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Posts For: July 23, 2014

Anti-Semitism and the “French Intifada”

Few quotes can do a better job of expressing the state of French Jewry than a Jewish Paris barber’s comment to JTA on France’s Jewish Defense League (known as LDJ): “I used to tell my grandsons to focus on the studies and stay out of trouble, but now I sent them to join the LDJ and defend our synagogues against the scum.”

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Few quotes can do a better job of expressing the state of French Jewry than a Jewish Paris barber’s comment to JTA on France’s Jewish Defense League (known as LDJ): “I used to tell my grandsons to focus on the studies and stay out of trouble, but now I sent them to join the LDJ and defend our synagogues against the scum.”

The comment perfectly encapsulates the frustration and fear felt by the Jewish community in France. The barber’s advice to his grandchildren had been the old adage: Don’t trouble trouble until trouble troubles you. Well, trouble has arrived. The barber added: “The Arabs own the streets now. We need make them lose the appetite for messing with us if we’re to survive here. LDJ is our Iron Dome.”

The JTA story is a marvelous piece of reporting. It’s also a testament to the fact that French Jews, who tend to be quite patriotic about their country–the JTA story even opens with a scene at which LDJ members are guarding a synagogue and singing La Marseillaise–have given up relying on the French state to protect them.

As the story explains:

Unable to reach the Grand Synagogues of Sarcelles, some of the rioters smashed shop windows in this poor suburb where tens of thousands of Jews live amid many Muslims. They torched two cars and threw a firebomb at a nearby, smaller synagogue, which was only lightly damaged.

“We sang to thank them, but also to remind them and ourselves that we are equal French citizens entitled to safety,” said Eliyahu, a member of France’s Jewish Defense League, or LDJ, who agreed to be identified only by his first name.

It was the ninth synagogue attack in France since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in Gaza two weeks ago. To Eliyahu and many other French Jews, the attacks have contributed to a growing realization that, despite the extraordinary efforts of French authorities to protect them, French Jews need to rely mostly on themselves for their defense.

“The cops are here now, but it’ll be just us and the Arabs tomorrow,” said Serge Najar, a local community leader.

Nine synagogue attacks in two weeks is a full-blown crisis, especially considering the nature of the attacks and the threat posed had the LDJ not been there to supplement the French police. It obviously shows an angry anti-Semitism not based in Israel or Gaza or recent events; those have just been the convenient pretexts to express the hate.

But aside from French societal anti-Semitism, there is another failing of the French state that enables this. In his new book The French Intifada, the historian Andrew Hussey describes going through his normal metro transfer in 2007 on the day riots broke out in Paris led primarily by largely Arab and African immigrants. He arrives–without knowing the riots had begun–at the Gare du Nord station and sees that a gleeful, and terrifying, total breakdown of law and order is underway:

There is no word in French or English which expresses the opposite of the verb ‘to civilize’: the concept does not exist. But this was anti-civilization in action – a transgression of every code of behaviour that holds a society together. Like a terrorist attack or a football riot, the act of anti-civilization is a total experience: it undermines everything all at once. This is not an intellectual concept; it is a feeling. These kids were taking on the whole world around them – the police, the train authorities, passers-by – wrecking the station, the shops and the offices. And they knew exactly what they were doing.

And what were they doing? They were rebelling, but they were also taking advantage of a key weakness of Parisian order. At flashpoints, or geographic joints connecting different communities in the city, there is a precarious balance:

The Gare du Nord, at the heart of this district, is frontier territory. It is the dividing line between the wretched conditions of the banlieues, the suburbs outside the city, and the relative affluence of central Paris. It is where young banlieusards come to hang out, meet the opposite sex, shop, smoke, show-off and flirt – all the stuff that young people like to do. Paris is both near and distant; it is a few short steps away, but in terms of jobs, housing, making a life, for these young people it is as inaccessible and far away as America. So they cherish this small part of the city that belongs to them.

This is why the Gare du Nord is a flashpoint. The area is generally tense but stable: everyone in the right place, from the police to the dealers. But when the police come in hard, it can feel like another display of colonial power. So the battle cry of ‘Na’al abouk la France!’ is also a cry of hurt and rage. It expresses ancestral emotions of loss, shame and terror. This is what makes it such a powerful curse.

The outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in France is the result of a perfect storm of conditions. But those conditions are not new, and they are not rare, and they are not being adequately addressed. That’s why many Jews are leaving, and others are turning to the LDJ.

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From Heidegger to Gaza

Is there a connection between academic quarrels over the legacy of Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential German philosophers of the twentieth century, and the current conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip?

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Is there a connection between academic quarrels over the legacy of Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential German philosophers of the twentieth century, and the current conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip?

However spurious or bizarre that question may seem at first glance, an article by Michael Marder in the New York Times suggests that such a link does indeed exist. The source of what Marder describes as the “menacing chill forming around the work of Heidegger” also stalks attempts by philosophers, who work in an atmosphere of “ideological censorship,” to expose the nefarious nature of Zionism.

What’s involved here is a complicated story. Nonetheless, it is one that needs to be understood, if only because it illustrates the growing dominance of anti-Zionist opinion in academic and media discourse. Centrally, what it shows is that, to an ever greater extent, anti-Zionism in the academy isn’t so much a stance that one adopts in relation to the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel as it is a philosophical system for interpreting the persistence of conflict in the world in general.

With that in mind, we can better grasp what Marder is driving at in the claims he makes about Heidegger and his legacy. If there is one detail of Heidegger’s biography that is widely known, it’s that he joined the Nazi Party in 1933, at the peak of his career, and remained a member until the defeat of the Nazi regime. As far as Marder is concerned, that bald fact is an irritant, since it’s clear to him that there “is a profound disconnect between Heidegger’s anti-Semitic prejudice and his philosophy.” In other words, if you want to properly appreciate Heidegger’s oeuvre, it’s imperative to regard his Nazi affiliations as, to borrow the infamous words of the French fascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen about the Nazi gas chambers, a “minor detail” in the history of the Second World War.

In discussing Heidegger’s “detractors, who are determined to smear the entirety of his thought and work with the double charge of Nazism and anti-Semitism,” Marder mentions only one–the French scholar Emmanuel Faye–for his temerity in suggesting that Heidegger’s key philosophical concept of Dasein (“Being-in-the-World”) should be reexamined in light of the philosopher’s anti-Semitism. Significantly, Marder does not refer his readers to Berel Lang, the American philosopher who authored a highly regarded book on Heidegger and the Jews. In that book, Lang asserted that “Heidegger’s silence” on the Jewish question before and after the Holocaust was a telling illustration of the “limits” on the thought of a man who, “more than any other twentieth century philosopher, attempted to break through the very notion of the limits of thinking.”

However, following this route into Heidegger’s writings is something of an inconvenience for Marder. It gets in the way of his insistence that the “smear” of anti-Semitism is a deliberate attempt to mask the value of Heidegger’s output, motivated by the same parochical Jewish imperatives that get in the way of a proper appraisal of Zionism.

Here is where the Gaza conflict comes in. Readers of the Times may well have been puzzled by Marder’s claim that “opposition to Zionism and the thinking inspired by Heidegger” are united insofar as both incur the unscrupulous charge of anti-Semitism. In part at least, that’s the fault of the Times‘ editors, who didn’t think it necessary to advise their readers that Marder’s position on the Palestinian issue is what informs his approach to Heidegger.

Look a little more closely, and you will find that Marder is also the author of several opeds for Al Jazeera, with such titles as “Why settlements will lead to a one-state solution” and “Here is why deconstructing Zionism is important.” In the latter piece, he argues that “deconstructing Zionism is not just a critique; it is an exercise in unravelling its philosophical suppositions.” For Marder, the wider problem is that the false assumptions imposed by Zionist ideology–whether the subject is Heidegger or Israeli policy–block proper philosophical inquiry.

Where, though, is Marder leading us? He’d like us to think, as he says in his “deconstructing” piece, that he’s motivated by “intense concern for the Jewish Israelis, who are set on a path of self-destruction.” But before we take him at his word, let’s recall that he edited a book entitled Deconstructing Zionism with the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo. Yesterday, Vattimo told the Italian network Radio 24 that Israel is “a bit worse than the Nazis,” and that, for good measure, he’d like to “shoot those bastard Zionists.”

In the current climate, it would be unwise to assume that Vattimo’s “bastard Zionists” are located only in Israel. What about those thousands of Jews in Europe who vocally identify with Israel, and who have been targeted by mobs in Paris, London, and Berlin? What about those scholars who “smear” Heidegger as an anti-Semite much as they do those self-regardingly courageous academics who, in the name of the Palestinians, speak “truth to power?” Are they among the “bastards?”

