Malcolm Feeley on the Universities’ Stammering on Antisemitism

(pictured above: architect Shari Mendes assisting military troops in handling female genocide victims.)

Prof. Malcolm Feeley, my legendary PhD supervisor and, for the last 25 years, my mentor, coauthor, and good friend, is one of the pioneering giants of the law and society field. He is universally admired and loved, and for good reason. Amidst the many characteristics that make him an outstanding researcher and thinker is his almost mythical ability to make sharp and revealing analogies across space and time. For example, in his amazingly creative address upon receiving the Paul Tappan prize, he compared convict transportation in the Early Modern era to electronic monitoring (I commented about it here). In his work on guilty pleas (Malcolm is the granddaddy of lower criminal court research) he made the paradigm-generating analogy between the prosecutor-driven generation of plea bargains to the transition from bazaars to supermarkets.

In an excellent opinion piece in The Hill, Prof. Feeley, who taught and researched at elite universities for fifty years (including a long stretch at Berkeley and respectable stints in academic administration, including as the President of the Law & Society Association and the Chair of the JSP program at Berkeley), draws on his formidable analogy powers to diagnose the reason for the stuttering university responses to the eruption of antisemitism on campus. It is a bitter, cutting analogy between the decisions faced by the university presidents and those faced by President Roosevelt during World War II not to save the Jews from the concentration camps. He explains:

Early in World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt learned of Nazi plans to systematically murder European Jews. Later, advisors urged him to order the bombing rail lines leading to Auschwitz. He rejected their pleas. Actions to prevent these murders, he responded, would turn the war into a campaign to save Jews, and in so doing undermine American’s support for the war.

And now?

On Oct. 7, we witnessed the most deadly pogrom, excepting the Holocaust, against Jews in modern history, and thousands of people danced in the streets, not only in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran, but also on campuses in Philadelphia, New York, Cambridge, Ithaca, and Berkeley. At the time, no university official on a major U.S. campus that I know of unequivocally denounced this action as a pogrom against Jews and excoriated their students and faculty for celebrating the occasion.

Two months later, on Dec. 5, presidents of three major universities at which celebrations of the pogroms took place — Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania — were questioned at a hearing of the House Education and Workforce Committee. Their collective responses were even feebler than those issued immediately after the pogrom. When called upon to say that the calls for the support of the pogrom of Oct. 7 were antithetical to Harvard’s institutional values, President Claudine Gay could only say, “I personally oppose this,” and then parse the speech/action distinction, defend speech, and announce that Harvard had beefed up security for its Jewish students. Nowhere did she say such views had no place on Harvard’s campus, and that she was ashamed to have such students and faculty at Harvard. President Sally Kornbluth of MIT and President Elizabeth Magill of Penn, fared only slightly better. All reacted defensively. None showed moral clarity, or demonstrated leadership. All obfuscated. At best, they seemed managers trying to cope rather than inspired leaders of noble institutions. At these universities, where almost all the students receive A’s, these educators failed.

This is not because they are anti-Semites or embrace the cause of Hamas. Rather, I think it is because they face the FDR dilemma: If they single out, and in no uncertain terms condemn, anti-Semites on their campuses, they run the risk of alienating a significant portion of the social justice constituency that they have helped to create and in part to whom they owe their positions.

You should read the piece in its entirety.

Malcolm also includes a factual tidbit I was unaware adds a piece of information that I didn’t know, but which doesn’t surprise me: a colleague of ours hired a survey firm to do a poll at Berkeley, and it turns out that 53% of the students enthusiastically shouting “from the river to the sea”–folks enrolled at the best public university in the United States–don’t know which river and which sea, along with much other breathtaking ignorance.

I deeply and fervently hope that the many thousands of academics around the world who admire and respect Malcolm will take the time to read his opinion piece and consider where they stand vis-á-vis the poison on campus. I also hope that they read the heartbreaking article in the New York Times about the horrific and systematic rapes perpetuated by Hamas terrorists during the October 7 massacre.

If Someone Says, “Thanks for a Great Semester!” Give Them a Turing Test

Happy Christmas to those who celebrate the birth of their Savior, and a Happy Jewish Carpenter day to those who eat Chinese food! In lieu of Frankincense and Myrhh, I bring to you today a higher(?) ed story to gladden (or besmirch) your Yuletide.

Because working full time at UC Law SF and studying full time at the GTU (and parenting full time, of course) was apparently not enough, this fall I taught, via Zoom, an undergraduate course at UC Berkeley which, last I checked, was the highest ranked public university in the nation. I kept most of my tales of woe about this experience off the socials and this blog, though a handful of regular readers (specifically, those who had professional dealings with me that were related to said class) got a running commentary of my experiences with our bright young minds (perhaps more of a running commentary than they would wish for). I may some day share more about this peculiar adventure and what it taught me about the future of humanity. Today, however, offered such a remarkable coda to the experience that it’s just too good not to share.

This morning at 9:35am, I received an email notification that “Melany’s OtterPilot Has Joined Your Meeting.” Seeing as my usual class time was Tuesday at 9:40am, this would appear to be a praiseworthy and timely log-in, except for two facts: (1) the entire semester–including the final exam–ended weeks ago; and (2) today is the day after Xmas which, even if you were spectacularly obtuse and spent your semester under a rock, would have clued you in to the fact that no class would be taking place.

I was ablaze with curiosity, so I logged on as well, to see who I would encounter there. And, indeed, right there in the Zoom room was a black rectangle representing Melany–no different than the one that represented Melany all semester long–waiting for me. I popped on my camera and said, “well, hello there,” and the rectangle disappeared.

A brief Internet search explained that OtterPilot is an AI thingy that essentially attends virtual classes for you so that you don’t have to. It is quite possible that this was in wide use throughout the semester, i.e., for all I know, you guys, I spent the last four months of my one wild and precious life lecturing to 180 bots.

