The conversion of Joel Kovel (Part 1)

Israel/Palestine
on 99 Comments
Video 25 0 01 04 55
Joel Kovel, 8/22/2012

At the annual July 4 weekend picnic held in the Catskills by Michael Ratner and Karen Ranucci this year, Joel Kovel gave me stunning news at the beer table: he said that he had been baptized on Easter, at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem.

Born Jewish in Brooklyn in 1936, Kovel is a renowned radical scholar. His latest book, The Enemy of Nature, is an “eco-socialist” polemic against capitalism as the source of global warming. His book before that, Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine, is a classic of Jewish anti-Zionism.

Kovel baptized
Kovel (r) just before baptism by the Rev Earl Kooperkamp, photo credit Peter Halleck

Because I take Kovel so seriously– and because the question of conversion is such a fascinating one; consider such influential figures as Heinrich Heine, Annie Dillard, Muriel Spark, and Bob Dylan -  I asked if I could interview him about his conversion. We met at his Upper West Side apartment on August 22; and I followed up with a short interview by phone on September 2. Our conversation is very long, so I have broken it into two parts. The second part will run in a couple of days.

Part I. The Aunt Betty Apocalypse

I want to put off the question of your actual conversion and ask you about your life progress to that point.

It’s a process more than anything, and it has been a long drawn-out one. It wasn’t like I was suddenly stunned like St Paul on the road to Damascus. On the other hand it was punctuated with a lot of intense spiritual moments and it took a long time to unfold.

So start by telling me about your religious background.

It was very conventional, although my family itself was not. My family was deeply riven by conflicts. However, from the outside it was a standard Ashkenazi Jewish family. Both my parents were born in the Ukraine, which was then part of Czarist Russia, both came here in the early years of the last century. My father was born in 1901, my mother in 1908, and they were both the eldest of their sibship, the eldest of five children. They came with their families, and they did the whole Lower East Side experience. Both were from working families, there was no wealth there. People in my family once tried to trace their roots, and they just disappeared. It’s just amazing how Jews from that part of the world just disappeared from view. There were no records, and they couldn’t go back beyond my grandparents. There must have been a lot of interesting things happening that we will never know.

I myself was the oldest child in fact of all my parents’ siblings. And I was the first member of the family born in the new world, in 1936, and I was lionized as such.

My parents were not particularly religious or pious, though my mother was more rooted in Jewish tradition than my father. My father was a very odd fellow and he went his own way, but there was no question that this was a Jewish family, and I was exposed to the conventions of the Jewish religion. I went to school on Wednesdays to learn the elements of the faith. We weren’t regular observers, but we went on high holidays and the like, and the culture was very straightforward: eastern European, Russian, Jewish. We settled in my own life in Brooklyn. My dad was a civil servant, he worked for the Internal Revenue Service, which gave him a job during the depression, and my mom had been a secretary to a popular Catholic writer, Fulton Oursler.

Their ambitions were modest, but much was made of me. I was the star. I was precocious and my dad was an amateur photographer, and there are hundreds of pictures of me, taken with his Leica. I have a younger brother, born when I was 4, and it was just the two of us.

What was not at all standard about my family were the sharp ideological divisions within it. That was my father’s doing. My mom was very conventional, she liked to fit in, but my dad was a contrarian, you’d have to say. He had dabbled in leftwing politics as a youth, then moved sharply to the right, and became a fanatical rightwinger, even a kind of fascist. It was really amazing. We were living in a neighborhood that was not only Jewish but largely Communist. My boyhood geography was Midwood, Flatbush, Avenue J, Ocean Parkway, Coney Island Avenue, and Ebbets Field, and my father would rant about the imminent Communist takeover of the U.S. It seemed plausible to me because everywhere I looked, there were Communists. Though they seemed like nice enough people.

On the whole I loved my surroundings and was happy in my upbringing. There was an incredibly rich and bright, intellectually-alive group of people at that school. One of my classmates was Alan Konigsberg, who is now known as Woody Allen. We ran a little ratpack.

I diverged in the sense that we moved to Long Island my last year of elementary school. I went to Baldwin High School, and I was bar mitzvahed in Baldwin. It was just part of the hegira of the upwardly-mobile Jews from the Lower East Side. My mom’s family had moved to the Bronx, my dad’s to Brooklyn. 

I’m writing a memoir that touches on a lot of these matters. Over the years I became something of a public intellectual, and I have been identified with rather extreme views, and I think that my temperament, my emotional affiliation, is with the Old Testament prophets. I can see myself outside the gates of the city hurling imprecations at its waywardness. Of course I am also Lou Kovel’s son, and as extreme to the left as he was to the right, though my life has been much happier than his.

My Jewish background was completely unremarkable in terms of my faith and things of that sort, but I must say that it’s important to note that I never took to Judaism. Long before I had any ideological problems with it– I would go to the services, go to the Hebrew school, dutifully, but without any enthusiasm, and indeed as time went on with a certain degree of hostility. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with it, but because it bored me intensely.

I would say that I did not like it, and in contrast to my regular schooling in which I was an ace—I read voraciously—here I took the opposite view. I don’t like this, I don’t want to learn it, mainly because I wanted to be outside playing with my buddies, and I didn’t want to be cooped up in this room.

Well you were hardly alone in those feelings, Joel.

No but at one point, I think there was some distress on my mother’s part because of this. I was sent to a tutor, some kind of ultra orthodox rabbi. He was a horror. I couldn’t stand him. He started fulminating about how horrible Jesus Christ was. That he was a bastard, his parents weren’t even married. I thought, what do I care? But this was indicative of the fact that my parents cared enough to send me there, they were concerned that I was a religious slacker.

I was very much into being an American boy. Rooting for the Dodgers. Duke Snider was my hero. [Points at photo on the bookshelf] That’s 1950, Duke Snider–the fans giving him a birthday cake. Mickey Mantle, Willy Mays, and Duke Snider were our heroes. And he was our center fielder.