I can’t say for sure how Michael Marder would answer those questions. But if he wants to be consistent, he will need to tell us that just as Heidegger’s Nazi Party membership was an irrelevance, so is Vattimo’s shrill exhortation to grab a gun in defense of Hamas. The New York Times, doubtless, will readily offer him the space to do just that.

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A Disgraceful Smear: Blaming Judaism for Israel’s Fallen

I wasn’t planning on writing about Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt’s deeply ignorant screed against Israel this morning, both because of discomfort with rewarding click-trolling and because it was so obviously abhorrent that by the time I got around to it (the piece was posted last night) I would just be repeating others. But I think an important point is still being missed.

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I wasn’t planning on writing about Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt’s deeply ignorant screed against Israel this morning, both because of discomfort with rewarding click-trolling and because it was so obviously abhorrent that by the time I got around to it (the piece was posted last night) I would just be repeating others. But I think an important point is still being missed.

The piece centers on Max Steinberg, a “lone soldier” in the Israel Defense Forces who was killed by terrorists in Gaza this week. Steinberg is from Los Angeles, and after attending a Birthright Israel trip, felt connected enough to make aliyah. He joined the IDF. Benedikt strings these basic facts together and comes up with a creative, and thoroughly repugnant, theory: Birthright shares the blame in Steinberg’s death.

Here’s the crux of Benedikt’s case. You’ll notice two problems:

Though most trip alumni do not join the IDF (Birthright’s spokeswoman told me they don’t keep track), to do so seems like the ultimate fulfillment of Birthright’s mission—the ultimate expression of a Jew’s solidarity with Israel is to take up arms to defend it.

The first is that she leaps to quite a conclusion while admitting she has no data to back it up, as the Times of Israel’s Haviv Rettig Gur notes:

Let me help. The answer is “exceedingly few.” Fewer than 3,000 Americans make aliyah each year across all age groups — from a community of six million Jews. Only a few hundred are young adults, and only a fraction of these (excluding religious women, health problems, anyone over 26, among others) join the IDF.

Then there are those who join the IDF without becoming Israeli citizens via a program known as Mahal, a program that predates Birthright by decades. Hundreds of Mahal soldiers fought in Israel’s Independence War in 1948. Max was a Mahal soldier, one of an estimated 400 young people from English-speaking countries who join the IDF each year through Mahal to serve a shorter service of 1.5 years instead of 3. While Mahal fighters number in the hundreds, only a fraction could have been Birthright participants. At least one-third are classified by the army (based on their own self-identification) as “religious,” meaning that they had been raised in religious educational frameworks, and thus are unlikely to have gone on Birthright. Most Jewish religious schools take their students to Israel during high school, making them ineligible for free college-age Birthright trips.

But the focus on the data misses the other problem with Benedikt’s essay. Benedikt doesn’t have the data on Birthright alumni joining the IDF because she doesn’t need or want it. She’s making a more philosophical argument. She’s saying Birthright connects Jews to Israel, and the “ultimate expression” of this connection must be, in Benedikt’s mind, to pick up a gun and put on a uniform.

The real clue to why Benedikt’s piece is so repulsive is her closing. She writes:

You spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support? This is what you get.

Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s not about Birthright per se. It’s about connecting Jews to their ancient homeland–their historical identity, in other words. And that connection, if successful, leads–not always, but logically, in Benedikt’s mind–to Steinberg’s tragic end. “This is what you get,” she says. War, death–this is what happens when you help Jews connect to a crucial part of Jewish life, history, practice, and identity.

It’s not Birthright that killed Max Steinberg, in Benedikt’s telling. It’s Judaism. Compartmentalize your Judaism by separating yourself from the global Jewish community and from Eretz Yisrael–keep your people’s history hidden–and you should be OK. “Maybe Max was especially lost, or especially susceptible, or maybe he was just looking to do some good and became convinced by his Birthright experience that putting on an IDF uniform and grabbing a gun was the way to do it,” Benedikt offers, trying to explain Steinberg’s Zionism by ascribing it to mental weakness, to emotional instability, or to a moral naïveté that his fellow Jews took advantage of.

