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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Reform rabbi dismantles Richard Falk

I blogged about the execrable Richard Falk's essay about Jewish identity, where he concluded that Jews who care about the welfare of their fellow Jews are pretty much doomed to be racists, last month.

Falk gets lots of adoring comments on his blog, as well as some explicitly anti-semitic comments that he does not respond to.

A reform rabbi, Ira Youdovin, writes a thoughtful response that is too good to be relegated to an almost dead comment thread on a little-read blog. While I do not agree with everything in the comment, it shows quite well what a sick self-hating quasi-Jew Falk is:

Despite his annoying habit of calling Israelis Nazis, I have never accused Prof. Falk of being a self-hating Jew. While his animus toward Israel is apparent, I have no way of determining if it stems from an animus toward Judaism and the Jewish tradition, which is the defining characteristic of a “self-hating Jew,” of from something else. But now that he has revealed his thoughts about Jewish identity, I may have to revise my assessment.

Prof. Falk’s problem is not only with Judaism. He disdains faith communities per se, defaming them as “tribes,” whose doctrine “unconsciously and indirectly gives rise to the murderous mentality of warfare and gives a moral and religious edge to many forms of persecution, culminating in a variety of inquisitions.” Had he been born an Episcopalian, he might be beating up on the Archbishop of Canterbury. But as his essay is entitled On Jewish Identity, we must explore the evidence he brings in applying these sweeping generalizations to Judaism.

Astonishingly for a scholar of Prof. Falk’s stature and reputation, he cites precious little evidence. He mentions the “often bloody exploits of the ancient Israelites.” But those atrocities occurred in the ancient middle east, where “bloody exploits” was standard operating procedure for almost everyone. This doesn’t excuse the atrocities reported in Scripture, but it does make them unexceptionable. Some balance is achieved through praise for the “moral clarity of Old Testament prophets,” and Rabbi Hillel’s version of the Golden Rule—a forerunner of Jesus’ more famous version. The historical screen then goes dark until we are propelled into Prof. Falk’s familiar riff on the evils of contemporary Israel.

In the process, he ignores a formative period of two millennia during which Judaism evolved from a temple-based sacrificial cult to a prayer and study-centered religion. If one wants to learn about Jewish identity, that’s where one has to look. But Prof. Falk doesn’t. Although I’m not an academician, I think that a student submitting a paper entitled “On Jewish Identity” with so little supporting material would, or should, receive a failing mark, even in this era of grade inflation.

My hunch is the omission of Jewish references stems from the inconvenient truth that Prof. Falk knows very little about his subject. Perhaps he doesn’t want to know. Even a cursory study of Jewish history discredits many of the sweeping generalizations he employs to dismiss and defame Jewish identity.

Exhibit A: Prof. Falk maintains that being committed to one faith precludes “being open and receptive to the insight and wisdom of other traditions.” In fact, Jewish history demonstrates precisely the opposite. Early biblical books, including Genesis, reflect the theology and symbolism of the Akkadians and other peoples of the ancient middle east. Later books, such as Ecclesiastes, are clearly influenced by Greek philosophy. The Mishna, which was completed around 225 CE, organizes biblical legislation into categories, a format learned from the Romans. Recent scholarship has discovered an on-going dialogue between the rabbis and church fathers covering several centuries. Both sides shared ideas which each adopted and built into its separate theology. Maimonides, perhaps the greatest of all rabbis, was an Aristotelian who sought to reconcile traditional Jewish teaching with wisdom he learned from Muslim scholars during the era of Convivencia in Medieval Spain. Reform Judaism is a product of the Enlightenment. Zionism was nurtured in the intellectual soil of Romanticism. Walk into many synagogues today and you’ll find classes and spiritual exercises in yoga, meditation and other practices taken from eastern religions. The list of things borrowed and things lent is endless.

Exhibit B: Prof. Falk dismisses as “benevolent and temporary” the Jewish self-understanding that being a Chosen People bestows no privileged status, but is a mandate to pursue social justice. The historical record refutes the “benevolent and temporary” caveat. Jews have always pursued social justice, following a commandment articulated in the Book of Deuteronomy. Here inAmerica, where Jews at long last have the opportunity to participate in the larger society as full citizens, we have been leaders and workers in the pursuit of equal rights and freedom for all. And Israel, despite its flaws, remains the one democracy in the Middle East, albeit an imperfect one.

To be sure, there are Jews in Israel, the United States and everywhere who are guilty as charged. They are especially visible in certain West Bank settlements where a desire to subjugate the Palestinians prevails. But they constitute a small minority. To extrapolate a community-wide character from their aberrant (and abhorrent) behavior is polemic, not scholarship.

