it eventually sinks in
Updated: 4 hours 32 minutes ago
In case you missed it, my oped on why Jews should read Ta-Nehisi Coates new book ran in the Forward and you can also now read it here.
The publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s stirring and pained “Between the World and Me” might just provide the kind of watershed moment for redefining the Black-Jewish relationship in the United States. Jewish leaders should seize it by encouraging their communities to read the book and talk about its implications for us both as Americans and Jews.
As the leading black voice in American journalism today, Coates’ book is a letter to his teenage son, explaining race, identity and America in the wake of the Michael Brown case in St. Louis. Bearing witness to the police killing of another unarmed black man prompted Coates to pen what we might call an ethical will to his child. It reads as sermonic jeremiad and epic confession — a soul-baring the likes of which is virtually unknown to the current generation of Jewish readers. He says to his son after the lack of indictment in the death of Brown, “What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
Though America is a relatively safe place for the Jewish body, recent surges in anti-Semitism in Europe and ongoing conflict in the Middle East means that broadly speaking, the Jewish body isn’t safe either. But while well into the mid-twentieth century the black-Jewish alliance was built upon a shared struggle for equality, in the past generation those partnerships have faded.
We are reminded by Coates, and others like Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander, that there are systemic injustices toward blacks in many American cities, in schools, in the workplace. These facts, combined with an alarmingly high and disproportionate incarceration rate for black men (“60% of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail”) demand a Jewish communal response.
He is brutally honest in his analysis of the American economy, with its twisted roots in slavery, an institution whose rejection is the very foundation of the Jewish story of freedom and justice. “As slaves we were the country’s first windfall,” Coates writes, “the down payment on its freedom.” What would it mean for us Jews as a community, so fortunate in our relative success within one century of a mass migration between 1880 and 1920, to begin again at the beginning by acknowledging who in fact built this country? We were slaves in the land of Egypt. If it’s true for us each year at Passover, how much more so must it be true in America for our black neighbors?
But if it is true that in broad terms American Jews have achieved admirable success, taking advantage of the many privileges and opportunities American democracy offers, we also know that we are never far from the Exodus narrative told each year at Passover. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” This commandment, paired with the mandate to be kind to the stranger precisely because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, ought to serve as the moral underpinnings for a new American Jewish engagement with the most urgent issues in the African American community.
For Jews as for blacks, the Book, and reading, along with the subversive power of the pursuit of learning, comprise the fulcrum of identity formation.
Like generations of Jews, Coates’ own redemption was in education. “I shared…a deep belief that we could somehow read our way out,” he wrote, recounting for his son the transformative and liberating powers of learning. “My history professors thought nothing of telling me that my search for myth was doomed, that the stories I wanted to tell myself could not be matched to truth.” Education, in the fullest expression of its potential, cleared the mind for action. “History is not solely in our hands,” Coates tells his son. “And still you are called to struggle not because it assures you victory but because it ensures you an honorable and sane life.”
I read the book while boarding a plane to Israel earlier this summer. I left behind a growing and gentrifying Brooklyn in which young millennials were examining their own sense of responsibility to the neighborhoods they were moving in to; President Obama had just delivered his extraordinary eulogy at Emanuel AME Church; and news reports of revived anti-Semitism in Europe collided with troubling stories of internal Israeli discrimination against Ethiopian Jews. The self, identity and nation, it seems, are all the rage. For younger Jews there is a particular urgency.
Jewish history, it turns out, has something to teach us. Most broadly, the mass of our ancestors who came to America fled classic European anti-Semitism and pursued economic opportunity. America represented that chance to get ahead, along with the shocking reality that at least here, blacks had it worse.
And since the early years of the twentieth century, many American Jewish organizations and Jewish philanthropists were committed to alleviating the scourge of racism and discrimination against blacks, in part as a bulwark against anti-Semitism and in part as building a shared platform in support of equality and civil rights for all Americans. The Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress (to name a few) all shared a commitment to defending black civil rights and Jews were among the early founders and funders of the NAACP.
Civil rights activists, Freedom Riders, crusading rabbis like Joachim Prinz and Abraham Joshua Heschel fill in an almost mythic narrative of a once golden age of the black-Jewish alliance that in recent decades has fallen away from the center of the American Jewish communal agenda. Given recent events, it ought to be clear to us as Jews that now is precisely the right moment to start again.
