Right here, right now

Cornell Israeli flag

Dear Friends,

I wrote about “Academia and Israel” a few months ago and also about anti-Jewish boycotts in this post on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Now we are dealing with this right here in Ithaca on the Cornell campus. Legal Insurrection reported that Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine proposed a Divestment resolution to be voted on over Pesach, a time during which many Jewish students will be away. The resolution was announced at the last possible minute with no notice, an obvious tactic to neutralize possible opposition and debate on the issue.

Pro-Israel students have started a Facebook page (Invest in Peace) and a petition against the resolution.

Please sign this petition. Anybody can sign whether you are a member of the Cornell community or not. Help support students and counter anti-Semitism in the 21st century.

More information and discussion on what’s happening at Cornell at Legal InsurrectionCommentary magazine and the Tower.

For more general background, I highly recommend this wonderful article coauthored by noted historian Simon Schama and lawyer Anthony Julius “The call for a cultural boycott of Israel is banal, gestural and morally compromised“. Other excellent resources dealing with the BDS debate can be accessed here

Divest from hate


Heidegger is a duck

Anti-semitic sentiment, Jew hatred, is not uncommon amongst Intelligent, highly educated people.

However, if somebody expresses an anti-Semitic view does this make that person an anti-Semite? Given that many people are unaware of the implications of uttering a view that is, particularly in Europe, fairly standard (see this debate), there is usually a strong self-denial about being an anti-Semite, especially when there is a stigma against being labeled as such. Typically the anti-Semite offers an alternative explanation, they have Jewish friends, they are proud of their Jewish ancestors, is “only” criticizing Israel, was just making an innocent “gesture” of friendship, youthful indiscretion and so forth. Sadly, even the fact of being Jewish oneself does not rule out the possibility of being an anti-Semite.

When one moves through the haze of rhetoric it can be tricky to determine if there is unambiguous evidence that would justify labeling a person as an anti-Semite (let’s say from a person who is “merely hostile” to Jews) . A masterful example of this is the recent analysis of Max Blumenthal by Petra Marquardt-Bigman of the Brandeis Center. After you read her exhaustive review of the evidence and insightful discussion, one is left in no doubt that applying the term anti-Semite to Max Blumenthal is entirely justified.

Most people would take the sensible viewpoint that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

The influential German philosopher Heidegger has always looked like a duck, in spite of significant personal relationships with two Jewish women, one of whom prominently and publicly defended him against charges of anti-Semitism as a “hapless victim of malicious slander”. New evidence not only unambiguously identifies his anti-Semitism, it puts his anti-Semitism at the heart of his contributions to philosophy.

Beyond the intellectual satisfaction of the duck being proven to be a duck, this new information is significant. Heidegger’s philosophy underpins much of European thinking. Yet it is now coming into view as bogus humbuggery. Its power to influence perhaps rested on his academic celebrity status, reinforced by his acolytes. Heidegger’s writing could be fertile ground for thinkers because it was so obtuse, enabling one to authentically draw a variety of different ideas out of the text and claim Heidegger’s “influence” as a form of academic legitimacy.

In other words we might call this a scam. There may be some unanticipated benefits by happenstance although any benefits can’t be claimed to have a secure (and certainly not a moral) grounding.

Fast forward to the current time where we have another celebrity academic, Judith Butler. To quote from her wikipedia page, she has had “significant influence on the fields of feminist, queer, and literary theory, philosophy, political philosophy, and ethics” and is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards. At face value, this is impressive. On the other hand, we do know that she is a duck. And, like Heidegger, her convoluted unintelligible prose cannot stand on its own without its admirers who convey its meanings according to the intellectual debates du jour.

As a scientist I fully admit that philosophy is not my area, which disqualifies me from commenting on Professor Butler’s academic work. My expertise though is in the life sciences and I can categorically state that her assertion that gender is solely “performative” is factually wrong. Wrong in the plain old-fashioned meaning of 100% incorrect. I would venture that it is Judith Butler’s good fortune to be around in an era where discussions about gender are potent. This, combined with charisma and marketing savvy creates the academic celebrity that has vaulted her into a position of influence. Once ensconced in celebrity status, it becomes difficult to say that the Emperor has no clothes. But the logical conclusion of the fact that Professor Butler is a duck indeed suggests that the Emperor is naked.

