Who is a good person?

When I saw this cheesy meme appear on my Facebook news feed the other day, it got me thinking about the nature of this ‘goodness of people’. What compels a person to perform a Good act? What makes someone a Good Person? Is it because there exists some fundamental, irreducible ethical impulse that throbs in our hearts whenever we see an injustice and feel moved to rectify it? Is there some primordial force of moral Goodness within us, that manifests in the world whenever we perform a Good Deed?

I don’t know. And when I ask this question, I’m not sure whose answer I trust more- the reasoned formulation of an ethical philosopher like Emmanuel Levinas, or the straightforward, commonsense proclamation of a 6 year old. But regardless, what interests me about this meme is that it cares little for this holy moral spark that supposedly exists in the heart. It concerns itself, instead, with the socially constructed ideal of the Good Person.

None of us are saints. Our days are passed, mostly, in the pursuit of tasks that our self-interest places before us. Most of the time we try to get by in the world, while doing the least harm possible.

Nonetheless, in some moments, we are compelled by circumstances to do a Good Deed. In these moments we try, as the meme says, to ‘be the reason someone believes in the goodness of people’. We try to be a Good Person- that is, we strike the pose, we perform the image of the Good Person before the gaze of the Other.

In public, we do good deeds so that others may believe, not only that the Good Person exists, but that we, in fact, are one of these Good People. And even in an anonymous Good Deed, we strive inwardly to embody, before our own gaze, the ideal of the Good Person we wish to become.

In this roundabout way, the human race presents and re-presents to and for itself, through the generations, the image of the Good. Each of us strikes a pose of Goodness designed to convince the mass of others, and ourselves, that the Good has not vanished from the world, that we, in this moment of the Good Deed, are the embodied ideal of the Good Person.

None of us are saints. Really, we are all flawed, partial beings- we cannot claim that, in all or even most of our moments, we walk the earth with none but the Good on our minds.  But like the whispered rumor of an impending Messiah, that, passed from person to person, keeps religious faith alive through the generations, so do human beings strike the pose of the Good, so that another may ‘believe in the goodness of people’- so that the image of the Good may not vanish from this world.

The ideal of the Good reveals itself in us in those brief moments- or rather, our actions gesture towards it. In this way the Good, the ethical principle, flits about the human world. It does not exist in and for itself, but rather it is reflected, like a play of mirrors, between humans through gesture, word and deed. We speak of it when we lie down and when we arise; we bear witness to it, together. Like a spark between stones, it appears when our action, driven by our will, strikes the hard surface of given reality. It is that self-evident sensation of justice and righteousness which, when it appears, needs no explanation, though from our different perspectives, each of us offers no shortage of conflicting and competing interpretations as to the shape and form it takes in any given moment, choice or deed.

But if the Good is socially constructed in this way, we must then ask- where did this image of the Good originate? Who started the rumor that the Good Person exists? Who implanted the idea of the Good in our hearts? This is Kant’s argument for the existence of God- humans, he said, have manifest access to only partial, incomplete, relative truths in this world. Nonetheless, we find, in our heads, the idea of an absolute, transcendent truth.  From where did we get this idea? Surely not from the partial fragments of this world! This ideal of absolute truth must have been gifted to us from a transcendent source that lingers beyond our perception, a hidden source that we, gesturing blindly, call God.

Who is a Good Person? One who is convinced that the belief in the existence of the Good must not vanish from this world, one who, therefore, resolves time and again to strike a pose.

For American Jews, The Era of Trump Marks the End of the Zionist Dream

Originally published at +972Mag

For most American Jews, the regime of Donald Trump has ushered in the most profound and destabilizing existential crisis since the Holocaust. We watch in horror as President Trump launches a full-frontal assault on the institutions, and the very principles, of the liberal democracy upon which we have built our lives for generations. We stand aghast as his administration tramples the civil liberties of our Muslim, immigrant and refugee neighbors, and we brace ourselves as a potent anti-Semitism simmers at the edges of the alt-right movement that helped propel him to power.

American Jewish establishment and legacy institutions, which already possessed little relevance for many of us, seem ill-equipped to guide us through this new reality. And the state of Israel, far from standing with us against this fascist menace, appears to be egging it on. As we all weather the short-term shocks Trump inflicts upon the political and civic institutions of American life, the full reverberations of this longer-term shock have yet to be felt by American Jewry. In the future, the era of Trump will be remembered as the end of the Zionist dream.

The internal crisis the mainstream Jewish American community faces is far more profound than we are willing to admit. For almost a century, the tradition of democratic liberalism in America has provided the bulk of white Jews in the US with safety, prosperity, and a stable modern identity. Across the country, we have built a vibrant network of communal institutions, and poured our energies into strengthening the fabric of American civic, cultural and political life. After the Holocaust, the democratic values of religious and political freedom, and civic equality, were central to our orientation in a changing world. Today, though a growing portion of our community has moved to the right on political and social issues, a sizeable and disproportionate majority of American Jews retains liberal and progressive values.

Now, seemingly overnight, Trump’s attacks on the press, judicial institutions, human rights groups, and other organs of democracy threaten to erode the foundations of the world that has been comfortable for many of us. And our well-established, amply-resourced communal and legacy institutions, like the Jewish Federations, have raised barely a tepid voice of protest against this onslaught. They were unable to anticipate, comprehend, or combat the startling surge of far-right populism and neo-fascism in this country, and the unprecedented resurgence of anti-semitism brewing in its wake. Though they appear calm, our leaders, like most others in the country’s establishment political and civic landscape, tremble behind their doors.

