Tag Archives: Jewish identity

The Zookeeper’s Wife: Reflections on Past and Present

19 Apr

 

I found “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” the 2017 film version of Diane Ackerman’s 2007 non-fiction construction of a tale of heroic resistance to Nazi brutality in Warsaw, deeply moving for several reasons. Although familiar from other films, this renewed exposure to the mentality that informed the Nazi Holocaust powerfully and sensitively rendered, especially through the medium of concrete details (e.g. smuggling Jews from the Warsaw ghetto by hiding them beneath garbage collected to feed pigs, so as elude inspecting guards; or the non-Jewish pediatrician who insisted on accompanying his Jewish students on the train carrying them to the Treblinka death camp; or the contrast between the eco-humanist tenderness toward all kinds of animals and a variety of vulnerable people of the zookeeper and his wife—the real life Żabińskis, Antonina and Jan—and the violent loutishness of the Nazi soldiers and ghetto guards).

 

The originality of the film arises from the relationship between the zookeeper couple, their love of and intimacy with animals, and their brave double undertaking to save 300 Jews from certain death as the ghetto was closed and destroyed with its inhabitants sent off to die in gas chambers as well as their loving dedication to what animals remained alive in the zoo after Nazis carted the most exotic creatures off to German zoos and killed for sport most of the rest in the manner of homicidal hunters. The fact that the story was true, reconstructed from the diary of the zookeeper’s wife, Antonina Żabiński, added moral and psychopolitical weight to the narrative. And, finally, the terrifying experience of the animals, loved by the zookeepers, desecrated by the Nazis, was very affecting, especially the impact of the bombing of the zoo during the German attack and siege of the city of Warsaw in 1939 that killed some of the wild animals and sent others scurrying in frenzied shock beyond their cages onto the zoo grounds and even into the city. Of course, any zoo, however benign the zookeepers, is a kind of prison for its totally innocent and vulnerable inhabitants, and so this experience of war was an experience of double jeopardy so far as the imprisoned animals were concerned.

 

What struck me most intensely, and prompted this reflection, was the extreme victimization of Warsaw Jews. It made me wonder at the time whether, as a Jew myself and had I been born in Warsaw an obvious target of this genocidal fury. I realized that I was spared only because I happened to be born beyond the Nazi reach. From a metaphysical perspective, this seemed a very arbitrary dividing line between a normal life and an unseemly death. Sharing this identity with the millions of victims, should I not at least respect the post-Nazi Jewish effort to achieve security and survival in the form of Israel and refrain from further criticism? Should I not withdraw from my commitments to Palestinian solidarity, and not further interfere with Israel’s efforts to find its path as a state among states? Have I any right to pass judgment?

 

I realized that this reaction was testing my political identity in fundamental ways, especially raising issues about how to connect this unexpected and strangely belated responsiveness to my ethnic reality with my more cosmopolitan wish to give priority to human and species identity, and to respond empathetically to existential suffering and vulnerability. These further musings reminded me of the present Palestinian ordeal. It led me to ask myself whether such a double vision was at all manageable.

 

In the foreground of these reflections was undoubtedly a spate of recent high visibility attacks on my person and character as joint author of a report commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission of West Asia (ESCWA), and released with the title “Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid.” I was smeared by Ambassador Nikki Haley, UN Watch, and by an assortment of media outlets as an anti-Semitic Israeli-basher. Although such attacks were maliciously motivated, and sufficiently far from my actual beliefs or deeds to be personally unthreatening, their repetition was bound to take its toll in terms of my public reputation. As Joseph Goebbels, and modern advertising taught the world, a lie or defamatory smear repeated often and loudly enough, especially in prominent places, will eventually gain credibility, and even the most convincing refutations will be largely ignored.

 

Recovering my moral compass, allowed me to reaffirm the hierarchy of my commitments. I do honor the memory of the Holocaust as a prime experience of unrestrained evil, forever a source of mourning and foreboding, and acknowledge that I have a certain degree of ‘survivor guilt’ having been so arbitrarily spared despite my ethnic eligibility for the gas chamber. At the same time, I refuse to defer to that past by disregarding present evil, no matter the perpetrator. The Palestinian experience of victimization is severe, prolonged, ongoing, without an end in sight. Israel’s refusal to seek a reasonable compromise is connected with expansionist territorial ambitions, a lofty sense of biblical entitlement, a defiant attitude toward international law and widely shared moral beliefs, and an uncritical militarism as the foundation of the security of the Israeli state. The persistence of the Palestinian order is one of the great moral scandals of our time, and there is no credible emancipatory future on the political horizon. As a Jew, and even more as a human being, I feel morally comfortable and politically responsible about joining with others of good will and strong faith around the world in calling upon Israel to dismantle its apartheid regime, restore the state of Israel to a condition of political legitimacy, and in the interim to endure the indignities and pressures mounted by the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign.

