Archive for February, 2013

I must ask two questions. Did you watch the Oscars? Did you have any moments in which you just cringed? It seems that a lot of the Jewish world cringed in unison at the appearance of, and repartee between Mark Wahlberg and the animated Teddy Bear, Ted, as they announced their assigned Oscar winner. If you missed it, then here is the link to a U-Tube site: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxPnLGBNlAs

The bit is a spoof that pokes fun at the prevalence of Jews in Hollywood. Ted is sucking up to the “Jews in charge” to assure he will continue to work in Hollywood. The character of “Ted” is a Seth MacFarlane creation, so presumably MacFarlane is behind this bit. It came in the midst of an entire evening of “Oh did he really say that?” moments as MacFarlane poked fun at Adele, at Rhihanna and Chris Brown, and even little 9 year old actress Quvenzhane Wallis. I am sure that fans of all those folks are upset by MacFarlane’s wit (showing that he is an equal opportunity insulter), but the Jewish world is all abuzz over whether or not this 40 second joke is anti-Semitic. Even if it is not, is it good for the Jews?

You can guess where different Jewish groups weigh in. Abe Foxman of the ADL said the skit “Was not remotely funny.” He went on to say “It only reinforces stereotypes which legitimize anti-Semitism.” Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center chimed in, “Every comedian is entitled to wide latitude, but no one should get a free pass for helping to promote anti-Semitism.” If you scour Jewish publications on the internet, you will get a lot of comments along these lines.

I think the reaction to MacFarlane’s spoof depends on how you answer a couple of questions. First, is it perpetuating a myth about Jewish monopoly and control of an industry? This strikes the same kind of nerve as accusations that Jews control banking, have an international conspiracy to control history, blah, blah, blah. The second question is whether skits/jokes like these further anti-Semitism.

Let’s start with issue number one; is Jewish dominance in Hollywood myth or fact? Well, if one goes by the number of Jews in prominent positions at major studios, as well as the percentage of performers, directors, producers and participants at all levels, one would have to at least say that Jews are represented in disproportionate numbers. In a column published in the LA Times December 19, 2008, Joel Stein (Jewish) went much further. He listed the heads of the largest studios – all Jewish – and concluded they would easily make a minyan large enough for their Fiji waters to fill a mikveh (ritual bath). In other words, yes, Jews do dominate Hollywood. There are some good, historical reasons for that.

In the early 20th century, the newly arrived Jewish immigrants found the “power” industries of oil, coal, steel and banking dominated by the Rockefellers, Mellons, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies of the country. Jews naturally gravitated towards new, start up industries, in which their drive, creativity and business acumen could come to full flower. It is predominantly a group of Jewish producers from New York who moved the nascent movie industry to Hollywood, CA, taking advantage of the constant sunshine that made it easier to film productions. Hollywood provided opportunities for Jewish success just as athletics have provided a means for success to black and Latino players. Minorities experiencing prejudice take advantage of the industries in which opportunities exist, because the older, more established industries are relatively closed to them. So my conclusion is that due to the historic intersection of Jewish immigration to America and the rise of the film industry – yes, Jews do dominate the industry.

That leads us to the second question. Do jokes about Jewish dominance in Hollywood promote anti-Semitism? The simple answer is yes, because those who are already anti-Semitic have their feelings of resentment and hatred confirmed all over again. I do not believe that any of these kinds of jokes create new anti-Semites, but just look at the comments to the U-Tube video or google someone like Texe Marrs, and you will see the venom about Jews flying, citing jokes like MacFarlane’s as proof of their positions. Anti-Semitism does indeed still exist and its proponents will grab any opportunity to spread hatred and misinformation about Jews. So pointing out the fact of Jewish dominance in Hollywood just feeds this fire.

