Jewish Currents Breaking news, analysis, art, and culture from a progressive Jewish perspective. Sign up for our newsletter! en-us Wed, 24 Nov 2021 19:18:39 -0500 Wed, 24 Nov 2021 19:18:39 -0500 Meir Kahane’s Long Shadow - The far-right activist and politician died in disgrace, but Shaul Magid’s new book argues that his ideas have shaped mainstream American Judaism. Wed, 24 Nov 2021 10:16:00 -0500 The Making of Satmar Williamsburg - In a new history of the Hasidic “fortress in Brooklyn,” a community’s struggle for the right to the city is not always waged in the common interest. Tue, 23 Nov 2021 10:18:00 -0500 The Long Reach of Restraint - For Israel's Supreme Court, to exercise power might be to lose it. Mon, 22 Nov 2021 09:00:00 -0500 Outside the Text - Sylvère Lotringer, who died last week, brought together French theorists, punk writers, and political insurrectionists through the avant-garde press Semiotext(e). Fri, 19 Nov 2021 12:30:00 -0500 The Right to Boycott Is Under Attack - The director of the new documentary <i> Boycott </i> discusses the high stakes of the legal fight against anti-BDS legislation. Thu, 18 Nov 2021 16:19:00 -0500 Bad Education - In <em>The Loneliest Americans</em>, Jay Caspian Kang suggests that for Asian Americans, the process of political consciousness raising has gone terribly wrong. Wed, 17 Nov 2021 09:51:00 -0500 George Washington University Employees Offered Support to Palestinian Students. Now They Say They’re Paying the Price. - After criticizing "Israeli apartheid" and offering a processing space to Palestinian students in June, a campus office has been prevented from serving its regular functions, according to a civil rights complaint. Tue, 16 Nov 2021 11:54:00 -0500 Trick of the Light - In a film adaptation of Nella Larsen’s <i>Passing</i>, racial passing is about seeing as much as being seen. Mon, 15 Nov 2021 11:58:00 -0500 Ode to the Security Woman - “The security woman / rubbed on my pussy / like it was Aladdin’s lamp” Fri, 12 Nov 2021 12:09:00 -0500 Will <em>Politico</em>’s New Owner Allow Criticism of Israel? - German media giant Axel Springer demands that its employees support Israel, capitalism, and NATO. Fri, 12 Nov 2021 09:35:00 -0500 It Is Impossible to “Shrink the Conflict” - The Israeli government cannot significantly improve Palestinian lives without granting them basic rights. Thu, 11 Nov 2021 09:00:00 -0500 Portraits of Resistance in Masafer Yatta - Israel’s Supreme Court will soon decide the case of the residents of Masafer Yatta, who have lived for decades under the threat of displacement by the military. Wed, 10 Nov 2021 08:44:00 -0500 How Israel Advocates Shut Down a Union’s Motion to Endorse BDS - When unionists wrote a pro-Palestine motion, Israel advocates contrived a wide-ranging campaign to stop it from receiving a vote. Mon, 08 Nov 2021 10:09:00 -0500 The Right’s War on “Wokeness” in Virginia - Progressives can’t afford to avoid the new culture war. Fri, 05 Nov 2021 10:08:00 -0400 <em>Office Hours:</em> Vitaly - “If I can’t come into the classroom ready to listen, it's not an abolitionist space.” Tue, 02 Nov 2021 09:00:00 -0400 you must believe in spring - “you would trade a skull of yes/no for quiet, two slushed thoughts / per foot below, but there it goes dewing the frost of your plan” Fri, 29 Oct 2021 14:58:00 -0400 Can Minneapolis Reimagine Policing? - A proposed new department would include professionals like mental health workers alongside cops. Fri, 29 Oct 2021 11:49:00 -0400 Aaahh!!! Jewish Monsters - An illustrated guide Fri, 29 Oct 2021 10:13:00 -0400 “I Campaigned on Right, Not on Fear” - If he loses due to his support for BDS, Florida congressional candidate Omari Hardy says his “conscience will be clear.” Mon, 25 Oct 2021 14:13:00 -0400 From Minneapolis to Jerusalem - On Black–Palestinian solidarity Mon, 25 Oct 2021 09:30:00 -0400 The Politics of "Jewface" - Sarah Silverman has come out against the casting of non-Jews in Jewish roles—a stance with a fraught racial history bound up with the legacy of blackface. Fri, 22 Oct 2021 11:03:00 -0400 For the Sake of Truth - Poet and activist Mohammed El-Kurd discusses his debut collection, the vexed meanings of visibility, and the long history of Palestinian freedom struggles. Thu, 21 Oct 2021 11:55:00 -0400 Ritchie Torres Is the Future of "Pro-Israel" Politics - While lawmakers of color have challenged the Democratic consensus on Israel, the Bronx congressman has become a powerful voice for upholding the status quo. Mon, 18 Oct 2021 09:00:00 -0400 "They Want To Kick Us Out of This Land" - An interview with journalist and activist Basil al-Adraa about covering settler violence Fri, 15 Oct 2021 10:32:00 -0400 Philanthropist Michael Leven Donated to Canary Mission Blacklist - The revelation makes him the third major American Jewish funder associated with the project. Thu, 14 Oct 2021 09:30:00 -0400 When Settler Becomes Native - Examining the claim of Jewish indigeneity in the land of Israel Wed, 13 Oct 2021 12:56:00 -0400 How the US Media Misreads Naftali Bennett - Despite recent favorable coverage, the new Israeli prime minister is just as authoritarian and anti-Palestinian as his predecessor. Mon, 11 Oct 2021 09:00:00 -0400 Manchin and Sinema’s Dying Brand of Centrism - The Senate moderates may weaken Biden's agenda, but they can't stop the left's takeover of the Democratic Party. Fri, 08 Oct 2021 11:02:00 -0400 Sanders Pushes Gaza Aid in Exchange for "Yes" Vote on Iron Dome Funds - The Senate’s most prominent Israel critic will join the rest of the Democratic caucus in voting for aid for the anti-missile system. Thu, 07 Oct 2021 12:15:00 -0400 "The AIDS Crisis is Still Beginning" - In Gregg Bordowitz's decades of aesthetic experimentation, ritualized attention to the present is a route to the past and the future. Thu, 07 Oct 2021 09:54:00 -0400 What the Jewish Left Learned From Occupy - An oral history Tue, 05 Oct 2021 11:44:00 -0400 To The Reasoning Of Eternal Voices, To The Waves That Have Kept Me From Reaching You— - “The chaplain tracing a cross / of oil with his thumb on your forehead, and your eyes following / upward his hand, then holding, following, / holding.” Fri, 01 Oct 2021 13:26:00 -0400 When Prison Guards Refuse Vaccines - A dispatch from an incarcerated person in Pennsylvania on the risks unvaccinated guards pose to prisoners. Fri, 01 Oct 2021 11:49:00 -0400 That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore - In <em>The Netanyahus,</em> Joshua Cohen tries and fails to reanimate the canonical Jewish American novel. Wed, 29 Sep 2021 09:00:00 -0400 A Week on Rikers Island - “No human should be in a place like that.” Tue, 28 Sep 2021 14:13:00 -0400 A Guide to the Fight Over Iron Dome Funding - We answer readers’ questions about the vote to fund Israel’s anti-missile system that has exposed sharp divisions among Democrats. Tue, 28 Sep 2021 11:07:00 -0400 Does Everybody Really Hate the Jews? - Unpacking the suspect framing of a new survey on campus antisemitism. Fri, 24 Sep 2021 16:12:00 -0400 A Prison Break Liberates the Palestinian Political Imagination - Six detainees’ dramatic escape from a maximum-security Israeli prison has sparked demonstrations across the occupied territories and shifted Palestinians’ sense of what is possible. Thu, 23 Sep 2021 18:38:00 -0400 What the Record Doesn't Show - By offering the group as a model for present-day politics, Sarah Schulman’s history of ACT UP reproduces the movement’s failures and exclusions. Wed, 22 Sep 2021 12:00:00 -0400 Reclaiming the Covenant of Fate - As American Jewry’s Zionist consensus crumbles, we must learn to address one another across communal divides. Mon, 20 Sep 2021 03:00:00 -0400 THIS SPRING AND SUMMER, as violence engulfed Israel-Palestine and antisemitic attacks in the US made media headlines, some hawkish Jewish commentators began using an arresting phrase to describe Jews who oppose the Jewish state. In a tweet in May, UCLA professor Judea Pearl proposed that just as Jewish leaders in the 17th century excommunicated the followers of the false messiah, Shabtai Tzvi, it was now time “to proclaim Jewish-born Zionophobes: ‘Ex-Jews.’” That same month, in an article in the Orthodox publication Cross-Currents, Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, scrolled through his own roster of historic turncoats—“the Pablo Christianis and Johannes Pfefferkorns who reinvented themselves as Christians to find fame and money”—before declaring that Bernie Sanders, who “devotes his energies to undermining the largest Jewish community in the world,” is an “ex-Jew.” In June in Tablet, historian Gil Troy and former Soviet dissident and Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky improvised on the theme: They labeled Jewish anti-Zionists “Un-Jews.”

The assumption behind these arguments is that to be considered a Jew, you must demonstrate communal solidarity. You must show a special devotion to other Jews. As more and more left-leaning Jews abandon political Zionism—the belief in a state that favors Jews over Palestinians—there’s a mounting sense on the Jewish right that Jewish critics of Israel are failing that test, that opposing a state and an army devoted specifically to Jewish self-protection means abandoning one’s people. Most Jews on the left will find such sentiments offensive and absurd. But they have real-world consequences. Since right-leaning Jews control American Jewry’s most powerful institutions—from AIPAC, to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to the Federations that direct Jewish philanthropy, to the Hillels that serve Jewish students on campus—the collapse of American Jewry’s Zionist consensus will leave more and more American Jews outside the boundaries of legitimate disagreement, as defined by their communal leaders. More and more people will be treated as “ex” or “un” Jews. 

The Zionist litmus test means that establishment Jewish institutions will become even less representative of American Jewish political opinion than they are now. That’s dangerous, because with even less progressive input, the American Jewish establishment’s response to antisemitism will continue trending in its current, misconceived direction, focusing even more heavily on suppressing pro-Palestinian speech rather than combatting anti-Jewish violence. It’s also worrying because American Jews have things to learn from one another across our ideological and religious divides. American Jewish progressives can learn from the right-leaning Orthodox community’s commitment to Jewish education, and American Jewish conservatives would benefit from being challenged to confront events like the Nakba, which illustrate the magnitude of Palestinian disposession. American Jews of all ideological stripes need shared spaces, based on mutual respect, which encourage the kinds of conversations that aren’t possible on Twitter.  

American Jews of all ideological stripes need shared spaces, based on mutual respect, which encourage the kinds of conversations that aren’t possible on Twitter.

Creating such spaces will require a new compact, in which the American Jewish establishment opens its doors to anti-Zionists, and anti-Zionists affirm that Jews have special obligations to one another. For both sides, this bargain will be difficult. Many Zionists don’t believe it’s possible to oppose Jewish statehood yet still care about Jewish welfare. But unless they accept that anti-Zionists can hold both convictions in good faith, they will render the institutions they control less and less reflective of the population they claim to represent. For their part, many anti-Zionists struggle with the idea that an abstract notion of peoplehood compels them to share space with Jews whose views about Palestinians they often find racist. But unless anti-Zionists affirm that Jews have a bond with one another, irrespective of their politics, they will never gain the access they need to change the American Jewish establishment from the inside. For Jews on both sides of the widening communal divide, the challenge is to protect and learn from each other while remaining true to our respective principles. 

ON ISRAELI INDEPENDENCE DAY, 1956, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, arguably the most influential American Modern Orthodox rabbi of the 20th century, gave a lecture at Yeshiva University called “Listen, My Beloved Knocks,” a title drawn from a verse in Song of Songs. Soloveitchik’s topic was Jewish suffering and division, but the division to which he responded was different from our own. His audience was composed of Orthodox Jews who felt distant from both their less observant American Jewish counterparts and the State of Israel, with its secular government. Soloveitchik offered them a language for understanding what they and their fellow Jews did and did not share. 

Soloveitchik argued that God had forged two covenants with the Jewish people. The first, the Covenant of Fate, was born in slavery in Egypt, when Jews were bound together by a common threat. Since antisemitism remained, Soloveitchik urged his fellow Orthodox Jews to recognize that they shared a Covenant of Fate with their more secular coreligionists. “A Jew who is observant but does not feel the hurt of the nation, and who attempts to distance himself from Jewish fate,” Soloveitchik wrote, “desecrates his Jewishness.” He encouraged his followers to obey the Talmud’s instruction that “all Jews are sureties for one another.”

But Soloveitchik claimed there was also a second covenant, born at Sinai, which he called the Covenant of Destiny. It stemmed not from a common threat but from a common vision. For Soloveitchik, that vision was “a life of Torah and mitzvot”—a life that most contemporary Jews did not lead. 

