Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hebrew

Alice Walker: The Color of Anti-Semitism

In what must be considered among the most egregious acts of discrimination against Israel by leftist intellectuals, author Alice Walker is not allowing her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple to be translated into Hebrew because of her opposition to the Jewish state. The book, which was made into a popular 1985 movie directed by Steven Spielberg, is a story about racism and misogyny in the American south.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that in a letter posted on a site supporting the boycott of Israel, Walker said she was refusing to allow the translation in order to boost support for the movement to boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) the Jewish state because of its alleged mistreatment of Palestinians. But in saying she doesn’t even wish her work to appear in Hebrew, Walker is making a broader statement than a mere critique of Israeli policies. This sort of a boycott is an attempt to treat Jews and Hebrew, which is the national language of the Jewish people, as beyond the pale. In doing so, Walker has illustrated how hatred for Israel can erase the line between political opinion and outright anti-Semitism.

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In what must be considered among the most egregious acts of discrimination against Israel by leftist intellectuals, author Alice Walker is not allowing her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple to be translated into Hebrew because of her opposition to the Jewish state. The book, which was made into a popular 1985 movie directed by Steven Spielberg, is a story about racism and misogyny in the American south.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that in a letter posted on a site supporting the boycott of Israel, Walker said she was refusing to allow the translation in order to boost support for the movement to boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) the Jewish state because of its alleged mistreatment of Palestinians. But in saying she doesn’t even wish her work to appear in Hebrew, Walker is making a broader statement than a mere critique of Israeli policies. This sort of a boycott is an attempt to treat Jews and Hebrew, which is the national language of the Jewish people, as beyond the pale. In doing so, Walker has illustrated how hatred for Israel can erase the line between political opinion and outright anti-Semitism.

As JTA points out, Walker’s jihad against the language of Israel is mere symbolism. A Hebrew version of her book appears to already have been published in the 1980s. But however futile her efforts to prevent Hebrew readers from reading her prose, the decision to expand the boycott of Israel from products and investment in companies to actually seeking to isolate a language shows just how deep-seated the hatred of the country has become. In Walker’s world, Israelis are not just the bad guys in a fictional morality play in which the Palestinians are victims, but the very language they speak — the language of the Bible and the foundation of Western religion, values and morality — is to be treated as unworthy of being spoken or read.

Walker’s past diatribes against Israeli policy and her support for the Hamas terrorists in Gaza are ill-informed and rooted in ideological bias. Her belief that Israel’s measures of self-defense against Palestinian terror are not merely wrong but worse than American racism or South African apartheid is a calumny based on lies that can be refuted. But to discriminate against the language of the Jewish people in this manner is pure anti-Semitism.

It is possible to criticize Israel without being an anti-Semite. But Walker has crossed the line from an already indefensible economic war against the Jewish state to a cultural war against Jewish identity. Such boycotts will not convince Israelis to give up their country or their right to defend themselves against the ongoing efforts of Palestinians to destroy it. But they do serve as a warning that Walker and others who support her efforts have already crossed the line between the demonization of Israel and open expressions of Jew-hatred.

Rather than Israel being isolated, it is Walker who must now be treated by decent people everywhere as being as radioactive as anyone who supports racist incitement against African-Americans.

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Obama’s Absurd Claim About Judaism

Apparently, Barack Obama told a visiting contingent of Conservative Jewish rabbis that he probably knows more about Judaism than any other president—on the same day that he referred to “Polish death camps.” For that last remark he apologized, but the one about Judaism is far more telling. In the first place, the claim is transparently absurd. We can quickly pass over the fact that John Adams and James Madison, among the most educated men in the world at the time, knew Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek and just say that the president is, to put it mildly, punching above his weight here. So let’s move on to the fact that every president until the modern era knew more about Judaism than Barack Obama because the Bible was the one book every literate person knew, and the Bible includes the books Christians call the “Old Testament,” and a working knowledge of the Old Testament certainly is the best introduction to “Judaism” there is.

Earlier presidents did not learn the Talmud, of course, but if Barack Obama ever has, that would come as news to me. There is no indication from Obama’s own writing that he is especially Bible-literate, and we can presume that his notorious pastor of 20 years used the Bible primarily as flavoring for his political duck soup. I have no doubt that, among presidents closer to our time, Jimmy Carter was far more conversant in the lore of Biblical Judaism, for all the good it did his corrupted soul when it comes to the Jewish state.

