Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Merry wha...On Jews, Judaism, and Zionism

As the holiday season washes over us again this year, and we are all forced to endure the same forty Christmas songs being piped in over every in-store sound system, it can bring someone like myself to reflect on the nature of culture and how religious holidays are expressed by religious majorities versus minorities in our fine nation.

I had no Christmas when I was a child. It was something foreign, which I peripherally knew was fun for other children, but it was also something I had very little understanding of. Like everyone, I saw television shows like "Rudolph" and "Frosty", and even as a little guy, I thought, "These are stories about how everyone should include the misfits of the world. After all, to not do so is just not, nice". This theme of inclusion was usually paired with a metamorphosis within the character arc, and was perhaps even more demonstrative in the programs that did not hold back their overt medieval "conversion play" origin, such as the pence-pinching "Scrooge" and my all-time favorite, the semi-human "Grinch". I saw that the protagonists of these latter two outings were mean, vindictive, and actively attempted to "ruin" the Christmas holiday for the poor, innocent people who just wanted to celebrate it in peace. All good feelings. Mr. Grinch and Mr. Scrooge were clearly the bad guys, but it was okay, because in the end, they were infected, or scarred into, celebrating the holiday with their once and former "victims", and all was right in the end. To this day, I have friends, all of them Christian, who contest that I am being unreasonable in my derision for this propaganda, simply because, in their eyes, the Grinch and Scrooge become "better" people than they were at the start of the tale. To this I must say, "Of course you do", because in the aftermath of the coercion having it's desired effect, those characters are transmuted to playing for the "right" team, clearly the dominant one in our society. And that what it's all about isn't it - "For goodness sake's, what team are you playing for anyway?"

So what team am I on? I'm certainly on the American team, and I'm an artist, so there's that. But there is also some cultural baggage that boarded this train as well, and this is as good a forum as any to delve into it.

I was raised in a Jewish household. Now I know that when I say that, many people might have a number of ideas of what that means, some of which include picturing me dressed in Hasidic garb with side-locks. But to illuminate, we were a modern American family who, though I had a Bar-Mitzvah, placed high in Torah competitions, and we kept a kosher table, the catch was that we lived in a Jewish neighborhood, or as they are known more recently as, "an ethnic enclave", where the context was, even when secular, a Jewish one. When I was very small, because I had so seldom encountered non-Jews, I assumed that there must have been very few of them out there. I made the false assumption that characters I saw portrayed on television must have been Jewish, were played by Jewish actors, and if they looked extremely different, this clearly meant that they must have come from some distant foreign land. To clarify, I did not mean that I thought these people were following religious customs at all, I merely thought that they were part of the majority. A world of Grinches and Scrooges, if you will.

By the time I started High School, I realized that my picture of global demographics were way off the reservation, and I understood that Jews were scattered in small numbers around the world, but they had good numbers in Israel, which was established sometime before I was born. To be honest I didn't think about it much, and to this day I have never visited Israel. After all, the American and artist part kind of leads.

In High School I also began delving into the great philosophers. I had it in my mind that I wanted to understand what all of the competing trains of thought were about. I was quickly influenced by the existentialist and nihilist schools, and in particularly by Jean-Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche. I was after all a young artist, listening to de-constructed music, and painting, drawing or sculpting every day. Perhaps it was the upbringing of my younger years, but I thought, "these philosophers all seem to be German, French or English...where are all the Jewish ones?" Aside from scholars who focused on religious doctrine, that is.

I remember quite well visiting my local library and asking that exact question. Luckily, I was found by a very helpful staffer who pointed out the seminal work that answered my query. It was Theodor Herzl's "Der Judenstaat", or "The Jewish State", published in 1896. I absorbed the tiny book, and it is indeed slight, simply because the idea was so self-evident. The tract postulated a society in which Jews would be free to be Jews, religious or not, and would not be subject to coercion, scorn, or worse. The book also happened to picture all of this freedom and comfort happening in a politically sovereign nation. The ideal choice for Herzl of where this new state was to be established was an area commonly referred to (by non-Arabs) as Palestine (after the Roman name for the province, itself taken from the tribe which occupied Gaza in about 1100 B.C.E), at the time a province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. In Herzl's era, the population of the area was still minuscule compared to nations around it (excluding what is now Jordan). A tad over 500,000 with about 400,000 being Muslim Arabs and the others a mix of Jews, Christian Arabs, Armenians, etc. As Jews, we identified this area as the tribal origin point, where a grand swath of often bloody history, littered with impressive architectural structures now in ruins that were once watched over by kings and their armies, regardless of the intervening happenstances. Indeed, the longing for national sovereignty, this core "Zionism", (literally the love of the spirit of Zion, which is manifested in the people of Israel) was also actually a part of Judaism, the religion, in that, religious lore also depicted the Jews returning to this place in the future. So, secular, cultural, and religious Jews could all embrace Zionism.The few who didn't for whatever reason, or even attempted to make the distinction, were clearly at odds with a core belief due to their faith in a conflicting system, such as Socialism, or had embraced an internalized Antisemitism, or they were mentally disabled. Either way, traitors.

