Category Archives: Left

It’s My Synagogue, But Count Me Out

The synagogue in Brooklyn where our dues go — Kane Street Synagogue in Cobble Hill — co-sponsored an event last week which I did not attend.  The event was entitled “How Do We Talk About Israel:  the Rabbis’ Dilemma,” and was co-sponsored by an entity “Institute for Living Judaism in Brooklyn” (ILJB).

First of all: how and why is Israel a “dilemma” ?  It is not a dilemma for the majority of American Jews (if you can trust the polls), and certainly not for the many thousands who attend AIPAC meetings, attend Salute to Israel parades, and have voted, in their majority, against Finding Fault With Israel (FFWI) candidates, like Bernard Sanders and Jill Stein.  Yes, I know, there are FFWI groups like JStreet and some others, but, to go by the published figures, all these FFWI formations, taken together, are in a minority.  Perhaps a significant minority by now, but a minority nonetheless.

Now back to the “How Do We Talk” event.  The speakers, all described as rabbis, are also described in a Jewish Week ad as “5 prominent Rabbis” (sic), The ILJB website further calls them “leading members of the rabbinate.”  How does one become, after ordination, a “leading” or “prominent” rabbi ?  I never heard of these people before, and neither does an internet search reveal either leadership or prominence for any of them.  At the very best these adjectives are puffery, at the worst they are an attempt to mislead.

On the other hand, an internet search of these five shows that at least four of them are associated with Finding Fault with Israel groups.  Two are listed as part of JStreet;  one is part of the New Israel Fund;  a fourth is part of T’ruah.  None of the five, insofar as I could find, are associated with no-nonsense pro-Israel work.  Would you find any at an AIPAC conference or on a Salute to Israel parade ?  I doubt it.

Now I realize that in my “progressive” part of Brooklyn there are many Jews who are inclined in a FFWI direction, and I would welcome productive and courteous discussion with them.  But when a forum is so clearly stacked, count me out !

THE THREE POSTULATES OF PROGRESSIVE AMERICAN JUDAISM

The Three Postulates of Progressive American Judaism

Postulate:  something taken as self-evident or assumed without proof.

“Among Jewish respondents who have gotten married since 2000, nearly six-in-ten have a non-Jewish spouse,” according to the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews. We live in an unprecedented environment of assimilation — Hellenization — of which political Progressive American Judaism is an important concomitant.  Perhaps a quarter of American Jews seem to embrace it to one extent or another.

Some preliminary definitions and disclaimers. 1)  When I say Progressives, I mean self-styled political Progressives.  2)  Not all Progressives conform in all particulars to my descriptions here.  I use the organization JStreet as an exemplar, and my descriptions relate most particularly to this group and to the individuals associated with it.  3) With this focus in mind, the folks I discuss are not exactly foes of israel — certainly not in their own mind — but neither are they exactly friends.  So while on one side they differ from radical enemies of Israel like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler (a small minority), they are also distinct from anyone, whether sometimes critical of Israel or not, who accepts and supports the idea of Israel as a Jewish state (the majority of American Jews).   So, to repeat, I speak of all those who see JStreet as, more or less, an expression of their own views.

A.  The Postulate of Israeli Guilt.

Mr. Peter Beinart, perhaps the most prominent writer associated with JStreet, opens his 2012 book The Crisis of Zionism with an anecdote that he has gleaned from a video.  It seems that an Arab was arrested for stealing water from a Jewish settlement;  the scene was captured on the video.  From this scene, but without any further investigation whatever, Beinart concludes that a grave injustice was done to the Palestinian.  Moreover, Beinart vows, as a result of the lesson that he has learned from the video, he will instruct his children “that unless American Jews help end the occupation that desecrates Israel’s founding ideals, this is what Zionism will become, a movement that fails the test of Jewish power.”

Absent an investigation of the circumstances that lead to the arrest of the Arab man, how does Mr. Beinart know that a grave injustice was done ?  Of course he does not, as Bret Stephens has pointed out in a trenchant review of the book. But even as a religious zealot never questions the postulates of his faith, it does not occur to Mr. Beinart to question the postulate of Israeli guilt.

Note here that the occupation, seen as undesirable by the Israeli government and the majority of the Jewish population of Israel, is presented here by Mr. Beinart as an Israeli crime.  Never mind that Israel has repeatedly, for instance through a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, tried to extricate itself from the burden of the occupation.  Except by those who accept the postulate of Israeli guilt, it is difficult to exculpate the Palestinian elites from responsibility for the stalemate on this question.