By distinguishing between the Covenant of Destiny, the common vision that binds some Jews, and the Covenant of Fate, the common danger that binds all Jews, Soloveitchik offered a vocabulary for Jewish solidarity in the face of deep division. He hoped that division would end, and all Jews would one day observe Jewish law. But in the meantime, he provided a justification for cooperation between Jews of all stripes. In the same year that he delivered “Listen, My Beloved Knocks,” Soloveitchik offered a set of principles for Orthodox engagement with the wider Jewish community. On religious questions—standards for conversion, criteria for sacred literature—he insisted that the Orthodox remain apart. But on non-religious issues—antisemitism, economic welfare, relationships with diaspora governments, and support for the state of Israel—he urged his Orthodox followers to work with their fellow Jews. 

Today, few American Modern Orthodox rabbis would worry that their followers might refuse to join more secular Jews in defending Israel. America’s most powerful Jewish institutions bring Jews together from across the religious spectrum to do exactly that. For today’s American Jewish establishment, the Covenant of Destiny is not Torah and mitzvot. It’s political Zionism. You don’t need to keep kosher, observe Shabbat, or even believe in God to join AIPAC, be appointed to a Federation board, or speak at a Hillel. You simply need to believe in a Jewish state. 

For today’s American Jewish establishment, the Covenant of Destiny is not Torah and mitzvot. It’s political Zionism. You don’t need to keep kosher, observe Shabbat, or even believe in God to join AIPAC, be appointed to a Federation board, or speak at a Hillel. You simply need to believe in a Jewish state. 

But that common vision—which has been the bedrock of organized American Jewish life since at least the 1967 War—is fraying, because of both trends in Israel-Palestine and trends in the United States. Already, according to a July Jewish Electorate Institute poll, 20% of American Jews support a single, equal, non-Jewish state in Israel-Palestine. And as Jewish settlement growth in the West Bank renders the prospect of a viable Palestian state ever more remote, that figure is likely to grow. In a 2018 survey, University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami found that if a two-state solution were no longer possible, 64% of Americans—and 78% of Democrats—would support “a single democratic state in which Arabs and Jews are equal even if that means Israel would no longer be a politically Jewish state.” In an email, Telhami told me that while it’s hard to get a statistically valid sample of Jews in a poll of the general public, in his surveys Jews “have not varied much from the rest of the population on these issues.” 

Demographic changes in the US are also shattering the American Jewish consensus over Zionism. American Jewry’s religious center—the Reform and Conservative movements—is collapsing: According to the Pew Research Center’s survey last year, only 37% of American Jews between the ages of 18 and 30 identify with either of these movements, while the religious poles, Orthodox Jews and Jews who do not affiliate with any religious stream, together comprise almost 60%. (Among American Jews ages 65 and older, by contrast, they account for only one-quarter.) As American Jewry’s religious center crumbles, so does its political center: two-state Zionism. Rising in its place are the political extremes. Although the Pew survey did not ask about Zionism, it asked about support for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction of Israel, which offers a crude proxy. Unaffiliated Jews, the segment of American Jewry least committed to Jewish statehood, oppose BDS by a margin of only ten points (though a majority don’t know enough to have an opinion). Orthodox Jews, by contrast, oppose it by 64 points, the largest margin of any Jewish group. Most American Orthodox Jews are comfortable with a Jewish state that denies millions of Palestinians basic rights. Most unaffiliated American Jews are disconnected from Zionism and, to the extent they care, open to an egalitarian alternative. 

These two ascendant American Jewish populations don’t just approach Israel in radically different ways. They approach life in radically different ways. According to Pew, Orthodox Jews are among the most religious groups in the US, more likely even than Black Protestants and white evangelicals to say religion is very important in their lives. Unaffiliated Jews are among the groups least likely to say so. Which helps explain why these two rising Jewish populations feel little connection to one another. Unaffiliated Jews are more likely to say they feel some affinity with mainline Protestants or American Muslims than with Orthodox Jews. Pew did not gather data on how Orthodox Jews feel about the unaffiliated, but given that half of Orthodox Jews feel they have “little” or “nothing” in common with even Reform Jews, the alienation is likely reciprocated. 

AS AMERICAN JEWRY’S CONTEMPORARY COVENANT OF DESTINY, political Zionism, collapses, American Jews will find it harder to join together in what Soloveitchik called a Covenant of Fate, a common commitment to protect Jews against external threats. American Jews today disagree deeply about the nature of those threats—in large measure because they disagree about if and when criticisms of Israel and Zionism constitute antisemitism. But even if one adopts a narrow definition of antisemitism—which centers on attacks upon Jews simply for being Jews—there is ample evidence that the threat remains, and may grow in the years to come as white nationalism becomes a more potent political force. 

In 2019 in Pittsburgh, a white nationalist committed the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history. Two years later, the Republican Party remains saturated with white nationalist ideology and largely beholden to Donald Trump, who made cruder public antisemitic statements than any US president in generations. Moreover, the fears that produced Trump and the Pittsburgh massacre—that demographic and cultural changes threaten white male Christian hegemony—are unlikely to abate. As the political scientists Eitan Hersh and Laura Royden recently detailed, the Americans with the most antisemitic attitudes are not merely right-wing, they are also young. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, young right-wing Americans are also more likely than their elders to endorse the views of QAnon, a movement whose adherents are disproportionately likely to believe antisemitic conspiracy theories. 

But white nationalism is not the only threat American Jews face. Research suggests that violence in Israel-Palestine may also generate antisemitism against diaspora Jews. In a 2020 article in the journal Politics and Religion, the political scientist Ayal Feinberg compiled a list of every Israeli military operation between 2001 and 2014 that produced one hundred or more casualties, as recorded by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. He found that in weeks in which those operations occurred, state authorities in the US reported a 35% increase in violent antisemitic hate crimes to the FBI, as compared with other weeks. (As Mari Cohen has noted, FBI hate crime data is far from perfect. But its limitations are steady over time, and Feinberg notes a consistent spike during Israeli military offensives, one that parallels findings in Belgium and Australia.) 

Although there’s no way to be certain, there’s reason to believe that in the coming years, violence in Israel-Palestine will increase. Since the end of the Second Intifada in 2005, all-out warfare between Palestinians and Israeli Jews has been comparatively rare. The single biggest reason for this is that under Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has worked closely with the Israeli military to prevent attacks against Israeli Jews. But as a political strategy, this security cooperation—which Abbas hoped would convince Israel to allow a Palestinian state—has failed. Abbas is now 85 years old, and deeply unpopular. His successor may continue his efforts. But sooner or later, it’s likely either that Palestinian leaders will conclude that helping Israel maintain the occupation does not serve Palestinian interests, or that ordinary Palestinians will launch an uprising that the delegitimized Palestinian Authority cannot contain. If either of those shifts transpire, violence against Israeli Jews will likely rise, and Israel will almost certainly respond by inflicting even more violence upon Palestinians. Research like Feinberg’s suggests this will probably spark more antisemitism in the US. 

But rising antisemitism, whether it derives from white nationalism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or other causes, will not menace all American Jews equally. While antisemitism threatens liberal and secular Jews—the Pittsburgh shooter attacked a progressive, egalitarian synagogue—it threatens Orthodox Jews more because they are more visible and spend more time in Jewish spaces like synagogues and Jewish schools. According to Pew, the Orthodox are three times as likely as unaffiliated Jews to say they have been made to feel unwelcome because they are Jews, and almost three times as likely to say they have been called offensive names. They are also 29% more likely than unaffiliated Jews to say they feel less safe than they did five years ago. American Jews need a new communal compact that allows us to think together, across the Zionist divide, about how best to protect each other, and Jews around the world. Like Soloveitchik’s bargain 65 years ago, such a compact will not bridge the most profound communal divides. But it could identify common initiatives that American Jews can take despite them. And where divisions cannot be bridged, creating shared spaces based on mutual respect may make those divisions less toxic.   

The first step in forging such a compact is for the American Jewish establishment to reconsider its assumption that anti-Zionism is incompatible with a concern for Jewish safety. An anti-Zionist speaker wishing to argue the point would not be granted a platform at their local Hillel, their local Jewish Federation, or even, in most cases, their local synagogue. The reason is that the American Jewish establishment sees its Covenant of Destiny, political Zionism, as inseparable from the Jewish people’s Covenant of Fate. It defines Jewish statehood and Jewish self-protection as one and the same. 

For most establishment Jewish leaders, the claim that Israeli Jews—and, indeed, all Jews—might ultimately be safer without a Jewish state sounds absurd. But it’s not: As I have argued, political science research suggests that divided societies are generally more peaceful when all groups have access to state power. Establishment Jewish leaders need not agree with such arguments. They need merely accept that anti-Zionist Jews can make them in good faith, that they represent a different strategy for ensuring the safety of Israeli Jews—a strategy that links Jewish safety to Palestinian equality and freedom—not a denial that Israeli Jews deserve to be safe. To declare such a position illegitimate because most Israeli Jews support Jewish statehood is unfair. Privileged groups usually think it’s in their self-interest to maintain that privilege. Yet from South Africa to Northern Ireland to the Jim Crow South, history often proves them wrong.

What would it mean to create spaces where Jews who disagree about Zionism—who don’t share a Covenant of Destiny—can still affirm a Covenant of Fate, a shared concern for Jewish lives? It would mean allowing anti-Zionist Jews to present their case in communal forums. It would mean pressing the Israeli government to stop barring them from entering the country so they can participate in debates there, too. It would mean that when Jews are threatened, in Israel, the US, or anywhere else, umbrella organizations that claim to speak for all American Jews would create events in which all Jews can express their anguish—without making Zionism a requirement for entry. It would mean that if antisemites desecrate an Orthodox synagogue, many of whose members admire Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, and the local chapter of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) wants to help clean up the broken glass, the synagogue’s rabbi would welcome them, and tell his flock to temporarily put aside its political disagreements.

If antisemites desecrate an Orthodox synagogue, and the local chapter of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) wants to help clean up the broken glass, the synagogue’s rabbi should welcome them, and tell his flock to temporarily put aside its political disagreements.

All this would be deeply uncomfortable for the American Jewish establishment. But it would be uncomfortable for anti-Zionist Jews too, many of whom find the perspectives of America’s dominant Jewish institutions just as offensive as those institutions find theirs. After decades of marginalization, many anti-Zionist Jews have grown accustomed to their separate, oppositional realms. As Rabbi Alissa Wise, JVP’s former deputy director, explained to me, “Mainstream Jewish organizations have created formal policies to exclude us anti-Zionist Jews, and so we exclude ourselves, [instead] prioritizing building new kinds of Jewish formations.”

If anti-Zionist Jews want the American Jewish establishment to stop excluding them—and to open Jewish communal spaces to their critique of Zionism—they must accept, ironically, that there are times and places to put that critique aside. If Jews are killed, whether in Pittsburgh, Paris, or Ashdod, and the local Jewish federation invites anti-Zionist Jewish groups to mourn alongside the rest of the Jewish community, anti-Zionist Jews must recognize that they are being asked to help create a space that is neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist—a space where Jews set aside their feelings about the Israeli government to affirm a shared concern for Jewish lives. If the rabbi of the Trump and Netanyahu-loving Orthodox synagogue asks his congregants to let members of the JVP chapter help clean up the broken glass, those members should leave their denunciations of Trump and Netanyahu—valid as they are—for another day. 

American Jewry’s most powerful institutions operate on the premise that Jews constitute a people—an imagined extended family—with special obligations to one another. This notion has deep roots in Jewish tradition. The term “Jew” comes from Judah—the fourth son of Jacob, later renamed Israel—who in the Book of Genesis offers to sacrifice his own freedom for the sake of his brother Benjamin. And even when Judah’s family becomes a people, in the Book of Exodus, the Torah still calls its members b’nai Yisrael, children of Israel. 

As Jewish Currents editor-in-chief Arielle Angel and scholar Yair Wallach have recently pointed out, Jewish peoplehood is neither a simple nor an uncontested notion. And, perhaps because the claim that Jews should feel a kinship to one another has become so intertwined with the claim that Jews should support the state of Israel, polling suggests that some Jewish anti-Zionists struggle with the idea of Jewish peoplehood itself. When the Pew Research Center, at my request, crunched their survey data to compare Jews who support BDS to those who don’t, it found that Jewish BDS supporters were less than half as likely to say they feel a “great deal” of belonging to the Jewish people, to say they feel a responsibility to help Jews in need around the world, and to have donated to a Jewish charity. (Jews who had not heard enough about the BDS movement to hold an opinion gave similar answers to BDS supporters.)

Finding the right balance between one’s obligation to other Jews and one’s obligation to all people is not an easy task. And when it comes to Palestinians, the American Jewish establishment often uses the former as an excuse to ignore the latter. But the more willing anti-Zionist Jews are to affirm the bonds of Jewish peoplehood, the more likely they are to gain the access they require to change the American Jewish establishment from the inside. Anti-Zionist Jews will not enter AIPAC. But they need and deserve a seat at the table when Hillels invite speakers; when Jewish Community Centers organize events for Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Nakba Day, or some combination of the two; or when Jewish day schools and synagogue schools teach about Israel-Palestine. Anti-Zionist Jews are more likely to gain seats at those tables if they distinguish Jewish peoplehood from Jewish statehood than if they reject both. 

