Jewish Ambivalence: Conformity vs. Fear of Anti-Semitism


Touching base with a friend recently, she asked what I was up to, and having just returned from the pool of a local Jewish community center, I whimsically replied, “I’ve been swimming with Jews.” This inside joke became a bit more pertinent as we discussed the New York Times piece “On Israel, Jews and Leaders Often Disagree,” a roundtable discussion regarding the discomfort many Jews feel about Israel and the pressure not to go against “acceptable” currents on the matter.

In the piece, Times writer Paul Vitello quoted Philip Moore, a Detroit-area teacher, who gave voice to the ambivalences common to many Jews, myself included. Moore expressed it perfectly when he said, “You raise a question about the security forces or the settlements and you are suddenly being compared to a Holocaust denier … It’s just not a rational discussion, so I keep quiet.”

Read the full article at

Why Not Lieberman?

What a difference two and a half years make. When Democratic
presidential candidate Al Gore selected Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman as his
running mate in 2000, there was a surge of Jewish pride and
support. Now that Lieberman has announced his own candidacy in the 2004
presidential race, there’s a surge of Jewish doubt and ambivalence. Why?

The objections to the Lieberman candidacy reveal a nice mix
of Jewish fears and neuroses. However, they don’t withstand serious scrutiny.

A Jewish president would provoke anti-Semitism. Actually, one
of the most heartening aspects of the 2000 election was precisely that having a
Jew on a major party ticket for the first time was a big yawn among non-Jews.
We braced ourselves for the backlash — and nothing.

Lieberman’s seeking the presidency itself shouldn’t change
matters. Besides, the risk is exaggerated: If Lieberman weren’t president, then
the anti-Semites wouldn’t accuse the Jews of controlling the government? Since
anti-Semitism is irrational, there’s no use trying to placate it.

A related claim is that if a Lieberman presidency messes up
any time, any place, “the Jews” will be blamed. I suppose that’s possible; but,
carried to its logical conclusion, it’s an argument against Jewish excellence
and leadership generally. Ultimately, it’s wrong for Jews to let our enemies
determine how high we can climb and how far we can go in America.

Because Lieberman is Jewish, he would (a) favor Israel; (b)
bend over backward not to favor Israel. Take your pick — each scenario has its
fans, and they make equal sense. The fact that one is as likely as the other is
the clue that neither is likely at all.

Lieberman has a public record of saying what he thinks and
pursuing policies that he believes in. He has strongly supported Israel in its
quest for peace and security. For a decade, he has urged the overthrow of
Saddam Hussein. He has also recognized that the Palestinians have interests,
and refused to demonize Islam. You might or might not find this moderate
approach appealing, but there’s little reason to fear that Lieberman will
change his tune in the Oval Office.Â

Lieberman is too religious. This is another way of saying
that he’s too Jewish. It’s a bit of a puzzle, this Jewish discomfort with PDJ
(Public Displays of Judaism). Jews who value the separation of church (or shul)
and state more than the Torah squirm when Lieberman speaks of his faith. But
the left has not always been so nervous around religion — think of Martin
Luther King Jr. or Jesse Jackson.

Lieberman is too conservative. This is the odd converse of
the previous complaint, and means that he isn’t Jewish enough, for those who
equate being Jewish with left-wing politics.

Now, look. If you voted in 2000 for Ralph Nader (and thanks
a lot), I understand that you are not likely to be too crazy about Lieberman.
But Voltaire’s aphorism remains apt: “The best is the enemy of the good.”
Yearning for ideological liberal purity is a big part of the reason George W.
Bush is president today. Most of the electorate is politically in the middle. Lieberman’s
centrist posture, particularly on national security, is exactly why he’s been
voted the Democrat Most Likely to Give Bush Nightmares.Â

Privately, even Jews who like Lieberman whisper to each
other, “But he can’t win.”

Why? Granted, he probably can’t get the Muslim extremist
vote, the neo-Nazi vote or the anti-Zionist, left-wing lunatic vote. But on the
whole, gentiles are ready for America’s first Jewish president. It would be a
shame if American Jews, for truly flimsy reasons, were not. Â

Paul Kujawsky is the president of Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles. The opinions expressed are his, and do not represent those of the organization.

Bittersweet Music

Despite its air of celebration, Passover is a bittersweet remembrance, one in which the joy of liberation is marked by the pain of recollection of what we were liberated from and what we lost on the way from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael. Our seder liturgy reflects that ambivalence, although it may require hearing some unfamiliar music to remind us.

Two recently released CDs offer an excellent opportunity to reflect on the delicate balance of this festival. One is largely a reminder of the jubilation we feel at the seder table, yet, because it is specifically a tribute to Yiddish Passovers past and present, it inevitably has a certain appropriate somberness underlying its up-tempo party feel. The other is a collection of songs written about the liberation of Mauthausen; not surprisingly, its joys and sorrows are also mingled.

“Songs My Bubbe Should Have Taught Me, Volume 1: Passover” marks the debut on CD of singer Lori Cahan-Simon. Cahan-Simon has put together a sprightly collection of Yiddish Passover songs, the vast majority of which I haven’t heard before. Those who grew up in the secular socialist Yiddish world — Workmen’s Circle, the Farband and the like — will undoubtedly recognize many of them with great pleasure. She has also assembled a terrific group of musicians, most of them fellow Midwesterners, including fiddle player Steven Greenman, percussionist Alexander Fedoriouk and singer Michael Alpert.

