Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Abe Foxman & the ADL: serially stupid

For me it started a few years ago, in 2006, when the Anti-Defamation League and its progressively more senile leader Abe Foxman complained to Sacha Baron Cohen about "anti-Semitic" images in the movie Borat. "C'mon," I said to myself, "have you completely lost your sense of humor?" Of course, I was assuming that somewhere in the bowels of this strange organization there might actually be a sense of humor to be misplaced.

The last few weeks have put the icing on the cake for me. When the ADL came out -- at an absolutely decisive moment -- against placing the Cordoba House (or as I sometimes snarkily call it, the "GZMM" -- "ground zero mega-mosque") in its proposed location, I knew that the ADL had rendered itself a dead and irrelevant organization. No one could any longer take this once venerable and respected organization seriously, because in one fell swoop it had undone all its good work. At a moment of national insanity, the ADL had aligned itself with the crazy ones.

Yesterday came more icing on the cake. Abe decided to issue a condemnation of Roger Waters' current production of "The Wall Live" tour, a live on-stage performance of Pink Floyd's wonderful rock opera. Waters, as we know, was the leader of the band, and has been an observer in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Waters, it might be remembered, came to Israel in 2006 for a concert as the cultural boycott frenzy was just picking up steam in Britain. He had the temerity to visit the security barrier/separation wall and graffitied on it "Tear Down this Wall." "It's a horrific edifice, this thing," he told reporters at the time. And so a man who wrote a grand and global condemnation of "the Wall" in 1979, turned into a live-action and animated feature film in 1982, comes to give a concert in Israel in 2006 at a village devoted to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and encounters a real-life crystallization of all he bemoaned 27 years earlier, and calls it a horrible thing. Oh my! How this must have put Waters on the radar screen of the ever-vigilant morons at the ADL.

During the on-stage version of "Goodbye Blue Sky" (one of the most powerful visual animations in the 1982 movie), a new animation, clearly an extension and update of the 1982 version, was shown.  I've only found one video of the current animation, and it is not very clear, but you can see slow-motion formations of B-52 bombers carpet-bombing red symbols on a desolate, already devastated landscape. Look at it yourself, from the Toronto show. You will see the following sequence: B-52s opening their payload doors to reveal, and eventually drop -- 1. crosses; 2. hammers & sickles; 3. crescents; 4. stars of David; 4. dollar signs; 5. Shell Oil emblems; 6. Merecedes Benz corporate symbols; and finally, a hodge-podge of all 6 symbols. The message is simple and as moving as the original 1982 vision, which concentrated exclusively on the cross-symbol: we are killing each other because of all these symbols, all derived from deadly forces in modern society.

But here goes crazy Abe (the lie now repeated on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Israel's Ynet):

It is outrageous that Roger Waters has chosen to use the juxtaposition of a Jewish Star of David with the symbol of dollar signs.  While he insists that his intent was to criticize Israel's West Bank security fence, the use of such imagery in a concert setting seems to leave the message open to interpretation, and the meaning could easily be misunderstood as a comment about Jews and money.

Is this serious? Abe Foxman, rock critic? Am I to believe he is an aficionado of AOR? (Daily Show -- are you listening?)

I've said it before (actually quite recently, to the local head of the regional ADL) -- if the ADL is to save itself from complete and total irrelevancy for the future of America's civic debates about race and prejudice, Abe Foxman has got to be put out to pasture. How can you tell a one man show to simply shut the fuck up?

UPDATE 1: October 8: In a bizarre twist, recent viewers of performances of "The Wall Live" tour have noticed that Roger Waters, who categorically denied any anti-Semitic intent in the sequence of animations, has indeed changed the sequence, so that after the Stars of David, Shell Oil and Mercedes Benz symbols are displayed. The ADL pronounces itself satisfied. But OMG! What of the long standing anti-Semitic canard that all Jews are communists, and the other accusation that Islam is simply a variation on the Semitic religion of Judaism? If hammers & sickles and crescents precede the Stars of David, isn't this another horrendous anti-Semitic slur that requires the entire ADL organization to burn the midnight oil? Shades of Father Coughlin! And surely some nut somewhere thinks that the Jews run Shell Oil and Daimler AG. Where's Abe to protect us now that there is a new, vile sequence of symbols???

My point is: we have reached a preposterous state in the quality of civic discourse and the critique of art when a blowhard (about to publish a book entitled Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype, btw - won't this whole episode be just dandy for advanced sales!) can decide on his own, and with apparent persuasive credibility, to force a creative artist to alter a thoroughly benign artistic image that does not have the slightest hint of anti-Semitism. 

Congratulations, Abe! But where were you when we needed you? Dig way back deep into The Kinks discography. Listen to a song entitled "When I Turn Off the Living Room Light." I expect a letter and press release to be immediately issued against Ray Davies.  