Creating shared spaces—which both open a debate about Zionism and at times put it aside so Jews can focus on what we share—would help American Jews protect each other. Jewish communal institutions will be more effective in combating violence against Jews if they stop wasting resources by trying to criminalize nonviolent efforts to boycott Israel. And they will be better able to protect Haredi Jews, who often live in neighborhoods where they experience friction with communities of color, if those institutions can draw on the insights of leftist Jews who work closely with activists from those communities. 

These shared spaces would also help American Jews learn from each other. I believe this because I myself have learned so much from Jews whose politics fundamentally differ from mine. I have spent my adult life in Orthodox synagogues, where I have adhered to a tacit bargain. I ask the community to tolerate my views on Israel, not endorse them. I recognize that there are places and times—during moments of prayer and study, for example—to put aside political debate and focus on what my fellow worshippers and I share.

Some might consider this cowardly. To me, it feels prudent. By living inside the Orthodox community, I benefit from its deep commitment to Jewish education and Jewish practice, which hopefully makes me a more knowledgeable and committed Jew. And, in the process, I develop a more intimate and empathic understanding of people whose political views I oppose—which hopefully makes me a better political critic, and supporter of Palestinian freedom. 

I’m not suggesting that Jewish critics of Israel embrace Orthodox Judaism. I’m suggesting that Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews create their own sanctuaries from the Israel debate, places where Jews, across religious and ideological divides, can affirm our mutual obligations and learn from each other. That could mean studying Jewish texts together. It could mean working together to help the Jewish elderly or the Jewish poor. The goal would not be to forestall a debate over Israel. It would be to create relationships that make that debate—which must enter the major institutions of Jewish communal life—less toxic. If you know a Jewish anti-Zionist personally, it’s harder to label them an “ex-Jew.”

We need Jewish leaders to do in our time what Soloveitchik did in his: Help Jews reach across religious and ideological divides. On Kol Nidre, 2019, Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari gave a D’var Torah at Kol Tzedek, a reconstructionist congregation in Philadelphia whose website features a Black Lives Matter logo, a rainbow logo, and an acknowledgement that the synagogue sits “on the traditional lands of the Lenape and Delaware tribes,” but no Israeli flag. In his sermon, Fornari warned of a “deep chasm in the Jewish community.” He urged his congregants “to extend beyond our comfort zones, to vouch for each other across our differences . . . because even though we are wildly different, we are still ultimately one.” And, with a slightly different translation, he quoted the same Talmudic passage that Soloveitchik cited 65 years ago: “all Jews are guarantors for one another.” 

I hope we can be. The effort won’t only make us safer. It will make us better, too.

Mainlining Fear and Hatred - An interview with Spencer Ackerman, author of <em>Reign of Terror</em>. Fri, 17 Sep 2021 03:00:00 -0400 Spencer Ackerman has covered the War on Terror from almost the very beginning for publications like The New Republic, Wired, The Guardian, and The Daily Beast, and continues to do so in his excellent newsletter Forever Wars. He was part of the Pulitzer-winning team that revealed Edward Snowden’s disclosures of NSA surveillance, and won a National Magazine Award for his reporting on Islamophobia in the FBI’s counterterrorism training program. All that work has culminated in his first book, published last month—Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump—one of the first truly comprehensive accounts of how the September 11th attacks permanently transformed American culture and politics. Animated by Spencer’s trademark combative prose and punk rock spirit, the book persuasively connects two decades of militarism and imperialism abroad with xenophobia and illiberalism at home.

Spencer is also my neighbor, and for this week’s newsletter (to which you can subscribe here), we got together for drinks and discussed his self-described “redpilling” after 9/11, his ideological awakening while working under the infamously pro-war editorial regime of Marty Peretz and Leon Wieseltier at
The New Republic, his strained relationship with Zionism, and his response to criticism of his book. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

David Klion: How has your background growing up in Brooklyn shaped your worldview?

Spencer Ackerman: I grew up in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Flatbush. My mother considered herself a Trotskyist, although some Trotskyists would probably have considered her a liberal. I was a kid during the endgame of the Cold War, and my mother was going to socialist reading groups and having a falling-out with a Stalinist friend. When I was 10 years old she put me on a bus to DC that smelled like piss to go protest the first Gulf War; I loved it because I could curse and my mother was cool with that. I came up in New York punk rock and hardcore circles, which were not patriotic or supportive of capitalism or American foreign policy.

But my mother was also basically a liberal Zionist, even though she would have recoiled at that phrase. She believed deeply that the Jewish experience of diaspora is an experience of horror. Ideally, she wanted to see the hegemony of the international multiracial working class, which would provide space for the Jewish people to thrive. But given that we didn’t have that, she supported a Jewish state; she acknowledged that it committed atrocities, but so did other states.

She did admit that Israel had a lot of crazies, who she saw as unfortunate deviations from true Zionism. We lived a mile or so north of Avenue J in Midwood, which was a center of modern Orthodox settler Zionism. I remember going to the bakery or the deli there and seeing tzedakah boxes on the counters with pictures of snarling German shepherds that would say “help protect our boys in Judea and Samaria.” In hindsight, they were running guns and selling drugs to finance West Bank settlements. After 9/11, there were posters all throughout Midwood of Meir Kahane or the disgusting Jewish Defense League Magen David fist logo. My mother hated the JDL. She had grown up in a neighborhood in Queens that was transitioning from Jewish to Black, and the JDL were always offering to escort Jewish girls home from school; they harassed her best friend’s prom date because he was Black. We saw the JDL as emblems of Jewish fascism. But still, I was never taught to see them as terrorists. Even though we knew about incidents like the attempted bombing of the Temple Mount in 1984, we never understood “terrorism” as a Jewish phenomenon.

DK: That reminds me of the first chapter of your book, where you write about Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and how white America writ large fails to recognize right-wing political violence as terrorism or to respond the way it has to violence committed by Muslims. You’re saying you had a similar blind spot within the Jewish world of Brooklyn.

SA: Yeah. History is full of examples of Jews, and in particular Zionists, unapologetically committing acts of violence against innocent people to achieve political ends. Terrorism was a feature throughout the mandatory period in Palestine. The establishment of the State of Israel is the story of an expanding series of pogroms, something so familiar from Jewish history as to be unmistakable, once you’re prepared to look at it.

I went to Israel for the first and only time in December 2001, as part of the AJC’s tour for college journalists. I was one of two Jews out of maybe 16 kids on this trip. It’s underappreciated how many gentiles are pro-Israel because they genuinely don’t want anything to do with antisemitism, and how every single American Jewish institution exploits that. I was still a Zionist, and just absolutely in love with the country. My mother made sure that I brought a stone back so we could put it on her father’s grave. This was in the middle of the Second Intifada, so bombs kept going off in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The message we got was that Israel and America were fighting the same war. There was a t-shirt at tourist sites with a picture of an F-16 that said, “Don’t worry, America, Israel is with you.” It’s like, who sold Israel that fighter jet?

DK: How did you personally experience 9/11 and its aftermath?

SA: I was 21 and studying at Rutgers, and I was supposed to cover a campaign appearance by New Jersey gubernatorial hopeful Jim McGreevey for the school newspaper that morning. I woke up to find my roommates watching the planes hit the towers on TV. My primary memory of that day was the agony of not being able to get home, and just thinking that everyone I cared about could die and there was nothing I could do to stop it. So I just threw myself into covering it for the paper.

Later, we went to a friend’s house and just got enormously baked with some of her friends who were baggage handlers at Newark Airport, who kept talking about how easy it would be to sneak explosives into any luggage and blow some shit up. That experience turned me into a savage. I was just mainlining fear and anxiety and hatred for months. I wasn’t interested in civilizational explanations—I was just extremely mad at the people who forced me to watch thousands of my neighbors dying. It didn’t matter to me at that point that this kind of fear was being exploited for violent and hegemonic purposes. I wanted revenge. In the book I write that the War on Terror was an early redpill, and I swallowed that pill myself.

It’s hard to express now, but there was an exceptionally narrow band of acceptable opinion in the aftermath, as was clear from what we would now recognize as the cancellation of Susan Sontag for writing that 9/11 was a response to America violently dominating the Muslim world. The alternative on offer was patriotic license to inflict overwhelming and omnidirectional suffering.

DK: How did you end up at The New Republic, and what was your experience there under its then-hawkish leadership? How did your views on the War on Terror evolve?

SA: I view my life post-TNR as a villain’s attempt at redemption, but it’s not a straightforward story with a sharp breaking point. I got an internship at TNR very unexpectedly after graduating college in 2002. I felt very lucky to have something that prestigious; my mother was proud of me, even though it was not her politics. In the wake of the attacks, it was possible for me to convince myself that the US military was engaged in an epic struggle to free people. All of the people around me at the magazine saw the War on Terror as valorous.

I was surrounded by professional journalists who were 10 years older than me and had a more sophisticated grasp of national politics and economics. None of them wanted to write for the website, which was just becoming a thing. As I saw it, I could try and fail to get into the print magazine every week, or take advantage of this enormous opportunity to cover the news online. I had been reading nonstop about the War on Terror, and while the editors cared a lot about that, they only covered it with op-eds and thinkpieces. They didn’t have anyone actually reporting on the mechanisms of the wars. So I decided to teach myself to do that.

The more I poked into the details of the wars, the more fucked up they looked. Peter Beinart [ed. note: now Jewish Currents’ editor-at-large] was the editor of TNR at the time, and the Iraq War was looking pretty bad to him as well. He thought it was important for a magazine that had done so much to advance the cause of war to have a consistent chronicle of what it was in practice, and that became my job, in the form of a blog called “Iraq’d” that I started in January 2004. By that point Iraq was totally on fire; I thought I would be writing about the uneven struggle of the Iraqi people to organize a viable democracy, and instead I was blogging about torture jails and sectarian civil war. I realized pretty quickly that I no longer held the ideological position the blog was launched from, and I felt compelled to say that. It was just obvious—though unfortunately it hadn’t been to me earlier—that Iraq was not only a mistake but a moral emergency requiring immediate redress.

Still, I wrote in a cautious and fearful way. I wanted to believe in TNR’s self-conception as a publication defined by intellectual curiosity and celebration of inquiry. But I came to understand that it was a censorious and racist place, devoted to justifying everything evil in both America and Israel, which was a really shattering experience. In hindsight I should have quit, but I didn’t know if I would ever have another job in journalism.

As the 2004 election approached, the magazine grew more inclined to publish me because I could write 1500 words on Iraq that would hold up two weeks later. The editors decided to have a big all-hands meeting to debate if the magazine was wrong to push for the war. I had just turned 24, and I was asked to argue the position that everyone who ran the magazine was wrong. I was up against Lawrence F. Kaplan, the magazine’s chief foreign policy writer, who wrote a book with Bill Kristol advocating for the war—and to Lawrence’s credit, unlike every other neocon, he eventually had the decency to retire from public life. We were in that conference room literally for hours, with all my colleagues watching as I assaulted the ethics of the people I worked for. I was fulsomely detailing the brutality practiced by the US in Iraq that I had been documenting, when suddenly Marty Peretz asked me whether Bill Calley was personally responsible for the My Lai massacre. I said obviously Calley did it, but the whole American war effort in Vietnam was implicated, and he just erupted at me and explained why I’m a shitty human being incapable of basic moral reasoning. Shout-out to Peter, who didn’t fire me, because from what I understand, Marty pressured him and all of his successors to do so, and eventually found the one who would do it.

DK: Reign of Terror—which is the product of years of confrontational reporting in your long post-TNR career—has generally been very well received, and I loved it, but I’ve encountered two related valid criticisms. One is that your central thesis that 9/11 led to Trump’s presidency is too simplistic, since Trump’s presidency was hardly monocausal. The other is that 9/11 wasn’t such a sharp breaking point, and that the history of US imperialism and xenophobia runs much deeper. How would you respond?

SA: I’m very grateful for the opportunity. In the book I try to explain that the forces defining the post-9/11 era were nothing new in American history—that 9/11 was a circumstance that gave the most violent, nativist, and racist aspects of American history a new rationale in an era of righteous, patriotic urgency. The War on Terror was an inflection point, and it had yet to be properly contextualized that way. We’ve had so many explanations on offer for Trump, many of which are very good and persuasive. My close friend Adam Serwer, for instance, has demonstrated how rooted Trump is in white supremacy and nativism that have been present throughout US history. But I wanted to demonstrate that the War on Terror is crucial context for all of the other explanations.