And where is Israel to protect the Jews of America? Trump’s words and actions on International Holocaust Remembrance Day were a double affront to American Jewry. Not only did his administration’s statement fail to name the Jewish identity of the Holocaust’s primary victims, or the ideology of anti-Semitism that fueled their annihilation- on the very same day, he signed into law a Muslim ban chillingly reminiscent of America’s rejection of Jewish refugees that, in the 1930s, helped seal the fate of so many European Jews. Not only did Prime Minister Netanyahu fail to speak out against any of this- the next day, he praised Trump’s decision to build a border wall, with a bombastic Tweet meant to emulate the swagger of Trump himself.

After the Holocaust, Israel came to be seen by many Jews the world over as an insurance policy, sworn to defend us forevermore against the reappearance of fascism in world history. But seventy years later, the world is divided anew into ultra-nationalist statesmen and stateless refugees, into powerful tyrants and defiant rebels. While a few American Jews back Trump, most of us strive to stand against this tyrant of our time. But what the US Jewish community still has to confront is the reality that the government of Israel, along with a majority of its Jewish citizens, actively supports the Trump administration, which seems poised to legitimize Israel’s fever dreams of settlement expansion and annexation, and to crush any remaining hope of Palestinian statehood.

A few notable exceptions notwithstanding, most American Jewish Zionists, since the days of liberal leaders like Louis Brandeis and Stephen Wise, would place their Zionism squarely in the same tradition of American liberalism that has structured the rest of their lives. For years, these progressive Zionists have watched nervously as anti-democratic, illiberal forces have consumed the center of Israeli politics. Regardless of whether this idea of a progressive Zionism actually reflects the reality unfolding in Israel/Palestine- I would argue that it never has- the point is that, in order to remain morally consistent, American Jews must see their Israel as not only a Jewish state, but a democratic state as well. In the mainstream American Jewish imaginary, Zionism is akin to the civil rights movement of the Jewish people. It must offer the world, in the shape of Jewish liberation, a testament to the promise of universal human emancipation as well.

That’s why, as democratic norms have steadily eroded in Israel, American Jews have inwardly wrestled with an impossible contradiction. Over the years, more of us have chosen to speak out against Israel’s brutal occupation in the West Bank, its relentless bombardment of Palestinians in Gaza, its discriminatory two-tiered legal structure within its borders, and its denial of refugee rights. But the bulk of us have remained silent, because we were taught to trust that, somehow, Israel’s troubling actions were necessary to protect the safety of Jews around the world.

But when Israel backs a regime, here in America, that threatens our liberty as humans and our safety as Jews, the claim that Zionism protects Jews no longer holds. An Israel that cheers on Goliath, as it raises its hand against the Davids of our world, is an Israel that has become startlingly unrecognizable to us. While mainstream American Jewry could choose to ignore the spread of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia in the far-off ‘Jewish homeland’, when these same forces wash now upon our own shores, the familial resemblance, and active collaboration, between Trump and Netanyahu becomes impossible to ignore. We enter the new fascist era with communal institutions that are unable to speak truth to power, and with a Jewish state that stands among the forces arrayed against us, one whose attacks on political dissent and denial of basic rights to Palestinians serve as a disturbing roadmap to where the US may be headed. Though the bulk of liberal American Jewry has, up till now, remained silent, in the era of Trump, there grows in their gut a dizzying disorientation.

By the time the Trump nightmare finally crashes into flames- as all such nightmares eventually do- and these liberal American Jews get up, rub their eyes and look around, their gaze will turn in despondence towards Jerusalem. Where once stood their progressive Israel- their ‘light unto the nations’, symbol of the holy values of democracy and human freedom, spiritual rock of resistance against all tyranny and oppression- they will now face a state that, from their vantage point, looks no different than the monster they just helped chase out of their American homeland. The realization that, two generations after the Holocaust, the state of Israel allied itself with the forces of global fascism will be too much for liberal Zionism to bear.

As more and more American Jews face this reality, their sense of betrayal will be immense. As a community, our process of collective mourning and teshuvah (repentance) will be difficult. Our identity as American Jews, supported so long by the foundation-stone of liberal Zionism, will be in crisis. It will take some of our elders awhile to admit it- some never will- but in our hearts, we will know that a state that cheered on the tyrant that raised his hand against us can no longer be our Jewish state, indeed, can no longer be Jewish at all. With the Zionist dream dead, what Jewish vision will guide us into the future? How will we rebuild?

Over the next few years, the twin barbarisms of the Trump and Netanyahu regimes will continue to dovetail, and the rift between Israel and the bulk of American Jewry will continue to widen. While a few American Jews will cast their lot with Trump, Netanyahu and the rising global forces of fascism, hundreds of thousands more will overcome the inertia of our mainstream institutions, and take to the streets to defend our lives and communities against tyranny. Through this experience of struggle, American Jews will reconnect to the social movements from which, for too long, too many of us have been estranged. We will re-learn the muscles of tzedek (justice) and tikkun olam (healing the world) which, for too long, too many of us had failed to put to use.

The old dream of a liberal Zionism will not survive to carry us through the 21st century. But out of the fire of our reborn commitment to our principles, a new diaspora Jewish identity can be formed, founded on prophetic values of social justice, solidarity and love. We will again bear witness to ‘mi-melech malche ha-melachim’, to a ‘king who rules over kings’, a force of divine righteousness greater than earthly power. Let us cleave to this vision, and this work, without fear, with a clear head and a strong moral compass. It is our only hope.

