admission since god knows that there is hardly anything to laugh at in films nowadays.

November 8, 2016

Birobidzhan

Filed under: art,Film,Jewish question,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 10:54 pm

Thirteen years ago I had the good fortune to review a documentary titled “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin” by Klezmer musician Yale Strom that served as an introduction to the Jewish Autonomous Region of the USSR that Stalin declared in 1934. My review began:

When he was a young boy, Yale Strom noticed two “sidukah” (charity) boxes in his father’s shop. One was the omnipresent blue Jewish National Fund box intended for Israel that my own father kept in his fruit store. The other was targeted for Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin decreed in 1932. His curiosity about the lesser-known Jewish homeland became the seed for his documentary “L’Chayim Comrade Stalin,” now showing at the Quad Cinema in NYC.

 Based on interviews with current and past residents and archival material, including a altogether charming Soviet feature film of the period promoting settlement, the film not only sheds light on an under-documented aspect of Stalinist rule, it also inspires a variety of reactions to the “Jewish Question.” (Strom utilizes a graphic of these two words writ large in red repeatedly through the film as a kind of leitmotif.)

 Most of the older veterans of Birobidzhan make clear that the project tapped into youthful idealism. Combining a belief in communism with a desire to create a cultural homeland for the Jews, they came to the Siberian hinterland with great hopes. Despite the fact that anti-Semitism prompted Stalin to create the settlement in a geographically remote area, the settlers did not necessarily view this as a kind of internal exile. Stephen F. Cohen points out eloquently in his biography of Bukharin that Stalin’s despotic “revolution from above” did not preclude a kind of egalitarian zeal from bubbling to the surface. Despite repression, many people felt that they were on a great adventure to build a new society, including the Jews who came to Birobidzhan.

Clearly, Birobidzhan continues to grip the imagination of filmmakers, artists and scholars based on recent works I have had a chance to examine.

A few days after I reviewed “Finding Babel”, the film distribution company Seventh Art Releasing got in touch with me and asked if I would be interested in watching “Birobidzhan”, a film made by Belgian director Guy-Marc Hinant in 2015. Hinant is also a poet and music producer specializing in the avant-garde. As such, it is clear that he approaches the material from a different angle than Yale Strom whose film was much more conventional despite sharing the same passionate engagement with the subject. Much of “Birobidzhan” consists of evocative images of the region that are not directly related to the history such as the blurred images of a speeding freight train or an ominous and unexplained burning field. As is the case with most art films, and this certainly qualifies as one, such devices are evaluated on the basis of whether they help to lend emotional weight to the film and Hinant succeeds on this basis.

Like Strom’s film, we see the efforts of the dwindling number of Jews still living in Birobidzhan today trying to reconstruct a Jewish identity both culturally and religiously. Unlike the Hebrew-speaking Zionist entity, the Jews of Birobidzhan are devoted to Yiddish, the language that was blessed by Stalin with official status. Watching young kids in a classroom learning to read and write Yiddish is a moving experience as is seeing a somewhat older group rehearsing a musical play in the local theater that looks like a production from Second Avenue in the 1920s, and finally a chorus of septuagenarian women singing “Hava Negila”, a song that we sang in Hebrew school in the late 1950s. It is worth noting that the song has an iconic status in Israel as it is the first modern folk song to use Hebrew lyrics and is as almost as well-known as the Israeli national anthem. Somehow it seems less threatening in this context.

In some ways, it would have been better for the Jews to have made Birobidzhan their homeland rather thn Israel since it truly was a land without people that could accommodate a people without land. The film notes that long before 1934, Jews were settling in the remote and desolate territory in Siberia simply to escape the anti-Semitism that persisted in the USSR after the October revolution. Unlike Israel, where Yiddish was practically banned as a language linked to the ghetto and victimhood, Birobidzhan was devoted to Yiddish culture and even created the Sholem Aleichem library that contained more than 35,000 Yiddish titles. During his campaign against “bourgeois nationalism”, Stalin had all but 4,000 of them burned.

When Stalin launched the great repression of the 1930s, Birobidzhan was swept into the bloody whirlpool. Like Isaac Babel, some of the leading intellectuals and journalists who had migrated to Birobidzhan were charged with supporting Leon Trotsky and executed, including Joseph Liberberg—the first chair of the Jewish Region’s Council of People’s Deputies. An article on Liberberg shows the promise of the early USSR:

The mid-1920s were an exciting time to be involved in Jewish culture in the fledgling Soviet Union, where—for the first time in history—Yiddish culture and scholarship received state support. Liberberg left his university to post to head a new Jewish culture department at the All-Ukrainian Ukrainian Academy of Science.

Liberberg along with Nokhem Shtif organized the Jewish division, a scholarly institution specializing in Jewish studies. The initiative for its creation came from high party circles who supported the work of scholarly institutions in minority cultures throughout the Soviet Union.

The department evolved into the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in 1929. This became the leading Jewish cultural institution in Ukraine and attracted scholars and cultural activists from around the Soviet Union and throughout the world. A charismatic and ambitious director, Liberberg was not afraid to employ people who had previously held non-communist political positions.

As director of Ukraine’s most elite Jewish cultural institution — the republic with more than 60% of the Soviet Union’s Jews — Liberberg found little time for his academic work. He did get around to publish An Economic and Social History of England in 1927, co-edit October Days: Materials on the History of the October Revolution, also in 1927, A Dictionary of Political Terminology and Foreign Words, in 1929, The Bibliological Miscellany, in 1930, and a later addendum to that volume.

When I think about the murder of people like Liberberg and Babel, I never regret my decision to have become a Trotskyist in 1967 no matter the sectarian baggage this entailed. “Birobidzhan” is a glimpse into a what truly might have been described as “A different world is possible”. With all of the terrible things that took place in the USSR, we should never forget that in its youth it was a symbol of freedom, social justice and the possibility of a life lived outside of capitalist exploitation.

Seventh Art has told me that the film should be available on home video in January 2017. My advice is to check http://www.7thart.com/films/Birobidzhan in a couple of months to see if it has become available.

The one thing that always struck me about those Whitney Biennial Exhibitions is that the conceptual art that dominated the show was missing a key ingredient: a concept. That has never been the case with my friend Yevgeniy Fiks who I regard as America’s most accomplished conceptual artist. As someone who tackles the big topics of our day–the persecution of gay people, Jewish identity, the legacy of the Soviet Union and the power of big corporations among them—Fiks has the eye and the hand that can render the concepts into memorable art.

Last Saturday I attended the opening for his show Pleshka-Birobidzhan, 2016 that imagines Stalin having created a Homosexual Autonomous Region after the fashion of Birobidzhan. (Pleshka is the word for an area where gays “cruised” in Russia. The Bolshoi pleshka was the most renowned.)

Fiks explains his goals on his website:

The exhibition Pleshka-Birobidzhan engages the relationship between identity, fiction, and history by recreating an oral story about a group of Soviet gay men who travelled from Moscow to Birobidzhan in 1934 into an art installation. The oral story is set in 1934 soon after homosexuality was recriminalized in the Soviet Union and after the Soviet Jewish Autonomous Region, of which Birobidzhan became the capital, was established.

The exhibition reenacts this Soviet gay oral story in a series of artworks that comprises the exhibition. This includes a series of 17 collages titled Pleshka-Birobidzhan which starts the narration. The collages depict gay men at several gay cruising sites a.k.a. pleshkas in 1934 discussing the recriminalization of homosexuality under Stalin as a failure of the October Revolution, the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Soviet Far East, and a dream of a gay Soviet utopia. The collages also depict the journey of a group of disillusioned gay men in fear of persecution to Birobidzhan, where upon their arrival found themselves in the middle of the Gay and Lesbian Autonomous Region — which appeared to exist alongside and at times overlapped with of the Soviet Jewish Utopia there.

This is a brilliant concept that 30 seconds after entering the Station Independent Projects gallery at 138 Eldridge Street, Suite 2F had my head spinning over the connections between being gay and being Jewish. As the ultimate outsiders in Soviet society in its Stalinist phase, all the two groups sought was to live in peace and freedom in urban settings where tolerance was the norm. Even if the Jews made the best they could out of life in Birobidzhan, most certainly would have preferred to enjoy the life of “rootless cosmopolitans” as Stalin referred to them in the post-WWII purges.

Like Hitler, Stalin had an atavistic hatred of Jews and homosexuals that was part of the Great Russian backwardness that swept across the USSR in the late 1920s as the dictator was pushing for social norms having more to do with Czarism than the socialist dreams of the earlier period.

If you are based in NYC, I strongly urge you to visit the gallery since there is no substitute for seeing the works rather than images on the Internet. If you can’t do so, check out http://yevgeniyfiks.com/section/441807-Pleshka-Birobidzhan-2016.html for a sample of the work including this stunning collage that mixes what I assume to be idealized portraits of Jewish workers or farmers in Birobidzhan with a dancer I surmise to be Vaslav Nijinsky.

birobidzhan

This is not Fiks’s first engagement with Birobidzhan. Two years ago he had an exhibition titled “A Gift to Birobidzhan” that I wrote about here. An excerpt from the press release explains the concept:

In 2009, artist Yevgeniy Fiks originated a project called A Gift to Birobidzhan. Established in the Soviet Union in 1934 as the Autonomous Jewish Region of the USSR, Birobidzhan was for a time considered a rival to Israel. Although located in a remote area near China, Birobidzhan caught the world’s imagination. In 1936, two hundred works of art was collected in the United States by activists as the foundation for the Birobidzhan Art Museum. The collection included works by Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Hugo Gellert, Harry Gottlieb, and William Gropper among others. The collection was first exhibited in New York and Boston, and in late 1936, it was shipped to the Soviet Union. The collection never reached its final destination in Birobidzhan. By late 1937, Stalin had purged the leadership from Birobidzhan at which time the collection vanished into government or private hands.

Taking this microhistorical narrative as his starting point, Fiks invited 25 contemporary international artists to donate works of their choosing to the existing museum of Birobidzhan. After initially agreeing to exhibit and accept the works into its collection, the museum in Birobidzhan conditionally retracted the offer, in part to avoid confrontation with a conflicted past and the fact that Birobidzhan now consist of a small Jewish population. Granting Fiks the role of steward, the artists agreed to let Fiks store the collection until it could reach its intended destination.

A Gift to Birobidzhan of 2009 was an attempt to repeat and complete — seventy years later — the gesture of “a gift to Birobidzhan” in 1936. As of 2014, it remains still a rejected gift and a “state-less collection,” packed in boxes in Fiks’ apartment in the Lower East Side. A Gift to Birobidzhan evokes the utopian promise of Birobidzhan — a Socialist alternative to a Jewish state — as a point of departure for discussions on broad 20th century’s impossible territorial politics, identity, national self-determination, and a common “seeking of happiness.” At present, we find that many of the same questions from the early 20th century have resurfaced again.

You can take a virtual tour of “A Gift to Birobidzhan” here.