Birtherism, for instance—which was how Trump really launched his political ascension—was not just anti-Black racism; it was also part of the culture of the War on Terror. It said Barack Obama was America’s enemy not just because he was supposedly secretly Kenyan, but specifically because he was supposedly a Kenyan Muslim, and that people like him were responsible for the attacks. The atmosphere of emergency post-9/11 allowed these things to fuse together and grow in intensity. I wrote Reign of Terror because I had grown frustrated with how all of the other explanations for Trump left out how by 2016 we had experienced 15 years of an agonizing, inconclusive war against a non-white enemy, from a religion that most Americans are unfamiliar with and regard as something to be feared. That was present in Trump’s own words, and he surrounded himself with some of the most vicious and exploitative proponents of that culture—including Mike Flynn, John Kelly, Erik Prince, Jeff Sessions, and Rudy Giuliani, among others.

Now we have all this gauzy bullshit rhetoric about how America was united, which it never truly was. America was mobilized against an enemy, both internally and abroad. That’s not unity or solidarity, it’s predation. We need to always remember that. Unfortunately, as we can see from how so much of the media and the Washington establishment responded to Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, no lessons have been learned.

Museum Piece - “onto the cellophane snack bags / blown into corners and a few / resplendent sunbleached cans you projected / a prefabricated sorrow” Fri, 17 Sep 2021 03:00:00 -0400

This poem appears in our Fall 2021 issue. Subscribe now to receive a copy in your mailbox.

Freud—who wasn’t wrong about everything—distinguished between two responses to loss: mourning and melancholia. Where the former describes a process in which the self relinquishes its attachment to a lost object so it can move on, the latter marks a response in which the subject, unable to release the lost object, instead incorporates it—and is therefore thrown into a state of ongoing unease. Freud understood melancholia as pathological, but I’ve been thinking about the critical possibilities of a way of being that refuses the mandate to simply go on. In the context of capitalism’s orchestrated brutalities, resilience makes way for us to absorb the horrors without being incontrovertibly changed. Melancholia, on the other hand, by insisting on a fundamental incompatibility with the world as it is, might also bring forth the imperative to remake the world.

In Ari Banias’s “Museum Piece,” feeling, object, and capital jostle in a vital state of unreconciliation. The poem opens onto a landscape marked by loss—“that part of the island / where the ruined tanneries beside the seawall conduct / their own inner lives.” As with Freud’s melancholic subject, ruin has abstracted the buildings from their stated purpose. Transformed by loss, the tanneries acquire their own language—illegible to, but sensed by, the onlooker. But if abstraction can loosen sedimented meaning to create alternative forms of relation, it is also, the poem reminds us, the very condition of capital that structures the world as it is: “against all proportion your dollars / materialize another carafe of chilled white.” In a return to the concrete, the poem’s final image perches us precariously in the unfinished forms of our making, briefly extending the opportunity to choose other than to simply go on. 

– Claire Schwartz

Listen to Ari Banias read "Museum Piece."

Museum Piece

On that part of the island
where the ruined tanneries beside the seawall conduct
their own inner lives
you tried like a fetishist of the broken
to photograph the sky through their vacant ceilings
but none of the blue would hold still in its frames while
onto the cellophane snack bags
blown into corners and a few
resplendent sunbleached cans you projected
a prefabricated sorrow
you know better than to say aloud
the blue's tirelessness is a selling point
so insistent it scalds
and against all proportion your dollars
materialize another carafe of chilled white
full of undisclosed feeling
crushed in the common barrel and
so light on the tongue you think it fated
that's the kind of lie you like
barely effervescent, unattributed
a note of ache in the semen
shot into the dirt outside the discotheque
painted tourist pink with a classical name
you gesture again to the filched marble
the headless goddess
dickless youth
they each seem to be you!
clinging to absence
like some backstage pass to the afterlife
not asking how your nose
how your knowledge
got that pitch
as you ride it down into the guts of the myth
immortal pyramid scheme
still coining itself in your lens
a little shroud made only of sunlight
only of sunlight and the chewed
quarter rind of watermelon balanced
on a cement post
at a construction project paused
for mismanagement of funds

Ari Banias is the author of A Symmetry (W. W. Norton, 2021), and Anybody (W. W. Norton, 2016). He lives and teaches in the Bay Area.

When Palestinian Political Speech Is “Incitement” - Since May, Israeli police have doubled down on their use of an expansive counterterrorism law to stamp out Palestinian activism online. Wed, 15 Sep 2021 03:00:00 -0400 ON JUNE 11th, Mohammad Kana’neh joined a few hundred protesters at a weekly demonstration against settlement expansion in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem that has become a flashpoint for protests against Palestinian displacement. Kana’neh, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and prominent leader of the secular Arab nationalist Abnaa el-Balad movement, stood under the hot sun and addressed the crowd in Hebrew, calling for an end to Israel’s occupation “from Silwan to Sheikh Jarrah, from Acco to Gaza.” He then turned to the line of border police that faced the crowd, shouting at them to “get out of the army.” Shortly after the protest dispersed, Kana’neh shared a video of his speech that another attendee had uploaded to Facebook; within hours, his post had been reshared by hundreds of users. 

Three days later, Israeli police arrested Khana’neh. According to a spokesperson for Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which is representing Kana’neh, the police accused him of provoking the soldiers. They argued that by sharing the video, he had committed a crime that has been attributed to hundreds of Palestinian activists and dissidents in the last several years: the incitement of violence. 

Incitement has become an increasingly common charge since 2016, when Israel passed an updated counterterrorism law. The law broadened the legal definition of the term to encompass not only speech that “directly calls for violence,” but also speech that, in the judgement of prosecutors, “expresses support for terrorist acts,” with or without a resolution to carry them out. The incitement charges that have been brought against Palestinian social media users in last five years show that, when it comes to Palestinian speech on these platforms, Israeli police often define “support” as broadly as possible: For example, when the poet Dareen Tatour posted a video of herself reading a poem entitled “Resist, My People Resist Them,” accompanied by images of Palestinains clashing with Israeli soldiers, on Facebook and YouTube, she faced the same charge that would be levied against a person who calls for lethal attacks to be carried out against specific users. Israeli police have wielded the law against users who retweet or like posts that security forces define as incendiary; according to Rabea Eghbariah, a lawyer for Adalah who has worked on incitement cases, even an RSVP to an event can lead to criminal charges. Palestinians may be held for months without access to a lawyer, and may not be informed of the nature of the charges against them, according to Eghbariah. They may also be barred from speaking to the press, accessing the internet, or sharing information regarding their cases while they await trial.  

These were the prohibitions on Kana’neh as he sat in detention for a month, while Israeli authorities combed through his Facebook page, supplementing his file with posts ranging from celebrations of International Women’s Day to messages mourning the death of Palestinian political prisoners. Eghbariah explained that, by broadly construing the definition of incendiary content, police frequently make social media into a source of the evidence for charges against Palestinian detainees. Indeed, in Kana’neh’s case, the Israeli prosecution team claimed that not only the video, but also these older status updates had incited acts of violence and supported terrorism.  

Since the latest escalation in violence in Israel/Palestine this May, incitement cases against Palestinian social media users have been on the rise, according to Adalah; 185 such indictments were filed in the late spring and summer. The proliferation of these charges comes alongside the growing use of online platforms to condemn Israeli military occupation and settler expansion. This spring, Palestinian activists used Twitter and TikTok to coordinate an unprecedented general strike that shut down businesses on both sides of the Green Line; in the months since, they have continued to broadcast scenes of American-born settlers taking over Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, and to share experiences of living under siege in the Gaza strip with the world. Political pundits have nicknamed this new wave of resistance “the TikTok Intifada.” But even as Palestinians have found new ways to gather online, prominent activists have been penalized for using these platforms. As leading figures like Kana’neh are forced out of public view, organizers who would follow their example may be intimidated into silence. 

THE BROAD CRIMINALIZATION of Palestinian social media users occurs as Jewish Israeli extremists have been left free to incite violence on platforms in full view of authorities. During the latest war, 7amleh: The Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, a Palestinian digital rights advocacy organization, tracked 183,000 instances of incendiary speech and incitement to violence against Palestinians by social media users in Israel/Palestine between May 6th and May 21st, amounting to a 15-fold increase in hate speech. Of the thousands of posts 7amleh archived, many called for acts of rape and murder against Palestinians, as well as the destruction of their property and businesses. Yet out of the 185 indictments on incitement charges filed in response to the events of May, only 30 were against Jewish Israelis. Meanwhile, police arrested upwards of 2,000 Palestinians between May 10th and May 21st.

In some cases, Jewish extremists employed social media platforms not only to harass Palestinian accounts, but also to lay the groundwork for near-lethal acts of violence. Right-wing militias—composed of both militant settlers and young adherents of the Jewish supremacist ideology Kahanism—used online platforms like WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook groups to coordinate attacks on Palestinian citizens of Israel in cities such as Bat Yam, Haifa, and Lydd. On Facebook threads and through encrypted chats, they picked out Palestinian-owned businesses to target, discussed what weapons to use and where to obtain them, and set the places and times where violent mobs would convene. “We could see the attacks being planned,” said Alison Carmel, 7amleh’s international outreach coordinator, recalling finding “thousands of accounts calling for death to Arabs, for real violence.”  

The ease with which independent watchdogs like 7amleh found the meeting points of online extremists raises questions about how the authorities missed them. J., a Jewish Israeli activist who tracks right-wing extremist groups, and who requested anonymity due to the nature of their work, described the militias as largely composed of Jewish Israeli youth who often lack basic digital security skills. Many are easily identifiable by their legal names and phone numbers. “They don't even try to hide things like gun sales,” J. said. “They know the authorities won’t target them.”

“All of the groups are open,” agreed Ori Kol, the founder of the Israeli media watchdog Fake Reporter, which tracks online disinformation and extremism. Fake Reporter even approached Israeli authorities at the height of the violence in May, offering to help them crack down on the online communities coordinating attacks on Palestinians. The organization’s researchers combed through social media networks and messaging threads, sharing screenshots of chats with authorities, including some that showed the legal names and phone numbers of armed extremists. But according to Kol, the police refused to act on the tips, allowing attacks to take place in spite of ample warning. “I want to believe that [the authorities] didn’t understand the severity of what was going to happen, or couldn’t keep tabs on each group, but it was so easy to document,” Kol said. “It takes a concerted effort not to monitor this stuff.”

These users’ behavior fits the legal definition of incitement—and, indeed, some went on to commit severe violence, beating civilians like Moussa Saeed in Bat Yam nearly to death. The lack of official response shows that, as Eghbariah put it, “there are provisions for Jews and provisions for Arabs. Very few [Jewish Israelis] are actually incarcerated for these kinds of things.”  

Israeli authorities aren’t the only ones who impose a double standard on the digital activities of Jews and Palestinians in Israel/Palestine. The algorithms social media giants rely on to flag speech are often unable to distinguish incendiary from innocuous content. As a result, they may flag Arabic words like “shahid,” or martyr, even if they appear quoted in a poem or song lyric with no reference to violence, or confuse the name of a Palestinian user—for example, “Qassam”—with the name of a militant organization, such as the Qassam Brigades. For this reason, Nadim Nashif, the executive director of 7amleh, has described Palestinian social media users as being “doubly moderated.” This May, 7amleh indexed 500 cases in which Palestinian users reported that social media companies had violated their digital rights, including by flagging or removing their posts and banning their accounts. 

7amleh has responded by calling on companies to repeal their decisions, pushing for the reinstatement of tens of thousands of censored profiles, tweets, and photos. But social media platforms are ill-equipped or unwilling to respond to such appeals. Requests for repeals go unanswered, and messages about meetings are ignored. 7amleh produces an annual report that monitors anti-Palestinian hate speech online, but its findings haven’t seemed to influence the behavior of the tech companies. When it comes to the repression of Palestinian speech, “we keep seeing more of the same, if not things getting worse,” Carmel said. 

Palestinians facing incitement charges are sometimes banned from speaking to the press or posting on social media until their trials conclude, according to Adalah, which can leave them shut out of the public sphere for months. Mohammed Kana’neh, who emerged from detention on July 14th, a month after he was arrested, was ordered to remain under house arrest at his home in northern Israel for the duration of his trial. The prosecution is appealing the decision to release Kana’neh, attempting to return him to prison. In the meantime, the Jerusalem Magistrate Court has barred Kana’neh from accessing the internet, conducting interviews, or speaking before any audience. Even as many celebrate a new era of online activism, in his case and others, Israeli authorities are censoring Palestinians’ speech, shutting them out of public space online as well as off.

House Progressives Renew Effort to Block Bomb Deliveries to Israel - An exclusive report on a long-shot push—led by Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pocan—to stop the export of US-made weapons. Tue, 14 Sep 2021 17:33:00 -0400

REPRESENTATIVES ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ, RASHIDA TLAIB, AND MARK POCAN are leading a renewed effort to prohibit the delivery of US-made bombs to Israel.

The three progressive legislators submitted an amendment to the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would require the Biden administration to halt the export of Boeing-made Joint Direct Attack Munitions and Small Diameter Bombs to Israel for a year. The bombs were used by the Israeli Air Force to strike targets in Gaza during May’s escalation in violence.

Given the overwhelming support Israel enjoys in Congress, it’s unlikely the amendment, published Tuesday on the House Rules Committee website, will make it into the final draft of the NDAA, which provides funding to the Defense Department. To do so, it would have to survive the House Rules Committee, which determines which amendments can be included as part of the NDAA.

