CARL STROCK, THE SCHENECTADY GAZETTE AND ANTISEMITISM.
Over the past few weeks, our friends in the Schenectady Jewish community have been subjected to one of the most insidious forms of anti-Semitism: the use of freedom of the press as cover for espousing uninformed, virulently antisemitic views that demonize Israel, and that denigrate Judaism (along with Christianity and Islam). Columnist Carl Strock who has written for the Schenectady Gazette since 1981, retired from full-time work about four years ago. He continues to write a column known as The View From Here. After a trip to Israel last month that included only Jerusalem and Ramallah, he returned to our area and wrote a series of articles that can only be denounced as pure bigotry, Mr. Strock's protests of honest reporting and claims of victimization notwithstanding.
Ohav is firmly committed to Zionism and to supporting the State of Israel. Though we as a congregation do not publicly take sides in debates about Israeli politics and foreign policy, constructive debate about what is happening in Israel should be no different from constructive debate about what goes on in any nation. Certainly, we Jews must be vigilant to ensure that such debate not be exploited vindictively by those who hate the State of Israel; nonetheless, debate is often necessary and just, when it is based upon fact, careful analysis, and a desire to help Israel be its best self.
What Carl Strock has done, with the permission and support of the Gazette, is not legitimate, constructive debate or criticism: it is antisemitic screed, and it needs to be condemned as such by Jews and non-Jews alike.
Let me briefly analyze just one segment of one of Mr Strock's articles, since my point is to demonstrate how easily words can distort the truth, especially in the hands of a well known opinion writer and a readership that may not know any better. Below is an excerpt from his essay from April 3, 2012. After the italicized paragraph which is his writing, I will offer some commentary.
One thing that struck me about Judaism on my brief visit to Jerusalem is that it’s a tribal religion. The god that it posits — the ineffable YHWH — is the god of a particular people, his Chosen People, in opposition to other gods of other peoples. That’s the way it originated in biblical times, when YHWH had to compete with Ba’al and other disreputable types, and that’s the way it still seems today. Christianity, for all its warts, is at least intended for everyone. Islam claims to be for everyone, but its god speaks only Arabic and you have to be able to pray in Arabic if you want to have any show with him. Judaism makes no pretensions to universality. This matters because Judaism is the heart of the state of Israel. The state is not for everyone either. It’s for members of the tribe, as made clear in its declaration of independence and its national anthem. Its central conceit is that modern-day Jews, whether from Poland or Ethiopia, and regardless of physical type, are all lineal descendants of the Israelites of the Bible. After 2,000 years they have come home. You hear this all the time in Israel. I heard it most memorably from an aggressive guy in downtown Jerusalem who buttonholed me and tried to get me to sign a petition against the division of Jerusalem, not that any such division is in the works. “We waited 2,000 years!” he shouted at me, though I was not offering any resistance. It turned out he was from New York, though he could as well have been from Kiev or Marrakech.
Judaism began as a religion intended to bring the idea and presence of one universal God to the entire world, through the life and family of Abraham. Though this idea of the one God of the universe Who has universal standards of behavior for all people developed over millenia, it is hardly "tribal." Consider that it is our Bible that teaches from the beginning that all human beings are created in God's image. Consider also that the rabbis who developed Judaism in the Talmudic period taught explicitly that seven laws of personal and societal decency govern all human beings and that all righteous people - not just Jews - have a place in the world to come. Finally, were Judaism merely tribal, no one could ever gain admission to the tribe. However, conversion to Judaism occupies a prominent place in Jewish life and practice, precisely because being "part of the tribe" is as much about accepting the historic mission of Judaism and the Jews to be a light unto the nations, as it is about being born into a Jewish family. The Jewish concept of chosenness is often the "bad boy" that is used by people like our writer to "prove" that we Jews see ourselves as inherently superior and solely self-concerned. Certainly, we care about the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people, just as other ethnic and religious groups quite naturally care about their own survival. Nonetheless, the concept of being the chosen people is more often expressed by Jewish sources in terms of being responsible for our historic mission of being God's partners in healing the world. Further, this historic partnership with God does not preclude other peoples and faiths from having their own partnerships, from being "chosen" for their own missions in the world.
Mr. Strock would also do well to note that the "universalism" of classical Christianity he highlights was historically a universalism of coercion that insisted every person accept Jesus as his or her savior or forfeit salvation in the next world, and often one's life in this world. This does not mean that any or all Christian communities accept this idea today; it does mean, however, that Mr. Strock is dangerously ignorant about religion and history. (Further, I am amazed that Mr. Strock would be so quick to assert that Islam only allows people to speak to God in Arabic. What is his basis for such a comment?) We Jews have struggled for millenia to be a part of the world while also being apart from the world, that is, to live in the larger society as a people with a distinctive identity. Why is that tribalist bigotry when it applies to Jews, but healthy self-assertion when it applies to other nations and peoples who seek to thrive and express themselves?