Beyond Jewish Identity: Exceptionalism Revisited

20 Aug

Beyond Jewish Identity: Exceptionalism Revisited

 

The problem with Jewish identity is Jewish identity! By this I mean, the hegemonic forms of Jewish exceptionalism to which most Jews are enthralled, including a provocative insistence on willed disaffiliation in a few rate instances. Such a gesture of anti-exceptional exceptionalism is a kind of personal manifesto, a private declaration to the world of independence of Judaism with respect to both articles of faith and ethno-nationalist markers. It is usually rooted in a deep earlier experience of what it meant to be Jewish that is repudiated later on for personal and, sometimes, political reasons.

 

Of course, this kind of perverse exceptionalism also applies, with even greater stringency, to the genuine anti-Semite who attributes a negative exceptionalism to Jews by of hatred, blame, and paranoia. Zionist zealots often manipulate negative exceptionalism to instill fear among Jews about the intentions of their adversaries. It is also a useful instrument in Zionist hands to brand critics of Israel or supporters of BDS, discrediting their good faith by deliberately alleging hatred of a people while what is at stake is harsh criticism of the practices and policies of a state that inflict massive suffering on a vulnerable people. To be called a ‘self-hating Jew’ as I have been is to turn negative exceptionalism into a double-edged razor sharp weapon.

 

Positive exceptionalism, essentialized for many Jews by a variety of readings of Jews as the people chosen by God, as different and superior. It is sometimes concretized by reference to Israel that pulls above its weight when it comes to military power and technological achievement. There is another kind of positive exceptionalism that regards Jews as chosen by God to engage justly in the world seeking peace, abhorring violence. Michael Lerner, Rebecca Vilkomerson, and Marc H. Ellis exemplify the presence of such angels in our midst.

 

Thinking more personally, I acknowledge the importance of being Jewish as a marker of my identity both for myself and for many others in their chose life journey. What this means substantively is obviously very diverse. It eludes me almost altogether as I am not observant of nor familiar with Jewish rituals or traditions, although I have welcomed exposure to them when the occasion has arisen, and it has, although infrequently as my circle of friends is overwhelmingly non-observant. Subjectively, Judaism has never had a greater resonance for me than the rituals and traditions of other world religions, most of whom I have been exposed to from time to time, and which I studied long ago with a strong academic interest in religion as a structure of belief. I always welcomed opportunities to become more deeply immersed in any world religion whenever they arose. I never felt a particular attachment to the religion conferred upon me by the accident of birth, perhaps because in my case, it was not part of my upbringing and socialization experience as a child growing up in the highly secular surroundings of Manhattan.

 

Living part of each year in Turkey for more than twenty years has led my to think about the secular/religious divide that is very deep in Turkish society, and produces cleavages of understanding and polarizing enmities. I believe religion is deeply relevant to the mass of humanity, and has in recent decades been revived in quite diverse settings. In part, this seems a reaction to the modernist failures of community and identity. These failures are evident in the commodified surroundings we daily inhabit whether we wish to or not.  This defining reality of the lifeworld is heavily influenced by neoliberal capitalism as increasingly disseminated by the ambiguous magic of the digital age.

 

In the Turkish case, perhaps due to my experience of friends and colleagues, I find that the secularists tend to be more judgmental than their Islamist counterparts (who by and large accept the idea that religion and secularism can and should coexist so long as there is mutual respect and equal rights).  I interpret this difference as reflecting the fact that secularists held tightly the keys of power in republican Turkey until the Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained an electoral mandate to govern in 2002, and has been reelected time and again ever since. Had the situation been reversed, it is possible that it would be the secularists who would be more open to coexistence and mutual respect, although their pre-AKP record of governance and societal dominance gives little reason for such confidence as their policy was guided by the strong wish to keep religion in its box.

 

I am undoubtedly influenced by the view that unless ethno-nationalism in all its forms is soon superseded by a surge of commitment to species identity the human condition faces a dismal future. This does not mean abandoning a Jewish or other sub-species identities altogether, but it does emphasize another way of conceiving and layering multiple identities, with an insistence on privileging ‘human identity,’ which would reverse almost all that has gone before.  Such a revolutionary hierarchy inverts the ordering of identities that presently exist that works outward from family and immediate neighborhood, and gives least weight to ‘humanity’ or ‘cosmic consciousness.’

 

Such assessments also reflect spatial and psychological location. The meaning of being Jewish would undoubtedly be more central to my daily experience if I were living in Israel, yet no less or more authentic than an identity shaped by living most of the year in California. This affirmation of equivalence is undoubtedly an anathema to many Jews in and out of Israel, especially to adherents of Zionism in any of its many forms. Zionism above all else, as I understand it, embodies a dialectical interaction between negative and positive variants of Jewish exceptionalism, and takes for granted the hypothesis that Jews are deservedly, and for some, unavoidably exceptional.

