Category Archives: Rants

Behaving Like Jews

This post was originally published at Tikkun Daily.

I am going to behave like a Jew

and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,

and pull him off the road.

-Gerald Stern, “Behaving Like a Jew”

fergusonIt’s been almost a month since a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown.  In the wake of the shooting, residents of Ferguson concerned about police brutality and racism turned out in the streets to protest peacefully, and were met with tanks, riot gear, and tear gas.  (A small number of people were involved in either looting local businesses or throwing bottles and other small-scale weaponry, which was used to justify the police crackdown.)  Journalists, local politicians, and scores of people doing nothing but exercising a constitutionally protected right to free assembly were arrested and harassed.

During this period of unrest, my Facebook newsfeed was full of outrage and despair.  But very little of that passion was directed at Ferguson.  Instead, it was largely about Operation Protective Edge, in Gaza.  Every day I was greeted with scores of articles defending Israel’s right to defend itself, justifying the scale of force in Gaza, and reporting on both rocket fire and tunnels dug by Hamas into Israeli territory.  (To be fair, I also saw numerous articles reporting on peace demonstrations, critiquing the scale of Israeli response to rocket fire, and mourning the loss of life on both sides.)

Though this is merely anecdotal, it seems fairly representative of the institutional American Jewish response to events in Ferguson.  While individual rabbis and Jewish leaders have called attention to and even protested against the violence in Missouri, and many articles, including those in Tikkun, have argued strongly for a Jewish ethical obligation to the Ferguson protestors, major, mainstream Jewish organizations have been largely silent.  The Anti-Defamation League offers a lesson plan for talking about Ferguson with students on its website, but its only official statement is a denunciation of the presence of the New Black Panther Party at the Ferguson protests. Of the mainstream American Jewish religious movements, only the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism issued a press release regarding the violence in Ferguson.

Institutional American Judaism was once at the forefront of the civil rights movement.  Famously, prominent rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with civil rights leaders in the American South.  Many of these Jewish leaders were inspired to ally themselves with powerless people of color in the United States because of their own experiences of oppression in Europe.  We continue to celebrate the history of Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement over half a century ago, but have little to show for it today: what prominent American rabbi or lay leader went to march with the people of Ferguson?

We know that American Jewish institutions are capable of raising their voices for causes they hold dear: witness the recent strong public defense of Israel.  Why have the same organizations been so quiet about the violence and anti-democratic tendencies in their own back yard?  It would be impossible to answer that question definitively, but I would like to suggest one contributing factor that should trouble American Jews.  Is it possible that the institutional American Jewish community – that is, the major organizations representing various facets of American Jewry, who have the money and visibility to exert the most influence in the public sphere – has been distracted, or worse, that its commitment to social justice in America has been adversely affected by its focus on Israel?

In its most benign interpretation, this theory would suggest that American Jewish institutions are so thoroughly occupied by their attention to Israel, not just in the recent crisis, but on an ongoing basis, that they no longer have the energy, interest, or time (not to mention funding) to fight injustice at home.  That is, perhaps these organizations have made a conscious or unconscious decision to direct most of their energy toward support for Israel.  The front page of the website of every major American Jewish organization, bar none, mentions various programs and initiatives designed to support Israel, so it is clear that Israel is a top priority.  While this makes sense, and organizations must always make decisions about where and how to direct their necessarily limited energies, it would be worthwhile for American Jews to ask whether this focus on Israel draws Jewish attention away from engagement with important social and political issues in America that have always benefitted from Jewish involvement and support. As many people have pointed out, Jewish tradition necessitates our involvement.  Sympathy and solidarity with the powerless and oppressed has become a hallmark of what it means to be Jewish in America.  It is part of how being Jewish has come to be defined.