If that was the case, it would certainly explain (1) the turned-off cameras (“respect people’s privacy/trauma/inconvenience/camera shyness”); (2) the lack of participation (“take into account that they’ve been through a pandemic”) and (3) the, how shall we say, lackluster executive function, general knowledge, and communication skills that were in evidence throughout.

Joyeux Noel to all!

AJS Annual Meeting, Day 3

What a wonderful day I’ve had at the AJS meeting today! I highly recommend that every academic attend an annual meeting as if they were attending a science fiction or anime conference, and go to panels that strike their fancy and are interesting to them. Today I gave myself license to attend panels on topics that interest me deeply, including art and music, and learned a lot.

I arrived late this morning for the Jews Imagining Empire panel, and so missed Yaniv Feller’s presentation, in which he proposed to frame early modern Germany as a real or (after Anderson) imagined empire. I did, however, enjoy the Q&A, in which people asked whether there were features that distinguished empires from nation states, and in what ways are there empires without colonies. Yaniv said something interesting: empires support the nation state by defining the “other”.

Then, Roger Lernon talked about Franz Kafka’s writing about imperial scenarios from faraway lands (“The Great Wall of China,” “The New Advocate” about Grece, and “The Hunter Gracchus” about Rome), to express his ambivalence toward the Habsburg empire, as a Jew in the crux of emancipation and nationalism. Finally, Katalin Rac introduced us to two people I had never heard of before: the Turkologist Ármin Vámbéry (1832–1913) and the Islamicist Ignaz Goldziher (1850–1921), both of whom were Jewish and whose travels and studies raise interesting questions about the relative liberalism of different empires.

The next panel, Jewish Art and Architecture, opened with Daniel Stein Kokin’s presentation about Perli Pelzig‘s prolific artistic career. Pelzig was a sculptor and muralist, whose work can be seen all over Israel. I’ve seen his gorgeous mosaics in kibbutzim and also at the Dan Acadia hotel in Herzliya and it was so well integrated into the space that it didn’t occur to me to inquire after the artist! But it turns out that Pelzig also designed the wonderful Holocaust Memorial Wall at Los Angeles’s Temple Beth Am, which looks like thousands of fingers scratching, and its complement–Pelzig’s evocative sculpture for Yad VaShem, which features hands reaching upward.

This was followed by Carolyn Beard’s presentation about the crucifixion as a motif in Mark Chagall’s paintings. White Crucifixion (1938) is the most famous among Chagall’s 80 (!) crucifixion paintings and, interestingly, eight of them are self-portraits depicting Chagall alongside a Jewish Jesus, wearing a tallit and sometimes tefillin, and images of suffering Jews. Chagall’s Artist with Yellow Christ is a reference to Paul Gauguin’s picture of the same name (1890), and in Christ with the Artist (1951) he depicts angels on the left of Jesus and Chagall on the right. The cross bursts out of the canvas. In another image, Chagall depicted Jesus’ head as a clock, and replaced the INRI script with his own signature.

Then, Fani Gargova introduced a new framework for analyzing women’s contributions to European Synagogue Design. The tendency among scholars of historical architecture is to regard women’s contribution to synagogue architecture as marginal, considering their location (separate and removed) in the synagogue itself. But it turns out that women played an important role contributing essential artifacts, such as menorot and parokhot, to the synagogues, which have been (mis)analyzed as Judaica objects, rather than as what they are: part of what makes the synagogue a synagogue.

After lunch, I went to a fantastic musicology panel. Gordeon Dale introduced the emerging and wildly successful genre of “Pop Emuni,” presenting artists who are and present as Orthodox and engage openly with biblical themes. We listened to, and analyzed, four songs: Ishay Ribo’s Hine Yamim Baim , Akiva (Turgeman)’s Lekh Lekha, Hanan ben Ari’s Holem Kemo Yosef, and Narkis’ Avi Lo. Despite the sharp polarization in Israel, these artists have been able to break boundaries and enjoy wide public appeal.

Then, Ann Glazer Niren exposed the liturgical roots of Leonard Bernstein’s psalms work. Ann hypothesizes that Bernstein was deeply influenced by Solomon Braslavsky, a gifted musician, who was the cantor and musical director at Bernstein’s home temple Mishkan Tefila. Indeed, Bernstein returned to religious themes in many of his compositions, including Jeremiah, Haskiveinu, Mass, and Kadish. We got to hear excerpts from his Psalms–Psalm 148 (1935) and his Chichester Psalms–and learn about some of the wonderful musical devices he used: echoes of Beethoven’s Pathetique and text pairing (which is a huge part of Bernstein’s genius and which I’ve appreciated every time I’ve sung or listened to his work.)

Finally, Amanda Ruppenthal-Stein introduced us to the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda, sharing and analyzing the wonderful polyphonic interpretation of “Ha’Azinu” (Deuteronomy 32).

A great coda to the conference was a panel about gender and queerness in Jewish ritual spaces, which opened with Morey Lipsett’s analysis of the “Agaddic element” in the liturgy at my local synagogue, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav (CSZ). I’m an occasional visitor there (one of my goals in the new year will be to become a more regular attendee) but Morey grew up in the congregation and, relying on Walter Benjamin and Judith Butler, he looks at how the synagogue’s founders and leaders have transformed the Kabbalat Shabbat ritual to encompass dynamic ideas of gender and sexuality, beyond just pointing out the patriarchal aspect of orthodox tradition, and toward creating an affirming and accepting space.

Then, Shlomo Gleibman led us through an investigation of the havruta (a long-term committed religious study partnership) as a queer space, starting with one of my favorite pair: Rabi Yohanan and Resh Lakish, from their erotically charged encounter in the river to what is arguably the most epic, dramatic breakup ever. We followed other havruta queer pairings, in the literature of S. An-sky, I. B. Singer, S. Y. Agnon, Tony Kushner, Michael Lowenthal, and Evan Fallenberg.