Meantime, there were many emotional conflicts in my family, conflicts which affected me. In my memoir I have a very long second chapter in which I detail some of this. Because I think it’s relevant for an in-depth understanding of what made me the kind of person I am. There was extreme divisiveness and anger and I remember both parents screaming at each other, I remember both my parents being violent toward me. Even though I was also lionized.

Physical violence?

Threats of same and in some instances I’m positive there was. I have a very stormy inner life and a very harsh conscience. I am extremely self critical. I can hear each parent criticizing me in their voice. On the other hand, I was anything but neglected.

There were three phases in my experience of Judaism. The first was childhood indifference and boredom. The next was a much worse event as an adolescent, which was I think very traumatic and sealed my fate in some ways.

I came from a good sized family. Each parent had four siblings, and there were many people from the old country, but I can guarantee you that the only one I truly loved was my Aunt Betty, and I knew she loved me. She was my father’s youngest sibling, and the model of a liberated woman. She went out and founded a business, and she was written up in the papers, a Jewish woman going into the world.  She had a visiting nurses service, her own little firm, and she had a son of her own who is now deceased.  And she and I were really close. I loved to be around her, she was very funny, and a model of all the strong women I’ve been drawn to in life.

And then she fell very ill. She had a horrible form of cancer. I was 16 when she started to decline. It was ovarian cancer, one of the worst, and it deformed her very much. She was a big strong person, and she had 6 months of the most hellish descent. It was an awful death. And I went to her funeral, and it was a secular funeral, because she had broken with the Jewish faith. She had never taught me to break with the Jewish faith, I don’t know where she stood on Zionism. I just knew she was an atheist and didn’t want to be part of the Jewish faith.

A horrible thing happened at the funeral. The service was at Riverside chapel near Grand Army Plaza, and it was miserable. A man spoke who didn’t know her at all, and mumbled some platitudes, then we went over to her house. I was a freshman at Yale, and I had come down for the funeral. I went to her house and stumbled around in the most desolate way, then I overheard these women’s voices behind me, three of them, and I listened to what they were saying. They were three of my aunts, I won’t identify them further, and they were saying in so many words, Betty was a bad person in life and a bad person in death, she had showed no sympathy to them, she had showed no respect for the Jewish faith, she didn’t give them the benefit of a proper Jewish funeral where they could mourn as Jews mourn. You see, all she did was die of cancer, a horrible death, and be buried as she wished. But it wasn’t good enough for them. She was 40 years old, and she was the light of my life in many ways, she was very bright, like my father.

How did you react to what they said?

Oh it was apocalyptic. It was a great thunderclap, as if the world was coming to an end. I was completely startled. I was barely 17 at the time.

Did you say anything?

Not directly. What I did was I left immediately, I bid a hasty goodbye, I said I had to get back to school and I went out.

Did you express your feelings to anyone in your family?

No. I understood she was their close relative, and they hated her because she wouldn’t accept their tribal identity. And I could not share that understanding with other members of my family. I didn’t. I should have.

But what happened to me as a result is that I sealed myself off from my family. From that moment on I was a superficially loyal and cooperative member of the family, but I said to myself on that day, I will have nothing to do with them in re the Jewish faith. I basically broke with Judaism at that point.

I’m not accusing you of unfairness, but-

Oh. I’m sure I was unfair. But who’s keeping score!

But weren’t there members of your family you could talk to about this who would agree and say, fuck them?

I considered it. But I said to myself there’s no one I could talk to about this. I saw the family as a whole with this tribal ethos. The only exception was my father, because he was off in his own wacky life. It could be that my father would have been upset. He did love his younger sister. She was like his kid sister, and he was very dour. You know that word saturnine? She was the only one who could kid around with him. He would kind of like it. I probably could have talked to my father about it. I wish now that I had spoken with him, about this and many other things, but there were barriers between us.

My father was not indifferent to spiritual matters, and he respected the Roman Catholic church. He did not respect the Jewish establishment. He became a follower of Elmer Berger and the American Council for Judaism. He was anti-Zionist, but anti-Zionist from a very different perspective from mine, because Zionist meant socialism and also divided loyalty to him. I respect that view. I don’t have that loyalty to the U.S. that he had, but I recognize the issues.

So let’s get back to your narrative; what about your Jewish identity at Yale?

I remained very conscious of Jewish identity, proudly conscious of it. I just thought we were the smartest people on the block and I was very into being smart. I was not aware at Yale that there was a strict 10 percent quota on Jews, and I was an outstanding student, and I loved it. I had these great friends, who included non-Jews, but many of them were Jews, and some became famous. One friend was Tom Cohen and his father Elliot Cohen founded Commentary. And I hung out in those circles, I had no trouble with that. It was the tribal clinging in-group sort of feeling, mediated not by religious faith but ethnic pride. Though I never had anything to do with Judaism at Yale, I went to services dutifully when I was home—Yom Kippur– but I went and didn’t even listen. I’m not proud of it, I wasn’t a conscious rebel, but it didn’t seem to matter that much. I never had a serious relationship with a Jewish girl although I was groomed to such. I was my family’s ticket to upper bourgeois life, by marrying a Jewish girl– but it never came close. My first wife was an Irish Catholic. And when we had the first baby, a boy, I refused to have him circumcised. That was 1963, appalling my mother, breaking off relations with them. She stormed out. When we were courting each other, my first wife and I, my mother was upset and Virginia’s mother was even more upset. My mother said, I only ask that you go to a rabbi in Riverdale, see if you can make a Jewish family of it. The guy was awful. He was a jerk, it was a nonstarter.

By those years, I was becoming rambunctious intellectually. I was not a Communist, but I was a rebel in another direction. I became a Reichian, interested in naturopathic modes. As a doctor I knew that hospitals were bad places, and I also felt that circumcision was a barbaric practice, and I was proud not to be a member of that tribe defined by laws of the foreskin. And I rationalized that feeling by saying, Why should I hurt my newborn, they howl. They don’t remember it, OK, but they howl.