To teach a Jew about his people and his history, according to Benedikt, is to play a dangerous game. And this, she says, pointing to the death of a 24-year-old soldier, is what happens; “This is what you get.”

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How the West Helps Hamas Thwart Future Israeli Pullouts

Several commentators have already noted that foreign airlines’ suspension of flights to Israel due to Hamas rocket fire may mean Israel will “never-ever hand land to Palestinians ever again,” as Shmuel Rosner put it on Twitter; Israel can’t afford to have its sole air bridge to the world be at the mercy of a terrorist organization’s whims. But blaming Hamas alone for such a development would be unfair, because the problem isn’t just that Israel evacuated every last inch of Gaza and got 13,000 rockets (and counting) fired at its territory in exchange. It’s that after evacuating Gaza and getting 13,000 rockets in exchange, Israel discovered it still had zero support from the West for any military steps sufficient to actually suppress this rocket fire.

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Several commentators have already noted that foreign airlines’ suspension of flights to Israel due to Hamas rocket fire may mean Israel will “never-ever hand land to Palestinians ever again,” as Shmuel Rosner put it on Twitter; Israel can’t afford to have its sole air bridge to the world be at the mercy of a terrorist organization’s whims. But blaming Hamas alone for such a development would be unfair, because the problem isn’t just that Israel evacuated every last inch of Gaza and got 13,000 rockets (and counting) fired at its territory in exchange. It’s that after evacuating Gaza and getting 13,000 rockets in exchange, Israel discovered it still had zero support from the West for any military steps sufficient to actually suppress this rocket fire.

Western leaders seem curiously oblivious to the fact that the promise of “international legitimacy” was the trump card played by every Israeli premier who executed territorial withdrawals to refute critics who worried (correctly) that the evacuated areas would become hotbeds of anti-Israel terror. Yitzhak Rabin, in withdrawing Israeli forces from parts of the West Bank and Gaza under the Oslo Accords; Ehud Barak, in the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon; and Ariel Sharon, in the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza all made the same simple argument: If Israel is subsequently attacked from these areas, it will then have full international legitimacy to do whatever is necessary to stop the attacks. And most Israelis believed them.

Today, no Israeli believes this anymore. Those prime ministerial promises were made in 1993, 2000, and 2005–i.e., before the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008, or the current Gaza operation. And what Israel discovered in all those wars was that Western leaders, diplomats, journalists, intellectuals, and other opinion leaders indeed declared loudly that Israel has a right to defend itself–but only on condition that it not kill civilians. And since it’s impossible to avoid civilian casualties in any war, much less one against a terrorist organization that deliberately uses civilians as human shields, that effectively means Israel has no legitimacy for military action at all.

This lack of legitimacy is evident in countless ways. Virulently anti-Semitic demonstrations against the Israeli operation have swept the Western world, though no such demonstrations were ever held against the far greater slaughter in, say, Syria. The UN Human Rights Council is working on launching an inquiry into Israeli “war crimes” in Gaza–though not, needless to say, those of Hamas; a similar inquiry after the last Gaza war produced the infamous Goldstone Commission, whose report accusing Israel of “war crimes” was opposed by only eight Western countries in the UN General Assembly, despite being so libelous that even its lead author subsequently repudiated it.

Leading European intellectuals have declared on public radio that all “Zionists” should be shot and the West should arm Hamas. Ostensibly sober diplomats have made witless statements (to borrow Peter Wehner’s apt term) about how Israel is losing “moral authority” by “overdoing” its military operation, when in fact, the ground operation has been limited to a small stretch of Gaza near the Israeli border, leaving the rest of Hamas’s military infrastructure untouched. Both Washington and European capitals are demanding that Israel “do more” to prevent civilian casualties, without explaining what more it could do short of abandoning the military operation and simply letting Hamas launch its rockets undisturbed, while also demanding an “immediate” cease-fire that would leave Hamas with much of its military capability intact.

In short, Israel has learned that once it cedes territory, it’s at the mercy of any terrorist organization that chooses to attack it from that territory, because it will never have international legitimacy to conduct the kind of military operation necessary to suppress such attacks. And that’s not Hamas’s fault at all. It’s the fault of that same “enlightened West” that claims its top priority is an agreement that would get Israel out of the West Bank.