Finally, I should refer you to Masha Gessen’s newly published “Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region”. Gessen, a lesbian, is the sister of Keith Gessen, an n+1 editor who along with Fiks was introduced to me by Thomas Campbell, an activist based in Russia close to the radical art movement.

Gessen, like Fiks and her brother, is an astute analyst of Russian society and politics as well as an emigre. This is an excerpt from the book that will once again remind you of why Stalin was one of the 20th century’s greatest criminals. Although Hitler killed far more people,  the overthrow of Soviet democracy made it all the more difficult for those of us trying to make a better world and consequently led to the deaths of millions in the Third World who could not count on true solidarity from a Kremlin far more interested in short-term deals with imperialism. If Russia has continued to live up to the ideals that Birobidzhan writer David Bergelson held dear, the world would look a lot more different today and a lot better.

The man who made Birobidzhan famous had the gift of knowing when to run. That he lived into his late sixties is testament to his outstanding survival instincts. On his sixty-eighth birthday, he was shot to death, a final victim of the century’s most productive executioner. He had been a writer who preferred to leave his stories ragged and open-ended, but his own life, which ended on what became known as the Night of the Murdered Poets, had a sinister rhyme and roundness to it.

David Bergelson was born on August 12, 1884, in the village of Okhrimovo, a Ukrainian shtetl so small there might be no record of it now if it were not for Bergelson’s association with it. Three and a half years before his birth, Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a group of young revolutionaries that counted one Jew, a woman, among them. Five persons were hanged for the crime, but it was the Jews of Russia who bore the brunt of the national rage. After some years of acquiring greater rights and freedoms, as well as hope, the Jews found the law closing in on them, herding them back into the shtetlach. Pogroms swept through the Pale, brutalizing the enlightened modern Russian-speaking Jews along with their traditional parents. Into this bleak, dangerous world came the surprise ninth child of an older couple.

The parents were rich and pious. Bergelson’s father, a grain and timber merchant, spoke no Russian; he belonged to the last generation of Jews who could achieve wealth, success, and prominence entirely within the confines of the Yiddish-speaking world. His wife was younger and of a different sphere: a cultured woman, a reader. David Bergelson’s education was an unsuccessful attempt to merge his parents’ worlds. He was tutored by a maskil—a product of the Jewish enlightenment movement—who taught him to speak and write in Russian and Hebrew, in addition to his native Yiddish, but not, as the young Bergelson found out later, well enough to enable him to be admitted to an institution of higher learning. His father died when David was a little boy, his mother when he was fourteen, and David’s wanderings commenced. Losing one’s anchors—and any sense of home—is essential for developing an instinct for knowing when it’s time to run.

The teenager left the shtetl and stayed, by turns, with older siblings in the big cities of Kyiv, Warsaw, and Odessa, subsidizing their hospitality out of his share of the family inheritance. He had a home, and a family, only so long as he could pay for them. This is another good lesson. One always has to pay to belong, and to have a roof over one’s head.

One thing Bergelson seems to have always known about himself was that he was a writer. Any young writer must find his language, but rarely is the choice as literal—and as difficult—as it was for Jews writing in the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the cities between which Bergelson was moving, he was surrounded by Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Lithuanian speech. His command of these languages ranged from poor to limited. Then there was Hebrew, the language of his father’s prayers and a new movement’s dreams; as a teenager, Bergelson went through a period of fascination with the work of Nachman Syrkin, the founder of Labor Zionism. (Syrkin himself wrote in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German, and English.) Bergelson tried writing in Hebrew and failed—it may be that his command of it was insufficient for writing, or it could be that the language, in his hands, did not lend itself to the modernism he was attempting. He switched to Russian, but this expansive language failed him, too, perhaps because he wanted to write stark, sparse prose and Russian demanded flowery vagueness. He finally found his voice in his long-dead father’s living language, Yiddish.

Full: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/59374/where-the-jews-arent-by-masha-gessen/9780805242461/

October 14, 2016

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: drugs,Fascism,Film,Jewish question,prison — louisproyect @ 8:25 pm

If there is any justification at this point for continuing a Netflix membership, it is the opportunity to see Werner Herzog’s new documentary about volcanoes on October 28th, which will be opening the same day at the IFC Center in New York. Titled “Inside the Inferno” and produced by Netflix itself, it is echt Herzog and qualified on that basis alone for putting it on your must-see list.

The film is co-directed by Clive Oppenheimer who is one of the world’s leading volcanologists and a constant presence throughout the film as he visits villages near major active volcanoes around the world, including Vanuatu, a group of islands about 1000 miles east of northern Australia. Oppenheimer alternates with Herzog in interviewing village elders who maintain prescientific notions about spirits dwelling within the volcanoes. The co-directors have an uncanny ability to accept those beliefs in a respectful manner.

Speaking in terms of auteur theory, this documentary is obviously connected with Herzog’s major preoccupation—living at the edges of society and often in the face of some peril. If his “Grizzly Man” was an object lesson in getting too close to bears in the Alaskan wilderness, his latest is a reminder that scientists like Oppenheimer take as big a chance with their lives in their own pursuit.

In one of the more gripping scenes, we see the final moments of husband-and-wife volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft as an avalanche of lava comes pouring off Mount Unzen in Japan toward them on June 3, 1991. Herzog took considerable risks in making the film himself, at one point filming on the precipice of an active volcano that erupted as the cameras rolled, thankfully beneath life-threatening levels. As you would expect, the cinematography is breathtaking. If there is anything that evokes Inferno, it is the roiling crimson flames in the bowels of an active volcano.

The good Werner Herzog relates to volcanologists in more or less the same manner as he did to the computer scientists in “Lo and Behold” that pioneered the Internet. His interest is less in how volcanoes came to be in scientific terms but how they feel about what they are doing. With his raspy voice and quizzical tone, he is perfectly suited to playing the role of an interlocutor seeking deeper wisdom about the human condition.

As a perfect complement to its dazzling cinematography, “Into the Inferno” features a perfectly matched soundtrack consisting mostly of liturgical chorale music, including from the Russian Orthodoxy. When you hear “Dies Irae” as lava pours down the side of a mountain, the hair on your arms will stand up.

In a perfect Herzogian moment, the crew goes to North Korea where they film military cadets marching and singing on their way to Mount Paektu, an object of veneration by the family dynasty as a base for the revolution. When Herzog asks a North Korean volcanologist in his pricelessly raspy voice about the significance of the volcano, he replies in what can only be described as a quasi-religious tribute to the rulers of this sad but intriguing nation. You can’t escape feeling that there is not much difference between him and the chieftains in Vanuatu.

In the press notes, there’s an exchange with the 74-year old director who shows no sign of slowing down. It is about as revealing a look into his artistic psyche that can be imagined.

You recently said of yourself, “I’m a curious person. That’s the key to everything.” Given that you could have made a film about anything at this point in your career, why volcanoes?

There’s a long prehistory. In 1976, I made a film on La Soufrière, the volcano in the Caribbean that was about to explode. At that time I was not so interested in the volcano itself but in the attitude of one single poor farmer who had refused to be evacuated. Seventy-five thousand people were evacuated but he stayed behind. He was somehow defiant and had a different attitude toward death. And then the second part of the prehistory is the film I made ten years ago, Encounters at the End of the World. I was in Antarctica and up on Mount Erebus and that’s where I ran into Clive Oppenheimer, and we became friends and kept talking that we should do a film about volcanoes. And also what pushed it a little bit was his book Eruptions That Shook the World. So it was step by step into this film.

What was the most interesting thing about volcanoes that you learned as you were making Into the Inferno?

Scientifically, that the atmosphere that we are breathing was created by volcanoes. As far as I understand, the earth’s atmosphere was methane and it changed into what we are breathing today because of volcanic activity.

The most surprising thing about volcanoes?

That they’re more unpredictable than I would admit. We were in some danger in a volcano in Indonesia, which exploded only a few days after we were filming there, and seven farmers were killed pretty much where we had had our camera.

How did you feel when you heard that that had happened just a week after you’d been there?

What can I say? I just knew we were lucky. When you are working with the camera you believe you are safe, as if the camera is a perfect shield against all sorts of mishaps.

When I got the press release for “Trezoros”, the Ladino word for treasures, I hesitated about getting a screener since I tend to avoid holocaust type films:

Imagine a vibrant community of people getting along for centuries – Christians, Jews, others, – until the onset of WW II. Even under the Italians, the Greek Jews of Kastoria enjoyed a simple life. However, once the Italians left and the Nazi’s took over, Kastoria’s Jews became victim to the same fate as many of their fellow Jews in Eastern Europe. Of the 1000 Jews who were rounded up by the Nazi’s, only 26 returned and it marked the end of this community. Director Larry Russo’s family was impacted by this and his is one of many stories in this film.

Thank goodness I overcame my doubts that were largely influenced by the Spielbergian idiom that such films, either narrative or documentary, usually adopt because of their manipulative predictability.

What makes “Trezoros” so exceptional is its ability to tell the story of how Jews and Christians lived in complete harmony in Kastoria, Greece in the years before fascism. Kastoria was a small city near the border with Albania that incorporated the ethos of the Ottoman Empire that left its stamp on Greece from the period of its rule from the mid-15th century to the formation of the modern Greek state in 1832. Despite its imperial grip on subject peoples, the Ottoman rulers were much less interested in imposing religious and cultural orthodoxy as was the case with the British or lesser European colonial powers. In practice this meant that Christians, Jews and Muslims could live together in harmony as Mark Mazower pointed out in his “Salonica, City of Ghosts”.

Kastoria was virtually a pint-sized version of Salonica. Christians and Jews got along famously as the elderly Greek Orthodox citizens and Jewish survivors attested to director Larry Russo, who is descended from a Jewish family in Kastoria. The Jews of Kastoria were mostly shopkeepers or in the fur business, in other words the same kind of occupations they held in most of Europe with one difference, however. The Kastorian Jews came as a result of the Spanish expulsion during the Inquisition when they streamed eastward toward nations that were far more tolerant, especially those ruled by the Ottomans. These so-called Sephardic Jews did not speak Yiddish. Their native tongue was Ladino, a language close to Spanish that was written in Hebrew letters.

In a stunning display of vintage photographs and home movies that Russo dug up, we are brought back to Kastoria in its halcyon days. It brings Greece of the early 20th century alive in a way that I could not have dreamed possible. For example, we not only learn that Kastoria relied on a town crier, who happened to be a long-bearded Jew, but see him on his daily rounds. Amazing.

The harmony of Kastoria was broken by the rise of fascism but ironically not under Italian rule. Interviewees give the Italian fascist troops credit for not victimizing Jews. However, after Mussolini was overthrown, the Nazis took control of Greece including Kastoria. As this was the period following the Wannsee Conference with its “Final Solution”, it did not take long for the thousand Jews of Kastoria to be rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Among the survivors, we hear from brother and sister Beni Elias and his sister Lena Russo who is the director’s aunt. They speak with great dignity and emotion, not once forgetting how much they loved Kastoria.

“Trezoros” opens today at the Cinema Village in New York and I recommend it highly.