Finally, Isabel-Marie Johnston surveyed and interviewed Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews about their mikvah immersion practices. Her data indicates that the Mikvah offers relief and healing properties to many of the respondents, but especially to those with complicated micro-minority identities: people in intermarriages, people of color, people of complex sexuality, etc. But it turns out that exclusive practices in many Orthodox-run mikvaoth, including innocuous-seeming screening practices, are a real turn-off to these people.

I learned a lot and have tons of wonderful ideas for future research, and feel professionally energized for the first time in many months.

AJS Annual Meeting: Day 2

Another fascinating day at the AJS Annual Meeting, in which I learned a lot – including about issues surprisingly close to home.

The first panel, Holocaust in Art and Literature, opened with Roy Holler’s talk about Yoram Kaniuk’s book Adam ben Kelev and its film adaptation starring Jeff Goldblum. Of all Israeli authors, Kaniuk is one of the most difficult and least accessible for me, so I was grateful for Roy’s take: rather than seeing the book as a story of human-animal transition, he reads it as a story of “passing” across species and of a commitment to avoid joining a species capable of atrocities. As Roy said, “Instead of ‘God created man’, it’s ‘man created himself in the image of a dog.'”

Next, we heard from Angelica Maria Gutierrez  Ravanelli, who studies Argentinian holocaust remembrance and spoke of a graphic anthology called Camino a Auschwitz y Otras Historias de Resistencia. It’s a controversial, edgy, and sometimes queer take on holocaust survival, which draws inspiration from both Maus and Fun Home: the story of a prostitute who dies in the gas chambers; the exploits of a gay partisan and his sexual escapades in the forest; and an ambivalent, conflicted story about Eichmann’s capture. Angelica walked us through the timeline and plot of the stories, the graphic motifs, and the controversy that their publication stirred in Argentina.

The panel ended Anne Rothfeld’s talk about a fascinating investigation conducted by Evelyn Tucker into several wonderful paintings by Egon Schiele. It turned out that Egon Schiele was treated by a dentist called Rieger and, short on cash, paid him in fantastic paintings, including Wayside Shrine, Cardinal and Nun, and Harbor of Trieste (all of which can be found now in the Dorotheum). Welz, a member of the Nazi party, got the paintings from Rieger. Tucker suspected that Welz had flourished by spreading a tale of benefitting from American looters. Welz’s version was that he helped Rieger escape (he had not; Rieger died in Theresienstadt.) Eventually, Tucker was relieved of her position after a conflict with the army. The whole thing was fascinating.

The second panel, Negotiating Danger, Difference, and Death, had assorted rabbinical commentary that I found interesting. The highlight for me was Mika Ahuvia’s talk about Angels in Late Antique Conceptions of Death, because some of the images she analyzed came from sarcophagi in Bet Shearim, which is right next to my home town and where I run when I visit my mom. While rabbinic texts identify only male angels (Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Bney ha-Helohim from Enochic texts), piyyut and midrash (Bereshit Raba) identify some feminine angels. And, a sarcophagus image depicts a winged female figure. In addition, murals in the Dura synagogue depict a similar figure descending to the underworld.. Where did it come from? Mika identifies the similarities between the figure and the Greek figure of Psyche (Suke in Greek) and investigates artistic copying and common influences.

Shulamit Shinaar uses lenses from critical and queer disability studies, as well as from medical sociology, to examine biblical and rabbinic prohibitions on, and dispensations for, people with disabilities and their caregivers. She relies on Mike Bury’s concept of “biographical disruption”–the impact of a diagnosis on the person’s now threatened identity, their plans for the future, and their daily life. In light o this framework, Rabbinnical literature views people’s lives as disrupted, including their ability to work, dependency on others, and illness impacting witnesses and legal proxies. This lens explains the exemptions for sick people and for their caregivers: Sabbath, Yom Kippur, and seeking healing using objects that are prohibited (except for the “big three”: avodah zarah, incest, and bloodshed).

Finally, Gal Sela turns to Ta’anit 24a-b to discuss theurgic perceptions in the Babylonian Talmud. The story has to do with Rava, who unsuccessfully tries to bring rain through a fast, and when people complain that in the days of Rabbi Yehuda this was easily done, recurs to explain that the more rigorous learning of this generation is insufficient and that the previous generation had a more direct connection to the divine. We talked about the power of the sage, through the ritualistic act of removing his shoes.

The methodologies that were most familiar to me were in full display at the Haredi sociology panel. I learned a lot! First we heard from Dikla Yogev and Nomi Levenkron, who have studied the Meron disaster using information from government meetings, observations and interviews with the police and the public, and an “urgent ethnography” of online data collection (WhatsApp groups and a website.). The Meron celebration, which became Haredi-dominated from around 2000, raises various problems involving transportation, site management, lost children, and the like. Social network analysis shows that the most prominent people to discuss and address the event were the haredim themselves, including the Meron Committee head and the Holy Sites CTO. Dikla and Nomi conclude that Meron suffers from government instability; the police struggle to establish public safety, which is low on the priority list and managed through a network of informal connections that prioritize Haredi brokers and deprioritize the police.

It was interesting to see this unfold in light of Nomi’s other paper on the panel, hilariously titled “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and recounting the regulation of the 1956 Meron celebration. Her point of departure is that police work in holy places calls for negotiation, which has both symbolic and practical aspects. The three parties to the negotiation wanted different things out of it. The father was Ben Gurion, the prime minister, whose establishment of Israel was accomplished through difficult compromises with the Haredim, and therefore needed to give in to them on the celebration; his son, Amos Ben-Gurion, who was a senior police officer, was concerned about the site’s safety risks and demanded to cancel the event; and the Holy Spirit, the Ministry of Religion, needed the Ultra-Orthodox as part of the coalition. To some extent, the 1956 paper provides an omen/explainer of the 2020 paper.

