From Helen to Hellenism: All You Need is Love

Jun 28th, 2010

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Right. Let’s get down to business. There is a comment on my Helen Thomas response to which I’d like to devote some significant attention, even though I had wanted to leave the piece behind and move on to some other topic for a bit. No such luck.

If you will recall, my premise in that post was that the anti-Zionism expressed by Thomas was in fact very lightly veiled anti-Semitism, the kind that has been haunting Jews since the beginning of history. My response indicated that despite enormous odds – centuries’ worth of forced wandering and being weeded out one way or another – the Jews have not only survived, but have become among the most productive members of any society that has agreed to host them. And that now, with Israel, merely a new incarnation of a very old homeland, we were done wandering and being hosted.

Several readers of this blog and the many others on which the piece was re-posted – Jews and non-Jews alike – took exception to the assumption that anti-Semitism was ‘the default’. Why so divisive, they wanted to know? Why so suspicious and alarmist? Don’t you realize how insulting this piece was to the many non-Jews who most expressly do not feel this way? Why can’t we ignore the old Press Room Bat and move on, one big, happy human family?

The best of these objections follows here, from one North American David:

“…Good G_d… I can almost feel the spiteful, juvenile relish through the screen. What are you doing Sara? You excitedly take a 90 year old’s senior moment as proof of the “default antisemitism” that lurks underneath every Gentile? You take this sad woman’s shameful remarks as an excuse for a smug rant about Jewish history so incoherent and uninformed that any self respecting Rabbi would cringe to hear it?

Don’t you see that by cheerfully portraying history, the world, the UN, etc, etc, etc as the eternal Jewish enemy you are simply becoming the caricature that antisemites talk about? That your belief in this sort of Jewish exceptionalism (the eternal, moral, misunderstood victim) only reinforces the narrative that Israel so deeply needs to escape in order to achieve true peace?

“We, we, we, we, we”…. Sara, true grace lies beyond the “us” and “them” duality that you so ardently perpetuate as a journalist in search of conflict. Take a deep breath, and stop chaining yourself to this vicious tribal cartography that so many use as a crutch in order to avoid facing the original, timeless truth. There is a far greater “we”.

Oh, David. Where do I begin? As to your first, rather ad-hominem, paragraph: There was no spite or relish or cheer; if you detected passion, it was borne of a deep sadness, coupled with the determination not to disappear. (And *maybe* I was a little pissed off.) That the history was simplistic I will not dispute; writing for popular audiences with the goal of producing a clear message precluded anything more complicated. I agree, I could have filled in a lot more blanks, honed the words for 100% accuracy.

As to your cringing rabbis: I suppose, as the ever-sexy Bill Clinton might say, that depends on how you define ‘rabbi’. I’ve been contacted by some of them asking for permission to forward or reprint the piece for their congregations. (No, not all Orthodox rabbis. Thanks for asking, though.)

Also, by the way, a large majority of the non-Jews I’ve encountered since writing the ‘rant’ understood that I was *not* trying to insult or accuse the good citizens of the world, only call on the carpet those whose sentiments veer towards the Thomasian.

Far from being a ‘senior moment’, Thomas’s unfortunate public words followed a long career of barely restrained, barely private venom, in which she was, most regrettably, not nearly alone. Indeed, I’ve had more than a few readers agree with her sentiments on this site, and other blog pages.

I’ve also gotten private responses from Jewish readers who endured days of hostile, vocal Thomas support in offices throughout the US and Canada, and felt they could say nothing in response. Part of the viral-ity (and virility?) of the piece, I believe, stems from a widespread feeling of being un-free to speak up as an ethnically identifying Jew in a politically correct world. With all of the freedom of speech that America and the West have in Costco quantities, it seems to only extend to certain types of speech.

This brings me, brother David (for we are all brothers, are we not?), to the crux of your complaint. Why, you wonder, do we not just dissolve our salty selves into the Great Sea of Man? Imagine – no countries! No religion! Why all the – oh, please let me savor this shaved-ice phrase again – “vicious tribal cartography” that deeply identified Jews so forcefully engrave upon the enlightened, blind-to-race world? Why, you ask, the ugly, Shylockian “we, we, we, we, we”? Why not join the collective, the universal, the mythic, theTimelessOriginalSpiritofHumanity? Breaaaaaaathe. Isn’t that better?

