Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Yes We Can and Blind Vanity

Yes, we can. Here it is almost four in the afternoon--we are on the verge of terrible heat for the next two days, but I have another kind of heat in me--the heat of possibilities. America is warming up. I have followed the voting results, the speeches, the analysis of the New Hampshire primaries. How far are we from the death head speech of Dick Cheney, the repetitive mumblings of Bush , the lost son, from all those miserable vision less corporate patriarchs--Romney, Ashforth and Rice, so carefully controlled in the service of her bosses, running herself ragged trying to sort out the sore spots of the world, trapped in the dead ends of her party's smallness. Candidate after candidate calling for change--the biggest looser Bush and all he represents--as the speakers scroll down the things that need to be fixed, Republican and Democrat, one point screams out--what has this President been doing all his years in office--so much is wrong, so many believing a door has opened--and as the candidates chant the fineness of America in all things, they also list the losses.
Here I think that America is not unlike some Jews; a friend just e-mailed me a sermon by Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, "Are Jews Too Powerful? The Vanity Fair Perspective" with the words she would go to his schul anytime. I read his words and cried out loud with their wrongness. I have not read the original Vanity Fair article and I will, but whether Jews have too much power or just enough is not the crucial issue. What is is what we do with this power, what anyone does with the "power," the opportunities, they have to influence their fellow humans and the conditions in which they live. The triumphant rabbi tells us we should be ecstatic about our "new" power: " But just one generation ago there was no Jewish lobby! he says, and there was no Israeli Air Force!" And now there is, and hundreds of Palestinians are injured or killed by this power every month. The rabbi poses our choices as "lay low or flaunt it." And we know what this Godly man thinks is our best path.
"Helping others won Abraham no worldly praise, It was only now--now that Abraham has pursued the terrorists....and in the words of the Torah 'Smote them and pursued them."...only did the world show respect. For what impresses the world is not saintliness as much as strength, not character as much as courage, not piety as much as power." These words the rabbi puts in bold letters in case we miss them. And courage for him is the courage of military might, not the courage to find another way, the courage to see another group of angry and sad people as possible allies rather then as targets. He goes on to say that all enemies of Israel and the Jewish people will be punished by his God. A wisdom the Evangelical Christians know so well, he says, and that is why they are such good friends of Israel. If we are truly the chosen people, a most pernicious myth, as the rabbi makes a case for, and the avenging god is just waiting to smote our enemies, why do we need nuclear bombs in Israel, all that erotic military power. Once again, we move between the Messianic and history, invoking either one when it serves to justify the loss of our human hearts. "Yes, let the Arab world think we are all powerful. That's the only way they may somehow come to the realization that they're going to have to learn how to live with us." And us, what do we need to learn--perhaps how to live with a displaced people like we were once, perhaps how connected we are to those who have lived in the lands of the middle east for thousands of years, perhaps that blindly replicating America's over bloated sense of self in the world, is not the best future policy--especially when so many dead people lie at our feet--can any god have ordained the extraordinary suffering of the Iraqi people? The rabbi ends his celebratory calculus of Jewish success in this time by quoting again from the Torah, "The Lord has given strength to his people," and adds "may he now give us peace," but where in his delirious ode to the multitude of Jewish names in Vanity Fair's lists of the movers and shakers of America is the recognition of Jews who work for peace, for another kind of Israel, for another kind of America, for another kind of human contract.
While I read the rabbi's words, I kept thinking of my uncle Murray, husband to aunt Mimi, who took me in when my mother ran out of money and hope. I would sit at the feet of this orthodox Jewish couple, in 1950s Bayside, Queens, while we watched the 6 o'clock news. Murray was deep in his newspaper, but every time a criminal was paraded on the small Dupont black and white screen, he would lift his head and ask the only question whose answer mattered to him, "was he Jewish?" Uncle Murray taught me so many years ago that there was such a thing as Jewish eyes. The old generation's question according to Alan Derschowitz--but it seems to me the question has remained, only now the head is lifted and the eyes focused to count the names of the powerful--"are they Jewish?" It gives the rabbi great pleasure to note that so many editorial columnists are Jewish. I, like him, was reading the International Herald Tribune, only in my case it was in a Haifa cafe, not a London one, when the same thought struck me, Friedman, Brooks, Cohen telling us over and over again what they thought of the world. I thought of the lone words of Bob Herbert of the New York Times who always makes his readers look in another direction, the one less taken, to people suffering from the abuses of power. In my head he sees the world with Jewish eyes, eyes large enough to see the struggle of so many different kinds of people being ground down by "victors" of all sorts. Our choices of how to be in the world as Jewish people cannot be limited to victim or triumphalist, we are not the best of the world's people or the worst, no gods keep special watch over our journeys or put special weapons in our hands or knowledge in our heads. We are simply and grandly part of the great complex and always changing human world, with our culture of thought and feeling one of many. How poor we make ourselves when we count the lists and the weapons and the armies that shrink our human hearts.
I started all this by repeating Obama's words, "Yes, we can," and when I think that more and more Jews are turning to the Right because they fear a more open balanced world, voting for what they think is best for Israel to the detriment of all other concerns, I sing yes we can find our eyes that see our connections, that see things must change, in Israel, in America, that dispossessing one people from their homes and their lives and then celebrating their suffering is not the Jewish way, not our human way and certainly not the way of lasting peace.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Hey Joan, I am tutoring in the politics department at the Uni of Melbourne in first semester 2008 for the subject American Politics and Society. If it isn't too much trouble, could I invite you into the tute at some stage to provide a talk on American politics with the kids? It could be on foreign policy, or civil rights, from your perspective? Or, anything you want to talk about. I know the students would love it. Cheers, Mike