Which brings us to the real question; should we avoid making jokes about this at all? Should we avoid all spoofing of the Jewish position in Hollywood, or Jewish jokes in general because they confirm the hateful feelings of anti-Semites? To that I answer: absolutely not! I believe our ability to joke about ourselves, to laugh about ourselves is the ultimate “in your face” answer to hatred. The ability to embrace humor, especially when it is aimed at ourselves, is the ultimate expression of security, confidence, and dare I say the word, power. We should not shy away from Jewish humor because we do not really know what will offend and what will not. At the Oscars in 2010, when speaking about Christoph Waltz and his role in “Inglorious Basterds,” Steve Martin said, “Christoph played a Nazi obsessed with finding Jews. Well Christoph…” Martin then spread his arms indicating the audience at the academy awards and said, “the mother lode!” I love moments like that. The audience did as well. Humor can be a very powerful weapon. So I say let’s enjoy our Jewish humor and give the anti-Semites all the attention they deserve – which is none. Ignoring them, treating them like the non-entities they are, diminishes them.

By the way, I did indeed have a cringe moment during the Oscars; when MacFarlane said that John Wilkes Booth was the last actor to really get inside Lincoln’s head. And yes, 150 years was still not long enough for that to be funny.

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It’s Not About the Guns

Frankly, I do not care if you own a gun. At least I do not care if you are a sane, law abiding citizen who owns a gun. I recognize there are many reasons people like to own guns. They begin with sports, like hunting (not a particularly Jewish pastime, but one that millions of Americans enjoy) or target shooting. Some own guns because of their love of history, owning pieces dating to the Civil War or even the Revolutionary War. Others feel they need the protection that guns provide. All of these are quite legitimate and who am I to question the motive and desire to own a gun? As I said, as long as you are a normal, law abiding American, I have no quarrel with your gun(s).

I did not mention those who own guns because they believe the 2nd amendment’s purpose is to protect the citizenry against a tyrannical government. That is a separate argument that I do not want to address today. Perhaps I will in a future post, but not today. For now I will only say that it is certain the 2nd amendment does absolutely protect the right of the average citizen to own a gun. We can all agree on that at the least.

No, I do not care about your guns. But I do care about gun advocates, most particularly the NRA. The NRA passes itself off as an organization protecting 2nd amendment rights. Their website is filled with blogs, reports, opinion columns by Wayne LaPierre that trumpet the need to protect 2nd amendment rights. I have to ask the question, why? Does the membership of the NRA really believe the government wishes to confiscate their guns? Does the NRA’s staunch opposition to ANY form of legislation regulating guns or the purchase of guns truly reflect the beliefs of gun owners let alone the NRA’s 4.5 million plus membership? A variety of polls suggest that they do not. A poll conducted last May by Republican pollster Frank Lutz shows that 74% of current and former NRA members support criminal background checks of anyone purchasing a gun. When that group is expanded to include all gun owners, that number rises to 87%. A Washington Post article from December 23 shows a great diversity of opinions among the membership of the NRA regarding a range of possible gun control measures. Certainly NRA membership is less supportive of stricter gun laws, but it is also clear that views of the membership do not necessarily conform with the vociferous opposition of the LaPierre and the NRA leadership. Who then, does the NRA really represent? That is an interesting story.

In its business section, the New York Times on February 3 ran a fascinating article on the growing popularity of the AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle. In 2007 “Guns and Ammo” magazine called this weapon “America’s battle rifle.” Its surge in popularity began in the early 1980’s – the post- Vietnam War era. A few different trends came together to make this happen. First, the growth of pastimes connected with video games and computers ate into the number of hunters and sports gunman. From 1980 to 1987 net domestic gun sales fell by more than 5 million units. Military veterans were interested in owning a type of weapon that was similar in style and feel to the M-16’s they carried in the service. The gun industry began to rebrand itself, some selling handguns for women who felt unsafe, others selling guns that had a “military pedigree.”

The NRA during these years underwent a parallel transformation. Originally founded in the middle of the 19th century as an organization for hunters and sport shooters, the NRA found its membership dwindling as the hunting population decreased, in the mid 1970’s. In the 1980’s the NRA rebranded itself as primarily an organization protecting 2nd amendment rights. True, the gun safety programs still exist. But a study of their website shows it is really a lobbying organization for gun manufacturers using 2nd amendment issues to gin up opposition to any kind of laws that might restrict gun sales.

Given this context, it is easy to see how the NRA’s response to each tragic shooting is to call on people to purchase more guns. The NRA’s solution to each problem is to advocate for more and more circulation of guns. They have little to say about the pleas of police departments of large cities trying to limit the flow of firearms into dangerous areas. Law enforcement officials can actually trace gun trafficking in many areas to specific stores and/or specific states. As the NRA presents its “facts” I am reminded of the absurdity of the tobacco industry trying to control the research over the effects of inhaling tobacco smoke.