The worst aspect of Mr. Strock's assertions is his wholesale condemnation of Israel as a bigoted, tribalist Jewish state. Citizenship in the Jewish state is for everyone and it is particularly supportive of the repatriation of the Jewish people. Why is that? Why did the Israeli Knesset create the Law of Return that grants immediate citizenship to any Jew seeking to live in Israel? Precisely because for two thousand years, when we had no home, we were persecuted repeatedly and treated like pariahs simply because we were Jews. The most extreme expression of this, of course, was the Holocaust, which ironically was perpetrated by Germany, one of the leaders of "refined, universalistic" Western civilization and culture at the time. One can hardly call it bigoted and tribalist to establish a homeland for our people in order to express ourselves culturally, politically and spiritually, as well as to protect ourselves. Certainly, wanting to establish that homeland in the place with which we have been connected for 3,000 years can hardly be called bigoted either; unless, of course, one wishes to condemn all national and cultural aspirations of every people in the world as bigoted, which itself is the worst form of bigotry dressed in the garb of universalism.
Whether through the Law of Return or other means, Israeli citizenship is open to Jews and non-Jews. There are Israeli Arab citizens who fully integrate into Israeli society, who vote, and who do quite well academically, socially and economically. There are Arab Knesset members and physicians, university professors, and an Arab supreme court justice. The relationship between the State of Israel and her Arab citizens is not perfect by any means. Discrimination, inequality and racism exist, as they do in every Western democratic society. Right now in Israel, a great deal of public controversy exists between forces within Israeli society that would like to deny rights to women and minorities and the vast majority of Israeli society that wants Israel to remain a strong democracy. That controversy is as public and civil as it is precisely because Israel is a democracy, howbeit an imperfect one. We must look carefully at what Mr. Strock is doing here: he is using "hot-button" words that bother Americans, such as "tribe" and "tribalism," to convey the distorted message that Israel is a racist backwater founded upon stone-age ideas and loyalties.
Finally, Mr. Strock's comments about the Israel Declaration of Independence and Ha-Tikvah deserve some firm response. The declaration is exactly what a declaration of independence is supposed to be: a profound and succinct statement that tells the world about a people's national aspirations and its determination to achieve self-determination. It is not necessarily supposed to be a statement of universal principles about the brotherhood of Man. However, this is what we read about two thirds of the way into that document, after its writers summarize the tragic history of Jewish homelessness and persecution in the diaspora :
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Israel has not been able to live up to every one of these high ideals. To be fair, what nation can? Yet a look at Israel's record over 64 years of existence reveals that she has done a remarkable job in building her democracy, especially given her onerous burden of being constantly vigilant about defense and security. Could Israel do a better job? Yes. Is it clear that Israel and the Palestinian people need to forge a lasting and just peace that will benefit everyone in the region? Yes. Does Israel deserve to be relentlessly singled out for one-sided criticism from people like Mr. Strock and others who are even more vocal? Most certainly not.
Later in his essay, Mr. Strock trots out the usual canards about the Jews as colonialist late-comers to the Middle East who forcibly dispossessed indigenous populations living in the land. What he and too many others seem unwilling to accept is the historical truth that we Jews did not simply "show up" in the Middle East after the Holocaust. We have truly waited to come home for over two millenia, and Israel is that home to which we have returned. This does not mean that our having a home deligitimizes the national aspirations of Palestinians or other peoples. What is does mean is that we have no less of a right to fulfill our dreams and mission as a people than anyone else, in our historic homeland.
Mr. Strock's writing about Jews, Judaism and Israel has been incendiary and divisive, and he has made a point of attacking Christianity and Islam as well, thus engendering even more hurt and divisiveness in the capital district community. His cover is that he hates all religions equally and wishes to debunk and demystify all religious claims and authority; also, that he has a right to say and print what he likes, given freedom of the press. What he has actually done is create a toxic atmosphere that fosters hatred and misunderstanding by exploiting his pen power to spread outright lies. That is an abuse of a free press, not an embodiment of it. The organized Jewish and Christian communities are taking a number of steps to respond to Mr. Strock, but each of us has the power to respond as well. Specifically, we have the vital task of learning as much of the truth as possible about who we are as Jews, what Judaism says and does, and what Israel is all about. We have the opportunity to write, speak and teach the truth whenever we can, so that our children and grandchildren, our fellow Jews and our fellow citizens learn that truth. Isn't a fair, free, and rational exchange of ideas without fear of reprisal or repression what American civil liberties are all about? If Mr. Strock chooses to use his authority to lie and behave unfairly, then we have to choose to correct those lies and help others to understand the Jewish experience. Finally, we need to keep building bridges between us and the wider community, not just for our own sake but for the sake of all our citizens.
May we continue to be strong in our fight against bigotry and demagoguery, as Jews, as Zionists, and as proud American citizens.