 

 

Lighting the Candles

When Rabbi Schmelke and Rabbi Phinaes came to the Mezeritzer Maggid, they were already great students of the Torah, but they gave little attention to the study of ethics. The Mezeritzer convinced them of the importance of devoting adequate time to these studies as well. After they had left him, the Maggid turned to his Disciples, and said:

“I found a house full of candles that were unlit. I have kindled them, and the house is filled with light.”

  • Hasidic Anthology, ‘Moral Instruction’

In the US, we need a Muslim-Jewish alliance …

… but one that does not silence discussions on justice for Palestine.

by Ben Lorber and Taher Herzallah

Originally published in Al Jazeera

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Since the election of Donald Trump, there has been a renewed interest across the country in Muslim-Jewish partnership. Trump’s ascension to power on a platform of racism and xenophobia has caused many to fear what lies ahead.

From potential policy measures, such as a Muslim registry and the intensification of the Countering Violent Extremism Initiative, to the emboldening of white supremacist groups bent on causing physical harm to both Muslims and Jews, there is an urgent sense that we all need to come together to weather this fascist storm.

This renewed sense of solidarity is welcomed, and after Trump’s inauguration, our communities are ready to take to the streets in unity and strength. But for us to build meaningful and accountable relationships between our communities, we need to also share some principles. Without doing so, we run grave risks of subverting the dignity and freedom of expression for which our communities strive.

Today, many of the groups eager to rush to the frontlines of Muslim-Jewish partnership after Trump’s election – groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) – have for decades been complicit in helping create the climate of Islamophobia they claim to abhor.

The ADL was applauded when, after Trump’s election, its executive director publicly pledged that, he would register as a Muslim if a Muslim registry was created, and the AJC recently announced a partnership with the Islamic Society of North America called the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council.

But how do these actions stand up to their track record?

Living up to reputation

Since 9/11, the ADL has demonised mainstream Muslim community groups as “terrorist sympathisers”, praised far-right Islamophobes for securing federal appointments, opposed the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero, and more.

The AJC lobbied for bills that would drastically expand the state surveillance of American Muslim communities, supported our nation’s first Muslim registry in 2002, and backed anti-Muslim congressional hearings. These are just a few ways these groups, in the last decade alone, have betrayed the principles they claim to uphold.

Far too often, interfaith partnerships with groups like the ADL and AJC create pressure on Muslim organisations to remain silent on Israel/Palestine, or to attack the movement for Palestinian rights, out of fear of being accused of anti-Semitism. In too many interfaith partnerships, Muslims are required to put “relationships before politics” and the “local over international”, effectively stifling their political agency.

In these and other ways, these relationships tend to be transactional in nature. The Jewish community gains a Muslim friend that won’t mention Zionism, Israel or its politics, and the Muslim gains some perceived level of acceptance in the mainstream United States of America, which touts itself as a land of “Judeo-Christian” values but increasingly sees Islam and Muslims as the enemy other.

As campus organisers with American Muslims for Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, we’ve worked for years to build accountable partnerships between Muslims and Jews, founded on principles of justice, solidarity and love.

These principles animate our vision of a just and democratic peace in Israel/Palestine, where refugees can return to their ancestral homes and equal rights are guaranteed for Palestinians and all other peoples living in the region.

Guided by these principles, the Muslim and Jewish students we work with on campuses across the country stand united, alongside others of all faiths and ethnicities, in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for freedom, justice and equality in Israel/Palestine.

Atmosphere of fear

For decades, vocal supporters of Palestinian rights in the US have faced false charges of anti-Semitism from pro-Israel organisations. To name two recent examples, in late 2016, the ADL joined attacks against the first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison, in his bid for Democratic National Committee chair, because of comments critical of Israel.

And in a move that hits close to home for us, the ADL recently tried, unsuccessfully, to pressure Congress to pass the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, a bill that, by labelling campus criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism, would have empowered the Department of Education under the Trump administration to suppress student activism.

On and off campus, this backlash inevitably hits Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities the hardest, crystallising the cloud of fear that has far too long limited freedom of speech for the Arab and Muslim community.

We urge American Muslim groups not to partner with organisations like the ADL and the AJC, so long as they continue to limit discourse on Israel/Palestine, and to oppose the demands of Palestinians for justice and freedom.

When pro-Israel groups such as the ADL suppress freedom of speech with false anti-Semitism charges, they are furthering US’s climate of Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.

For decades, pro-Israel advocacy has worked to create a climate where Israel is seen as a faithful ally and frontline defender in the West’s “war on terror”, and Palestinians – and, by extension, all Arabs and Muslims – are seen as antisemitic “terrorists”.

The end result, today, is a Trump administration that blends unflinching support for Israel’s apartheid policies with white nationalism and rabid Islamophobia, and an extremist Israeli government that enjoys an international green light for its deepening violations of international law.

A Muslim-Jewish alliance is needed

Let us not be mistaken: in the age of Trump, it is more important than ever for Muslims and Jews to come together to combat Islamophobia and real anti-Semitism. Today in the US, we are both targets of the white supremacist alt-right movement, which, with the appointment of Breitbart executive Steve Bannon to a powerful position in the Trump White House and the growth of white nationalists in local communities, is emerging as a dangerous force.

A Muslim-Jewish alliance makes historical sense; Jews and Muslims lived together in relative harmony across the Middle East and parts of Europe for millennia, while white Christian Europe subjected our communities, in different ways, to vicious persecution.

We are confident that principled, accountable partnerships between Muslims and Jews can and must be built as we forge a path forward in this frightening time.

But now is not the time to compromise our values out of fear. Support for Palestinian rights is moving mainstream, and the Israel advocacy movement is losing its ability to police discourse in the US.

