Friday, November 15, 2013

Things People Blame the Jews for, Volume VII: Jews

It is unsurprising that the "blame the Jews" phenomenom would eventually come a full circle. The idea that the entire idea of a "Jew" is a myth is hardly new -- anyone who has seen a "Black Israelite" on a street corner is familiar with the trope, but it has gotten some new life recently with the publication of Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People. Sand, a professor of modern French history and film studies, contends that the entire idea of a "Jewish people" is a myth invented towards the end of the 19th century as part of the Zionist enterprise. He further argues that (Ashkenazi) Jews are not descended from people who left modern Israel in the Roman era, but rather are descendants of Khazars (a long-gone kingdom in modern Russia).

One thing that is often remarked upon about anti-Zionist discourse is how it takes attributes that apply to nation-states generally and ascribes a uniqueness (or at least a special virulence) to them when applied to the Jewish state in particular. With Sand's argument we see much the same thing, but applied to the concept of "nations" more broadly. The idea of a "nation" as an "imagined community", whose bonds are constituted intersubjectively rather than representative of some eternal and pure blood tie, is not exactly revolutionary in the field. And that the idea of Jewishness as a nation in the modern sense didn't begin to form until the 19th century too, wouldn't be surprising -- the concept of nations in their modern form didn't begin to emerge until the 19th century. Jewish "peoplehood" was in all probability no more or less developed than those of other peoples across history; but that doesn't make it fake (then or now).

The very, very elementary mistake some people draw from this is that, because the origin story is partially mythological, the community is a fiction. We decide what ties bind us. None of them, in all likelihood, translate into any sort of eternal, transhistorical truth -- an observation that has no bearing on their validity. It's how people screw up social constructivism more generally -- "socially constructed" is not a synonym for "fake." Most important elements of our lives are socially constructed, that doesn't make them any less real.

Nor does it particularly matter whether any individual Jewish person can individually trace their bloodlines to someone who lived in Jerusalem in 259 B.C.E. Let's say Sand is 100% right that modern Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Khazars, who were converted by Jewish missionaries from the Holy Land. To assert that this makes anybody any less Jewish or any more disconnected from a historical or Bible-era Jewish people requires us to say that only way to be "truly" part of a people is to descend via bloodline. But that's (a) not true and (b) not something Jews have ever believed. Descent can make one a member of the tribe, but it doesn't make one any more of a member than a convert. In this, one can say that Jewish identity reached a modern (or perhaps post-modern) form ahead of the curve -- our conception of peoplehood was less predicated on a literal chain of "who begats", and instead embraced the idea of created a community and nation out of shared intersubjective bonds and commonalities of creed. Not only is this not an illegitimate form of social organization, nominally it would seem to be superior to assertions that are quite literally based off ethnic essentialism.

The normative argument Sand wants to make -- undermining the "reality" of a Jewish people and its connection to Israel by way of genetics -- is something I've criticized before (and criticized when it is applied to Palestinians, who also are accosted with charges that they are johnny-come-latelys to the territories):
I hate this. I hate this in all of its forms. I hate it when folks try and tell me that Jews don't really belong in the Middle East because they actually descend from Khazars. I hate it when people argue that Palestinians aren't a "real" people because they didn't have national ambitions until relatively recently. I hate it when Israelis are accosted as inauthentic because they have the "wrong" eye color. I hate it when people seem to think this entire conflict is properly resolved via an impossible historical inquiry into who got to the Holy Land "the firstest with the mostest".