ferguson gazaDoes this withdrawal from active institutional defense of civil rights in America, then, reflect a change in how the American Jewish community defines itself and its Judaism?   Partly, it demonstrates a changed relationship to power.  Certainly, Jews in America are relatively prosperous and successful, largely insulated from the kind of anti-Semitism that has been on the rise in Europe and, for the majority of us who are white, privy to the privileges of whiteness.  But this cannot fully explain a withdrawal from active engagement in the crisis in Ferguson.  Rather, I think it is partially the result of a more troubling, hidden connection to the American Jewish focus on Israel, one that only becomes clear when we draw the lines between the two conflicts.  To be clear, the recent war between Israel and Hamas and the confrontation between police and protestors in Ferguson are not the same.  Each situation has its own particular and unique history and context.  But when tanks rolled down city streets and confronted unarmed protestors at the same time that a powerful military bombed areas densely packed with civilians, it was possible to see the ways in which power and powerlessness played out similarly in each situation.  Even those involved in the conflicts recognized it: Palestinians in Gaza began to share advice on dealing with tear gas with Ferguson protestors on Twitter.  And it was also easy to see which side of the power equation American Jewish institutions stand on: with Israel, with its tanks and its tear gas and its dominant military.  I am not arguing whether this stand is justified – that argument is furious and ongoing.  But any alliance with power has its consequences, and I am asking us to consider seriously the possibility that American Jewish organizations, steadfast as always in support of Israel, saw the inevitable parallels, imperfect as they are, between the people of Ferguson and the people of Gaza, and remained quiet.  If so, American Jews must consider the possibility that our attention to Israel has paradoxically caused us to forget how, to paraphrase the words of the poet Gerald Stern, to behave like Jews.


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Gender and Nation at War

A couple of weeks ago, the Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, in the context of a conversation about what could stop terror attacks like the recent murder of three Israeli teenagers, suggested that “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped.”  Kedar, as he himself pointed out in the interview, was not suggesting the use of such a tactic, but rather pointing to what he felt was the only possible deterrent to terror attacks: the threat of violence against women.

Judah Maccabee

Judah Maccabee

Regardless of whether one agrees with Kedar or not, his comments, taken together with other recent events related to the Israeli military, the current campaign in Gaza, and internal Israeli protests for and against the war, point to the gendered discourse on which Israeli culture and society was built.  Contemporary definitions of an Israeli Jewish masculinity dependent on military domination arose out of 19th-century conceptions of the European Jewish diaspora.  In this formulation, adopted by early Zionists and promulgated by Theodor Herzl’s colleague Max Nordau, European Jewish culture had become, by the late 19th century, “abnormal,” particularly with regard to gender relations.  In enlightenment critiques, Jewish women, who were traditionally (even if not always actually) breadwinners for their scholar-husbands, were portrayed as emasculating tyrants, and traditional Jewish men as weak, impotent sidekicks to their powerful wives.  Nordau and other early Zionists picked up on this critique, and claimed one of the goals of Zionism as the “normalization” of gender within the Jewish community, such that Jewish men would be restored to their rightful status as heirs to Jewish heroes like Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, whom Nordau claimed were “the last embodiment in world history of a bellicose, militant Jewry.”  This desire to re-gender Jewish men was at the heart of the image of the New Jew, modeled on Nordau’s ideal of a Jewish national body made up of “deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”

This image of the New Jew is deep at the heart of the Israeli self-image and social constructions of gender in Israeli society.  The connection between militarization and masculinity is inextricably entwined with the ideological roots of Zionism.  Kedar’s comments generally reflect the way in which gender and power are conceived in Israeli culture and specifically reflect the way in which rape, or the threat of rape, functions not just as a tool of war but as a mode of constructing and maintaining the ideal of the male Israeli soldier-citizen, an image crucial to Israel’s national identity and self-consciousness.  I am not discussing here the way in which individual Israelis or individual men or women understand themselves within these ideological and historical terms, but the way in which Israeli self-image as a whole has been discursively constructed – through speech, image, and ideology – on the basis of a particular, and dangerous, conception of gender.

Kedar’s comments reveal the basic assumption that the bodies of women are in some fundamental way identified with the nation, and that their violation would thus constitute an act of war.  As the scholar Susan Sered notes in her study What Makes Women Sick?, “…what lies behind the determination to keep women out of combat positions is a sense that because women symbolize the collective, rape of a woman – unlike rape or torture of a man – is an affront to the honor of the state….The rape of a woman soldier is construed as equivalent to the rape of the Jewish people.”  Kedar simply reverses this formulation, assuming the same logic applies to the terrorist enemy.

stand with idfBut in constructing women as inherent victims, by making their bodies contiguous with the battlefield, the role of women in war is relegated to that of sex object.  Indeed, recent photos posted on the Facebook page “Standing with IDF” of partially naked women with messages of support for the Israeli army scrawled on their bodies is consistent with the notion that women’s bodies support the war effort through a deployment of their sexuality, not through their service.

