Book Review: Moses the Heretic, By Daniel Spiro

What if…an American Rabbi sparked a worldwide movement for peace? What if he advocated full engagement and alliance with Arabs and recognition of the value and beauty of Islam? What if he suggested that Jews and Muslims and Christians have equal claim to the rich inheritance of the Abrahamic religions; that we are all, indeed, People of the Prophets?

And what if he did all this and looked like Osama bin Laden?

That’s the premise of Daniel Spiro’s novel, Moses the Heretic. Moses Levine is indeed regarded as a heretic by more conventional American Zionists. Spiro creates compelling arguments for his modern Moshe, and places him in a story with lots of action – kidnapping, murder plots, fistfights, synagogue politics. I found the philosophy and theology absorbing and convincing. If Moses Levine really walked among us, I’d probably join his movement.

Unfortunately, Spiro’s writing and characerizations are far less compelling. We know Moses only through the eyes of his friend, Richie Gold, who narrates the story, and much of the action seems to take place offstage. We don’t see the exciting stuff happen; we read Richie’s after-the-fact account. Moses himself never fully takes shape, despite the wealth of biographical information that Richie delivers, and the secondary characters are even more sketchily drawn. Women, in particular, seem to exist only to move the plot forward and to provide pleasant scenery and the required quota of sex – which is again described mostly after it has happened.

Despite those flaws, I enoyed the book. It would be an interesting choice for a discusson group. Spiro forces his readers to confront their own assumptions about Israel and Zionism, and offers a provocative and persuasive alternative to the standard arguments.

Alliance in Action

News Bites

The Free Gaza Movement is returning to Gaza aboard a new ship, the SS Dignity. I received an email earlier this evening saying that the they were about an hour and a half away from the place where they expected the Israeli Navy to stop, attack, or board them. I haven’t heard anything since then, but I’m not going to get worried yet.

A quick note on one of their email updates:

Several times over the past week, people had said that Israel was looking for the Free Gaza, asking port authorities where it was and when we were going. So today was another triumph for the human spirit.

I don’t doubt that Israeli officials were nosing around the port, just as I wouldn’t doubt that American officials would do the exact same thing. But it makes me very nervous that the Free Gaza movement refers to Israel as an inhuman monolithic entity. “Israeli officials/agents/spies/whatever were looking for the Free Gaza” implies that these were specific people deployed by the Israeli government. “Israel was looking for the Free Gaza” dehumanizes Jews. I know that using a country’s name to refer to its government is pretty standard, as in “I don’t like the U.S.’s Middle East policy,” but that language paints a very different picture when you’re talking about the actions of specific people.

Still, though, let’s hope for the best.


Will the Wall Street crisis spur anti-Semitism? I missed this article when it first came out, but JTA reports on the anti-Semitic SNL sketch:

As of Tuesday morning, the clip had been pulled from the show’s Web site, but not due to concerns about Jewish sensibility. “Upon review, we caught certain elements in the sketch that didn’t meet our standards,” NBC said in a statement. The network said the Sandlers had called to complain about the clip, and the tagline “People who should be shot” was removed, along with a reference to “corrupt activities.”

Regardless of whether the writers intended to paint Jews as responsible for the crisis, the skit is almost sure to aggravate a growing concern: that Jews ultimately could find themselves blamed for the nation’s financial meltdown.

“Look at how they are portraying these people who are staying up late in the capitol to pass this 700 billion dollar bailout,” wrote one commenter on a forum of the Vanguard News Network. “They’re makin it look like they’re ‘workin hard’, ‘takin action’, ‘reaching a solution’ … Yeah, they are probably sittin around eating crumpets while the Jews are driving away with truck loads of hundred dollar bills.”

Another commenter on the site wrote that “jew monsters” are seeking to bankrupt the entire planet.

“It’s really more like vampires sucking a corpse dry,” wrote the commenter, identified on the site as Sgruber. “Jews are destroyers. They aren’t after their own long-range advantage. Long-range they want the earth plunged into a Dark Ages of endless poverty. This is why the jews must be killed. They are rats eating the grain and the brain of the world.”

I especially love the people who come leave anti-Semitic comments on Jewish websites. Tell me more, O Enlightened One.

Also, a Jewish man and his nephew were beaten in Paris. Police are ruling out the possibility of a hate crime because some of the attackers were Jewish. However, it’s important to note that the attackers were using anti-Semitic slurs. Racism that comes out after you become angry at someone is still racism. Racism against members of your own group is still racism. If that sentiment is lurking somewhere in your brain, it doesn’t really make a difference when or how it happens to come out.