By the time I attended college, I was an ardent proponent of Israel's cause, and by that time Israel's population was already about 4.5 million, 20% of whom were non-Jews. But, there were also about 2 million Palestinian Muslim Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza, who my leftist  activist friends informed me suffered under "Zionist Occupation". They attempted to persuade me that there was some distinction between Jews, Judaism and Zionism, one that I failed, and still fail to grasp. How can supporting the idea that Jews should possess a sovereign state be distinct from them as ethnic group, and if the religion also supported the concept as well, then why not? Should the British feel that they do not "deserve" to have a country, because in the past they conquered Ireland, and well, most of the rest of the world? I imagined, "what if the Jews hadn't established Israel, would everything be just dandy for the Jews?" Really? Well, it wasn't going very well in Herzl's time (and after), with pogroms and what we now call "hate crimes" running rampant, so the idea made so much sense that it was self-evident.

Today Israel's population numbers over 8 million, and it now comprises the lion's share of the world's Jewish population, leaving paltry number elsewhere, excluding perhaps in the US. Many opportunities have been extended to the Palestinians to establish their own state, or to make peace with Israel, and they have been "disinclined" to embrace any of these solutions. Why accept a portion of a country you perceive as completely your own? I get it. But this is not the reality. So, the Palestinians continue to live in a fantasy wherein they imagine that they will one day recapture the entirety of the land, and slaughter the Jewish population, or in the most liberal stance, engage mass deportation. On the other hand, for a people who chant the litany that they are "experiencing genocide" on a daily basis, the fact that their population continues to double every few years means that the United Nations, rather than ratifying yet another condemnation of Israel (85% of their actions are anti-Israel, even though Iran hangs people in the street and Saudi Arabia, well, you know all this...) should award the State of Israel with the "Worst Genociders in History" medal. Because clearly, they are quite incompetent in this area. Did the Israeli's not see the films about the Serbs, Rwandans, Cambodians, and Nazis? It's like they weren't even paying attention in class.

If this did indeed ever come to pass, the leftists would undoubtedly tell us that this is the chickens coming home to roost. But this is the worst sort convenient victim narrative reshuffling based on the fact that Jews are in political power in Israel, and like Scrooge, they are perceived as a money-making people, which is the very worst thing for Socialists and Communists. Revisionists will unfailingly always choose so-called "indigenous" (and ideally, impoverished) people to champion, regardless if their ancestors were immigrants as well, and they spend their time on iphones, driving around in Hondas, not engaging in pastoral occupations. The left has made it very clear that they possess an imagined pecking order of privilege list, and heaven help those who they perceive as working counter to their over-arching goal of installing financial dependence and globalization. It probably doesn't help matters that these Euro-Socialists probably don't have to look very far back in their own family trees to find a legitimate Anti-Semite.

Ironically, in Herzl's time, a great number of Jews were indeed impoverished oppressed refugees, and immigrants, migrating from nation to nation, boasting foreign folkways, etc. To me, even now, Jews, or being Jewish psychologically represents being part of a group that stands as the ultimate outsider, the ultimate naysayer. After all, for those of you who are unaware, Jews are a people for whom debate and argument are almost art forms. In relation to the larger culturally dominant monotheistic systems, Jews are the people who said, "no thanks", first to the Christian message, and later, to the Islamic one. I'm sure that this is quite a vexing paradigm to people whose ancestors buckled under and complied with the majority, allowing others the right to inform them of what to think and believe.

For Jews, it's often hard to be Jewish, to be the one who calls B.S., but on another level they, we, feel that we have something that is culturally, sociologically, and religiously for us and only us. We neither need, nor want, everyone to sign up. Quite the contrary, we're not looking to aggrandize, which is why I personally live my life by Groucho Marx's wonderful maxim; "I would never want to part of club that would have me as a member". There is a strength in that. 

Alas, it would be a wonderful world (and I'm not talking about Messianic completion here), if those in the majority did not require or desire compliance, either overt or psychologically couched, since, the compulsion to control is generally caused by one's own lack of confidence in the soundness of one's position. After all, life is not a popularity contest. The Beatles were not great because they were popular, they were popular because they were great. Had they made the same ground-breaking music to a much smaller audience, the fact would remain that their artistry was pivotal. Perhaps people would have been less aware of their contribution, or the effect they had would have been slighter, but the effect and critical acclaim would have still been there.

So, unlike Dennis Prager, I do not respond in kind when wished a "Merry Christmas", simply because I am not required to do so, and do not feel the desire or need to do so. Likewise, I do not, nor have I ever, offered Jewish holiday wishes to pretty much anyone, unless I possess a prior understanding that they do indeed celebrate that specific holiday. So, I guess the bottom line is, feel free to leave me and the Grinch alone. We're doing just fine without the roping in, and hey, maybe if I watch it again the end will turn out different, and he'll have the strength to stick to his guns! Oh, well, maybe not.

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