As the movement for Palestinian human rights is gaining traction, Israel’s defenders, from the incoming Trump administration to the ADL, are anxiously doubling down on their decades-long campaign of policing, silencing and repression of critical discourse.

Our shared vision of justice and collective liberation teaches us that Zionism – the project to maintain an exclusionary state with an enforced demographic Jewish majority on dispossessed Palestinian land – is incompatible with the values of dignity and freedom which any Muslim-Jewish partnership must hold dear.

We urge American Muslim groups not to partner with organisations like the ADL and the AJC, so long as they continue to limit discourse on Israel/Palestine and to oppose the demands of Palestinians for justice and freedom.

We call on these ,and many other American Jewish groups, to end work to suppress the movement for Palestinian rights in the US, renounce their anti-Muslim history and join the movement for a truly just peace in Israel/Palestine.

Then, and only then, can relationships of mutual respect and cooperation come to fruition and have the capacity, structure and commitment to work towards transformative change here in the US and globally.

Now is not the time to cosy up to the powerful elites of this country, as leaders of our communities have done for too long. Now is the time for all our communities to build our power from the ground up. Only solidarity and joint struggle against all forms of oppression can protect Muslims, Jews and all people from the forces of hatred in this world.

Taher Herzallah is the Associate Director of Outreach and Grassroots Organizing for the American Muslims for Palestine.

Ben Lorber is Campus Coordinator at Jewish Voice for Peace.

‘And You Are Faithful to Resuscitate the Dead’- Towards a Torah of Radical Remembrance

“And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who resuscitates the dead.”

                 – from ‘Gevurot’, ‘God’s Strength’, a daily Jewish prayer

“The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. The historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations.”

                 – Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’

For modern secular Jews, the ‘resuscitation of the dead’ can be one of the more alienating aspects of our tradition. Techiat HaMeitim, codified as one of the 13 foundational principles of Judaism by Maimonides in the 12th century, dictates that when Moshiach (Messiah) returns and redeems the world, the bodies and souls of the faithful will be resurrected to live again in a perfected world, this world, a world which will be at once fully ‘earthly’, and fully ‘divine’. Most of the time, I see Reform or Reconstructionist prayer books change this daily prayer from ‘blessed are you, Hashem, who resuscitates the dead’ to something like ‘blessed are you, Hashem, who gives life to all that lives’. Says the Enlightened Jew to himself- ‘of course, my dead body will not rise, fully intact, from my grave one day when a Messiah comes, and walk upon the earth again for all eternity, as the rabbis promised’. So we discard this notion completely, and regard the resuscitation of the dead as a quaint, magical notion, ill-suited to the rational world of today.

I would like to resuscitate this dead notion of the resuscitation of the dead, through a Marxist lens. I think, in discarding it completely, we are losing one of the most compelling aspects of our tradition. I would like to reinterpret it as referring, not to the literal reawakening of the human body, but to a way of relating to memory, animated by a passionate fidelity to the living past. Moreover, the memory in question is inherently radical and revolutionary. According to Rabbinic tradition, the resuscitation of the dead will occur only once the Messiah has come- and the Messiah comes to end all wars and oppression, and usher in an era of tranquility and peace upon the earth. It is no coincidence that, for the rabbis, the dead will awaken when the earthly bonds of oppression are shattered.

In 1940, the German Jewish philosopher and Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ as he was trying to escape Nazi-occupied France. He committed suicide one stormy night on the border, unwilling to be delivered by the French to the Germans. Fellow theorist and German Jew Hannah Arendt managed to smuggle his ‘Theses’ on scraps of paper out of Europe, and to publish it as his last work.

Benjamin’s ‘Theses’ are suffused with a Jewish spirit of radical remembrance, a quality that Benjamin himself, within the 18 Theses and in his larger life’s work, makes no effort to hide. For Benjamin, the Marxist historian is commanded to remember the struggling, oppressed peoples of the past, and to continue their struggle in the present. Echoing Howard Zinn, the ‘official’, textbook history of the past is most often the history of the victors, the gilded, hegemonic narrative crafted by the rulers of society, the story that fits their interests, portrays their rule as benevolent, inevitable, natural and divine. And why would we expect any different? Today, those with the power and resources write the textbooks and control the narrative; yesterday, the kings had the scribes, the rich had the parchment. Everyone else- the 99% of past and present, the overwhelming majority of the human race- could not as easily transmit their stories and histories to future generations. Of course, the historical memory of any suffering people is long- in rituals, in customs, in stories, in rich oral traditions, cultural memory is preserved and transmitted by all oppressed peoples as a means of survival. But this memory rarely builds monuments to itself; it is rarely recorded diligently, in great detail, and guarded closely in the king’s palace. It is not broadcast to millions of living rooms on the nightly news; the state produces textbooks glorifying its leaders, not exposing their barbarism.

It is the task of the radical historian to tear away the textbook ‘bourgeois’ version of history, and to listen, underneath, for the narrative and perspective of the oppressed. From this perspective, it is clear, writes Benjamin, that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” To uncover the history of the oppressed is to learn that they lived, suffered, and died under oppression, and to realize that their struggle against that oppression, in their lifetime, was not completed. This memory is a work of mourning, a realization that the textbook version of history is dripping with blood, and that the suffering of the oppressed has not yet been avenged. And because “all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them”, the radical historian realizes that yesterday’s king left the seat warm for today’s president; today’s America is the Roman Empire reincarnate; we confront the very same oppressor our ancestors faced.