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Scholars of African Literature Have Eyes Only for Israel

The African Literature Association has thrown its insubstantial weight behind the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. Opponents of the boycott movement should welcome this move. Unlike some of the other academic associations that have gotten behind BDS, the African Literature Association cannot even assert that it has, because of U.S. funding, a special interest in Israel. The ALA, though it is headquartered in the U.S. at present, is an emphatically international organization whose political interests, if a literary association must have such interests, are in Africa.

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The African Literature Association has thrown its insubstantial weight behind the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. Opponents of the boycott movement should welcome this move. Unlike some of the other academic associations that have gotten behind BDS, the African Literature Association cannot even assert that it has, because of U.S. funding, a special interest in Israel. The ALA, though it is headquartered in the U.S. at present, is an emphatically international organization whose political interests, if a literary association must have such interests, are in Africa.

It is therefore striking that none of the ALA’s resolutions specifically concerns Africa. In South Africa, where the ALA met this year, Human Rights Watch has said that the government has refused to acknowledge “xenophobic attacks on refugees” from Somalia and elsewhere. But the ALA, though it explicitly complains of Israel’s treatment of African refugees, had nothing to say, as its members partied in Johannesburg, about South Africa’s record.

Here are some other things going on, according to Human Rights Watch’s 2014 World Report, on the continent the African Literature Association purports to be concerned with. Human Rights Watch shares with the ALA an undue focus on Israel, but at least it has the consistency to notice human-rights violations elsewhere.

In Sudan, the government’s “indiscriminate bombing and ongoing clashes with rebels, and the obstruction of humanitarian assistance to rebel-held areas since the outbreak of conflict in June 2011, have displaced tens of thousands within those states and elsewhere in Sudan and forced more than 225,000 to flee to refugee camps in South Sudan and Ethiopia.” Millions have been displaced. Hundreds of thousands are dead. The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In South Sudan, “the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) committed serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, especially in Murle areas. Soldiers unlawfully targeted and killed Murle civilians and caused thousands to flee their homes out of fear of attack. Soldiers also looted or destroyed homes, schools, churches, and the compounds of aid agencies.” The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In Ethiopia, “arbitrary detention and ill-treatment in detention continues to be a major problem. Students, members of opposition groups, journalists, peaceful protesters, and others seeking to express their rights to freedom of assembly, expression, or association are frequently detained arbitrarily.” The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In the Central African Republic, the Seleka, a largely Muslim rebel group that briefly controlled the government “killed scores of civilians who were trying to flee attacks. In some villages, every single structure was at least partially burned. The destruction was often accompanied by pillaging, leaving civilian populations utterly destitute.” Violence between the Seleka and armed Christian and animist groups continues and has displaced hundreds of thousands. The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In Somalia, in government controlled areas, “targeted killings of civilians, notably journalists, increased.” In the Democratic Republic of Congo, “the Rwandan-backed M23 armed group committed widespread war crimes, including summary executions, rapes, and forced recruitment of children.” In Nigeria, “security forces razed and burned homes and properties in communities thought to harbor Boko Haram fighters. In Baga, a town in Borno state, Nigerian troops destroyed more than 2,000 buildings and allegedly killed scores of people, apparently in retaliation for the killing of a soldier by Boko Haram.” In Eritrea, many “are denied fundamental human rights, including the right to express opinions, form associations and peacefully protest. Scores of people continue to be arbitrarily detained and imprisoned without trial at the whim of commanders and security forces; many are tortured.  Freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice is denied if the government disapproves of the choice.” The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In fairness, the organization has not been wholly silent on human rights in Africa. For example, the ALA’s president, in 2011, wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to act on unspecified human-rights violations in Africa. But that letter was much less pointed and detailed than the resolution against Israel which, among other things, singles out Israel alone for working with repressive African regimes. They had nothing to say about their host South Africa’s close allies, China and Russia, both of which are known for exporting arms to nations, including Sudan, with poor human-rights records. Nor did they speak to South Africa’s refusal to support sanctions against Syria. About such things, the righteous scholars of the African Literature Association do not care.

We can thank the African Literature Association for making things crystal clear. When an association that exists primarily “to facilitate the attempts of a world-wide audience to appreciate the efforts of African writers and artists” and secondarily to support “the African peoples in their struggle for liberation” interests itself solely in Israel and has not a word for human-rights abuses in Africa, we can be confident that we are dealing with scholars in the grip of an anti-Semitic movement.

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