My letter in the July 6 Ames Tribune:
I find it ironic when someone makes it sound as if AIPAC were the lobby for a foreign government (‘Obama demands more of Israel’ June 28). I am a proud and patriotic American and a member of AIPAC. We lobby our American government as Americans who promote American interests in the world.
Often, those who oppose American greatness, our influence in the world and our efforts to promote liberal democracy, know that they cannot simply bash America. Instead, they bash Israel, a small liberal democracy surrounded by hostile and unfree states. They appeal to conspiracy theories and unexplained power (really just re-purposed arguments against other-things-Jewish).
Fortunately, the American people know better. Our Congress supports Israel because Americans, from across the political and religious spectrum, support Israel. And, we support Israel because we know that our values are at stake there.
In the past, Soviet-backed governments threatened Israel. Today, terrorists with fascist ideologies threaten Israel. Against such enemies, Americans back democracy and freedom.
James Edward Johnson
Today marks great tragedy and great triumph for the Jewish people.
Seventy years ago today, for two days in 1941, pro-Nazi Arabs rioted against the Jews of Baghdad. In a wave of violence, the Jews of Iraq were destroyed on a shocking scale – even in the context of the developing Holocaust. In the Farhud, which means “pogrom” or “violent dispossession”, approximately twice as many Jews were killed in Iraq as were killed during Kristallnacht in Germany. The only reason the Nazis did not succeed in exterminating the Jews of Iraq is that the British regained control shortly after the Farhud. Even still, Baghdad would be nearly Jew-free within the next ten years. One of the major centers of Jewish life for approximately 2,500 years was destroyed.
Forty three years ago today (on the Hebrew calendar), another center of Jewish life was restored. In 1967, Jews had been barred from their holiest sites in Jerusalem for 20 years – during the Jordanian occupation of the city. Although day-to-day control of the Temple mount, Judaism’s holiest site, remains under the authority of the Islamic Waqf, it and the Kotel, or Western Wall, was opened to the Jewish people under the sovereignty of the Jewish state. The return of this area to Jewish hands is marked by Yom Yerushalayim.
So, while on this day we remember a terrible tragedy and the destruction of a center of Jewish life, we also remember a great victory and the restoration of a center of Jewish life.
A nice Jewish man in Iowa City, Patrick McEwen, was brutally killed in his own home just over 3 years ago. His killer was up for parole last week – during Chag Pesach no less. Fortunately, it was denied for at least four more months. Here is the piece I wrote for the Press-Citizen just before the hearing.
So, I have been a long time in posting. My work keeps me busy this time of year. Even so, I have published a couple things in the interim:
If you read only one, read the book review.
I am always a little surprised by how fast professed anti-racists will engage in antisemitism. I have never experienced this phenomenon to the degree I have experienced it here in Iowa City. Most people here are really good people, but there is a small group of very vocal ideologues who are apparently not deterred in their open acts of antisemitism. Here are a few tips for avoiding antisemitism that I have recently considered:
Conspiracies are rare. Most cooperation is in the open. When I say something I am not speaking for any other Jew – either collectively or individually. When I act I am not acting on any other person’s behalf unless I am explicit in doing so. If you are quick to infer a conspiracy between my and other Jews, your inference is antisemitic. I am always shocked when people assume I am part of a Jewish conspiracy and not simply doing what I think is right on my own and for my own purposes.
Members of minority groups usually are angered when they perceive bigotry directed towards their group. Responses to such perceptions are not typically cautious and reasoned and can often appear spiteful or vindictive. Expecting minorities to suppress their anger and respond more civilly is a bigoted expectation. If a fellow Jew gets pissed off at you for your lack of sensitivity I am not going to try to put a leash on them. I do not infantilize Jews or anyone else by pretending my calmer response is more “proper” or “better” than their angry response. It is not my place to tell them how they should respond to your bigotry. Expecting one Jew to prevent another Jew from expressing their emotion in a visceral fashion is antisemitic. Expecting a male to restrain a female is doubly bigoted because it reinforces sexist stereotypes.
There are many individual members of every group who behave poorly at times. Attributing the actions of those individuals to their group, their community organizations or any other member of that group is a bigoted attribution. Minority communities tend to be well connected internally because of their minority status. That one poorly behaved member of a group might have connections to other members of the group is not evidence of general debasement of the group. It is evidence of the group’s normalcy. Expecting otherwise is destructive of minority groups, bigoted, and in the case of Jews, antisemitic.