And subsequent years did nothing to soften me from the shock at age 17. If there’s a hard unforgiving quality to me, I have to own up to it.

I never got over that [the Aunt Betty funeral]. Also in going to family events, I began feeling critical of their whole way of life, the things they value, the things they did.

I didn’t like the religion, but I didn’t think of an alternative religion. I thought of myself as part of a rising technical elite. I was a whiz in hard sciences and mathematics, but I turned away from that too, and went to medical school. I got involved in Reichianism. I identified with those radicals. Reich had been a communist. And I was going that way.

You never had it out with your family?

Never. I’m not proud of that. I should have. It was not my finest moment.

Never shared your feelings about the Aunt Betty incident?

No. I never told anybody till the principals were dead and I could share it. What happened to me—I’m not proud of it but that’s the way it was—is that those feelings were embellished with other fundamental differences, including the Israel thing, which took a long time to develop.

I mean, I took quite a long while to get there on Israel. I did not become a major anti-Zionist till the 80s. It’s not easy to explain. I didn’t like Israel, but I didn’t think of it as an abomination in part because I was very preoccupied with being an outstanding scientist and physician. When I started training in psychiatry, my medical internship was at Albert Einstein, which is part of Yeshiva University, of course a thoroughgoing Jewish school, and the chairman of the psychiatry department was Milton Rosenbaum, a definite Zionist, and a man I liked and respected a lot. He oversaw a mental health clinic in Jerusalem, and I didn’t think there was anything awful about that. Though as he aged—and he lived to be in his 90s–he became less and less Zionist. There was a certain degree of debate at Einstein, but it wasn’t intense. There was a very brilliant group, and I enjoyed being part of it. I would say this– it was very striking. I noticed that in 1967 prior to the war, there was a great deal of panic. I was 31. And I found myself being really frightened. I’m in no sense a Holocaust denier or indifferent, in fact in the 1980s I wrote an essay on the subject, I have studied the effect of the Holocaust and its causes in considerable depth. I’ve read many books. The Painted Bird. The White Hotel. Histories.

Night?

Not night.

It’s a good book.

But not by a good man. Woooo woo. [hand motions of distress] But I remember reading Exodus, and thinking, Let’s get them. [gungho hand gestures] I went for that Sabra mentality, Jews redefining themselves. But it wasn’t very intense, and there were contradictions around the edges. And yet when the press was talking about Holocaust 2 and the power of the Egyptian forces, I flipped and I was very frightened, and when the Zionist forces triumphed I felt a surge of pride, and you’ve read Peter Novick [The Holocaust in American Life]. He makes the point that the whole subject really congealed after the Six Day War. That wasn’t the case with me, I was aware of the Holocaust from 1948 on, I was reading that stuff.

But in any case, the very intense moment was actually a kind of catharsis for me, an emptying out, and what I thought was my moment of triumph, our moment as Jews triumphing over the pagans and hordes, actually turned out to be the crest of a wave that sort of subsided. I never took that attitude again.

So what was next?

Well by 1976, I met DeeDee [Halleck, Kovel’s second wife]. Deedee had a much more developed view of these things. By 76, I was a recognized Marxist scholar, flaming red, going to Washington to smash the state, getting into trouble, and I still didn’t have a very strong Zionist critique, though I knew that there was something seriously wrong. And by ’80 with the Lebanon matter, that was a horror and I realized, this was very bad stuff. So I was late.

Give yourself a break.

I told you, I’m very hard on myself. It was another 27 years before I wrote Overcoming Zionism. But I became definitely anti-Zionist in the 80s.

And as for DeeDee it wasn’t something she had studied in great detail, but the instincts were all there. Her first marriage was seriously harmed when her first husband played at a benefit for Israel. She felt that was unacceptable, and it was part of their breaking apart. She had that attitude in the 70s. She came out of Antioch College, and the radical arts scene.

But you were a Yalieelite, and insulated from that?

I had the idea I was Marxist and antiwar, but then I went much further. Deedee gave me permission to do that. DeeDee is a very powerful woman, she was like my Aunt Betty.

DeeDee and I share a great deal. She was born in St Louis and grew up in Tennessee, and her father was an engineer and he took them to Cuba. Her parents were very liberal, Unitarians, and quite progressive in a good way. She actually went to the Highlander camp, led by Myles Horton. It was a half hour away from where she lived in Tennessee.

So I was expanding as a person, feeling my intellectual power, feeling that I had a contribution to make. But I postponed the anti-Zionist thing in part because my father had died in the mid-70s, he had terrible dementia, and my mom and I never got along, and we had quarrels about Israel. She was an ardent Zionist. Hadassah, you know– she was a chairperson of Hadassah in Nassau county. She was part of that very influential civil society, the small town fabric that Jews formed.

This is something very important. People say the Jewish organizations don’t represent the rank and file, but the fact is that these attitudes are all through Jewish life. They won’t boycott the settlements because my mother won’t boycott the settlements.

That very deeply informs my critique. It’s just not the rich big Jews. My mother Rose Kovel was part of it. In the last years of her life, in part because she and DeeDee had big arguments– once I took up with DeeDee I was a lost cause. I find that more and more as I get older, I get more and more passionate. The arc bends. And my wife has totally allowed it to happen, she’s not standing in the way. Everybody in my family thinks of me as this wild man, but not her.

Anyway, I just couldn’t stand the quarrels with my mother, and I knew I wasn’t going to change her mind. And we were on such bad terms for much of this time, that it restrained me from joining any anti-Zionist organization. I wrote a scholarly article in the 80s, about Marx on the Jewish question, but I didn’t go very public.

