Religious identity and transparency

on 18 Comments

Former New York Times reporter Amy Waldman has published a novel called Submission that is about a fictional memorial to 9/11 created by a young Muslim-American architect named Mohammed Khan. Twice now I have heard Waldman interviewed on public radio, and, leaving aside the possible fearful resonances in her title (Islam means submission to God), I was struck by the willingness on the part of Waldman and her interviewers to deal in identity politics. That is, when it’s not Jewish identity politics.

I heard that Mohammed “Mo” Khan is a secularized Muslim, but angry. I heard that Sean Gallagher– i.e., a Roman Catholic — rips the hijab off a Muslim woman. The Washington Post review says there’s a WASP too:

The ensuing drama changes the lives of every member of the novel’s ensemble cast. The rich investor’s WASP-ish widow, the dead janitor’s illegal immigrant wife, the demagogic politician, the desperate tabloid hack, the beleaguered chairman of the competition jury, the dead FDNY hero’s low-life brother, the radio shock jock, the Muslim community organizer, the white trash incendiary blogger and, of course, the besieged winning architect are all represented here.

I wonder where the Jewish characters are. Now maybe Waldman has them. But no one’s talking about them.

At one level, I understand this reluctance. During the Ocean Hill-Brownsville struggle of 40 years ago, or the Crown Heights upheaval of 20 years back, the Jews were humble — teachers and Hasidim– and could be openly identified as political actors. But the Jews of the 9/11 context are far more empowered actors. They include the Israel lobby whose support for the occupation of Palestine played a part in Al Qaeda’s decision to attack the U.S., as even the 9/11 commission has said. They include the actual designer of the 9/11 memorial– Michael Arad– an Israeli diplomat’s son. They include leading New York politicians who are making decisions and writers who are chronicling the matter. (I’m guessing novelist Waldman is herself Jewish).

And I understand the reluctance because, as a small group with so much power, we feel vulnerable. When the repulsive Texas Gov. Rick Perry threatened physical violence against Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke the other day, how many Jews reflected that Bernanke is Jewish? All of us, I bet.

But our vulnerability doesn’t resolve the issue of journalists’ blindness to the Jewish presence. We’re American Establishment actors–  as neoconservatives, as liberal Zionists, as Israel lobbyists, yes and as anti-Zionists. As often as not, we’re the storytellers. About half the narrators I listen to in the Media-Industrial complex are Jewish, and I haven’t even gotten to the execs who founded Facebook and Google, changing our lives.

And yet we’re inhibited about discussing this presence. It would be unimaginable to hear a Jewish TV personality going on about how Jewish values had propelled, say, Mike Bloomberg in the way that Chris Matthews went on and on the other day– very movingly– about the Irish-Catholicness of his hero, the late Hugh Carey. 

We can’t be that open. We still can’t trust America enough to talk about the Jewish rise.

I find it irritating. I am going to thumb through Amy Waldman’s book the next time I’m in a bookstore and see if there are major Jewish characters. If there are, I’ll read the book. If there aren’t, I won’t. Because if there aren’t, it would be failing at the writer’s task of representing reality.

P.S. Two other examples of this issue of transparent political identity:

1. Yesterday we posted a video of Noam Chomsky. A brilliant man, and great leader, yes. And he said some smart things. But I found it disturbing to listen to him go on about evangelical Christians in America with all but complete lack of differentiation. A third of Americans expect the second coming in their lifetime, he said. The Christian Zionists are among the most antisemitic people in the world; they want all the Jews to be exterminated. Does he know any of these people? Would he describe American Jewish attitudes so sweepingly and negatively? No.

2. A couple weeks ago on National Public Radio, Robert Siegel interviewed writer Suketu Mehta about his article in The New Yorker magazine about an African woman in New York City who is seeking asylum. In the interview, Siegel made a confession about his own origins and beliefs. I found it very refreshing: for me, it was a window on the new Jewish experience, empowered and increasingly conservative. It was an honest, reflective moment.

SIEGEL: I have to confess that now being myself two generations from the boat that sailed into the country, I identify at least as much with the hearing officer, or the immigration officer, as I do with the applicant for asylum.

So he’s sitting there, asking her a question: Were you raped? Yes. Did you go to the hospital? Is there some document? Yeah, there is, but it’s not here. There are papers somewhere back in my home country. How can he conceivably verify the story that he’s being told?