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

So, Is Abbas Serious?

The way this blog seems to work, is that my very few readers find out about my postings via Facebook, and post their reactions and comments over there. I post a blog, write a tweet announcing the posting, which then is cross-listed to Facebook. There is no doubt that my audience uses Facebook far more than Twitter. In any event, whatever reactions I might get come to me by way of Facebook. It's a bit cumbersome.

So one of my few readers sent me an e-mail about my last post:

It isn't enough to state that other bloggers can dwell on the inadequacies of Palestinian leadership. They won't. And if you don't, boycott backers will cite your own words to advance their cause.

OK, but what's a guy to do? I don't follow the Arab press as closely as the Israeli press. My Arabic ain't nearly as good as my Hebrew. I've lived in Israel when Bibi was last PM of Israel in 1996; I've never lived in Palestine. I have a basic read of the situation that goes like this: Netanyahu doesn't want to deliver, and Abbas can't deliver, even if he wanted to. And I simply do not know if he wants to. One indication that Abbas isn't serious is the way he frittered away the possible opportunity that was provided during the 10-month Israeli settlement moratorium, particularly after the Arab League had given its imprimatur on direct talks in late July. But it wasn't until September that Abbas engaged in direct talks. Hardly indicative of a leader eager to negotiate.

I think thoughtful critics of the Abbas regime (and I don't mean the Ali Abunimahs of the world who simply label the Palestinian Authority "collaborationist" and wash their hands of it; or the Caroline Glicks of the world who believe that the PA is congenitally evil) ought to provide a reading of just what it is that Abbas is willing to do during this round of negotiations. 

As for the second point, my reader is wrong. I think that precisely because I am a severe critic of the Netanyahu approach, and that I regularly register my opinion in this blog that the entire settlement enterprise is wrong and must be undone, proves that my opposition to the BDS effort is impregnable. In any event, proponents of BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) and the USACBI (US Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel) campaign are not out to alter an Israeli policy here or there -- their goal is to deligitimize a Jewish state, and to make it (in its current form, or even in some "dovish" form) disappear into the dustbin of history along with the apartheid regime of South Africa, to which they now regularly compare Israel. Does anyone really believe that the proponents of BDS are simply trying to tactically alter Israel's politics, international relations, and society? Was the Arab League economic boycott merely a tactic to get Israel to change its policies? Of course it wasn't. To paraphrase Ben Gurion: I will oppose BDS as if there is no Netanyahu government, and oppose Netanyahu's rule as if there was no BDS.

That's the only way I can figure out how to move forward.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Is Netanyahu Serious?

Appearing in today's Jerusalem Post is an article that caught my attention. According to the Post, and based on a report on Israeli Army radio (an official media organ if ever there was one), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is proposing a release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard (convicted to a life sentence for espionage against the US in 1987) in exchange for committing to a 3-month extension of the 10-month phony "settlement freeze" set to expire on September 26. I found the original story on the web site of Israeli Army Radio (in Hebrew) here.

A few days ago on the eve of the resumption of the "direct talks," I pointed out in my blog that the last time Netanyahu engaged in face-to-face negotiations with the Palestinians under American auspices (back in 1996), he tried to elicit precisely the same deal for Pollard on the way to the now-forgotten Wye River Memorandum. Netanyahu argued in 1996 that only a release of Pollard would appease his political allies in his government, allowing him to sell the deal. Back in 1996, when everyone thought a deal had been struck, Netanyahu tried to strongarm President Clinton, threatening to back away from the Wye deal (read Dennis Ross's account of Bibi's "bullshit" in The Missing Peace, pp. 455-457). Clinton pushed back against Netanyahu's posturing, and the Pollard matter passed.

But Bibi is still Bibi. And once again, in exchange for a trivial 90 days of the diplomatic equivalent of a photo-op (extending a settlement freeze that really isn't a freeze), Bibi is apparently raising the same issue with the Americans.

Look - it's time to call a spade a spade. Netanyahu is not serious in these negotiations, and never was. There is so much hopeful blather in the news about the "new Bibi" - the chastened Netanyahu, now given a second chance to bring a historic peace to Israel. Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama announce their belief that Netanyahu is serious - the right-wing Israeli leader who can actually deliver his country for a pragmatic deal.

Preposterous. Netanyahu had an opportunity back in February 2009 to convene an Israeli government that might be responsive to a serious American-led diplomatic push. He could have created a viable right-centrist parliamentary majority in 2009; instead he opted for a hard-right coalition government. From the moment Netanyahu created this particular government, he indicated he has no interest in any peace process.

