Friday, August 3, 2018

Israel forgets: being Jewish means more than not running buses on the Sabbath

Pro-Israel demonstration, Chicago 2004
     Now that's the Israel I know and love.
     I've gotten in the habit of pretty much ignoring what goes on in the Promised Land. Everything there is a problem (Promised to whom?) particularly as its government continues the rightward slide toward nationalism so poisoning our own country.
     While America, under the leadership of Donald Trump, is trying to be great again by harassing refugees and flipping the bird to immigrants, Israel joins the fun by reminding its non-Jewish residents of the Jewish state, officially by a new "Nation-State" law, that they don't belong, don't run things and never will.
     Is that helpful? To insecure nationalists, sure. To those trying to nudge Israel toward a viable future in the 21st century, not so much.
     A full-time job, opposing that slide in our own country. To keep our own religious fanatics from trying to turn the supposedly neutral government into an auxiliary of their church, in league with the least religious, least moral president since ... well, ever.
     Given that, why bother with Israel? Because by seeing how Israelis combat their problems gives us a hint how to cope with our own.
     So — talk about burying the lede — what's the good news out of Israel that has me smiling?
     A thousand Israelis took part in a mass Arabic lesson at Habima Square in Tel Aviv Monday night, to protest to the new Nation-State Law which, among other ominous rumblings, downgraded the status of the Arabic language because, well, nationalists like to stick their thumb in the eyes of those they consider beneath them. It's makes them feel better about themselves, which is what nationalism is all about: dressing up in the shiny uniform of your own people, strutting about and pretending to be magnificent.
     You fight that ... how? In part, by embracing the thing that nationalists would see denigrated. Just as in Denmark last week, Danes offended by that nation's new anti-niqab law have been protesting by covering their own faces. Or just by not being silent. Imagine if American liberals celebrated our country's diversity with half the volume that Republicans denounce it? Imagine the roar.
     Sitting at my kitchen table, reading the news, I had an epiphany. As much as I am without question Jewish, and am proud of that, my central identity has nothing to do with the God of Deuteronomy or my mom being Jewish or studying Talmud or an affinity for gefilte fish, or whatever particular marker of Judaism you care to name.
     What I like about Judaism is, first, the thinking part. The clear-minded, rational understanding of what's going on. Plus the compassion part, a feeling for others that I fancy is intrinsic to the faith, and not just the usual insincere chin-music.
     And second, is the doing part. Not leaving it all in God's hands, or hoping that justice is waiting in Heaven. But tikkun olam, repairing the world, right now, starting with whatever part of it happens to be right in front of you. So if your country tries to undermine the very language your neighbor speaks, then you need to go somewhere public and learn it.
     Nationalists view multi-culturism as dangerous and naive, and in 1300, maybe it was. The world as a zero sum gain; if one group wins the other must lose.
     But if we look at actual history, the human beings who somehow manage to cooperate and overcome their outward differences get to raise cities and develop agriculture. Those who realize that science has no nationality get to cure polio. While those who file their teeth to points and fight everyone who isn't like them eventually die out. Nationalists miss this; they see only the high they get from regarding themselves, but are blind to the cost. Our modern world has many benefits—running water, commerce, this computer stuff. But it scares some folks, and they want to go back to the womb.
     Don't let them try. Push back. We've got a good thing, with this modern world. Let's not wreck it. Nationalism is like any other drug that makes you feel really good until it suddenly doesn't. Germany soared, for a while, until it didn't. The sticky end always comes. A strong Jewish identity created Israel and brought it great success. But the world is changing, and a new strategy is needed.


  1. There must be some good sense lurking in the corridors of power, given that Netanyahu and Trump haven't gotten to expressing their nationalism by wearing military uniforms...yet.


  2. Fine column, Neil. And you're dead on about manifestations of multiculturism driving the nationalist Right crazy. Why else would they get so hysterical about, say, an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters?

    I'll never forget how a trustee on the board of a lily-white suburb--it might even have been Northbrook--got his shorts in a knot over a graphic for a village vehicle sticker that depicted a group of children. He was upset because one or two of the kids weren't white. He expressed it with the usual crap about "multiculturalism being shoved down our throats." If you're that invested in your "white heritage" that you can't stand even a drawing of someone who's ethnically different, there's very little hope for you.

    1. Yes, that was Wilmette. A trustee and many residents where upset about diversity being shoved down their throats. If I recall correctly the Village permitted people to cut out the portion of the sticker they didn't like as long as the serial number remained visible. Much like New Hampshire allows people to tape over the state motto "Live Free or Die" on their license plates if they are hardcore pacifists. Giving people such choices allows us to judge what level of racism they embrace.

  3. "But when the chosen people grew more strong,
    The rightful cause at length became the wrong." Dryden "Absalom and Achitophel"

    Good review in the most recent New Yorker of a newly released memoir by Iris Origo entitled "A chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940." It chronicle's the beginning of the end of Il Duces efforts to make Italy great again through military aggression and the fateful alliance with Hitler. Origo's "War in Val d' Orca," which described life on Lo Foce the Origo's Tuscan estate, as the German army retreated up the peninsula is one of the finest accounts of what it was like to be on the ground as war raged all around with multiple combatants: Germans, Italian fascists, Communist Partisans, Non-Communist Partisans, American and British forces. Would make a great film. I'm surprised George Clooney hasn't taken it on.


    1. Tom, that sounds interesting, but which issue? I have the Aug. 6/13 issue, and there's nothing like that in there.

    2. Don't know how recent that review is. But I am reading one from last year. This is from the review. A close associate of Mussolini described to her the Duce’s contempt for humanity: “A sentimentalist about ‘the people’ en masse, he is completely cynical about all individuals, and measures them only by the use he can put them to.” Pretty much describes Trump.

    3. It's in the Thursday, August 2, issue.

      If you are fortunate enough to visit Tuscany south of Siena you can visit La Foce (but only on Wednesdays) and learn about the Origo's. Their memory is revered by the locals for their work in turning a wasteland into productive farmland and the role they played in the war. There's also a good biography of Iris.


    4. Tom - There's no such thing. The New Yorker publishes on Monday. The last two issues were July 30 and August 6 & 13, and nothing in either issue contains anything like what you describe. Did you see this online maybe? Or are you confusing the New Yorker with the New York Times?

    5. I saw the article on line.

  4. The article is titled "Not a moment too soon: Iris Origo's War Diary." By Cinthia Zorin. The occasion for the piece is that the New York Review Of Books is publishing the Origo book this week.

    I did read it on line, and the date at the top of the page is Thursday, August 2.

    I believe the New York Times is one of those big things made of newsprint, that, to pinch one of Neil's better metaphors, is like a website they fold over and throw at houses in the morning. Or used to in my case.

    The New Yorker is, of course smaller, printed on shiny paper and made occasionally available to me by both my dentist and my dermatologist as I linger in their waiting rooms. However, for daily consumption I look at both publications on my computer screen.


    1. Thanks, guys. Good stuff. Maybe I'll go read that book.


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