Mr. MEHTA: Well, that’s a very good question. And my sympathies, too, are with the asylum officer. He’s got the awesome responsibility of deciding whether or not to let in a person who, if he makes the wrong move, could be sent back to be raped all over again. And I think that the immigration system needs more resources….

18 Responses

  1. Donald
    August 17, 2011, 1:49 pm

    “A third of Americans expect the second coming in their lifetime, he said. The Christian Zionists are among the most antisemitic people in the world; they want all the Jews to be exterminated. Does he know any of these people? Would he describe American Jewish attitudes so sweepingly and negatively? No.”

    Having been on the inside of that group, whether you think his views are accurate depends on what you mean by extermination. I’d say he’s wrong. People who believe in dispensational theology (that’s the basis of all this stuff about the rapture, Israel, the antichrist, the tribulation, etc…) think that Israel is God’s special nation and will be protected during the tribulation and countries will be judged according to whether they support Israel or not, but they also think that Jews who don’t convert to Christianity before the end will be killed by God and cast into Hell. So on the one hand the duty of Christians today is to support Israel and oppose violent anti-semites and radical Islam and whoever is perceived as Israel’s enemy. On the other hand, in the end unconverted Jews will be killed, but by God, not Christians. Is that belief in extermination? They’d say no, because it is God who does the judging and it’s not anti-Jewish as such because all non-Christians go to hell. Oddly enough, it doesn’t necessarily effect how they treat people in this life. One book I remember reading that was popular among evangelicals was “The Hiding Place”, which is about a Christian family in Holland that hid Jews during WWII. It’s probably why rightwing Jews apparently feel comfortable with Christian Zionists–the going to hell part takes place after the tribulation and doesn’t have anything to do with what happens now. Individually, some evangelicals are anti-semitic in the here-and-now and some aren’t. I’ve known both. Actually, though, it rarely ever came up in my experience. I grew up in the South and heard anti-black comments all the time–anti-Jewish comments were so rare that when they happened they really stood out for me. It’d be interesting if there are any polls or studies on the incidence of anti-semitic beliefs in people of varying backgrounds, but it might be tough to get honest responses.

    On your general point, evangelical Christians are a group that liberals in America feel comfortable dissing. They don’t always make distinctions. Nicholas Kristof writes about this in the NYT on occasion. On the other hand, there are plenty of evangelical Christians who do deserve criticism and in some ways they don’t receive enough of it. I can’t stand listening to people make the distinction between radical Islam and radical Christians on the grounds that radical Christians don’t practice terrorism. Apart from the handful that do commit terrorist acts themselves (abortion clinic bombers, for instance), those evangelical Christians who are enthusiastic supporters of the Israeli far right are supporters of state terrorism.

    As for Chomsky himself, without using the term I think the concept of “progressive except for Palestine” permeates every page of “The Fateful Triangle”. It’s where I first became aware that there were people (he mentions Fonda and Hayden in particular) who were very far left on most issues, but rightwing on Israel. I think he should get some credit here. Maybe he’s reluctant to bash the Israel lobby as such, but Chomsky is old enough to remember anti-semitism in America growing up, so I’m inclined to cut him some slack on any failings he might have here. Besides, though I would like people to be aware of the Israel lobby and its bad effects on our policies, I suspect one bad side effect of this would be an increase in anti-semitism. We always seem to have some people who need an ethnic/religious group to demonize.

    • richb
      August 17, 2011, 2:36 pm

      I see two key differences between Evangelical and Jewish identity. Jews as a rule are more self-reflective and certainly more intellectual. Coming from a Evangelical perspective, Phil’s navel gazing is quite foreign and I wonder what his reaction would be at the shallowness of a pot luck on a Sunday afternoon. For example, remember how unreflective George W. Bush was?

      We also use the word elite quite differently due to the other major difference. To Phil, elite means political and financial power while to Evangelicals railing against the so-called elite is more targeted at the intellectual elite, c.f. Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life or Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. As long as you are not an intellectual being rich and powerful is not an integral part of being in the elite according to Evangelical thinking, if you can call it that. If I could get my fellow Evangelicals to be as reflective as the Jews Phil complains about I would feel extremely successful.

      • Philip Weiss
        August 17, 2011, 2:57 pm

        Thanks Rich! Stay at it!

      • MRW
        August 17, 2011, 3:23 pm

        Read Frank Schaeffer for self-reflection. He’s so reflective—he and his Dad created this modern Christian monster—that he got out of the Christo-Zio-Politico-War machine. But his essays on what the Evangelicals are really up to are instructive, entertaining, and highly descriptive of our society. Michelle Bachmann tributes Schaeffer’s film (can’t remember name) as being the thing that most affected her in her Christian faith. Google for Schaeffer taking Bachmann on now; it’s on AlterNet.

