“What is bad for the Jews is better for Zionism.”

This review originally appeared at Feministe. It’s taken me forever to haul it over here, as usual.

The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From its Ashes by Avraham Burg
(Palgrave Macmillan)

When liberals and radicals discuss the occupation of Palestine, two soundbites tend to emerge: “How can Jews persecute Arabs when they themselves were persecuted? They know better!” and “It’s like when an abused child grows up to abuse their own children. It’s just something that happens.” There are elements of truth to both assertions, but each one shaves off so much of the complexity behind Israeli aggression that neither one is very useful in understanding how to end it. Auschwitz survivor Ruth Kluger, in her memoir Still Alive, addresses the idea that “Jews should know better” in a scene where she takes a group of university students to task for comparing Israel to the Nazis. “Auschwitz was no instructional institution,” she scolds them. “You learned nothing there, and least of all humanity and tolerance.” And it’s true. When you experience violence, you learn violence. The idea that genocide turns people into enlightened beings is preposterous.

However, the opposite assertion – that Israel is like an abused child – can be shallow and insulting. A human being operates on emotion and impulse just as much as logic and rationality; we forgive individuals for acting without thinking. A government, on the other hand, must be held to a higher standard. To say that Israel is just an abuser and that’s all there is to it is to give up on Israel’s capacity for good, and to give up on that is to dismiss the possibility of a Palestinian state and peace in the region.

Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset, doesn’t flinch from the complex web of trauma, pride, anger, sadness, and paranoia that has led Israeli citizens to condone the slaughter of Palestinians. The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes doesn’t address the manipulation of Holocaust remembrance by Israeli and American politicians, the Christian Zionist movement, global anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiment, or the other external factors that fuel Israel’s various military endeavors; instead, his half-memoir, half-polemic dissects the psychology behind Israel’s preference for violence over diplomacy, and makes the case for why Israel cannot achieve peace and stability until it stops seeing every threat as a potential Shoah. Continue reading

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.

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.