Well, honestly…the buzz is not bad. (Pufff.) But there’s kind of a nasty edge to it, some toxicity. And I’ll tell you why: Because nearly every time I have ever heard this argument made by a liberal in more than a general, utopian sense – this need to blend and melt into the brotherhood of man – it is directed specifically at Jews, and usually by other Jews.

I have rarely encountered this ecumenism applied, say, to the over-exclusivity of the African American return to African roots, or to Spanish speakers in Florida or New York being deemed “too Latino,” or to the popular Muslim return to the veil. If you walk through New York City or Boston or Miami, you will find little pockets of China and Pakistan and Puerto Rico.

Not melting or blending, but full on ethnic – and guess what? Assuming citizens pay taxes and fall in line with the rule of law and with democratic values, I think that’s just great. This – although I’m not in general a slave to PC or even a fan, really – happens to be the politically correct thing to think. Embracing multiculturalism is a liberal value I can get behind. Until here, I’m on board your love train.

I know this embrace makes me part company with many conservatives (with whom I agree on other matters), who indeed often express the wish for all of the above groups to just finish their merge into the great highway that is America, and quit driving in multiple lanes. While I share this concern for loyalty to American interests and ideals, I am not convinced that this commitment to common Western values can’t take place even while an individual embraces his ethnicity.

The dialectic between being who you really are and remaining a good, devoted, productive, contributing citizen of the place you live is not beyond the grasp of humanity. I see it all the time. With some willingness to compromise and also to work hard (no free rides!), no one needs to get lost, and no one needs to feel threatened or taken advantage of. If no such compromise is possible with the culture or religion in question, the problem takes on another dimension altogether. This is in fact a great litmus test.

But it seems that for most liberals, when a Jew gets too Jewish, too proud of his or her roots, too involved in the often tragic Jewish narrative, too ethnically Jew-y, we hear cries, like yours, of “exceptionalism,” usually tinged with some amount of embarrassed disgust.

Does political correctness mean Jewish people, most of whom also happen to be white or whitish people, don’t get to grapple with their past or embrace their race? Do we have to fly under the culturally aesthetic radar, virtually disappearing as a nation with laws, customs, and a history, in order to be accepted by you? This, indeed, is what the Hellenists wanted two millennia ago, and what the Helen apologists seem to want today.

There’s another other fascinating and frustrating thing going on here. Very often, what makes something OK to say is that the racial entity in question is willing to say the same thing about themselves. This rule, too, stands at the cornerstone of political correctness. This means, of course, that Jews, who thrive on self-deprecation, guilt, and all manner of public introspective angst, are truly open targets.

So the same honesty, open dialogue, and striving for self improvement that I love, and that are the hallmarks of democratic and Jewish thought (and seem to be anathema, by the way, to radical Islamic and Pan-Arab thought), are turned around on us rather maliciously. We debate our own Particularism vs. Universalism rather vociferously all the time; this is in fact one of the central debates raging in Israeli society as we speak. But then we are reminded that perhaps we should pipe down, because never is there a self critique that goes un-echoed through the chambers of the world. Ooops. There I go again, me and my paranoia.

In any event, back to the melting pot and the vast inclusive WE. Personally, I prefer to see humanity not as a soup but as a puzzle, with a million different and highly individualized, multicolored pieces that fit together to make the whole picture. Each piece is of equal importance, and each maintains its integrity – its own shape and color do not change – but it also makes no sense alone. You need all of the pieces.

While I enjoy being a colorful member of the colorful world and interacting with a lot of different kinds of people, I do not want to have to dissolve – to essentially get lost or watered down as a Jew, whether de facto or de jure – in order to be considered a loving, universal human being. I want to be able to embrace our racial specialness, as everyone should be able to do, and also to speak honestly about our largely troubled past, and about our recent victories in wars we never wanted to fight, without offending or embarrassing anyone. Of course, while remaining a loyal and productive citizen of the western world.

I think this is a realistic desire, but requires the tough empirical truths about a culture’s ultimate goals to hold more water than party-line ideologies.

David, all you need is love. Tru dat. It’s a Jewish value, too, alongside justice and continuity. So I have an idea. Go bring your ‘melt into each other’ message to places like Beirut and Kabul, Damascus and Ankara, Tehran and Khartoum, where the cynical, corrupt, and largely evil leaders of oppressed millions need to hear it even more than I did.

