Sunday, June 7, 2015

The KKK / ISIS Analogy

An ancient Jewish hermeneutical principle teaches that the “mashal” is not like the “nimshal”  an analogy never completely matches that which is being analogized.  The semanticist Alfred Korzybski expressed this with the words “The map is not the territory.”  When we analogize two things we can expect significant overlap but not perfect correspondence. Here too in this meme (as many have pointed) the correspondence is not perfect.  Still I think the overlap is worth exploring and meaningful.

People have asked,  “Is it really fair to compare the KKK, a tiny fringe group who define themselves by  attitudes to race to ISIS which is enjoys wide popularity in the Muslim world and represents a legitimized, albeit repugnant to some, interpretation of Islam?”   Beneath this question are some problematic assumptions.  The KKK while now quite small was a major force in the reconstruction south. They were mainstream and politically powerful.  The KKK, even today, links its racist attitudes to Christianity. In fact, nearly all racist groups in America including the KKK espouse what scholars of American religion call “The Christian Identity Movement” which roots their racism solidly in Christianity.  To this day, the KKK uses the symbols of Christianity, the crusader cross on the uniform and the flaming crosses. The Christian Identity Christianity claims not just to be an authentic interpretation of Christianity but THE authentic interpretation of Christianity. The ADL estimates that there are 25,000-50,000 people who openly identify with this movement primarily in the US and Britain  According to the ADL, they are heavily involved in criminal activity ranging from hate crimes so terrorism.  The CIA estimates that ISIS fighters number something less than 40,000. So even the numbers are not so incomparable.
But OK, so a bunch of hicks and skinheads believe some weird kind of Christianity but every one knows THIS is not Christianity.  Our Christian neighbors don’t believe this stuff but I am not so sure about the Muslims.  Get real, ISIS IS Islam.
Muslim scholar after Muslim scholar says it isn’t.  (Here are links to a few  Like Judaism, the parameters of the religion  are not decided by popular vote but by scholarly convention.  If every major thinker in Islam says its not Islam it is not Islam.  Non-Muslims need to get the pain that Muslims feel at seeing their religion dragged in the mud and represented by a sheer brutality that Muslims reject. 
But do they really?
It is true that Muslim organization after organization has completely condemned ISIS,  but don’t people really support them? What about the Al Jazeera poll?  81% of Al Jazeera readers said they supported the victories of ISIS. Wow, that is scary. It would be if it were in any way a representative sample of anything. The Al Jazeera poll only appeared on the Arabic service  (the English service has a very different, wider audience and seems to have more autonomy than the Arabic service.)  It represents a very small sample even of the Arab world focused in the gulf states and Egypt. Al Jazeera Arabic is regarded as a propaganda arm of the Qatari leadership, suspected of being the bank rollers of ISIS. Reporters involved in the poll have resigned claiming that the poll was falsified. So the Al Jazeera poll is most likely tells us a lot about the anti-Shia hatred of a small powerful Sunni elite rather than some broad base of support for ISIS.
So the analogy is fair in the sense that both the KKK (and the Christian Identity Movement) and ISIS represent themselves as THE authentic representatives of their faith. In both cases this is a claim that is widely rejected by scholars of that faith. In neither case is their wide popular support.
When it comes to the potential danger of these two movements the analogy reaches its limits. The KKK and its allied groups appeal to a world of white privilege that has largely been dismantled by the civil rights movement and largely made irrelevant.  Christian Identity  will attract a small number of the disgruntled white working class in the US  and Britain but its appeal is very limited.   ISIS may have a broader appeal. ISIS pitches it’s call to action in two directions. It pitches to those in the Middle East who have faced the hopelessness, poverty and oppression of colonialism followed by tyrannical despotism. To them this vision of a  “Just” Islamic state may seem a plausible alternative to the politics of power and privilege. The other appeal is to the Muslim youth of the West conflicted by the seeming emptiness and rootlessness of Western civilization. Teens in the West are barraged with messages of empty despair about themselves.  One can never be beautiful enough. One can never own enough.  Intuiting the utter bankruptcy of this view of the world, youth may look for meaning in a cause.  ISIS and its allies stand at the ready, to recruit young people to what they describe as a life of meaning and heroic purpose.

The take-home message here?
We need to get that it is as painful for Muslims to see their religion represented by the ISIS as it would be for most Christians if the KKK or Skinhead churches were said to represent Christianity. That news agencies and other “officializing” media insist that ISIS is somehow a legitimate take on Islam feels unfair and hatefully discriminatory to Muslims.  The meme reminds us that we can legitimately see ISIS both as a band of religious crazies who, like the KKK, cloak their politics and their hatred in a perversion of faith.

We need to think very deeply about the ways that media uses ISIS to consistently dehumanize and indeed, demonize all Muslims.  What are the implications of these attitudes for our policies and actions as individuals, communities and nations.

Lastly, should we take ISIS seriously? YES, VERY SERIOUSLY. To do that we also need to think about the ground on which ISIS grows.  We need to examine our role in supporting a culture of despotism and hopelessness in the Middle East. We need to look at the ways in which we foster a culture of meaninglessness in the West.  

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught, “If you believe you can destroy, then believe you can fix.” 