Finally, there is “Incarcerating US”, a documentary about how the “war on drugs” has resulted in a massive expansion of the prison population. It is available from Bullfrog Films, a distributor of leading edge documentaries and narrative films that makes them available at reduced rates to activist and grassroots groups. It can also be seen on VOD for $9.99 from the film’s website.

“Incarcerating US” would have the same audience as Ava Duvernay’s highly regarded “The Thirteenth” that premiered recently on Netflix. While her film is focused on the racism and economic exploitation inherent in the prison-industrial system, this one takes aim at the mandatory minimum sentences that were the legacy of a vain attempt to make America “drug-free”. As Richard Van Wickler, the astonishingly enlightened Superintendent of the Cheshire County (NH) Department of Corrections, points out, the net effect of the crackdown is only to encourage more crime as was the case during Prohibition. Without a ban on alcohol, there would be no Al Capone. Without a ban on drugs, there would be no Mexican drug cartels nor heroin overdoses that have become an epidemic in the USA. And most of all, there would be no victims of 5-year and upwards mandatory minimum sentences such as Tracy Syphax, an African-American man whose story about imprisonment and eventual redemption speaks volumes about the insanity of our drug laws.

Directed by Regan Hines, whose extremely powerful film is his first, it benefits from a very astute cast of interviewees consisting of critics of the drug laws and their victims. Among the critics is Eric Sterling, who as a young lawyer helped to draft the mandatory minimum laws in the 1980s. So shocked was he by how they victimized casual users, he resolved to overturn the laws, one of the primary goals of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation that he founded in 1989. We also hear from Julie Stewart who founded Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) in 1991.

On the FAMM website, Stewart describes how she decided to become an activist. In 1990, she was public affairs director at the Cato Institute (a libertarian outfit that unlike most on the right is an opponent of the draconian drug laws) when her brother was arrested for growing marijuana in Washington State. The website states: “He pled guilty, and — though this was his first offense — was sentenced by a judge to five years in federal prison without parole. The judge criticized the punishment as too harsh, but said he had no choice because his hands were tied by the mandatory minimum sentencing laws Congress had passed.”

This essentially is what happened to my cousin Joel Proyect who spent close to five years in prison even though he never had been arrested ever before and even though he was the president of the Sullivan County Bar Association in August 1991, when the cops stormed the home he had built with his own hands in Parksville, NY. After he was sent to prison, I visited him on several occasions and used to keep up a steady correspondence. Here’s how the NY Times reported on his case nearly a year later:

NY Times, July 12, 1992
On Sunday; Tend a Garden, Pay the Price: A Legal Story
By MICHAEL WINERIP

SOUTH FALLSBURG, N.Y.— By all accounts, Joel Proyect is an enormously talented, humane man, a small-town lawyer who gave a great deal. He’s a recent vice president of the bar association, a legal guardian for children in family court.

He took court-assigned clients who could not afford lawyers. “One would think he is being paid thousands of dollars the way he represents indigent people,” said Tim Havas, a legal aid lawyer. When his neighbors, the Friedlanders, had a baby, Mr. Proyect plowed their driveway without being asked, so they could get home safely. He shoveled his pond so nearby kids could skate, though he doesn’t.

After he was divorced, Mr. Proyect, 50 years old, raised his two daughters until they went off to college. He banned TV and made the girls speak half an hour of French to him each day (he also speaks Spanish and Russian). He taught law at a local prison and community college.

It took nine years, but he built his magnificent wood and stone house himself, hammering every nail. He heats it with wood from his 30 acres, makes jam with blueberries from his bushes. He grew his own pot.

He’d smoked marijuana for 20 years. It was well known. “Everyone in the court system knew, judges, people at the bar association — they’d tease me,” he said. “I grew for myself and my girlfriend. If you came to my house I’d offer you beer or a joint, depending on your tastes.”

Last August, after scouting with helicopters, Federal agents raided Mr. Proyect. He thinks that the raid was initiated by a local police officer he’d had a run-in with in court.

You didn’t have to be Elliot Ness to catch Joel Proyect with pot. “They found some plants and I showed them where the rest were,” said Mr. Proyect. “I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t think it was that serious.” Growing pot is a misdemeanor under state law. There’s no evidence he ever sold any of it. But he was charged under Federal law. His house and 30 acres were forfeited to the government. On May 29 he was sentenced to five years in prison.

No one, not even the prosecutor, will say this is fair. Judge Vincent Broderick of Federal District Court said his hands were tied by a 1988 mandatory sentencing law. He says he hopes he is reversed on appeal.

Law-enforcement agents don’t have the resources to catch most of the truly venal drug offenders. So what the Government has done is to invoke strict mandatory sentences to serve as a deterrent. The law says anyone growing more than 100 pot plants serves a minimum of five years. Agents, with Mr. Proyect’s aid, found 110.

No reporters attended the sentencing, but the judge’s anger is plain from the transcript: “I’m very unhappy about imposing this sentence. I frankly would not impose it if I saw any way that, consistent with my oath, I could impose a different sentence.”

“I’ve had people before me constantly during the last three years charged with distributing dangerous drugs on the streets,” he said, “that I’ve been able to sentence to far less than I’m sentencing Mr. Proyect to.” The judge, a former New York City Police Commissioner, called mandatory sentencing “a vice” and allowed Mr. Proyect to remain free, pending appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Second District. “I would be delighted,” the judge said, “to have my brothers on the 17th floor of the Manhattan courthouse find I was in error.”

Ronald DePetris, Mr. Proyect’s lawyer, said that in 25 years, “this is the most unjust sentence I’ve seen.” Kerry Lawrence, the prosecutor, said the law required it. But did the sentence fit the crime? “No comment,” he said.

Mr. Proyect is using his freedom to make money. His legal fees are $115,000. The other day he came out of a bail hearing for a client charged with armed bank robbery. “The prosecutor’s offering him a plea of four years,” said Mr. Proyect. “He’ll serve less time than I will.”

He drove home. The Government is scheduled to evict him in two weeks. He has the option to buy his house back from the United States for $170,000 and says if he got a short sentence and is allowed to practice when he comes out, he could raise the money.

He says he used to smoke five joints a day. Now he has that many drinks. Like many of his generation who inhaled, Mr. Proyect believes pot is a safer drug than alcohol and misses it. He is angry that in a conservative era, when government is supposed to stay out of people’s personal lives, his has been invaded, though he harmed no one. “If I knew I was coming back to this,” he said, standing on his deck, “it wouldn’t be so bad. Everything you see is mine. I own that hill. I own that hill. Isn’t it beautiful? I say it without conceit. I didn’t build it, God did that.”

This fall, the brothers on the 17th floor will decide if Joel Proyect deserves this.

 

March 24, 2016

The meanings of Purim

Filed under: Jewish question,religion — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

Last night Nova, a PBS program, aired a show titled “Secrets of Noah’s Ark” that can be seen on Youtube:

I think most people who have taken religion, civilization or world history classes in college know that the book of Noah was “borrowed” from the Epic of Gilgamesh, a classic of Babylonian culture. When it was written, Babylon was the largest city in the world with 200,000 inhabitants. Today its ruins can be seen about 53 miles south of Baghdad.

There’s a reference to the city in the book of Genesis, the so-called Tower of Babel that was in all likelihood the ziggurat known as Etemenaki, a pyramid-like structure that was the centerpiece of Babylonian architecture. In the Old Testament, the tower was made by people who all spoke the same language. Because the builders supposedly aspired to have it reach the heavens, the deity got mad at them for being prideful, forced them to speak different languages, and then scattered them across the earth. There’s some uncertainty about the etymology of Babel since in Hebrew it means confusion–implying that the reference to Babylon is inaccurate. Whatever the case may be, scholars generally agree that the story had the Etemenaki in mind, the 300-foot-tall ziggurat in Babylon.

In 578 BC, the Judeans stopped paying tribute to the Babylonians who took retribution by marching off their elite to the city of Babylon, the so-called Babylonian exile—an event that is described as a calamity by official Judaism.

What makes the PBS Nova show interesting is its departure from this narrative. If you go to 40:00 of the Nova video, you will hear from archaeologist Cornelia Wunsch who states that the Jews did “reasonably well” there. Another scholar concurs with her, saying that very soon after being integrated in the city, “things got good”. They became “well ensconced in the Babylonian economy and did well.”

Another scholar looks at a written record that describes a Judean as having both a Jewish and a Babylonian identity, indeed the kind of status that would be enjoyed by Jews in the Middle East and North Africa for millennia. Part of the Judean culture involved writing the stories that would be collected into the Old Testament or what the Jews called the Tanakh.

Irving Finkel, a British scholar of the period, believes that it was not just the Epic of Gilgamesh that influenced the Judean scribes. He points to the story of King Sargon, who was placed in a basket of reeds on the water to save him from those who would prevent him from becoming a monarch. Surely this must have worked its way into the story of Moses.

As it happens, today is a Jewish holiday that is considered minor by religious authorities. Falling on the 14th day of Adar in the Hebrew calendar, which is March 24 in the Gregorian, Purim is considered to be on the same level as Hanukah and pretty much devoid of the piety of Passover or Yom Kippur. Like Hanukah, it is a nationalist tale of the plucky Jews fending off the gentiles.

This time it is not the Babylonians who are the bad guys but the Persians. Haman, the Viceroy of King Xerxes, has decided to kill all the Jews living in Persia after their leader Mordecai got on his wrong side. Queen Esther, a Jew who had married the King without him knowing her ethno-religious roots, interceded on her people’s behalf and convinced the King to execute Haman. As is generally the case in these brutal Old Testament stories, the King gives the Jews the green light to kill anybody they considered their enemy:

The king’s edict granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate the armed men of any nationality or province who might attack them and their women and children, and to plunder the property of their enemies. The day appointed for the Jews to do this in all the provinces of King Xerxes was the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar. (New International Version)

In the Wikipedia entry on Purim, we learn that some scholars believe that this story, like the ones alluded to above, was borrowed from Babylonian literature. Among them are Amnon Netzer and Shaul Shaked who argue that the names “Mordecai” and “Esther” are similar to those of the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar (the same name of the Elaine May film that was crucified by critics but like “Heaven’s Gate” has gleaned more favorable reviews the older it gets.) Whether or not there is a Babylonian connection, few serious scholars believe that it is based on true events.

Sensing the contradictions of the Book of Esther, one Rabbi Irving Greenberg, went so far as to group Esther and Mordecai as assimilated Jews after the fashion of those who “did well” in the Babylonian exile:

Today, Purim is a quintessential Jewish holiday. To every little boy and girl who masquerades on Purim, Mordecai and Esther are arch-heroes of Jewishness. But a good case can be made that Mordecai and Esther, too, may have been quite integrated in Persian life and that Purim is the holiday brought to you by assimilated Jews.

What kind of Jews were Mordecai and Esther? Obviously, the answer has to be a speculation, and their record of saving the Jews speaks for itself. Still…

First, there is the matter of their names. Esther’s name probably is derived from Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess, and Mordecai’s name from Marduk, a Babylonian god. Equivalent names today might well be Mary and Christopher. Of course, committed Jews in open societies also adopted Gentile names. My parents, Orthodox Jews, wanted an Anglo-Saxon name for their little son, Yitzchak–so they named me Irving. But Christopher!