And so I want to propose that American Jewish communities take up the challenge.Coates’ story of growing up black in America is both nuanced in its exploration of the self in the face of a hostile collective and an account of one man’s refusal to turn away from racism’s dehumanizing face and to testify for the need to be present and to respond — not with violence but with the mind and soul.
Just as one might travel to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington or the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, Jewish communities across the United States should commit this year to read Ta-Nehisi Coates “Between the World and Me.” If a prior generation of Jews saw its own American redemption bound to the civil rights struggle of American blacks, our current age, reclaiming the urban habitats once left by our predecessors, will find in Coates a brotherly manifestation of the Jewish condition since Emancipation — between the world and the self.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me; and if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”Indeed.
Read more: http://forward.com/opinion/spirituality/312118/an-eloquent-message-about-race-that-jews-need-to-read/#ixzz3gmafq32Y
I don’t pretend to expertise in diplomatic and nuclear negotiations . But I do know something about identity, particularly in the context of the American Jewish and Israeli communities. And I have to say, after reading the much talked about Ally by Michael Oren’s (which prompted me to re-read President Obama’s Dreams From My Father) I have reached one very important conclusion: In an effort to serve his policy arguments with the President, Oren over-stepped and articulated foolish, if not even bigoted sentiments toward Obama.
Ally has at its core the perfectly legitimate political and diplomatic goals of preventing the United States from making concessions to a nuclear Iran that Oren believes are an existential danger to Israel. But he undermines his credibility by rooting the argument in a deeply flawed characterological attack on the U.S. President’s identity--made all the more troubling because as an American Jew and Israeli, Oren ought to know about living in two different worlds.
Oren lays the foundation for what he describes as an Obama personality rooted in “sangfroid” and a “cold-blooded need for control.” His reading of Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father demonstrates from an accomplished historian at best a clumsy and cursory examination of a young man’s complex bildungsroman and, at worst, a rash, offensive and disingenuous attack on Obama’s character, focused on his broken home and his Black, “Muslim,” international otherness.
It’s a particularly hurtful and egregious attack coming from an American Jew, who, by his own admission, came of age in the 1960s, was reared with a deep and pained consciousness of the Holocaust, understood and celebrated the triumph of the creation of Israel, empathized with the black struggle for civil rights and protests against the war in Vietnam. He’s even married to a former Deadhead from San Francisco. He’s supposed to get that our identities are formed in the cauldron of our youth well on into adulthood. And that we many of us also make choices different from those choices made by those who raise us.
In fact, while describing in Ally a clarifying moment about his own character development and upbringing in New Jersey in the 1960s, Oren writes that Jewish nationalism became for him not merely a matter of survival for the Jewish people. “Zionism was not merely a reaction to discrimination,” he writes. “But an affirmation of what I felt from an early age to be my fundamental identity. For deep-rooted reasons, Zionism defined my being.” Heck, I related to that feeling too! One must note here, that Oren writes of himself that he didn’t go to Israel until he was 15, became a citizen at 24, and only recently gave up his American passport--in 2009.
But he doesn’t seem to apply that same tolerance for “finding oneself” to the President. In a section of the book entitled “Obama 101,” Oren takes aim at Obama not for being “anti-Israel.” (After all, he as well as anyone knows that the Obama Administration’s support for Israel--in Congress, in the Pentagon, at the U.N.--is equal to or greater than any other American administration. Those are facts.)
Rather, it’s character, a curious assertion, if not comical in its awkwardness.
Oren draws upon Dreams From My Father in order to contrast two young boys’ first experience of the hunt. For readers of Obama’s memoir, one may recount the mystery and exoticism as well as the reflections on self and otherness that Obama was cognizant of as a young boy being raised by his mother and grandparents first in Hawaii and then in Indonesia (before his return to Hawaii.) In Indonesia his time was complicated but formative, as one expects it to be. There’s the street life and extreme poverty mixed with a hybrid Islam and animist culture, all against the backdrop of his mother’s determination to raise him, educate him and advance her own career. Among the many issues he touched upon, Obama struggles mightily with his relationship to and understanding of his biological father, his step-father, and his own growth as a young man. As this last week showed in his demeanor and comportment on the historical stage from Washington to Charleston, Barack Obama is anything but cold. It seems to me he turned out alright and pretty well integrated, as the shrinks like to say. I fail to see how this is anything other than totally admirable.
“Most people form their identities in childhood, but Obama learned who he was and what he stood for relatively late, in his twenties. His early years were plagued by instability; he was raised by a twice-divorced mother and a grandmother Obama later described--dispassionately--as a ‘typical white person.’ That same sangfroid characterized a chilling chapter in the book in which the nine-year-old Obama sees his Indonesian stepfather decapitating a chicken.”
