At Jewish Currents, one of our favorite sections of every print issue comes in the very first pages, where we publish letters to the editor. We believe that these responses from our readers greatly enrich our work, illuminating new dimensions of the issues we cover. As we’ve built an increasingly robust letters section online as well as in print, we’ve decided to make these responses a regular part of this newsletter, too. In December, we sent you six letters on a range of topics. Now, we’re instituting a quarterly practice of delivering new letters—and the conversation around the magazine that they capture—directly to your inbox.
The letters below include reactions to the recent staff responsa about shabbat and anti-work politics, and a response to Sanders Isaac Bernstein’s recent review of De-Integrate! from the book’s author, German Jewish poet and polemicist Max Czollek. We encourage readers to submit letters of about 350 words to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “LETTER: TITLE OF ARTICLE.” Please include your name and location. We want to hear from you!
On “Shall We Not Revenge?” (Published March 3rd, 2023)
I would like to communicate my thanks to Sanders Isaac Bernstein for this engaged take on my work. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have rarely, if ever, seen such an in-depth discussion of my work in a German-language outlet. And I hope to respond with the same kindness and seriousness that I sense in the article.
I would like to start by pointing out with a smile that Bernstein’s argument—that my proposed counterstrategy remains trapped within the mode of thought it critiques—is a classic within a certain brand of left-wing thought; the Catch-22 of dialectics, if you will. I would stress that we should be careful not to fool ourselves into believing that we can truly move beyond the systems we criticize. In my opinion at least, this is not feasible in the present—if ever. I’d even argue that the emancipatory critique, in striving to reach this place beyond, runs the risk of promising something that neither criticism nor activism can ever truly achieve.
The issue connects to the ever-relevant question of how to move from the unredeemed present to a better future. To this I would answer: If the revolution is ever to take place, rather than to remain a messiah-in-the-coming, we will have to be very patient. Take as a model the cup we put on the table each Passover to anticipate the arrival of Eliyahu Hanavi. This also represents the necessity of ongoing repetition when it comes to the things that remain true—about the need for justice, self-determination, equal treatment, etc. In this tedious process of waiting, pop culture may play an important role, because it helps us reframe familiar material so that people (including ourselves!) are not bored to death in the meantime. In other words, it helps us stay fresh.
When I reference the idea of “revenge” in my work, I perceive it much more in this sense of freshness than of redemption, as the author implies. Revenge, as I conceptualize it in the context of my call for de-integration, does not aim to liberate Jews from the German Theater of Memory, or to attain any position outside the present order. Rather, it strives to reestablish what one might call Jewish humanity. I believe that this is a precondition for facing so much of what cannot truly be discussed so long as the Theater’s Jewish actors maintain a self-image determined by pure, innocent, and ultimately passive victimhood. In this sense, revenge is not about escaping the present at all, but about realizing how implicated we are as Jewish subjects in this world.
The letter writer is the author of De-Integrate!: A Jewish Survival Guide for the 21st Century.
Sanders Isaac Bernstein’s critique of the fantasy of revenge for the Shoah feels almost completely right. As a history teacher, when my students would ask if I’d seen Inglourious Basterds, I’d tell them that I don’t waste my time with myths and fables about the destruction of Europe’s Jews and so many others.
If there is one flaw in Bernstein’s exposition, it is in failing to situate different revenge fantasies historically. The idea’s appeal to someone like Abba Kovner, a poet, writer, and activist who survived the Holocaust in Europe, must differ from its hold on Czollek, a third-generation survivor who has grown up in a Germany where “the Jew” carries far too much symbolic weight.
For many of the previous generation, like my Polish Jewish father who fought in the Soviet Army, the desire for revenge eventually receded. They had other fish to fry; revenge and its consequences would surely have gotten in the way of creating new lives. As a child of survivors, such visions of vengeance were never part of my upbringing. The playground games I played with other children in our refugee community modeled the stories of survival we heard around the house and rarely—if ever—included any desire for revenge.
And yet, for Czollek’s generation, the fantasy of revenge seems to increase in appeal the farther from the Shoah we get. Cycles of revenge are everything Gandhi and Dr. King said they are: downward spirals of violence. Clearly, for Czollek, revenge remains in the realm of fantasy. But in an increasingly reactionary political landscape, Czollek’s rising bile would be better channeled through tikkun and the left struggle for the oneness of humanity. Revenge takes up way too much space on this ailing planet. We don’t need any more, whether in word, deed, or absurd movies.
On “New Report Could Hamstring Palestine Advocacy in Britain’s Largest Student Organization” (Published February 8th, 2023)
Dahlia Krutkovich’s article provides important insight into the ongoing battle over Palestine advocacy in the UK, especially the role of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. However, it misses past instances where the IHRA definition has played a key role in excluding pro-Palestinian leaders from key roles in the National Union of Students (NUS), which actually predate the definition’s use in the Labour Party.
