June 16, 2019

Jewish name-calling: a note on Michael Oren, Leon Wieseltier and the art of insult

SHAKESPEARE said it so sweetly.

“What’s in a name?” the Bard mused in “Romeo and Juliet,” his immortal romance about hostile households. “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”

In Jewish tradition, names are taken a tad more seriously. Families give deep consideration to the perfect, commemorative, or even prophetic names for their newborns. And every Shabbat, parents bless their children that they should be like “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” These names are not arbitrary, and the qualities of character they signify are singular.

But what about insults?

Last week, Donald Trump, the billionaire real-estate mogul with aims for the oval office saw fit to describe at least most Mexicans crossing the border as “killers” and “rapists.” His offensive blitz sadly deprived the world of the finer points of the Miss Universe Pageant, and cost him some tens of millions of dollars and counting, but it also had the stunning effect of driving up his polling in Trump’s wishful bid for the White House.

Name calling, it turns out, is cool.

This is good news for the Jews, or at least a very slender bunch of Jewish men, who have made headlines throughout the last year for carping at each other through a combination of crude, clever or simply comical name-calling.

We might say it started back in October 2014, when Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg fearfully reported that “The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations is Officially Here[!] (emphasis mine).” Goldberg wasted no time getting to the good stuff up top: In his lead, he declared that a senior Obama administration official had referred to the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as “a chickenshit.

Forget Cairo; forget settlements; forget a nuclear Iran: The implication of this juicy jibe was that if high-ranking government officials were disparaging each other with salty smears, things between Washington and Jerusalem were really falling apart!

Even in reverse, the name-calling episode again proved propitious in the polls, and the slighted Netanyahu later won re-election.

For those of us who love a clever cut-down, there is at least one upside to the fact that the U.S.-Israel squabbles have not since subsided. In fact, they have been recently refueled by the release of MK Michael Oren’s book “Ally.” The former Israeli Ambassador’s tale of disappointed expectations at America has spawned a vociferous series of Jew versus Jew quarreling, much of it defamatory.

Let’s start with the book’s title: “Ally,” which is itself a kind of name-calling, since Oren goes on to critique Israel’s allies, including: the American President, American Jews and American Jewish journalists.

Things get worse inside the book for all of the aforementioned but especially, apparently, for Leon Wieseltier, one of the Jewish world’s leading intellectuals and a contributing editor to The Atlantic. In his indictment of American Jewish journalists, some of whom Oren claims use their Jewish identity as a credential for criticizing Israel, Oren also had the chutzpah to parallel Wieseltier’s sustained and searing critique of Bibi Netanyahu (he once referred to the Israeli PM as “a gray, muddling, reactive figure…a creature of the bunker”) with the same pathological hatred of Jews we call anti-Semitism.

Right or wrong, Wieseltier interpreted the slight as an accusation. “I don’t take kindly to being called anti-Semitic and I don’t take kindly to having Jewish self-hatred attributed to me,” he told Moment Magazine’s Nadine Epstein during a recent interview at the annual Association of Jewish Libraries conference. Wieseltier then penned a savage response to the epithet for the Atlantic, calling Oren, “my Javert,” a reference to the antagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, an unforgiving police inspector who obsessively pursues the hero of the story.

That’s when things got really fun — like during a schoolyard fight, when a whole bunch of boys rush in, start yelling and take sides? Only this was the Jewish version, which is to say, with words:

In the Wall Street Journal, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bret Stephens belittled Wieseltier as “the gray eminence of minor magazines.” (Wieseltier must be so relieved that he is no longer literary editor of The New Republic and now writing for the not-so-minor Atlantic.) In the Forward, Raphael Magarik went to the mattresses on Wieseltier, naming him, alternately, “the king of spurious and lazy accusations,” “a fine ironist,” “the Grand Inquisitor himself,” “the gray-haired sage of D.C.” (though, it must be said here that Leon’s hair is actually bridal-white), and best of all, “the lion of Brooklyn.”

On the other side, Josh Marshall, editor and publisher of the political blog TalkingPointsMemo.com took Oren to task, calling him “The Ridiculous Mr. Oren,” an “over-clever asshole,” and also, incidentally, throws in a few barbs for Netanyahu, coming up with perhaps the most creative (and facetious) name of all, “the embodiment of the Jewish people which brings together both Maimonides and Herzl into one unified deluxe Jewish person.”

Wow! Out of petty name-calling, we now all have something to aspire to.

In the end, Oren backpedaled on his incendiary treatment of Wieseltier, telling Jeffrey Goldberg, “I’m Leon’s buddy, why would I want to hurt Leon? And I write about him lovingly in the book.”

Who knew so many serious, high-minded men could be so emotional? Over name-calling! But rather than call this fracas uncharacteristic, or uncivil, or dare-I-say a little bit juvenile, I’m going to chalk it up to the Jewish penchant for ascribing meaning to names. We’ve all been called them, good or bad, and even the ugly ones tell us something about who we are or who we don’t wish to be.

In her famous window-side soliloquy, the young ingénue Juliet fears the revelation of her name will preclude Romeo from loving her. So she devises a scheme: A name is just a title, she decides, something to flick off or cast away, leaving her and her beloved to embrace their core, indescribable selves. Why should a name hinder true love?

And why should an insult break up the tribe?

“People,” Wieseltier told Moment, “have got to recover the pleasures of being insulted. Having your feelings wounded is the price you pay for living in an open society.”

So maybe names are no big deal. Maybe they mean nothing until we make ourselves worthy of them.