Then, if they leave you any limbs, please don’t forget to write and tell me how it went.


PS – Happy Anniversary to my Main Man D! Today’s post was supposed to be about marriage, but you know how I tend to get sidetracked….

Readers – I promise, I am not a single-issue girl. Next post: Not so heavy, I hope.

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  1. 21 Responses to “From Helen to Hellenism: All You Need is Love”

  2. Are you familiar with “Imagine: On Love and Lennon” by Ze’ev Maghen?
    Full English version:
    Full Hebrew version:
    Very worthwhile read along similar lines. Also ties in to Love and Marriage.
    Happy Anniversary.

    By Shimon on Jun 29, 2010

  3. Bravo, S! This is an amazing follow-up to the original Helen Thomas piece. Once again, you have been able to put into words that which we are all thinking yet cannot figure out how (or don’t dare) to formulate ourselves. It is OK to be a single-issue girl when that single issue is humanity.

    By Your Bro on Jun 29, 2010

  4. Sara, as always, a fascinating read. Happy anniversary!

    By Rachel Inbar on Jun 29, 2010

  5. What a clever riff you write. Good response.

    By Dave on Jun 29, 2010

  6. Sara-

    Thanks again for having the intelligence, wit, desire and patience to respond in such an honest and clear way. Jews are always told to stop seperating themselves and blend in to the other. Aside from the fact that as you so eloquently stated, it is our right to remain who we are, look what has happened every time we did ‘melt into the other’. We Jews thought ourselves the same as the masses we lived with and when things went south, we were once again (or still) ‘those Jews’.
    Ask Persian Jews under Achashverosh,Dreyfus, the Conversos or any Jew in Europe in the 30s how far their blending got them.
    Far from being told to blend in we should be telling one another to be proud of who we are and to respect everyone else for who they are (well, terrorists and racists aside :) .

    By Shoshanna on Jun 29, 2010

  7. When John Lennon included the phrase “no religion too” in Imagine (one of the best songs ever written), he was simply being an empiricist. Throughout history, religion has caused a tremendous amount of cruelty and suffering.

    Does that mean that I think that the only flavor of human beings should be vanilla?
    No, but it puts the onus on those of us who consider ourselves religious to prove that even a Beatle can sometimes be wrong.

    Given the kind of hatred that is so commonly found among followers of a wide variety of religions throughout the world, including among Orthodox Jews in Israel, we have a lot of work to do to show that the good stemming from religious commitment outweighs the bad.

    By Turilli Chapin on Jun 29, 2010

  8. You better believe it TC. Being a moderate religious person was never an easy thing and some days I seriously want to throw in the towel. The only thing that keeps me going is the hope that if there are enough of us behaving well, we can mitigate some of the damage of the ones who make religion look ridiculous or do evil in its name. In tribal lingo it’s called making a Kiddush Hashem – sanctifying God’s name. Of course, there are many crazies who claim to be doing the same thing…so I try not to throw that one around too much.

    By Sara K. Eisen on Jun 29, 2010

  9. Yes, moderation is my golden rule.

    I think it was the Rambam who said something like, good is not on one side and evil on the other, no! good is in the middle and evil is on both sides.
    It seems that the ultra orthodox these days are competing in how frum they can be, the more the better, leading to frum idiots and of course, straight to extremism. However, it is not fair to compare the ultra orthodox to Muslim extremists. They aren’t terrorists.
    And really the greatest extremists and the greatest evil in the last few generations was the antithesis of religious, i.e. the Nazis.

    By Diana Barshaw on Jun 29, 2010

  10. Tx Shimon – great minds think alike!! I linked to that exact article about 6 paragraphs from the end in this post. !!!

    By Sara K. Eisen on Jun 29, 2010

  11. Again, Sara, another winner. I completely agree that we should all take pride of our cultural diversity with mutual respect for one another.

    Best regards…and happy anniversary!
    Mohammend Al Rahbi

    By Mohammed from Muscat, Oman on Jun 30, 2010

  12. You, and perhaps your readers, might be interested to learn that I received your essay addressing Helen Thomas’ comment from a practicing Catholic. Also a Canadian. Perhaps the world is watching this with more interest than we know.