“We don’t expect the amendment to [survive]. We’ve been talking for months about AOC doing this, but it was always going to be a messaging opportunity, to bring attention to this issue,” said one progressive activist familiar with the NDAA who requested anonymity to give a frank assessment of the amendment’s chance of passage. Still, the strategist said the effort was nonetheless “significant” because of “the need to center human rights in US foreign policy, including in the US relationship to Israel.” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s office declined to comment for this story.

The amendment is the latest example of how Israel’s assault on Gaza in May opened space among progressives to challenge aspects of the US military aid package to Israel, which typically receives little fanfare

A planned $735-million sale of Boeing-made bombs to Israel was the subject of unprecedented congressional scrutiny in May, during Israel’s deadly bombing campaign targeting the Gaza Strip. Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pocan introduced a resolution to block the export of Boeing’s bombs to Israel. Senator Bernie Sanders also introduced his own version in the Senate. Sanders dropped the effort to force a vote on the bomb sale once it became clear that the State Department had already granted an export license to Boeing for the sale. But members of Congress expressed anger at the time that the State Department granted the export license before giving Congress a chance to weigh in.

Despite the fact that the export license was granted in May, it’s unclear if the bombs have been delivered, as the transfer of bombs to foreign countries can sometimes take months. But even if the export of the $735 million in bombs is already complete, the proposed amendment would block any future such sales for one year.

“Today’s amendment by the three members of Congress is an important fix to ensure that any further transfer of US weapons to Israel will not happen before Congress has a chance to verify that such transfer is compliant with US laws,” said Raed Jarrar, advocacy director for the human rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now. “This amendment tries to pump the brakes on this out of control system of sending weapons to Israel without checks and balances.”

Alex Kane is a senior reporter at Jewish Currents.

House Progressives Renew Effort to Block Bomb Deliveries to Israel - An exclusive report on a long-shot push—led by Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pocan—to stop the export of US-made weapons. Tue, 14 Sep 2021 03:00:00 -0400

REPRESENTATIVES ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ, RASHIDA TLAIB, AND MARK POCAN are leading a renewed effort to prohibit the delivery of US-made bombs to Israel. 

The three progressive legislators submitted an amendment to the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would require the Biden administration to halt the export of Boeing-made Joint Direct Attack Munitions and Small Diameter Bombs to Israel for a year. The bombs were used by the Israeli Air Force to strike targets in Gaza during May’s escalation in violence. 

Given the overwhelming support Israel enjoys in Congress, it’s unlikely the amendment, published Tuesday on the House Rules Committee website, will make it into the final draft of the NDAA, which provides funding to the Defense Department. To do so, it would have to survive the House Rules Committee, which determines which amendments can be included as part of the NDAA. 

“We don’t expect the amendment to [survive]. We’ve been talking for months about AOC doing this, but it was always going to be a messaging opportunity, to bring attention to this issue,” said one progressive activist familiar with the NDAA who requested anonymity to give a frank assessment of the amendment’s chance of passage. Still, the strategist said the effort was nonetheless “significant” because of “the need to center human rights in US foreign policy, including in the US relationship to Israel.” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s office declined to comment for this story.

The amendment is the latest example of how Israel’s assault on Gaza in May opened space among progressives to challenge aspects of the US military aid package to Israel, which typically receives little fanfare

A planned $735-million sale of Boeing-made bombs to Israel was the subject of unprecedented congressional scrutiny in May, during Israel’s deadly bombing campaign targeting the Gaza Strip. Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pocan introduced a resolution to block the export of Boeing’s bombs to Israel. Senator Bernie Sanders also introduced his own version in the Senate. Sanders dropped the effort to force a vote on the bomb sale once it became clear that the State Department had already granted an export license to Boeing for the sale. But members of Congress expressed anger at the time that the State Department granted the export license before giving Congress a chance to weigh in.

Despite the fact that the export license was granted in May, it’s unclear if the bombs have been delivered, as the transfer of bombs to foreign countries can sometimes take months. But even if the export of the $735 million in bombs is already complete, the proposed amendment would block any future such sales for one year.

“Today’s amendment by the three members of Congress is an important fix to ensure that any further transfer of US weapons to Israel will not happen before Congress has a chance to verify that such transfer is compliant with US laws,” said Raed Jarrar, advocacy director for the human rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now. “This amendment tries to pump the brakes on this out of control system of sending weapons to Israel without checks and balances.”

Alex Kane is a senior reporter at Jewish Currents.

On Loving Jews - For Jews engaged in Palestine solidarity work, what might be gained by refusing excommunication from our own communities? Mon, 13 Sep 2021 03:00:00 -0400 Responsa is an editorial column written by members of the Jewish Currents staff and reflects a collective discussion. This responsa appears in our Fall 2021 issue. Subscribe now to receive a copy in your mailbox.

AMID THE LATEST CONFLAGRATION in Israel/Palestine, we heard frequently from liberal Zionist readers who were deeply troubled by our coverage. In a representative message, a leader in the socialist Zionist movement took issue with one of our Shabbat reading list newsletters, focused that week on resources for understanding the “conflict” through the lens of the ongoing repression and dispossession of Palestinians by the Israeli state. He characterized my recommendation of a podcast explainer about Hamas as an expression of sympathy for the group, reading it alongside the omission of platitudes about our “Jewish brothers and sisters under rocket attack” as evidence that the Jewish Currents staff had “declare[d] a separation” between itself and the progressive Jewish community, here and in Israel. “Is this really the collective face of Jewish Currents?” he asked. Where was our sense of “Jewish solidarity”?

Our critics’ distress was compounded by our publication of an uncompromising essay by Kaleem Hawa, a young diaspora Palestinian writer, laying out a vision of decolonization in the land between the river and the sea. Like editor-at-large Peter Beinart’s essay published the same week, Hawa’s piece calls for the right of return and reparations for Palestinian refugees, a deep reckoning with the Nakba that expelled 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948, and an end to a national formation predicated on Jewish supremacy and Palestinian subjugation. But unlike Beinart’s essay, Hawa’s does not concern itself with Jewish feelings. He accepts no obligation to reassure Israeli Jews of their safety, particularly in a moment of mass Palestinian death. Instead, the author casts a loving gaze at the youth on the streets of East Jerusalem, asserting with stones their continued existence in the face of generations of crushing state violence and ethnic cleansing. He calls this continued campaign a “genocide,” in accordance with international legal precedent, and affirms that Palestinians have the right to resist it “by any means necessary.” On Twitter, Yehuda Kurtzer, a Jewish communal leader who heads the pluralist Shalom Hartman Institute, called the piece’s publication in a Jewish outlet “indefensible.” Under the circumstances—the mounting death toll in Gaza, the Jewish youth chanting “Death to Arabs!” in the streets, the police-backed anti-Palestinian pogroms inside the Green Line, all atop the routine cruelties and injustices of a decades-old military occupation—these critiques sounded willfully obtuse. To us, it seemed straightforward: We are in solidarity with the oppressed. You could add “as Jews” to the front of that sentence, and also, you didn’t have to.

Of course, we are not the first Jews to find ourselves mired in an intracommunal argument about tribalism and humanism. Here is Gershom Scholem, the preeminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, in a 1963 letter to the political philosopher Hannah Arendt: “There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete—what Jews call ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people. With you, my dear Hannah, as with so many intellectuals coming from the German left, there is no trace of it.” It is significant, and maddening, that Scholem prizes this idea of ahavat Yisrael while declining to define it. Our critics, too, allege that we are deficient in this love, but refuse to more fully describe what it might mean to privilege it. So I have been looking for clues elsewhere in contemporary Jewish life. 

I found one in late May, in the days after the ceasefire, when a flurry of solid blue squares appeared in my Instagram feed. The meme, cribbed from the black squares shared during the George Floyd uprising, was a coordinated expression of “Jewish solidarity” circulating in response to a handful of short videos appearing to show violent and indiscriminate antisemitic attacks on American Jews in response to Israeli actions in Gaza. The squares—posted mainly by Jews I grew up with in Miami whose accounts typically feature sporting events and tropical vacations—were invariably accompanied by a pair of hashtags: #stopantisemitism and #istandwithisrael, a coupling that unwittingly affirmed the logic of the attackers, conflating Jewish identity with the actions of the Israeli state and thus making Jews legitimate political targets for anti-Israel backlash.  

The campaign seemed to underscore the incoherence of mainstream Jewish sentiment, providing an unwelcome reminder of how most “affiliated” American Jews, attached in some way to organized Jewish life, understand their Jewishness. Despite significant and growing disidentification with the Jewish state, public opinion polling suggests that a majority of Jews, especially older ones, still see Israel as central to their Jewish identity. In one glaring example, a recent march against antisemitism in Washington, DC, cosponsored by all the legacy Jewish organizations, touted a “big tent” open to “all Zionist, Jewish organizations, and allies”—as if anti-Zionists are immune to anti-Jewish attacks. Meanwhile, an Australian kosher-certifier revoked the hechsher from Ben & Jerry’s due to the company’s refusal to sell ice cream in illegal West Bank settlements. Simply put: If a majority of Jews do not distinguish between Jews and Zionism, how material is such a distinction? Under these conditions, is it possible to be in solidarity with the Jewish people outside of their entwinement with an oppressive regime? 

Our political opponents in the Jewish community have lately answered this question for us in a flurry of tweets and op-eds that seem to arrive with new urgency at an old conclusion. Zionism, they say, is the primary site of Judaism, the way most Jews “do” Jewishness; therefore, non- or anti-Zionist Jews attempting to cleave the meaning of Jewishness from the state are outing themselves as “ex-Jews” (UCLA Professor Judea Pearl) or “un-Jews” (historian Gil Troy and famed Soviet dissident-turned-settlement-champion Natan Sharansky). This is true, the men say, despite the acknowledgement that many of these uns and exes are actively devoted to Jewish life. 

It seems clear, then, that when our critics ask, “Where is your Jewish solidarity?”, what they really mean is: “Where is your Zionism?”

For their part, our liberal Zionist critics will mostly concede daylight between the people and the State. They are not as ignorant of the mechanics of occupation as the blue square crowd nor as defensive of the necessity of these measures as those who mime our excommunication; they know that what is happening to Palestinians is wrong. But, also, they are Zionists. They are Zionists precisely because they believe in a Jewish collective, and because they believe that an ethnostate is the best way to serve and safeguard it. And despite their professed allegiance to ideals of fairness and equality, they have shown time and again, through their refusal to hold the Israeli government accountable, that they believe the ethnostate that serves this collective to be more important than Palestinian freedom. It seems clear, then, that when even these critics ask, “Where is your Jewish solidarity?”, what they really mean is: “Where is your Zionism? Where is your allegiance to the State?” And because they cannot make room for a Jewish non- or anti-Zionism that destabilizes their premises, they are continually shocked by the reply. 

PERHAPS IT’S UNSURPRISING that we at Jewish Currents have been as consumed with the question of what to do about our fellow Jews as they have been with what to do about us. We have debated amongst ourselves whether now is the time to engage Jews more deeply—especially as many seem to be displaying a greater willingness to listen than at any other point in recent memory—or to turn more completely to Palestine solidarity work outside of the Jewish sphere. We have also asked ourselves whether the Jewish establishment is still an important player worth fighting, or a hulking yet hollowed-out shell, best left to fossilize and decompose. It has not escaped us that these questions amount to an inverted version of our critics’ preoccupation with Jewish solidarity, and so we scrutinize our own attachments. Is our continued orientation toward Jews and Jewish institutions rooted in a clear-eyed assessment of the power they hold over Palestinian lives, or is it an irrational vestige of Jewish exceptionalism, betraying a desire—more conscious in some of us than in others—to save “our own” from themselves? 

These questions are not merely hypothetical; our obsession with them is our obsession with our families, our old friends, the communities that raised us. In the newsletter that provoked our socialist Zionist critic, Jewish Currents poetry editor Claire Schwartz took scholar Christina Sharpe’s 2016 essay “Lose Your Kin” as a starting point for an exploration of how these familial connections can distort our justice work. Schwartz writes: 

Kinship makes the hyphen [in anti-Zionism] elastic, so that what is framed as opposition can take place without severance. Kinship keeps some circling the question of Zionism rather than wholly joining with Palestinian freedom struggles. This bad family magic spells a violent and absurd equivalence between fears of Israelis in Tel Aviv and fears of Palestinians in Gaza. It insists the Shoah into conversation whenever mentions of the occupation of Palestine comes up. This is what kin does. It brings us back to each other—even when our return cuts a path through other people’s lives. 