My rationalization was, I’m a very busy man, I’m also very deeply-involved in these leftwing causes. Why should I take on this one? I’m trying to stop nuclear war, I was very involved in antinuclear politics, and then I was going to Nicaragua all the time, doing anti-imperial politics. Well I was wrong.

It reminds me of Medea Benjamin being stopped by the Zionists in her family, and my own battles with my mother about this stuff. People muzzle themselves.

My mother got a little kinder and gentler. But I tell you what most held me back was my children from my first marriage– I didn’t want to storm out of my mother’s life and not have them see one another. We would have to terminate the relationship; instead, for the whole time our family made these ghastly trips to Florida to see her.

But for someone who has a reputation for taking on these struggles, I’m also able to pick and choose. Though once I decided in 2001, I said, Well that’s it. Once I set my mind on it, I said, I’m sorry, and I’m going to make up for lost time.

I feared that it meant the end of the relationship with my mother. I feared it for my children. DeeDee and I have a daughter, and my mother lionized our daughter. She’s a leftwing lawyer. And my mother had a good relationship with her. The rationalization was, I have all these things going, when mama’s gone, I’ll change.

When did your mother die?

1993.

So let’s get back to the main highway, the road to conversion.

Well I had already had a substantial encounter with Christianity at that point. And I wrote this book, History and Spirit [An Inquiry into the Philosophy of Liberation], it was published in 1991.

Growing up, Christians were just the Irish and the Italians in the next neighborhood over and we were taught to hate and fear them. Then I got to Yale and it was, Whoa! We’re not in Kansas anymore. My first afternoon, the guy next door said, let’s go for a walk. We see a store with a funny name, International Business Machines. He said, My dad works for them. Yes, and he became the president of IBM a year later. Albert Williams.

So you liked some Christians?

Yes, lots. And I can definitely say that there were two major things that happened in college, both interior, and temporary, and I didn’t know what to do with them. I felt there was something in me that I hadn’t had any sense of at all.

The first thing was that [the late English professor] Richard Sewall addressed the freshman class in Woolsey hall on September 3 or so. There were 1000 of us, and Sewall was a remarkable man, very very progressive faculty member, and from a high Protestant tradition. He starts talking, “I’m going to introduce you to Yale.” I’m just going to summarize. But he said, “What’s your greatest motivation as you go through school? It shouldn’t be success, but deeper things,” and he named three things. “The first one is hope, hope is very important, it’s something you can build on and open yourself to the future. The second is faith, faith isn’t necessarily in God, but you have to believe in something larger than yourself. But the greatest of these is love.”

Well as he spoke, I felt it. I was staggered, and I thought, Oh my god, what’s going on! I didn’t tell anybody about it. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it was just boing boing boing boing. [Kovel hits his chest with his hand]. It wasn’t till quite a few years later that I realized he was talking about St. Paul and the message of First Corinthians. I had no frame of reference then, but it struck me like lightning nevertheless.

Then the second thing, my sophomore year in college, there was a rainy evening, and there was an arts movie theater I went to sometimes. I’d pay my 50 cents and watch a movie. That night it was Diary of a Country Priest [1951], by Robert Bresson. I’d just heard of it. Someone had told me it was worth seeing. Although at first I hated it. It was very dreary, nothing was happening. This priest was getting nowhere, stuck in rural France, scuffling here and there, general misery, and I thought, I should leave. But I stayed. And then I stayed and I started getting gripped by it. And then it turns out he has cancer and he’s going to die, and for the last half of the film, I sat there weeping. I thought, I don’t know why I’m weeping. Why am I weeping? He said at the end, “All is grace.”And it struck me dumb. What does that mean? It was Jesus of course, rejected and despised. But that never occurred to me.

Well it’s very important, these two incidents, both instances of epiphanies, but with totally different valence from the Aunt Betty epiphany. They seized me. And I want to say this about my conversion. It’s a much longer story than we can deal with in an hour or two, but it wasn’t at all like I was shopping for religion, it wasn’t like a menu that I chose from. I didn’t particularly want to be religious. The only religion I knew was the Judaism that I had no respect for, and this was happening to me, and in fact it happened very slowly. But those things somehow stayed with me, and the basic point was, I didn’t choose to do this, I feel I was chosen. Not because I’m special. I’m a human being and there is this opening in human beings, where this presence enters you, and that’s where it entered me. But I tell you, I didn’t do very much with it at first. It was a long time before I did very much with it. At Yale, I was preoccupied with being a bigshot smartest kid on campus, I was competitive beyond belief. I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. I just thought, it’s odd that this happened. But I had a visitation, and what does that mean?

There was a big turning point however, in the 1980s. I was in my 40s and successful, I was a rising academic shrink etc etc etc.

Clearly the training as a Freudian psychoanalyst is not conducive to spiritual development because everything gets picked apart, and the environment is 90 percent secular Jewish. There’s a lot in the history of psychoanalysis about the Judaizing of the profession. I have read a lot of it. But psychoanalysis was a method that foreclosed a lot of spiritual activity. It rather tended to reduce everything to an infantile thought process. And sometimes in a very dubious way, as I will take up in my memoir.

I will just say that September 12, 1973, I came into my analyst’s office in a rage—why? Because Allende had been overthrown, that was the other September 11. And I said, these bastards, see what they did. ‘Now Dr Kovel, what does this bring to mind about your father?’ Fuck my father. I didn’t say that, but that’s how I felt. I said, “Look at these gangsters, Kissinger,” and he said, “Dr Kovel you’re taking these things too literally, you’re not really analyzing it.”

Then the next month in 1973 came the Yom Kippur war. Well, I wasn’t on Israel’s side anymore. And all the analysts were agitated, saying “They’re going to get Israel again.” There are a number of instances like that.

What about seeking your spiritual nourishment inside Judaism?

