Things I’ve Been Reading and Thinking About


I realize things have been slow here for the past month or more. Family life is keeping me busy, which is a blessedly good thing. No complaints here. I have been getting a lot of work done on my dissertation. Another very good thing. And, at the same time, I am trying to get my foot in the door at a few publications that will remain nameless.

While traveling overseas I read the March edition of Commentary. If you are at all concerned (or interested) about the increasing tendency of Jews to forgo affiliation with Jewish organizations, in particular synagogues and day schools, I highly recommend reading Jack Wertheimer’s “The High Cost of Jewish Living“. As is evident by the title, Wertheimer contends a major element of this is prohibitive cost. Here are a few (well, more than a few) tidbits:

Adding things up, an actively engaged Jewish family that keeps kosher and sends its three school-age children to the most intensive Jewish educational institutions can expect to spend somewhere between $50,000 and $110,000 a year at minimum just to live a Jewish life.

As the various cost lines have risen, in some cases doubling over the past 10 years, the response has been predictable. Many regard day-school education as out of the question, the cost utterly prohibitive. Even within Orthodox communities, some parents feel compelled to pull their children out of day schools. Anecdotal reports suggest that some families interested in placing their children in Jewish educational settings decide not to proceed for fear of embarrassing encounters with scholarship committees. In a reversal of earlier patterns, when Jewish religious involvement was weighted toward the poor, increasingly in our own time only the well-to-do can afford to live fully as Jews, while many in the middle class are in danger of getting priced out.

If there was cause for concern a decade ago about how, as Gerald Bubis put it, Jewish families would respond when “cost becomes a barrier,” the affordability of Jewish living should be a central issue on the Jewish communal agenda today, given the staggering surge in costs coupled with the current economic climate. With some noteworthy exceptions, it is not.

Most federations of Jewish philanthropy have neither the resources nor the will to make affordability a priority, and other types of organizations don’t even pretend to pay attention.

As if skyrocketing costs were not enough, there is also the tendency of mainstream Jewish organizations to prefer universalist and nonsectarian charitable endeavors than helping our own. The article continues:

And just at a time when Jewish communal institutions are failing to attend to the needs of Jews at home and abroad, the hot trend in Jewish philanthropic and organizational circles, incredibly, is to channel ever more of their resources to nonsectarian causes. Preachers in every corner of the Jewish community are intent on urging the faithful to drop their parochial concerns for the welfare of fellow Jews and instead think globally. How can Jews worry about their own, they ask, when so many unfortunates in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia are suffering even worse afflictions? Last May, at my own institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the commencement speaker exhorted newly ordained rabbis and cantors, along with graduating educators and communal workers, to do nothing less than focus their energies on eliminating poverty and injustice from the world, even as she gave short-shrift to the impact of the economic downturn on Jewish needs.

“What is required, first,” declared Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Services, “is that we embrace those with whom we do not share a faith or a neighborhood, a country, a language, or a political structure. We must bend our minds and our voices, our energies and our material resources, to help those most in need, both at home and abroad.” In today’s American Jewish community, this kind of talk is hardly an exception: representatives of every denomination have discovered a Jewish imperative to “repair the world” (Tikkun Olam), a commandment unknown to Jews for most of their history but that now, in the view of its most outspoken advocates, is preeminent…

One could ask, of course, why this effort to repair the world cannot also extend to aiding fellow Jews? Proponents of Jewish service learning express great confidence in the sufficiency of resources in the Jewish community to address all needs—a demonstrably incorrect assessment, as we have seen. Alternatively, they will say that young Jews do not want to be bothered with their fellow Jews. If we are to attract anyone outside the committed core, they argue, programs must direct young Jews to nonsectarian causes, bearing out the truth of Cynthia Ozick’s dead-on observation that “universalism is the parochialism of the Jews.” And so, based on these rationalizations, an entire set of organizations under Jewish auspices now seeks to rally Jews to help everyone except their own co-religionists.

I also read a fairly recent copy (Winter 2010) of Dissent. I especially enjoyed Michael Walzer’s short introductory comment on internationalism:

I consider myself a left internationalist, but definitely not a world citizen. The difference is important. Internationalism connects me to leftists in other countries, who are or should be working for the well-being of the poorest and most vulnerable of their fellow citizens. I am engaged with them in what I think of as a characteristically leftist way: I support their politics, but I also criticize some (and sometimes many) of the things they do. What they do matters to me; I want them to get things right.

But I am not a world citizen because there is no organized “world,” no global state, in which citizenship is possible—certainly not democratic citizenship. The people who run the world, insofar as it is run, don’t regard me as one of their fellows, and, in turn, I don’t regard them that way either. The UN sometimes pretends to be a kind of world government, but it isn’t that, and the pretense is dangerous because it suggests that things are being taken care of when we all know that they are not.