When we uncover this hidden truth of the past, we clarify the past, we bring it from a place of obscurity, hiddenness and falsehood- for example, ‘Israel was a land without a people for a people without a land, and the Israel/Palestine conflict is caused by antisemitism’- into a light of truth- ‘actually, Zionists drove the Palestinians off of their land, and that has caused the conflict today’. This clarifies, not only the past, but the present as well. Growing up, we are taught that the suffering of our situation is ‘natural’, or inexplicable, arbitrary and beyond our control; later, we realize this is actually the oppressor’s narrative, and that systemic inequality, not blind chance, structures our world through a series of traceable processes, in the past, that create and condition our suffering in the present.

In his ‘Arcades Project’, Benjamin describes this illuminating, clarifying power of radical memory as a form of awakening, as the ‘dialectical, Copernican turn of remembrance’. It is an awakening, because once we awaken to the root causes of our situation, we realize, like Neo leaving the Matrix, how asleep we once had been. “The tradition of all dead generations”, writes Marx, “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” As long as oppressive structures are not overthrown, humanity remains in a kind of sleep, in an incomplete process of shrugging off the yoke of the past, of overcoming systemic inequities that are outmoded, reactionary, that prevent humanity from achieving its full potential. The existence of Donald Trump as president mocks us, like a sick joke, a rotting remnant of a capitalist world-system on life support, surviving only through the worst crisis-ridden speculations of finance capital, a nightmare which should have died long ago.

Just as our ancestors were unable to vanquish the enemy, it is by no means guaranteed that their stories of struggle, and our own, will be remembered. “In every era,” writes Benjamin, “the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism which is about to overpower it”. In every era, the ‘truth’ of the past threatens to be forgotten. The false version of events, told by the oppressor, is largely accepted as fact; the stories of the oppressed threaten to be buried under the weight of this oppression, to slip permanently from our collective memory. It is incumbent upon us to attempt, over and over again, to re-awaken and clarify subterranean history, to overcome the gravity of forgetting, to do continuous, circuitous and always-novel battle, with pen and sword, against the persistent effort of the rulers to maintain hegemony, to restore illusory narratives, to destroy radically subversive institutions of cultural memory.

“And you are faithful to resuscitate the dead”. With this plea, the rabbis begged God not to forget, but to fulfill, the tradition of the oppressed. Though we oppressed Jews may die today, they said, God will not forget our suffering, as He will not forget those who came before; one day, the Messiah will come, this earth will know peace, and we all will dwell anew and free in this kingdom of peace. This is not a heaven or afterlife, occurring on some other plane or dimension- our bodies are restored on earth, the promised kingdom is created politically, here, as a harmonious human society, at once earthly and divine but in the flesh, immanent, interpersonal, within our grasp.

In the future messianic kingdom, according to rabbinic tradition, all the faithful, oppressed Jews who have existed across all moments of history will be resurrected; they will dwell together, in harmony, in the land of peace towards which, in the suffering of their former lives, their prayers had always turned. Says Chabad.org– “In this dark and imperfect world, we cannot yet behold and enjoy the fruits of our labor. But in the Era of Moshiach, the accumulated attainments of all generations of history will reach their ultimate perfection. And since ‘G‑d does not deprive any creature of its due’, all elements that have been involved in realizing His purpose in creation will be reunited to perceive and experience the perfect world that their combined effort has achieved.” In the same way, the Marxist historian believes that in the future, all the oppressed of the past will be remembered; the enemy that oppressed them will be finally vanquished; the world for which they struggled will come to fruition; they will be redeemed. The spirit dwelling behind both these Messianic visions is the same.

“The Era of Moshiach is not a supernatural world; it is the very same world we know today–without the corruptions of human nature. Man will have conquered his selfishness and prejudices; a harmonious world community will devote its energies and resources for the common good and the quest for continued growth in wisdom and perfection. In short, the Era of Moshiach represents man’s attainment of the peak of his natural potential.”

Neither the radical historian nor the religious Jew prays for the liberatory force of history, or for God, merely to ‘remember’ the dead, but to bring the dead back to life. The latter is much more radical. It is not that in the promised stateless classless society, the great, definitive history book will finally be written, and all oppressed narratives of the past will be remembered fully, in a grand apotheosis of knowledge- this fantasy of pure knowledge, of total accuracy in and for itself, is in fact closer to the bourgeois fantasy of total history. Rather, it is that the better world, for which our oppressed ancestors struggled, will finally come to fruition; their vision will be actualized; their arrow will reach its target; their oppressors will have not won. Freedom, which for them was only partial, a distant, longed-for vision, becomes actual, confirming their faith in its inevitability. By avenging their oppression, by vanquishing their oppressor, we bring to fruition that which, for them, slumbered in potentiality. Their struggle was not for naught- just as the end of a sentence bestows meaning upon its beginning, the meaning of their struggle is retroactively confirmed, made apparent, vindicated by our success in the present. They are brought back to life in victory, and their death- that is, their defeat by the oppressor- was in fact a falsehood.

When we struggle, in the present, we struggle also for the past; we fight for those before us, who were vanquished, who pray now, from beyond the grave, for our success. We bring with us their hope, it animates and sustains us. We avenge their deaths and we redeem their lives. So in the present, we pray for them to give us strength; we pray for the spirit of resistance that animated their bones, to animate ours as well; we pray that the liberatory spirit of God which guided their hands, will guide ours to victory. We have faith that their struggle was not in vain- that the movement of history towards justice ‘is faithful to resuscitate the dead’.

‘You will resuscitate the dead’- for the religious Jew or radical historian who mutters these words, the memory is turned toward the past, but the promise is futural. Suspended in this dislocated temporality, the religious Jew is comforted by the promise, not just that yesterday’s dead will be revived, but that we too, one day in the future, will be revived as well. Similarly, when we remember the struggles of oppressed peoples in the past, we know that they expected this of us; we ourselves pray that one day, some future radical will remember our struggle. The torch of struggle is passed between the generations, casting a glow into past and future with a flame that scintillates within this imperfect world, and gestures beyond, toward the half-glimpsed promise of the world’s perfection.