Finally, Marisa on JVoices explains why boycotts of Israeli musicians aren’t a very effective means of ending the occupation:

First of all, the orchestra is not exactly “state sponsored.” Unfortunately, as we know, the Israeli government spends plenty of money on providing soldiers to guard illegal settlements in Palestine and financial incentives to Jews who want to live there. They spend billions on the most disgustingly unnecessary welfare system in the world, allowing the fathers of Haredi families with 17 children to study full-time at yeshivas while their wives take in mending. [Note: The Heretic at Jewcy has his own take on this.] And they give money to all kinds of projects which further destroy the land and any chance of peace.

Unfortunately, what they don’t do is willingly support culture. The orchestra would not be able to survive on what the State of Israel gives them. The orchestra survives like many American cultural organizations – through donations. And their American tour has been entirely paid for by the American Friends of the JSO. A boycott of the orchestra has no financial impact on Israel whatsoever.

There are also a number of left-wing activists in the orchestra, who stand at checkpoints and pick olives and teach music to Palestinian children. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; artists have a tendency to care about human rights, and to express that care through their art.

Let’s say I sold the foreign publishing rights to my novel. (Ha!) Let’s say I traveled to Europe for my book tour and was greeted by Iraq war protesters outside each bookstore I visited. I myself was protesting the Iraq war months before our troops moved in. How exactly would those protesters enact change by protesting my fiction?

I’m fully in favor of boycotting goods that directly support West Bank settlers and the Gaza blockade – not to mention pulling federal aid in order to reverse settlement expansion. But organizing against the livelihoods of individual people (and we’re not talking about mega-corporate billionaires here) is where boycotts and protests stop making sense.

Phone Banking Adventures

No on 8 has set a few of us up on CallFire, this online system that connects you to voters through the power of the Intertron. You hook it up to your cellphone, and then the names of people it’s dialing for you appear on your computer screen.

Reader, last Sunday CallFire connected me to Zach Braff.

Image description: Zach, a handsome dark-haired man in his thirties, stands in front of a green background that reads “2006 MTV Movie Awards.” He’s dressed in a collared shirt and jeans and smiles at someone off camera.

Image description: In a scene from “The Ex,” Zach, sitting on a couch and wearing a faded tee shirt, laughs and looks off camera.

Image description: Zach walks a small terrier on a busy sidewalk in SoHo, wearing sunglasses and holding a soda cup.

…and he didn’t pick up his phone!

Awww. Reader, I’m sorry. Here you scrolled all the way through those pictures, anxiously awaiting the story of my conversation with Hollywood’s favorite Jewish heartthrob sweetie-pie, and he wasn’t even home! I bet you’re disappointed, huh?


(By the way, anyone who feels tempted to remind me that it’s possible there’s more than one Zach Braff living in Los Angeles can suck a lemon.)

(No on 8!)

Speaking of Basing Your Campaign on Lies…

My husband is a phone banking coach for the local No on 8 campaign. Tonight, at an update meeting, they confirmed a rumor that was circulating around the phone banking session last week: Yes on 8 supporters are calling members of gay and lesbian communities and telling them that if they support same-sex marriage, they should vote yes.

Again, for people in the back – anti-same-sex marriage people are telling people in same-sex couples to vote yes on 8. Their case is so weak that their strategy is now to just confuse people. Now, we don’t know how widespread it is, and obviously the Yes on 8 campaign would deny it if asked. But our campaign has received multiple reports from people saying they’ve been called.

The bad news is that now we have to divide our efforts between calling undecided voters and calling our own supporters to undo the damage. The good news is that we’ve raised enough money to expand our efforts.

Still, please, donate donate donate and volunteer volunteer volunteer. Have we mentioned yet that prop 8 is a constitutional amendment? Meaning that if it passes, it’s virtually impossible to reverse it?

And for California residents who may have gotten here through Google – if you support same-sex marriage, VOTE NO ON 8.

(Cross-posted on Alas, A Blog.)

Privilege in Action

Earlier this week, Fatemeh of Muslimah Media Watch wrote an open letter to white non-Muslim Western feminists on Muslimista. Some highlights:

There are those of us who suffer. But don’t speak of us as victims if we are not dead. Don’t deny the agency with which we become survivors and active shapers of our lives. Don’t ignore the fighting we do for ourselves.

We can—and do—speak for ourselves. So stop speaking for us.

I notice a lot of condescension and arrogance when you talk to us or about us. Let me be clear: you do not know more about us than we know about ourselves, our religion, our cultures, our families, or the forces that shape our lives. You do not know what’s best for us more than we do.

If we want help, and ask for it, then do only what you’re asked.