In a parallel example, when the young recruit Udi Segal recently refused his service in the IDF, protestors at the draft office where he was due to report for service taunted him by calling it his “gay coming out party” and yelled at his supporters to “Go get fucked in the ass!”  The same gendered logic that relegates women’s role in war to that of victim or sex object cannot reconcile the image of a man who refuses to be a soldier.  Since masculinity is synonymous with military service in Israeli culture, a man who does not serve, must, by this logic, be gendered or sexed differently.

It appears that this logic also extends beyond just service in the military, but also to support (or criticism) of military actions.  Several recent accounts of demonstrations or attacks against peace protesters in Israel have noted similar language leveled at them for supporting peace.  The journalist Haggai Matar wrote that violent attacks against peace protesters in Tel Aviv were “accompanied by swearing and sexual threats”; Moriel Rothman-Zecher wrote that at the same protest counter-demonstrators shouted, as they did to Udi Segal and his supporters, “You all get fucked in the ass”; and Rebecca Hughes notes that she has seen “blue and white dildos waved threateningly at peace protestors” – a literalization of the idea of the masculine state using sexual violence as a means of domination.

All of these scenes are what naturally follow from the equation of masculinity with militarism in a society in which participation in the military is a condition of citizenship.  The scenario proposed by Mordechai Kedar does not need to be carried out in order for the danger to be real: for women, certainly, but also for a society precariously balanced on the assumption of women’s victimization and highly gendered conceptions of power.

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Violence and its Ends

Many, many friends of mine have been posting on Facebook recently about the conflict in Israel-Palestine, the bombs falling on Gaza and the rockets falling on Israel, and other aspects of the situation, including recent violent attacks on left-wing protesters in Israeli cities. These posts tend to fall all over the political spectrum: some of them resolutely defend Israel, some of them express sympathy with Gazans and Palestinians more generally, some of them are critical of both Israel and the Palestinians, some of them are critical of only one side or the other. I don’t agree with them all, although I am often curious to read even those opinions and ideas that I am inclined to automatically reject. Generally, I don’t comment unless I feel I can add something to the conversation and the conversation is respectful and thoughtful (this automatically disqualifies many posts, sadly).

Golda Meir

Golda Meir

Yesterday, a quote attributed to Golda Meir (which as far as I can tell is legit) popped up several times in my news feed. Printed against the backdrop of a photo of Meir speaking, the quote read, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” This quote raised my hackles in a way that nothing else has, and after starting a conversation about the appropriate response to racist and hateful posts, I was inspired to comment (more on what those comments were in a moment). But it also occurred to me that this quote, and my response to it, is at the center of recent events, far flung and mostly unrelated, that have created a sick knot in my stomach over the last week: the crisis in Israel-Palestine, the downing of a Malaysian passenger plane, the botched execution of an Arizona man, and the horrifying murder of my college classmate Dan Markel. I had an anxious sense that all these things were related, but until I thought deeply about the Meir quote, I didn’t know why.

If we look more closely at Meir’s claim, we can see that it depends on the assumption of a faceless group called “the Arabs,” who act and feel as one monolithic entity.  This monolithic entity, she claims, loves its children less than it hates Israeli Jews.  If it is an inherent quality of human beings that we love our children unconditionally and above all, then to love one’s children less than one hates someone else is necessarily to be somewhat less than fully human.  Of course, as with any essentializing claim about humanity, it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.  If even one Arab loves his children above all, then Meir is wrong.

But proving this claim wrong is not enough; we have to understand why it is so dangerous. Examining its insidious mechanism reveals the way that generalizing, monolithic claims about religious, ethnic, and national groups dehumanize individuals and enable both the kind of mass killing we see now every day in the news – in Gaza, in Ukraine, in Sudan and elsewhere – and the kind of personal violence that killed Dan. Statements like these dehumanize whole groups of people, reducing them to nameless, faceless Others who are not like us, whose actions are the cause of our suffering (and their own), whose deaths are incidental to the larger human drama of which they are not a part.