In light of the temptations of kin, perhaps we can be forgiven if, mid-crisis, we sometimes overcorrect. For my own part, I realized only after the ceasefire, with a sense of shame, that as I worked long hours helping others make sense of the conflict, I had repressed my own connections. I had not reached out to see how my great-aunt and -uncle, in their mid-90s and not entirely mobile, were making it down to the bomb shelter in the middle of the night. Nor had I spared so much as a text for my cousins, my friends, even my comrades inside the Green Line. The omission of concern for Israelis from Jewish Currents’ public offering had a parallel expression in my private life. It’s not that I disagree with Schwartz’s diagnosis; I am willing to do all that Sharpe demands in her essay, “willing to be more than uncomfortable . . . to be on the outside . . . [to] refuse to repair a familial rift on the bodies cast out as not kin.” I have made many of my closest relationships a site of struggle; in some cases, I have paid in lost intimacy, in pieces of my life cut away from me. A measure of this cannot be helped, it is the price of refusal. And still my staunch neglect of those I love made me wonder: Have I acceded the distance between us too eagerly? Leaned into it the moment it manifested, and made of it an object lesson in principled disengagement? Where does this behavior intersect with the logic of our critics, the totalizing conflation of people with state? And does it mean we are abandoning them to it?

Perhaps the alternative is to assert the potential in the hyphen’s “elasticity,” as Schwartz calls it, which can function as a bridge out of Zionism as much as a tunnel into it. It was only within the bonds of an ineluctable relationship that I was able to move my mother toward a sweeping recognition of Zionism’s crimes, and to activism on the issue. If I can love her enough to let her change her mind, and if she can love me enough to be changed in turn, doesn’t that also suggest a path forward for communal transformation beyond the bounds of the immediate family? I am reminded that in many of my other communities, political and social, efforts to confront harmful or abusive behavior are defanged by the element of choice: Why work things out if you can just leave? In an atomized society, the ability to “opt out” is the greatest barrier to restorative justice. This leads me to contemplate what might be gained from staying “in”—from refusing excommunication and adopting an operative, if nebulous concept of “Jewish peoplehood” as a terrain of meaningful struggle. There is a risk, of course, of being captured by these bonds—of legitimizing, platforming, justifying, or otherwise offering leniency when accountability is due—and another risk of talking only to one another when we should be listening, first and foremost, to Palestinians. But perhaps these concerns are the guardrails on the path, and not a reason to refuse to walk it.

I admit that though I am repelled by Scholem’s compulsory, contentless love, Arendt’s response does not completely satisfy. “How right you are that I have no such love . . . I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective,” she writes. No love for the nation, certainly. But it seems foolish to write off the collective, which, as long as it resists the temptations of supremacy, seems elemental to a just and meaningful way of life. (And after all, it’s not as though collective structures beloved by the left—the union, the commune, the Party—are immune to political co-optation, exclusionary behavior, or embarrassing and arbitrary markers of belonging.) Until the founding of the state, Jewish collectivity often managed to stand outside a supremacist framework while providing its adherents with care and a sense of purpose. In an essay for this magazine, Jordana Rosenfeld, who joined the Pittsburgh chevra kadisha (or burial society) in the wake of the Tree of Life shooting, describes the society’s historical import as a mutual aid organ for new Jewish immigrants to the US in the 19th century. “The values Jewish communities enacted through this approach to death—among them, egalitarianism, radical compassion, togetherness, responsibility, and human dignity—allowed them to survive in a nativist, antisemitic system,” she writes. Though the chevra deals only with the bodies of deceased Jews, Rosenfeld credits her experiences there for prompting more expansive questions about how, and for whom, she performs care in the wider world. She identifies the practice as an act of “active antifascism, standing in defiance of the dehumanization of ourselves and others.”

Indeed, there is no commandment in the Torah toward ahavat Yisrael; it appears as commentary to the directive in Leviticus to “love your fellow as yourself.” It seems possible, then, to look on ahavat Yisrael as a practice of extending one’s sphere of concern beyond one’s immediate kin, which makes love beyond the reaches of self-recognition more attainable. Throughout history, people have articulated their Jewishness in similar terms, as a difference that invites broader solidarities. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once wrote: “The traumatic experience of my slavery in Egypt constitutes my very humanity, a fact that immediately allies me to the workers, the wretched, and the persecuted people of the world.” But then even Levinas abandoned these ideals when it came time to defend Zionism, a reminder—as if I needed another one—of how the entwining of Jewishness with a state has changed the equation. How can we commit to the idea of the “Jewish people” while its meaning is in flux? As Arendt wrote to Scholem: “[T]he magnificence of this people once lay in its belief in God . . . And now this people believes only in itself. What’s going to become of this?” 

As Arendt wrote to Scholem: “The magnificence of this people once lay in its belief in God . . . And now this people believes only in itself. What’s going to become of this?”

Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin makes a conjecture in his 2006 book Border Lines

It has been said by many Christians that Christianity died at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor. I fear—G-d forbid—that my Judaism may be dying at Nablus, Daheishe, Beteen (Beth El), and al-Khalil (Hebron). The violent actions taken in the name of defense may help some Jewish bodies survive (and even that only dubiously, temporarily, momentarily), but they threaten to empty Jewish existence of all meaning, to make hollow the resistance for two thousand years to being dissolved into the majority.

These are the stakes: Jewishness must mean justice for the Palestinian people or nothing at all. If it is to be drained of meaning, then I will be, too, for a time, and will have to rebuild myself on sand.

In preparing the Occupy Yom Kippur oral history for this issue, I had cause to revisit a video from that touchstone service at Occupy Wall Street a decade ago, in which we danced and sang together on the holiest night of the year, ecstatic with love and purpose. But the clip also called up another image, which I reflexively superimposed on the first: of the young Israeli men on Jerusalem Day this year, ecstatic with love and purpose, dancing and singing as they watched smoke rise from a fire at the al-Aqsa compound. Can we be joyous Jews dancing while that second image exists? Do we want to be? To consider this question is to recognize that while my debt is to Jewishness as a set of transhistorical stories, practices, and ideas, and not to individual Jews, there is no definition of Jewishness separate from those people. Jewishness will be what Jews as a collective do in the world—our small, dissenting minyans be damned. In this sense, the fact that I cannot agree to disagree with our Jewish political opponents reveals what I have in common with them. The paradigm of peoplehood materializes around me, and I find myself stuck. Fine, I concede to our critics, I do not now love the Jewish people as such. I do not send solidarity where it isn’t needed. But I cannot deny that this state of stuckness is the very condition of familial love, perhaps moreso in the fight than in the yielding.

Portraits of Empire - George W. Bush's recent book of paintings betrays liberal empire’s role not as fascism’s alternative but as its co-conspirator. Fri, 10 Sep 2021 03:00:00 -0400 This review appears in our Fall 2021 issue. Subscribe now to receive a copy in your mailbox.

Discussed in this essay: Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants, by George W. Bush. Crown, 2021. 208 pages.

NOVEMBER 7th, 2020, was a day of public exuberance in the United States. Friends and family across the country exchanged videos of far-flung celebrations: firecrackers exploding, music blasting from balconies, cars emitting jubilant honks. Whatever you thought about Joe Biden, at least Donald Trump was out. It felt like new futures. Nevertheless, the old ways persisted. Enjoying these celebrations required thinking about Biden as not-Trump, rather than as architect of the racist 1994 crime bill that expedited mass incarceration, who, months into a global uprising against the brutality that is policing, suggested that instead of aiming to kill targeted people, cops should “shoot them in the leg”—a pithy expression of liberalism. The warped lens through which Biden’s presidency appears as anything other than an extension of the ongoing catastrophe of US empire is the result of a long history of nationalist distortion, in which carcerality masquerades as care, civility as justice.

Over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, we saw an instance of such distortion unfold in real time, in the glow up enjoyed by former president and imperial warmonger George W. Bush—a revision that helped lay the groundwork for misunderstanding Biden as a radical departure from his predecessor. While Bush’s repressive policies continued to find new expression, he metamorphosed in the popular imagination, appearing in headlines not as the founder of ICE but as the recipient of a warm hug from Michelle Obama at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, an affable friend of Ellen DeGeneres, and an amateur painter. The rehabilitation of Bush’s image was, of course, facilitated by Trump himself, whom Bush all but named when he declared in 2017 that “we’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty.” It’s easy to see how Trump’s unabashed malice cast Bush’s genteel bumbling as comparatively benign. But a closer look exposes a regime of perception that enables escalating repressions by casting mutual reinforcements as oppositional. By affirming Trumpian, self-avowedly delighted violence as the frontier of the unacceptable, complementary revisions to Bush’s legacy have expanded the scope of acceptable atrocity. 

Bush’s paintings have played a peculiar role in this revision, attempting to shore up a sense of the former president’s beneficence, an aspirational erasure of his extraordinary harm. Could a violent man recognize the humanity in the face of another?, his portraits seem to say, weakly asserting a visual legacy to override the most indelible visual texts of Bush’s career: the images of detainee torture at Guantánamo. Now, four years after the release of his first book of paintings, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, a selection of new works is featured in another coffee table book, Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants. In one sense, this volume doesn’t matter; if these unremarkable paintings were not the work of a former president, they would never have made it off the family estate. But in another, the book is a curiously revealing document—an artifact that betrays liberal empire’s role not as fascism’s alternative but as its co-conspirator.

The book is a curiously revealing document—an artifact that betrays liberal empire's role not as fascism's alternative but as its co-conspirator.

THE COVER OF OUT OF MANY, ONE features a grid of portraits (including one I initially mistook for a self-portrait but turned out to be a painting of Salim Asrawi, who fled the civil war in Lebanon and founded a steakhouse in Texas). When I first encountered the multiracial patchwork, it felt vintage—a relic of the 1990s-era mandate to depict visible differences that metonymize static identities. This visual economy of multiculturalism might be traced to the 1971 commercial in which an interracial group of beautiful people stood atop a hill singing, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” a rebuke to the costliness of segregated advertising in a nation reordered by the civil rights movement. Like any other reform designed not to contend with the conditions that made it necessary, corporate multiculturalism failed to bring about meaningful transformation, substituting the optics of difference for structural reckoning. I opened the book prepared to find Bush’s portraits likewise selling me the myth of the United States as a beacon of liberty for all.

When I turned to the images, I was taken aback. The cover had primed me to expect unknown-to-me subjects made intelligible by Bush’s brush as collective evidence of an inclusive nation, but I knew several of these people already: Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger, Arnold Schwarzenegger. What had at first felt retro now felt au courant. These familiar figures—immigrants who have themselves become architects of American empire—emblematize how the representational logic of multiculturalism has now been thoroughly integrated into late capitalism’s brutal coercions, democratizing the promise: “You, too, can harm people who look like you.” Today, a “girlboss” is a thing that makes cultural sense, and the CIA produces recruitment videos featuring diverse operatives who quote Zora Neale Hurston and spout garbled distortions like, “I am a woman of color. I am a mom. I am a cisgender millennial who’s been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I am intersectional.”

While the cover’s political charge seemed neutralized by the quaint impotence of its vintage aesthetic, the portraits inside felt actively engaged in a struggle over the meanings of histories. Representation, of course, is an apt site for contesting configurations of power. To represent means to respond to someone’s needs and desires, as well as to extract their image so it exists independently of them, and liberal empire exploits this conflation. As scholar Kandice Chuh writes: “Within the logic of modern U.S. politics . . . national identity / subjectivity is offered as a substitute for justice.” In Western art, the portrait has traditionally served as a visual claim to subjectivity. Bush’s use of the classical style of portraiture, which confers dignity onto its subjects by allowing them to confront the viewer face-to-face, functions as a horrifically frontal and painfully inadequate counterpoint to the infamous image of a detainee receiving electric shocks with a sack over his head.

Out of Many, One features 43 portraits of immigrants from 35 countries. Aesthetically, the paintings are relatively uniform. Rendered mainly in pastel colors and with loose brushstrokes, they nod toward Expressionism—though, as scholar and critic Zoé Samudzi suggests in Art in America, their style is perhaps better understood as aspiring to realism. Some, like the portraits of “Dreamer” Carlos Mendez and Microsoft director of business development Tina Tran, appear muddled; others, like the depictions of Bush look-alike Salim Asrawi and asylee Sumera Haque, feature more distinct lines, as if the artist is haphazardly experimenting with technique. But to look too closely at the paintings themselves would be to grant too much to the book’s own framing—to indulge in liberal empire’s own self-mystifications, and in the delusion of Bush as guardian of immigrants’ images and their stories. As Samudzi points out, “The book is not actually about immigrants, it is a part of a vanity project.” The vanity of this project exceeds the egotism of believing that mediocre paintings deserve a national audience; it is reinforced formally. Each portrait is accompanied by a brief biography of its subject as narrated, with a bizarre degree of self-referentiality, by Bush. Paula Rendon, who immigrated from Mexico and worked as a nanny and housekeeper for the Bush family for six decades, “was like a second mother to my siblings and me.” Kim Mitchell, originally from Vietnam, is a graduate of the Bush Institute’s Veteran Leadership Program, a post-9/11 project committed to “supporting and enabling our nation’s warriors in their new missions as civilians.” “We counted every minute until Operation Iraqi Freedom started,” relays an immigrant from Iraq, formerly known as Ali. Upon becoming a US citizen, he changed his name to Tony George Bush. 

