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Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Jewish "objective"

An art critic in Kentucky named Andrew Adler writes about the challenges of being Jewish and being an objective observer:
How do I begin talking about an issue that is so close to me not just as a critic, but as a Jew? Consider the following:

In the Belgian city of Antwerp, the Flanders Opera is mounting a production of Saint-Saëns' "Samson et Delilah" in which the Philistines are portrayed as Westerners, with Samson and his fellow Hebrew fighters dressed as Arabs.

In London, Caryl Churchill's eight-minute "Seven Jewish Children — A Play for Gaza" has generated intense controversy over its alleged anti-Semitism and Churchill's unabashed sympathies for the Palestinian cause.

Meanwhile, in Israel, there continues to be an official ban on performances of music by Richard Wagner. On the rare occasions when orchestra conductors like Daniel Barenboim defy that ban, audience reaction ranges from grumbling acceptance to overt, audible outrage. It's been this way for decades.

The tension between religion and art has always been present, and Jews by no means have a monopoly on perceived prejudice rendered through culture. Yet there are times when being Jewish — and all the hypersensitivity accompanying that identity — seems to run counter to the cultural independence we hold so precious. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if we Jews have become so accustomed to the role of history's victim that we resist a better kind of aesthetic progress.
After some exposition, the critic finds that he, at least, can be objective:
I can hear a magnificent work like "Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg," capped by Wagner's plea to keep pure his "holy German art" in the midst of scurrilous outsiders, without having to cringe at the anti-Semitic back story. I can read and evaluate the worth of "Seven Jewish Children" without being derailed by Churchill's brand of Mideast politics. And I would hope that I could see that Antwerp production of "Samson et Delilah" without feeling as though I were being victimized yet again.

That, I hope, is art's truest imperative: to be brave, and encourage a bit of bravery in all of us.
Is this bravery?

It is perhaps unfair to pick on this writer, because I know nothing about his identification with Judaism, but too often one will find people who are Jewish and who will happily jettison the emotional aspects of their Jewish identity in the name of objectivity, or modernity, or even-handedness. Rarely does one get the idea that they are struggling on an emotional level with a deep attachment to Judaism. They are Jews, they freely admit this, but inevitably they decide that their Jewish identity is not as important as - or, often, is redefined as - secularism.

The result is that Jews who actually feel strongly about their religion and about defending it, whether culturally or politically, are put on the defensive and feel they have to play by the rules set by the secular Jewish majority.

Take a look at this article in the New York Times about Israel's restoration of Jerusalem as the Jewish capital of the world:
Israel is quietly carrying out a $100 million, multi-year development plan in some of the most significant religious and national heritage sites just outside the walled Old City here, part of an effort to strengthen the status of Jerusalem as its capital.

As part of the plan, former garbage dumps and once derelict wastelands are being cleared and turned into lush gardens and parks, now already accessible to visitors who can take in the majestic views, along with new signs and displays that point out significant points of Jewish history.

The parts of the city being developed were captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, but their annexation by Israel was never recognized abroad. As part of the effort, archaeologists are finding indisputable evidence of ancient Jewish life here. Yet Palestinian officials and institutions tend to dismiss the finds as part of an effort to build a Zionist history.
But notice who the article quotes that are against the plan:
Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, a leftist Israeli group that supports a two-state solution, contended that the plan aimed to create "an ideological tourist park that will determine Jewish dominance."

Daniel Seidemann, the founder of Ir Amim (City of Nations), an Israeli association dedicated to sharing Jerusalem, points to the Palestinian village of Silwan, built on the ruins of what is widely believed to be the ancient capital of the biblical King David. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in the region, and is, according to Ir David -- which sponsors digs there -- "the place where it all began."
Jews are in the forefront of trying to stop Israel from beautifying, reclaiming and re-establishing Jerusalem as the center of Jewish history and longing. For these people, Jerusalem is not a Jewish city in an meaningful sense, and their version of Judaism is so watered-down that the idea of severing it from the Jewish state is not only tolerable but desirable.

One will never find Muslims who are so "even-handed" or "generous" with their claims. One will not find Christians who are so anxious to give up their holy sites for abstract concepts of an illusory peace that will never occur. But one cannot open up a newspaper without finding such Jews who consider themselves so "brave" as to embrace the viewpoint of Israel's enemies and to jettison any vestige of emotional connection they might have once had with Judaism.

The reasons that Jews should control Jerusalem are, ultimately, emotional. Emotional arguments are considered acceptable and even admirable when made by Muslims, but the underlying theme of articles like this one is that enlightened Jews should be beyond such superstitious and backwards nonsense as truly caring about their religion and history.

This is perhaps the biggest problem in the Jewish world today - a complete dismissal by many Jews of the emotional aspects of the religion and peoplehood, and instead the use of their nominal (often accidental) "Judaism" as a weapon against the hopes and dreams of their co-religionists who actually care.