    By David Dornbusch on Jun 30, 2010

  13. I found your blog by accident, having received your letter to Helen from a friend (which, by the way, was the best one of many that I read in all of this Helen mishugas).
    I am so very impressed with your clear thinking, your ability to express so well what most of us are thinking, and your clear devotion to k’lal Yisrael.
    I am looking forward to more such writing. I can always hope that no one will inspire you to write more of the same, but that is not a hope borne out by history.

    By Francine Weistrop on Jul 1, 2010

  14. Hey Sara, happy anniversary- I appreciate the response, although my comment on your previous article was not strictly about “breaching the frontier of selfhood” but rather the need for occasional breathing space from one’s ethnic identity. Otherwise, there’s a danger of identifying so deeply with its narrative that one starts holding anachronistic personal grudges against Romans and Spaniards. This is an especially easy attitude to adopt within Israel, where the ritualization of memory makes historical time (and all its fears and foes) feel more contemporary than in most other countries. Needless to say, this can lead to a stifling atmosphere where Jews feel the entire world will always be ready to besiege them (aka Masada syndrome).

    Your article here touches all kinds of interesting issues, particularly the challenge of reconciling ethnic solidarity with global perspective. Culture, especially language and religion, is essentially a shared territory of meaning; the danger is when one forgets that their nation’s narrative is just a particular articulation of the greater universal “grammar” of human nature. That doesn’t mean ethnicity is irrelevant: contrary to your critical Hellenic title, Herodotus himself famously observed that, when asked to choose the best customs in the world, any individual would naturally select that of their own nation. But it is always important to not idolize identity to the point where it dulls empathy towards others. The golden mean, right? All right, enough with the Greeks.

    This appreciation of archetypes is especially relevant to Judaism, which contributed so heavily in the historical shift from idols to ideals dating all the way back to Ancient Egypt. Your faith’s triumph of timeless universals over rigid particulars makes the current political fetishization of geography seem even more petty. Whether it’s the Orthodox settlers illegally driving Arabs from their homes, or Helen Thomas suggesting that Israeli Jews leave theirs, these people are viewing the Other through a dehumanizing shorthand. If religion (and Jung) taught us anything, it’s to make the effort (and it can be an effort) of seeing the opposing party as human.

    Speaking of which, I have already been to Damascus and Ankara, limbs intact, and there’s pretty much the same ratio of goodwill and ignorance on the street there as in any major capitals. But, come on, you wouldn’t have to teach anyone in Syria about hospitality: when the locals invite you somewhere with “Ahlan wa sahlan”, they really mean it (and many will quietly admit they’re as fed up with Assad as most of the outside world). The biggest obstacle to more empathy there is the acquiescence of governments to a hostile status quo over the real long-term stability the land deserves.

    By David on Jul 1, 2010

  15. I like the turn of phrase: idols to ideals. Didn’t so much like: fetishization of geography. But I can see why people think that. It’s just that the majority of the world can not live in their heads like Western intellectuals can. They need houses. :) And generally, it matters to the average guy that said house is in a place where he has either a history or family or feels some sort of backward and forward reaching destiny.

    This Western concept of living anywhere with a clean slate and looking only forward is strange to billios of people, and I’m not sure this self made man with no past thing is working out too well for the West, either. Time will tell. (Not that I’m talking about any particular self made man with no past, mind you.)

    I’m with you all the way on the empathy thing.

    I feel like we’d have great arguments over coffee. Thanks for writing back!

    By Sara K. Eisen on Jul 1, 2010

  16. David-

    Re: the historical shift from idols to ideals

    I think it hasn’t necessary shifted so far. Many worship their ideals as blindly as they once worshipped their idols: to the extent that the ‘ideals’ replace logic, thought and humanity.

    Aside from the many historical examples of communal worship of ideals over individuals- communism and Naszi’im to name a few choice ones- Jihadism to name a current one, many individuals and groups worship their ideals without thinking or using context.

    So, you have wealthy American women from LA on a Flotilla to support Hamas which is an oppressive, sexist terrorist (to their own as well regime. There is no thought there.

    In all woship there must be rational thought, discourse and discretion. Ours is unique in that it demands it.