The article notes that the NUS adopted the IHRA definition in 2017, and the Labour Party in 2018. In terms of actual usage of the definition though, research I’ve done for Independent Jewish Voices Canada’s NoIHRA campaign shows that in 2018 the Union of Jewish Students used the IHRA definition as a key part of attacks against NUS National Executive Committee member Ayo Olatunji, smears which were then republished in The Jewish Chronicle and The Tab, leading to his eventual resignation. Then, in 2019, it was used again in a formal complaint against then-candidate for the same committee, Zeid Truscott, who was disqualified as a result. Similar practices only took place in the Labour Party starting in 2019, against Nikki Brennen, and against Rebecca Long-Bailey, Kate Knight, and Marika Sherwood in 2020.
While the Labour Party’s Corbyn controversies were in full swing already by 2018, (and the NUS had similar pre-IHRA Palestine-related pushback against Malia Bouattia’s presidency in 2016-17), my research has shown that concrete usages of the IHRA definition in the Labour Party seemingly followed its use within the NUS. I would argue that the common assumption that the pushback against Palestine solidarity in the UK finds some sort of origin point in the “Labour playbook” misses that these strategies were also developed, often with less public scrutiny, against primarily racialized students in the NUS. This of course only emphasizes the underlying point of Krutkovich’s article: that students in the NUS should be worried about the future of Palestine advocacy within their union.
Dahlia Krutkovich’s article on the Tuck report is very helpful in explaining what is going on in the NUS to an international audience. However, it should be noted that it is only very recently—in the last ten years—that supporters of Palestinian rights have gained leadership positions in NUS. For many years, the union was dominated by fiercely Zionist student organizers, Jews and non-Jews alike. Many of these student organizers went on to become right-wing Labour Party politicians who were integral to the effort to undermine Jeremy Corbyn in 2018. Politicians like Wes Streeting, Lorna Fitzsimons, and Jim Murphy cut their teeth in NUS before becoming Labour MPs. The longtime right-wing control of NUS elected positions resulted in the appointment of senior full-time union staff who largely have no sympathy for anti-Zionist politics, and who remain in those positions to this day.
You can see the long-term dominance of Zionism in the NUS through its 2007 adoption of the EUMC Definition of Antisemitism. It was one of the only bodies in the UK to do so. Though the EUMC Definition fell into well-deserved obscurity, it was eventually resurrected to appear, with minimal modification, as the IHRA definition, which we see in full operation today.
The author is the membership secretary for Jewish Voice for Labour
On “The Nationalist Heresy of the Temple Mount” (Published January 18th, 2023)
I appreciate Joshua Leifer’s close look at Jewish visits to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif within the context of Ben Gvir’s recent ascent. His engagement with the history of such visits is valuable and his consideration of the grave political consequences instructive. However, I take issue with his treatment of the halachic considerations involved.
In Leifer’s telling, “Israeli religious Zionism has undergone a series of crises that have led to a break with the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.” Such framing implies that halachic concerns are inherently insulated from political concerns and that religious Zionists’ incorporation of ethnonationalism into halachic considerations undermines the integrity of halacha. But halacha has never been objective or neutral; there is no halacha independent of “political” considerations. By platforming scholars who seem to maintain otherwise, Leifer’s analysis legitimates a purist approach to halachic interpretation, which is exactly the ideology that Haredi authorities use to license their monopoly on the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, granting them jurisdiction over Jewish marriage, divorce, burial, kosher supervision, conversion to Judaism, and the maintenance of “holy sites.”
The very institution of the Rabbinate as a state bureaucracy, not to mention the participation of Haredi parties in the Knesset are the result of halacha adapting to evolving circumstances. I cite these examples because they show how halachic innovation in response to changing conditions—including the establishment of a Jewish state!—is hardly exclusively a religious Zionist innovation. In fact, it is simply how halacha is practiced: it responds to conditions, including explicitly political conditions, as interpreted by decisors, be they religious Zionist, ultra-Orthodox, Conservative, or beyond. Leifer’s article unfortunately promotes the view that halacha exists in some mythological sanctum rather than only in, as, and through its practice.
The letter writer is a postdoctoral fellow at the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, Boston University and an ordained rabbi.
On “Days of Rest” (Published January 17th, 2023)
I wanted to thank the editors for their crucial analysis on the importance of Shabbat. Too often, when we think about Shabbat, we focus on what is not allowed, but there is another profound lesson to consider alongside the forbidden. While the Bible’s 39 categories of work tell us what not to do on Shabbat, they also inform what we ought to strive for the other six days of the week. And what is that? To build a mishkan, a dwelling place for God in the world, which contributes to the world’s construction. This is our charge: to understand that no matter what work we are engaged with, it is an elevated calling, an important contribution to the tapestry of our world. We must release the sparks of holiness contained in what we do, as we work for six days and then rest on Shabbat.
