The Sinews of Our Souls: C. K. Williams’ “Dissections”

“This unhealable self in myself who knows what I should know.” A man visiting an exhibition of exposed human tissue reflects despairingly on the disconnect between  his body and his soul, and between his soul and his self.

The poem is “Dissections,” the poet C. K. Williams. When it appeared in The Atlantic in November 2002 (read it, and hear the poet recite it, here), I pasted it up on my office door. Today I took it down, and had an opportunity to reread and reflect.

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McCain, Hagee, Lieberman, Clinton, Obama: Who’s good for Israel

John McCain is coming to Israel in order to attract Jewish voters back home, James Besser reports in The Jewish Week.

It’s difficult to decide which of the Republican Jews that Jim quotes win the chutzpah award.

“No one in this race has a more consistent record in support of Israel than Sen. McCain,” said Fred Zeidman, a longtime Jewish Republican leader and a top McCain fundraiser. “He has a proven record on Israel, and that resonates with our community.” Zeidman said McCain’s hawkish stands on national security and the war on terrorism will also appeal to Jewish voters…

Is this the same John McCain who has unstintingly supported an unnecessary war in Iraq that has “aggrandized Iranian power” (to cite Israeli strategic analyst Yossi Alpher), given Al-Qaeda a base in the region, and unleashed a flood of refugees that could destabilize Jordan, a strategic partner of Israel? That’s a proven record, but it doesn’t prove McCain is good for Israel.

Not to mention the latest AJC survey of American Jewish opinion, which shows that US Jews disapprove of how the current president – embraced by McCain

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Hatred, or Judaism told backwards

The student who called me told me that he saw the poster in his yeshivah. At the top it says, in Hebrew, “The Arab enemy is within Jerusalem!” Next Sunday, it says, at the end of the week of mourning for the students killed in the attack at Merkaz Harav, “We will get up and act” by marching to the house of the terrorist in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber and demolishing it.

The particular phrase for “to act” – la’asot ma’aseh – is one consistently used by the far right for privatizing violence: The state has refrained from punishing Arabs qua Arabs, as a group, a faceless mass, so let us do it. The words carry a hint, a lynch mob murmur, of ma’aseh Pinhas – an allusion to the original angry young man, the first fanatic, Pinhas, in the book of Numbers. At the bottom of the poster are words from the Book of Esther, “To the contrary, the Jews dominated those who hated them.”

Esther is read on the holiday of Purim, which falls a few days after the planned march. The poster is a call to celebrate the holiday early with a march of angry young men into an Arab neighborhood – with a pogrom. To emulate the Jews who defended themselves from hate-enraged mobs in ancient Persia, Jews will become a hate-enraged mob in the sacred city.

It would be simplest for me to say that this is a modern aberration, a twisting of Judaism with no precedent. That’s half-wrong, though:

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The Muslims and the Banks

“This Obama, is it true he’s a Muslim?” Iris, my bank clerk, asked me this morning. My immediate reaction was to dismiss the charge scornfully. It’s an urban myth of a vile kind, I said. But as the conversation proceeded, I realized that Iris had asked the question because the prospect of a Muslim president of the United States intrigued rather than frightened her.

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More On Stories and Histories

The need to combine storytelling and historical inquiry that I discussed in my previous post obviously has implications for modern history as well. When we teach kids about Jewish and Israeli history, we can’t teach just the narrative and ignore the facts. But neither can we teach only the facts and ignore the narrative. In practice, it’s hard to find the right balance.

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Telling the Story and Doubting It, Too

On Shabbat afternoon I walked over to the Ramban synagogue in the Greek Colony to attend the popular weekly talk by Rabbi Binyamin Lau. This week’s topic was Daniel.

Daniel, as related in his eponymous biblical book, was a boy from a family exiled by Nebuchadnezzar from Judea to Babylonia. He is educated in the school at the royal court and achieves fame—and avoids execution—when he succeeds in solving a problem even tougher than the one Joseph faced in Egypt. Pharaoh had a dream and needed to know what it meant; Joseph interpreted it for him. Nebuchadnezzar had a dream but didn’t remember what it was; he needed someone who could both tell him what he’d dreamed and what actual events it portended.

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Math of Democracy, lesson 2

Shas is claiming credit – or should we say “responsibility”? – for the recent approval of construction in the bedroom settlement of Givat Ze’ev. The ultra-Orthodox party was looking for a justification to stay in Ehud Olmert’s coalition; now it can say it melted the settlement freeze. Who wants to bet that Secretary Rice will not provide any counter-pressure?

On the surface, Olmert has little choice but to give into Shas. Without its 12 Knesset members, his coalition shrinks to 55, and he needs more than 60 to rule. Inside and outside Israel, this leads to criticism of proportional representation, of weak coalition government and of the power of the ultra-Orthodox to blackmail the majority. That’s a mistake.

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A radical idea becomes conventional

In Ha’aretz this morning, eternal pundit Yoel Marcus comes out for including Hamas in peace negotiations:

Abbas and his buddies no longer reflect or represent the Palestinian reality of spring 2008.

…America must initiate and accept a change in the makeup of the Palestinian delegation, namely, the addition of a Hamas representative. This will allow the Israeli side to speak to those who are really running the Palestinian show today. Will Hamas want to? Will it say yes? That is the ultimate test of the Bush administration.

Marcus usually represents stolid, mildly left-of-center establishment thinking, as soporific as a Labor pol’s speech. For him to argue that Hamas must be included in talks indicates that the idea is moving from radical to conventional.

Other not terribly wild-eyed types have been voicing similar ideas.

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Good Arabs, Bad Arabs

It’s such a pain when reality proves to be too complex to fit our favorite theories. A new book, Hillel Cohen’s Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948 (University of California Press 2008), shows how varied the Palestinian Arab response to Zionism was, by investigating those Arabs who chose to collaborate with the Jews. As he demonstrates, the negative connotations we attach to the label “collaborator” can be misleading.

(I translated this book into English. I have not discussed these issues with Cohen and the view I offer here is mine alone.)

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The Ministry of Dangerous Statements

Israeli Housing Minister Ze’ev Boim has given instructions to renew building of a major development in the West Bank settlement of Givat Ze’ev, northwest of Jerusalem. (Here’s an earlier Hebrew report on the affair.) The development is planned for ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party has been pressing to go ahead. So much for the “total freeze” on settlement construction that Vice Premier Haim Ramon described at a press briefing several weeks ago. What’s even scarier is this:

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Indivisible tragedy, murderous symbols

Across the page of my morning paper are the pictures of eight teenage boys murdered in the terror attack at Merkaz Harav yeshiva last week. They demand of me to imagine lives that will not be lived. The pictures have a dark magic; they try to conjure up the thought that a parent must force himself not to think, because otherwise it would be impossible to get through the day.

The sound of the newspaper page as I turn it is a whisper: The season of killing has not ended. There was a lull, like a few sunny days in the midst of the winter rains in Jerusalem. We must think about whether the children should ride the bus, whether to set appointments in cafes. I went and had coffee this morning anyway on Emek Refaim. An act of sumud, sticking to the soil.

Of course there has not even been a lull in the killing in Gaza or in Sderot. The dead of one’s own city are more noticeable, and the dead of one’s own side: No Israeli paper prints a long line of pictures of those who died on a given day in Gaza. The one-sided mourning is inevitable, and is a dangerous illusion. The tragedies are indivisible.

Friday, the morning after the attack, Ha’aretz reported that Prime Minister Olmert said

“It shows the extent to which the Palestinian Authority is insufficiently fighting terror. We will not make our peace with such events.”

A reflexive and foolish response.

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