Cahan-Simon has one of those delightful rough-and-ready soprano voices, expressive even when it’s not conventionally pretty and very flexible. She makes a wonderful pair with Alpert’s reedy tenor and my favorite cuts on this charming record are their seven duets. The musicianship is very high caliber, with some beautiful fiddling by Greenman. Best of all, these songs haven’t been recorded to death, so if you are looking to add some unfamiliar spices to your seder table’s musical mix, this is a great place to start.

There’s even a version of the Four Questions I’d never heard before, and a “Dayenu” that veers between big-band swing and Beethoven-on-the-rocks.

The fine Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis was himself a captive in German prisons during WWII. His close friend Iacovos Kambanellis, a poet, was interned in Mauthausen. In 1965, Theodorakis set four of Kambanellis’ poems about that hellish experience to music. The resulting piece has gone through many evolutionary stages. Its most recent incarnation is “Mauthausen Trilogy” (Piano). In this CD, the Greek versions of the poems are sung by the great Maria Farantouri, a frequent collaborator with Theodorakis, the English versions by Nadia Weinberg, the Hebrew by Elinoar Moav Veniadis. The recording closes with a 1995 speech by Simon Wiesenthal delivered at Mauthausen.

There is a family resemblance to be found among the songs of the Mediterranean, and many of Theodorakis’ warmest melodies could just as easily have been written by and for Jewish musicians. Farantouri’s plangent, hoarse contralto is particularly well suited to his laments, finding the perfect balance between the agonized and the triumphant.

Perhaps this is not a CD to play for the children at the seder; they’ll have much more fun with the Cahan-Simon (although they will probably miss some of its musical nuances). But “Mauthausen Trilogy” is powerful stuff and would make my short list of great music about the Shoah.

On the other hand, if you are looking for unfamiliar Pessah music suitable to your own seder table, two recent albums of North African music, imported from France, offer some interesting alternatives: Alain Scetbon’s “Haggada de Pessah — Tunisian Passover” (Ness) and Elie Zerbib’s “Haggada de Pessah — Algerian Passover” (Ness). These two CDs include French narration by the artists putting the musical selections in the larger context of the seder, but you probably won’t need the help (assuming you understand French in the first place). The Scetbon and Zerbib sets have the intimate and slightly rough feel of an evening at a friend’s home. The music on both is quite interesting, very reminiscent of Arabic music from the Maghreb, and will be unfamiliar to most readers. How much does professional slickness matter to you? I would opt for the two French sets for authenticity and kavanah (sincerity); at their best they have a tremendous power.

The above CDs range in price from $16.98 to $19.98.
Exclusive distribution in the United States by Hatikvah Music,  or (323) 655-7083.

Security vs Civil Liberty

As the United States intensifies its war against terrorism at home and abroad, the Jewish community may be poised to serve as a bridge between the Bush administration and some of its critics in the civil liberties community.

That was evident at last week’s Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) plenum in Washington, where delegates debated and ultimately passed a resolution expressing reservations about some of the policies instituted by the government to wage this new war.

Judging by the JCPA debate, Jews are deeply ambivalent — torn between admiration for an administration that is firm in its resolve to fight a terrorist threat its predecessors ignored, and the fear that some of its leaders are exploiting the crisis in an ideology-driven effort to roll back these protections.

That ambivalence is hardly surprising.

The enemy in this new war is shadowy, its next moves impossible to discern. Six months into the battle, it’s harder than ever to judge whether the new threat facing the nation justifies a significant recalibration of the balance between national security concerns and basic constitutional protections.

After a slow start, the Jewish community is beginning to wrestle with those issues, taking a balanced approach that could be useful to the nation in the days ahead.

The Bush administration may have good reasons for policies like detention without charges and military tribunals to try terror suspects, but they have done a woefully inadequate job of explaining them to the American people. Instead, they simply invoke national security as reason enough, and imply that critics are somehow soft on terrorism. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, in particular, sometimes gives the impression he is just settling old ideological scores, not responding rationally and responsibly to a new national threat.

But the civil liberties groups haven’t been any better at making their case. Al Qaeda has been hurt by the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, but its leaders are probably still alive, and its adherents are still active in up to 60 countries around the world.

Critics of administration anti-terror policies have failed to convince the public that they understand the new threat and the need to take serious action against it.

They offer few clues how they would remedy the deficiencies that left the nation wide open to attack on Sept. 11.

The Jewish community is poised to play a bridging role between the critics and the administration, although until now, the debate has been muted. Too many Jewish leaders, fearful of losing precious access to the administration, have been reluctant to utter anything that implies even mild criticism. Others, pleased that the administration seems ready to take on some of Israel’s enemies as part of this new war, have refused to say or do anything that might rock that boat.

The debate at the JCPA plenum may signal a new and more useful role for the Jewish community. Delegates debated a resolution, sponsored by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), that strikes a balance between praising the administration’s anti-terror efforts and pointing out specific areas of concern.

The resolution acknowledges that we live in a radically changed world, with new dangers that must be dealt with.

But, in language that never becomes strident, it makes it clear that new policies and procedures must be examined carefully, to make sure the need for them outweighs the costs regarding civil liberties.

To its credit, UAHC forced the Jewish community, through the JCPA umbrella, to start dealing with some of these difficult questions.

Despite the active, informed debate at JCPA, the Jewish community — with its long commitment to civil liberties, but also with an acute awareness of the challenge of fighting terrorism in this brave new world — is still groping in the dark. So is the rest of the nation. But that groping is much better than blind acceptance of the newest claim that national security requires sweeping, hard-to-reverse changes in traditional protections of American civil liberties.