UPDATE: October 12, 5:00 pm. It has been pointed out to me that my statement that support for Israel has been a constant of post WWII American foreign policy is not correct. President Truman recognized Israel upon its formation, but relations between Israel and the US were distinctly chilly through most of the fifties and early sixties. This only changed in the late sixties, as a response to the warm relations between Syria, Egypt and the Soviet Union. The strong support of the US for Israel has far more to do with American interests in the region than it does with the influence of the Israel lobby.
Well, it seems Richard Dawkins managed to say something really stupid:
In an interview with the Guardian, he said: “When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby has been, though, in fact, they are less numerous I am told – religious Jews anyway – than atheists and [yet they] more or less monopolise American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence, the world would be a better place.”
Oh, Richard. Why, why, why did you have to go and say that?
I’m afraid this analogy is stupid on so many levels. The locution “Jewish lobby” (as opposed to “Israel lobby”) is a favorite of anti-semites, of course. This point was made at length by both Orac and John Wilkins, so I won’t belabor it here. As it happens, for reasons I’ll describe later in this post, this particular conflation doesn’t bother me so much, despite its use by various latter-day Nazis.
But I’m afraid Dawkins’ quote is the gift that keeps on giving. I was not aware that anyone was claiming Jews have monopolized American foreign policy generally. I thought the claim was simply that Jews have undue influence over our policy towards the Middle East, and towards Israel in particular.
Dawkins wonders how this lobby has managed to attain so much power. Well, there is the fact that most American politicians since 1948 have not really needed much persuading to be supportive of Israel. After all, it is one tiny island of democracy and freedom in an ocean of failed, corrupt, despotic states. What red-blooded American wouldn’t want to support them? Then there is the fact that Israel receives a lot of support from Christian groups, and not just from Jews, and that it has a clearly defined issue on which to focus, as opposed to atheists, who do not.
There is a lot more to criticize, but other people enjoy bashing Dawkins more than I do, so I will leave them to have at it. Mainly, I wanted to comment on a point made by Wilkins. He writes:
I seem to have a number of Jewish friends, but I am rarely aware of it. I wish I could claim some moral high ground here, but I am usually unaware of the personal and ethnic properties of all my friends: gays, bigots, etc., until they say something. And those who are Jewish who I know are equally blind to my Anglo-Irish heritage. I suppose they, too, sometimes wake up with the realisation that “Hey. One of my best friends is a WASP”, but then again they may not.
John, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but your Jewish friends are keenly aware of your Anglo-Irish heritage. Well, they are aware that you are not Jewish anyway, and they were aware of it within a few minutes of meeting you. You see, it is part of our training as little kid Jews to develop a finely-honed Jewdar that alerts us to the presence of any chosen people within a one mile radius. When a Jew walks into the room, I am instantly aware that our local numbers have grown, and I seek immediately for ways of using this fact to the advantage of the Jewish community generally.
Many years ago I saw Mel Brooks being interviewed on Bob Costas’ late night chat show. This was one of the rare shows where guests were actually allowed to speak at length without getting cut off. Brooks was telling the story of making Blazing Saddles. He and everyone else involved with the film thought they had made a very funny movie. But they also knew that some would find it offensive, and in particular the studio brass was likely to object to more than a few scenes. A special screening was arranged for prominent people at the studio. Brooks told the story roughly as follows,“So there we were, thirty studio bigshots and one Jew. For thirty minutes there was stony silence. Not a single laugh. Not even a smile. Just a lot of uncomfortable squirming. I was panic-stricken. I’ve never been that wrong about a question of comedy before. Then a friend of mine walked in. Ah, now there were two Jews. I started to feel better.”
Of course, much of Brooks’ career was (and continues to be) based on Jewish humor, which might explain why he told the story in that way. But I suspect that every Jew watching knew what he was talking about. It comes naturally when you find yourself in a cultural minority virtually everywhere you go. As one of my Hebrew school teachers so frequently reminded us, “They really are different, you know.” Do I need to spell out who “they”are?
Even as a kid I was aware of this. My circle of acquaintances was neatly divided into my Jewish friends and my non-Jewish friends. Not because there was any important difference between the two, of course. But simply because I had certain shared experiences with my Jewish friends (going to Hebrew school, celebrating Jewish holidays, putting up with well-meaning goyim who just couldn’t comprehend not celebrating Christmas) that I did not have with my non-Jewish friends. I still get a chuckle when I think of how my friends responded to my Bar Mitzvah. The Saturday morning service was a miserable, three-hour affair that went from 9:00 to noon. Most of my part of the service took place from 10:00-11:00. I patiently explained to my non-Jewish friends that it was perfectly appropriate to walk in just before 10:00, that plenty of people would be doing that, that no one would look at them funny, that it was not even slightly awkward to do so, and that they would be bored out of their minds if they had to sit through the entire service. My Jewish friends, of course, did not need to be told this.
So what happened? On the big day I showed up at the synagogue around 8:30. A good chunk of my non-Jewish friends were already hanging around, worried about being late. They had not taken me seriously when I said it was fine to walk in after the service started. (You should have seen their reaction when I tried to explain about the part of the service where they were to throw candy at me. At that point they were certain I had lost my mind). My Jewish friends walked in, en masse, at 9:59.
Make casual references to Jewish standard time, the characteristics of Jewish mothers, or to the question asked in the title of this post, and I suspect most gentiles will see grotesque, anti-Semitic stereotypes. (And when a non-Jew uses those expressions that’s exactly what they are). Most Jews, by contrast, will think of their grandparents. Not long ago I saw a production of Fiddler on the Roof. My favorite moment occurred when Tevye asks Golde if she loves him. Her answer gets to me every time:
But my father and my mother
Said we’d learn to love each other
And now I’m asking, Golde
Do you love me?