Oren then goes on to quote a passage from Dreams From My Father that, to my reading, was more attuned to Gabriel Garcia Marquez than the clumsy and inartful misappropriations that Oren seems to be hinting at with his allusion to cold-hearted decapitations. Obama’s grandmother was a “typical white person?” That sentiment is simply not found in the book.
Anyway, “decapitate,” is a loaded word these days, isn’t it? We Jews, you see, piously swing chickens over our own heads, absolving us of sin, before a shochet or ritual slaughterer “chops” their chicken heads off and donates the proceeds to charity. Am I over-reading?
Read for yourself.
“The fact that the young Obama was dazzled by this grisly sight revealed a remarkable degree of emotional detachment. At a similar age, I went fishing with my father and watched as he caught a carp and mangled it. But instead of being fascinated, the experience traumatized me. Years passed before I could even look at seafood.”
To be clear, carp is kosher. Seafood is not.
The cold and calculating nine year old Obama in the jungles of Indonesia, drawn in his detachment to the shedding of blood--perish the thought! But the schlemiel father of Oren, mangling fish and scarring a traumatized son from even looking at seafood (not to mention aquarium tanks in all those New Jersey trips to the dentist’s office.) The nerd as hero who overcomes his fears and joins an army, serving his nation; while the calculating internationalist unfeelingly decides our fate. I don’t buy it.
Speaking of wrapped fish, the carp bought by my father-in-law’s grandmother, in Depression era Williamsburg, symbolized, as it did for many of that generation, the romantic memory of his Bubbe clubbing and then gutting a carp each Friday morning to make gefilte fish. Eighty years later there is no better taste, he claims. Then again, my father-in-law was a Betar-nik from the tough streets of Brooklyn. In those days, different Williamsburg clubs mattered.
Besides his concern with Iran, Oren criticizes Obama’s affinity for an “idealized” Israel based on the very disagreements that stand at the core of Israeli society today, namely, whether or not the settlement project in Judea and Samaria undermine the long-term legitimacy of a Jewish and democratic Israel. Walking close to the line of some of the toxic discourse coming out of the Knesset today, Oren suggests that to criticize the settlement project in general, as he claims Obama is doing, is to do so out of his affinity for a post-colonial mindset and an affinity for Palestinians. “Repulsed by the colonialist legacy he encountered in Kenya, he may also have shared the sense of identification felt by some African-American--among them Condoleeza Rice--with the Palestinians.”
It’s a curious assertion Oren makes, especially in light of the President’s recent interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, in which Obama asserted, “There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law. These things are indivisible in my mind.”
What Obama says is indivisible Oren just goes ahead and divides? Why? How?
(Obama’s interviews with Goldberg, as an aside, are perhaps his most cogent and well-reasoned thoughts on Jews and Zionism. The admiration is deep and apparent. I’d recommend reading them.)
Sometimes it seems that our discourse about Israel is so debased, with the Right and Left spending far more time demonizing one another rather than rationally and yes, dispassionately, trying to find common language and common ground in order to safeguard and preserve the Jewish state we dreamed for and built.
In my own work in the Jewish community, I have seen over and over again from this President an admirable ability to laugh at himself--especially in the face of the some of the most vile and egregious racism that, painfully, is very much alive today. As a man and as President, Obama is hated more broadly and more viscerally precisely because of his black otherness. Oren the American Jew and Israeli knows otherness and vile hatred as well. This small but significant passage is embarrassing and detracts from his larger and more legitimate argument.
President Obama has increased military funding and cooperation with Israel even while disagreeing about settlements; he stands by Israel in the U.N. and on the world stage; he says that if he can’t get the deal with Iran (that he agreed Congress should review) he’ll walk away and reserve the right to use of force himself. Obama has made mistakes in his relationship with Israel (I wish he's gone to Jerusalem right after Cairo) just as Prime Minister Netanyahu has in his relationship with the United States. But the alliance is strong and unbreakable. It should be treated that way by its most prominent diplomats. So knock off the personal attacks. They don't even make sense.
