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Racism, Amalek and Videotape

June 13th, 2009by Gershom Gorenberg · 13 Comments · Judaism and Religion, Politics and Policy

Gershom Gorenberg

The recording of Max Blumenthal’s combat journalism in the pubs of Jerusalem has been making the virtual rounds, stirring vast debate: Has Max proven that Israelis are racists, or that American Jews are? That Israel should raise its drinking age from 18? Or what, exactly?

Well, yes, he did prove that some drunken English-speakers in Jerusalem bars are quite drunk, and quite racist, especially when the booze and perhaps the distance from politically correct campuses in America loosens their tongues.

Sadly, he also did what looks like some very sloppy journalism. Originally he explained that he and a friend had set out to “interview young Israelis and American Jews” and described those who actually appear in his clip as “beer sodden twenty-somethings, many from the United States.” Listening to the accents, I lean to believing that the “many” should be “most” if not “nearly all.” If  Max had been familiar even with the narrow journalistic territory of young Americans visiting Israel, he would know that the fact that “some told me they were planning to move to Israel in the near future” should be taken with several kilos of salt. Kids say that when they’re here. They like to think it’s true. Then they go home.

In a second post, explaining himself, Max explained that he’d been in Israel for a month. He describes his interviewees as “the college-educated sons and daughters of middle and upper class American Jews,” and then slides into describing the racism among Israelis he has found during his month in Israel. Well, OK, those are two good topics. I’m disgusted by racism when found among  American Jews, and likewise by racism among Israeli Jews. But if you want to find the racists in the latter group, interview Israelis. And if you interview Americans, write an intro about American Jewry. As currently framed, the story is best read as an argument for the old media, in which gravelly voiced editors checked young pups’ work before it went on the air or on dead trees.

That said, more professional journalists have gathered the evidence of racism – as ideology, not drunken outbursts – and done a better job of giving context.

A week ago, Israel’s Channel 2 news did a long report on “outpost country” in the West Bank. You can watch it here (sorry, Channel 2 didn’t provide code for embedding it). If you know Hebrew, about 6 minutes into the report you can hear Arele, a leader of outpost settlers, describing Barack Obama first with the Hebrew equivalent of the unprintable English terms for a black person, and afterward add a diminutive, to make the word even more dismissive. That variety of hatred, admittedly, is a sideshow. The real hatred is directed at Palestinians. Arele dismisses any right they have to live where they are: “You see these mountains… It’s all ours.” He’s not talking in the abstract about Jewish history and homeland. He’s talking about taking possession, and dispossessing someone else. Earlier, a settler at Amona is asked what will happen if the government tries to evacuate all the outposts. She responds, calmly, “There will be war.” To hatred of Palestinians and blacks, add willingness to go to war against other Jews.

Meanwhile, Moment Magazine devoted its “ask the rabbis” feature this issue to the question “How Should Jews Treat Their Arab Neighbors?” Though the context is Israeli, all of the rabbis answering – from a wide spectrum – are American. Almost of the answers stress shared humanity based on the theological foundation that people, all people, are created in the divine image. Writes Sephardi rabbi Joshua Maroof, in one variation on the theme:

For Israel to present itself as somehow intrinsically superior to its Arab neighbors, by virtue of its Jewishness alone is theologically disingenuous as well as practically counterproductive…  In the final analysis, we each possess the same divine potential. Ideally, appreciation for the metaphysical spark in our fellow men and women of all backgrounds will inspire us to work together in peace…

OK, that’s basic, but always needs to be said. Then at the end of the column we find the answer of a well known Chabad rabbi, Manis Friedman, of the Bais Chana Institute of Jewish Studies in St. Paul:

I don’t believe in western morality, i.e. don’t kill civilians or children, don’t destroy holy sites, don’t fight during holiday seasons, don’t bomb cemeteries, don’t shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral.

The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle).

I imagine that Moment editor Nadine Epstein went through some hard moments deciding whether to put that into press. (Full disclosure: she’s my editor; I write regularly for the magazine.) In the end she made the tough and correct decision: People should know how Friedman thinks. He’s not a drunken kid in a bar. He’s a respected rabbi in a branch of Judaism that gets a lot of respect from other Jews.