Then there is that Miss Persia contest. Esther was entered into a competition to become queen by marrying a Gentile king. Imagine that the president of the United States gets divorced and there is a nationwide beauty contest whose prize is marriage to the president. What kind of Jewish women would enter? Not likely Hasidic girls or graduates of Stern College [the women’s college of Yeshiva University].

In 2003 they made a film titled “The Book of Esther” that appears to be part of the Christian Zionist lexicon, at least based on the trailer. Unsurprisingly, it hardly garnered an audience even among Ted Cruz voters.

Of somewhat more interest is the 1960 epic titled “Esther and the King” that is a joint American-Italian production that starred Joan Collins as Esther. It was directed by Raoul Walsh, best known for action melodramas like “White Heat” that starred James Cagney as a gangster (you were expecting a bedroom farce?)

I might have a go at that film courtesy of Youtube:

The only other thing worth mentioning is that these Biblical sagas about heroes and heroines like the Maccabees and Esther were harmless when the Jews were living powerlessly in the shtetls of eastern Europe but when they took over Palestinian territory and set up a Zionist state, got their hands on F-16s and billions of dollars in American aid, such stories began to serve the racist and brutal policies that deepen each year. This report from +972 magazine says it all:

Two individual Arab-Palestinian men were assaulted by mobs of Jewish teens in Jerusalem last Thursday night. Both incidents involved victims who were set upon and beaten so severely that they had to be hospitalized. And in both cases the Israeli Hebrew media outlets that reported the story specified that at least some of the assailants were drunk and in costume. Thursday was Purim in Jerusalem. According to tradition, the festival is celebrated by dressing in costume and drinking to excess.

One of the incidents, reported in a short item by Walla! News, is described as a “suspected nationalist incident.” The Walla! report notes that some of the teens were drunk, that there were about 15 or 16 of them out celebrating the holiday raucously, in the middle of downtown, very late at night. Several people asked the loud celebrants to be quiet, including one young man in his 20s who happened to be an Arab. The teens assaulted him because he spoke Hebrew with an identifiable accent. “I don’t remember much,” he told the reporter. “It hurt a lot.”

 

April 20, 2015

Was Stalin anti-Semitic? A reply to Roland Boer

Filed under: Jewish question,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

boer

One of the oddest tendencies of Marxist intellectuals today is their admiration for Australian religion professor Roland Boer who received the Isaac Deutscher Prize in 2014 for his book “In the Veil of Tears”. The jury is made up of people whose intelligence I truly respect (despite such lapses as awarding a prize to Francis Wheen for his cynical biography of Karl Marx in 1999.) Others have gotten on the bandwagon, including Paul Le Blanc. Scott McLemee is also something of a fan although it is hard to figure out whether he takes him as seriously as Le Blanc, giving the impression that he reads Boer more for amusement than edification.

Maybe the Deutscher jury and Le Blanc have never visited Boer’s blog “Stalin’s Moustache”, as McLemee has. If it is supposed to be a joke (as McLemee suggests), it is not a very good one, especially when you run into an article titled Stalin’s “Anti-Semitism. Who knows? Maybe I don’t have a sense of humor. Is writing a response to Boer like writing an angry letter to Onion.com along the lines of  “How dare you publish an article claiming that Karl Marx was a secret admirer of the Mormon Church?” (Come to think of it, that’s not so far from Boer’s particular shtick, comic or not.)

Boer starts off by dismissing those who charged Stalin with anti-Semitism as not worth being taken seriously because they are “not favourably disposed to Stalin”. Frankly, it would be quite an exercise in cognitive dissonance to find someone “favourably disposed to Stalin” who also found him anti-Semitic unless of course it was someone like the bizarre Sendero Luminoso publicist Luis Quispe who tried to score points on the original Marxism mailing list by referring to me as a Jew or a Zionist every chance he got. Except for such cretins and their counterparts on the extreme right, anti-Semitism has very little traction among people with a modicum of civilized values.

Citing an eccentric Dutch scholar named Erik Van Slee, Boer makes the case that Stalin objected to his flunkies using the original Jewish surnames of party members being targeted in the anti-cosmopolitan campaign of 1948-1949. Furthermore, since Stalin told a Romanian Stalinist leader in 1949 that “racism leads to fascism”, how could he possibly be anti-Semitic? That’s some argument, isn’t it?

Decrying racism is pretty easy. When George Bush ’41 spoke at a celebration for signing the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday into law, he told the audience “We can learn about how a great vision and a great nation began to confront and nonviolently challenge institutional racism.” That’s the same George Bush who ran Willie Horton campaign ads that suggested a vote for Dukakis would unleash violent Black criminals on an innocent and god-fearing white America.

On the question of Stalin being opposed to using his adversary’s original Jewish surname, it is notable that Boer doesn’t even take the trouble to respond to the well-documented record of his doing exactly that. At the risk of losing my credibility by quoting someone who was not “favourably disposed” to Stalin, let me direct your attention to Leon Trotsky’s “Thermidor and anti-Semitism”, written in 1937.

Trotsky notes that nobody ever referred to him as Bronstein before he became persona non grata in the USSR, nor—for that matter—did party members refer to Stalin as Dzhugashvili. By the same token, when Zinoviev and Kamenev were in a bloc with Stalin, that’s the names they were referred to in the party press. But after they were put on trial as members of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, they became Radomislyski and Rozenfeld.

Moving ahead to the anti-cosmopolitan campaign that Boer would have us believe is pure as the driven snow, it is of course difficult to establish that it was openly directed against Jews but only if you also believe that stop-and-frisk police tactics are not specifically directed against minorities.

Maybe it was just a coincidence that Literaturnaya Gazeta took aim at an “evil and decadent story written by the homeless cosmopolitan Melnikov (Mehlman)” and the “cynical and impudent activities of B. Yakovlev (Holtzmann).” (The Jewish surnames were in the original.) Or maybe it was also a coincidence that some of the USSR’s best-known sports journalists were purged because they were Jewish. Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote:

It is not surprising therefore that the anti-patriotic cosmopolitans have laid their dirty hands on sporting literature … They are vagrants without passports, suspicious characters without any ancestry who work hard to put over the customs and tastes of the foreigners on Soviet athletes … It is high time to clean out all these enemies of the Socialist fatherland…

Not long after the anti-cosmopolitan campaign was launched, a “doctor’s plot” convinced many that anti-Semitism was a problem in the USSR but not Roland Boer apparently who wrote:

Or the ‘doctors plot’ of 1952-53 – in which leading doctors were suspected of seeking to assassinate government officials – is seen as an excuse for a widespread anti-Semitic purge and deportation, halted only because of Stalin’s death (we may thank Khrushchev for this piece of speculation). However, the only way such an assumption can work is that many doctors in the Soviet Union were Jewish; therefore the attack on doctors was anti-Semitic. Equally, even more doctors were Russian, but for some strange reason, the plot is not described as anti-Russian.

Does Boer think that his readers will not scrutinize his claim that “even more doctors were Russian”? To some extent this is true, because the people who read his idiotic blog would believe that Stalin walked on water. This was a typical comment from one of his fans (I hope it was not Paul Le Blanc or Scott McLemee using a fake name).

Did any other world leader of comparable stature denounce anti-Semitism in such strong terms as Stalin’s reply to the US-based Jewish News Agency? Did any other world leader of comparable stature denounce anti-Semitism as not only ‘an extreme form of racial chauvinism’, but as ‘the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism’?

I had no idea that cannibalism gave birth to anti-Semitism but let’s leave that aside for purposes of remaining tethered to the planet Earth.

What’s more important is to understand that of the nine doctors arrested, six were Jewish. In other words, it is irrelevant that maybe two-thirds of Soviet doctors were not Jewish. The reason anti-Semitism was detected in the “doctor’s plot” was the ethnic composition of those arrested. That Boer can pussyfoot around this reality shows that he has really absorbed the essence of Stalin’s politics—the mastery of the big lie.

The rest of Boer’s article is an attempt to prove that anti-Semitism could not exist in the USSR because the constitution banned it. There’s no argument that this is what it said. That was some great fucking constitution even if it was not worth the paper it was written on.

Finally, something should be said about one of Stalin’s boldest initiatives on behalf of Soviet Jews—at least nominally, the creation of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin gave the green light to in 1932. This was not a choice made by Russian Jews but one made by Stalin for them. It was consistent with his disregard for the rights of self-determination that Lenin decided to fight from his deathbed, dubbing Stalin a “vulgar Great-Russian bully”.

This was not Stalin’s last foray into Jewish nation building. In 1944 Stalin decided that the Jews had a case for building a state over the objections of the Arabs, the Palestinians foremost among them. In doing so, he became a “friend of the Jews” at least in the eyes of their Zionist leaders. You can read about this forgotten moment of history in a September 2014 Le Monde Diplomatique article titled The Forgotten Alliance by historian Michael Réal:

The USSR supplied people willing to settle in Palestine. In 1946 the Soviets allowed more than 150,000 Polish Jews to go to the British and American occupied zones in Germany, where they entered camps for displaced people. There were few alternatives to Palestine for Jewish survivors of the Nazi camps, or those with neither home nor family at the end of the war. Moscow deliberately exacerbated this problem, putting Britain, under strong pressure from the Zionist movement and the US, in a difficult situation. The US was unwilling to take these refugees in, but feared the impact on US public opinion of newsreels showing boats of illegal immigrants en route to Palestine being turned back by British forces.

Before 1948, the USSR directly or indirectly supported secret immigration operations organised by the Jewish Agency for Israel, sending Jews from eastern Europe, especially Romania and Bulgaria (66% of the Jews who arrived in Palestine between 1946 and 1948 came from there).

After 15 May 1948 and Israel’s declaration of independence, encouraging immigration became yet more urgent. Israel’s fledgling army needed recruits — so supplying the flow of migrants meant participating in the Israeli war effort. Between 1948 and 1951 more than 300,000 Jews from eastern Europe went to Israel — half of the total influx of migration during that period.

Moscow also supported Israel in another aspect of its demographic battle: the homogenisation of its population, which led to the departure — mainly through expulsion — of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs. The USSR absolved Israel of responsibility and blamed the British. In 1948 the Soviet Union voted against UN resolution 194 on the possible return of Palestinian refugees.

Later on, the USSR would orient to the Arab states but by then it was too late. The damage had already been done. 

March 21, 2015

The Rise and the Fall of the Borscht Belt

Filed under: Catskills,Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 9:59 pm

A while back FB friend Maxene Diamond Spindell, who posts a lot of interesting material to the Memories of the Catskills group, posted a ten minute excerpt from Peter Davis’s “The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt”, a documentary made in 1986 that I saw when it first came out. Since I have my own “The Unrepentant Marxist Returns to the Catskills” video in the works, I was very interested to see the whole film and perhaps include some footage under the fair use provision.