    By Shoshanna on Jul 2, 2010

  17. I agree with Shoshanna! Many “ideals” are the new idols. Judaism’s precept against idol worship is as relevant today as it ever was.

    By Diana Barshaw on Jul 2, 2010

  18. I agree…Just make sure this sentiment goes both ways, and applies all around. Our people sometimes cross this line as well.

    By Sara K. Eisen on Jul 2, 2010

  19. Thats why I wrote “In all woship there must be rational thought, discourse and discretion. Ours is unique in that it demands it.”

    We live in extreme times and many do not follow the dictate to think- rather they follow blindly the false idolatry of ideals.

    I live in an area with a large concentration of ‘our people’ who worship their ideals and do not bother an iota with thought for people, consequences or rationale.

    So yes, it holds to all. Each and every human being needs to balance thought, ideals and consequences of action within the context of reality -as it is- not as we want it to be.

    By Shoshanna on Jul 2, 2010

  20. I couldn’t agree more, I don’t want to name names right now so close to Shabbat, but there are most definitely those among us who worship idols no better than the golden calf, – worship rabbis, worship money, I think there are even some who put Kashrut before God.

    On other matters there a few things that David said that make me fume. For example,
    “Your faith’s triumph of timeless universals over rigid particulars”, and “the ritualization of memory” (in a negative way) and “fetishization of geography”
    Judaism is so much more complex. No NOT a triumph of universal over particular, instead an amazing mix of the two where BOTH are given importance. And yes we do remember everything! That is one of our secret weapons, that is one reason why we’re still here. And as for the making a fetish of geography statement… Sara I wish you would write a blog about that one, because I can’t adequately tear it to shreds in a comment.
    Shabbat Shalom to everyone!

    By Diana Barshaw on Jul 2, 2010

  21. Diana, the universal/particular philosophical distinction was used to highlight the historical context within which Judaism developed. Its monotheism stressed the timeless, spaceless universality of God more than most other ancient belief systems, and rejected the traditional particular representations of divinity (such as physical pagan idols). This sort of respect for the abstract ideal (whose values should guide us in our real, physical world) was largely inherited by Christianity and Islam, and became a key part of their international appeal.

    That’s why the continuing modern conflict over particular land, objects, and geography is so antithetical to the original spirit of the Abrahamic faiths. Homelands and territories are important to any nation, absolutely, but there comes a point where the nation’s values, ideals, and people matter more than any particular piece of earth. In other words, the Heavenly Jerusalem should not be confused with the actual physical city. As with everything else, you have to strike a balance between the two.

    By David on Jul 3, 2010

  22. Here’s what David said:
    “That’s why the continuing modern conflict over particular land, objects, and geography is so antithetical to the original spirit of the Abrahamic faiths. Homelands and territories are important to any nation, absolutely, but there comes a point where the nation’s values, ideals, and people matter more than any particular piece of earth. In other words, the Heavenly Jerusalem should not be confused with the actual physical city. As with everything else, you have to strike a balance between the two.”

    In your opinion, what is the original spirit of the Abrahamic faiths?
    Perhaps your answer to that question would be something like what Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn” Secular humanists look at the first part of the quote and forget about the second part, i.e. go and learn the Torah, but OK lets look at that first part.

    What are the most hateful things that could happen to you? Wouldn’t it be pretty high on you list of hateful if there was no nation that shared your values, ideals, and people? Then you would be forced to be a guest in someone else’s nation with different values and ideals? Would you be willing to fight for a ‘particular piece of earth’ where you could practice your ideals without worry that they would be made illegal? Maybe that seems far fetched, but that was the situation for my people before we returned to Israel. Even now there are an increasing number of so called enlightened western nations where kosher slaughter is illegal, soon it might be circumcision that is banned. We only have the right to one really small ‘piece of earth’ where we can live as the masters of our fate.

    The amazing part of this story, and probably one of the reasons that we’ve been successful is that from the very beginning we’ve been willing to share and compromise. We said yes to the Peel commission on partition in 1936, we said yes to partition in 1948, and still now we are willing to share the land. Please understand, we’re willing to share this tiny land, but not to commit suicide.

    So please don’t lecture us about making the land a fetish! And please don’t lecture us about thinking more about land, objects, and geography than the ideals of our faith! That lecture needs to go to some other group.

    By Diana Barshaw on Jul 4, 2010

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