I don't mean to point my finger at Netanyahu alone. The Palestinian leadership is equally unfit for serious negotiations. It's just that I know the Israeli side better than the Palestinian side. Let another blogger write up the real intentions of Mahmoud Abbas. All I know is this -- don't expect Netanyahu to be The Peacemaker.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

My Rosh ha-Shana Talk about Burning the Qur'an

Driving to Hillel this morning, I came up with the following, which I said during this morning's services (Thanks Lisa for letting me have my moment, and this is an approximation of what I said off-the-cuff):

Shana tova and chag sameach. Gut yuntif and gut yor. Because Jews and Muslims both use the moon to mark their calendars, there is a wonderful convergence this week, a convergence of dates which does not happen very often. While we Jews were marking the Hebrew month of Elul, the month leading up to the New Year, Muslims were marking their sacred month of Ramadan. While we Jews celebrate the beginning of our New Year, Muslims are celebrating the end of Ramadan, culminating in a day's time with Id al-Fitr, the joyous end of the month in which Muhammad received (according to Muslim tradition) his first revelation from God. Those revelations continued throughout the rest of Muhammad's life, and were gathered together into a book which Muslims call the recitation, or in Arabic the Qur'an.

Also, in a random bit of coincidence, this Saturday is the ninth anniversary of a day that has seared itself into American memory, what was a "clear blue Tuesday" morning nine years ago when I opened my 9:55 Intro to Islam class with an image from the internet of the North Tower billowing smoke. I told my class I didn't know much about the burning tower, but I announced that the course would be quite different from what I had planned.

This Saturday, a crackpot minister from Gainesville, Florida plans to gather together a number of Qur'ans and set them on fire in the parking lot of his church. He says he has been told by God that Islam is the devil's religion, and he has been commanded to burn the devil's book. Everyone has condemned what he is planning to do. Yesterday Hilary Clinton condemned it, and General Petraeus has said it will endanger our troops in Afghanistan. This morning President Obama condemned the planned bonfire.

Now every one of the holy books has verses that can be interpreted one way or another. Our own Bible has verses that calls for the slaughter of God's enemies. And the New Testament has verses that heap scorn on those who do not accept Christ as Savior. And the Qur'an too has verses that attack Christians and Jews. But I wanted to read to you one verse from the book that Pastor Jones plans to burn on Saturday, which goes like this:

قُولُوٓاْ ءَامَنَّا بِٱللَّهِ وَمَآ أُنزِلَ إِلَيۡنَا وَمَآ أُنزِلَ إِلَىٰٓ إِبۡرَٲهِـۧمَ وَإِسۡمَـٰعِيلَ وَإِسۡحَـٰقَ وَيَعۡقُوبَ وَٱلۡأَسۡبَاطِ وَمَآ أُوتِىَ مُوسَىٰ وَعِيسَىٰ وَمَآ أُوتِىَ ٱلنَّبِيُّونَ مِن رَّبِّهِمۡ لَا نُفَرِّقُ بَيۡنَ أَحَدٍ۬ مِّنۡهُمۡ وَنَحۡنُ لَهُ ۥ مُسۡلِمُونَ

Say: We believe in God and in that which has been revealed to us, and in that which has been revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and in that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and in that which has been given to the prophets from their Lord - we do not make any distinction between any one of them - and to Him do we submit.

This is one of my favorite verses in the Qur'an (2:136). The simplicity and beauty of its ecumenical message is undeniable.

There was a German man of letters who lived about a century before the Nazis came to power in Germany. Heinrich Heine is famous for the quote:  "Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings." And it wasn't just the Nazis who burned our Jewish books and fulfilled the premonition - before the Nazis there were the Inquisitors of the Middle Ages, about whom Heine wrote. So we here in the Jewish community know better than anyone else what book burning portends. And because of that, we should all reach out to our Muslim brothers and sisters on campus, at the bayt al-salaam, and offer them our support and our friendship in this time where they must be feeling enormous pain.

But there is another side to the story which complicates the picture. Two years ago in the predominantly religious Israeli town of Or Yehudah, Christian missionaries provocatively distributed hundreds of copies of the New Testament to the homes of residents. The mayor of Or Yehudah organized a mass gathering of the New Testaments and they were then burned. And not long ago some Muslims around the world rioted over a Danish cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, and before that a very few Muslim religious authorities issued a death sentence against an author who wrote a less-than-complimentary portrait of Muhammad.

We are living in a time where the crazies of all three faiths are burning each other's books. It is so sad and disheartening. So here I am, the liberal college professor of religious studies, begging you all to be open-minded and open-hearted, and do whatever you can to stem this tide of insanity. We Jews more than almost any other group know what this madness can lead to. Reach out to your friends who are feeling the heat of this fire of intolerance. Shana tova, and `Id mubarak.