Monday, August 30, 2010

Israeli Universities Under Attack

Most of us who make our livings at universities take it for granted (and try not to talk about this too much) that our colleagues on the faculty are liberals. They, we, tend to put a great deal of emphasis on personal freedom, are skeptical of appeals to patriotism, choose being over having, talking over shopping, believe that the government should be giving a hand to people who would otherwise suffer from inequality, support secular principles over the received morality of faith traditions, and so forth.

The reason why we try not to talk about this is because a good many of us secretly believe that the university is a place where smart people separate themselves from dumber people; that smart people tend to be liberal, because liberal ideas require you to be a little smart. There is a measure of truth in this belief but, on the whole, this is the really stupid reason why university people take each other's liberalism for granted. Nobody who has ever worked in both a university and, say, a private company, would say a good university teacher is smarter than a good manager. As for the bad ones, let's call it a draw. Such condescension is justifiably held against us by people who hate elites because they assume elitism--as Sarah Palin puts it, "the people who think they're better than 'ya."

But there is better reason why university faculty tend to be liberal. It is that the university is inherently a liberal institution. To keep a democratic republic going, you're always going to have to move against the current. The university is the place you learn to swim, not so much in what you learn, but how you learn. Personal freedom, skepticism, erudition, rules of evidence, equality, secularism--you might as well be describing the very foundations of the classroom experience. It is meant to incubate doubt and mentoring and the equality of merit.

The university, you see, is this strange, subversive community democratic republics plant down in the middle of themselves to protect themselves against the primordial instincts that are incubated in the primordial family--what Hegel called (a little eruditon of my own, ha-ha) the Family. It isn't an accident that Benjamin Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania or that Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia. It isn't an accident that the first great institution the cultural Zionists founded was the Hebrew University. The university is not just a place you get the accumulated best of what is believed. It is the place the very idea of best is pulped, so that the community can regenerate itself more adaptively. "Education," Robert Hutchins said, "is not to reform students or amuse them or to make them expert technicians. It is to unsettle their minds, widen their horizons, inflame their intellects..."

I am making the point because Israeli universities are now under a concerted, organized attack from "the right," as my friend Didi Remez shows in a brilliant series of exposes. You can read his posts here, here, and here. The attack is not really from conservatives (like Hutchins) who are concerned about the bias of professors; it is from neoconservatives, neurotic nationalists who are fed up with the very ethos of universities--fed up, that is, with classrooms in which all ideas, including Zionist ideas, are pushed around.

The right is a hodge-podge, of course, and includes principled political economists, from Hayek to Brooks to Netanyahu. But these other people, who attack universities for their liberalism, are not so much concerned about economic ideology or educational theory as social discipline. The critics of Im Tirzu, The Institute for Zionist Strategies, etc., want their world to make sense: their leaders to be strong and good, their ancestors to be mythic, their God to be magic, their sexual desires to be contained, their nation to be protected, their enemies defeated, their fears soothed. All they really need to know they learned in kindergarten. What is fascism if not the values of sweet little children projected onto our politics? Why are Oliver North, Glen Beck, and Geula Cohen always crying in public?

For these conservatives, the university is just the kindergarten's finishing school. It is the place where received wisdoms are received most perfectly. They talk about freedom, but think of this (also like Hegel, alas) as the recognition of necessity. They think of education as the way the nation indoctrinates new generations to the values (also above averageness) of the nation. Teachers who, rather, emphasize liberal ideas are a danger to their mobilization and solidarity. They will rail against the danger of professors' biases when professors are really biased against holding biases--which is exactly what these conservatives resist. As Didi says, follow the money back to the Hudson Institute.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cordoba House: Too Far Away

When an open and shut case stays open, there's something wrong with the investigation--not just with arguments for and against, but the terms of debate themselves. Does anybody really know how to talk about "religions" these days?

Like most who might otherwise have ventured an opinion, I've not commented on the appropriateness of building an Islamic cultural center, provisionally called Cordoba House, two blocks from Ground Zero, because I kept thinking the arguments against it were so weak, if not offensive, that statements from Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama (and, most recently, the Republican former Solicitor General Ted Olson, who was widowed on 9/11), would seal the case; that objections would be mysteriously withdrawn, like a Sarah Palin Tweet.