Iraqi civilians gather in the ruins of buildings in the al-Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad after an attack by a US warplane, April 7th, 2003. Photo: Jerome Delay/AP Photo

The subjects depicted here are united, Bush tells us in the introduction, by “their resilience and perseverance, their patriotism, their generosity, and perhaps most of all, their gratitude. To a person, they expressed profound thanks for being here and determination to make the most of every opportunity.” The triumphalist narratives are formulaic. “I did not know what to do with my life in the US and was totally overwhelmed by the grand freedom that I suddenly had,” says Joseph Kim, an immigrant from Hoeryŏng, North Korea, who found occasional work in a coal mine after his father died in the famine and his mother in a labor camp. Now, he is “a cheerful, friendly, funny, and talented member” of the Bush Institute, where he is an “expert in residence” at the Human Freedom Initiative. Javaid Anwar grew up in Pakistan in the 1950s. “I was never respected in my own country,” Anwar, now an oil executive, explains. “[America] changed my life. It gave me chances I can never repay.”

This is “a story in which we are invited to know the refugee’s sorrow, and her indebtedness for its cure in order to tell us something meaningful about the genealogies of liberal power that undergird the twinned concerns of this scene: the gift of freedom and the debt that follows,” scholar Mimi Thi Nguyen writes in The Gift of Freedom. Nguyen is writing about Madalenna Lai, a Vietnamese refugee who purchased a float for the Rose Parade so she could thank the US in front of a worldwide television audience of 350 million people. Lai’s story is not featured in Bush’s book, but it doesn’t matter; the grammar of gratitude is fixed. Nguyen lays out how “freedom is precisely the idiom through which liberal empire acts as an arbiter for all humanity.” Freedom, she shows, is always “produced” by the imperial center in the context of an enduring global “deficit,” which authorizes its export by any means necessary. 

Bush knows something about how the gift of freedom works. “[W]hile the price of freedom and security is high, it is never too high. Whatever it costs to defend our country, we will pay,” he said in his first State of the Union address, just months after 9/11, concluding the sentence where he called for “the largest increase in defense spending in two decades.” The next year, Bush made promises to Iraqi civilians: “We will tear down the apparatus of terror. And we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free . . . The day of your liberation is near.” It was how he announced the US invasion.

“Every empire . . . tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate,” Edward Said wrote in a 2003 article in The Los Angeles Times. When patterns of immigration are contoured by imperial violence, a book for immigration but not against imperialism is a book for imperialism with better branding. This nationalist PR campaign (a world tour!) hinges on the fact that immigrant is not in itself a meaningful subject position. The strategic use of its radical incoherence is laid bare by the formal equivalence of, for example, Thear Suzuki, who came to Texas with her family in 1981, fleeing the Khmer Rouge, and Henry Kissinger, the former US national security advisor and secretary of state, who at least passively facilitated and perhaps actively participated in the genocidal regime’s infamous massacres. The American Dream means that one refugee can make another.

The American Dream means that one refugee can make another.

Indeed, the knotty harm is foundational. Out of Many, One opens: “On a stormy Atlantic crossing in 1630, one of the first immigrants to the New World wasn’t sure he would make it. The Puritan John Winthrop knew that America was worth the risk, writing that it would be ‘a city upon a hill,’ a place of refuge and liberty.” Invoking a settler colonist who kept three Pequot people enslaved is the closest Bush gets to naming the nexus of immigration and violence responsible for the nation he so reveres. To address the founding colonists’ campaigns of genocide against Indigenous peoples or participation in the transatlantic slave trade would not only undermine Bush’s assertion of America’s “noble intentions”—voiding the nation’s claim to produce freedom—but would also explode the project’s more specific premise: that precisely because the US is a “nation of immigrants,” its form is ultimately unassailable. The book requires those erasures in order to cast liberal empire as benign; liberal empire requires those erasures to underwrite the enduring afterlives of those original violences, which are its lifeblood. 

Like the book’s final, two-page section, “Why We Need Immigration (And Reform),” which emphasizes the twinned principles of “robust” immigration and “secure” borders, the portraits themselves ultimately amount to a case for the kind of reform liberal empires require in order to expand. Presenting images of diverse immigrants, united only by their gratitude to the United States, Out of Many, One creates a composite sketch of a “good immigrant” to authorize the very imperial aggressions which, by creating conditions of global unsafety, coerce people to leave their homes. Under the guise of hospitality, the book patrols the always unevenly porous border of the nation that has little relationship to its geographic perimeter—where dominant ideas of what “good” and “bad” look like are reproduced, where routes of appeal are fortified, and the addressee is always the imperial center. “But it wasn’t inclusion that I wanted,” the poet Dionne Brand writes of colonial narratives in An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading. “I wanted to be addressed.” When a project appeals to empire, as Bush’s does, power makes the meanings. The rest is just adornment. 

What the 9/11 Museum Could Have Been - Michael Shulan, the museum's former creative director, on the 20-year legacy of the attacks and his unrealized vision. Fri, 10 Sep 2021 03:00:00 -0400 This Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The trauma of the event and its aftermath—for New York, the United States, and the world—remains largely unprocessed, which makes ongoing debates around memory and memorialization emotionally fraught. At Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum occupies much of the former World Trade Center complex and has become a major international tourist attraction since it opened in 2014. But critics have charged the museum with re-traumatizing visitors while failing to provide context about US policies in the Muslim world that paved the way for the attacks, or about the disastrous, criminal wars and national security measures that leaders in both parties subsequently used 9/11 to justify.

A recent documentary,
The Outsider, depicts the debates among the museum staff over how best to memorialize 9/11; the title refers to the institution’s former creative director, Michael Shulan, whom the film presents as having been in frequent conflict with his colleagues over whether the museum should provoke visitors to wrestle with difficult questions about the attacks. Last month, I visited the museum for the first time as part of my reporting for a New York Magazine piece about the documentary and the questions it raises. I came away agreeing with many of the museum’s critics: Rather than confront visitors with hard truths, the museum prefers to bask in a grotesque nostalgia.

Shulan declined to be interviewed for that piece, or for any other media coverage of
The Outsider. But once my article was published, he reconsidered and reached out by phone, and we got to talking—about his background in the downtown arts scene, how he helped to acquire what is most likely the largest existing archive of 9/11 photos, how he became involved with the 9/11 Museum, what he thinks of the documentary, and how he thinks the museum falls short of his original vision. One of our conversations, which has been edited and condensed, became this week’s newsletter (to which you can subscribe here). I hope it can be one small part of a larger and urgently necessary reevaluation of the memory and legacy of 9/11.

David Klion: What was your life like prior to the 9/11 attacks?

Michael Shulan: I moved to New York and settled in SoHo in the late 1970s. It was an exciting time to be there and a very different place than it is today. Some friends and I bought a little nondescript building and rented out the ground floor to a clothing shop for many years. In August 2001, the shop decided not to renew its lease, because they thought the neighborhood had gotten too trendy, so we were looking for a new tenant and I was using the space as an office. I was working on a novel.

DK: How did you experience the day itself?

MS: The morning of September 11th, I had just returned to the empty storefront after walking my son to school, when I heard a woman crying in the street. Outside, I saw a lot of people looking at the north tower of the World Trade Center, which was emitting black smoke. I stood there watching it for a while. Then I went to my son’s school and picked him up, and as we were walking home, the towers disappeared from sight. We saw people walking north from downtown covered in thick dust. That afternoon, everything was closed, and I started wandering around in the neighborhood and made my way downtown, past police barricades, to Ground Zero. I was very struck by what I was seeing; I didn’t have a camera on me, but what I was seeing seemed so unreal that I realized it would make for extraordinary pictures. I was actually standing in front of Tower Seven when the police suddenly said the building was going to go down, so we all ran up Hudson Street.

The next morning, I saw that someone had taped up a sheet of newspaper from the previous day’s New York Times outside my building, and people were writing comments on it and taking pictures. I remembered that I had an old picture of the World Trade Center, so I taped it up next to the newspaper. For the rest of that morning, people wanted to touch the picture and take photos of it. I realized we had an empty storefront and weren’t going to find a new tenant anytime soon, so maybe we should start an exhibition. So I got together with some photographer friends, including Gilles Peress and Charles Traub, and a curator who recently died named Alice Rose George, and we put out a call for pictures. We called the exhibit Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs.

Much to our astonishment, it really struck a nerve. We had explicitly conceived it as an anti-media project, because the same traumatizing images were being shown over and over on TV, along with the same commentary. Our idea was to ask everyone to submit whatever pictures they thought were appropriate, and then anyone could come and look and decide for themselves what the narrative should be. The exhibition became extremely popular. We sold images for $25 and gave nearly a million dollars to the Children’s Aid Society of New York to help the children of undocumented workers and other people who weren’t being covered by other funds. We ended up doing more than three dozen of these exhibitions across the country and around the world over the next year, and a million people came to our little storefront alone.

DK: How did that lead to your involvement with the 9/11 Museum?

MS: When we were collecting these images, we weren’t asking for any rights. Every photographer retained their own intellectual property. We weren’t going to profit from this by selling or licensing these images. As we were drawing up releases to state this, we realized there might eventually be a museum at Ground Zero, and that these pictures were going to make for an extraordinary archive. So I asked the photographers whether they would consent to granting a hypothetical museum the rights to include their images, subject to certain conditions, and most of them agreed.

When the museum was announced, I got in touch with the team behind it, and said, “Look, we have what’s probably one of the largest archives of images of a single event ever assembled.” They asked me to come talk to them. I told them that when I visited Ground Zero the day of the attacks, I was reminded very strongly of something I had studied in college—the journey into the underworld depicted by Homer and Virgil, and the trope of reconciliation with the dead. I saw that as a very powerful metaphor for the underground museum they were proposing to build. I was asked to join the museum, which was not something I was completely eager to do. Our original project had not been an official or institutional project. But it also seemed to me that if they were prepared to offer someone with a nontraditional background like me a role, then it was probably something that I should do.

DK: How would you describe your experience over the next eight years, and the direction that you wanted to take the museum compared to your colleagues’ vision?

MS: I was given the title of creative director, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant. I was not a museum person, whereas most of my colleagues were. Ultimately, it meant I was there to help figure out what sort of museum we should be making, what form it should take, and what message it should convey. For the most part it was a collegial experience. We all basically agreed about what we then understood to be the political ramifications of the event, and about the kind of the museum it should be—at least at first. I wanted it to be a museum that was open, in which the narrative would not be overly assertive, and in which visitors would be given the opportunity to think for themselves. We should expose them to the facts and to the emotional realities and the stories of witnesses, but we shouldn’t impose a closed or finished narrative. Everyone has a stake in the story of 9/11. And if our understanding of the facts and meaning of 9/11 changed over time, I firmly believed that the museum should change with it.

DK: From the documentary, I gather that you faced some resistance to this premise.

MS: The Outsider is edited to make me into a protagonist who is at odds with his colleagues, which I don’t think was the case, for the most part. The film exaggerates our differences, but there is no question that I struggled with some of my colleagues to try to keep the museum’s narrative more open than it eventually became.

There was an episode at the tail end of my tenure, when it was incorrectly reported that I had tried to keep a particular picture out of the museum—as a result of which I was smeared by right-wing media. It was Thomas E. Franklin’s famous photograph of three firemen raising an American flag in a pose strongly reminiscent of the iconic photo of Marines at Iwo Jima. In fact, I was actually trying to put the picture in twice—once without comment in the first part of the historical exhibition, among thousands of pictures that were taken that day, and then, in a subsequent section, I wanted to show it alongside the Iwo Jima picture to try to unpack the iconography. I’m sure the photographer knew what he was doing, and the firemen probably did too. And that’s fine, but I wanted to actually explain the story so that people could think about that. That would have been emblematic of the approach that I wanted to take with the whole museum, which ended up not being as prevalent as I wanted it to be.

DK: What do you think The Outsider gets right or wrong about you, and about the museum?

MS: I’ll say without reservation that it was an honor for me to work on the museum, and it’s something I will always be proud of. My colleagues and I were all interviewed extensively for the movie, which I originally thought was going to be a Frederick Wiseman-esque, long process-oriented film about what it was to make the museum. But the filmmaker edited it into something very different than any of us were expecting. Twelve hours before the film was publicly announced, I found out that I had been edited into being the protagonist.

The film puts me in a very adversarial role, as a character who was at odds with his colleagues because he wanted to ask questions. The implication is that these questions were about things like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and the Patriot Act. The film makes it seem like I was the only one at the museum who was arguing for the inclusion of these things. I was certainly arguing more strongly for them to be included in the historical exhibition than anyone else outside of a few of my closest colleagues. But that was part of my role—to challenge my colleagues’ assumptions, just as it was part of their role to challenge mine. And in any number of cases, I was challenged, and I admitted that they were right and I was wrong. That’s a nuance I think is missing from the film.

DK: Do you agree with critics who say that the museum fails to address the mistakes that America made in the wake of 9/11, as well as those mistakes that might have led to 9/11?