As it turns out the film was not available from all the usual sources either online or as a DVD. Taking advantage of my retiree benefits from Columbia University, I ordered a VHS through BorrowDirect, an interlibrary service that most universities belong to. After I had the film digitized, I put it up on my Vimeo website for everyone to see. Hopefully I won’t get any intellectual property static over this especially since I emailed Peter Davis a week ago and got no reply.

I appealed to Davis as a fellow leftist. For those in the know, he was one of America’s top leftist documentary filmmakers of the past half-century with films like “Hearts and Minds” to his credit, the definitive Vietnam antiwar film in my view. His last film, “In Darkest Hollywood: Cinema and Apartheid”, was made in 1993.

His leftist orientation can be seen in “The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt”, although not in an obvious way. The film is a mixture of social history and nostalgic entertainment as we see both former vacationers and hotel owners and employees reminiscing about the Borscht Belt in its heyday. For regular readers of my blog, you are probably aware that I grew up in the area and included a good 20 or so pages about my background there in the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar.

As the term borscht implies, the people who worked and stayed in the hotels and bungalow colonies were almost all Jews. The “fall” in the title of Davis’s film refers to the tourist industry collapsing after Jews became wealthier and more assimilated. After moving from the garment industry cutting rooms to accounting firms, they could now afford vacations in Puerto Rico and no longer felt the need to be in a hotel that served kosher food.

My memories include both happy and sad moments. For example, I will never forget the wonderment I felt as a 10-year-old boy watching the Mighty Atom (née Joseph Greenstein) bend an iron bar across his nose at his Paramount Health Farm. On the other hand, I was turned off by the materialism of the hotel owners and small businessmen in the area whose life seemed to revolve around Cadillac convertibles and mink coats for their wives. In a piece about Harvey Pekar’s wonderful memoir “The Quitter”, I described one of those painful (but partly uplifting) moments:

One summer, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, my mother wrangled tickets to see the legendary Jewish tenor Richard Tucker perform at the Concord Hotel. She brought me and her mother in the family car, a 1952 Studebaker that not only looked like crap but was burning oil. When we arrived at the entrance to the Concord, the fanciest hotel in the Catskills, you could see a plume of smoke trailing the car for about 50 feet. My mom turned the key over to a valet who I heard make some wisecrack about the jalopy to the other valets. Meanwhile, the guests at the hotel out for an evening stroll in their mink stoles stared at us as if we were from another planet. It did not help that my deaf grandma spoke so loud that you could hear her from the next county. All I wanted to do is put as much distance as I could from these yokels as I could. Now at the age of 64 I feel somehow proud of the fact that appearances meant nothing to my mother. Plus, Richard Tucker was in great form that night.

Within a week or so, I will begin making my own film about the Catskills that will include an interview I did with people at Lansman’s bungalow colony in Hurleyvile, including Maxene. I had found out about the colony in an article in the NY Times about people trying to keep the spirit of the Catskills alive:

Each colony has its own personality. At the woodsy and quiet Buffalo Colony, which has much larger, family-size units, there are gay and straight parents, and biological and adopted children of many races. Lansman’s, an 85-unit colony in Woodbourne, which was bought by former renters from back in its family-owned days, is still mostly Jewish. Stephanie Kreiner, president of the board there, said residents still play mah-jongg and attend Saturday evening entertainment in the casino. Spring Glen Woods, in Ellenville, N.Y., has residents from New Jersey, Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. “We want to bring it back to its heyday,” Ms. Schneider said.

It was of extraordinary interest to me that Peter Davis filmed at Lansman’s himself and found the same enchantment there that I did. I hope that in its own modest way my video can be called “The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Catskills”.

I say that out of respect for Cissie Blumberg, who owned the Olympic Hotel in Woodridge and hated the term Borscht Belt. Cissie was a die-hard Communist and like many other hotel owners and small businesspeople a product of the Great Depression. Even if the 1950s brought prosperity, these folks remembered what it meant to suffer under capitalism. One of the people I interviewed upstate was a Communist like Cissie and remains political to this day.

In an article I wrote a good fifteen years or so ago titled “Borscht Belt Reds” (it probably should have been titled Catskill Reds!)  that was prompted by a conference held at the Sunny Oaks hotel, one of the first in a series convened by Phil Brown, a sociology professor at Brown University and the son of hotel owners. The article ended:

After the conference was over, I phoned Cissie Blumberg, the author of “Remember the Catskills: Tales of a Recovering Hotelkeeper” and a leftist. Cissie is a woman of strong opinions and was boycotting the Sunny Oaks conference because she thought the term “Borscht Belt” was offensive. She had also had a number of spats with my mother over religious questions. The two wrote for the same local paper and my mother hoped that I would be able to calm her down. This was as much of a chance of me doing this as getting my strongly opinionated mother to calm down.

There’s a chapter in Cissie’s book titled “Just Causes”. She writes:

Not everything [about my father] was controversial or political. He was a prime organizer of the Credit Union, a moving force in the Hotelmen’s Federation, and an acknowledged leader in the Fire Insurance Company as a director and president of the board. He convinced our reluctant neighbors in Lake Huntington to utilize the WPA programs for construction of the first sewer system, and though not religious himself, actively led the small Jewish community in the building of its first synagogue.

I was in grade school when the Civil War broke out in Spain. My father used his talent for oratory on behalf of the Loyalists, long before the world recognized that conflict as the beginning of World War II.

Bob [her brother and my old 9th grade social studies teacher] accompanied him one night to a rally at the Nemerson Hotel in South Fallsburg to raise funds for the Lincoln Brigade, the American volunteers in Spain. As part of his address, our dad quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s famous words on the people and the Constitution: ‘Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they shall exercise their constitutional rights of amending it, or their revolutionary rights to dismember or overthrow it.’ Suddenly the resort’s casino, in which the meeting was being held, was plunged into darkness by its owner, Mr. Nemerson. ‘Rosenberg is talking Communist propaganda,’ thundered the angry hotel man. ‘But sir, that statement is a quote from Abraham Lincoln,’ replied a helper of my father’s. ‘Oh, Abraham Lincoln?’ The lights came on!”

March 16, 2015

The Mighty Atom

Filed under: Catskills,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

Back in 2007 I wrote a piece titled “Jews and American Popular Culture” that was based on a lecture Paul Buhle gave to the Institute of Jewish History in New York occasioned by the publication of the 3-volume “Jews and American Popular Culture” he edited. As is often the case with Paul’s lectures, it was accompanied by a slide show that prompted this observation:

During the reception prior to the meeting, a slide show featured famous Jewish personalities, from Jerry Seinfeld to Sandy Koufax. One of them might not have been well-known to the audience but he certainly was to me. Around the same time I was spending my evenings hanging out with Barney Ross, I used to go see strong man Joseph Greenstein bend iron bars across his nose at his bungalow colony in my home town. Better known as the Mighty Atom, he was now in his 70s but still going strong. During his prime, he used to be able to prevent an airplane from taking off by holding it back with a cable. After performing his feats, he used to extol Jewish piety and the need to eat healthy (he wore his hair long like Samson.)

This prompted a query from Stanley Krauson: “Does anyone remember the name of Joseph Greenstein’s (The Mighty Atom) bungalow colony?”

I now have an answer to that question that took me eight years to the day to put together. But before I get to that, I should explain that soon after writing the article I shared my memories of the Mighty Atom  with Harvey Pekar, who was a houseguest one evening in 2008. As it turns out, Harvey and Paul had begun collaborating with each other on comic books revolving around Jews and the left, among other topics.

Harvey was very interested in the Mighty Atom story since he had been reading about Jewish professional strong men at the time. (He was an amateur strong man himself with an appetite for brawling in high school seemingly at odds with his shy and retiring demeanor.) He also was fascinated by my recollections of life in the SWP that were pretty atypical. For example, I had a relationship at one point with a woman in the Houston branch who had been a topless dancer.

Harvey was so fascinated by my tales that he gave me a ring and proposed that we do a comic book memoir that would be published by Random House. To make a long and sad story short, he died before the book was published and his widow Joyce Brabner decided to dump the memoir because she did not think it should be part of the Harvey Pekar legacy. She has never admitted as such but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

Here is a page devoted to my encounter with the Mighty Atom:

mighty atom

Now, getting to Stanley Krauson’s question, the identity of the Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony can be found in Ed Spielman’s “The Mighty Atom: The Life and Times of Joseph L. Greenstein; Biography of a Superhuman“, a book that I took out from the Columbia Library recently. It was the Panoramic Health Farm, a small colony about a mile from my father’s fruit store. Ironically, although the Mighty Atom sang the praises of vegetables, I wouldn’t go near them. Who knows? Maybe it was a defense mechanism against my father. I should advise you that Spielman’s narrative has a Paul Bunyanesque quality, no doubt a function of his own desire to put together a biography with “wow factor”, plus the Mighty Atom’s (nee Joseph Greenstein) sideshow/circus background leading him to embellish what was likely a remarkable life to begin with. In any case, I did see a man about as old as me at the time bending an iron bar across his nose. You don’t see that every day. Below are passages from Ed Spielman’s book. I am sure that there is more than a grain of truth in these tales.

The Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony:

In the late 1940s, the Atom took savings of $18,000 and founded a health resort where he could put his ideas into action. Where better to advocate health and vitality than in bucolic surroundings, far from the noise and dirt of the city? In upstate Woodridge, New York, he purchased a seventy-acre tract of land with a twenty-three room hotel, four apartments, and two bungalows and established his Panoramic Health Farm. The plan was that he would run the place all summer until Labor Day, when he and Leah would take their traveling lecturemobile south for the winter. Leah had her doubts about an entire hotel being a simple husband-and-wife operation. With his usual enthusiasm, Joe approached the idea as if it were nothing more difficult than a mom-and-pop candy store. He was not to be dissuaded. He put down the cash and took title.

Of panoramic view there was plenty, of water there was none. A week after he took over, the sole spring went dry. The seller (who had paid $7,000 for the place a few years before) had neglected to mention the periodic problem.

After several weeks of carting water from town in barrels and cans, Joe went to the library to research the problem. He found reference to individuals who did nothing more for a living than discover water for such unfortunates as himself. These “dowsers” were supposedly gifted with the ability to sniff out H2O with nothing more than a divining rod.

In Pennsylvania, he found just such a pair of “water smellers.” Dressed in black, and possessed of an appropriately mysterious manner, the pair immediately made him suspicious. Instead of your everyday divining rod, they did their dowsing with an upended pliers. At last, they stopped at a miserable patch of weeds and pronounced with finality that they had found water. As the pliers were jiggling with wild and spastic enthusiasm, he took them at their word. They returned to Pennsylvania, his cash in their pocket.

He called the local well driller, a Sicilian who arrived on the scene with well-founded cynicism, as in the very place where the dowsers had predicted water, he had already dug a dry well for the previous owner.

Now out a couple of hundred dollars for a pair of sham water smellers, and a good chunk of his life’s savings for the health farm itself, Joe nevertheless did not despair. He would find water . . . or throw himself off the nearest bridge. Somehow, a wet death seemed almost pleasant under the circumstances.

