As an admirer of Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, for nearly 40 years, I was dismayed by her fervent defense of Hillary Clinton in a debate over the 2008 election with her daughter, Abigail Pogrebin, who supported Barack Obama. I was disappointed that someone who’d helped the country envision the liberation of women could define HRC as a “revolutionary” rather than an “establishment” figure.
(Now we know how false a choice that was, a fact soon exposed by Obama’s outlandish pledge–violating generations of U.S. government policy, as well as International Law–to AIPAC that, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.” Or in his picks of, first, Biden as Veep and, then, Clinton as Sec. of State.)
Meanwhile, I questioned whether in my youth I had misjudged Cottin Pogrebin’s positions: as seeking liberation for all, when she actually advocated a tokenish careerism that masked something yet more sinister: empire’s corporatism. Myself, I learned to care about freeing Palestine from Israeli Occupation at about the same time that I became a “women’s–and humans’–libber,” and now I wondered where she’d been all this time. I was only partially reassured by this essay on the Judaization of East Jerusalem.
Now Letty Cottin Pogrebin comes through, defending Judge Richard Goldstone and the U.N. Report in the Forward (a piece that is also included in the Goldstone Report book editors of this site have helped put out). Pogrebin points out a crucial wrong in both the Israel lobby and the U.S. corpo-public media’s refusal to deal with the report:
“Rather than discuss the contents of the report — which concluded that during the 2008-2009 Gaza war, Israel (as well as Hamas) may have committed war crimes — Israel’s defenders launched an all-points campaign to bury it.”
Pogrebin condemns the Israel lobby for its denigration of Goldstone, as “both indecent and profoundly un-Jewish.” Because I’m a skeptic who reveres literary prophets rather than conventionally religious ones, I’m always interested by how others define the spiritual obligation to liberate Palestinians from Apartheid. So I was captivated when Pogrebin repeated that distinction: “the smear campaign against [Goldstone]” was “Appalling enough in human terms, [but] I believe it should be condemned on speciﬁcally Jewish grounds.” Pogrebin informs us that,
“There’s a Hebrew word for what these people did to Richard Goldstone: They put him in cherem, meaning he was not just persona non grata in the eyes of our religious arbiters, he was totally cut off from the Jewish community. From the moment the report was released, he was treated like a leper — shunned, defamed, disowned — and the worst was yet to come.”
Pogrebin discusses the effort “tantamount to banning” Goldstone from his grandson’s bar mitzvah. The fact that, “After an international outcry,” ”Goldstone was able to attend the bar mitzvah,” Pogrebin argues, “hardly absolves Jews worldwide for the smear campaign against him.”
Pogrebin asserts that,
“The most Jewishly observant …of Goldstone’s attackers surely knew that speaking ill of another human being (“hate speech” in current parlance) violates one of Judaism’s most sacrosanct laws, the prohibition against lashon hara (the Evil Tongue — i.e., gossip), which Maimonides deﬁned as any utterance (true or not!) that might cause a person physical or monetary damage, or shame, humiliation, an-guish or fear.
“The Talmud’s famous story of the Oven of Achnai goes even further. It establishes that onaat devarim — verbal torment or abusive speech — is a more heinous infraction than physical assault. The story opens with a dispute among the sages of the Sanhedrin over the ritual purity of a clay oven. Most of the decisors agree that the oven is unclean, but Eliezer, a respected voice, though in this instance a minority of one, insists it is clean and summons four astounding miracles to prove his position. The sages dismiss these divine signs, proclaiming the Torah ‘is not in heaven’ — meaning, the law is to be interpreted by human thinkers on earth — so the majority rules. God apparently agrees since the heavenly voice laughs and, disarmed by the sages’ logic, says, ‘My sons have defeated Me.’ To underscore their victory, the sages set ﬁre to the disputed oven and everything else Eliezer had declared clean, then they vote to excommunicate him.
“When Eliezer weeps and grieves, God, despite having ruled for the sages, responds to their mistreatment of him by withering harvests across the land, spoiling dough and incinerating every object Eliezer looks upon. The president of the Sanhedrin meets an untimely death, taking the hit for his minions’ sin of onaat devarim. The gravity of this forbidden activity becomes crystal clear: God nearly destroyed the world because of the ‘wounded feelings’ of Eliezer, an honorable man.”
Pogrebin adds, “the tradition that similar behavior caused the calamity of calamities, that the Second Temple was demolished for only one reason, sinat chinam (baseless hatred), Jew hating Jew, an infraction so severe that it merited an exile of almost 2,000 years.”
Pogrebin condemns those “dumping verbal sludge on a fellow Jew whose only crime was to pursue justice and demand that Israel live up to its founding principles. Yet Israel’s fanatical defenders won’t let up on Goldstone until he is irreparably destroyed,” detailing how critics then turned to Goldstone’s “his years as a South African judge,” accusing him of “sid[ing]” “with the racist policies of the Apartheid regime”; “Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, said,” of Goldstone’s acceptance of his position in the South African court system, ”‘these are the same explanations we heard in Nazi Germany after World War II.’ Alan Dershowitz sank to a new low. ‘That’s what Mengele said, too.’”
Pogrebin appeals to Jewish conscience, “Anyone claiming to espouse Jewish values ought to be outraged by the avalanche of attacks on Richard Goldstone. But they should be deeply conscience-stricken by the possibility, just the possibility, that the Israeli army committed atrocities in Gaza. Yet many in our community are still vilifying the judge, and almost no one is talking about his ﬁndings: Thousands of Palestinian homes reduced to rubble. Gaza’s infrastructure in ruins. Women and children burned by white phosphorus bombs. A man shot while his arms were shackled and left to die. Civilians shot and killed while carrying white ﬂags. Twenty-two members of one family killed in Gaza City.”
That contrast between distraction and fact seems critical to reforming organized religion’s timidity in the face of the crisis caused by the crimes of the Israeli government against the Palestinian people. Pogrebin concludes by identifying anew a crucial challenge posed by the lobby’s influence over our American government and dominant media:
“It would have been ‘good for the Jews’ and for Israel had the report’s substance been frankly confronted and debated, however the only game in town is ‘Kill the message, trash the messenger.’ In that sense, Goldstone is the Eliezer of our age — a judge pledged to defend the law in the face of arrogant opposition, excoriated for holding Jews to their principles, excommunicated for speaking truth to power. One can only hope the contemporary story doesn’t end as badly as the one in the Talmud.”
Now I hope Pogrebin will write again, extending her compassion not just to an “exemplary” Jew, of “stellar” “Jewish credentials,” who is “a proud, self-identiﬁed Zionist, [who] served on the board of governors of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; as chair of the advisory board of Brandeis University’s International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life; and as president of World ORT, the international Jewish educational organization….[who] also was a dogged investigator of Nazi war criminals in Argentina,” and to trying to protect Israel from its own worst ambitions.
I hope Letty Cottin Pogrebin will articulate not just what Jewish people owe to other Jews, but all people’s obligation to all, and, specifically, what our traditions teach that we Americans owe the people of Palestine.