Michael M. Cohen
Manchester Center, Vermont
The letter writer is a rabbi who works for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College.
I was extremely pleased to see the staff’s discussion in the Rest issue responsa of how anti-work politics can be informed not only by a Marxist tradition but also by the practice of Shabbat. While I was excited by the essay’s point that the Sabbath enables us to access a world to come despite the constraints of the present, I was troubled by its uncritical citation of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. The responsa notes correctly that Agamben links the Sabbath with the refusal of “use” because it requires us to separate our ordinary activities from their conventional, productive ends, directing them instead toward festivity. The responsa also links Agamben to the concept of the general strike—a form of refusal that seems exemplary of his argument, even if it’s not clear to me that he actually references it in his work (although he does discuss Walter Benjamin’s writings on the topic). The general strike not only suspends the economy of work, but dissolves another common source of domination that Agamben frequently critiques: the state’s power, manifest largely in law, which regulates and protects productivity. Agamben’s work highlights the emancipatory possibilities inherent in the kind of collective refusal of state power that the general strike embodies.
However, Agamben’s recent writings on the COVID-19 pandemic and state-imposed lockdowns should unsettle us—because they indicate that he rejects all acts of state power, even those meant to protect the vulnerable and exploited. He has argued that the Italian government abused its emergency powers when it instituted lockdowns in the spring of 2020. He has also claimed that the pandemic was an invention, a conspiracy intended to justify the state’s powers and suspend civil rights. This is not to suggest that the responsa should have avoided citing Agamben because his philosophical thinking is politically tainted. Rather, I would have liked to see the responsa note his pandemic writings and acknowledge that his thinking on the Sabbath is perhaps inseparable from his totalizing anti-statist framework—something that should trouble thinkers and organizers interested in how political institutions can support rest.
Contra Agamben, the pandemic lockdowns demonstrated that the state can sometimes create conditions that allow (at least some of) us to take a break from the world in which we find ourselves and, perhaps, prefigure a new one. As “The Fight for the Sabbath,” another article in the Rest issue, teaches us, the state’s powers for world-building and leisure have long been an object of political and religious struggle, including the effort by labor organizers and Jewish leaders to win workers the two-day weekend. Other hard-won victories have given us strike protections, public parks and natural areas, and government-supported artistic venues and museums. Agamben’s overbroad critique of state power misses the fact that the state does not always impinge upon our rest, leisure, and alternative world-making; rather, it has sometimes enabled these practices.
On “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (Published December 23rd, 2022)
As a boomer-aged Jew who grew up in New York City and raised a child with a non-Jewish spouse, I enjoyed the lively conversation about Christmas, the big winter holiday that isn’t ours. But I found it odd that no one mentioned that Jewish children—and perhaps also non-Jews—might think of Hanukkah as “Jewish Christmas,” and that no one spoke about the development of Hanukkah practices in response to Christmas traditions. During my secular Jewish childhood, there was certainly more than a little anxiety about when to give gifts for Hanukkah, what to give, and whether the presents meant anything at all. Is this no longer a tension?
In my own mixed household, we’ve concocted a way of going about the season, at least aesthetically, that makes sense for us: No to tree, yes to candle lighting, but also yes to a few twinkling lights outside because we like lights. We have our own chanukiah-lighting song, and on Christmas we listen to John Prine’s “Jesus, The Missing Years.” Generally, we’ve been all over the map on gift-giving over the years, with a little attendant uncertainty and anxiety. I tend to stumble through the season attempting good will toward all and, embarrassingly, never getting the second candle-lighting blessing right. At some point between gift excesses with the in-laws, we all find time for a restorative walk on the beach and Chinese food. Come January, I breathe a sigh of relief.
I thought something was missing from your conversation “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” One of the more important reasons I am not crazy about Christmas as a Jew is that it reveals how our society is not actually pluralistic, how it passes off a Christian religious and cultural practice as simply an American season of giving—thrusting its trappings into all of our faces and leaving room for little else.
When my children were small, I once took them into our local grocery store and asked where the Jewish items were for Hanukkah. A clerk told me to go down to the end of one of the aisles, toward the back of the store. With my kids in tow, I went to speak to the manager, telling him that I was insulted that the Jewish items were not given pride of place, the way the Christian items were for Christmas. He apologized and the very next day there was a whole beautiful display right in front of the checkout stand.
I appreciated the change, but too often my fellow Americans do not recognize that Christmas does not belong to everyone, not to Jews, nor Muslims, nor Hindus, nor any other religious group. And we, non-Christian Americans, do not belong at the back of the aisle, hidden away.
San Rafael, California