Miriam Moster talked about the ocioeconomics of Haredi Divorce in New York, which used to be fairly common but is now extremely rare. By contrast to divorcées in the general population, among Hasidim, education and home ownership actually make leaving the marriage easier. Miriam also pointed out that finances tied to the husband, especially in cases where the whole extended family is financially entangled–and especially in illegal/under the table dealings–make leaving more difficult. The fallout of divorce can be harsh from an informal social control standpoint.

Finally, Hannah Lebovits discussed the housing patterns of Haredim in American municipalities, showing how leadership deals with housing and contrasting two models: “housing at all costs” (cutting corners, informal economic workarounds) versus “pragmatic skepticism” (representation, legal cases, civil rights action, etc.) She used the term “ritual urbanism” to describe, among other factors, how some spiritual leaders (“rebs”) of the community present themselves as messengers of God when advocating for spatial design or land use.

I was going to stay for more, but instead opted for catching up with Dikla and Nomi and then had to replace all my bicycle gear, which was filched from my pannier by someone who probably needed raingear and a Narcan kit more than I did (but did he really have to steal my helmet and gloves, too? Grrrr.) Very eager to return to the conference tomorrow!

Association of Jewish Studies, Day 1: Dreyfus Postcards, DEI and Antisemitism, and Daughters’ Inheritance

As hinted in various posts, my big professional pivot has been in the works for a while. This year I started my rabbinical studies at the International Institute of Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ). IISHJ requires all its rabbis to complete an advanced degree in Jewish Studies, which brought me to the Graduate Theological Union’s Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies. In addition to my full-time work, I’m studying full time for a masters degree, and this week I finished the first semester. My plan is to pivot my scholarship at UC Law SF toward Jewish law and Jewish studies, and I have big plans for fostering and encouraging a vibrant academic Jewish legal experience on campus. After retirement from legal academia, I plan to turn to rabbinical work full time.

Today marks an important milestone: I attended my first-ever annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies which, conveniently, is being held in San Francisco. I’m not presenting anything–my two brand-new papers haven’t been submitted for publication yet–and it’s been a great experience to listen, rather than talk! Getting into a new field requires quite a bit of humility, and I confess to being overwhelmed when I visited the huge book exhibit and saw the vast wealth of knowledge and original research. It’s daunting and, at the same time, exciting to join such a prolific enterprise, and I wonder what I can contribute to this flourishing field.

I started my day with a panel on visual representations of violence, in which Louis Kaplan introduced us to the work of photographer John Guttman. Trained as an expressionist painter, Guttman switched to photography when he figured that he would not be able to leave Berlin with money, but would be allowed to take expensive equipment out of the country. He bought a wonderful camera and somehow persuaded a German news agency to be their foreign correspondent in San Francisco… and ended up in a gorgeous apartment in Russian Hill. From Tara Kohn we learned about how archival gaps and absences affect our ability to learn about photography–in this case the work of Alter Kacyzne, who documented Jewish life in Poland in the 1920s and 1930s. Only 700 of Alter’s many photographs are in existence–but evidence of their existence exists in copies and references, as if they were fossils. But the most interesting bit, to me, was Karine Macarez’s presentation of… postcards, posters, and trading cards about the Dreyfus Affair! In my work on true crime podcasts, I always think about Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Message reminder, but here is proof that participatory, sensationalist true crime engagement–complete with wrongful conviction activism–existed through the creation, sale, and exchange of these postcards, which are rife not only with antisemitic tropes (used both straightforwardly, as in the case of Dreyfus’s maligners, and ironically, by the Dreyfusards) but also with actual forensic evidence: people would buy and collect postcards bearing Dreyfus and Esterhazy’s handwriting.

After lunch, I attended a panel in which Amy Simon (Michigan State), Greg Drinkwater (Berkeley), Nathan Paradise (Minnesota), and Lauren Strauss (American) spoke of their activism–unpaid, emotionally taxing, and exhausting work–to include Jewish concerns and marginalization in the academic curriculum, especially after the Hamas massacre and the eruption of the war. The session was very well attended–standing room only–and offered some thoughts about whether, and to what extent, Jewish issues (including antisemitism) can and should fit in a DEI framework. Lots of useful takeaways, including the huge variation among campuses not only in policies and curricula but also in the interpersonal relationships between the different personages: campus administration, ethnic studies folks (often, but not always, a department devoid of Jewish voices), Jewish studies departments (which are not supposed to be advocacy centers but sometimes become such), Islamic studies departments and colleagues (who sometimes form great coalitions) and the student body (including a big conversation about the extent to which TikTok and the like shape young minds before they even come to college.) It was a great conversation which, while not offering a ton of hope, offered some interesting perspectives and ideas to try, and made me feel a lot less alone than before. I also plan to read Kenneth Stern’s The Conflict Over the Conflict (and will post a review soon.)

I then got to hear a fabulous roundtable about women and biblical law, featuring several interesting projects. Yael Landman, who uses a law-and-literature lens, discussed women’s property rights, especially regarding daughters’ dowries and inheritance; Samantha Rainford, who also studies inheritance roles, highlighted how the the daughters of Zelophechad had to be legally “made into men” in order for their inheritance to fit into the patriarchal lens. GTU’s very own Jennifer Lehmann studies maleness and masculinity in the Bible; as she explains, while men have been the focus of Biblical literature, only recently have they been studied through a gendered lens. She discussed two fascinating examples: Jacob’s sexuality in the Leah/Rachel bait-and-switch, and Joseph’s sexual victimization at Potiphar’s house (including issues of sexual servitude–and comparisons with Hagar.) And Sarah Shechtman discussed embodiment in biblical ritual.

I learned a ton, bought a heavily discounted set of the Bavli with English translation, and I hope made some new friends. Back tomorrow for more!

