Posts Tagged 'antisemitism'

Another Woman’s March: Between Purim and Chanukah

A few months ago there was a big tumult regarding the Women’s March of Washington. Three of the four lead organizers had attended events hosted by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has made a living off of making antisemitic remarks.  Perceptions that the leaders of the Women’s March had failed to condemn the rhetoric and subsequent accusations of antisemitism within the organization itself led to former co-founder Teresa Shook to call for their resignations and were followed by the disassociation of numerous state chapters. By December 2018, The New York Times reported that “charges of antisemitism are now roiling the movement and overshadowing plans for more marches.”

Questions about alleged antisemitism connected to the Women’s March organizers have swirled for months in response to an article in online Jewish magazine Tablet. While the organizers had repeatedly denied all accusations of misconduct or using inappropriate speech, the issue resurfaced when two of the March’s organizers appeared on “The View”. During the show, March co-president Tamika Mallory was asked why she posted a photo of herself and Louis Farrakhan on Instagram with a caption indicating her adulation of this hatemonger. “I didn’t call him the greatest of all time because of his rhetoric,” Mallory responded. “I called him the greatest of all time because of what he’s done in black communities.” Pressed on the issue, Mallory said, “I don’t agree with many of Minister Farrakhan’s statements,” but when asked directly if she condemned them, she demurred. “I don’t agree with these statements,” Mallory responded. “It’s not my language, it’s not the way that I speak, it’s not how I organize … I should never be judged through the lens of a man.”

Image result for tamika on the view

What are the implications of judging a woman through the lens of a man? What is the right lens to judge a person who brings on a foe as an ally? What are the implications of a cause that I find to be just even if the allies brought together to support this cause are deplorable?

There were many voices in the Jewish community who were so triggered by the larger context of rising antisemitism that they could not see through that to the importance of the cause of the March. While I deeply appreciate the sensitivity to an association with Farrakhan being too much, I am curious about those who were against the March on the merits of it not reaching their standards of a purity of allyship. It has been noted by others that it’s a pernicious privilege to demand that a group of revolutionaries trying to make change a system maintain a purity of who they ally with for their cause.

This privilege makes sense from the perspective of Chanukah. That is to say that the Hashmonaim were revolutionaries who were fighting for their lives.  After the Maccabees beat their enemy and rededicated the Temple they found one cruse of pure oil for the Menorah. This oil was enough to last for one day, but it lasted for eight days, which was enough time for them to produce more pure oil. To the Maccabees this miracle was proof that God approved and sanctioned their military efforts. This notion of purity got expanded by the Rabbis future celebration of Chanukah. We learn:

Our Rabbis taught: The precept of Chanukah [demands] one light for a man and his household;  and the mehadrin- more beautiful [kindle] a light for each member [of the household]; and the mehadrin of the mehadrin – Bet Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced;  but Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. (Shabbat 21b)

The most beautiful expression of this ritual is when everyone shows off the purity of God’s sanctioning the Maccabees fight against the Greeks.

This paradigm of Chanukah stands juxtaposed Purim. Similar to the Maccabees with the Greeks, Esther and Mordechai were fighting the existential threat of Haman. Both holidays tell the stories of a small group of people uniting to defeat the bloodthirsty forces of a much larger and more powerful oppressor. But where Chanukah represents an aesthetic of Jewish purity over Hellenistic physical beauty, Esther represents the opposite. She only became the queen by winning a beauty pageant. Esther uses her beauty to save her people, and most importantly to our discussion here, to do this holy work she made some interesting allies. Throughout her efforts he relies on the eunuchs. For a community that has not historically looked on intermarriage so positively we are all too happy to overlook her relationship with Ahashverosh. The strangeness of who she portrays as her ally comes to head in her second banquet with Haman and Ahashverosh. There we read:

Queen Esther replied: “If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated. Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s trouble.” Thereupon King Ahashverosh demanded of Queen Esther, “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?”“The adversary and enemy,” replied Esther, “is this evil Haman!” And Haman cringed in terror before the king and the queen. The king, in his fury, left the wine feast for the palace garden, while Haman remained to plead with Queen Esther for his life; for he saw that the king had resolved to destroy him. When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet room, Haman was lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined. “Does he mean,” cried the king, “to ravish the queen in my own palace?” No sooner did these words leave the king’s lips than Haman’s face was covered. (Esther 7:3-8)

Esther only request is the she and her people not be killed. She would not have bothered him if they were “just” enslaved. The King only acts when he perceives that Haman, who has been courted by Esther to these exclusive banquets, is trying to have sex with his wife in his palace. This seems incredibly strange that this is what provokes action and not his trusted adviser wanting to kill his queen or commit genocide. Ahashverosh is only moved to action when he sees his wife taking a strange bed-fellow.

Both Chanukah and Purim are stories of revolution and salvation. But while Chanukah is a story of purity, Esther is a story of persistence. Esther does whatever it takes to be successful, including using her beauty and not her purity to make strange bed-fellows. While people can still chose a Chanukah lens over a Purim lens to critique revolutionary activity, it should be mentioned that the Hashmonaim were roundly criticized by the Rabbis and were similar to today’s Taliban killing many brothers in name of ritual purity.  It was only after the privilege of winning that the Maccabees would claim that their fratricide was pure.

Coming back to our times we need to say clearly that women’s rights are truly in danger and we need to come together to fight this good fight. While Farrakhan and the larger rise of antisemitism is horrifying and needs to be blotted out, I think we need to be more understanding that revolutions by design get messy. Before we judge the leaders of the Women’s March too harshly in light of the Chanukah story, we need to see that their “misconduct or using inappropriate speech” might just be these women taking a chapter from Esther’s original Women’s March.