I am thinking here not only of the Golda Meir quote, but also of the pro-Russian rebel commander who, when asked why a civilian plane would be flying over Ukraine, allegedly answered, “It means they wanted to bring some spies to us. Fuck them. They should not fly, we are at war here.” The people on the plane were not vacationers, scientists, children – they were spies. Spies who don’t belong, who, by flying inadvertently into a war zone, brought their deaths upon themselves. I am thinking of a professor friend who told me of an Iraq war vet in one of his classes who explained that the only way to kill someone is to convince yourself you are not killing a person, by persuading yourself through racism or other forms of magical thinking that your target is not human, but less than. I am thinking about the heinous murderer Joseph Wood, who was left gasping on a gurney for nearly two hours as the state of Arizona experimented with a new combination of lethal drugs for execution, and his victim’s brother-in-law, Richard Brown, who asked, “Why didn’t we give him Drano?” Without in any way minimizing Wood’s crimes or the suffering he caused, his prolonged execution and the subsequent suggestion that his death should have been horrible smacks of the kind of human experimentation that has only been carried out by the most abhorrent regimes in history against those deemed unworthy of life. I am thinking about the person who put a gun to Dan’s head, who in order to pull the trigger must have thought that his own grievances superseded Dan’s very humanity, his right to continue to live on this earth as a father, a son, a friend. I am thinking about Dan himself, whose field of study was retributive justice, a form of punishment that repudiates vengeance, and whose opposition to the death penalty was well known.

This is why I think it’s so important, right now, to fight the twin reactions of despair and silence. We have to speak out when we see dehumanization occurring, in speech or in deeds, point to it, disarm it with more speech, with dialogue, conversation, and respect. And we have to hope that our words will have some small effect, even if only to strengthen our own commitment to humanity and to humanism. We must remember the names of the victims of violence regardless of whether we feel the violence against them was justified, as in war, or not. We must commemorate and analyze and create beauty from destruction. We should mourn and rebuild what was destroyed when we can, strengthen community and human ties, move forward and go on.  The Israeli journalist Haggai Matar posted a reflection yesterday titled, “A Few Optimistic Thoughts in a Nearly Empty Airport.” (Sorry, it’s only available in Hebrew.) He wrote, “Despite the despair and pessimism all around, I stubbornly believe that there is still hope here….I know there are those who will say that this is naïve, but it’s not.” It may be naïve, actually, but if it is I will accept this naïveté as the price I pay for a world in which we never stop fighting for an end to violence.


Dan Markel.  This photo seemed more like him than the posed one that's been reprinted everywhere.

Dan Markel. This photo seemed more like him than the posed one that’s been reprinted everywhere.


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How my Miscarriage Made Me More Pro-Choice

You can read my recent guest post on Feministe here.

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Female Breadwinners = Death of Civilization?

I think not.  You can read my thoughts on the topic here.


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When Life Imitates Art

Yesterday it was reported that a group of female Israeli Defense Forces soldiers were reprimanded for uploading racy photos of themselves to Facebook.   There was a predictable amount of outrage, although some defended the young women and suggested that the photos were a representation of age-appropriate pranksterish behavior.  Perhaps most astutely, a couple of blog posts, one at the Forward and the other on Open Zion, have linked the photos and their interpretation to gender, and in particular to gender roles and expectations in the Israeli military.

Max Nordau.  Not so muscular himself, I'm afraid.

Max Nordau. Not so muscular himself, I’m afraid.

The link between masculinity and militarism in Israeli culture traces its roots to late nineteenth-century Zionism, and the physician Max Nordau’s Muskeljudentum movement.  Nordau advocated the transformation of the Jews from fearful, cloistered students into, as he wrote, “deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”  These new muscle Jews would be the heirs of Jewish heroes like Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, whom Nordau saw as “the last embodiment in world history of a bellicose, militant Jewry.”  This image of the tough fighter became the basis for the ideal of the New Hebrew Man, and was later embodied by the macho commandos of the IDF.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that female bodies play a subversive role in the context of the Israeli military.  The idea that women and gender complicate Israeli military ideals is not new.   Shani Boianjiu’s 2012 novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, follows the lives of three young female recruits in the IDF, young women much like the half-naked soldiers holding machine guns that have circulated on the internet in the last two days. (I have written at length about the novel here.)  The protagonists of The People of Forever and their own motivations for similar acts of resistance reveal the ways in which these pictures comprise a challenge not just to military culture generally but to specifically Israeli ideals of masculinity and militarism.

people of foreverBoianjiu’s book cracks open the façade of the New Hebrew Man to reveal the misogynist rot at its core.  In one relevant episode, Avishag, a soldier serving on the border with Egypt, tries to stop a truck full of women she knows are being trafficked from crossing the border, but is prevented from doing so by her male commanding officer.  He, following military protocol, allows the driver through because all his papers are in order.  In protest, Avishag retreats to her guard tower, where she strips naked and lies down on the floor.  Her defiance might have gone unremarked, but for a curious Egyptian border guard who catches sight of her and sparks a “diplomatic incident.”  Avishag, like the soldiers in the recent photos, is lightly disciplined.