He took a large flat rock and a sixteen-pound sledgehammer, placed the rock on the ground in various locations of the property, and smacked it soundly with the hammer. He reasoned that if there were water below somewhere, there might be an underground echo or other indication. He found an area that responded. The more he hit the rock, the more he became convinced that this was the spot. Immediately, he summoned the well driller.

“Here?” The man was not encouraging. “Are you kiddin’? I already drilled right here, too. I didn’t find enough water to rinse out my mouth.”

Joe could not be dissuaded, and after signing a contract guaranteeing payment, he told the man to go to work. The bits were sunk into the ground, and there was nothing. The driller looked at Joe blankly. “Dig deeper,” Joe ordered, and gave him more money. Nothing. “Deeper!” He doled out the cash from the piggy bank.

At last came a gathering gushing sound, and a geyser of water sprayed high into the air coming up at the rate of seventy gallons a minute. The little Sicilian crossed himself.

“How did you know?”

Joe shrugged.

“Mister Atom”—the man pointed heavenward—”you got some-body upstairs.”

With a bit of borrowing and some juggling of finances, Joe fitted a pump on the site, made a small lake, stocked it with fish, and put two boats on it. He enlarged the approach road, constructed another two-story guest house, and built a pool. He was working seventeen hours a day and by now his investment had gotten out of hand, about $55,000 out of hand. He began alternating one week at the Panoramic, one week of pitching night and day to try to pay the previous week’s bills.

The Panoramic Health Farm was no mom-and-pop candy store; the clientele was an eccentric and demanding bunch. For the first time in her life, Leah started visiting doctors. The diagnoses were the same: overwork.

After a decade, rather than have the Panoramic Health Farm kill them, Joe sold out for such a disastrously low figure that he needn’t have drilled for water; he ended taking a bath in his own money. He gladly returned full-time to the life of a pitchman.

In August of 1938, a German Day rally had drawn a turnout of forty thousand wildly cheering spectators for a parade of two thousand uniformed Nazis. Not in Munich but in Yaphank, Long Island. Joe Greenstein’s anti-Nazi battles had begun as soon as Hitler’s supporters had attempted to sink American roots. He had an idea of what was coming. “Throughout time, for the Jews it never changes. Fight to live. There is no alternative.” The Nazi was a creature of the streets, and there Joe lowered himself to meet them.

The Mighty Atom takes on the Nazis:

He revised and augmented his lectures. In addition to his discourse on clean living, he talked of current events. Pinned to his metal-covered board of 2-inch pine was a caricature of a pig wearing a swastika arm band. The head of the pig was that of Adolf Hitler. After a few choice comments about the German in question, the Atom would take a twenty-penny spike in his hand and smack it through the Nazi pig’s heart. The crowd cheered its approval, but certain others didn’t think it quite so funny.

About forty years later, Norman Jacobs, Joe’s son-in-law, remembered an incident of that time. “I was sitting in their Park Place kitchen with my wife Mary and Leah, when we heard a wild commotion outside. We looked out the window to find Pop mixing it up with four men in the alley. I started out the door to help, but Leah ordered me to stay put. ‘Pop will take care of it. But you . . . she warned, ‘if you go out, you’ll get hurt.'”

When the sounds of battle had subsided, the family went into the alleyway where they found the first combatant sprawled unconscious, his arm and leg broken. The second assailant was discovered in a garbage can, head and legs down, having been folded up and deposited like a discarded sandwich, the can cover neatly on top of him. The third man fled. Joe sat atop the fourth bruiser, putting the finishing touches on him.

The Mighty Atom had spent the afternoon making one of his anti-Hitler speeches; the Nazi quartet had followed him home and waylaid him in the alley. “Who are they, Pop?” Leah asked him.

Joe got to his feet, brushed off his pants, and surveyed the men in the alley. “Nobody,” he said.

There were dispiriting moments on mornings when he considered the number of well-organized Nazi goons that he might have to go up against that afternoon. At these times there was a passage in the Bible that revitalized him. His was the same secret weapon with which Joshua and Israel had overcome the terrifying horde arrayed against them:

. . . I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. For mine angel shall go before thee…

—Exodus XXIII:22: 23

Shortly after a huge Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in February, 1939, the Mighty Atom found himself walking through Manhattan’s Yorkville German section on a business matter. He stopped in his tracks at a sign in bold letters posted on a building’s second floor: “NO DOGS OR JEWS ALLOWED!”

He stared at it for a while before inquiring of a passerby, “What the hell is that?” He was informed that a Nazi Bund meeting was being conducted upstairs. He went across the street to a paint store, where with a three-dollar deposit, he rented an 18-foot ladder. Back he came and opened it beneath the sign. Returning across the street, this time to a sporting-goods store, he purchased a Louisville slugger baseball bat—a “Hank Greenberg Model.” He parked it in the doorway beneath the sign.

He went up the ladder, tore the sign down, and tossed it into the gutter. The operation had not gone unnoticed. Several of the Nazis looked out aghast from the second-floor window. The action which followed was in the best tradition of a Popeye cartoon. Before the Atom could climb down from his high perch, the entire Bund assembly had come charging down the stairs into the street.

The Mighty Atom was shaken off his ladder, but he came up bat in hand. They came at him singly and in numbers, frontally and encircling; all to no avail. “It wasn’t a fight,” Joe said later, “it was a pleasure.” He sent eighteen of them to the hospital in various stages of extreme disrepair. He sustained a black eye.

Hauled into court on a charge of aggravated assault, mass mayhem, and so forth, a bedraggled but surprisingly cheerful Joe Greenstein stood meekly and alone before the bench, his only compatriot the “mouse” under his eye. A white-haired judge looked solemnly down as the charge was read. The jurist could hardly believe that the mild, little man before him could have perpetrated such an assault. Then, he surveyed the victims before him, a veritable parade of broken joints, purple contusions, and awkwardly plastered and wired limbs. The battered Aryans filled half the courtroom.

“You mean this little man . . . did that . . . to all of them?” the judge inquired in disbelief.

“Yes, Your Honor,” nodded an eyewitness police sergeant. “Them that ain’t still in the hospital.”

The judge turned his attention to the defendant. “Mr. Greenstein, these are serious charges. Do you have anything to say?”

“Yessir, Judge.” The Atom brightened. “Every time I swung the bat it was a home run!”

Quietly, the judge inquired of the sergeant what had provoked such a clash. “Them’re Nazis, Your Honor,” the officer whispered. “They went after him.”

“NOT GUILTY! CASE DISMISSED!” The judge banged his gavel.

“But, Your Honor . . .” the Bund’s lawyer protested. “I said, case dismissed.” The gavel boomed again with finality, and the judge retired to his chambers.

Photos from Spielman’s book:

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.06.42 AMThe young Mighty Atom

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.05.11 AMThe Mighty Atom stops an airplane tied to his hair from taking off

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.06.08 AMThe Mighty Atom pulls a fire engine

 

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 11.39.18 AM

March 13, 2015

Jews of the Magreb

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 2:30 pm

An Algerian Jew of the 19th century

A passage in a very important article titled “Israel and the Jews” in today’s CounterPunch reminded me that I had planned to post an article of mine that appeared originally in Critical Muslim:

Jews have lived for centuries in the Islamic world. They have even been welcomed by the Ottoman empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Today, Israel participates in the demonization of Arabs and of Muslims by behaving as a model pupil in the ‘clash of civilizations’ classroom. Some politicians having made it their stock in trade, anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia is openly displayed, and acting on them is not uncommon.

In Israel, propagandists compete to explain that Jews have lived in hell in the Muslim world, concealing the fact that anti-Semitism has been above all of European and Christian origins. In Israel, Oriental Jews experience social discrimination and racist contempt. They have often been humiliated and discriminated against on their arrival. They are cut from their roots and urged to renounce their identity. The expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 is presented as an ‘exchange of populations’ whereas Zionism is the principle cause, both of the Nakba and of the departure of Oriental Jews from their countries.

The Jews of the Maghreb

By Louis Proyect

Zionist historians have an ideological mission. They must look back into history and draw essentialist conclusions about the “enemies” of the Jews no matter the countervailing evidence. As long as there have been gentiles determined to persecute and even exterminate the chosen people, there will be a need for an Israel armed to the teeth with jet fighters, advanced missile systems, and nuclear weapons.

Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israel’s prime minister, wrote a book on the Spanish Inquisition that traced what he called “Jew hatred” to ancient Egypt, long before Christianity. Naturally that would give his son the license to create an apartheid-like system in the West Bank.

Despite 19th century Germany’s vanguard role in forging an Enlightenment that would give Jews full equality, Daniel Goldhagen wrote a book that depicted the German race as essentially bent on the destruction of the Jews from time immemorial.

But pre-Zionist Islam constitutes the biggest challenge for the ideologically-driven historian. Against the preponderant evidence that Jews flourished for the most part under early Muslim rule, there is also some evidence that they were persecuted. This evidence is generally subsumed under the category of dhimmitude, a neologism based on the Arab word dhimmi that is applied to non-Islamic peoples like the Jews and the Christians who were supposedly second-class citizens.

Although Paul B. Fenton and David G. Littman’s 2010 L’ Exil au Maghreb: la condition juive sous l’Islam 1148-1912 was never translated into English, the book’s tendentious findings have been picked up by Muslim-bashing bloggers. Littman’s Islamophobia is of a long-standing character. In 2005 he contributed several articles to the collection edited by Robert Spencer titled The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims.

Over on the aptly named jihadwatch.com, there’s a review of Fenton and Littman by one Ibn Warraq, who despite his Arab lineage is an Islamophobic stalwart. His best-known book is “Why I am not a Muslim”. Warraq states that the book offers “proof of the abject condition of the Jews in the Maghreb in the Nineteenth Century, destroying along the way a number of myths that were current up to that time.”1 Of course, it understandable why attention is paid to the nineteenth century rather than the period most scholars deem as a golden age for Jews under Islam. As should be obvious, any attempt to describe relations between Muslim and Jews across continents and across millennia is a fool’s errand and one that obviously recommends itself to the Zionist historian.

You can get a sense of what is in L’ Exil au Maghreb: la condition juive sous l’Islam 1148-1912 from the introduction to Jews under Muslim Rule in the late Nineteenth Century, an earlier Littman title that is available in English:

Till the last decades of the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth, the Jews in many parts of the Maghreb – as in most other Muslim lands – were still obliged to live in isolated groups amidst the general population. They resided in special quarters and were constrained to wear distinctive clothing, the carrying of arms was forbidden to them and their sworn testimony was not accepted in any Muslim Court of Law. Their discriminatory status remained that of ahl al dhimma: a ‘protected’ people, i.e. people enjoying the protection of Islam and the Koran, while at the same time subject to the disabilities and humiliations laid down in specific regulations known as the Pact of Omar (634—644 C. E.), which degraded both the individual and the community.2

For Littman, the wearing of “distinctive clothing” was identified with the Nazi policy of making Jews wear a Star of David. There is little interest in showing what Jewish life was like in the Maghreb apart from identifying policies that would not be permitted in today’s enlightened European landscape that allows skinheads to beat up or kill Arab or North African immigrants with impunity.