The Israeli “Brain Drain” Will Not Reverse Itself Anytime Soon

Yesterday I read an op-ed by Aaron Ciechanover, Chemistry Nobel Laureate for 2004, in which he addresses the growing antisemitic crisis in American universities. Opining about the Harvard/MIT/Penn presidents’ hearing, he has many harsh words for these universities not only as morally compromised, but also as poor places for research to flourish. Unfortunately, the Ha’aretz website does not offer a translation to English, but I’ve translated a relevant part:

A university’s duty is to protect the truth. Nobel Prizes cannot serve as a cover for lying, incitement, and calls to destroy a people and a country. The truth they represent cannot replace the demand for social, historical, and geopolitical truth, for equal morality, and especially for truth, which is a cornerstone of education. Education, not studying. On the difference between the two, which these administrations failed to understand, Einstein said, “education is what remains when we forget all the things we studied in school.”

We must not ignore the problematic aspect of these protests, which radiate to the international scientific collaborations of Israeli academy and, from there, to a negative influence on U.S.-Israel relations. Israel is becoming a cultural pariah. It is essential to use every measure to fight the protests–through Jewish donors and economic institutions led by Jews, or through dialogue with university leadership.

In other words: antisemitism is bad for science. But Ciechanover goes on to hypothesize about Israeli scientists and academics:

By the same token, an opportunity for Israel has opened. Israeli researchers who planned to return during the judicial overhaul sat on their suitcases or tried to look for jobs in the United States. The trend has reversed itself. Many want to come home. Moreover, senior Jewish scientists are looking, today, for a home in Israel–fleeing the rising tide of antisemitism, which hurts them and their children. If positions are found for them in Israeli research universities and in the Israeli tech industry, they will change the course of science and industry in Israel. “Amidst the hardship lives opportunity,” Einstein said. It must be used.

Even though Ciechanover is a gifted, eminent scientist, I have a sense that he is not basing this assumption on data. To be fair, I don’t have any solid data either (though I plan to collect some–I’ll share more as I get to work). I’ve had conversations with dozens of Israeli-American colleagues, many of them with kids, who are deeply distressed and keenly aware of the fact that, antisemitism-wise, things are not looking up for them or their families. I hear of several people in my immediate surroundings who flew home to visit and comfort family and friends and even to volunteer for the reserves or for much-needed agricultural work. But there’s a big difference between that and deciding, or even seriously considering, to permanently return to Israel. There are three main considerations against it, which Ciechanover probably knows all too well:

Personal and family safety. It used to be that the message marketed to diasporic Jews was that their “safe place” was Israel. Who, among those following the news, can still say that with a straight face? Not only has the horrific Oct. 7 massacre shattered any illusions that the government was properly and responsibly protecting its people, but the war is continuing to demand sacrifices (and take a huge toll on human life on both sides) and is anything but safe. Israel is a small country. Everyone I know knows people who have been murdered, raped, kidnapped. Everyone I know has close family members serving in the army. And many Israeli academics have children; the last thing they want for their kids is to be drafted into an irresponsible army, commanded by people their parents do not trust. It’s hard to convey how desperate this dead-end sense feels because public discourse in America has muddled the concept of “feeling unsafe” by equating it with “being upset because someone said something that didn’t sit well with me.” Believe me, Israelis know the difference. Going to work in American universities is supremely shitty these days, I grant you that, and I don’t mean to make light of people’s very real distress that they are losing not only [people they thought were] friends, but entire research networks. I feel the same way and am in the process of a fairly aggressive academic pivot for this very reason: I can no longer breathe the same air with many of the people in my field. But that is a tragedy of the soul, not a serious risk to the flesh, and people will put up with a lot of unpleasantness to provide for their families. Israeli scientists are keenly aware of the gaping chasm between being deeply unhappy at work and being slaughtered by homicidal monsters or sent to fight by a psychopathic career criminal and his trigger-happy messianic government, without a real sense that the people in charge have any idea what they are doing or care about their people. No one wants this for their kids or for themselves.

Political problems. This is of course closely related to the deeply worrisome collapse of Israel as a free, democratic country, a long process decades in the making, which intensified in the months before the massacre and the war through the frightening actions of Israel’s 37th government. I’ve written plenty about why hundreds of thousands of Israelis, including my mother and my late father, protested daily in the streets. Academics were a huge part of these protests; in every march I attended there were big contingents wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “without democracy there is no academy.” As one of the most prominent academic protesters, Ciechanover knows this all too well: he was one of the signatories on the Nobel Prize Winners letter against the regime overhaul, warning Netanyahu and his cronies that countries with no separation of powers or freedom of thought end up wrecking their research infrastructure. On one occasion, Ciechanover himself led 50,000 protesters in a march for democracy in Haifa (see image above). Political polls consistently show that academics in Israel were, and still are, among the staunchest resisters to Netanyahu’s agenda. Here in the U.S., academics, scientists, and tech workers are leading UnXeptable, a grassroots movement of expats supporting the Israeli protest movement. Not only have these problems not gone away; many of us see them as the cause for the military and intelligence failures that allowed the massacre to happen, clamor for Netanyahu’s resignation (shameless, despicable man; the buck never stops with him) and are deeply horrified by the atrocities that Ben Gvir’s goons are performing in Gaza and elsewhere, including the appalling murder of Yuval Castleman and a home-grown pogrom at a peaceful village. For many of us, the war has not quelled the spirit of the protest; au contraire, it has intensified its urgency.