I didn’t seek for it in Jewish life. It was foreclosed really. It seems like I thought these things through a lot. But I didn’t really. To use a crude metaphor, in some ways a religion is like a key that opens a lock, and we’re the lock, and I had in effect said to myself, that lock cannot be opened by the key of Judaism. But somehow that was not the case in terms of the successor religion, which was launched by two Jews, Jesus and Paul, who never knew each other. For some reason that was different.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

Other posts by .


Posted In:

99 Responses

  1. Annie Robbins
    September 6, 2012, 12:31 pm

    fascinating. i want part 2..now!

    • Mooser
      September 7, 2012, 5:30 pm

      “We see a store with a funny name, International Business Machines. He said, My dad works for them. Yes, and he became the president of IBM a year later. Albert Williams.”

      Does Mondo have an editor? This sentence somehow slipped in under the “road to conversion” heading.

      • Mooser
        September 7, 2012, 5:34 pm

        “So you liked some Christians?”

        Mr. Kovel, I just read the story of your conversion under this heading, and we need to get in touch. First of all, my family has some beach-front property in Arizona we could seel you at a great price. Also some great deals on some big suspension bridges. And did I mention the 220 million dollars just sitting in a Nigerian account I’ll need help bringing into the US. You’ll get 10%.

  2. Les
    September 6, 2012, 1:36 pm

    At a recent Left Forum panel, Kovel said people of the left, including himself, lacked that faith that religious people like Martin Luther King had. King, unlike Kovel, et. al., believed that they could succeed at what they were trying to do.

    Also, if you’re interested in converting to a Protestant religion, becoming an Episcopalian is one that demands the least of the convert. Think about joining Trinity Church and replacing their vestry of capitalists with a Christian one.

    Philip, Thanks a zillion for sharing this with us.

  3. Krauss
    September 6, 2012, 1:47 pm

    Meh. He talks an awful lot about himself in glowing terms for a man supposedly very keen on ‘harsh self-criticism’.

    Despite what Sewell, at Yale, said about ulterior motives, the draw for Kovel always was ‘what’s in it for me?’. Everything resolves around his own psychodrama throughout the entire interview.

    His conversion to Christianity isn’t a path for something greater, it’s trying to satisfy his own inner demons and put them to rest.

    I view his conversion as an old man’s last gamble after he failed to quench his inner turmoil through psychoanalysis(which wasn’t hard to predict, since Freud was a sophisticated con man who projected upon everyone else what he was feeling).

    There is a fair share of scientists, as they approach old age, become irrational and start to convert as their existential angst catch up with them. Kovel doesn’t make the cut as someone different from that crowd at all.
    The difference is that he lacks their humility and grace.

    • Don
      September 6, 2012, 6:35 pm

      My goodness…aren’t we critical…

      • Mooser
        September 7, 2012, 5:41 pm

        “My goodness…aren’t we critical…”

        Don, what the hyeck are you saying? You don’t see what’s on top of that comment? It says “Krauss”, Don. That’s K-R-A-U-S-S, Don, in case you missed it, and aren’t just displaying an unwonted temerity.
        Don, I hate to say it, but it sounds like you don’t think Krauss knows all and sees all.

      • Don
        September 9, 2012, 12:42 pm

        Mea culp, mea culpa …I now stand corrected.

        Thank you, Mooser!

    • MRW
      September 7, 2012, 1:42 am

      Ahh…Krauss…it’s his interview and he’s being asked these questions. (Re: your “Everything resolves around his own psychodrama throughout the entire interview.”)

      Phil says it in the intro: “I asked if I could interview him about his conversion.” You expected a discussion of politics?

    • bilal a
      September 7, 2012, 7:57 am

      His description of good liberal freudian analysts as 90% secular Jews who could care less about Allende but are rabid yom kippor zionist hawks seems to be the most important here. What to make of an American intellectual life dominated by bronx haddasah partisans? What kind of intellectual metric brings these types to prominence in our culture ? Is it a kind of social psychological sickness ? I am curious about his promise to talk of anti -religious secular Jews and spirituality.

    • Mooser
      September 7, 2012, 5:50 pm

      “The difference is that he lacks their humility and grace.”

      There you go again, Krauss. Did you see Kovel during the “praise-dancing” part of the service? He was both humility and grace itself, expressed in the most spiritual of terpsichoreanisms, if you get my drift. Like a crucified and resurrected Gene Kelly, more than anything.

      And nobody was more silently scornful of “praise-dancing” than me. Til I saw some, and was knocked out by it. It’s not easy, but when it’s done well, it’s glorious. And when it’s not done well, it’s still fun, and gives the kids something to do. And really, how much more than that can you expect from religion?

  4. ColinWright
    September 6, 2012, 2:47 pm

    “My family was deeply riven by conflicts. However, from the outside it was a standard Ashkenazi Jewish family. “

    Can’t resist. There’s a distinction?

    • seanmcbride
      September 6, 2012, 7:20 pm

      Colin,

      What exactly is your point here about Ashkenazi Jewish families?

      • ColinWright
        September 7, 2012, 2:44 am

        Sean says: “Colin,

        What exactly is your point here about Ashkenazi Jewish families?”

        Why don’t you explain what my point is? I’m sure you want to.

        …actually, there isn’t a point. However, memories of several of the Ashkenazi Jewish families I’ve known did make the remark come to mind.

        …but there. I’m sure you’ve been far more intimately acquainted with many more Ashkenazi families than I have. Enlighten us with your broad and balanced experience.

        Try not to have an orgasmic, onanistic, or sweaty experience as you do so, though.

      • seanmcbride
        September 7, 2012, 10:44 am

        Colin,

        Here was my first response to your remark on Ashkenazi Jewish families, which I decided not to post until I gave you an opportunity to explain what you meant:

        BEGIN COMMENT
        ColinWright wrote on Ashkenazi Jewish families:

        “Can’t resist. There’s a distinction?”

        in response to Joel Kovel:

        “My family was deeply riven by conflicts. However, from the outside it was a standard Ashkenazi Jewish family. ”

        There we go again — and indeed you can’t resist making a mean dig at Jews amidst your general howling for the blood of Israelis — the urge is too powerful. You are quite transparent.