The threat of ISIS is an invitation to fix the world, to create a world in which people seek heroism in doing acts of kindness in which people find meaning in service to humanity not the raw pursuit of power. ISIS sells false idealism and false hope. We need to sell real idealism and real hope.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Zayde raises his voice to tell a new story

There I was at the seder table at Passover looking just like the Zayde in the picture book. Long beard, white robe.  I looked at the book and saw what Zayde was proclaiming with such great glee and I was more than a little disappointed.  The book allows for an ambiguous reading.
"The bad goyim have always wanted to kill the Yidden." “Bad Goyim” here could mean bad non-Jews who want to kill Yidden versus good non-Jews who do not or simply that Goyim are by definition bad and want to “kill out” (Yeshivish for genocidal murder) the Yidden (Yiddish for Jews).  I believe the intent of the Hagadah is the first. There are indeed those in every generation who may hate Jews and despise our the ethical monotheism we stand for and try to destroy us and our message. God protects us and our mission from ultimate destruction. I deeply believe that.  At the same time, I think most children would read the words as "Goyim are bad and always want to kill Jews."  
       It is a familiar formulation of Jewish history.  They hate us and want to kill us.  The “they” is interchangeable. If we have friends among the nations for a time, they will one day be our enemies.   As Rashi brings down in his commentary on Genesis 33:4  “Halacha b'yadu'a Esav soneh l'Yaakov “  “It is the law and well-known that Esau hates Jacob.”  The enmities between Jacob and Esau,  Jews  and the European World, and Isaac and Ishmael, The Jews and Muslims, are eternal unchangeable facts of life and our history proves it. (Rashi, on the other hand, probably was commenting on the relationship of two brothers not presenting a template for history)

Even the gentile prophet Bilaam confirmed it.

As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze on them from the heights,
Behold it is a people that dwells alone,
Not reckoned among the nations. (Num. 23: 9)

A people that dwells alone!
We a lonely, pariah nation with no friends, no allies, perpetually hated and under siege. 

In an important essay*, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shares what he calls an "epiphany" in which he realizes how dangerous this thinking can be and has been for the Jewish people.

He writes;
"If you define yourself as the people that dwells alone, you are likely to find yourself alone. That is not a safe place to be."

The Talmud explains that Bilaam’s blessings were really curses.  To be alone and isolated is no blessing.  Indeed, as Rabbi Sacks, points out one of G-d’s first comments to man is “Its not good for man to be alone.”

Rabbi Sacks takes his point further,

"To be different is not necessarily to be alone. Indeed, it is only by being what we uniquely are that we contribute to humankind what we alone can give. Singular, distinctive, countercultural – yes: these are part of the Jewish condition. But alone? No. That is not a blessing but a curse."

This vision of the world, our despised isolation and the inevitability of  Jew hatred colors everything from our personal interactions to Israeli foreign policy.
We have no real friends, only eternal enemies in the guise of fair-weather allies. The drive to isolation can look like the cowering ghettos of pre-war Europe or like the militaristic bravado of contemporary Jewish politics. Whether on the defense or the offense, that internalized sense of perpetual siege leaves us stunted and twisted.

Given this vision of the world we are lead to two social strategies, isolation or assimilation.  We can either segregate ourselves and protect our fragile world under siege or avoid the hate by giving up our identity.  The latter strategy is pretty successful in the United States, it would seem. But so it seemed to some in Germany as well.  When the Nazis came to power even the most assimilated German Jew was not safe.   As we are often warned, “You just wait. It can happen here too!” Neither isolation or assimilation are reliable refuge.

Isolation leaves us alone and vulnerable. Assimilation leaves us gone.

What is the third option?   We in the United States, at least, have the option of living robust, happy, enthusiastically observant Jewish lives while actively engaging our non-Jewish friends and neighbors in such a way as to help them appreciate who we are and what we stand for.  Jewish life need not be a mystery. How many of your non-Jewish colleagues have any idea what Shabbat means to you?  Do they know why you keep kosher?  Do they know what kind of God you believe in?  In my experience, most non-Jews know little about Judaism or what it means to be Jewish.

 Walls of distrust come down when people share who they are. In the strength of our own identity and groundedness  in faith, we are able to be open to others and to discover common values and concerns.  We can embrace the simple human beauty that the Torah boldly calls being in “the image of G-d” (so to speak)

Won’t this lead to assimilation?  Aren’t friendships and relationships just the precursors to assimilation and intermarriage. Maybe. Yet the walls of distrust have not prevented assimilation. It was this isolation that has driven the vast majority of Jewish people away from out faith.  They left the isolation but they took some with them. Ironically many very assimilated Jews prefer to live in fear that one day they will be “outed” or to identify with Israel’s plight as the “pariah” among  nation-states. They prove everyday that you can be assimilated and still be alone.

What prevents assimilation is the opportunity to live an authentic and happy Jewish life, fiercely proud of who you are and bold about sharing what you believe and what you care about.  It is to live, as much as possible, without fear. It is to preserve our tradition because it is precious not because we believe that it is in perpetual jeopardy at the hands of our non-Jewish neighbors.

I don’t deny there is plenty of genuine Jew-hatred in the world.  This year, in the wake of horrific attacks on Jews in Europe, no one would say there is not.  I don’t know that you can cure anti-Semitism completely but I do know that you can refuse to let it make you sick. Being hated is not an identity for a healthy people. 

Rabbi Sacks writes;
"To be a Jew is to be loved by God; it is not to be hated by Gentiles. Our ancestors were called on to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The word kadosh, “holy,” means set apart. But there is a profound difference between being apart and being alone…"

This Zayde too raises his voice and beams with pride at his family and celebrates his Jewishness.  I too will assure my children of the survival and thriving of the Jewish people. I too will affirm my faith in God and gratitude for the mission He has given us. I will tell them that  embracing our holiness means re-embracing our mission to be a “light unto the nations”  not in some patronizing  way but in the way of teachers, friends and colleagues. It means  to share the wisdom of Torah and to be willing to hear its echoes in the voices of other peoples, other nations and even other faiths.