After the March re-election of Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel, Mr. Beinart suggested that the U.S. government should “punish — yes, punish — the Israeli government” for holding to its own policies.  One can discuss with people with whom one disagrees, but whom does one “punish,” as Mr. Beinart suggests ? Obviously those who are guilty.

The postulate of Israeli guilt has infected all statements on Israel by these Progressives.  I have seen it, for example, in statements by Progressive rabbis in response to the current intifada in Israel.  Following the lead of JStreet, these Progressives hold that the knifings, shootings, and other murders of Jews, by Palestinian Arabs, are as much the fault of the Israelis as of the Arabs. Go figure.

  Partners for Progressive Israel  (PPI) has gone further:  it suggests that the current violence is actually (mostly) Israel’s fault.  PPI is a small group of self-styled Progressive Jews who support the Meretz party in Israel. PPI’s membership overlaps largely with that of JStreet.

What are we to make of this postulate of Israeli guilt ?  Where does it come from ?  Similar to the question of anti-Semitism, to which it is related, it must remain a mystery to those who insist on seeing man as a rational actor.  And no, our Progressives are not rational.  This irrationality again comes into play when we consider the second of our postulates:

B.  The Postulate of an Immoral Right Wing

Here is a précis of some of the Basic Principles by which the Progressive Judaism of our time likes to define itself:  1)  We support the core democratic values among which there is the principle  of government by the people, as opposed to, for instance, government by an elite.  2) The world can be divided into the Left (good) and the Right Wing (bad).  3)  The Right Wing is, well, not Progressive.  It is, in fact, regressive.  It represent the interests of the billionaires (shades of Bernie Sanders !) and other bad actors.  4) The Israeli government is Right Wing and therefore reprehensible.

Now how do we know that the Israeli government is Right Wing ?  Neither Netanyahu nor the members of his coalition use the term to refer to themselves.  In fact, in the contexts in which our Progressives use the term, Right Wing is no more than an epithet, a term of abuse.  I have blogged on this topic before, here and here. It is of course true that in other contexts, more neutral observers, particularly the media, will refer to the Likud and allied parties as “right wing”  without an implication of moral judgement. But be that as it may, The Progressives’ syllogism — Right Wing is bad;  Likud is Right Wing; hence Likud is bad —  is seriously compromised  when tested by empirical data.

If, as Progressive doctrine holds, the Right represents the interests of privilege while the Left represents the interests of oppressed masses, it should follow, in accordance with the democratic principle that people must be trusted to know their own interests, that the less privileged in society will vote Left, more privileged Right.  But generally speaking, just about all over the world with some exceptions, the very opposite holds true.  Here is a representative study of Israeli voters in the 2003 elections, conducted by Michael Shalev and Gal Levy.  (The full study is available here.)

table

The most relevant line for our purpose here is the last, which gives the social-economic status of the average voter of the different political parties.  The authors report what they call standard scores, which are more commonly called z-scores, and which I will translate into the more common percentile scores.  So we learn that the average Shas  (“right-wing”) voter is in the 21st  percentile of the population;  the average Likudnik (also “right-wing”) in the 41st, the average Labor voter (moderate Left) in the 56th, and the average Meretz voter (Left, strongly approved by the American-Jewish Progressive PPI) is in the 72nd.  (The numbers for the centrist Shinui are 61,  69 for Russian olim.)  In other words, the electorate of the current governing parties come from the distinctly less advantaged while the splinter Meretz group, so beloved by American Progressive Judaism, attracts the over-privileged.

Of course our Progressives can reply, as Marxists sometimes do, that the poor, the downtrodden, the toiling masses do not know what is good for them.  Only we, the enlightened elite, we have the knowledge and the wisdom and the virtue.  Progressives can say that, but only at the expense of repudiating their profession of belief in democratic self-government.  You can’t have it both ways.

C.  The Postulate of Palestinian Innocence

One of the most striking experiences in reading Mr. Beinart and his comrades is their innocence — in the culpable meaning of that term — of any appreciation for the cultural context of the current Israeli-Arab conflict.  The hell that is today’s Syria, the millions of refugees from Muslim countries, the unspeakable violence, internal and exported, of radical Islamism, none of this finds its way into the Progressive media.  So the question that arises for non-Progressives — if Israel is the cause of violence by Arabs in Israel and the Occupied Territories, who is responsible for the even greater violence by Arabs and Islamists  in the rest of the world ? — never seems to faze our Progressives.