MS: The challenge we faced is similar to the challenge Lower Manhattan and the country faced over the past 20 years: of evaluating ourselves and figuring out who we are and what our role is in the world. It’s no surprise the museum has struggled over this, and it was going to be controversial no matter what it did. I think in its current iteration, the museum is a success for many people. It provides a real place of solace and acknowledgement for people who lost loved ones, and for rescue workers who worked valiantly, many of whom have since become gravely ill. Parts of the museum work very well.

We all grappled with how to represent the aftermath of the attacks, and I think to some extent, we did not succeed—I include myself in that. We wanted the museum to be able to change and to adapt and add new information, and I don’t think the museum has done a good job of that.

DK: How would you want the museum to change?

MS: The 20th anniversary is a moment to take stock, and perhaps for a shift in how we look at 9/11, and even emotionally react to the event. I obviously don’t mean the many people who suffered unconsolable losses. But for the rest of us, it represents a moment to begin to look at history differently, and it would be appropriate for the museum to do that.

The Outsider does provide a service in illuminating, however imperfectly, the process of what went into building the museum. We were all doing our best, but now the museum needs to embrace the fact that the past 20 years have not gone well for us in so many ways. September 11th has had a great impact not only on our foreign policy and on other countries, but upon our lives here in the United States—in terms of data privacy and drone technology, the wars, the hideous situation in Guantánamo, and so many other things that need to be shown and explained to visitors. This is part of who we are as a country, and we need to be informed about how all of this came to pass in order to learn from it and figure out where we go from here.

Shabbat Terror in the West Bank - For religious Zionist settlers in the South Hebron Hills, attacks on Palestinians have become a Shabbat afternoon pastime. Thu, 09 Sep 2021 03:00:00 -0400 WHEN I TURN MY PHONE BACK ON after Shabbat ends, I can measure the violence of the day by the number of unread messages that appear on my screen. Sitting in my home in Jerusalem, I scroll through dispatches from friends in the South Hebron Hills, a rural area in the southern West Bank, describing the day’s mob attack by Israeli settlers against Palestinians. If I have just a few dozen texts, then the encounter probably consisted of masked settlers throwing rocks at Palestinians or invading villages to physically assault residents. But if I find a few hundred messages waiting, I know settlers have likely set fire to Palestinian homes or even fired live rounds of ammunition at Palestinians or activists supporting them. 

Amid a broad escalation of violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories, Shabbat has become the most violent day of the week in the South Hebron Hills. Unprovoked attacks on Palestinians have become something of a Shabbat afternoon pastime for the religious Zionist settlers in the region. Palestinians who live there even report seeing Israelis from elsewhere who have traveled to the area to spend the weekend beating up residents. Much like Sunday lynchings in the Jim Crow South—where white mobs murdered Black people on the Christian Sabbath, when they had time to participate in violence at their leisure—Saturdays have become an excuse for violence in the South Hebron Hills, transforming the Jewish day of rest into a social soiree of brutality.

These attacks, horrific in themselves, also violate the laws of Shabbat which the settlers claim to uphold. When settlers uproot Palestinian trees, they flout the prohibition against “reaping” on Shabbat. And when they deploy live ammunition against Palestinians, as well as Israeli and international activists, they contravene not only the biblical prohibition on lighting fires, but also a directive in the Mishnah—a rabbinic legal code compiled in the third century—which explicitly forbids carrying weapons on Shabbat. The text makes the logic of the prohibition clear: When one sage, Rabbi Eliezer, argues that bearing arms is permitted because weapons are “ornaments,” the other rabbis immediately retort, “They are nothing other than reprehensible,” and proceed to quote the famous verse from Isaiah describing the end of days: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not raise sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore.” Since Shabbat is, in the Talmudic imagination, a taste of the world to come, and the prophecy in Isaiah makes clear that this will be a world without weapons, the rabbis are firm in their position that arms have no place in Shabbat observance. 

Keeping Shabbat is core to the Torah’s vision of the world—in fact, according to biblical law, violating Shabbat is punishable by death. While later rabbinic authorities functionally abrogated the death penalty, Shabbat observance is still treated with the utmost seriousness. And though Jewish law certainly permits actions that would otherwise be forbidden on Shabbat in the case of saving one’s own or another’s life, how, even in the most twisted version of reality, could unprovoked attacks against old people and small children be understood this way? Of course, the Jewish tradition is polyphonic—while its ultimate thrust is toward mutual accountability and love for others, Jewish texts feature calls to violence alongside those to radical justice and compassion—but on the question of Shabbat, the tradition is unequivocal. The fact that settlers are so willing to shed Jewish observance in order to commit violence against Palestinians is a damning condemnation of religious Zionism, in which the single-minded quest for control of the land has eclipsed the observance of mitzvot, and violent ethnosupremacy has taken precedence over all other aspects of Jewish life. 

Settler violence across the West Bank, often with the cooperation of the army, is not new, but its increasing bravado aligns with a discursive shift toward emboldened ethnosupremacy in Israel. This spring, hundreds of far-right Jews marched through the streets of the center of Jerusalem, chanting “death to Arabs” and attacking left-wing counter-protesters and Palestinians; just weeks prior, Bezalel Smotrich, a member of Knesset and head of the Religious Zionist Party, said that Arabs who do not recognize that “the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish People . . . will not remain here.” Smotrich is no ideological lone wolf in the Knesset: Amichai Chikli of the right-wing Yamina Party has derided the Israeli army for bringing back Palestinians alive following counter-terrorism missions. Itamar Ben Gvir of the extremist Otzma Yehudit Party has a picture of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli settler who murdered 29 Palestinians while they were praying in 1994, hanging in his home; he has also pledged to “continue the path” of the “holy Rabbi Kahane,” meaning Meir Kahane, the far-right racist leader who supported the expulsion of Arabs from Israel. Even the recently elected prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has boasted about killing Arabs. In many ways, the halls of the Knesset, the streets of Jerusalem, and the fields of the South Hebron Hills have become twisted reflections of one another. 

For Kahane, violence against Arabs was an essential, not incidental, element of Zionism, and the religious Zionist movement increasingly adheres to this belief. The Oslo Accords in the early 1990s and Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 both radicalized the mainstream religious Zionist world, which saw in these events the threat of territorial compromise. In the years that followed, settlers, buoyed by the state, began to take action to prevent Palestinian sovereignty at any cost. Rather than waiting for the state to approve its building projects, the settlement movement now builds its outposts without asking, sure that decisive action will secure retroactive permission. Mob violence functions as a core component of the settlers’ strategy, advancing their ultimate goal of territorial expansion and control. Not all religious Zionists would condone this behavior—yet the movement has created institutions and valorized teachers who promote a racist, ultranationalist vision for the future of the land, while its rabbis have been notably silent in condemning these attacks.

Perhaps our only answer to such cruelty is to return to the enduring source of Jewish countercultural tradition: the laws and ethics of the Torah, which the settlers, despite their nominal observance, have so hastily discarded. Violent fascism may be the norm in Israel today, and elaborate rhetorical webs may be spun to convince us that ethnosupremacy is rooted in a religious creed. But when we consult the sources themselves, the fallaciousness of this move becomes clear. In Jewish sources, Shabbat is referred to as chemdat ha’yamim, “the most delightful of days”—delightful precisely because, through the emphasis it places on obligation and community, Shabbat provides an alternate logic to the pervasiveness of exploitation, shunning the iniquity of this world and offering a vision of a redeemed world that could still come, if we work to bring it forth.       

That work was on my mind a few months ago, as I stood with friends inside a Palestinian family’s home in the village of Sarura, which settlers had set ablaze the previous Shabbat. Community members and activists had struggled to put out the flames while their belongings—furniture, a generator, water tanks, and the crops in the surrounding fields—went up in smoke; Israeli soldiers watched idly from nearby. As I joined efforts to repair the home, scrubbing the charred walls and carrying burnt debris outside, I wondered what the so-called religious settlers were thinking as they struck the matches that ignited this inferno, violating the Torah’s most detailed commandment pertaining to Shabbat: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3). I thought about the prophet Jeremiah, who warns the Jewish people that the punishment for not observing Shabbat will be destruction by unabated fire. But here, both the disregard for Shabbat observance and the resulting fiery destruction are in the hands of the settlers. I wonder: Will these ruins be our only inheritance?

Auschwitz-Birkenau, A Guided Tour for American Students - “This pebble here is a monument to someone. / So is a cloud a stub a poppy a dog—” Fri, 03 Sep 2021 03:00:00 -0400 “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” philosopher Theodor Adorno famously wrote. To which poet Paul Celan (in Pierre Joris’s translation) retorted: “What concept of the ‘poem’ is being presented here? The arrogance of the one who dares hypothetically-speculatively to contemplate or poetically describe Auschwitz from the nightingale- or lark-perspective.” Celan, who survived the shoah and spent the rest of his life haunted by its horrors, refused the dangerous pretense of engagement without self-implication. Such abdication persists today in the staid pedagogy of disaster tourism evoked in the title of Polina Barskova’s “Auschwitz-Birkenau, A Guided Tour for American Students,” translated by Valzhyna Mort. This familiar mode of instruction suggests a petrified past can be surveyed from above, and abstracted into an uncomplicated, unchanging lesson to be applied to the present. But in Barskova’s poem the past refuses to stay put. Objects—“bowls, prosthetics, red- / framed glasses”—accumulate, their memory of bodily intimacies limning a bright absence, and the present is not a point plotted on a timeline, but a shore where the refuse of history is washed up by time’s horrible tide. And Auschwitz, the poem reminds us, is not an exhibition encased in glass, but a place where we still meet, revising the catastrophic with the small tokens of our living—the ashes of the speaker’s cigarette brush “the ashes made here, shed here.” There is no after Auschwitz. There is only what became of it, what becomes. 

– Claire Schwartz

Listen to Polina Barskova read "Auschwitz-Birkenau, A Guided Tour for American Students" in the original Russian.
Listen to Valzhyna Mort read her translation.



Подъезжая на микроавтобусе под польскую деревеньку О. 
Удивляю себя—чего это, я не чувствую ничего.

Вроде душа моя развороченная бесчувственная десна, 
Развлеченье дантиста, роденбаховский город сна.
Главное двигаться словно вода в канале—то есть не двигаться. 
Лишь шевельнёшь рукой
—сумасшедшие тени вмешаются в твой покой.

Все эти Розы, Людвиги, пронумерованные для нас,
Чтобы мы их пересчитывали, пока поступает газ.

Пересчитывали впрочем косвенно: горшки, протезы, очки, 
С красной каёмочкой, с чёрной каёмочкой волшебные 

Чемоданы, волосики, пепел, провисшие облака,
Студентки фиолетовая от холода рука
Впивается в зонтик. Кукушка
В Биркенау—скажи, сколько лет ещё
Мне навещать нравоучительные бараки?
Холодно холодно горячо:
Жмурки цивилизованного сознания.

Ничего не чувствую кроме стыда
Сбрасывать пепел Marlboro
На пепел, произведённый здесь, пролитый сюда.


Вот этот камушек есть памятник ему.
Вот это облако окурок лютик пёс—
Всё, что с собой он взять не мог во тьму, 
Хоть до последнего не жаловался нёс.

Вот это дерево сортир скамейка мак—
Весь мусор ужаса, отчаянья дерьмо,
Я, расфуфыренный, самодовольный маг, 
Несу тебе—валяй, смотри кино

Вещей, которые резвятся, как во сне: 
Подмигивает смятое пенсне,
Кастрюлька хрюкает, будильник правит ночь, 
Корябает огрызок-карандаш:
Владелец наш, кормилец наш, поилец наш, 
Тебе и рады бы помочь
—не знаем как.
Вот этот камушек тебя последний знак.
Не-восклицательный. Заноза. Зонтик. Злак.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, A Guided Tour for American Students


When the minibus nears the Polish village of Ausch.,
I feel numb. My pneuma, a
                                                 cut open gum,

a game for a dentist, Rodenbach’s drowsy Bruges.
Focus on moving the way water in channels moves—which
                      it doesn’t. I stir—
and mad shadows disrupt my numbness.

All these Roses, Ludwigs, thoughtfully numbered for us,
to count, to recount through the gas.

The recount was roundabout: bowls, prosthetics, red-
framed glasses, fairy slippers laced black,

suitcases, hairs, ashes, sagging skies,
a hand of a female student purple from cold
clutches an umbrella. A cuckoo
of Birkenau, how many years more
will I visit educational barracks?
Cold, cold, cold, hot:
hide-and-seek of the civilized consciousness.

I am numb except for the shame
of brushing Marlboro ashes
on the ashes made here, shed here.


This pebble here is a monument to someone.
So is a cloud a stub a poppy a dog—
Whatever no one can carry into the night,
carrying it, no one complained.

This tree here WC buttercup bench—
the garbage of horror, despair’s filth,
vain, adorned, and duende’d, I
carry to You—watch this film

of things, whirling as in a dream:
a battered pince-nez winks,
a cooking pot snorts like a pig, an alarm clock squares the night,
a gnawed pencil scrapes:
Our Master, daily feeder and quencher,
here we are, glad to help—
but how?
This pebble here is the last sign of you.
A point. Of no exclamation. Splinter. Spike. Grain.