The rhetoric of the NRA is extreme. It is clearly aligned with partisan Republican politics as LaPierre’s editorial comments are never limited just to advocacy for gun ownership, but stated and implied criticism of a range of policies of the Obama administration as well as Democrats in general. There is certainly nothing wrong with organizations having political leanings, but the NRA cannot claim to be either impartial or representative of any kind of majority of the American people. Let’s just be blunt. The NRA is a partisan political lobbying organization aligned with a small but very profitable industry – gun manufacturing.

Finally, I cannot let a discussion of the NRA pass without noting the recent fervor over its “enemies list” which was quickly removed from its website after becoming a source of conversation. This list contains a fair number of Jewish organizations including: The American Jewish Committee, Anti Defamation League, B’nai B’rith, Hadassah, National Council of Jewish Women, American Jewish Congress, United Synagogue, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Lawrence O’Donnel (not my favorite TV news host/commentator by any means) made a big deal out of this list. A critic (and NRA supporter) said this was not an “enemies list” but a list of organizations who have taken a stand against 2nd amendment rights. Of course what is actually anti-2nd amendment is a very subjective definition. The NRA, through its actions and statements declares only ITS definition actually counts. There you have the problem. The NRA creates a straw man (the attack on 2nd amendment rights as they define them), then uses extreme rhetoric to condemn everyone who utters a whisper against their perspective.

No, it is no longer really about the guns. It is about an organization that has been bought and is controlled by a particular industry trying to control a conversation that affects everyone. It will never happen, but it is time for the NRA to just shut up and go away.

For a great article by Rabbi Shlomo Brody on the Jewish law that might be applicable to the gun control debate, see: http://www.jidaily.com/guncontrolandthelimitsofhalakhah

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Just Open the Doors

The last session of “Faith, Food, and Friday” featured Brant Copeland, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee. Brant is well known in our community as a strong advocate for issues of social justice. He began the session by outlining six issues that he believes the community needs to address. On his list were issues concerning immigrants and immigration.

This prompted a question from a participant asking how we could take 11 million people who were here illegally and just excuse their illegal status. I cannot recall the exact wording of the question, but the gist was to question the fairness of a sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants when others had conformed to the existing laws. While I was perfectly happy to defer to Brant to answer questions on most of the issues he raised (his positions and mine are almost identical), here was one that struck me very personally, so I jumped in with a response. It was a response based on my own family’s history.

All of my family, that is my mother’s and father’s side, are German immigrants. I am a first generation American. All of the family that made it to America were Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. My parents and their families were among the lucky few, and many members of their extended families did not make it out of Europe alive. Just among my grandfather, Walter Romberg’s siblings, three died in either concentration camps or Jewish ghettos organized by the Nazis. My grandfather himself died as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals from working as a slave laborer in a German chemical plant (my father’s parents were divorced when he was an infant which is why his father did not immigrate with him to the United States). The reason many European Jews did not escape the Nazi death machine is directly traceable to American immigration policy of the 1930’s.

During the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, America had pretty much of an “open door” immigration policy. The result was that millions of Eastern Europeans, among them about 3 million Jews, poured into our country. This immigrant wave supplied labor for growing American industries, provided fresh entrepreneurial initiatives, and an influx of intellectual capital. In short, they did what immigrants to the United States have always done – fueled the growth and energy of our country. In the 1920’s under pressure by many lobbying groups including labor unions and groups that just did not like so many outsiders flooding our shores, immigration laws changed to a quota system that allocated how many immigrants would be accepted by the United States from each country in any given year. As could be expected, the quotas for countries most similar to us (Great Britain) were more forgiving than the quotas for Eastern Europe or Asia.

The result was an immigration policy in the 1930’s that prevented many, indeed hundreds of thousands of Jews in particular, from being able to find refuge in America. A great description of the injustice of American policy regarding Jewish immigration is described in Arthur Morse’s excellent book, “While Six Million Died.” One particularly horrifying chapter is the story of the ship, “St. Louis,” which was turned away from the United States and whose passengers were returned to Nazi Europe. All of this informed my answer to the questioner at the “Faith, Food and Friday” session.