One expects from an ally the qualities one seeks in a friend--loyalty, reasonableness, kindness in the face of conflict, and above all, humor. Hopefully we will see more of each from Oren in the days and weeks ahead.
photo by Stefano GiovanniniJune 1, 201514 Sivan 5775
I write to share with you the exciting news that beginning in July, I will be the Director of Jewish Content and Community Ritual at the 92Y, historically one of New York City’s and America’s most important Jewish cultural institutions. I am thrilled to be working with Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, Senior Rabbi Emeritus at Central Synagogue and the director of the 92Y’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, as well as the 92Y’s executive director Henry Timms. This will be an extraordinary opportunity to build on the work we did together here in Brooklyn and expand throughout New York City the conversation about Jewish values, literature, culture, social justice and Israel.
When I made the decision to step away from the pulpit last year, it was to pursue Jewish and social justice issues more broadly throughout our city. The broader questions of race, education and equity in our city and nation animate my commitments as never before.
During the past year I have met with inspiring leaders, educators, activists, politicians, entrepreneurs, and daring investors. I have been so moved by these leaders’ mission-driven work in making the world a better place for all - from community school activists in the Bronx, Harlem to criminal justice reformers in Red Hook and Crown Heights. I plan on deepening my commitment to these causes at home and very much look forward to sharing this journey with you.
Rachel and I and our girls are staying here in Brooklyn, our home now for more than 25 years - many of those spent with you in the Beth Elohim community. We have raised our children together, shared life’s triumphs and tragedies together, and along with you and so many others, created a fabric of meaning and connectedness that has enriched so many in the synagogue and broader Brooklyn community.
I have been privileged to have had two periods of service to CBE, each of which were enormous sources of personal growth and evolution and will always have special meaning for our family. Together we have dramatically strengthened our synagogue and deepened our engagement with the broader Brooklyn community. We can all take pride in the challenges we have faced, the lessons learned, and our accomplishments together, setting the stage for continued success under the leadership of my new friend, Rabbi Rachel Timoner, who will succeed me next month.
Let me close by expressing my thanks to our talented and dedicated clergy leadership team, Cantor Josh Breitzer and Rabbi Marc Katz, as well as the entire inspired staff at CBE; to our devoted lay leadership and to the countless members of our historic and sacred synagogue community who have given so much to our success together. Thank you for your friendship, partnership and support in helping me lay the groundwork for this next chapter of Jewish life for all of us.
Finally, Rachel joins me in inviting you to please celebrate with our family on Friday night June 12 at a special service and Oneg Shabbat at 6:30 pm. We will pray, sing, and drink l’chaim as we go from strength to strength!
Dr. Paul Ginsberg, the great dean of students at the University of Wisconsin who died last week, once successfully prevented me from going to Israel.
Beloved by many for his intelligence, heart and compassion, he was principled and soulful in the advice he gave. He was also legendary among a small number of Jewish students, of which I was one, for the work he did in the 1940s running guns from Cyprus to Palestine to aid the defense efforts of early Zionists in the building of the state of Israel.
Neither a pacifist nor a colonialist, he was like thousands of idealistic and realistic young people who understood that one of the morally just liberation and restoration movements of the twentieth century was in re-establishing Jewish autonomy and self-governance in the historical homeland of the Jewish people. A committed democrat and social liberal, Dr. Ginsberg shared with me on one occasion that while building a state, fighting a war for independence, and maintaining the security of one's citizens would not be without its own set of normal and at times troubling moral challenges (such is the nature of any government, anywhere, at any moment in history) the inherent justice of the Zionist project could not be denied.
He was a bear of a man as well as a compassionate and unadorned realist. When my father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1983 and I trekked up Bascom Hill after sitting shiva to seek his advice, I announced that I was leaving school and moving to Israel.
"Andy," he said. "Find yourself first. Get a skill. Figure out what you'd do there, then go. Israel has enough people running around finding themselves. If you're going to go, go to help."
I listened. And after a year of mourning and learning and re-gaining focus, I traveled to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for the first time in 1985, worked on my history degree, and formulated plans to become a rabbi. It would be the long game. The Ginsberg Plan.
That fall was a full two years before the First Intifada would break out and Palestinians would seek to throw off the occupation by Israel of territory seized, justifiably, in the 1967 Six Day War. There was as yet no organized rebellion but one could feel the tensions boiling beneath the surface. One could travel freely in the West Bank, be greeted warmly, and yet discern quite clearly a storm on the horizon. Palestinians I met throughout that year indicated as much. But official leadership still embraced terror, settlement expansion continued its inexorable march, and both Israelis and Palestinians remained mired in a frozen non-diplomacy.