I am struck by the strange irony in the fact that position in the European Graduate School occupied by Judith Butler is the Hannah Arendt Professorship. Plus ça change.




ETA Here’s another classic example of an individual who walks and talks like a duck but claims to be a footballer. Personal testimony versus factual evidence.


Motherlode of Nasty

I read the New York Times column “Motherlode: Adventures in Parenting.” Like some other NYT columns–“Modern Love” comes to mind–the contributors are varied, but the articles are usually food for thought. The February 21 column certainly was thought-provoking, and not just because of the content. The author talked about the Jewish custom (or superstition, if you prefer) of not having a baby shower, or buying baby things, before the child is actually born. 

The article resonated, and not just with me: comments from Muslims, from Italians, from Germans, from irish moms all indicate that waiting, and not spitting in the eye of fate is not just a Jewish custom. No surprise there! That time at the beginning of life is so fragile and fraught, even now with all our medical technology. And just the thought of taking down a crib unused causes my chest to tighten with grief. Forget superstition. Waiting is an emotional hedge.

The readers’ comments were making me feel all universalist-happy: so many from so many different backgrounds agreed that their culture, too, encouraged people to wait that I couldn’t help thinking: see, women everywhere share this feeling, this worry, this little superstition and its very practical emotional basis. Their responses meant that the column had struck a chord for many, of whatever ethnic or faith background.

And then it happened. A bucket of ice water chilled my warm and fuzzies. Sharon in Miami commented: 

Not related to this post in particular, but has the NYTimes done research on the readers of this particular column and determined that the majority of them are Jewish?
Jews are less than 3% of the population of the US (per a Google search) and yet, the topics presented in this blog seem to always have some sort of direct or indirect Jewish tie-in… this one, Zachary’s shiva, the acne lady mentioning that her secular school friends left her alone but the Hewbrew[sic] school kids were merciless, the over-priviledged [sic] pre-school couple was Jewish.
Just curious. Seems strange to me.

My stomach did a little flop. Sharon in Miami was irritated, and her pseudo-casual “just curious” aside, irritated enough to do a Google search to ascertain just how many Jews there are in the US. Then she took the time to let the NYT know that they were being a little too, you know, Jewy. All that over-priviledged [sic] Hewbrew [sic] school stuff. Because, you know, it just seemed strange to her.

So we won’t be singing kumbaya with Sharon in Miami, huh? 

Sharon in Miami opened, if not a floodgate, a little sluice of like-minded readers. Howard in New York quotes at length from a number of NYT articles that have Jewish authors and themes and he adds:

I’m glad Sharon made this point because I was wondering if it was just I who had noticed that as well.
There are a number of underlying currents which run across the Times’ [sic] website, and it seems to me as if Judeo-Centric [sic] articles are one of them.

My stomach does another flop, and not just because of the iffy punctuation and spelling. Howard in New York took quite a bit of time finding and quoting from those articles; I wrote grad school papers with fewer citations. He cares about this, obviously. What was it, 15 or 20 minutes out of his day to let people know how all those “Judeo-Centric” articles are a bit much? To let them know about the “underlying currents” of Jewishness that permeate the media?

Then Rose in Seattle chimes in:

@Sharon: Good point. Also, Amy Klein, the Fertility Diary author, wrote extensively about being Jewish and fertility. As in, she had to wait to reproduce until she found a Jewish man, discussions with her rabbi about fertility, her travels to Israel for fertility treatments, etc.
And then there was the angst of the Jewish mom (married to a gentile) who didn’t want her husband’s Christmas tree tradition in her home and didn’t want her in-laws to give gifts in Christmas wrapping paper.
To be fair, Jews *are* a greater percentage of the New York City population, but the NYT (especially online) is a national publication.