Very succinctly I asserted that the law defining the 11 million undocumented residents of the United States as illegal is an unjust law. The fault is with our system, not with people who wish to come to our country to build safe, productive lives for their families. I do not see a change in the law that adjusts their status as “amnesty,” but as a correction to unjust laws born of prejudice against the despised “other” of the day. Decades ago we Jews were among the despised “others.” Now it is Latinos. This cycle just needs to stop.

For we want and need immigrants. We want and need the labor pool, the entrepreneurial spirit and the intellectual capital. I do not suggest we open the doors to criminals and terrorists, nor do I believe entrance to the United States should be an automatic path to citizenship. But we need to change from a policy of exclusion to one that opens our doors to the next round of fresh blood for the American body.

This is a very winnable argument. Not only have 8 Republican and Democratic senators come together to propose changes, but the person asking the question at last Friday’s program approached me afterwards to tell me my response had given her reason to rethink her position. There is always hope.

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At Temple Israel’s annual Shabbaton this past Saturday, one of our guest speakers, my friend Dr. Parvez Ahmed, conducted a breakout session for those who wanted to gain a better understanding of Islam. One of the questions posed to him went something like this, “In Judaism, we are taught to question things, to constantly argue things out. Is there a similar tradition in Islam?” Parvez answered that there was, particularly in the middle ages when the Islamic world was the intellectual center of the Western world. He mentioned that the great philosophic traditions of the Greeks had been preserved in the Islamic world (as opposed to Europe which at that point was an intellectual backwater). The great debates in Islam between philosophers and theists were vigorous and gave inspiration to the works of Thomas Aquinas. He then added, with a tinge of regret, that in recent centuries, much of the debate, the tradition of questioning had ended in much of the Islamic world.

This spurred me to comment that in the Jewish world the great divide between groups of Jews hinged on a continuation of our long tradition of questioning authority, God, and the law (halachah). For a significant portion of the Jewish world, law and practice have become frozen in time for the past 200 years or so. I would call those who have allowed Jewish law to become ossified, “Chasidim.” It has fallen to Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox Jews to keep alive the dynamism of evolving halachah – each group with its own unique approaches. Key to the ongoing conversation regarding appropriate Jewish law and ethic is our tradition of asking questions.

It begins with Abraham. He argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gemorah, getting God to agree that if 10 righteous people would be found, the cities would be spared. We get upset with Abraham when he fails to argue – as when God tells him to take Isaac to be sacrificed on Moriah. The tradition of arguing with God continues in the Talmud, the oral law. A great example is found in Baba Metzia 59b, the story of Achnai’s oven. In this tale, Rabbi Eliezer is arguing a point of law with his colleagues. All disagree with him so he invokes God and the heavens to support him. He calls for the stream to run backwards to confirm his rectitude, and the stream runs backward. After a number of wondrous demonstrations that God agrees with Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua gets up and reprimands God for interfering in an issue being decided by the rabbis, saying that since Torah has been given it is up to humans to figure out what is correct, and the majority rules. It is later reported that God’s response was to laugh and say, “My children have defeated me.”

It is the power of constant questioning that creates the dynamism that keeps Judaism relevant. The world changes and Judaism must respond to those changes. The need for continuing responses is what gave rise to the Reform and Conservative movements. The incredible diversity among Jewish perspectives is a strength, not a weakness. Further, there is nothing wrong with pointed, sharp debate. In Yalkut Shimoni we are taught that those disputing Torah can clash like “enemies at the gates.” The Talmud affirms that disputes arising out of the attempt to better understand God’s will, out the desire to find the most ethical path, are really “all words of the living God.”

If we do not continue to question the old paradigms, Judaism will just fade away as an irrelevant relic. The tradition of questioning might be the great contribution we Jews offer to the world. We provide the antidote to intellectual laziness, to a blind clinging to traditions or beliefs just because they have always been held. Indeed, the point of Jewish learning is not really to find answers to questions, but to learn how to pose ever better, more penetrating questions.

My prayer for Jews is that we never lose our drive to question. My prayer for my Moslem brothers is that they recover and strengthen their tradition of questioning. To that my friend Parvez nodded and said, “Amein.”

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