The following thirty years would bring two intifadas, horrific waves of murderous terror and brutal crackdowns, three major wars with Hamas and Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, and a maddeningly endless series of dead-end negotiations that have yet to yield a two-state solution that I certainly thought was once within the grasp of reasonable, practical and hopeful people. A sickening number of innocent Jewish and Palestinian lives have been lost; and humility demands the truthful claim that few of us have really done enough to make peace possible.
In some of the popular tellings of the conflict, it appears we were close on a couple occasions--just before the Rabin assassination in 1995 and again at Camp David in 2000. Today, in two-state circles, there is an unmitigated despair over what feels like a dead end, and a kind of dazed disbelief with mutual recriminations over the breakdown in relations between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. It may or may not be the worst moment in America-Israel relations. But it certainly feels as bad as it ever has.
But today, Israel's Independence Day, marking 67 years since the creation of the state, is not about any of that--at least for the next two paragraphs.
Today is about recognizing that as the Jewish people emerged from the turmoil of post-Enlightenment emancipation and embraced its own national narrative, it sought and achieved, justifiably, its own sense of historic self-determination and protection, as is the right of every nation. Within two generations, after two thousand years of exile, a state was created and accepted--democratically and diplomatically, by the family of nations in the body agreed upon to confer such titles--the United Nations.
Today is about recognizing that a nation as improbably small as Israel wields enormous power and influence, a strength that comes from boundless intelligence, creativity, ingenuity and resolve. Jewish people comprise about .2% of the world's population yet our effect, both real and imagined, is immeasurably greater. And so today is also about recognizing that as our Passover Haggadah teaches, "in every generation there are those who rise up to destroy us," there is a mysterious strength at the core of our permanence and enormous pride and wonder at what our people have done in establishing a state.
Yesterday in Israel the nation mourned the more than 23,000 Israelis who have given their lives to defend the state since its founding--some of whom died defending and voting for the policies that sent them to war and some of whom died protesting and voting against the policies that sent them to war. Such is the complex nature of democracy and civic obligation. There are difficult truths and often painful, trying dilemmas wrapped up in all this. The country's direction, the nature of its democracy, the questions of what 48 years of occupation does and doesn't do to an occupying power weigh heavily on Jews in Israel and abroad. We Jews wear our own internal debates on our sleeves and on the editorial pages of every major news source in the world. More ink is spilled for .2% of the world's population than is really merited, let's be honest.
But not a single one of Israel's flaws lessens for me the greatest achievement in the last 500 years of Jewish history--a modern state. The vibrancy of Israel's social, economic, and cultural daily reality is as great as any other nation in the last one hundred years.
On this 67th Day of Independence for the State of Israel, I hold both these realities close--my pride and concern for Israel along with my exasperated hope that a peaceful solution with Palestinians can be found.
I don't begrudge for one moment the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and even respect that right to see the Israeli day of Independence as a Palestinian Nakba. But a permanent Nakba won't bear fruit. And no amount of blogging and tweeting and protesting and boycotting and delegitimating and denouncing will change the fact that throughout the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s 80s and 90s, the official Palestinian position toward Israel was rejection and non-recognition and that has had its consequences. It's hardened Israelis and Jews worldwide who bore their own brunt of that rejection through the blood of terror; it's bred a deep cynicism into children born into occupation and exile in refugee camps who have had their own blood spilled by the more brutal aspects of occupation and the war on terror; and perhaps most ashamedly and deeply, it has created a terrible image of victimhood that will require generations to heal.
Jews and Palestinians know from victimhood. And the enlightened among us ought to know that victimhood bears within it the seeds of self-diminishment and self-destruction. And worse, can lash out at others, drawing them in to an endless cycle of darkness and death. What the Zionists knew about Jewish civilization as told through the lens of the powerless was that if one dared to enact the collective process of transcending victimhood, and stake a claim to one's narrative, then through self-determination, one may write new chapter in the ongoing history of the people.
I'm fifty-two years old and have found myself (I guess.) And I've remained an American citizen who is in Israel, alone and with groups, twice a year.
So to my teacher Paul Ginsberg, now gone, the confession is this: 30 years later I am still here and not there. The most I can contribute to Israel at this stage of my life is my loyal support; my insistence on teaching and speaking and writing publicly that its existence is just; my advocacy for its support to government officials at local, state and national levels; my belief that its claim to righteousness is tied up in a necessary and fearless self-criticism, a burden all democracies must shoulder; and that as a community leader I will always speak of hope and justice and peace.
To you, Israel, on your 67th anniversary: continued success; existence; and peace.