        Regarding family conflicts — which American families from all ethnic groups aren’t riven with them? (What is your ethnic group, by the way?)
        END COMMENT

        My first reaction was on the money and now I will post the comment

      • ColinWright
        September 7, 2012, 2:48 pm

        sean mcbride says: ‘(What is your ethnic group, by the way?)’

        Amusingly (given your accusations) probably Jewish, among other things.

        Does that make me a ‘self-hating Jew’ rather than an ‘anti-semite’?

      • seanmcbride
        September 7, 2012, 8:17 pm

        ColinWright wrote in regard to his ethnicity:

        “Amusingly (given your accusations) probably Jewish, among other things.”

        In what ethnic and/or religious sense “probably Jewish”? And what “other things”? I still have no sense of your ethnicity or where you are coming from when you make a flippant remark about Ashkenazi Jewish families.

        Me:

        ethnicity: Anglo-Irish
        religion of upbringing: Roman Catholic
        current religion: agnostic/theosophist
        nation of citizenship: United States
        political orientation: progressive libertarian

        You?

        Also: might it be possible to peruse your pre-Mondoweiss writings on the Internet over the last few years?

      • ColinWright
        September 9, 2012, 3:15 am

        seanmcbride says: “In what ethnic and/or religious sense “probably Jewish”? And what “other things”? …

        …You?

        …might it be possible to peruse your pre-Mondoweiss writings on the Internet over the last few years?”

        Sniff, sniff. Why don’t you do your frigging crypto-Stalinist sleuthing on your own? I wouldn’t tell you the name of my dog at this point.

        …and when you find something, why don’t you bring it all back here and tell everybody all about it? That’ll really impress your rapidly growing circle of fans.

      • piotr
        September 9, 2012, 11:08 am

        What is “progressive libertarian”? I know about pacifist libertarian and imperialist libertarian, both very regressive as far as the social function of the state is concerned. Like Ron Paul and antiwar.com versus Cato Institute (which is wishy-washy) and AEI (which is imperialist). Is there more?

      • seanmcbride
        September 9, 2012, 11:42 am

        Colin wrote:

        “Sniff, sniff. Why don’t you do your frigging crypto-Stalinist sleuthing on your own? I wouldn’t tell you the name of my dog at this point.”

        Since Mideast political controversies revolve entirely around nationalist, ethnic and religious agendas, it is helpful for parties to those controversies to divulge their cultural biases: their nation of citizenship, ethnicity and religion.

        You are the first person I have encountered on Mondoweiss who has reacted so defensively to that question and who is trying to keep that information secret, and one might wonder why. No one is trying to invade your personal privacy — we just want to know where you are coming from in general cultural terms when you repeatedly shout your “hatred” of Israel to the world.

        You haven’t shown any moral outrage about human rights abuses practiced by any nation in the world except Israel, and you went out of your way to describe yourself as not being progressive in political outlook. You don’t come across as a human rights activist with a universalist agenda.

        What are your cultural biases with regard to Mideast politics? We all have them. My Roman Catholic background strongly influenced me to look at the world in trans-ethnic, trans-national and universalist terms. I am no longer a Roman Catholic, but those general attitudes have stuck with me and probably explain why I dislike ethnic and religious nationalism — they comprise too small a box for defining one’s identity. We are bigger than that.

      • ColinWright
        September 9, 2012, 1:14 pm

        seanmcbride says: “You are the first person I have encountered on Mondoweiss who has reacted so defensively to that question…”

        Don’t be so mendacious. You know perfectly well it has everything to do with the questioner and nothing to do with the question.

        Actually, if you had any sincere interest in the answer at all, you would look it up. I believe I posted it some time ago. But maybe I didn’t. You’ll just have to comb all my posts and check. It would fit in with your investigative interests anyway.

      • Dexter
        September 7, 2012, 5:53 pm

        Hey Sean, stop being so damn sensitive and enjoy:

      • MRW
        September 7, 2012, 8:21 pm

        The whole Dave Stanhope show, which is hysterical.

      • MRW
        September 9, 2012, 4:10 am

        Doug, not Dave, Stanhope.

  5. MHughes976
    September 6, 2012, 5:06 pm

    Joel Kovel now comes to Mondoweiss hard on the heels of Brant Rosen. Kovel tells us that a Jewish thinker who rejects Zionism may find a way open to Christianity, Rosen that it is possible to reject Zionism and remain thoroughly Jewish. Though I must welcome Kovel to the beautiful Anglican faith (or mode of doubt, maybe?) I should say that by far the greater political value lies in Rosen’s message.

    • ColinWright
      September 6, 2012, 8:39 pm

      As I recall, Rosen seemed to be for a ‘nice’ Israel, in the end. Kovel seems to be more opposed to Zionism, period.

  6. David Doppler
    September 6, 2012, 5:08 pm

    This is a wonderful interview, Phil. Thank you for sharing it, and I’m with Annie, looking forward to the rest. It reminded me of this passage from John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, on the subject of old men coming to a fresh understanding on moral issues: “Native and original truth is not so easily wrought out of the mine, as we, who have it delivered already dug and fashioned into our hands, are apt to imagine. And how often at fifty or threescore years old are thinking men told what they wonder how they could miss thinking of? Which yet their own contemplations did not, and possibly never would have helped them to. Experience shows, that the knowledge of morality, by mere natural light, (how agreeable soever it be to it,) makes but a slow progress, and little advance in the world. And the reason of it is not hard to be found in men’s necessities, passions, vices, and mistaken interests; which turn their thoughts another way: and the designing leaders, as well as following herd, find it not to their purpose to employ much of their meditations this way. Or whatever else was the cause, it is plain, in fact, that human reason unassisted failed men in its great and proper business of morality. It never from unquestionable principles, by clear deductions, made out an entire body of the ‘law of nature.’ And he that shall collect all the moral rules of the philosophers, and compare them with those contained in the New Testament, will find them to come short of the morality delivered by our Saviour, and taught by his apostles; a college made up, for the most part, of ignorant, but inspired fishermen.”

