Our guest this week is Avi Beker, a scholar and writer familiar to those of you who are regular readers of Haaretz, as he is a frequent contributor to our Op-Ed page, writing mainly about Jewish Diaspora affairs. Beker currently leads the Jewish Public Policy Project and the UN-Israel Institute at the Hartog School of Government and Policy, and he lectures on international relations, diplomacy and Jewish public policy at the Hartog School and at the Ashkelon College (read his full bio here). As usual, readers are more then welcome to send questions to email@example.com.
On this special page, you can find recent pieces by Beker: On campuses anti-Semitism, on the still-stained UN, on the subconsciousness of anti-Semitism.
Thursday, December 22
You mentioned Gibson's movie, so I'll ask you about another movie which you haven't seen yet, Steven Spielberg's Munich. Some said it's terrible (I was among them) - as it is morally equates Israel with terrorists and is historically inaccurate - but then come others (ADL chief Abe Foxman to name one) saying, well, it's okay, it's not an attack on Israel, and we can take some criticism. Since you haven't seen the movie I will not ask for your assessment, but for guidelines: When do you think it is necessary for the community to state publicly that a movie (or a song, or an exhibition) is morally defective. Does the Jewish Israel-supporter Spielberg deserve different treatment to the one Mel Gibson received?
A complicated question, I know.
In ideological terms there is a major difference between Gibson and Spielberg, but the damage effect of "Munich" cannot be dismissed. Gibson, together with his father who denies the Holocaust, belong to an ultra-orthodox trend of the Catholic church which fights against the Nostre Aetate of the Vatican in 1965. In his movie, while using anti-Semitic stereotypes, he was clearly rejecting the attempt to revise the Church doctrine on the responsibility of the Jews, then and today, in killing Christ. Spielberg's "Munich," on the other hand, might be a legitimate tool for opening a debate but can be a disaster for policy-makers, and questionable from a moral point of view.
Spielberg's engagement in a moral equivalency debate provides a good answer as to why is the West losing the war against terrorism and it illustrates what the intellectual and ethical barriers were that left America unprepared for 9/11. The term "moral clarity" is too loaded and in some circles even not "politically correct," but without it there is no way to fight terrorism.
It is only this year, following a report by distinguished panel of statesmen, including Arabs and Muslims, that Secretary-General of the United Nations Koffi Anan admits that the ambiguous definition of terrorism must be revised in order to address the threat to the lives of innocent people. How many terrorist acts and innocent lives could be prevented if the Germans had not surrendered to the terrorists in Munich or released them after a while?
It is true that the Israelis in Spielberg's movie, unlike the terrorists, are engaged in Jewish soul-searching. But at the same time, some scenes represent the view of his colleague Tony Kushner that the world would be better without the State of Israel. The president of Iran provided a lively truth to Spielberg on why Holocaust denial, which Spielberg tried to reject in "Schindler's list," is intellectually linked to the call to wipe Israel from the map. The soul-searching of the Mossad agents should rather be a reminder of the comment by then prime minister Golda Meir, who was in charge of Israel's retaliation policy after Munich, that she would never forgive the Arabs for forcing the Israelis to kill others. This statement has become for some a controversial cliche and Spielberg follows the new trend in Hollywood that justice is rather relative and you cannot divide the world in simplistic terms of good guys and bad guys.
The irony is that while Spielberg tries to appear more sophisticated and even-handed regarding Israel, Gibson is contemplating to produce TV mini-series on the horrors of the Holocaust.
Best regards, Avi
Wednesday, December 21
Let's stay with the religious right in America and the controversy it creates within the Jewish community. A new poll on this site asks readers to answer the following question: A newly proposed Congress resolution "strongly disapproves of attempts to ban references to Christmas" - how do you feel about this year's "Christmas wars?"
Conducting a poll forces me to offer brief response options: A frightening new reality that should be fought against; a meaningless joke that should be ignored; an understandable move by religious Christians that should be accommodated.
I would like to give you the chance to answer this question and explain your response. So what would you say?
The Congress resolution is not "frightening" because it simply does not call for a "new reality." This is why 17 Jewish members of the House voted for it (with the majority of 401) and only five were against it (with the 22 in opposition). More encouraging was the attitude of President Bush who politely and firmly brushed off Christian calls to have "Merry Christmas" on the White House greeting cards (previous presidents used Christmas in their greetings).
Neither should the resolution be dismissed as a "meaningless joke," because it reflects the frustration of many Christians in America over the arrogance and intimidating attitude of some liberal groups, who do not allow them to wish each other "Merry Christmas" in public.
Since there is talk of a "War on Christmas," the organized Jewish community should be on guard but should also avoid unnecessary interference in some absurd aspects of the rift.
Jews should be clearly against overt proselytizing at the Air Force Academy, and also warn that Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" could "fuel anti-Semitism" because it focuses on accusations against the Jews that were rejected by the Vatican as far back as 1965.