‘And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead’- may we merit, in our own day, to see humanity awaken from its sleep, unshackle the cords of oppression, and complete the process of liberation that animated our ancestors in struggle, and animates us today.

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In The Age of Trump, Progressive Jews Can Learn From the 20th Century’s Radical Yiddish Tradition

(first published at In These Times)

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The official, textbook history of any nation or group of people, writes radical historian Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States, can be sure to conceal “the fierce conflicts of interests, sometimes exploding, often repressed, between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated. … In such a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”

Acording to Zinn, it is the task of the radical historian not merely to recount the events of the past with the disinterested, depoliticized gaze of an “objective” academic. We need a history, rather, that lets the marginalized and oppressed voices of the past speak, that listens to these voices so as to distill new lessons, perspectives and imperatives urgently needed to face the political reality of the present.

Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism, written by Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg, attempts to write such a subversive and relevant history. First published as Le Yiddishland révolutionnaire in 1983 and re-released this November in a first-ever English translation by Verso with new editorial notes, references and an introduction by the translator David Fernbach, the book deals with the generation of Jewish radicals in Eastern Europe who, in the first half of the 20th century, helped raise the banner of world revolution against the terrifying forces of capitalism and fascism. A haunting, inspiring and often tragic book, Revolutionary Yiddishland uses first-hand interviews, deep archival research and sharp analysis to bring to life a complex landscape of factory workers, partisans, poets, party leaders, refugees, ghetto fighters and movement intellectuals.

Released on the day of Donald Trump’s election, the book’s timing of could not be more appropriate. Today, we see clouds of fascism disturbingly analogous to those of a century ago darkening our own political landscape, driven by a toxic and too-familiar collusion of xenophobia and scapegoating, authoritarianism and far-right nationalism, liberal capitulation and corporate mega-profit.

The Radical Jews of Yiddishland

In the late 1800s, millions of Jews living across Eastern Europe left their rural villages, called shtetls, and sought work in the new industrial factories crowding cities like Minsk and Vilna. Before long, this Jewish proletariat birthed a militant trade union movement with messianic intensity. The largest of these mass organizations, the Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund, or the Jewish Workers Bund, sought to unite all Jewish workers into a socialist party that demanded, in a revitalized Yiddish tongue, equal civil rights and freedom from discrimination for Jews and all workers, an end to class oppression, and a new Russia founded upon democratic socialism and cultural and religious freedom.

As the book recounts, these radical Jews created a new, socialist Jewish culture that brought secular Yiddish theatre, literature, discussion groups, educational systems and other vibrant and democratic institutions to a Jewish world in upheaval. This is the beating heart of Yiddishland—a word which, for the authors, conjures at once the region of Eastern Europe, the Yiddish culture and radical spirit of the Jews who lived there, and the historical moment itself, the dynamic and terrifying 20th-century arc upon which their lives unfolded.

Revolutionary Yiddishland traces how, as the Russian Revolution overthrew the tsar and brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917, many Yiddishland radicals helped drive the wave of revolutionary enthusiasm that swept Western and Eastern Europe. They helped build left parties, socialist governments and, in many cases, Jewish wings of these and other movements across the continent.

Meanwhile, the nationalist ideology of Zionism, popular among middle-class Jews in Western Europe, also began to make inroads in Yiddishland. The book unearths the passionate arguments between, on the one hand, those Jewish Communists and Bundists who insisted on staying and fighting as part of broad-based grassroots movements in Europe, and, on the other hand, those left-wing Zionists who struggled to fuse their aim of world revolution with their attraction toward a Jewish national home in Palestine.

Later, the book shows how, as fascism spread across Europe, the revolutionaries of Yiddishland fought falangists in 1930s Spain, formed self-defense militias in Nazi-occupied countries like France, organized underground networks of resistance in ghettos like Warsaw, and launched covert campaigns of sabotage and attack as partisans hiding deep behind enemy lines. Finally, we witness the utter liquidation of Yiddishland in the ovens, battlefields and mass graves of Nazi terror. We see its few survivors struggle, and often fail, to maintain their revolutionary spirit in a post-war world that was too quick to suppress and stigmatize the trauma of their destruction, and too eager to denounce their radicalism in the name of realism, or Zionism, or liberalism.

Though Yiddishland traces dense political trajectories across a broad historical arc, it is grounded in a fabric of human experience that makes these narratives anything but abstract. The authors, who in the 1980s conducted extensive interviews with survivors, offer vivid, intimate glimpses into the beating heart of a vanished world.

In the grueling sweat of the factory, we see young workers replace Torah and Talmud with the Communist Manifesto, and convince their religious parents to join them in the fight for a new Messiah. In the crowded working-class neighborhoods of Białystok, we see struggling Jewish families rejoice in the discovery of new literature and theatre that speaks to their own troubles and aspirations, in their own proud Yiddish tongue. On the frenzied streets of revolutionary Russia, we watch patrols of Jewish workers battle tsarist soldiers and chase spies away from meeting houses. On a Yom Kippur night in early 1940s Moscow, we listen as worried Jewish refugees from Poland huddle with their Russian Jewish comrades outside a synagogue, trading terrifying rumors of the ovens at Auschwitz, narrating heroic tales of resistance from the Warsaw Ghetto.