  7. mthunlan
    September 6, 2012, 5:36 pm

    Reading the abstract of his soooo famous “Overcoming Zionism”
    QUOTE:..Zionism creates a terrible contradiction that eats away at the soul and conscience of the Jewish people. The problem is that you can’t have a democratic state for just one people while excluding the others…..

    makes me LOL!
    He should simply ask himself the question: How long would have the USA existed if they would have accepted that any immigrant could keep his national identity?
    I bet the USA wouldn’t have survived even the turn of the century (I mean the years between 1799-1801).
    What he implies, but obviously doesn’t mentally realise, is not the matter of ethnical diversity in a country, it’s the matter of the leading culture. History tells that countries with more than one leading culture have way more troubles than others. The USA wouldn’t have survived its now over 2 centuries remaining history with only one bigger crisis (but as mystification has blown up, wasn’t even that big -the South actually already had lost the Civil War before it began) if they wouldn’t have only tolerated ONE US nation (may be with the exception of native people -Red Indians and Inuits). What Kovel and any other of his kind mean but not dare to say is, that Palestinian Arabs have a problem in respecting a secular Jewish leading culture and they accept that. But then the bad feeling arouses that they might even DENY a Jewish leading culture.
    And by overseeing the political landscape of the Arabic and islamistic world, I have reasonable doubts in their ability to form a real democracy -the PLO was and is no exception. Defining yourself as secular isn’t synonymous for being moderate as what nerds like you mechanically might indicate.
    BTW: one of the key arguments of the Quebec separationists for secession is: surrender to the Anglo-Canadian culture would lead into their destruction like the US did with the Cajuns.

    • ColinWright
      September 6, 2012, 8:42 pm

      Well, maybe…

      However, if you go to — say — Montana, you’ll discover that there is already more than one ‘leading culture.’ Moreover, this has always been the case.

      It’s a big country. All kinds of things going on out there on the other side of the Hudson.

    • RoHa
      September 6, 2012, 10:41 pm

      “How long would have the USA existed if they would have accepted that any immigrant could keep his national identity?”

      should be

      “How long would have the USA existed if they had accepted that any immigrant could keep his national identity?”

      (It should be ” if they hadn’t tolerated only …”, too.)

      And it is a good point. From my perspective, it certainly looks as though the US is pretty tolerant about letting immigrants keep their “national identities”, but, since there were a large number of these, none was a threat to the leading culture. I tend to agree with you that a country works better if it has a single leading culture. I also think that all children in the country should be given a thorough grounding in that culture. To allow them to remain in closed “cultural communities” is unfair to them.

      “And by overseeing the political landscape of the Arabic and islamistic world, I have reasonable doubts in their ability to form a real democracy”

      Again, I think you have a strong point. However, the only way to gain that ability is by practice. (Some of us doubt that most Western countries have practiced enough.) But I can understand that Israeli Jews would not want to be practiced on. On the other hand, the Israeli Jews are not doing a good job of leading by example, and justice for the Palestinians should not be deferred until everyone in the area has turned into Norwegians.

      • Mooser
        September 7, 2012, 5:16 pm

        Anybody in AMerica can keep all the “identity” he or she desires. What he can’t do is claim land for another agency, country, religion, nor can he/she claim to be exempt from the legal system or taxation on the basis of it. Nor can he/she claim that anybody else is, by virtue of identities inferior to them.

        As usual, when it comes to a post like this, everybody is talking about different things. Now we know the secret of Mondo’s hit-count!

    • Mooser
      September 7, 2012, 5:18 pm

      “How long would have the USA existed if they would have accepted that any immigrant could keep his national identity?
      I bet the USA wouldn’t have survived even the turn of the century (I mean the years between 1799-1801).”

      So you think forcing all immigrant Jews to accept Christianity was, on balance, a plus for the US?

  8. Keith
    September 6, 2012, 5:53 pm

    I read this post with mixed emotions. I thoroughly enjoyed Kovel’s book “Overcoming Zionism,” which I quoted on Mondo a couple of times. Yet, parts of the interview bothered me. For starters, what is with Jews, psychiatry and Marxism? The ongoing reference to childhood trauma, the conviction of being a member of a superior vanguard of the elite. I will wait to see more before I continue, however, one final observation. His story contains more than a whiff of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” at least as far as the family dynamics are concerned. Who was the unnamed analyst, Dr Spielvogel?

    • Mayhem
      September 6, 2012, 8:07 pm

      What’s your problem Keith? Your anti-Zionist idol has blemishes?

    • tinywriting
      September 6, 2012, 11:09 pm

      At least Woody Allen is funny. This guy is just full of himself.

      • Ranjit Suresh
        September 7, 2012, 2:57 am

        How the devil is he full of himself? Thus far, Kovel has expressed his sentiments as springing from a sense of universalism and humanism. Maybe thats too much to bear for the narrow minded.

    • Mooser
      September 7, 2012, 5:20 pm

      “His story contains more than a whiff of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” at least as far as the family dynamics are concerned.”

      You mean there’s sex between adolescents and the evening’s hepatic repast? Now I will read the article closely! I must have missed something.

    • Keith
      September 8, 2012, 6:04 pm

      A belated quickie comment. I noticed that Kovel refers to himself as a follower of “Reichianism.” What the heck, I google it. Wilhelm Reich. Pioneering psychotherapist with an interesting childhood. His mother committed suicide when he was 12. She was having an affair with Wilhelm’s live-in tutor and got caught. Wilhelm used to follow her to the tutor’s room and wait outside. He blamed himself for his mother’s death. He eventually worked with Freud. Seems he felt that all psychological problems were sexual in nature. I suspect that, like Freud, he projected his deep-seated problems onto his patients. He became successful and famous. Kovel claims that psychoanalysts are 90% Jewish. How about the patients? How deeply is psychiatry rooted in Jewish-ness? Something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.