I’m your wife
But do you love me?
Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him
Fought with him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?
Then you love me?
I suppose I do
And I suppose I love you too
It doesn’t change a thing
But even so
After twenty-five years
It’s nice to know
It is hard for me to imagine my grandfather asking such a question, but if he ever did that’s exactly how my grandmother would have answered. In virtually every scene I was seeing familiar faces and attitudes. Not because I actually know any nineteenth-century Russian Jews, of course. But because Jews are Jews, and we recognize each other.
When you get right down to it, I love being Jewish. I love the fact that for all my mordant atheism I am not even one wit less Jewish than the most orthodox rabbi. There are no good Jews or bad Jews or lapsed Jews or anything Jews. There are just Jews, and that is all. I love the fact that a rabbi derives his authority not from any perceived personal relationship with God (an idea that Jews the world over regard as absurd, obscene and arrogant) but rather from his education and his years of study of all things Jewish. You respect a rabbi on Jewish questions for the same reason you trust a scientist to talk about science; they know more about it then you do. And if for all that you find yourself disagreeing with the rabbi, it is perfectly acceptable to say so. Preferably with vehemence. I love the fact that Jews not only do not prostletyze, but we positively discourage conversion. Not because we’re overly concerned with whether the person really means it, as is sometimes implied, or because we fear they might be converting just to please the in-laws. But because there is an implied world-weary question at the base of every Jew’s existence that goes something like, “What do you want to be Jewish for?”
I love the part of the Passover seder where we express dismay that our freedom from bondage came at the cost of so many Egyptian lives by dipping our fingers into our wine glasses and lessening our pleasure by leaving ten drops of wine on the plate (one for each of the plagues). This process is followed by the equally satisfying ritual of licking the excess wine off our fingers with a loud smack of the lips, as if to make clear that, let’s face it, we’re not really sorry that those farkatke Egyptian taskmasters got what was coming to them. (Those ten drops of wine, incidentally, often get soaked up by some later food item and consumed. Symbolism is good, but tasty wine is better.)
I love the fact that we celebrate our winter holiday not by raping the local forest and decorating a giant weed (a bit of insanity only to be expected of a religion that gets suckered in by every phony-baloney so-called “testament” that comes down the pike), but by lighting a few candles, reciting two quick blessings (remembering to add the sheheheyanu on the first day), and eating chocolate coins. Far more civilized.
I love knowing that the proper condiment for a sandwich is not mayonnaise, a vile concoction whose sole legitimate purpose is providing the mortar for holding together a tuna salad sandwich, but mustard. And not just any mustard. Not that neon yellow glow-in-the-dark soulless French’s crap or that vinegar with yellow food coloring put out by Heinz. I’m talking about a proper deli mustard. The kind with brown specks that comes in a small metal container whose lid flips up with gentle pressure from your thumb and has a small groove in it so that it rests flat even when there is a serving spoon stuck in the mustard. The kind that has a dish of sour pickles, pickled tomatoes, and cherry peppers next to it, so that the smell of salt, vinegar and spices mixes seductively with the big pile of fatty meat on the plate in front of you, and that also has a few half-sour pickles that you must never eat, unless you want everyone around you to know that you are a weak-willed gentile pussy. And I love the fact that every Jew reading this knows the emotions I am describing right now, while most of you non-Jews think that I’m off my meds.
(Actually, that reminds me of a story. A Christian friend of mine in graduate school used to keep the raw materials for making sandwiches in the refrigerator in the student lounge. One day I noticed that he was putting mustard on his sandwich and I commended him for his choice. “I didn’t think Christians did that,” I said. He smiled and replied, “Well, you guys aren’t wrong about everything.”)
It’s not all good news, of course. Did God really make a covenant with us whereby we agreed to live by certain implausible laws in return for being given the land of Israel? Of course not. That idea is silly. But for all of the dubious claims of the Torah, the fact remains that Judaism is almost exclusively focused on this world and not the next. We don’t talk much about souls, or the afterlife, or our personal walk with God. Instead we talk about following the law, being part of the community, and getting non-Jews to leave us alone. I like that.
Which brings me back to Israel. Intellectually I understand that being Jewish is not synonymous with support for Israel, that a person’s religion or heritage should not be used to prejudge their political views and all of that. I understand that the term “Jewish lobby” is used by bigots and holocaust deniers to make people fearful of Jews. I get it. I really do.
But emotionally I think that Jewish and pro-Israeli really ought to be synonymous. The unquestioned support for Israel has been a constant of post WWII American foreign policy, and that is precisely as it should be. As far as I am concerned we can empty the treasury and air drop blocks of cash all over Israel. Not because we should blindly support every action taken by the Israeli government. They have done any number of bone-headed things over the years, especially under Likud governments. It could hardly be otherwise in any government that must constantly kow-tow to religious extremists, which Judaism has just as surely as every other religion.
No, support for Israel simply recognizes that they deserve a lot of slack in light of their relatively muted reaction to unbelievable provocation over the years. It recognizes that they alone in the region built up a thriving democracy and a flourishing country, from nothing, in the space of a few decades, surrounded by enemies who have not shown the slightest interest in living in peace with them, and who routinely express their desire to push them into the sea. Sorry, but I find it difficult to see the other side when suicide bombers are blowing up civilians in pizza parlors.
So let the bigots conflate Jewish with pro-Israel. Let them be fearful of Jewish power and let them worry about what we’re capable of when we are sufficiently provoked. That’s just as it should be.