But, if anything, the furor seems only to be growing. And the center's opponents--even thoughtful people like Aaron David Miller--are buying into something like the following framing, which defenders do not quite know how to deal with:

Islamic radicals, so the argument goes, attacked the towers and thousands of Americans died. Therefore people who practice Islam, even Muslim Americans, should not do so close to where other Americans, the victims, may be grieving. Muslims may have a right to. (Some Muslims may have died, too.) But it would be tactless of Muslims to put the center so close. Exercising a right does not mean ignoring what people feel.

For Miller, say, suggesting that Cordoba House be built near Ground Zero would be like suggesting that Arafat visit the Holocaust memorial--something he once suggested, and now humbly regrets. For others, Cordoba House would be like nuns putting up a cross at Auschwitz, or the Japanese government putting up a Japanese cultural center at Pearl Harbor--you get the idea: too close, too soon.

MANY HAVE MADE the case, Jon Stewart most agreeably, that it is crazy to pin the most fanatic crimes committed by members of a religion on all of its members or exponents. And, moreover, the sensitivities of people with grievances cannot be a standard for exercising rights. Put the two together and you get farce ("It is too soon to put a Catholic Church next to a school-yard!") Of course, Arafat had once actually killed Jews at random; the Carmelite nuns, as my friend Jim Carroll explained, represented that conservative strain in the Church that had never come to grips with the way many in Poland's Catholic hierarchy had fomented antisemitism. But never mind.

What talk of rights, and "Daily Show" farce, do not really refute is the premise that religions have, or inspire, a kind of core sensibility. That a Muslim, Christian and Jew have each been subjected to a kind of distinct socialization--that each has ingested a distinct radioactivity, now lodged in emotional and intellectual bones--so that the only real question to ask is how "moderate" they are in expressing this sensibility--how manageable or toxic is the dose. We hear all kinds of strange questions, like how close is too close, as if the matter can be settled by Geiger counter.

There seems to be a widely shared assumption that every Muslim, say, would be a member of Al-Quaeda if he or she simply believed in Islam more strongly, or had greater courage of conviction. By this logic, I suppose, every brave Jew is incipiently a member of Gush Emunim, every Catholic ultra-Montaine, every Protestant an evangelical fundamentalist, and so forth.

"WHO IS TO say," Charles Krauthammer writes, "that the mosque won't one day hire an Anwar al-Aulaqi--spiritual mentor to the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber"? Michael Kinsley answered, adorably, "Who is to say that the Fifth Avenue Synagogue won't hire Bernie Madoff as its next cantor?" But this doesn't really get at Krauthammer's stupidity.

The question is not whether, as Kinsley says, the freedom of religion "can't be contingent on such what-ifs." The question is whether Krauthammer is right to assume that the difference between Feisal Abdul Rauf (and the people he inspires) and Anwar al-Aulaqi (and the people he inspires) is just a difference of degree. If Krauthammer is right, then one would be justified in asking, "what if." Given time and heat, presumably, the most toxic form of the thing may precipitate out.

The point is, of course, that Krauthammer is implying a caricature. Any religion, Islam included, is not a single revelation-cum-praxis, with people "believing" with greater or lesser intensity--all waiting, with corresponding levels of eagerness, to outlast Christopher Hitchens. Religions, rather, are encompassing traditions, systems of law (and ways of reforming law), rituals, philosophical claims, aesthetics, moral agendas, languages, musical riffs, literatures--I could go on--with competing movements and ordinary disputes all along the way, and in every sphere. People divide within religions in the same way they divide over whatever bears the marks of human perception and interpretation.

Members of a religion may all agree that a book is divine, but completely disagree about what divine means, which makes all the difference. Jesus was "a Jew" after all. Mohammed considered the Torah a revelation. (Where is Monty Python when you need them: "The gourd, follow the gourd!" "No the shoe, follow the shoe!")