Littman, who died in May 2012, was a lightning rod for student protests against Islamophobe appearances on campus. Wikipedia reports that when he submitted a proposed speech to be given at Georgetown University in October 2002 on the “Ideology of Jihad, Dhimmitude and Human Rights” to student organizers, a Jewish student requested that he not deliver his lecture.3 He, like Muslim students, felt that charges of sexual abuse against Muhammad were better suited for Pam Geller’s website rather than a major academic institution. Littman attributed the objections of Jewish and Christian students to a dhimmi mentality.

All that being said, it is necessary to draw a balance sheet on the experience of Jews in the Maghreb. If Jews were forced to wear special clothing and were not permitted to carry arms (or ride horses for that matter), what does that really say about what life was like for them in its totality in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya—the four countries that make up the Maghreb (the Arab word for the West)?

To get a handle on Jewish life in what some scholars regard as a golden age, there’s no better place to start than with Shelomo Dov Goitein’s 5-volume Mediterranean Society, a work that attempts to recreate the daily lives of Jews through the examination of the Cairo Geniza documents, a collection of 300,000 manuscript fragments from the storeroom (geniza) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. There were both religious and secular documents ranging from 870 AD to as late as 1880. These were largely of a quotidian nature sought by historians trying to write “history from below”. They were preserved only because they were written in Hebrew, God’s language, and as such could not be destroyed. Essentially, in other words, the geniza was a glorified trash bin.

While reading the full Mediterranean Society is a task relegated to the specialist, I can recommend the 263 page Jews and Arabs: a Concise History of Their Social and Cultural Relations to the non-specialist. In fact I would consider it required reading for those trying to combat Islamophobia on their campus or in their various social movements.

While acknowledging the decline of Jewish economic conditions in the 19th century, a period that Littman and Fenton dwell on (and which requires further analysis), Goitein describes the golden age under Fatimid rule as one with the “absence of oppressive discriminatory economic legislation” that “can be judged from the great variety of professions and crafts followed by the Jews in Islamic countries as opposed to the few trades available to them in Medieval Europe.”

The Fatimid Caliphate was a Berber Shi’a ruled dynasty that originated in modern day Tunisia in the 10th century and that eventually made Egypt its center. It derived its name from the belief that they were descended from Fatima, Mohammad’s daughter. It extended across the entirety of the Maghreb and through the Middle East and was marked by tolerance toward non-Muslims.

Chapter six of Goitein’s book, which deals with the “economic transformation … of the Jewish people in Islamic times” concludes that Fatimid rule was salutary for the Jews at least on economic grounds:

Our survey of the economic conditions and social institutions of the Jews during the first, creative, five centuries of Islam, has shown that there were many agents which worked toward a revival and a gradual unification of the Jewish people inside the Muslim world: the economic rise and entrance of the Jews into the class of business and professional people; commercial and family relations connecting Jews from many Muslim countries; the new institution of the “Representative of the Merchants”; the allegiance to ecumenical and regional central authorities; travel for “the seeking of wisdom” and for pilgrimage to holy places; the application of the same law to all Jews wherever they lived; and, finally, Jewish charity which, like its Muslim counterpart, was not limited by political boundaries. The new economic and social conditions did not fail to exercise a marked influence also on the cultural life of the Jews inside Islam.4

Goitein’s analysis of the status of Jews in early Islamic history was echoed in Richard Hull’s Jews and Judaism in African History. He emphasizes the network of trade that allowed the Fatimids to function as a vast entrepôt linking the far western reaches of the Maghreb with India and China. Key to its success were the Jewish traders of North Africa who became so instrumental that Ali Kilis—a Jew despite his name—became the first vizier of the Fatimid Empire. Hull writes:

Jewish life flourished under the Fatimids, and as we’ve already discovered, by the eleven century the city of Kairwan in modern Tunisia had become a major center of Jewish learning and economic activity. Jewish scholars traveling between Europe and the Middle East rested, studied, and taught in Kairwan. Robert Seltzer tells us that “academies were established by important talmudists and prosperous Jewish merchant families supported Jewish scientists and philosophers” (Seltzer 1980: 345). Egyptian and Maghrebian Jewry flourished, and Jews from the old Abbasid territories began to migrate to Africa.5

However, as a reminder of the need to avoid romanticizing this period, Hull points out that in Fez, a Moroccan city that had a high concentration of Jews, there was a brutal pogrom in 1033 that left thousands of men killed and their wives, sisters, and daughters sold into slavery. But despite this tragedy, Jews remained in Fez and rebuilt it as a major economic and cultural center.

Neither does Goitein romanticize the period. He refers to “ridiculous laws” that required Jewish women to wear shoes of different colors, one white and one black, as well as the code that prevented Jews from riding horses—a law that he likened to Nazis preventing them from owning a car. While undoubtedly there were similarities between the codes of medieval Morocco and 20th century Germany, as Littman was so determined to point out, there was never an “existential threat” to Jews in early times on the scale of Nazi Germany. That only manifested itself in Europe and particularly in countries that regarded the very economic success alluded to above as a threat to Christian interests. When capitalism began to take root in 15th century France, Spain and Britain, the older Jewish trading and financial networks were seen as rivals and worthy of total elimination with the Spanish Inquisition setting the pace.

Probably nothing militates more against facile attempts to make an amalgam of Maghreb Jewish-Islamic relations with Nazi Germany than the phenomenon of “mellahs” of Morocco, the Jewish quarters that bore a superficial relationship to fascist-imposed ghettos.

In 1438 the Sultan created a mellah near the palace after a number of Jews were killed in the aftermath of a rumor that they had placed wine in the mosques of Fez, a city with a large Jewish population. On first blush, they “made the Jewish communities appear as outcasts, isolated from the wider society” in the words of Daniel J. Schroeter.6

But in fact the Jewish quarters were quite porous. Jews were able to move in and out of the mellah and even settle in other cities where there were none. Schroeter writes:

Finally, and most important, the walls of the mellahs of Morocco hardly constituted impregnable barriers to outside influence. The mellah indeed constituted “Jewish space” but not an isolated part of the city. It was a locale from which the Jewish community interacted with the city as a whole, and with the wider world. Finally, it should be pointed out that the term “mellah,” which became the generic term for the Jewish quarter in Morocco, eventually implied not only the physical space of residence but also the Jewry of a given locale, which was the case throughout the small communities in the Moroccan countryside, especially in the south of the country where often no distinctly physically separated residential Jewish quarter existed.7

In other words, they were not that different from the orthodox Jewish enclaves of Brooklyn, N.Y. today.

Moving closer to the present day, there are factors that come into play that partially explain growing tensions between Jew and Muslim in the Maghreb. In the nineteenth century anti-colonial movements took root that drew upon both nationalist and Islamist themes perceived as inimical to the interests of the urban Jew who tended to identify with France, the mother country of Tunisia and Morocco, or Italy as is the case for Libya.

Mark A. Tessler and Linda L. Hawkins point out that France exploited the existing differences between Jew and Muslim, using the time-dishonored technique of divide and conquer. In Algeria France offered citizenship en masse to its Jewish population. Elsewhere, Jews received preferential treatment, including easy access to French schools—a measure that almost guaranteed assimilation into the dominant culture. Tessler and Hawkins write:

Jewish assimilation of French culture was enhanced by the Alliance Israelite Universelle, an independent international educational foundation that operated in North Africa with support from the colonial establishment. Through its extensive network of primary and secondary schools, the AIU spread the French language and culture far more broadly than did elite and settler-oriented French schools. In a few instances, as in Djerba in southern Tunisia, traditionalist elements successfully resisted the incursions of the AIU. In general, however, Jews welcomed the AIU and viewed it as an agent of progress. Together, the AIU and the colonial mission narrowed the cleavage between indigeneous Jews and those of European origin and taught many Jews to accept France as their spiritual home. Thus, they greatly increased the cultural distance between Jews and Arabs. They also produced among many Arabs a view of the Jew as collaborator. Jews were seen as profiting by, and indeed becoming a part of, a political force that most Arabs considered oppressive and humiliating.8

In Algeria where colonial oppression was most extreme, most of the French-oriented Jewish population fled the country after the FLN took power. Not every Jew identified with the imperialists. Henri Alleg, a member of the Communist Party and still living at the age of 92, became a partisan of the FLN and endured torture for his activism. Despite Alleg, some Jews became members of the fascist OAS. This prompted the FLN to issue an appeal to Algerian Jews in 1962:

Some among you have perhaps forgotten that era in order to knowingly involve yourselves in the crimes of the colonialists under the pretext of counter-terrorism in Constantine and Algiers. Recently, in Oran, demonstrations provoked by young hotheads in the Israelite neighborhood took place, followed by fires set in stores belonging to Muslims. These acts are the clearest illustration of how some of you attempt to thoughtlessly align yourselves with the racial policies of the ultras. Will you today make yourselves the accomplices of the backwards colonialists by rising up against your Algerian brothers of Muslim origin? We refuse to believe this, because you know the anti-Semitism of the activists and seditionists of Algeria.

Libya endured the same unfortunate clash between native Muslim aspirations for independence and Jewish identification with the mother country. Maurice Roumani, a Libyan Jew, is the author of The Jews of Libya: Coexistence, Persecution, Resettlement. In a chapter titled Mussolini, Fascism and Libyan Jews, he describes the “warm welcome” the Jewish community in Libya provided to the occupying powers. It includes this startling description of the relationship of Italian Jews to Italian fascism, one that was shared by their brethren in Libya:

When Mussolini first established the nucleus of his Fascist Party Facci di combattimento on March 23, 1919, Jews already made up a significant portion of his support base. In fact, for over one hundred years, Jews stood staunchly behind the Italian Nationalist movement because they traditionally belonged to the bourgeoisie and anti-socialist movements.9

If the contradictions between the Jews of the Maghreb and the less privileged Arab colonial subjects sharpened over such matters, they finally came to a head with the creation of the state of Israel. Like the Mizrahim—the Arab Jews of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt—the Maghrebi Jews poured into Israel out of a sense that conditions would worsen for them through no fault of their own. Despite being thoroughly integrated into their communities in places like Fez that had known a Jewish presence for a thousand years, they left businesses, jobs and friends behind in order to enjoy the “safety” of the heavily armed and racist Israeli state.

The Ashkenazi (European Jews) powers that ruled Israel regarded the newcomers as barely distinguishable from the Palestinians they had just expelled. Israeli journalist Arye Gelbaum wrote:

This is the immigration of a race we have not yet known in the country. We are dealing with people whose primitivism is at a peak, whose level of knowledge is one of virtually absolute ignorance and, worse, who have little talent for understanding anything intellectual. Generally, they are only slightly better than the general level of the Arabs, Negroes, and Berbers in the same regions. In any case, they are at an even lower level than what we know with regard to the former Arabs of Israel. These Jews also lack roots in Judaism, as they are totally subordinated to savage and primitive instincts. As with Africans you will find among them gambling, drunkenness, and prostitution … chronic laziness and hatred for work; there is nothing safe about this asocial element. [Even] the kibbutzim will not hear of their absorption.10

Eventually the Maghrebi Jews were assimilated into Israel like their Mizrahim relatives and now constitute the backbone of the ultra-Zionist Shas Party.

