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ZOA response to my ‘irresponsible’ op-ed: I am ‘young and inexperienced,’ my writing ‘amateurish’

Crossposted to New Voices and Jewschool

Not to get too overwrought, but here’s my blog post in response to a Zionist Organization of America press release in response to my JTA op-ed in response to their JTA op-ed. Throughout the press release, notice how many of my points are avoided by going on an ad hominem rampage against me.

NEW YORK, May 1 — David Wilensky’s op-ed on “the correct use of Title VI” (Apr. 27, 2012) was an amateurish attempt to condemn an important new legal tool for Jewish students who are now protected from anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.  He claims that the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) – which spearheaded the effort to achieve this civil rights protection – is misusing Title VI “to stifle legitimate discourse” and as a “bludgeon” to advance “far-right political viewpoints.”  These ridiculous charges are baseless.  Wilensky cites no evidence for his claims, merely engaging in silly name-calling.

I don’t know where they got “‘the correct use of Title VI'” from, but it doesn’t appear anywhere on the version of it on the JTA website. Given that they got the date wrong by about week (it was published on 4/18, not 4/27), I’m gonna guess that the mystery phrasing and the incorrect date were taken from the publication date and headline that accompanied my op-ed in one of the local Jewish papers that runs JTA material on about a one-week delay. (I could take a cheap shot at the ZOA for being so web incompetent that they don’t have a Google alert set up for the name of their own organization, but that would be “silly name-calling.”)

Speaking of which, can anyone point me to the part of my op-ed where I engage in “name-calling” of any sort — “silly” or otherwise? (Rest assured, when I do engage in name-calling I take it quite seriously.)

As for my writing being “amateurish,” I guess the “-ish” suffix lends that some validity as an opinion. As it turns out, I make my living doing this writing thing so I’m technically the opposite of an amateur. I hasten to point out that Klein and Tuchman are the amateurs here. I don’t know much about Tuchman, but she’s lawyer. Klein on the other hand is a well-known pillar of the professional reactionary community. I don’t think much of this screed, but since I’m no professional paranoia-peddler, I’ll refrain from passing judgement on its level of amateurishness.

The ZOA has never used Title VI to stifle free speech or to advance a particular political viewpoint. We have called on university leaders to exercise their own First Amendment rights and publicly condemn speakers and programs that demonize Jews, compare Jews to Nazis, and call for the destruction of the Jewish State of Israel – all of which is anti-Semitism according to U.S. government standards.

The claim that the ZOA is capable of taking any action that is not designed to advance their political viewpoint is suspect. That’s not a criticism, but a recognition of the ZOA’s purpose. Advancing a particular viewpoint is just what they do.

The ZOA has also called on university leaders to enforce their own rules. Thus, when a Jewish student is physically threatened or assaulted, the wrongdoers must be held accountable and punished. Contrary to Wilensky’s nonsensical accusations, Title VI is all about protecting Jews and ensuring them a campus environment that’s physically and emotionally safe and conducive to learning.

Things are not so simple. There are dissenting opinions in all of the cases I’ve read about. Notice how Klein and Tuchman are unable to address the fact that all of the Title VI complaints filed on behalf of Jews at the college level have been unsuccessful so far. They’ll get no disagreement from me about punishing people who threaten and assault Jews; where we differ is which attacks on Jews qualify as anti-Semitic.

Notice how Klein and Tuchman went for a salt shaker of fun adjectives to spice up their writing. Too bad they didn’t give much thought to their meanings. There are so many negative adjectives that would have done swell job here, but their choice of “nonsensical” is just… (I hate to do this) nonsensical.

A dozen national Jewish organizations across the political and religious spectrums have supported the ZOA’s Title VI efforts, so that Jewish students would be afforded the same legal protections that other minority groups have had for almost 50 years. They joined the ZOA in a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Education, urging that Title VI be enforced to protect Jewish students.

Forty Members of Congress, including 31 liberal Democrats, also sent a letter to the Education Secretary, expressing concern about campus anti-Semitism and urging that Title VI be enforced to protect Jewish students.