These stories, and so many others, jostle together in the crowded pages of Yiddishland, the faces of the protagonists gazing from the past asking us, if not to avenge their death, at least to remember their life. And Yiddishland does just that, in a stark, refreshing prose that does not glorify these fighters in any “cult of great Heroes,” or idealize them as larger-than-life martyrs.

Rather, the book portrays what it calls a “resistance of the shadows” made of ordinary people who, in extraordinary times, dedicate themselves “without hesitation” to a gritty, uncertain struggle to survive with dignity. The texture of their resistance is not romantic but brutal, often marked by “hunger and fear, missed encounters, tiresome tasks, boredom and greyness, pain and anguish.” And while Yiddishland tells a specifically Jewish story, it opens a first-hand window into the larger movements for political emancipation, working-class empowerment and resistance to fascism that made the 20th century so momentous, and terrifying, for the whole human race.

Why Study Yiddishland Today?

As the authors of Yiddishland detail, a vast, seemingly unbridgeable gulf separates the world of these radicals from our world today. Put simply, German fascism erased their existence from the face of the planet, and uprooted the language, customs, history, cuisine, institutions, religion and economic life of the world that they called home.

How does the Left as a whole view its own past today, ninety-nine years after the Russian Revolution helped usher in a near-century of powerful socialist, leftist, anti-imperialist and other movements that shook the planet? We view these movements mostly as anachronisms of a bygone era—flawed and failed, if well-intentioned and inspiring.

But we have yet to find new forms of resistance capable of challenging and dismantling a rapacious and rampant 21st century global capitalism. As the authors of Yiddishland make clear in their introduction, the larger Left today, like radical Jews, has yet to process and mourn the twists and turns of its recent history. We cannot help but look upon the passionate, almost messianic optimism of early-20th century radicals with a strange sense of dislocation and longing.

In the Jewish imagination today, the memory of the revolutionary Jews of Yiddishland is suppressed, or at most, consumed as a pale imitation. In its absence, the ideology and historiography of Zionism places the creation of Israel at the pinnacle of Jewish history, and portrays the millennia that Jews lived in diaspora, amongst the peoples of the world, as a cycle of permanent suffering, plagued by an eternal anti-Semitism.

In the hegemonic narrative shared and co-created, to some extent, by most Jewish communities in both America and Israel, the memory of the revolutionary Jew of Yiddishland is an image held dimly, and with warmth and pride. But, so the narrative continues, this history’s bitter lesson is that Yiddishland values of solidarity and revolution did not protect even these Jews from Hitler, and that only the Jewish state of Israel can provide the haven of safety, security and identity needed for Jews to exist in the world today.

Even most Jews on the radical left today scarcely remember the names of the radical Jews of Yiddishland. With mere traces of remembrance, we have yet to give them a proper burial, to learn what they yearn to teach us, to know exactly what we, today, have inherited or have yet to inherit from them. Meanwhile, the state of Israel’s 68-year old assault on Palestinian land and life continues at a dizzying rate, and American Jewish support for the Israeli regime continues to lure us onto the wrong side of history, like a collective nightmare from which our community cannot yet awaken.

A New Yiddishland?

It is highly fitting that Revolutionary Yiddishland appears today in English, just as a new radical Jewish movement is emerging here in America, the largest global Jewish population center since Yiddishland itself (slightly edging out Israel by some estimates). Today, more American Jews than ever are joining and building movements against Israel’s occupation and apartheid. Meanwhile, across a thousand spheres of Jewish communal life, progressive movements are forming which seek to hold our many institutions and leaders accountable to the racial and economic justice struggles around and within which we as Jews live. In my work as Campus Coordinator with Jewish Voice for Peace, a national organization inspired by Jewish tradition to stand for justice in Palestine and against all forms of racism, I see this new Jewish identity being built by student activists on college campuses every day.

One hundred years later, with the state of Israel and its right-wing allies in the U.S. finding clear common ground with Donald Trump and neofascist forces worldwide, little has changed since the radicals of Yiddishland organized against capitalists and fascist collaborators in their own community, and denounced Zionism as a bourgeoisie, nationalist movement that allied itself with imperial interests and ruling elites, and cared little for the real struggles of poor and oppressed Jews and non-Jews around the world.

But if this burgeoning movement may be symbolically called here a “new Yiddishland,” it must be stated that this new movement is hardly Yiddish. In a porous, multicultural America, while many Jewish radicals trace their roots to the shtetl, many others inherit traditions from the many non-European Jewish communities of the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and elsewhere, and from non-Jewish ancestors as well. There are other important differences between past and present: While the radical Jewish identity of Yiddishland was forged in direct struggle against class exploitation and violent anti-Semitism, many, though certainly not all, American Jews today benefit from some degree of race and/or class privilege. While yesterday’s Jewish radicals were staunch atheists, today many of us embrace prayer, ritual and spiritual identity infused with, and inseparable from, our radical politics and lives.

It is also appropriate that Revolutionary Yiddishland appears today as a resource for the Left as a whole. As neoliberal capitalism maintains its destructive grip and delivers misery to most inhabitants on the planet, the Left faces a terrifying fascist threat unseen since the era of Yiddishland, with the rapid embrace of far-right politics engulfing Europe and culminating, last week, with the startling seizure by Donald Trump of the most powerful political position in the world. As we combat mounting attacks on Muslim and Arab communities, black folks, immigrants, Jews, women, LGBTQ folks and more, we have much to learn from the boundless optimism, the fearless advances and the terrifying retreats of those who struggled before.