Which brings us back to America. Jim Carroll is a Catholic. I am a Jew. But the way we each define our affiliation means we have more in common with each other than he has with Pope Benedict and I have with Ovadia Yosef. Much more. The 92nd. Street Y is a Jewish institution. But it was founded in 1874 by German Jewish immigrants in part as as form of kulturkampf against the rabbinic orthodoxies of the Eastern shtetl. (It would have a big job to do in the subsequent century, as Eastern Jews massed in Manhattan.) On the face of it, it will have far more in common with Cordoba House than with Kiryat Arba.To ask, today, what will prevent the proposed Islamic cultural center from hiring Anwar al-Aulaqi, is like asking what will prevent the 92nd. Street Y from hiring Rabbi Levinger. The very ethos of the sustaining community--the very purpose of the institution--will prevent it.

THAT WORD KULTURKAMPF is critical here. For every religion has in its precincts leaders who are trying, generation after generation, to work for the solid principles of emancipation and (what we used to call) the Enlightenment. As it happens, Jim Carroll knows Feisal Abdul Rauf very well, and will write about his book in tomorrow's Daily Beast. "Cut through the Mosque-near-Ground Zero blather," Jim writes, "by reading the book written by one of its chief backers - What's Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West," by Feisal Abdul Rauf. Carroll continues:

Imam Rauf offers a lucid and loving portrait of Muslim faith, an essential statement of the "moderate" Islamic position that so many claim is nowhere to be seen. But it is here, plain and eloquent. Rauf's touchstone is Cordoba, the Iberian city that was home, under Islamic sponsorship, to the centuries' long and amicable co-existence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Hence the proposed building's name - Cordoba House. Making Rauf's position crystal clear is his book's appendix: a Fatwa, or Islamic religious ruling, that permits U.S. Muslim Military Personnel to participate in the Afghanistan war effort.

So the problem, you see, is not that Cordoba House is too close to Ground Zero. It is too far away. What could be a more poignant, fitting response to the attackers than a center of this kind right at the site of the attack itself; a living monument to a tolerant, liberal, American strain of Islam that gives the lie to the terrorists and their pathetic narrow-mindedness--their creepy desire for purity? The arguments against the center do not just insult Muslims around the world, as Kinsley complains. They insult anyone for whom religious imagination--what William James calls religious experience--is something more than a childish play for certainty.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Binyamin, The Last Word

George Will, in his column: "No one is less a transnational progressive, less a post-nationalist, than Binyamin Netanyahu, whose first name is that of a son of Jacob, who lived perhaps 4,000 years ago."

Jacob, on his deathbed: "Binyamin is a ravenous wolf; In the morning he devours the prey, And in the evening he divides the spoil."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Modern Art, Modern Jews

This may be proof of the perversity of summer daydreams, but we visited the “Picasso Looks At Degas” exhibition at the Clark Institute in Williamstown a few days ago, and I found myself thinking about, of all things, how I've been meaning to revisit an argument I made in response to Peter Beinart’s influential article on American Jews.

Beinart had made the point, which polls and elections support, that the majority of Jews tend to be progressive and liberal in most things, and that the reactionary cast of leaders of American Jewish institutions could not possibly appeal to them—that AIPAC, ADL, and so forth were positively turning off young people on their campuses. Specifically, he argued that the leadership’s brand of “Zionism,” insofar as it had turned on tribalism, Manichaeism, and religious orthodoxy, could not possibly engender a sense of identification with Israel among the very people it most wished to attract.

Beinart seemed to conclude from this that a progressive Jewish leadership was therefore a kind of answer; that if such a leadership adopted a Zionism more in step with, and allied to, the Israeli peace movement, it would have more success in bringing young American Jews around. It would help cultivate appreciation for what was special about Israel, support secular Jewish culture, defend Israeli self-defense, and so forth.

NOW I STRONGLY supported his notion that there is a misfit between the American Jewish majority and their leadership. And I welcomed the advent of J Street, for all the obvious reasons, and also for quasi-theological reasons that may not be obvious. But is it really true that, if a reactionary leadership is turning young Jews off Israel, a progressive leadership is likely to turn them on? Indeed, if Israel were a social democratic paradise like Denmark, would this bring young Jewish liberals back to Zionism?