        Schaeffer’s books, which I have only skimmed at the bookstore, appear to name chapter and verse of who did what in which political party over the last 30 years. After all, his Dad was dictating to all those who dictated to the White House. Schaeffer pulls no punches. I want to sit down with one of his books soon. I love his articles.

      • richb
        August 17, 2011, 4:05 pm

        Franky and I were probably separated at birth. Bachmann is probably referring to “How Should We Then Live?” I tell you what. I do NOT want to be on the other side of a debate with Franky Schaeffer. He definitely knows where all the bodies are buried and he shows up on Rachel Maddow time and again.

        My point is not there are not Evangelicals (although Franky does use that label for himself anymore he just calls himself Christian) who are reflective. Rather, we are a small minority (or we just keep our heads down). Getting back to Phil’s point that may be what’s happening with some Jews. The other side is so strident any doubts are just kept to themselves. I definitely see that effect inside the Evangelical community.

    • DICKERSON3870
      August 17, 2011, 5:27 pm

      RE: “We always seem to have some people who need an ethnic/religious group to demonize.” ~ Donald

      SEE: Inside CUFI’s 2011 Washington “Summit”, Special to, 07/29/11
      Our eyewitness report on Christians United For Israel’s annual Washington conference

      (excerpt)…And this is where those Jews who are strong supporters of CUFI come in handy. They can criticize Jews to a far greater degree than any Christian Zionists would be willing to do. Conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin spent a great deal of her talk slamming her co-religionists for being naively liberal, and referencing her fellow panelist’s father’s book – Norman Podhoretz’s Why are Jews Liberal? – as a way to try and explain that they have fallen away from God and been captivated by the “religion of liberalism” to which the audience expressed considerable dismay. Rubin and others are useful for this kind of criticism because it allows them to express contempt for their fellow Jews, which coming out of the mouth of anyone else would, quite rightly, be considered anti-Semitism…

      ENTIRE REPORT – link to

    • deb83
      August 17, 2011, 5:52 pm

      Thanks Phil for so much thoughtful commentary. You are the best! The issue I have with Chomsky, is that while he is right about Jews who do not ‘accept Christ’ going to hell is that the term Christian is used too loosely. Most people who identify as Christian are headed there too, along with Muslims, Hindus and every other religion. They are all in the same boat. Unless you fit into the small group that sees the way they do, they believe you are doomed no matter your religion. So I don’t see that as anti- semitism, just narrow minded! Frank Schaeffer’s books nail it. People like Robertson love Israel and the Chosen People, just watch the 700 Club for a week if you can stomach it.

  2. PeaceThroughJustice
    August 17, 2011, 1:53 pm

    Of course there won’t be any explicit discussion of Jewish identity in Waldman’s novel. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be Jewish characters. (It’s hard to think of a Jewish novelist who doesn’t automatically give his protagonists recognizably Jewish names.) In fact, I’m guessing they will be the story’s heroes. They’ll be sensitive and deeply moral, and then suffer horribly because of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of them isn’t pegged as a “Holocaust survivor.”

  3. Donald
    August 17, 2011, 2:17 pm

    I’ve googled for some book reviews. This one contains a story told by Waldman herself about how surprised she was to find anti-semitism in an otherwise liberal Muslim. There’s a perfect opportunity to tell something comparable about anti-Muslim prejudice among Jews if she has ever seen any firsthand, but apparently not.


    This review in the NYT makes it sound interesting–


    I think Phil should buy the book and read it whether he likes it or not. If it turns out to be ethnocentric the way he and you suspect, he can write a review telling us that. Or someone should do it. (I also recommended that Phil read that book by the British author last year which was on the subject of anti-semitism and anti-Zionism, which it seemed to equate, but I can’t remember if Phil did so and can’t remember the book.)