The major cultural factors of Palestinian society that impinge on the Israeli conflict may be summarized under four headings:

1) There is  an Islamic culture of violence.  A very recent, very thorough, very informative review of Palestinian opinion data by Daniel Polisar shows the deep-rooted nature of the problem.  The companion piece by Amir Taheri adds an important historical perspective.

2) There is a pervasive, quasi-unanimous hatred of Jews among the Palestinian masses, documented in the Polisar study.

3)  There is  a constant incitement to violence on the part of the Palestinian elites, documented by an ongoing basis by MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch.

4) The Palestinian school system, in particular, educates the young to hate the Jews, to reject Israel, and to embrace violence.  This too is documented by MEMRI and PMW.

All these cultural factors in Palestinian society are notorious to all — to all, that is, save our Progressives.  What makes them turn a blind eye ?  I suggest that it is their postulate, their unshakable,  irrational belief in a Palestinian people without agency, a people, in the condescending world of the Progressives, who are as innocent as the Israelis are guilty.

We come back to where we started.  The Hellenizing quarter, approximately,  of American Jews, ashamed as they may be of their pushy and over-assertive and over-sensitive co-religionists, seem to have embraced a fairly new stance of Progressivism.  This stance appears to them enlightened and universalist and humane — much more humane than thou. But these new Progressives have paid a great price for their considerable satisfaction with themselves.  And that price is the illogic and incoherence of dogmatic postulates that cannot stand the test of empirical reality.

  

“Right-Wing” as a Term of Vilification

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It is a commonplace of self-styled liberal and left-wing groups to speak of the Israeli government and all its supporters as “right-wing.”  I have shown this before in my posting concerning JStreet, see here.  In this respect JStreet is an altogether typical example of bien pensant opinion.

Offhand, “right wing” appears to be a neutral term of description. But here is the problem.  Neither Netanyahu, nor the Likud party, nor any of their supporters will refer to themselves as “right wing.” What other justification is there then for the usage ? Those who use the epithet presumably wish to convey  that their target is somehow less humane, less humanitarian, than they are themselves.  But a moment’s reflection reveals, given the nature of those who make it,  that this claim is difficult to support.  

Unlike “left wing,” “right wing” is not anything that anyone (generally) calls himself.  While the term “left” or “left wing” features in the names of numerous groups and parties, both in the United States and throughout the world, I could find “right” as a self-appellation in only one case in the post-war period, that of the short-lived German Deutsche Rechtspartei, which was extant from 1946 to 1950, and whose followers soon learned to drop “right wing” and found other labels (conservative, nationalist, etc.) to refer to themselves.  By contrast, there is now a large so-named Left party in Germany, and many groups in Europe as well as the United States proudly proclaim their adherence to “the Left.”

So if (almost) nobody describes himself as “right-wing,”  and since there are no objective criteria that are apparent, where is the justification for using the term ?  The fact is that there is no such justification, or rather there is no justification other than there may be for abusive language in general.

The history of the left-right terminology is generally traced to certain seating arrangements in the French National Assembly of 1789.  Since then, “left” (but not “right”) has been used as a self-description by numerous  Stalinist, socialist, and anarchist groups.  It is true that all such groups thought — and think — of themselves as more enlightened and more humane than anyone else, but their actual practice ranged from the most extreme repression (Stalinism) to the more or less benign social democracy of Scandinavia.

The use of “right-wing” or just “right” as a vituperative was energetically promoted by the Stalinists during the middle of the twentieth century.  The Moscow show trial of 1938 against the old Bolsheviks was branded, by Moscow, as directed against an “Anti-Soviet Bloc of Rights [sic] and Trotskyites.”  The latter are  explained by the Great Stalin himself as follows:   “Contemporary Trotskyism is not a political tendency in the working class, but [rather] an unprincipled, ideal-less band of wreckers, saboteurs, agents, spies, murdereres [sic], a band of accursed enemies of the working class, acting for hire of intelligence organs of foreign governments.”

To sum up:  “right wing” has no descriptive value.  While superficially a neutral term of description, it is, upon examination,  no more than  a term of abuse.

Chomsky’s Followers: A Cult of Rancor

chomsky copy When I recently caught up on my pile of unread copies of the Times Literary Supplement,  I came across a piece of ill-natured polemic in the ostensibly technical field of linguistics.  Professor Kenneth Wexler of MIT, writing in the Letters columns of TLS (10/19/2012),  opined that a distinguished scholar with whom he disagrees  “lives in an alternative universe to the truth.”  The truth, according to Wexler, is the one established by Noam Chomsky, viz. that there is a Universal Grammar underlying all human language.