Personal growth and prosperity. And all this is related to the fact that, for decades, Israeli governments did very little to encourage promising scientists to remain in the country. My colleagues and I were part of a huge brain drain. Lots of good people who are flourishing, publishing, winning grants and awards, and well respected in their fields, came here after years of subsisting on meager pay as postdocs without prospects in Israeli universities. A disproportionate number of PhDs in many areas, including STEM, means that most people cannot find a job in Israeli universities right away (or ever). University pay, for better or worse, is governed by a collective labor agreement that does not allow universities to pay competitive salaries or match competing offers people receive from universities outside Israel. Back in 2013, the New Yorker ran an explainer story showing that the growing economic distress in Israel–the fruit of Netanyahu’s systematic dismantlement of the welfare state and destruction of the middle class–mean that many people in their thirties and forties (such as academics with young families), in the face of stagnated wages and rising costs of life, were still being financially supported by their parents at an alarming rate. A study conducted in 2007 found that the migration rate of highly educated Israelis to the United States was among the highest of 28 countries examined – more than three times the average. The trend continues: according to this report from i24 News, as of 2022, academics had the highest rate of emigration from Israel at 7.8 percent, followed by physicians at a rate of 6.5 percent. Numerous people I have talked to lately, including folks of serious caliber and international renown, are still looking for the way out.

In other words, I suspect that the growing isolation of Israeli academia and academics abroad is an unmitigated problem, which does not harbor an opportunity to reverse the brain drain. Many of us feel patriotic sentiments, which are bolstered by the ugliness we experience from our surroundings. I don’t mean to belittle that. But we also have a responsibility to our families, and we also understand that living under this government in the aftermath of this horror–if there will ever be an aftermath–is not sustainable. Colleagues working in Europe in the 1930s felt the creeping limitations, followed by expulsions, that we feel; but the alternative they had was to flee to America, whereas our alternative would be to flee–where exactly? One of Ehud Manor’s most beloved songs, written about the War of Attrition (in which my father was injured), is called “I don’t have another country.” For those of us living in diaspora, I don’t feel like we have any country.

Happy Hanukkah! Components of a Religious “Package”

This week I had two remarkably similar conversations, one about Judaism and one about Buddhism, which revolved around the ingredients of religious identity. The first conversation came about when my Modern Jewish Thought class (taught by the one and only Sam Shonkoff) used traditional havruta study methods to study an unusual text: sections 48-49 of the Brandeis Center lawsuit I mentioned here. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

  1. The Jewish people share not only religious laws and traditions, but also a deep
    historical sense of Jewish peoplehood. The Jewish people’s history, theology, and culture are
    deeply intertwined with the land of Israel, the birthplace of Jewish religion and culture, and the
    place to which Jews have expressly yearned to return across centuries of forced diaspora.
    Throughout millennia of exile and persecution, the Jewish people have continued to recognize
    Jerusalem (also known as “Zion”) and the land of Israel as the Jews’ ancestral homeland. To this
    day, Jews pray facing toward Jerusalem. The Jewish calendar, Jewish life cycle events, Jewish
    law, and Jewish prayer reflect the deep historic and ancestral connection of the Jewish people to
    the land of Israel. For example, more than half of the 613 commandments included in the
    Pentateuch relate to, and can only be fulfilled in, the land of Israel. YOTAV ELIACH, JUDAISM,
  2. For most Jews, Zionism is as integral to Judaism as observing the Jewish Sabbath
    or maintaining a kosher diet. Of course, not all Jews observe the Sabbath or keep kosher, but
    those who do clearly are expressing critical components of their Jewish identity. Similarly, not all Jews are Zionists, but for those who are, the connection to the Jewish state is integral to their Jewish identity.

There is a lot to unpack here, first among which is the question whether Zionism is part of the Jewish religion or part of Jewish peoplehood or part of something else. Paragraph 49 seems to package Zionism alongside Shabbat and kashrut, and parts of Paragraph 48 tie Zionism to Israel-related mitzvot. But the beginning of Paragraph 48 suggest that, even for non-religious Jews, Zionism is a fundamental part of their identity–if they are Zionist. Which leaves me and, I assume, others, with the question: are there some things that are essential to every Jew’s Jewish identity? It looks like the assorted ingredients change from person to person: a secular Israeli might be completely alienated from Shabbat, mitzvot, kashrut, and all that jazz (perhaps through bitterness over the religious orthodoxy) but has strong ties to Israel and familial heritage. A convert to Judaism as a consequence of marrying a Jew might live in Atlanta or Paris, have no relationship with Israel whatsoever, but has a deliberate commitment to the faith through its intentional adoption. A member of a New York Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva might or might not have a link to Israel but does have the heritage and orthodoxy tie. Is there any ingredient of this package that seems to be at the core of Judaism for all these people? Strip away all the components that any one person might have and others don’t, and what’s left? Judaism becomes elusive and slips through your fingers.

We had a similar conversation today in my Buddhism in the West class, taught by the incomparable Scott Mitchell. Throughout the semester, a big part of what we did was collapse categories often assumed by people about Buddhism, some of which involved a taxonomy of Buddhisms that distinguishes between “Asian Buddhism” (assumed to have been imported from its countries of origins and thus supposedly pure/unspoiled) versus “convert Buddhism” (assumed to reflect modern sensibilities and be practiced by white people, who focus on what the Buddha taught on the basis of a canon of classical texts without “ethnic trappings” like chanting or making offerings). As Natalie Quli argues,

I suggest that, by beginning with an essentialized Asian Buddhist “tradition,” many scholars have become preoccupied with protecting authentic, “traditional” Asian Buddhism from the contamination of Western-influenced “Buddhist modernism.” This simplistic model of Asian versus Western, traditional versus modernist, repeats the stereotype of a passive Asian and an active Westerner, perpetuating the researcher’s inclination to “save” Asian (and by extension, Asian American) Buddhism from the West. Others have used this dichotomy of the passive Asian/modernist Westerner to promote a new, supposedly “culture-free” form of Buddhism in the West that is unlike the traditional, conservative Asian Buddhism against which they paint it.