The only political agency that can “take care of things,” that can provide security, welfare, and education, is the state. The least well-off people in the world today, the most desperately needy people, are those who live in failed or failing states, who are the prey of warlords, predatory gangs, ruthless entrepreneurs and speculators—all of them uncontrolled by any political authority. So those of us who have effective and decent states ought to be patriots, at least in this sense: that we should be committed to the common political work of sustaining and improving the states that we live in.

As a Jewish American, I have an additional reason for patriotism—for the United States is surely the best diaspora home that the Jews have ever found. That fact makes me a strong defender of American pluralism. I want this country to be as open and welcoming to other immigrant groups as it has been to the Jews (that is indeed a condition of its continuing to be a good place for the Jews).

Norm disagrees.

But I was surprised by the inclusion of James B. Rule’s “The Military State and the Democratic Left“. I realize Rule hits all the right notes for Dissent’s social democratic readership (or at least much of it) but much of the article rests on a common assertion made by liberals and progressives with little understanding of the way the world works. I know that sounds rude, but it is true. The basic argument is if the United States would dramatically reduce the cost and size of the military, we could spend the money on [insert favorite liberal program here].

One question I have for Professor Rule is, given his perspective that the United States is run by a powerful elite, why is he convinced that if the defense budget was cut to the degree he desires, the resources freed up would be allocated towards his liberal wish-list of schools, health care, etc.?

No evidence is offered to support this claim. It is simply an assertion of the author. Again, I suspect his perpective is shared by many Dissent readers, but it simply doesn’t stand up to any sort of critical scutiny. After all, if the U.S. (and other capitalist countries) are ruled by a self-interested elite, why wouldn’t those funds go towards some other presumably nefarious endeavor that benefits them at the expense of us?

To other topics:

Have you seen the video at Wikileaks that has the innacurrate title “Collateral Murder“? It is chilling to watch. But to my eye, the attack–while both tragic and sad–appears to be justified. At the start of the video (I don’t know how much has been edited) a man is identified as carrying an rocket-propelled grendade launcher (RPG). Apache helicopter pilots are given authorization by commanding officers to shoot, which they do. They also attack a van which arrives to pick up survivors. It turns out the “RPG” was actually a camera. However, military officials say and RPG and AK-47s were recovered from the scene.

Websites coming from a radical-left or progressive perspective have condemned this as an intentional targeting of civilians. I disagree. It does appear that the man with the camera was holding some sort of weapon. The Apaches were providing air support for ground forces on patrol that had been involved in recent skirmishes. The job of these Apache pilots was keeping American personnel on the ground out of harms way. When commanded by their superior officers to engage, they needed to obey. This is not due to their being cold, killing machines, as is sometimes claimed. They were trying to protect their fellow soldiers.

Pray for the twenty-nine West Virginia miners who lost their lives and their families. Then get active. Amending Joe Hill’s famous phrase, don’t only mourn, organize.

In the nuts and crackpots department, I recently heard an interview with Dr. John Hall on progressive radio station WBAI. The doctor was discussing his recent book, A New Breed: Satellite Terrorism in America.  What is satellite terrorism? According to the author, a continuation of the CIA’s mind-control experiments that started with MK-Ultra. The specifics include the utilization of satellite or ground based microwaves and “particle beams” to harass hapless victims in their homes.

Moving from the kooks, here are some more substantial finds from across the Net:

I debate Shalom Libertad on the utility of the term “social filth” over at Bob’s place.

Ray Cook (you really should be checking out his blog, great stuff!) on Israel and International Humanitarian Law.

Elder of Ziyon on the Syrian scuds for Hezbollah.

Roland (But, I am a Liberal!) Dodds demands Justice for Du’a Khalil.

Adam Holland is shocked by the far-left/far-right connections with Cynthia McKinney and surprised by these same connections with journalist blowhard Chris Hedges. Not sure why any of this is news to him.

Martin in the Margins caught the first episode of David Simon’s new program, Treme. Read his assessment here.

Mod writes Of Plots and Monsignors.

Noga (Contentious Centrist) discusses “Those Far Right But Very Wealthy American Jewish Organizations“. You know the ones…

Kelli Strom (Airforce Amazons): Liberte ou la Mort.

Snoopy (Simply Jews) discusses Judith Butler and the hazards of higher learning.

Sultan Knish on Karzai’s Gambit and Obama’s Betrayal.

Michael Totten also has a piece on Syrian scuds and Hezbollah.

***Blogs no more***

I noticed some dead links (or people who have not posted for 6+ months) in my blogroll: Beer N’ Sandwiches, Encounters, LeftHawk, Iranian Freedom*, and New Zionist. All have been removed. If you are the author of any of these blogs and end up posting some new material, please let me know and I will be glad to add you to my blogroll again. If anyone happens to know if Ganselmi, the blogger behind Iranian Freedom, is OK please inform me. I hope all is well….

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