Concerning the scientific standing or otherwise of Chomskyan linguistics, see the recent work by Christina Behme, here and here.  Unlike Behme, I have not studied these issues in depth and can hardly claim to have an informed opinion.  But, as any Google search will readily confirm, I have a long-term interest in Chomsky’s hostility to Israel (and, I would say, to the Jewish people), and, when I once caught him in an outrageous lie,  I even had the honor of being labelled a “pathological liar” by him.

So it occurred to me that Wexler may be bound to Chomsky by more than theoretical linguistics.  Could it be that he also shares the animus toward Israel ?  We cannot know what is in a man’s heart, but, in these days of Google, we can know what he has chosen to put into the public record about his political commitments.  And, indeed, Professor Wexler is on record as an adversary of the State of Israel.  (See below).

Wexler’s dual ties to Chomskyanism, in and of itself, would not be greatly interesting.  But, as it happens, a check of the best-known linguistic supporters of Chomsky yields at least seven others, for a total of eight,  with such dual ties.  Here is the list:

John Collins, U. of East Anglia, 1/15/09

Norbert Hornstein, U. of Md. 2/24/09

Richard Kayne, NYU, 11/14/11 

David Pesetsky, MIT, 5/7/02

Luigi Rizzi, Siena, 11/14/11 

Tom Roeper, U. of Mass., 11/14/11 

Neil Smith, Univ. Coll., London, 1/15/09

Kenneth Wexler, MIT, 5/7/02

In each case, the date represent links to where the anti-Israel statements can be found.  Not all the statements are equally vitriolic or hostile, but the one of 1/15/09 gives an idea of the tenor of most of them:

Israel must lose. It is not enough to call for another ceasefire, or more humanitarian assistance. It is not enough to urge the renewal of dialogue and to acknowledge the concerns and suffering of both sides. If we believe in the principle of democratic self-determination, if we affirm the right to resist military aggression and colonial occupation, then we are obliged to take sides… against Israel, and with the people of Gaza and the West Bank.

There are at least some linguists associated with the Chomsky school who are not on record  against Israel, and, of course, there are many non-linguist academics who are.  On the other hand, not everyone who feels rancor and resentment against Israel will go on public record.  So my list is an indication of the very minimum of those so aligned.  Moreover, I  have not found a single case of a Chomsky-aligned linguist who is on record as supportive of Israel.  (My internet search was not exhaustive.)

All in all, these materials give  persuasive anecdotal grounds for believing that the Chomsky cult, in both linguistics and politics, is at least in part based on grounds that are neither rational nor scientific.  Neither reason nor science can account for the striking circumstance that so many who are committed to Universal Grammar also happen to be committed to opposition to Israel.

Addendum, Aug. 13, 2016

Here are two more Chomsky-supporting linguists who are also on record as opposed to Israel:

David Lightfoot

Marc D. Hauser

READ ALSO:  “The Marketing of Noam Chomsky,” by Jean-Charles Chebat. (In French.) 

 

Left Wing, Right Wing in Politics

Few people think that the political spectrum can be usefully depicted as extending from a “Left” to a “Right.” Ever since the Bolsheviks became fatefully different from the Socialists — about 1903 — it has been apparent that what some people still insist on calling the (overall) Left conflates political forces of fundamentally different values.

But there is another aspect of this sloppy “Left vs. Right” usage that is often overlooked. While “Left” is a term that some political forces use as self-description, “Right” is not. English-language dictionaries do not describe the political connotations of political terms, but the great French Robert tells us under “droite” (‘right’) :

Dans le contexte français contemporain, le mot est surtout employé par des adversaires, se disant de gauche; les partis et le public dits de droite (par les autres) se réclamant en général d’autres dénominations.

In today’s French, the word is mostly employed by opponents, who refer to themselves as being of the Left. Parties and public-opinion tendencies that are called right-wing (by others) generally use different self-descriptions.

So it would appear that the whole Left-Right political usage is primarily one of those who like to refer to themselves as being of the Left. Certainly those who are called “Right-wing” (as in such inexcusable phrases as “the Israeli government is a right-wing coalition”) do not themselves use the term. In other words, while “Left” is often used by political groups — for their own political ends — to describe themselves, “Right-wing” is almost always used as a pejorative, as a term of abuse.