The form of Avishag’s protest – exposing the female body – reveals what is concealed under the monolithic uniform of the conscript.  By revealing her body, Avishag gives the lie to the masculinist ideal of the Israeli soldier as New Hebrew Man.  She refuses her role as soldier in a military that is itself complicit, both explicitly and implicitly, in the oppression of and violence against women.  In doing so, Avishag exposes the fragility of the fantasy of the militaristic, hyper-masculine Israeli.

Like Avishag’s nakedness, the recent photos of scantily clad female IDF soldiers strike me not as a youthful prank or thoughtless joke, but as a serious form of protest.  The women in the photos hold their guns to their chests, half-covering their bare breasts, but their real weapons are their own bodies.  These photos force us to acknowledge those bodies, and their difference, and consider what the very existence of the female Israeli soldier means for both the Israeli military and Israeli culture as a whole.

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Lament of a Sore Loser


Ross Douthat

This Sunday, Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ resident social conservative (I use the adjective “social” to differentiate him from David Brooks, who I’m pretty sure opposes so-called conservatives on every social issue although he would never admit it in print), published his take on the effects of marriage equality on, well, marriage.  Other than that marriage equality would mean more people getting married and more money for all those wedding-related businesses, a seemingly ideal socially and fiscally conservative win-win.

There are so many things wrong with Douthat’s reasoning, including that it isn’t reasoning at all, a fact he himself admits somewhere in the middle of the essay, when, after trying to prove that creeping marriage equality has led to a falling marriage rate, increasing out-of-wedlock births, and more cohabitation, he admits, “Correlations do not, of course, establish causation.”  Sigh.  Alex Pareene takes apart Douthat’s non-argument pretty well on Salon, pointing out that Douthat and other social conservatives have had to refine their presentation of their case precisely because their case is so abhorrent to most people: “Social conservatives, in general, believe that we were better off when sex necessarily led to babies and babies necessarily led to lifelong marriage. None of them deny believing this, they just rarely (these days) put it in such stark terms, because that’s not a very popular position.”

All this I’ve heard before.  But what really bothered me, and what bothers me about every Douthat column I’ve read (which isn’t very many because I can barely stand to keep my eyes on the page) is his self-righteous, know-it-all sanctimony.  If you made it to the end of the essay (and believe me, I do not blame you if you stopped reading at paragraph two), you could read Douthat’s personal prescription for liberals, who are, as usual, doing things all wrong: marriage equality proponents should concede that there are social costs to “redefining marriage,” as he calls it, but that they support this “redefinition” because the benefits of change outweigh the costs.  That’s bad enough (more on that in a minute), but then he goes on:  “Such honesty would make social liberals more magnanimous in what looks increasingly like victory, and less likely to hound and harass religious institutions that still want to elevate and defend the older marital ideal.”

First, Douthat’s “correlation is not causation” argument has in no way demonstrated that “redefining” marriage has had any detrimental effect on the institution of marriage at all.  As Alex Pareene points out, there’s not even a correlation: marriage equality only exists in a handful of states, and only very recently, so to claim it has influenced a much longer and broader trend of divorce, elective single parenting, and cohabitation, among other things, is patently false.  Second, marriage equality is only a redefinition of marriage insofar as monogamy is a redefinition, or allowing married women to own property is a redefinition, or any of the major modifications and changes to so-called traditional marriage that have been undertaken in the last two thousand years are redefinitions of some non-existent, originary, authentic conception of marriage.  So, to be clear: there’s nothing to be “honest” about here.  Marriage— what it is and what it does—like every other societal institution, has varied widely over space and time depending on the conditions that obtained in every society in which it existed.  Generally speaking, it has been the institution of marriage itself that has extracted far heavier social costs than any changes to its constitution: think only of Elizabeth Bennett, for whom the only way to avoid homelessness, basically, is marriage to a man of means.

Maybe it’s the fabricated “redefinition” and social “costs” that make Douthat’s preachy tone so unbearable.  He also manages to slip in another exaggeration (if not an outright lie) about liberals “hounding and harassing” religious institutions, when the fight for marriage equality has always been about civil and legal rights, and never about religion (except for social conservatives, who have tried to make it about religion).  But it seems to me that Douthat’s holier-than-thou advice only thinly masks the reality that it is not marriage-equality proponents who need to be magnanimous about their certain victory (and it is certain now).  In the light of that victory, Ross Douthat’s essay sounds more than anything like the whiny lament of a sore loser.

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