Tag Archives: civil rights

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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A Victorian Parable for Contemporary America

the way we live nowThe thing that probably sustained me most as I made my way through Anthony Trollope’s 762-page opus The Way We Live Now was that it really is pretty much about the way we live now, in 2013, even though it was written in 1875.  That’s partly because the novel was written in satirical response to financial scandals of the 1870s, and we’ve just lived through a similarly worldwide financial meltdown with some of the same root causes: unchecked greed and irresponsible speculation.  Indeed, Trollope wrote that one of his reasons for writing the novel was to expose the way wealth corrupts social values: “Nevertheless a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel.”  He would probably roll over in his grave to see the obeisance paid to Wall Street CEOs who, unlike Trollope’s protagonist Augustus Melmotte, seem to have pulled off their high-class pyramid schemes and escaped with the money.

Aside from its ruthless mockery of the pretensions of wealth, The Way We Live Now also offers some of the usual insights into the constraints imposed upon women, particularly women of class but no money, and the constant social and economic machinations of a class-obsessed English aristocracy.  The action centers around Mr. Melmotte, a banker of shadowy origins (possibly Jewish, of course, about which more later) whose tremendous wealth, which he parlays into social and political power, is revealed to be nothing more than an illusory pyramid scheme.  In the meantime, the perception of wealth draws a host of greater and lesser aristocratic characters into his orbit.  The sheer length of the novel demands that at least some of these characters pique the reader’s interest, and on this count Trollope doesn’t disappoint.  There is the sociopathic Sir Felix Carbury, who seems incapable of any human feeling other than a desire for unlimited funds to continue his dissolute lifestyle of hunting, gambling, and drinking to excess.  There is Lady Carbury, his equally sociopathic mother, who impoverishes herself in order to support her wayward son, writing partially plagiarized histories and trashy novels in order to make a few extra pounds that inevitably disappear down the maw of Sir Felix’s endless debt.  There are the various Melmotte hangers-on, all of them impoverished gentlemen eager to lend the credibility of their titles to the banker in exchange for the cash windfall they expect to follow.  And of course there are a whole host of minor characters with hilarious names: Mr. Squercum, a lawyer, sometime adversary of Mr. Bideawhile, another advocate; Mr. Flatfleece, the shady financier of a local club; Ruby Ruggles and John Crumb, a low-class couple whose romantic difficulties form a large subplot; and my personal favorite, the former Julia Triplex, now elevated by her marriage to Sir Damask Monogram.

victorian ladiesWhat the novel does not contain is many redeemable characters.  Interestingly, however, the one character who seems to have no negative characteristics is one of the many wealthy bankers who populate the novel, Mr. Brehgert.  The positive depiction of his character seems unusual not only because he is a banker, and has accumulated great wealth through banking, but also because he is a Jew.  We first meet Mr. Brehgert because he proposes marriage to one of the minor characters the plot follows, Georgiana Longstaffe.  The daughter of Sir Adolphus Longstaffe, a cash-poor gentleman with business dealings with Mr. Melmotte, Georgey is a bit of a snob who has managed to grow into her late twenties without accepting any of the marriage proposals she deemed inferior in her youth.  Now, however, it has become clear to her that her father can no longer maintain her in the style to which she is accustomed, and she becomes desperate to find a rich husband.  Unfortunately, however, she has agreed to stay the “season” in London with the Melmottes, and as a result proper society (including her old friend Lady Julia Monogram) shuns her advances and she finds herself unable to meet any eligible men.  Thus, when Mr. Brehgert, a fifty-one-year-old widower with five children, proposes to her, she overlooks his age, ethnicity, and occupation and sees only green.  The only problem?  Her parents, like basically every other self-respecting family of English aristocrats in the nineteenth century (and beyond), are ardent anti-Semites.  This is all handled in the same spirit of wicked fun as the rest of the satire, and we get to read things about Georgiana’s mother like, “[she] did not go down into the hall to meet her child – from whom she had that morning received the dreadful tidings about the Jew” or “when her daughter should have married a Jew, she didn’t think that she could pluck up the courage to look even her neighbours…in the face.”  Since Trollope has already made some relentless fun of said neighbors, we know how much that’s worth.

Aside from the delightful skewering of casual aristocratic prejudices, though, Mr. Brehgert does have an important place in the novel, as he seems to be its moral center.  This, of course, is in deliberate contrast to stereotypes of the greedy, morally corrupt Jew (think Shylock), and reverses the poles of virtue: here, it is the supposedly Christian gentlemen who are greedy and corrupt.  Brehgert, though he is a banker, appears to be an entirely scrupulous one.  He has also invested with Melmotte, but when he learns that Melmotte is a sham he takes his loss without complaint, and refuses to be party to any of Melmotte’s obviously criminal activities.  He also proves himself more gentlemanly than the gentlemen in his dealings with his intended fiancée.  After Georgiana’s father visits him in London to break off his daughter’s engagement, Brehgert writes Georgiana a long, thoughtful, complimentary letter in which he addresses the complaints against him (including the fact of his Jewishness) with grace and dignity and leaves the choice about whether to marry him entirely up to Georgiana.  Though not particularly romantic, Brehgert is affectionate and sincere, writing, “I have no doubt you believe me when I say that I entertain a most sincere affection for you; and I beseech you to believe me in saying further that should you become my wife it shall be the study of my life to make you happy.”  Considering that no one else much cares whether Georgey is happy or not as long as she is rich, this is a generous offer indeed.

Although afforded a rather small role in the scope of the book, in its last quarter Mr. Brehgert emerges clearly as the closest thing to a hero there is, suggesting that a better future – of ethical business dealings, sincerity in personal relationships, and greater egalitarianism – lies not in the traditional center of the aristocracy, but in the emerging margins of a professional class made up of those who have formerly been excluded from English society.  This, too, seems like a relevant notion at a moment in which the demographics of American culture are shifting and those who were once marginal – immigrants, gay men and lesbians, women, the poor – now lead the way on the path of civil rights and greater economic equality.


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