Friedman’s thinking is classic fundamentalist: It asserts that humanistic thinking is from Western morality, from Kant and the Greeks. To show that one accepts God as one’s sole authority, one reads a holy text with brutal literalism, and holds up proudly one’s willingness to act scandalously. Never mind that Western morality in fact was shaped by centuries of tradition leading back to the same religious traditions, understood in a very different way.

Via Ha’aretz, here’s a good report by the Forwards’ Nathaniel Popper on Friedman and his critics. Most important graph, perhaps: Friedman

…told the Forward that the line about killing women and children should have been in quotes; he said it is a line from the Torah, though he declined to specify from which part.

From the Torah itself, the most likely reference to killing all the inhabitants of a place, along with its cattle, is Deuteronomy 13:13-19. A fearsome section, it actually refers to an Israelite town that has returned to idol worship. (Rabbinic Judaism essentially annulled these verses, saying that the requirements for punishment could never be fulfilled.) The other two obvious candidates for Freidman’s source are Joshua’s treatment of Jericho in Joshua 6:21 – and I Samuel 15:3, where the prophet tells Saul what do when he goes to war with Amalek:  “…Attack Amalek… Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.”

As I wrote recently – in response to  a column by Jeffrey Goldberg – Amalek is the Biblical enemy that achieved eternal, trans-historical status in Jewish mythology as the enemy of the Jews. And as I suggested there, a religion’s mythology can be deeply, destructively opposed to its ethics. Given the ethical outrage of Friedman’s words, and the recent tendency among some far right Jews to identify Arabs or Palestinians with Amalek, my estimation is that Friedman had the Amalek verses in mind.

Does this matter? I think so. Chabad has taken hard-right positions in Israeli politics. I’m sure there’s variety within the movement, but Friedman’s words aren’t  out of context. This article gives a bit of background on the Chabad role in the Israeli far right. Yitzhak Ginzburg, perhaps the single most extreme and racist rabbi in Israel, is a product of Chabad.

According to a report by Lisa Pevtzow published in Newsday immediately after the 1994 Purim massacre in the Machpelah Cave/Ibrahami Mosque in Hebron, mass killer Baruch Goldstein was proud of ancestry linking him to Chabad’s last rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson:

At the shiva… Goldstein’s mother, Miriam Schneerson Goldstein, traces the family lineage six generations back to the first Lubavitcher rebbe, Schneur Zalman. That, in turn, makes her and her late son distant relatives of the current Lubavitcher rebbe, 91-year-old Menachem Mendel Schneerson, she says.

Baruch Goldstein was very much aware of a relationship, friends of Goldstein in Kiryat Arba said… “He consciously patterned himself after the Lubavitcher rebbe,” explained David Ramati, a Kiryat Arba resident and one of Goldstein’s best friends. “The Lubavitcher rebbe and Rabbi Meir Kahane were the only two people who meant something to him.”

Goldstein carried out his horror on the day that commemorates victory over Haman the Agagite, that is the Amelekite. It was an act of striking at the Palestinians imagined as Amalek. (The best academic source on this, again, is Elliot Horowitz’s Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence.)

This brings me to an important comment that Matt Duss made in discussing Jeffrey Goldberg’s column on Amalek. Genocide isn’t a specialty of a specific religion, he argued. (Or of religion itself, I’d add, unless you want to twist Nazism and Stalinism into your definition of religion.) Rather:

…it’s more of a “specialty” of human beings to seek and find justification for all kinds of cruelty in their religious texts — as Goldberg himself is surely aware from his reporting on the settler movement. It’s offensive and wrong to suggest that mass murder is the special province of any particular religion.

Jews are human beings – in the view of Judaism, created like all human beings with equal potential for good and evil. They aren’t immune to racism, or to hating the people with whom they find themselves in conflict.

Rendered powerless by history, they didn’t get much chance to turn hatred into deeds. In recent decades we’ve gained power and the responsibility that comes with it. That responsibility includes cleansing our community – in the U.S., Israel and anywhere else – of racism. It also includes re-examining our religious tradition, to search out and clean out and stop using the mythological thinking that destroys ethics. To put it simply: Racism is the opposite of Judaism.   Amalek-talk is poisonous.  No one is Amalek.


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