It all just strikes me as incredibly primitive -- based on old-school notions of ancestral ties and bloodrights and purity that have no place in modern discussions. I'm a Levi, so I assume I descend from relatively deep Israelite strands. But who knows -- maybe there are some European converts in my family tree. So what? And if some persons with African blood identify as Palestinian and are so recognized by the Palestinian community -- good for them! It is sordid business, this attempt to police each other's racial authenticity for our own transparently political ends.
And that's the problem here. There is an ongoing debate over the genealogy of Ashkenazi Jews (a debate with far more qualified participants than professors of modern French history, I might add), but to assert that it resolves any claims regarding the legitimacy of a Jewish state requires us to believe in some very retrograde notions of statedom -- that they really are and must be predicated on purity of blood and bloodline and a belief that this volk is eternally tied to this soil. The problem being that nobody believes that, and claims of that sort have long since ceased to be necessary for the maintenance of a national identity.

The bizarre summation of Sand's normative attack is that the only legitimate identities are those actually based on historically verifiable racial purity; Jews actually comprise a variety of ethnicities who may or may not share blood ties with ancestral Jews, therefore, Jewishness is a falsehood. To state that argument is to refute it: all identities are socially constructed, and that fact does not falsify the identity to anyone but someone more enamored of old-school racist ideologies than I think Sand would prefer to admit.

Sorry, SCOTUS: Pixie Needs Me

Something about this I find absolutely hilarious. Judge Richard Posner was asked about the possibility of serving on the Supreme Court. After noting he was probably too old, he also stated that he thought the Supreme Court wasn't "a real court" because of its selective docket and overly politicized nature. Moreover, with its limited case load it doesn't give the justices sufficient opportunity to write. But the most important barrier to seeing Justice Posner is ... his cat Pixie:
Posner also reveals in the interview that he works from home at least half the time, and one reason is his cat, Pixie. “I’m a very big cat person,” Posner says. Pixie is affectionate and "her little face falls" if Posner or his wife leaves the house. "The cat wants us at home," he says.
I don't know why that paragraph cracks me up, but it does.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Let's Get Ready to Humble!

I was thinking about Michael Buffer's famous line, said before boxing matches around the world -- "Let's get ready to RUMBLE!" It is an iconic phrase -- possibly one of the most iconic in the world. Everybody knows it, even if you've never seen a boxing match.

Buffer is getting on in years, and eventually (hopefully not too soon) he'll die. And when that happens, the phrase will die with him -- not just in the sense that nobody will say it, but it's massive cultural penetration will rapidly become almost unintelligible. In 100 years, not only will nobody remember that phrase, but if they stumble on a historical artifact which references it, they'll have no idea what it means (culturally -- literally speaking, they could probably parse it out). Even if a historian did happen to be familiar with it, how would he explain it in terms of its incredible global reach? For something so ubiquitous, it really has no substance behind it whatsoever -- it's just a neat phrase, said in a neat way, that people around the world associate with the start of the fight.

This sounds a bit maudlin, and I don't mean it to be -- I actually think it is kind of neat that as a species we have managed to unify behind something as shallow and ridiculous as this. But it was a strange thought to have, and what is the purpose of having a blog if you can't share strange thoughts?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


I'm assuming the Post will be apologizing for Richard Cohen shortly?
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.
A different sort of gag might be appropriate for Richard Cohen when he thinks he wants to talk about race.

Also, his assessment of current "convention"

Monday, November 11, 2013

What Was Needed Was More Gunfire

The tragic story of a shooting spree at a Texas party that left two teenagers dead is precisely why I don't understand the "more guns will keep us safer" argument. The short version of what happened at the party is that some idiot decided to fire off his gun into the air "in a celebratory fashion." Someone else took that as a threat, and fired into the crowd (presumably in the direction of the original shooter). In the ensuing chaos, two innocent people were killed.

That was bad enough. But imagine there were six armed people there, or twelve. And they don't necessarily know each other, and they see other people pulling out guns and firing, and they have no way of knowing who are the bad guys. And so the whole party massacres itself.

Real life, particularly in a civilian mass shooting situation, isn't like Call of Duty. There are no uniforms and nothing glows red when you target an enemy. What more guns means in this situation is more chaos and a situation where not even the cops can tell who is a threat and who is trying to "help".