To more deeply understand Buddhists in the global ecumene, we must abandon nostalgic notions of “pure” cultures and traditions and recognize the presence of multiple and hybrid identities—such as both Asian and American, or Asian and Western. Many Buddhist scholars have relied on an unarticulated Western Self/Asian Other dichotomy, manifesting in a “hierarchy of field sites” that discourages studies of Western Buddhism, including both Asian Americans and non-Asian American converts, continuing to cultivate those old colonial fantasies of pure cultures and pure traditions.

Natalie Quli, Western Self, Asian Other: Modernity, Authenticity, and Nostalgia for “Tradition” in Buddhist Studies, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 16 (2009).

The existence of many hybrid Buddhisms, and the futile quest for unattainable “authenticity,” raises another question: Is there anything at the core of Buddhist identity? Friends in class, who belong to various Buddhist traditions, tried to come up with something and came up rather short. Someone suggested the Lotus Sutra (but what about Theravada Buddhists?); another suggested the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha); another suggested chanting; I proposed the Eightfold Path; someone else said maybe the Bodhisattva vow. Many of these would be familiar to many Buddhists, but the emphasis would be different; and then there are people born to Buddhist families and surrounded by Buddhists, who are Buddhists themselves but do not actually practice. Strip the components that are not shared, and what’s left of a Buddhist identity is as elusive as what’s left of a Jewish identity.

This is an especially important question to those of us seeking a spiritual life in a secular humanistic community. Without commandments, without a God, without necessarily a connection to Israel, what is Jewish about a secular humanistic Jewish congregation? The IISHJ has an answer to this, and here it is from Rabbi Adam Chalom:

Why Be Jewish? Rabbi Adam Chalom

The answer to the question “why be Jewish?” is going to be different for different people. For me, tonight, the answer is lighting candles with my son, my mom, and my partner, singing Hanukkah songs, and finding some extra light in the darkness, especially if it comes from a dinosaur-shaped hanukkiah.

What We Learned and Didn’t Learn from the House Education Committee Hearing on Campus Climate

Yesterday (Tue), the House Education Committee summoned the Presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT to a hearing pertaining to antisemitism on their campuses. “Hearing” is a more apt term than “listening,” because none of the latter took place. The Washington Post has a transcript of some of the conversation, which you can read to form your own impressions.

I think it’s obvious from the transcripts that the responses are pathetically vague and circular. The presidents attempt to yammer about free speech when confronted with issues pertaining to real harm to the students and are utterly unable to offer guarantees that might reassure parents that their students are not at risk of being assaulted and threatened. I hardly think anyone can seriously waffle around the fact that Jews and Israelis are experiencing acute anguish on university campuses, and the sorry excuses offered are an abdication of responsibility. Free speech is not the ultimate defense to all this, because much of what has occurred–threats, assaults, exclusions, restrictive policies, loyalty oath demands, etc.,–goes far beyond the question of government restrictions on speech. It also goes, at least in the case of these private institutions, to the question of monetary institutional support (which is also “speech”) and to the question of university presidents’ failure to condemn hateful rhetoric (which would also be a use of free speech.) At the same time, anyone looking for real, substantial answers for this problem would not find them at the committee hearing.because it was run like an inquisition rather than an effort to learn and educate.

If I were running the hearing and were truly interested in learning more about why campus climate in the Ivies and elsewhere is so noxious, here is what I would want to know: How are the mental health and support services on campus structured, and when do they address community issues rather than just personal challenges? How are decisions about funding research and teaching centers made, particularly the ones with stances and interests on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How are student clubs established, and under which conditions do they receive funding from the school? Notwithstanding academic freedom, do faculty receive any training about what is and is not legitimate grounds to end class (e.g., to participate in a partisan protest but perhaps not for a counterprotest)? Are there guidelines and regulations about circumstances that merit all-campus addresses and emails from university leadership? from school deans? from department chairs? If there are, do they apply equally to all political standpoints? Do presidents and chancellors comment freely on world events whether or not they are related to campus life? When protests happen on campus, who approves them, and what is the process? Is campus police involved, and to what extent? Does campus police liaise with the municipal police department in these situations? If a student is assaulted, or falls victim to some other hate crime, who investigates the complaint?

Piecing together the picture of campus climate is a complicated, multi-factor endeavor. And Elise Stefanik didn’t do it, not because she couldn’t, but because she didn’t want to. Generally speaking, running a hearing like this in the style of a cross examination does not reflect an intent to receive in-depth answers to difficult questions; in this case, I speculate that it was designed to supply sound bites of academics looking like clowns for the Trump 2024 campaign.

Animal Bystanders in Human Armed Conflict

Among the challenges and dilemmas faced by activist groups is the question how to strike a proper balance between advancing the group’s particular goal and fostering solidarity with other groups. Animal rights organizations are no different. Questions of coalitions and fractures come up all the time, be it the issue of financial and sexual misbehavior of leadership or concerns about outreach to other leftie organizations, who may misperceive the animal liberation struggle as trite concentration on “first-world problems.” Some efforts to bridge these conflicts make a lot of sense by pointing out similarities between some animal struggles and human struggles: Karen Morin’s work comparing cattle towns to prison towns is a worthy effort, as is the consensus-building work between animal rights activists and slaughterhouse workers; after all, working in a cruel industry harms the human workers as well as the animals.

But the strong emotions evoked by human armed conflict can lead animal rights organizations to choices that reflect, at best, organizational shortsightedness. One classic example is the political diversity of the ideologically engaged, dedicated, and successful Israeli vegan movement. About a decade ago, a lecture by animal rights activist Gary Yourofsky went viral, converting many Israelis across the political spectrum to veganism. Some important U.S. animal rights actions (such as a kaparos intervention in New York on behalf of roosters, which I played a small part in by providing legal advice) were guided by Israeli activists. Some of the most powerful interventions against the factory farm industry were conducted by entrepreneurial Israeli animal liberationists.