Amy Klein’s “Fertility Diary” was a long series; Rose in Seattle must have been reading it all along to get all those details–and they must have impressed her, given her memory of them. But rather than sympathizing with a woman’s struggle to get pregnant, what does she remember? That Amy Klein had to wait for a Jewish husband “to reproduce.” Better than “to breed,” I guess, but only by a slim margin. And that “waiting for a Jewish husband” bit sounds so… cliquish.

What does Rose in Seattle remember from the other article? No sympathy for someone trying to keep her people’s traditions going–no indeed. Derision because a Jewish mother rejected that object of holy veneration, the Christmas tree.

At least she’s being “fair” about the number of Jews in New York.

A few more commenters remark on how they noticed all that Jewishness, too, like DH in Boston, who “really do[es] wonder” why Jews get more of a “voice” in this column than, say, Asians. More pseudo-casual nastiness.

I imagine them wrinkling their noses a bit. My stomach stops flopping, and instead, I feel a little burn. The little burn flares up when I read what Lisa in the Midwest has to say:

@Sharon, thank you. Someone finally said it. That thought came to mind as soon as I saw this post… interesting post, but really? Another one by a mother who happens to be Jewish? Again, I get the demographics of NYC and the readership, but still…

Finally, someone who has the guts to be point out how Jewy the New York Times is! Lisa gives examples of other people she’d like to read about: Hispanics, perhaps, or Asians, Muslims or Catholics. How about an “…African-American mom who’s not a single mom raising a child on minimum wage?” She closes by saying she’s really glad someone brought this up. And now I’m in full burn: here’s someone who is apparently pleading for more diversity in the authorship of this column … by pigeonholing people by their race, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic group. “Hey, could you put a few Hispanics or Asians on display for me? I’m getting tired of all these Jews.”

p scott [sic] in the Catskills chimes in:

I agree with Sharon. It also seems that the majority of reporters at the Times are Jewish.

The alarm bells go off in a big way. We have moved from a not-so-casual “why are there so many Jewish-related posts” to Jewish “underlying currents” at the New York Times all the way to a “majority of reporters” are Jewish in a matter of a dozen or so comments. With people regretfully agreeing that indeed, too many Jews are writing for this NYT mom blog, and apparently elsewhere in the paper. No one actually said that Jews control the media, but the comments come perilously close to that.

There was push back, I’m happy to say, both from other readers and ultimately, from the K.J. Dell’Antonia of the NYT:

Really, it’s just a coincidence that so many guest pieces with links to Judaism ran close together this week. It’s far more about who submits what and what fits with the hope of crossing age ranges and topics than anything else.

Thank heavens the editor’s name is Dell’Antonia and not Rabinowitz! Sharon et al would have gone stratospheric at that! I wonder if they Googled her to make sure her husband wasn’t Jewish. 

Dell’Antonia’s explanation is, of course, simple and logical.  She chooses from among those who step up to the plate. But people like Sharon, Rose, et al might be unconvinced, what with the “underlying currents” and “majority of reporters” and that New York demographic and all. I’m glad of the explanation, whether it convinces anyone or not. But I also wonder if the comments of Sharon et al will have a chilling effect on next week’s choice. Will KJ Dell’Antonia decide that some readers are irritated by so many Jewish guest columnists?

The comments never quite crossed the line. But I heard the dog whistles, and I saw with despair that their comments generated sometimes as many as 16 “thumbs up” from apparently silent readers.

Columns about holidays, fertility, pregnancy fears and customs can be so easily universalized by most of us, with the ethnic or religious background of the writer a frame for the common human struggle. But not for Sharon and her supporters. All they could see were too many Jews. 

Jew Hatred on Twitter

Tablet Magazine has an article on the escalation of Jew hatred in Europe, and in France specifically, mirrored (or perhaps incited) by Twitter feeds with tags like #UnBonJuif (#AGoodJew). The feeds contain anti-Jewish hate speech.

This brings up a few issues for me, as a parent. The world feels like a less safe place for my child, and that will no doubt cause me more than one sleepless night. But it also means that social media, already an area fraught with issues, is even less safe. At what age will my daughter run across Jew hatred on Twitter, or Tumblr, or Instagram, or whatever the “It” app is? How will we prepare her for it, and how will we talk about it? I need to think about this now.