Purim Sameakh- Have a revolutionary holiday.

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From Continuity to Contribution: Beyond Antisemitism

It is astounding to me how much money we spend as a community on Holocaust education. Particularly now with the recent spike in antisemitism in Europe I am sensitive to the need to “never forget”, but do we need to pay for other people to remember?  Let them pay for their own crimes and their feeling of guilt. The Holocaust is clearly part of our memory and history, but so too is the breadth and depth of Jewish literate, art, and culture. No matter what we teach our neighbors they will have to decide for themselves how they want to live. Our primary concern should be how we educate our children. My fear is that we spend more time teaching our children about how we died over and above teaching them how we lived let alone how we might live as Jews. You can disagree with me, but I doubt that a discourse of survival will be compelling to the next generation of North Americans who are growing up in affluence and safely.  So what are we left with?

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we read that God tells Moshe to tell the Israelites, “Let them take for Me a portion, from every man whose heart motivated him you shall take My portion“(Exodus 25:1). The Israelites who had only recently escaped slavery do not limit their expression to preserving the memory of the experience they had in Egypt as we see in the Seder. They communicate their devotion to the Jewish project by making a contribution. Instead of continuity for the sake of continuity they throw themselves into the project of building the Mishkan, Tabernacle. In the contribution we create community. Does God really need a Mishkan? Clearly we did.

There is a certain sanctity in inviting and trusting  people to join the Jewish project. We must throw off the helicopter parent’s urge to prepare the way for the child as compared to preparing the child for the way. Do we trust the next generation to do their part? We need to be open to the fact that there are many ways for people to contribute. While we must stay vigilant about antisemitism we must stay on message and give the next generation the gift of allowing them to contribute in their own way.

 

Dr. Seuss and Being a German Jew

It is clear throughout history that the Jewish people have contributed so much to the world. And I believe that the best is yet to come. There is still so much more that we can contribute to make the world a better place. With the rise of radical Islamic forces and the reemergence of the garden variety European antisemitism on one hand and Jewish disinterest and assimlation on that other hand, it is scary to think that we might disappear. We might be killed by those who hate us or we might forget what it means to love ourselves.

I think being a German Jew, as I am, I am proud of the many aspects of my identities. As Jews, we were always in the avant-garde of Jewish expression in Germany. Being German, we are associated with the brand standard of antisemitism. I think we are in a league of our own in terms of loving to hate ourselves. I was thinking about this recently when our 8-year-old son Yishama asked us a question. He said, ” Is Dr. Seuss anti- symmetric?

 

 

As you can see in his artwork Dr. Seuss was clearly anti- symmetric, but was he  antisemitic?  It seems that Theodor Seuss Geisel was a complex, talented and passionate man. I found a PBS article that said:

[He] struggled to remain hopeful inspite of the “dissemination of stupidity” he saw all around him. Above all, Dr. Seuss and his work were intrinsically political. A self-proclaimed master of “logical insanity,” the author of such fanciful tales as Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat devoted much of his considerable talent and influence to advocating political and social change. From condemning isolationism and attacking anti-Semitism to his later works for literacy, the environment, and against the arms race, Dr. Seuss’s most popular works reflect his passion for fairness, democracy and tolerance.

So it seems that  Dr. Seuss was not antisemitic. But what do I do with the fact that our 8-year-old thinks it is as normative as Dr. Seuss to hate the Jews. To confront antisemitism we will need to understand the the source of their hatred. Anything short of this would not create a lasting solution or worse it would deny them their humanity. How can we get to the bottom of that this without losing our own love for ourselves? I ask this as a German Jew who just loves symmetry.

The Banality of Poop

Yadid, who just turned six-years-old on Shushan Purim, is going to Jewish school for the first time this year. A couple of months ago in his school they learned about the story of Esther in preparation for Purim. At the Purim Seudah, festive meal, Yadid shared with me what he learned about Purim at school. In his kindergarten, Haman’s punishment ( for attempting genocide)was having to walk behind Mordechai, who was riding on the royal horse, and pick up the poop. Yadid added with a smile that this is his favorite part of the story.

This year at Purim, like every other year, I tried to fulfill the commandment to mistake the blessing of Mordechai with the curse of Haman. It struck me this year that I have been acculturated to expect Haman. He is a stock character in our history. As the adage goes, ” What is the definition of an anti-Semite? It is someone who hates Jews more than your are supposed to.” I am thankful that Yadid was not taught of Haman and his sons being put to death, but I realize that in retelling the story of Purim we have normalized antisemitism. From a young age Haman is not excused but he is to be expected.

I was reminded of a Sarah Silverman piece in which she corrects her niece who was astounded that 60 Million Jews died in the Holocaust. No it is only 6 million. Her niece responds, “What is the difference?”. There is a difference, “Because 60 million would have been unforgivable.” We make fun, but it is astounding to realize that the expectation of antisemitism has made us fulfill the commandment of mixing up Mordechai and Haman all year-long. As if antisemitism is normal.

We are blessed to live in a time of freedom, but we can never forget that this freedom comes at a price. We need to make sure the confusion of Purim is the exception and not the rule. I wanted to share these thoughts with you today in commemoration of Yom HaShoah. It is likely that my daughter Emunah will not have any strong memories of knowing a survivor of the Shoah. How will she understand the horrors of antisemitism without trivializing it? We need to confront evil beyond making bad people ” pick up the poop”?


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