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Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Earlier this week, the translator, critic, and Jewish Currents contributor Lily Meyer published her engrossing debut novel, Short War, which spans two continents and nearly five decades to trace the entanglements of family, eros, and empire. The book begins in Santiago in the spring of 1973—just before the US-backed coup that deposed the socialist Chilean president, Salvador Allende, and inaugurated 17 years of right-wing military dictatorship—following American Jewish teenager Gabriel Lazris as he grapples with fascism’s rise. Brought to the country by his conservative father’s work as the Santiago bureau chief for an American newspaper, Gabriel has been radicalized by his friend’s militant dad, and is now a committed communist and self-loathing American. “He remembered walking around Chicago on his last visit to the States,” Meyer writes, “pitying everyone he saw for not having an Allende of their own on the horizon. Allende was possibility.” Gabriel’s reckoning with the crumbling of the nation’s socialist experiment intersects with his escalating alienation from his family, as he begins to suspect his father of collaborating with the CIA to sow discord in Chile. But even as the political situation deteriorates, he finds a new home for his idealism in a whirlwind romance with a girl named Caro, who joins him in a Communist Party farm labor program. When the novel later turns to Gabriel’s flailing daughter Nina, whose 2015 excursion to Buenos Aires to salvage her PhD dissertation is derailed for a quest to Santiago in search of information about her family, it becomes an intimate exploration not only of Chilean democracy’s tragic dissolution, but of the wrenching ways that historical trauma corrodes relationships down the generations. (If you happen to be in or near the Twin Cities next Tuesday, April 16th, come see me in conversation with Meyer at SubText Books in St. Paul.)

Aparna Gopalan (news editor): Today I read the Mondoweiss article “‘Come out, you animals’: how the massacre at al-Shifa Hospital happened” by Tareq S. Hajjaj, which uses eyewitness testimonies to reconstruct the two-week Israeli siege that killed at least 381 Palestinians (with over 1,000 others either dead, injured, or missing) at Gaza’s largest hospital complex.

The article recounts how Israeli soldiers entered the hospital on March 18th to break up a gathering of Gaza’s civil government employees, who had come to al-Shifa to receive their salaries. Framing the gathering as a meeting of “terror operatives,” the Israeli forces began to besiege the complex using tanks and drones. Those whom Israel deigned to consider civilians were asked to leave the hospital, and when “some of the staff members, including doctors, refused to leave . . . they were executed immediately and without argument.” Soldiers later went through the hospital compound in search of those who had not evacuated; these people, too, were executed, at least 22 of them in their hospital beds.

Afterwards, the Israeli army gathered the government workers in the hospital’s courtyard. I will quote what comes next: “It then proceeded to execute them, one after the other. When the slaughter was done, army bulldozers piled up their corpses in the dozens, dragging them through the sand and burying them.” In the weeks to come, photo after photo would show severed limbs covered in sand, being dug up by hand by the government employees who still remained.

I’ve found no adjectives to characterize Hajjaj’s report. “Horrific,” “harrowing,” “monstrous,” and “unbearable,” have long since collapsed under the weight of Gaza’s realities. But this piece demands to be read. These scenes cannot be allowed to go unseen. I invite you to read and bear witness, for whatever little witness is even worth anymore.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Thanks to the portability of books, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance are far better known than the movement’s visual artists. But the impressive new show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism, will do much to right that imbalance. This exhaustive (but not exhausting) show reveals the breadth of the work of Black artists in the 1930s and ’40s, while examining the ways their output, so rooted in American reality, intersected with that of Europeans like Matisse, Picasso, and Man Ray. While many museum shows on Black art since the 2020 police killing of George Floyd have had a narrowly political focus, this exhibition presents an expansive view of Black American life and aesthetics. Each room corresponds to a theme, and the first two make the range of style and subject clear. The first room, titled “Thinkers,” includes formal, even stuffy portraits of Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson; the next one, “Everyday Life in the New Black Cities,” abandons formality and offers frames bursting with life, like Archibald Motley’s The Picnic and The Liar, Hale Wooodruff’s Cubist The Card Players, and Jacob Lawrence’s Pool Parlor.

I was particularly struck by Palmer Hyden’s The Janitor Who Paints, a lovely portrait of a man whose life is split between survival at a menial job and art; it’s a strong but subtle statement of persistence and strength. But the most interesting portraits are those painted by Winold Reiss, a German refugee who famously portrayed W.E.B. Du Bois and the aforementioned Alain Locke, presented with detailed heads and with bodies presented largely in outline. For me, though, the star of the show is unquestionably William H. Johnson. As I roamed through the rooms, I gravitated naturally to a number of colorful canvases painted in a deceptively simple style. In one, a colorfully dressed couple stand under a crescent moon; the man is wearing a yellow jacket with a long yellow feather in his fedora, and the woman dressed to the nines. In another, an elderly man in a vest sits casually, backwards, on a chair, the colors stark and clear. That these works stand out above the rest is no knock on the rest. This well-conceived, well-curated collection of paintings, drawings, photographs, and films pays homage to artists who have long deserved—and are finally receiving—the attention they merit.

Jonathan Shamir (JC fellow): I want to recommend an indispensable report by Yuval Abraham, published by +972 Magazine and its Hebrew partner Local Call, on the artificial intelligence system—known as “Lavender”—that the Israeli military has used to compile its kill list in the Gaza Strip.