By the same token, it turns out that some of these folks, as they fight against the caging and slaughter of animals, simultaneously see the occupation is a-ok, which is a bone of contention in the Israeli activist scene. When activist leader Tal Gilboa quickly linked hands with the Netanyahu government after rumors of her unsavory leadership in the animal rights movement spread, many vegan communities were torn asunder, and with good reason.

But what really takes the cake is this week’s romance between DxE, an organization that has benefitted for many years from my energy and expertise, and… Hamas, a well-known animal rights organization (caution: the footage in the link is harrowing). DxE Bay Area issued a call to participate in one of the loony city council meetings issuing statements of solidarity.

Just to get a sense of what happens at these city council meetings that animal rights activists were so eager to attend, here’s an assortment of nutty comments from my fellow citizens, some of whom call Hamas “the armed wing of unified Palestinian resistance.”

Examples of the terrorists’ cruelty to the animals living in the kibbutzim they rampaged through abound: slaughtered dogs and cats, lost animals in search of their murdered human family members. Total devastation. Mia Leimberg, pictured above, was kidnapped from her home with her dog, Bella. When the terrorists realized Bella was a living being, rather than a doll, they wanted to take her away from Mia. But Mia protected her dog, shared her meagre rations with her, and insisted on remaining with her to the end, even as Hamas terrorists tried to take the dog away from her as she was being released. Stories of released hostages reuniting with their dogs are heartwarming – virtually every hostage has family members still in captivity, and to encounter their pets on the outside must offer so much comfort to their bruised hearts.

Released hostage Amit Susana with her dog Sunny
Released hostage Emily Hand (9) with her dog Schnitzel
The Brodech kids reuniting with Rodney after their release from captivity
Moran Yanai, who took care of many animals, reuniting with her dog
Released hostage Rimon Kirscht with her dog, Tovah

It’s easy to dismiss a lot of the DxE idiocy on this topic as a generational issue. Many activists are very young; moreover, all around me I see evidence that, from a moral maturity standpoint, 40 is the new 20, and in activism circles in particular absolutist thinking is very common. But since doubling down on this topic, the movement is losing allies left and right, not only their many Jewish (former) members, and notably, when I wrote to admonish the organizational leadership for this post, the reply was, essentially, “where did you see this?” as if the concern here should be about covering up the forensic tracks of this travesty rather than wondering why it was posted (and liked, and shared) in the first place.

My new rule for collaborations with activist organizations in all areas–law enforcement, prison conditions, human rights, animal rights–is this: I do not breathe the same air with, nor do I spend a drop of energy or a red cent on, or contribute my expertise to, anyone who does not think I have a right to exist. Fortunately, there are plenty of avenues to help humans and animals that do not require these unsavory collaborations. Such is, for example, the massive effort by Achim LaNeshek and animal rights activists to locate the displaced pets and farm animals and return them to their families, or to call attention to the animals in Gaza under heavy fire. Animals are not “Zionist imperialists” any more than they are “Islamic terrorists”. They are innocent bystanders in this horrid conflict (as are so many of the humans, men, women, children, literally caught in the crossfire) and should receive help and relief. Think what you may about petting zoos, etc.–I’m not a fan–these animals, like all animals, deserve our love and help. This is the side animal rights orgs should take: The animals’ side.

Hail the Return of the Light with Candles

Next week we will celebrate Hanukkah at my son’s school. We come equipped with David Adler’s The Story of Hanukkah, svivonim (dreidels) and, if we can make the trek to the wonderful vegan bakery, delicious donuts. I read online that many Israelis feel such despair that they have no desire to celebrate the holiday; it is a holiday purportedly celebrating a miracle involving a religious uprising and the parallels and antagonisms to the murderous energies, failed leadership, and dread about what’s coming are too painful.

Perhaps folks might find something psychologically useful and encouraging from an alternative reason to celebrate the holiday, which can be found in Bavli Avodah Zarah 8a 7-8. My beloved high school teacher Aviva Sela (in the picture above) taught me this story as she was battling cancer as we talked about witchcraft, ritual, and encouragement (here is an incredible interview she gave at a radio show, which showcases what a one-of-a-kind person she was.) Leave it to her to imbue the holiday with sensitive psychological meaning. In any case, here’s the story:

לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך אמר אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים עמד וישב ח’ ימים בתענית [ובתפלה]. כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך אמר מנהגו של עולם הוא הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים

When Adam the first man saw that the day was progressively diminishing, as the days become shorter from the autumnal equinox until the winter solstice, he did not yet know that this is a normal phenomenon, and therefore he said: Woe is me; perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and will ultimately return to the primordial state of chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven, as it is written: “And to dust shall you return” (Genesis 3:19). He arose and spent eight days in fasting and in prayer. Once he saw that the season of Tevet, i.e., the winter solstice, had arrived, and saw that the day was progressively lengthening after the solstice, he said: Clearly, the days become shorter and then longer, and this is the order of the world. He went and observed a festival for eight days. Upon the next year, he observed both these eight days on which he had fasted on the previous year, and these eight days of his celebration, as days of festivities.

One need not be a serious sufferer of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) to respond to the changing seasons with melancholy. The weather, at least here in the Northern Hemisphere, is getting colder; the days are shorter, and our kids cannot play in the playground as late as they would like; we turn our attention inward and dwell on memories past and fears of the future. The horrid weight of the last two months is compounded by the falling shadows in the afternoon; the darkness of the morning adds to the despair one feels trying to get out of bed. Lighting one more candle each day can serve as a psychological reminder that the light will return, and that we can fight even a small part of the darkness outside with a light we carry within.

Yesterday I attended kabalat shabbat at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. The congregation commemorated the AIDS crisis and the rabbi read out a quote from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America:

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be
commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
Bye now.
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.

So it does for all of us in the East and West.