Accommodation of some forms of religious expression does not mean that there should be a sense of Christian triumph, but rather an understanding of the heritage and symbols of a majority culture. Israel itself, though with a different constitutional framework, is still struggling to find the right balance in the concept of a "democratic and Jewish State."
Best, Avi Beker
Tuesday, December 20
One of the most heated debates in the American Jewish community, is the one concerning the approach to the Christian religious right. Some leaders decided it's time to make it clear that their ideology and methods should not be tolerated without protest - others say that the support these groups give to Israel is too valuable. You are an Israeli appreciative of the political influence of these groups on behalf of Israel, but you are also familiar with the concerns of the liberal Jewish community in America. Do you have any idea as to how this conflict of interest between Jews and Israelis should be dealt with?
For many American Jews the "December dilemma" was used to describe the identity tension for a Jew in a predominantly Christian society. But this tension is no longer just a matter of choice between the menorah and the Christmas tree but also, on the more philosophical level, deals with the delicate relations between state and religion in the United States. The religious right in America argues that liberal groups, among them a significant number of Jews, have stripped the holiday of its religious content leaving behind it only the commercial content.
The Jewish reaction in recent years shows that it is not only America that has changed and moved to the right, but that also a remarkable change has taken place within the Jewish community. It is not just the growing numbers in orthodoxy Judaism but it is also the assimilation among the more liberals which makes the religious and traditional Jews a more dominant and visible force in the community. Jewish leaders must take into consideration the voice of the Jewish right which does not see an imminent danger in the Christianization of America.
There is nothing new in the Christian Dilemma of the Jews. Since the days of the founding of America devoted Christians such as John Adams, the second president of the U.S., presented the problematic duality of deep Biblical beliefs and admiration of the Hebrew-Jewish heritage along with some misgivings about Jewish behavior and a wish that they will become "possibly in time" good Christians. It must be recalled that it was this kind of expression which brought the Christian support for Zionism in England and in Protestant America quite before the Jewish "forerunners" of Zionism in the 19th century.
Christians from the right support Israel politically and even financially, and they represent today a large contingent of tourists to Israel and to Jerusalem (according to recent report, more than the Jews). In contrast, many of the Liberal Churches are today leading the efforts for divestment and sanctions against Israel, and are also an active part of the "new anti-Semitism" phenomena, namely playing anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Israelism.
Jews can and should express their voices and their concern on American society and democracy, but they should be more constrained in their organized voice because it can lead to an unnecessary internal Jewish debate. The Jewish approach in its organized form should not enter what can be regarded as a Christian debate, but try to maintain a pragmatic view which can strike a balance between the pro-Israel, pro-Jewish voices in the Christian camp and their ultimate visions which are a matter for the "end of the days."
Monday, December 19
In a recent article you wrote for Haaretz you highlighted the Chabad movement phenomenon and the influence it has on Jewish communities around the world. The piece was very positive in attitude, and complimented the movement on its leadership - but one thing remained unanswered:
As Chabad keeps influencing communication between Jews and Jewish communities around the world, it also changes the ways in which they perceive their Jewishness. Can you try to describe the difference Chabad will make to Judaism itself as its influence grows? (And if it does have a meaningful impact - what might be the downside of such changes).
Chabad: A challenge and not necessarily a model Chabad in my view presents not necessarily a model but rather a challenge to the general boredom in Jewish life. One can agree or differ with its ideology but one cannot reject its tremendous impact on contemporary Jewish life. That is why I quoted non-religious people such as Michael Steinhardt and Alan Dershowitz.
The organized Jewish world, Federations and organizations, must ask itself why so many people, and particularly the youngsters, are going to Chabad? Why so many people of affluence decide to contribute money to Chabad and in some cases at the expense of their contribution to the organized community.
Chabad operates in an open market which is competitive and demanding: the market of Jewish ideas. It seems that in order to win in this market you need a combination of religious ideas, actual practice of religion, personal excitement and feeling that you are meeting devoted people of sincerity and authenticity. The overwhelming majority of the people who attend Chabad houses are not familiar with its particular ideology, and very few can comprehend their leading religious text written by its founder early in the 19th century, "The Tanya." Moreover, many who go there heard about some messianic tendencies which they do not approve but still do not deter them from joining and enjoying the Chabad experience.
I am aware that in many communities the Chabad factor brought also internal divisions and sometimes it brings the decline and even closure of institutions, including the community schools. That is why in many communities at least part of the leadership made a calculated decision to join them instead of beating them. Chabad is regarded by many, even in their subconscious, as a necessary balancing act (even by Divine) to fight the threatening process of assimilation which is encompassing the Jewish world. For many Chabad is not necessarily a beginning of an ultra-Orthodoxy adventure but rather an eye-opener or a wake up call in their search for significance and identity.
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