Mixed messages

Mixed messages

I’m traveling this week (to the American Jewish Press Association’s annual conference) and took it as an opportunity to clear out my “mixed media” file.

Beck vs. Ben-Gurion — Glenn Beck has recently devoted numerous segments to defending Israel. Very nice, but some of the segments are so odd and tone-deaf in a typically Beckian way that I wonder if it’s a net gain or loss for Israel. (On Facebook, one of my friends told another, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Beck is very influential.” I have to wonder just how “influential” Beck is. He speaks to the closed loop of his audience on an already pro-Israel Fox, and is a subject of ridicule and apoplexy beyond that.)

On his June 3 show, continuing his obsession with battling “socialism,” he sets out to explain how “[s]ocialism and anti-Semitism have complemented each other throughout history.” He trots out a highly selective list of infamous “socialists” who also hated Jews (as if we got a free ride from the capitalists, tsarists, nationalists, monarchists…. When it comes to intolerance, anti-Semitism is one-size-fits-all).

But Beck’s oddest omission is his failure to acknowledge the historic links between Jews, Israel — and socialism. Either Beck doesn’t know or (I suspect) chooses to ignore the socialism that animated modern Zionism. For David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Berl Katznelson, socialism and Zionism were inseparable. Until the 1980s, Israel’s political leadership was dominated by Labor Zionists and its economy by the Histadrut, the powerful trade union.

Meanwhile, in Europe and America, in the first part of the 20th century, socialism swept through poor and working-class Jewish communities. Jewish immigrants in New York City helped elect socialist Meyer London to Congress in 1914. Jewish support for socialism was hardly unanimous, but it was central to the American-Jewish experience. As Irving Howe has written, “Jewish socialism (and Zionism also) transformed the posture of Jewish life, creating a new type of person: combative, worldly, spirited, and intent upon sharing the future of industrial society with the rest of the world.”

Which isn’t to suggest that the socialists were “right” or that socialist societies and thinkers haven’t bred anti-Semitism. Nor does it vindicate the anti-Semites who accuse Jews of foisting socialism on the world.

But beware of anyone who pins anti-Semitism on any one movement, idea, or ideology. Beck may well be a good friend of Israel; I have no reason to think he isn’t. But he does us no favors by pretending support for Israel is the historic property of a single political movement — in this case, his version of the Right.

Who’s Laughing Now? — A few people sent me a link to the parody video on YouTube, “We Con the World,” and by “a few people,” I mean every living Jew with an Internet connection.

If you were not among the three million people who viewed the video before YouTube took it down for copyright reasons, here’s a recap: Dressed in keffiyehs and speaking in broad Arabic accents, the Israeli cast impersonates and mocks the passengers and crew of the boats sending “aid” to Gaza. Sample lyric: “We’ll make the world/ Abandon reason/ We’ll make them all believe that the Hamas/ Is Momma Theresa.”

The clip was created for Latma TV, a satirical news site headed by Caroline Glick, the Jerusalem Post’s popular right-wing columnist. Latma is trying to fight anti-Israel bias with satire. As far as ethnic stereotyping and general comedic callousness, I’ve seen a lot worse (and a lot funnier). And there is something hugely cathartic about propaganda produced by our side for a change.

But propaganda is propaganda. If you find yourself enjoying this kind of thing, you forfeit your right to complain about Jewish stereotypes and the crude anti-Israel cartoons that appear in the Arab media.

Strange ‘Fruit’ — I’m not sure what I think about this next one, a short story presumably from the opposite side of the political spectrum. The May 17 issue of The New Yorker featured “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” by the celebrated Jewish-American writer Nathan Englander. The disturbing story is bracketed by the shooting of four Egyptian soldiers by an Israeli trooper in the 1956 Sinai Campaign and the killing, years earlier, of a gentile family by a teenage death camp survivor in Europe just after the liberation. It’s rich in details about the IDF and Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, and as inevitable as a Greek tragedy.

The story eerily anticipates the arguments surrounding the flotilla confrontation that would occur just weeks after the magazine’s publication, and is almost as maddening. Englander purposely blurs the line between self-defense and pure revenge. He places the Holocaust at the center of Israel’s psyche in a way that confirms the cynicism of Israel’s critics. A disagreement between a father and son about the morality of the killings depicts an older Israeli generation as amoral at best, immoral at worst.

And yet there is that young voice suggesting a new generation no longer weighed down by the tragedies of the past. Like I said, I’m not sure what I think of this one. Please read the story on-line and tell me what you think.

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