When I read this, I thought back to a post on Feministe about the headscarf ban in Turkey. The focus of the post was on Fatma Benli, a Muslim feminist fighting against the classism, sexism, and Islamophobia behind the ban. Many commenters, though, weren’t interested in solidarity – instead, all they could focus on were the poor backwards Muslim women who were so brainwashed by Islam that they couldn’t cast off their oppressive head coverings and be like us.

You can’t get much clearer than Fatemeh’s words – “You do not know what’s best for us more than we do” – and yet, in the comment thread at Muslimista, two Western men swoop in with the same old tropes. To be clear, they may not be feminists, but rather right-wing trolls. But their sentiments very closely echo things I’ve heard self-identified feminists say. You have the Sweeping Generalization of the World’s Second Largest Religion:

While I understand some of the sentiment in this letter, the position of women in Islam, and Islam itself, is a sorry state of affairs.

Islam as it is currently practiced is so far from its original intention, as to make it almost unrecognizable.

You got your That Thing I Heard About on the News is the Only Thing That Matters:

I hate to break it to you, but we’re going to be continuing to use our freedom of speech given to us by our constitution whether you like it or not. Personally, as someone who stands for basic human rights I have no choice but to speak out against the most extreme, vile, and offensive aspects of (radical?) Islam. I will continue to oppose public stonings as backward and barbaric which they are. I will continue to oppose honor murders, which happen every day and not only in muslim nations but in the USA as well. I will continue to raise awareness for the victims of jihad, both historically and today. And if you don’t like it thats just tough for you.

And in case we didn’t hear him the first time:

I will be offering help to cure the backwardness and evil of radical Islam whether you want to help or not. The most important step is to ban public stonings FOREVER.

(Later in the comments, Krista points out that stonings actually aren’t that common, and this commenter doesn’t have any response to that.)

Finally, throw in a little You’re Just in Denial:

While I understand that there is misplaced criticism and help, whether due to lack of knowledge or organizational agendas, to throw up the “your not Muslim,” and “there are colonial overtones” cards is a really poor excuse. It is just a veil for Islam not wanting to recognize it is no different from the other world religions, and get off its arse and reform itself.

See the pattern here? The actual needs and concerns of real Muslim women are beside the point. The REALLY pressing issue is that I totally heard somewhere that Islam is like bad and stuff, and there’s no way I could possibly be wrong about that! Because I’m white! And (often) male! Tremble before my superior culture! Watch, as I set your agenda for you without ever learning anything about you! Why would I degrade myself by taking orders from a brown woman – can you imagine? – when I could take a token action to save you from yourself? After all, white people are never the problem – brown people are! We’re the saviors, silly!

Another commenter points out that she does listen to the needs of Muslim women, and asks that Fatemeh not lump her in with “cultural imperialist feminists.” I’ll grant that this is a little more complicated. I still remember the sting the first time I heard harsh criticism directed at “white people” – as if we were a hive mind, and none of us were making any attempt to be good allies. So I get that it sucks (and Fatemeh responds very eloquently and effectively).

But there are bigger issues here than our feelings. We’re the ones with the power – locally and globally. If a POC lumps all white people together, a few white people get irritated. If a white person lumps all POC together, POC die. (Obviously there are exceptions to this, but I’m talking about the overall power structure.)

Also, it gets harder and harder to take it personally the more you see the shit they’re up against.

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)

Utne Honors Brownfemipower and Jessica Hoffman

Via La Alma de Fuego…:

Brave New Feminists
brownfemipower, blogger, writer
Jessica Hoffmann, writer, coeditor of Make/shift

These two women, whose writings consistently challenge the aims and issues of feminism, are the addled movement’s best hope. Their personal-and-political essays light up the blogosphere, forcing discussions about why issues that aren’t typically considered “feminist”—immigration, incarceration, police brutality—ought to be. For this they are often (sometimes nastily) criticized, but for those who haven’t lost hope in the social-justice promise of feminism, their work is transformational.

Read the rest of their write-up – along with descriptions of 48 other visionaries – here.

Rock on!

(Cross-posted at Alas, a Blog.)

Obama = Muslim Jew!!!

Or Jewish Muslim. Or Muslim Jewish atheist. Or atheist Muslim Jewish Muslim communist. What the fuck, America. What the fuck.

About 46 seconds in, look at the top of the effigy’s head:

(Via The Daily Dish. Thanks to Leila for the tip.)

I love how the star of David has become shorthand for everything that’s wrong with the non-Christian, non-white world. (Maybe that’s why I still can’t bring myself to wear mine regularly. It pains me to think that right-wingers are stealing our own symbol from us, just like they stole the word liberal.) What is the statement here? That Obama’s controlled by Jews? That Muslims are controlled by Jews? That Jews and Muslims and black people are all the same thing? And why didn’t the reporter mention the star in the description of the effigy?