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Apparently, Barack Obama told a visiting contingent of Conservative Jewish rabbis that he probably knows more about Judaism than any other president—on the same day that he referred to “Polish death camps.” For that last remark he apologized, but the one about Judaism is far more telling. In the first place, the claim is transparently absurd. We can quickly pass over the fact that John Adams and James Madison, among the most educated men in the world at the time, knew Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek and just say that the president is, to put it mildly, punching above his weight here. So let’s move on to the fact that every president until the modern era knew more about Judaism than Barack Obama because the Bible was the one book every literate person knew, and the Bible includes the books Christians call the “Old Testament,” and a working knowledge of the Old Testament certainly is the best introduction to “Judaism” there is.

Earlier presidents did not learn the Talmud, of course, but if Barack Obama ever has, that would come as news to me. There is no indication from Obama’s own writing that he is especially Bible-literate, and we can presume that his notorious pastor of 20 years used the Bible primarily as flavoring for his political duck soup. I have no doubt that, among presidents closer to our time, Jimmy Carter was far more conversant in the lore of Biblical Judaism, for all the good it did his corrupted soul when it comes to the Jewish state.

Perhaps what the president meant is that he’s known more Jews than other presidents. This too is an absurdity, as Ronald Reagan spent 30 years in Hollywood and had Jews coming out his ears. In fact, chances are Barack Obama knows less about Judaism than most presidents, except that he knows a lot of liberal Jews.

What the president does, without question, know a great deal about is the act of preening.

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Some Hope for the American Jewish Future

An observer of the Jews of the United States will find no shortage of reasons to be depressed. But the language of an introductory address at a dinner with a traveling group of Knesset members and select young American Jewish invitees at the Avi Chai foundation’s headquarters in New York this past Thursday night gave small reason for hope.

First, a short review of Jewish troubles:

For 20 years, the intermarriage rate has hovered around 50 percent, and the overall population has likely not increased since the 1970s. Worse, both of these topics are today usually either studiously avoided or strangely characterized as strengths.

The vast majority of those Jews born since the 1970s have little Jewish knowledge, and so have unsurprisingly shown little interest in connecting to Jewish institutions as they have become adults. A corresponding drop off in “affiliation” rates with synagogues and organized charities has, since the mid-1990s, been dramatic.

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An observer of the Jews of the United States will find no shortage of reasons to be depressed. But the language of an introductory address at a dinner with a traveling group of Knesset members and select young American Jewish invitees at the Avi Chai foundation’s headquarters in New York this past Thursday night gave small reason for hope.

First, a short review of Jewish troubles:

For 20 years, the intermarriage rate has hovered around 50 percent, and the overall population has likely not increased since the 1970s. Worse, both of these topics are today usually either studiously avoided or strangely characterized as strengths.

The vast majority of those Jews born since the 1970s have little Jewish knowledge, and so have unsurprisingly shown little interest in connecting to Jewish institutions as they have become adults. A corresponding drop off in “affiliation” rates with synagogues and organized charities has, since the mid-1990s, been dramatic.

Most of the parents of those Jews don’t seem to be much wiser, just a lot more instinctively concerned with the Holocaust and Israel.

The main source of vitality in the population – the Orthodox – still make up less than 20 percent of the overall total and either deliberately cloister themselves in insular “black-hat” communities or are generally too preoccupied with paying hefty day-school tuition fees and too lacking in confidence or concern to engage the larger Jewish world (to say nothing of the larger non-Jewish world beyond that) on the pressing cultural and political questions of the day. (Yeshiva University’s Straus Center is a notable caveat.)

That preoccupation with tuition fees derives, in part, from the continuing avoidance of the most pressing domestic Jewish issue today by most of the organized Jewish community: the high cost of Jewish living.

It must be said: most of the problems that afflict American Jewry are less Jewish-specific problems than the Jewish symptoms of larger American social problems. Jews can certainly do a lot more for themselves than they seem to realize, but the denigration of established institutions and the communal bonds they form wasn’t caused by Jews, and won’t be solved by them, either.

Nevertheless, at that dinner on Thursday night, the welcome address was offered entirely in Hebrew out of respect for the Israeli guests and the expectation that the American Jews would be able to understand. As I was able to follow all of it, it is safe to assume the rest of the room could as well. And at my table at least a good portion of the subsequent dinner conversation was also conducted in Hebrew.

I don’t know for sure, but I can’t imagine that American Jewish gatherings of this kind where even a portion is conducted in Hebrew have much of a precedent, if any, no matter the presence of Israelis. (I know that all meetings I myself had previously attended had proceeded seemingly without a thought toward Hebrew, and that this has been the overwhelming historical norm. Among other points of evidence for the trend, Leon Wieseltier told a story in 2008 about the then-exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s failed attempt to address a meeting of Jewish leaders in Hebrew, a language he knew but they didn’t.)

It may not seem like much. But an American Jewry with even a small portion of its young people both deeply interested in public affairs and capable of hearing about them in its people’s language is one with at least some cause for pride. May there be many more similar signs of American Jewish hope in the future.

 

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