In looking back at the tortured relationship between the Jews of North Africa and their Muslim brothers and sisters, you are left with the conclusion that “progress” is not necessarily tied to the quintessential product of the modern age—the national state. The development of state powers in North Africa and the Middle East have tended to create ethnic tensions that were far less pronounced in the Middle Age when a Fatimid Caliphate had no problem elevating a Jew to one of its most powerful posts.

The spiritual and moral exhaustion of the Zionist state as well as the Baathist dictatorships that exemplified Arab nationalism invite us to consider alternatives that leave the narrow considerations of ethnic and religious exclusivism behind. While the Fatimid Caliphate is obviously no model for our modern world, the 21st century will surely have to evolve in the direction of a polity that evaluates people without regard for their confessional roots. Sectarianism has been a dead-end for most of the 20th century and certainly deserves to be interred for good as we make our way fitfully into the 21st.

Notes:

  1. http://www.jihadwatch.org/2011/09/review-of-paul-b-fenton-print.html.
  2. Littman’s introduction can be found at http://www.dhimmitude.org/archive/littman_jews_under_muslims_19thcent_wlb_1.pdf. Dhimmitude.org is a repository of articles designed to support the idea that Jews suffered oppression under Islamic rule and maintained by Gisèle Littman, David Littman’s widow.
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Littman_%28historian%29
  4. S.D. Goitein, Jews and Arabs : a concise history of their social and cultural relation, Mineola, N.Y., Dover Publications, 2005, p. 124
  5. Richard Hull, Jews and Judaism in African History, Princeton, N.J., Markus Wiener Publishers, 2009, p. 48
  6. The Shifting Boundaries of Moroccan Jewish Identities, Jewish Social Studies, New Series, Vol. 15, No. 1, Sephardi Identities, Fall 2008, p. 155
  7. ibid
  8. The Political Culture of Jews in Tunisia and Morocco, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, Feb., 1980, p. 60
  9. Maurice M. Roumani, The Jews of Libya : coexistence, persecution, resettlement, Portland, Or., Sussex Academic Press, 2008, p. 14
  1. Meyrav Wurmser, Post-Zionism and the Sephardi Question, Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005. The author cites Ha’aretz (Tel Aviv), Apr. 22, 1949.

 

 

December 21, 2014

Hanukkah — bah, humbug

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

An innocent toy connected to a not so innocent holiday

In the same way I used to organize sales for the Socialist Workers Party in Houston in the 1970s, directing people to various grocery stores or college campuses with bundles of the Militant, the Chabad sends its young missionaries to what they regard as fruitful opportunities for converting lost souls. But this Hasidic outreach group is not interested in saving Christians or Muslims. It is people like me, secular Jews, that they are trying to reach, based on their presence in front of my building during Jewish holidays throughout the year.

Yesterday as I was on the sidewalk in front of my high-rise, one of these young men, clad in a dark suit and wearing a wide-brimmed fedora made by Borsalino, approached me to ask if I’d like to have a donut in honor of Hanukkah. (My building is ecumenical with a Christmas tree and a Hanukkah menorah in the lobby in an obvious bid to make the Jewish residents more amenable to chipping in for the staff’s holiday bonus.)

No thanks, I said.

As I was making my way up to my apartment, I wondered what the deal was with the donut. I don’t remember anything like that from my relatively observant household in the 1950s. We lit candles on the menorah, even though I had only the vaguest idea of what that was about—it had something to do with a synagogue lantern miraculously staying lit for 8 days after the oil had been exhausted, while the Maccabees were fighting the infidels but that’s about all I knew.

Out of curiosity, I took a quick look at the ever-so-useful Wikipedia to see what connection there was between donuts and the holiday and discovered: “Fried foods (such as latkes potato pancakes, jelly doughnuts sufganiyot and Sephardic Bimuelos) are eaten to commemorate the importance of oil during the celebration of Hanukkah.”

As I was perusing the article, I began to wonder what role Hanukkah played in the Jewish religion. For young people in observant households, it was our Christmas but a rather unproductive one. The Christian kids had a gaily-decorated tree and gifts galore while we had nothing but a stupid candelabra and a cheap little trinket called a dreidel that you spun like a top, towards what end I had no idea. Once again, Wiki delivered the goods:

Tradition has it that the reason the dreidel game is played is to commemorate a game devised by the Jews to camouflage the fact that they were studying Torah, which was outlawed by the Seleucids. The Jews would gather in caves to study, posting a lookout to alert the group to the presence of Seleucid soldiers. If soldiers were spotted, the Jews would hide their scrolls and spin tops, so the Seleucids thought they were gambling, not learning.

I had no idea that gambling was involved. I feel like Captain Reynault in “Casablanca”.

But of the most interest was the battlefield victory it was meant to celebrate. I had a feeling that in the 16 years of Marxmail, there must have been something that dealt with the legacy of the holiday that was in its way just as bloodthirsty as Passover that celebrated the death of innocent Egyptian children. I was not disappointed. I crossposted this article nearly 3 years ago to the date:

Rethinking Hanukkah: The Dark History of the Festival of Lights

2010 December 1

by J.A. Myerson

OK, so: there’s a civil war. On one side is a group of reformers, who break from divine-right totalitarianism to design a society based on reason, philosophy, comity with national neighbors and religious moderation. On the other is a violent group of devout fanatics who engage in terrorist warfare in their quest to institute religious law that includes ritual sacrifice and compulsory infant genital mutilation. Which side are you on?

And if the second group defeats the first, returns the land to theocratic despotism, institutes a program of imperial conquest and declares the abolition of secular thought, isolating itself from the rest of the civilized world for a century, do you celebrate their victory?

Easy answers, surely, if this scenario were situated in the Muslim world of the 21st century. But, starting tonight, a great many Jews the world over, including—or perhaps especially—secular American Jews, will light candles and sing prayers in observance of Hanukkah, which commemorates the historical incident aforementioned. The sectarian factions were traditionalist Jews and their Hellenized brethren. The location was Jerusalem. The year was 165 BCE.

A decade earlier, Antiochus IV Epiphanes had assumed rule of the Seleucid Empire, which stretched farther east than Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire, from modern day Saudi Arabia all the way to what are now Turkmenistan and Pakistan. Antiochus appointed Jason—probably in reward for a bribe—to the governorship of Judea, then a client state of the Seleucids, and, in 167 BCE, Jason did away with Jewish law and rebuilt Jerusalem in a Greek model. This included banning genital mutilation and Jewish sacrifice, permitting Jews to marry gentiles and instituting an internationalist program exemplified by participation in the Olympic Games.

To be sure, Seleucid Judea, being an imperial protectorate, was hardly the democratic polis par excellence; widespread corruption and capricious political leadership combined with a measure of jealous authoritarianism hardly constitute the virtuous city. Nevertheless, a secular, multicultural state is subject to civic reform in a way that dictatorial theocracy is not, and the latter is precisely what the Maccabees sought to establish. (The Maccabees are routinely called a “rebel army,” but really this is a romantic and obfuscatory term; “terrorist militants” is a well chosen substitute, and the one we use for their contemporary analogues).

Judah Maccabee, whose father Matthias had had to flee Judea after killing a Hellenistic Jew for worshiping before an idol, served as the chief of that fundamentalist army, his brothers Jonathan and Simon occupying the upper lieutenancy. Their holy war featured the demolition of pagan altars in the villages, the ritual cleansing of the temple and compelling the circumcision of children. Their terror campaign worked and, in 165 BCE, after just two years of secular law, the Maccabees overtook Judea, establishing the political reign of the Hasmonean dynasty.

Not content with the victory, Judah continued the war—when was the last time holy war ended with the conquest of but one land?—and expanded the boundaries of Israel, setting a nationalist-expansionist precedence whose reverberations we (leave alone the Palestinians) continue to feel. Between Judah’s regime and the subsequent administrations of his brothers, the fanatical Maccabee Israeli army conquered the port of Joppa and the fortress of Gezer and razed the Acra in Jerusalem. Hasmonean rule lasted until 64 BCE, when the Romans moved in and Herod the Great became King of Israel—for more on that, see the gospels of the New Testament.

*   *   *

Judaism, as much as any other world religion, can boast an extraordinary history of secular thought. Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Isaiah Berlin, Christopher Hitchens, Tony Kushner—who can think of better Jews than these or imagine, without anguish, a world devoid of their contributions? My own family’s ancestry is Jewish and we are ourselves devoted to secularism and the pursuit of a Judaism in the image of those named above.

Nevertheless, growing up, we lit the candles and sang the Hebrew prayer my mother could remember from her childhood (but—how Jewish—cannot translate to English). My father, for his part, is fond of proving that he can sing “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” in Yiddish—his father escaped an Orthodox home at age 13, never to return—not that the rest of us are in any position to verify his rendition’s accuracy. Latkes (with sour cream and apple sauce, naturally), gelt (lousy chocolate, sure, but it’s shaped like money!) and dreidels came out once a year, in order, I’m sure I always knew, to make Jews feel better about not having Christmas, which is a big deal to the goyim (so big that the Myersons celebrate it too, and more enthusiastically than the Jewish consolation prize, to boot).

What a piercing irony, that secular Jews have taken to comforting ourselves in the yuletide season by celebrating the destruction of the Hellenistic Jewry, whose legacy we inherit, at the hands of fundamentalist fanatics who wouldn’t even consider us Jewish. With each lunatic attempt to expel Palestinians from their homes to make room for Orthodox settlers from Brooklyn, with each story of a Hasidic woman confined to a medieval lifestyle of bondage and repression born of superstition and uncritical faith, with each exposure of depravity and fraudulence in the communities who make the most exuberant claims to piety, it becomes clearer: the time has come for us to proclaim loudly that we have a better tradition. Let us celebrate the Hellenistic Jews and their struggle, rather than the violent extremists and their victory.

The prayer Jews are expected to say on the first night of Hanukkah (the only one my mother knew to teach us) translates thus: “Blessed are you, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and has commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.” Need anyone mention that the greatest Jewish tradition is not one of following any commandments whatever, but rather of investigating, examining, discovering? The secular Jewish tradition holds that it is through those processes that one learns truth, not through the revelation of commandment. Cast off that prayer.

The klezmer ditty, though, can stay. “One for each night, they shed us with light to remind us of days long ago.” Let us take this opportunity to remind ourselves of what really happened in days long ago, and commit ourselves to reversing it.

*   *   *

The author is obliged to mention Josephus’ The Wars of the Jews along with the biblical apocrypha contained in the first and second book of the Maccabees, which provide the history presented here. For additional reading, please see relevant works by Christopher Hitchens and James Ponet, both in Slate.

[Hitchens and Ponet are both worth reading as well.]

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