Also, need I comment on how scary it is that this guy can hang A RACIST EFFIGY ON HIS FRONT LAWN and feel comfortable enough to discuss it – named – with the local media?

Racism, anti-Semitism, and other -isms always escalate in times of turmoil and economic distress, and we’re seeing that pretty clearly right now.

Movie Review: Young, Jewish and Left

What exactly makes a documentary? I’ve had this discussion about essays (what separates an essay from mere reportage is an idea or argument) and fiction (what separates a story from a scene is a change in the characters’ circumstances), but I’d never considered the issue of documentaries until I watched Irit Reinheimer and Konnie Chameides’s documentary on the new generation of Jewish identity and activism, Young, Jewish and Left. I learned the lesson that I’m sure is taught to every freshman film student on the first day of class: a documentary needs a narrative. A documentary can’t just be a long string of information; it needs some sort of story to propel it along.

Of course, the term “narrative” is pretty flexible. Take Michael Moore’s Sicko. There’s no one overarching storyline, but the series of anecdotes throughout the film – the widow’s fight to save her husband’s life by getting his cancer treatment funded, the 9/11 rescue workers’ trip to Cuba to seek affordable treatment – are focused enough to create a larger narrative about the American healthcare system. Or Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth – the presentation is interspersed with stories from Gore’s childhood and career. There has to be something there, though; otherwise, the film lacks coherency.

Unfortunately, much like realizing you forgot the salt only after you dig into a tasteless dinner, I only discovered the importance of narrative the moment I realized that Young, Jewish and Left doesn’t have it. The documentary is basically one long string of interview snippets, in which rabbis, writers, artists, and activists discuss… well, whatever seems to be on their minds, really. Some talk about anti-Semitism; others discuss ethnocentrism among Ashkenazim; others simply reflect on the ways they’ve built their own identities as Jews. If you examine the subject matter closely, you can see that the interviews are loosely organized by topic, but the structure’s not all that apparent. Each person’s experience, taken by itself, is very interesting; Loolwa Khazoom, editor of the essay collection The Flying Camel, describes the day her Ashkenazi rabbi told her class it was a sin to read from Sephardic prayer books, and all her classmates turned to chant “Shame, shame, shame!” at her. Jna Shelomith’s story of her fellow revolutionaries’ betrayal at Auschwitz is one of the most significant moments in the film. You get the sense that each interview could have been expanded into its own documentary. But overall, the interviews don’t seem to add up to anything; “Leftist Jewish Identity” is much too broad an umbrella to serve as a unifying element, and the film feels disjointed and incoherent.

Exacerbating the lack of focus and story is the fact that we see barely any footage of what these people are doing. Aside from a few brief breaks from the interviews – a clip from an old propaganda film, a Purim performance – we don’t get any sense of what’s going on when the interviewees aren’t sitting on their couches talking to a camera. Even when we do break from the interviews, the events the filmmakers choose to document are often banal at best; while it certainly is cool that one participant honors a relative by dressing up like her for a portrait, viewers experience the event by watching her fix her hair for what feels like an hour.

What’s funny is that the entire film is only fifty-five minutes long. If the filmmakers had gotten out of those living rooms and spent more time seeing what was going on in these communities – or, better yet, if they’d narrowed their focus and chosen to really follow the lives of a few of these individuals – perhaps they would have found more material to flesh out the film. As it is, while the film attempts to assure viewers that yes, there really is a vibrant young Jewish community in contemporary American society, the brevity only reinforced my fears that there isn’t.

Now, at the risk of sounding noncommittal, I actually do recommend that you see it. Despite its flaws, the documentary serves as a good overview of what’s going on in liberal and radical Jewish circles, and works quite well as an invitation to search for more. I can see it functioning as a way to jump start questions about Jewish identity: What do I want my Jewishness to look like? What subtle or overt resistance am I facing – and how can I do and feel more?

If you want to take a deeper drink of that Jewish identity, though, you’re going to have to look for it yourself.

Your prop 4 saga!

If you live in California, you’ve probably heard about Prop 4, which would require parental notification for teenagers seeking abortion care. What’s scary about this proposition is that, unlike more extreme anti-choice laws, it actually looks pretty innocuous on paper. Supporters claim that it’ll foster communication between pregnant teens and their parents by having doctors contact the parents if said teen terminates a pregnancy. And abusive families? Oh, don’t worry about that – teens can just have the clinic contact a trusted relative, or they can go before a judge and obtain a waiver. Everyone wins!

Despite what your voter registration guide says, however, this is not what will actually happen.
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