I argued that anyone who was once serious about cultural Zionist ideas would know that Israel and America are not really parallel universes for Jews, where the only important political question is, Are you progressive or are you reactionary? There is also the question of cultural affinity. For most American Jews, to be liberal means to wade in, as a sovereign individual, to the cultural currents of Anglo-American life. Think of the jagged line, in my generation, from Philip Roth to Bob Dylan to Grace Paley.

The obvious alternative to being caught up in the web of Jewish congregational life, Halachic orthodoxy, and a kind of tribalist loyalty to Israel—you know, Cote St. Luc or Teaneck—is not becoming a fellow traveler of Peace Now or an acolyte of secular Jewish life. It is becoming largely indifferent to Israel, and to lose, almost utterly, the cultural threads—Hebrew, liturgy, Torah—out of which secular Jewish life comes into the world, kicking and screaming against orthodox rabbinic smugness.

Which brings me back—perversely, I admit—to Picasso, say. You look at his early work, at the staged progress of his genius, and you see growing idiosyncrasy and abstraction, of course. But you almost never lose that feeling in your solar plexus that this was an artist who knew how to draw. No matter how abstract the work, you feel that the artist never lost touch with the world from which he was abstracting. What made him a modern artist was his obvious belief that he could take what license he wanted with objects, lines and planes. But what had made him an artist, as it were, before he was a modern, was his mastery of the objects, lines and planes of artists who came before—in the case of this show, Degas.

Picasso painted his way out of the classical Salon by about 15 years old, Degas by the time he was in his early 20s. But Picasso knew what the Salon was and had spoken its visual language before presuming to riff on it. To think out of the box you first need a box.

I SUPPOSE YOU can see where I'm going with this. What makes Israel unique—the cultural adventure that it was and is—is not simply Jewish military power, but the evolution of a modern national home, the development of a secular Jewish life, the fusing of Jewish civilization with liberal values—the “Jewish and democratic” thing. You didn't need a national home to create a big minyan. Go to Williamsburg. (Beinart would seem to agree with this.)

And yet the people who made this modern Israeli culture had first learned to draw. They knew the liturgy, they knew Torah—that is, a whole world evoked by the Hebrew language. The poet Yehuda Amichai had to know the prayer for the dead, God full of mercy, El Maleh Rahamim, before he could give us the ironic poem, “God full of mercy / Were God not so full of mercy / Then there would be mercy in the world / And not just in Him.” For emancipation to be poignant, there has to be an ancien regime. Otherwise, there is nothing but abstraction. What comes out feels false.

ALL OF WHICH leaves American Jews with a curious problem. They are instinctively, well, moderns, but those who are really learning to draw these days are caught up in the closed circles of synagogue orthodoxy. Most of them are not leaving the Salon, at least not yet. They seem relatively easy prey for rightist ideas; they may be the last people to identify with the progressive spirit and peacenik politics of most secular Israeli writers, artists and scholars.

And yet they are the first people—or at least the only young Americans—who have a real shot at appreciating what those writers, artists and scholars are up to; no matter what the politics, they are going to care about what becomes of Israel because that is where their cultural action will be. They will love Israel, not because of what it does, but because of what it is.

Given its Hebrew culture, Israel is the only place on earth where the struggle to be an emancipated individual can still be Jewish in this best sense. Jon Stewart might read Amichai and like the poem. But he won’t get the joke.

I am not awarding grades. There is no moral advantage to being a modern Jew in Israel or modern American with a vaguely Jewish pedigree. Life is merely life; its rewards do not have nationalities. My point is that if Beinart really hopes to understand what makes progressive Israelis tick, he will need more than admiration for their progressive “values.” And if he wants to look for progressive leaders of an American Jewish community, as opposed to an American Jewish "demographic," he might consider the searchers, however reduced their numbers, who marinated in halachic life and punched their way out—people like Beinart himself, perhaps. Odd birds with a love of Hebrew and an eye for beauty.