We need to draw hope from this previous generation of radicals who believed, against all odds, that a new sun was dawning in the sky of history. Revolutionary Yiddishland lets this generation speak, and helps us to listen. Through this radical act of remembrance—and through continuing, in our own time, the struggles they were not able to see to victory—we inherit their fight, we redeem their loss, we ensure their death was not in vain. And we relearn, in a new way, that vital lesson expressed in a saying of the ancient rabbis: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

To Peter Beinart: We pro-BDS Jews Are Just as Much Part of the Jewish People as You Are

(first published on Haaretz)

The stories of Jewish students who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) of Israel until it ends its violations of Palestinian rights are often painful stories of exclusion from the Jewish community.
They tell me, in my capacity as Campus Coordinator with the pro-BDS organization Jewish Voice for Peace, that they can no longer attend Shabbat at Hillel without facing steely stares and cold shoulders from staff; that the rabbi of their synagogue back home devoted his entire Rosh Hashanah sermon to the “evils of the BDS movement”; that they can’t attend a family gathering without someone calling them a self-hating Jew.

But there’s another kind of story they tell me as well.  A wave of anti-occupation freshmen and sophomores just joined their JVP chapter; the president of their Hillel board just publicly criticized the occupation, and called for JVP to be given a seat at the table; their old friend from Hebrew school confessed in a private message that she, too, supports BDS as a tool to achieve justice for Palestinians, but is afraid to say so publicly.

With this growing engagement, and the Jewish establishment’s frenzied counterattack, a seismic shift is occurring in the American Jewish community. The old consensus is crumbling, and a new Jewish world is emerging.

So when liberal columnist Peter Beinart told me recently in Haaretz that Jews like me have broken ‘the bonds of peoplehood’ by embracing BDS, I heard an assertion that reflects the consensus of the old Jewish world, not the contours of the new. In Beinart’s view, while pro-BDS Jews like me do indeed hold strong Jewish identities and build robust Jewish communities, the fact remains that we have broken sharply with the mainstream Jewish communal consensus.

For embracing a call for solidarity from Palestinians who experience daily violence from the Israeli state, we are denounced from the local synagogue bimah, denied jobs at the local JCRC, and ridiculed around the local mah-jongg table. We have prioritized our ethical values over the commandment, in Beinart’s words, to ‘protect other Jews’. And for making this choice, we have excommunicated ourselves from klal Yisrael (the Jewish collective).

But whose ‘peoplehood’ have we broken, exactly? Who determines the boundaries of what Beinart calls the collective ‘family’? Mainstream synagogues, with their ‘We Stand With Israel’ banners facing the street and Israeli flags adorning the bimah, are struggling to find members under the age of 50. In many places, a growing majority of Jews don’t pass through the doors of their community JCRC or their campus Hillel. For a variety of reasons, institutions like these have for decades been inaccessible not only to pro-BDS Jews, but to queer Jews, Jews of color, Jews from interfaith families, working-class Jews, disabled Jews, and many others.

More and more Jews today are leaving establishment Jewish institutions: they are flocking to independent minyanim, alternative havurahs and DIY ritual spaces across the country. In these heterogenous alternative spaces, they find not only many Jews who are against the occupation, but also many Jews who support BDS. Spaces like these, and organizations like JVP, are striving to create exactly what yesterday’s withering institutions cannot- a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, intergenerational, interfaith community centered around Jewish values of justice.

What we see today is a phenomenon that has repeated itself throughout Jewish history- a movement of Jewish dissidents, who started agitating at the margins, have begun to transform the center of Jewish life. This should not surprise us. Jewish history, after all, is a tapestry woven through vibrant dissent, marked by passionate disagreement, shaped by outsiders and outcasts.

To name but one example among many: the Zionist movement, for the first decades of its existence, was viewed as dangerous and marginal by most Jewish communities where it attempted to take root. Religious Jews warned that it uprooted Jews from Torah; liberal Jews warned that it uprooted Jews from the nations in which they strove to become full citizens; leftist Jews warned that it uprooted Jews from the movements for workers’ rights, social equality and national autonomy then sweeping the globe. Like pro-BDS Jews today, Zionists were seen by most, in the early decades of their emergence, as challenging Jewish unity, and even as encouraging physical and existential threats to the Jewish people.

The truth is that we, the Jewish people, have not moved through history as a compact and homogenous entity, bound by stable borders. Rather, we are marked ‘from time immemorial’ by passionate, often foundation-shattering internal struggle. The boundaries and contours of our peoplehood are always in dynamic flux, and we are often propelled forward by outsider ideologies that, at first, are profoundly threatening to the majority. Things change. Ideas that, in one era, appear antithetical to our continuity as a community, later emerge as celebrated norms.

Today, the American Jewish community is at a tipping point. There are growing numbers of Jews like me who support BDS as a strategic, accountable, nonviolent way to participate in the movement for justice for Palestinians, and a growing community of anti-occupation Jews who respect the use of those tactics even when their activism takes different forms.
Those who are trying to expel us beyond the bonds of peoplehood are clinging to a status quo that is shifting under their feet. We know these bonds to be more elastic, this peoplehood more expansive, and this community more capable of transformation than they believe.  Just as yesterday’s Jews would be shocked to see that it is considered more heretical for Jews today to question the State of Israel than to question belief in God, tomorrow’s Jews will inhabit a community that, to today’s mainstream, appears equally unrecognizable.

Those of us Jews who support the tactics of BDS are not simply choosing to prioritize our ethical values over Jewish unity. Rather, we are working to transform our Jewish communities into ones that reflect our values. Pro-BDS Jews like me are not here to free Palestinians, or tell them how to free themselves. As we see it, our work is to align our community with a call for justice from Palestinians, and to contribute to the growing, diverse movement for equality and freedom.