Theoretically, the role of the system is to identify suspected Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives—but in practice it has selected targets using a definition “so permissive [that] it loses all meaning,” one source told Abraham. Drawing on testimonies from six Israeli intelligence officers, the report explains how the AI program uses supposedly common “characteristics” of militants—flagging people who switch mobile phones, move between houses, or simply belong to certain WhatsApp groups—to rank the likelihood that an individual is affiliated with a militant organization on a scale from 1 to 100. As pressure to kill more militants mounted in the first weeks of the war, the threshold for defining targets fell, until Lavender’s kill list included some 37,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army recognized and accepted that the system made errors in approximately 10% of cases, marking individuals “who have merely a loose connection to militant groups, or no connection at all.” And yet, the military “gave sweeping approval for officers to adopt Lavender’s kill lists” without double-checking them.

As dystopian as this killing machine may be, I was even more struck by the article’s revelations about how, after October 7th, a prevailing atmosphere of “hysteria” and thirst for revenge propelled an unprecedented loosening of the rules of engagement. Once the AI had identified targets, the Israeli military attacked them in their private residences because, from an intelligence perspective, it was “easier” than locating them on the battlefield—if they were ever on the battlefield at all. This was done using unguided munitions known as “dumb bombs” that wiped out entire families and their neighbors because, as another intelligence officer explains, “you don’t want to waste expensive bombs on unimportant people.” Israel’s military also tore up its own rulebook for calculating “collateral damage,” giving itself permission to kill between 15 and 20 civilians in order to destroy a single low-ranking militants. As for senior militants, 100 civilians were knowingly killed in some attacks on the commanders of brigades or battalions. When read alongside Abraham’s past revelations on Israel’s military conduct—showing the targeting of high-rises and civilian infrastructure in order to try to pressure Palestinians to rise up against Hamas—the piece makes it clear how Israel’s war on Gaza has swiftly become one of the most deadly bombing campaigns in modern history.


Weekly Parshah Commentary

Over the course of each year, Jews read the Five Books of Moses in their entirety—covering one parshah, or section, every week on Shabbat morning. In this moment when many in our community have expressed an unprecedented alienation from most Jewish institutions, alongside an urgent need for spiritual fortification, we’ve begun a series of brief commentaries on the weekly parshah, written by a rotating group of Jewish Currents contributors and appearing here in the Shabbat Reading List. The Hebrew word “lidrosh” means both “to interpret” and “to demand,” suggesting that by interpreting a text, we stake a claim to it, and ultimately assert that the text is not nearly as fixed as we may have thought—and the world around us not nearly as static as we’ve been taught to believe.

As this experiment unfolds, please reply to this email to let us know what you think.

Parshat Tazria

This week’s parshah, Tazria, picks up from last week’s discussion of the regime of tahara and tumah, often translated as “purity” and “impurity.” These are loaded terms, especially when applied to people and our bodies, as they are in both this and next week’s Torah readings. Tazria focuses on two of the main experiences that can make a person impure—childbirth and a leprosy-like skin condition known as tzaraat—while the surrounding parshiyot consider other instances like contact with a dead body; touching certain “creepy-crawly” creatures; and assorted genital emissions, including menstruation and ejaculation.

In her book Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literature, scholar Mira Balberg argues that while in the Bible, impurity is acquired and ritually dispelled in specific moments, the rabbis of the Mishnah, a second-century codification of law and practice, transformed the system of purity and impurity into an ongoing process. Purity becomes about attempting to control an inevitably porous body by paying constant attention to it. Because some bodies—those that bleed monthly and lactate—are even more inevitably permeable than others, they are harder to control under this system of management, and are thus regarded as less ideal subjects of the purity regime. (According to Balberg, the rabbis, influenced by Greek medical thought, also saw women as less capable of the mental discipline required to pursue purity, just as menstruating people are unable to control their bodies’ “leakiness.”)

But this wariness about “leakier” bodies obscures the reality that we all live in bodies that are, as Balberg puts it, “extremely fluid entit[ies] whose boundaries are constantly transformed.” In her essay “A Question of Boundaries,” the Jewish feminist theologian Rachel Adler writes that the “patriarchal man points at the other as the permeable one. He portrays himself as sealed and impenetrable.” This impenetrability, which is a delusion at best, should not be an ideal. Rather, we should understand our inexorable permeability as providing occasions for holiness. Rituals around menstruation (known as niddah), for example, can be viewed as the menstruating body generating an opportunity for mitzvot. For Adler, the absence of a firm dividing line between the body and the world around it is linked to another form of porousness: the self’s reliance on others. The places where the boundaries between us are flexible are the loci of divine revelation; it is the attention to these places, rather than to the maintenance of ourselves as self-sufficient and impermeable, that creates a holy subject. Just as a niddah practice can lead practitioners to deeper embodied connection with the Divine, appreciating our interdependence can strengthen our sacred connections to one another.

The idealization of the impermeable body has also often been applied to the “national body,” as part of the reactionary worldview that regards borders as sacrosanct. Indeed, today the notion of defending the Jewish national body—which has been used for decades to justify a Jewish-supremacist state—is being mobilized to perpetrate horrors in Gaza. In this context, there is deep power in the potential offered by embracing impurity over purity, messiness over order, multivocality over coherence, porousness over borders.

—Avigayil Halpern