    • Donald
      August 17, 2011, 2:26 pm

      Here’s a portion from the first link above–

      “Waldman said she also drew on experiences she’s had with otherwise acculturated, liberal Western Muslims that have given her pause. She remembered befriending a Muslim man while reporting from a small town in England. Their political and social outlooks seemed more or less attuned when, almost out of nowhere, the man said, not knowing she was Jewish: “You know, Henry Ford” — a notorious anti-Semite — “was right about the Jews.”
      “I thought, ‘No! Not you too,’” Waldman said, recalling her reaction to the comment.
      And yet, thinking about those comments while writing her novel made her ask whether such sentiments necessarily led to violence, or even sanctioned it. “I didn’t feel in danger,” she said, “and that is the question: when do thoughts like that become dangerous? And do we police those sentiments?”
      As for her views of Jewish-Muslim relations in the post-9/11 world, she put it this way: “I think Jews feel more threatened by radicalism, yet I also feel that Jews have a special obligation to stand up for Muslims who aren’t part of that extreme, because of our past. I thought about that while writing this book.”

      So it doesn’t sound like we can expect to see Waldman discussing AIPAC. Maybe I’m wrong, but from the above segment it sounds like Waldman thinks Jews should be sensitive to Muslims because of their own history as a victim group, and not because there are any Jews who have exhibited bigotry towards Muslims or Arabs.

      On the other hand, there’s apparently a character who is a Democratic politician in NY who whips up opposition to the Muslim character out of political ambition, so that might be interesting.

      USAtoday link

      • Philip Weiss
        August 17, 2011, 2:59 pm

        thanks for doing my homework for me on this, Donald. I want to check out the book; but I fear the portraits are not very penetrating…

      • Donald
        August 17, 2011, 4:31 pm

        I hope you do–a Mondoweiss literary review could be interesting. Or if you don’t do it, farm it out to one of the other front pagers.

      • RoHa
        August 17, 2011, 9:29 pm

        “And yet, thinking about those comments while writing her novel made her ask whether such sentiments necessarily led to violence, or even sanctioned it. ”

        Did she ask why people held such views?

      • Sumud
        August 17, 2011, 10:54 pm

        I think there’s two issues there RoHa.

        The first is the use of the term “the jews”. In the same way that I challenge someone when I hear someone comment on “the muslims” (0ften to make discriminatory generalisations), I challenge people when I hear people use the term “the jews”. Example: I work with a guy who is of Turkish descent, and in discussing I/P he used that term. When I said “do you mean zionists or jews?” he corrected himself and said “zionists”.

        It’s not a small issue and I wish people would be more accurate in the terms they use. Zionist groups like MEMRI also exploit this carelessness relentlessly, see the entry on Wikipedia about Hamas leader Mahmoud Al Zalhar:

        Wikipedia: Mahmoud Al Zahar > Hardline position > Incitement controversy

        Truth is, I don’t know what Zahar originally said – a Hamas minister claims his speech was mistranslated by MEMRI, and given that organisations origins and goals I would not be surprised if that were the case – but many Palestinians (and others) do use the term “the jews” to refer to Israelis and zionists and it plays very badly to western observers. At a time when BDS is making great progress, that doesn’t help.

        The second related issue is as you say – asking why people they hold such views, rather than dismissing such views as racist, when possibly they are not.

    • Philip Weiss
      August 17, 2011, 3:01 pm

      itwas the Finkler book, I think. i think he was very direct about his Jewish identity, and I dont share it. In Waldman’s case, I dont sense a lot of inner exploration on what she might consider Jewish concerns…

      • Bumblebye
        August 17, 2011, 6:03 pm

        Howard Jacobson? In a prog on bbc radio earlier this year (about anti-semitism – can’t find link) he and the presenter (Wendy something) equated criticism of Israel with anti-semitism, and their comments created the clear impression their ‘Israel’ was the enlarged version. It started ok, in the Baltic states where there is a very clear problem but pushed the subject way too far in my view.

  4. marc b.
    August 17, 2011, 4:35 pm

    ‘the finkler question’ by h. jacobson.

  5. DICKERSON3870
    August 17, 2011, 5:46 pm

    RE: “Religious identity and transparency” ~ Weiss

    A SUPERB FRENCH FILM: A Prophet (Un Prophète) 2009 R 155 min
    After refusing to snitch, 18-year-old Arab Malik (Tahar Rahim) is thrown into a French prison, where the Corsican mafia rules with a firm fist. The obedient newcomer slowly rises through the organization’s ranks but soon begins to double-cross his superiors. A follow-up to his 2005 gem The Beat My Heart Skipped, French director Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
    Language: French (also German dub, and English subtitles)
    Netflix Availability: DVD and Blu-ray
    NETFLIX LISTING – link to
    TRAILER @ IMDB (VIDEO, 02:06) – link to
    P.S. Rahim is the new De Niro!
    P.P.S. Those “dirty” Corsicans! (lol)

Leave a Reply