Notice how they ignore the parts of the op-ed where I agree with them that this is not only a positive development, but point out ways in which it has already been used admirably and successfully.

Wilensky is young and inexperienced.

Despite all of the “silly name-calling” Klein engages in here, despite the personal nature of his attacks on me in this press release, marvel at my restraint in not pointing out that he is the old and out of touch yin to my “young and inexperienced” yang.

Hopefully he will learn that fighting anti-Semitic bigotry on campus is not a “right wing” or “left wing” issue.

I always try to be full of hope when I learn things. By the same token, I hope that Klein and Tuchman will learn to understand the arguments of those they disagree with a little better. A close (and by close I mean ordinary) reading of my op-ed will reveal that I don’t think fighting anti-Semitism is a right-wing or left-wing issue, but that the ZOA’s misuse of that fight is a tactic designed to advance their political cause.

The ZOA is proudly doing the same kind of work that other civil rights groups do, such as the ACLU and the NAACP.

Don’t flatter yourselves.

We filed a Title VI action against the University of California, Irvine, where Jewish students were physically threatened and assaulted. Recently, we filed a Title VI action against Rutgers University, where a Jewish student was physically threatened by other students and even by a university official!

Again, the facts in some of these cases are not as settled as Klein and Tuchman make them out to be. In some cases they are, but it’s still not clear that doing anything to anyone because of their stance in Israel is covered under Title VI; so far there is nothing to indicate that the Office of Civil Rights sees it as such.

There’s little doubt that Wilensky would support legal efforts by the ACLU or the NAACP to address the Irvine and Rutgers situations if African Americans were the victims.

Not that they’re putting words in my mouth or anything.

Here’s the issue: If an African American on campus is attacked because they’re an African American, that is racism and that is covered under Title VI. If a Jew is attacked because they are a Jew, that is anti-Semitism and that is now covered under Title VI as well. But if the same attackers would welcome a non-Zionist Jew into their fold (a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace, for example), that’s different. An attack on an Israel-related campus event is anti-Israel, while an attack on religious service is anti-Semitic. There’s a big difference.

It’s sad, shameful and embarrassing that Wilensky is so critical of these efforts on behalf of his own people.

Morton A. Klein
National President
Susan B. Tuchman, Esq.
Director, Center for Law and Justice
Zionist Organization of America
4 East 34th Street
New York, NY 10016

Cry me a river.

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Don’t just rewrite ‘Hatikvah.’ Go further.

Crossposted to Jewschool

I tip my hat to Philologos, the pseudonymous author of the Forward’s language column, for two reasons:

  1. In a recent column, he cited a column he wrote in 1998 about an incident in which an Arab Israeli member of the national soccer team declined to sing “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. In ’98, he wrote that it sucks for Arab Israelis and that he understood their reluctance to sing it. But in ’98 he concluded that there was no way around it. In this more recent column, he admits that he was wrong and….
  2. In this one he reacts to the recent silence of Salim Joubran during the singing of the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” by going further than the other commentaries I’ve read on the incident; Philologos went so far as to make specific suggestions about how the song could be changed.

So bravo to you, Philologos for admitting you were wrong and for making some nicely conceived suggestions for rectifying the problem of “Hatikvah.”

And with that, let me explain why he’s still wrong this time. As identified by Philologos, the basic problem with “Hatikvah” is contained in this rhetorical: “How, really, can one expect an Israeli Arab to sing about a Jew’s soul stirring for his country?” But I’d go one step further: How can one expect a group with an equally valid claim on the land to sing a national anthem that is a clearly not just an Israeli song, but a Jewish song?

He concludes that “Hativkah” should not “be abandoned for another anthem, or sung to the same tune with new words” because “there’s not point in accommodating the feelings of Arabs by trampling on the feelings of Jews.” Again, I’d go even further, but we’ll come back to that. First, Philologos’ specific problems with “Hatikvah”:

  1. the word yehudi (Jew) in the first stanza;
  2. the word tziyon (Zion), also in the fist stanza — he points out that this word is uncomfortably close to tziyonut (Zionism), but I’d add that it’s also a term fraught with Jewish religious symbolism);
  3. in the second stanza, “That leaves us with… no Arab ever having yearned 2,000 years for Palestine”;
  4. and another appearance of the word tziyon, also in the second stanza.