A word must be said about Prof. Falk’s self-aggrandizement as one who has succeeded in putting his being human ahead of his being Jewish, so that unfettered by xenophobia, he is able to savor the rites, practices and wisdom of all religions. That’s gratifying, but during my forty years as a rabbi, which should make me a Super Xenophobe, I bet I’ve attended, witnessed and participated in more Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, et al worship services than Prof. Falk, along with a slew of interfaith worship experiences. I have marched, rallied and demonstrated alongside interfaith colleagues for a long list of causes. Several years ago, my partner and I joined with a group drawn from our synagogue and a local Methodist church to rebuild an African American church in rural Alabama that had been destroyed by arson. Contrary to what Prof. Falk believes possible, being a Jew enables me and many others to be better human beings. I can say the same thing about friends who are strongly committed members of other faith communities, but frequently enjoy one another’s rituals, practices and teachings.

Most disturbing is the flagrant disconnect between Prof. Falk’s claim to an “ecumenical and inclusive spiritual identity, and associated ethical and political commitments,” and his work for the United Nations. “Ecumenical” and “inclusive” strongly suggest a deep commitment to even-handedness in addressing ethical and political issues. But the mandate he accepted when becoming Special Rapporteur of the of outrageously misnamed United Nations Human Rights Council is to report only on perceived Israeli violations on the West Bank, while turning a blind eye on Palestinian suicide bombers and the like. That’s akin to refereeing a football game while calling penalties on one side only, especially when there’s no counterpart Rapporteur to monitor the Palestinians.

You read that correctly. In a conflict fraught with extraordinary complexities, where right and wrong exists on both sides, Prof. Falk choose to play an utterly one-sided, prejudicial and destructive role. On the one hand, he tars Judaism with the accusation that its doctrine “unconsciously and indirectly gives rise to the murderous mentality of warfare.” And on the other, he is indifferent to radical Islam as it drives Hamas and HIzbollah. I can’t believe that he’s unaware of this cruel absurdity. Somehow, he manages to live with it, and also with the knowledge that the UN’s interest in him is enhanced by his being Jewish.

As one who has argued frequently and fervently that criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitism, I am appalled by the damage Prof. Falk’s essay does to my case by alleging that perceived Israeli injustices are a natural, even inevitable consequence of what he condemns as an age-old Jewish religious tradition and identity. It’s a straw man on both sides of the equation, but red meat for those who delight in believing the worst about Jews. It’s no accident that the piece has been reprinted by the Intifada-Voice of Palestine website, as well by an e-screed called Foreign Policy Journal whose publisher, Jeremy R. Hammond, recently wrote a piece entitled “The Myth of the United Nations’ Creation of Israel. “

One final thought. Did anyone blanch at Prof. Falk’s proclamation that he is a proud Jew? Huh? Proud of what? Proud of belonging to a “tribe whose religious doctrine gives rise to the murderous mentality of warfare and gives a moral and religious edge to many forms of persecution, culminating in a variety of inquisitions?”

My question as a rabbi is not whether anybody else believes him, but whether he, himself, does. A little soul searching might help him appreciate the toxicity of the things he says about Jewish identity. These insights, in turn, might help him to recognize and understand the prejudice that fuels the toxicity of what he says about Israel.

Rabbi Ira Youdovin
Santa Barbara, CA
Falk gives his typical evasive response:
Dear Rabbi Ira Youdovin:

As you are probably aware, we have common friends here in Santa Barbara, making me particularly sad that you chose to insult me so intensely and unfairly. To begin with I have never equated Israelis with Nazis, and find the accusation odious. Further, I never purported to be doing more than express my sense of my own identity as a Jew in response to allegations that I was self-hating. Further still, I received several communications from rabbis that were much kinder than yours, and even supportive of what I was trying to express. And finally, on the substance of the Israel/Palestine conflict my effort and UN mandate is not to be ‘balanced’ but to be truthful; given the structure of the occupation this is what I have tried to do. Even Richard Goldstone, with lifetime Zionist credentials, fared no better than I have when he entered the no man’s land of responsible criticism of the Israeli occupation policies.

Again, I am disappointed that you did not see fit to attempt even a civil discourse on these matters of obviously deep personal concern to you.
I'll ignore most of Falk's whining but will answer his laughable assertion that I highlighted above. Here is what Falk wrote in 2007:
[I]t is especially painful for me, as an American Jew, to feel compelled to portray the ongoing and intensifying abuse of the Palestinian people by Israel through a reliance on such an inflammatory metaphor as ‘holocaust.’ ...

Is it an irresponsible overstatement to associate the treatment of Palestinians with this criminalized Nazi record of collective atrocity? I think not.
Falk defended the comparison in this BBC interview the following year.

As far as his assertion that he is simply trying to be "truthful" in reporting on human rights violations, he requested that the UNHRC ignore any Palestinian Arab violations of their own people's human rights.