More locally, there are a few groups (seemingly attended by the same small set of people) that routinely engage in these sorts of antisemitism. They are ostensibly pro-Palestinian in spite of having very few Palestinian Arab members. In practice, they are a lot more anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, and antisemitic than they are pro-Palestinian. What a shame. Don’t be enticed by the superficially tolerant rhetoric of such groups.
I have recently published a Writers’ Group column in the Iowa City Press-Citizen and a letter in the Des Moines Register. Enjoy!
Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question” is an exploration of the relationships of three British men, two Jews and one philo-Semite, their struggles with the women in their lives, and their struggles with Jewishness and antisemitism. It recently won the Man Booker Prize, one of the top literary prizes in the world. … Read more.
The United States has an ugly history of red-lining and housing segregation. Beginning in the 1960s, we rightly began reversing this historic injustice. How odd, then, that we ask a foreign government to implement segregationist policies. … Read more.
… a synopsis of some recent correspondence
I have recently been discussing outbursts of bigoted statements in a variety of contexts. In current events terms, these discussions have sprung from events ranging from the debate over Park51, the misnamed “Ground Zero mosque”, to Rick Sanchez’s comments that Jews run the media, to Juan Williams’ expression of fear about outwardly Muslim airline passengers.
Let me deal with these issues by talking more specifically about Sanchez’s allegations.
Sanchez basically repeated the old antisemitic canard that Jews control the media. That many people might make such a quick assessment is not that hard to understand – moreso when one considers the cultural background of antisemitism common in most communities.
In Iowa, for example, Jews are only one in 500 people. Most people either personally know zero Jews or a very tiny number of Jews. They do, however, turn on their TVs and see a fair number of Jews associated with both the news media and the entertainment industry. Given the contrast, a quick assessment might indicate either that Jews run the media or substantially dominate it. That is because the relative concentration of Jews in such context far exceeds the presence of Jews in an Iowan’s day-to-day life.
However, a person employing their intellect can readily overcome such a rush to judgment. First, while Jews in Iowa are about one in 500, Jews in the US are one in 50. In media centers like New York and LA, Jews are more like one in ten. So, even if there is no clustering of Jews in the media (and there might be some of that too), an Iowan should expect to see about 50 times the proportion of Jews in the media as in Iowa. This is true merely on the basis that Jews in the media are representative of the localities in which they are employed. That is, however, a shocking difference that is likely to provoke an outsized estimate of Jewish influence. But, such outsized estimates are easily countered, again, by making informed observation and employing our intellects. There is much more evidence than this, but we can start with the observation that CNN and Fox are both owned and run by non-Jewish heads. Even when one looks narrowly to prominent Jews in the media it becomes clear that they have no coordination and little agreement and so the idea of a ubiquitous “Jewish control” is downright ridiculous.
And, this pattern plays out in a wide variety of bias issues. The initial prejudice is easily justified by a simple observed difference between a foreign context and a familiar context. Human learning is predicated on our ability to generalize, but here such generalizations serve to create an imagined reality that wildly exaggerates true reality. This can apply to issues like black crime or family malfunction, Jewish control or miserliness, Muslim terrorism or misogyny, gay male illness or sexual predation, female seduction or manipulation, … In order to challenge these stereotypes, we have to understand the different contexts that give rise to them. The rampant prevalence of prejudice throughout human history clearly demonstrates that this is tied to human nature and that suggests that it cannot be ignored and is not generally self-correcting.
In Sanchez’s case, just a little education probably would have helped him understand why the myth of Jewish control of the media is an antisemitic prejudice. Williams didn’t need the education and so he followed up quickly with an explanation of how an initial fear should not be employed to give rise to bigotry. Acknowledging the fact of one’s fears and suspicions, however unreasonable such fears may be, is an important part of legitimizing the more rightful assertions against prejudice provoked by such fears. We cannot combat bigotry without recognizing its fairly natural and common origins.
That said, if one asks only that we “understand” bigotry, they probably are promoting it. If one asks for “understanding” that burdens the victims of bigotry with the responsibility to avoid it, they are probably promoting it. We must understand bigotry, but only because our fight against it will be very difficult if we refuse to understand the natural propensity for humans to develop biases. The challenge is developing a discourse that allows us to develop the latter understanding without encouraging the bigotry promotion inherent to the former “understandings”.