If we accept his premise that the song should stay, receiving only minor textual alterations, these four are indeed the chief problems. I’d add a fifth: The geographical perspective of the song is distinctly western, since it refers to Israel as “the margins of the east.” That sweeps the Arab perspective under the rug and takes the perspective of Israel’s various African and Middle Eastern Jewish minorities right along with it.

In other words, the problem is not a few words, but the entire origin of the song. It is not an Israeli song, but a Jewish song. And it’s not simply Jewish, but Ashkenazi. I had never noticed the syllabic emphasis before, but Philologos points out that even in contemporary Israel the emphasis falls on the penultimate syllable as if the singers all spoke Ashkenazi Hebrew. (The pronunciation and syllabic emphasis of Sephardi Hebrew is the way Hebrew is spoken in Israeli society today.)

To solve the four problems he identifies, Philologos proposes these solutions, all of which he convincingly argues will fit the existing melody just fine (though he doesn’t go into whether they would fit into the existing Arabic lyrics, which seems to be a glaring omission):

  1. Replace yehudi  with yisra’eli (Israeli).
  2. Replace the first instance of tziyon (as le’tziyon) with le’artzeinu.
  3. Restore the original words written by poet Naphtali Herz Imber for the penultimate line so that “hatikvah hanoshana” (“Our ancient hope”) re-replaces “hatikvah bat shnot alpayim” (“Our 2,000-year-old hope.”)
  4. And restore the original words for the last line of the second stanza so that “b’ir ba David, David chana” (“In the city in which David, in which David encamped”) re-replaces “be’eretz tziyon ve’yerushalayim.”

For reasons that aren’t unclear, when he unveils his complete revised version of the second stanza at the end of the column, he has made on additional change. In the current version “lihiyot am chofshi be’artzeinu” (“To be a free people in our land”) replaces the original line, “lashuv le’eretz avoteinu” (“To return to the land of our fathers.”) Philologos restores avoteinu from the original so that (including the original and the current with strikethroughs) he ends up with:

Od lo avda tikvateinu
Hatikvah hanoshana bat shnot alpayim hanoshana
Lashuv le’eretz avoteinu Lihiyot am chofshi be’artzeinu be’eretz avoteinu
B’ir ba David, David chana Be’eretz tziyon ve’yerushalayim B’ir ba David, David chana

So replace yehudi with yisra’eli — fine. But the rest of his suggestions leave something to be desired. The situation doesn’t call for a of generic recognition of Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis. To rewrite this song so that each word is equally appropriate for both groups leaves both dissatisfied, exactly the problem that Philologos worries about when he talks about “accommodating the feelings of Arabs by trampling on the feelings of Jews.” Instead, revise to song so that it recognizes the two peoples on equal footing.

For example, tziyon doesn’t have to get the boot entirely. But why not acknowledge both Arab and Jewish terms for the land? “Tziyon veQuds,” maybe? (I have no idea if that makes any sense, nor do I have a strong sense of all of the implications of Quds for all parties is, but you see my point.)

Philologos suggests that one virtue of restoring the line about David is that “David, after all, belongs to Christian and Muslim traditions too.” Indeed, but he does not belong to the Christian and Muslim imaginations the way he does to the Jewish imagination. Further, he is the first Jew to conquer the city of Jerusalem. If he is to be the only individual to make an appearance in the song, perhaps he’s not the best choice. However, what if the song cited Jerusalem as the city where David encamped and the city to which Mohamed journeyed or the city where he ascended?

Perhaps these suggestions — Philologos’ and mine — are flights of fancy, but every proposed improvement to the situation in Israel and Palestine sounds fanciful these days. My truest, loftiest hope for Israel’s national anthem is even more fanciful: Do away with it altogether, this Jewish song, with it’s European tune, pronounced in a dead accent no one truly speaks in anymore. Get an Israeli song, something that recognizes the distinct and different yearnings of these two peoples, something with a mix of Hebrew and Arabic lyrics (or at least teach everyone both versions, like the Canadians).

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