 

Separating myself from this kind of involvement does not imply any hostility toward religious and ethnic identities so long as they seek openness to the ecumenical dimensions of human identity. To the extent a preferred identity is closed to religious and ethnic otherness, as in a variety of fundamentalisms (including secular fundamentalism), it has become in the twenty-first century the most widespread means to exhibit a collective death wish on behalf of the species. What I find most empowering is a trans-religious spirituality that draws on the insights and wisdom embedded in all the great religions, including the spirit faiths and nature religions of many native peoples. These religious and spiritual constructions of reality impart a far fuller sense of the awe and mystery of life on planet earth than can be gained by mastering what the Western Enlightenment canonized so powerfully through its amoral embrace of instrumental reason. All that reason leaves out is love, empathy, friendship, beauty, insurgent energies, and the indispensable balances and harmonies of co-evolutionary nature. Such spirituality could become a vital source of liberating energy if the human species manages to seize this bio-political moment that is upon us whether or not we realize it. And this also is a warning that the ethno-nationalist moment that continues to hold the political imagination in captivity has become the king’s highway to species extinction.

 

Instead of Jewish exceptionalism  (or American exceptionalism) the call of this bio-political moment is for species exceptionalism.

 

 

 

On Human Identity

26 Jun


 

            Early in my blog life I wrote about Jewish identity. It was partly an exercise in self-discovery, and partly a response to those who alleged that I was a self-hating Jew, or worse, an anti-Semite. These attacks on my characterwere hurtful even as I felt their distance from my actual beliefs and worldview. In my mind and heart criticisms of Israel and support for the Palestinian struggle for their rights under international law and in accord with fundamental ideas of justice had to do with taking suffering seriously,which for me is the most solid foundation of human identity.

            It is my conviction that in a globalized world human identity should serve as the moral trump card in relation to conflict situations. Of course, the optic of human identity can produce a variety of interpretations of a particular situation, and is not meant to eclipse other experienced identities. The Holocaust was a most horrifying instance of what the great Catholic monk, mystic, and writer, Thomas Merton, called the unspeakable. The memories of victimization can never function as a moral excuse for the victimization of another. Tragically, the unfolding of Israel’s quest for security and prosperity beneath the banner of Zionism has generated a narrative of severe Palestinian suffering taking multiple forms, ranging from the prolonged and acute vulnerability of statelessness and rightslessness to the humiliations of living decade after decade under harsh military rule in an increasingly apartheid setting.

 

            But our wider concern beyond the specifics of any given situation should also encompass the future of humanity. So long as ethnic, religious, and nationalist identities are given precedence in a world of inequality and critical scarcities of water, energy, food, and health, there will be oppression and widespread abuse. For the modern world the identity of the part, whether state, religion, or ethnicity, has consistently prevailed over the identity of the whole, whether that whole is understood to be humanity or world. As a result, globally reasonable policies to control global warming or world poverty or the instability of financial markets seem unattainable. Primacy accorded to the national interest continues to obstruct the fulfillment of the human interest.

 

            In earlier periods of history this kind of dispersal of authority was sustainable, although often cruel in maintaining hierarchies as during the colonial period and in relation to the annihilation of many indigenous peoples whose pre-modern wisdom has much to teach us about survival in the emergent post-modern world of scarcities and limits.

 

            At the same time, a plural world order allowed for diversities that were consistent with the variety of religions, civilizations, cultural traditions, and worldviews. Warfare and exploitation made such a world order morally deficient, but so were the envisioned alternatives associated with a global state or world government. A potential tyranny of the whole seemed to most of us worse than the anarchic failures arising in a world of sovereign states.

 

            Increasingly, conflict patterns based on the technologies of oppression and resistance are illustrating the menacing realities of a borderless world. Drones ignore borders. Cyber warfare is heedless of space. We cannot go on in  this manner much longer without bloodying our heads against the stone walls of history. We are living as a species on borrowed time. It is not the occasion for panic, but it is a time to recalibrate our relations with one another, with nature, with past and future, with this inevitable and mostly invisible transition of mentalities underway– from the enclosures and openings of a spatially oriented world of borders to the before and after of a temporally shaped world now and in the future beset by scarcities and limits.

 

            In such a global circumstance, human identity is not so much a choice as a destiny thrust upon us. It can produce a spectrum of responses. The tendency is to strengthen border controls, increase surveillance, indulge in blame games, and build high, electrified walls, making sovereign territory resemble at its best ‘a gated community’ of gargantuan proportions or at its worst ‘a maximum security prison.’ In this sense, the captivity of Gaza prefigures one kind of regressive future that resists the imperatives of a world of limits, seeking to lull us in the belief that we can remain safe in a world of borders.

 

            And so my orientation is in support of those who struggle against the odds, and for freedom, and it is in solidarity with those who believe that empathy and compassion bring greater security than guns and guard dogs. For me this means a celebration of human identity, and a citizenship that is derived primarily not from the blessings of a state or the sense of national belonging, but from the feeling that life is a journey toward a just and humane future, a pilgrimage endowed with spiritual significance throughout its unfolding. It is an engagement with impossible possibilities for the future, dreams and dramas of human fulfillment, and the person who fully endorses such a journey and the human identity that accompanies it is what I choose to call, and aspire to be:  ‘a citizen pilgrim.’