  9. W.Jones
    September 6, 2012, 7:39 pm

    Thank you for your interview, Phil, which I found to be insightful. I am looking forward to the second part. You asked good questions, and it was interesting.

    Take care.

  10. RoHa
    September 6, 2012, 8:18 pm

    So he has dumped one superstition to accept another. Whoopee.

    • Ranjit Suresh
      September 7, 2012, 3:00 am

      There’s a difference. He has accepted a universalistic creed. Personally, I won’t beat around the bush about this point anymore.

      To put it bluntly: a universal vision of man, however superstitious, is ethically more advanced than a tribal ethos.

      • Shmuel
        September 7, 2012, 4:57 am

        If Christianity were that universal, there would be no need to convert. Obviously, it is also a tribe of sorts, which distinguishes between members and non-members.

        Joel Kovel didn’t like the “tribe” he was born into, tried out a few others along the way, and eventually settled on this one (in addition to all of his other “tribes” – science, intellectualism, anti-Zionism, left-wing politics, etc.) Such “tribal” memberships need not preclude universalism or humanism.

      • sydnestel
        September 7, 2012, 5:06 pm

        Communism is (was?) universal, but you still had to join the Communist Party to be really trusted.

        The point is that Christianity – like Islam and (l’havdil) Communism – aspires to be universal. Judaism doesn’t. In that sense Christianity – in theory – is as totalitarian (ala Hannah Arendt’s usage) as Communism. Pluralism is tolerated only for the practical reasons and only to the extent that the total adherence to doctrine cannot be enforced without unacceptable costs. But, if the cost is acceptable – go for it! (Hence the Christian evangelicals in America who never tire trying of getting the government to impose their views on everyone.) I have yet to hear of a Christian denomination that would officially admit that a Hindu could enjoy “everlasting life.” (correct me if I am wrong.)

        Judaism – again in theory – allows that there will always be multiple religions, and that people of other religions can also be good and can get into “heaven” (aka “olam habah”.) This traditional Jewish acceptance of pluralism – perhaps forced in it by Jews weak status in diaspora – is one of traditional Judaism’s more positive features. (This feature is, admittedly, eroding under the impact of right wing religious Zionism.)

        I recognize that many Jews and many Christians don’t act or believe as per the mainstream tenants of their faith, but nevertheless …

      • Mooser
        September 7, 2012, 5:24 pm

        “Such “tribal” memberships need not preclude universalism or humanism.”

        Please read the terms and conditions of the premium membership. They are different from the ordinary free membership.

      • Shmuel
        September 8, 2012, 5:20 am

        An interesting take on the downside of “universalism”, but Islam, like Judaism does not require total adherence for the sake of salvation, and both Judaism and Islam have basic rules for non-members (punishable by death, at least in theory, in the case of the Noachide Laws).

        Various Christian denominations have also undergone far-reaching doctrinal changes in this regard, particularly in the 20th century (in the case of Catholicism, see e.g. Vatican II, Limbo, etc.). Judaism too has undergone periods of universal enforcement – most notably during the Hasmonean era.

        I think communism is another story entirely, but that’s another story entirely.

      • piotr
        September 9, 2012, 11:24 am

        Universalism may be “authoritarian in heart” or not. First, some brands of universalists express certitude that everything important is known, so the main problem is to have everybody agree with them. Other view human capacities more humbly. So you can have Communists and Social Democrats, or fundamentalist Christian and “liberal denominations”.

        Hinduism is curious because dependent on a Hinduist school of thought it can be tribal or universal, and authoritarian or liberal. Perhaps the same can be said about Shinto/Buddhist religion and Judaism.

        When they could, in XVI-XVIII centuries in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jewish rabbis were running pretty tight theocracy (or theocracies).

      • tokyobk
        September 7, 2012, 5:12 am

        Yes, universalism is superior to tribalism, and you are welcome to prefer Islam and Christianity over Judaism and Hinduism for whatever reason, as is Kovel.

        But, the -claims- of those first two religions aside, both in fact still divide humanity into versions of sinner and saved and behave tribally as a whole and especially within their many divisions.

        Kovel did not convert from Judaism to humanism, he converted from Judaism to Episcopalian Christianity which however humanistic now (and his church seems to really walk the talk) was not only tribal in England and this country but was in fact The tribe.

        Again, you are welcome to prefer one faith over the other (and I admire liberal Chritianity quite a bit) but the construction that Judaism is the condition and Christianity is the norm is a flawed and perhaps revealing premise on your part.

      • notatall
        September 7, 2012, 6:38 am

        Not the same. Judaism is tribal because it is “the religion of the Jewish people.” Both Christianism and Islam maintain that all those who accept them become children of one father. One need not be born into the tribe, and no one claims there is any such thing as the “Christian people.” (I know that they often don’t live up to that goal, but that is the theory.)

        But good grief, Episcopalianism?–God’s frozen people.

      • Shmuel
        September 7, 2012, 7:25 am

        Without trying to impose a single (generally Christiano-centric) religious paradigm, Judaism is actually not that different from Christianity in this regard. It is the faith of all who embrace it – whether by accident of birth or by choice.

      • tokyobk
        September 7, 2012, 8:00 am

        Yes, the same in spite of your tautology . Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people. Islam is the religion of the Muslims, the ummah. To say that Islam is the true religion of the world and all are born Muslims, some revert, is not to engage universalism but to promote Islam (which is a fine thing for Muslims to do if they want). Judaism, which has always had converts (in fact more so in the past) recognizes that all who come to it become the sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. One “need not be born in the tribe” of Judaism to come to accept the additional commandments it holds for its community and adopt its lineage. Nor does Judaism say that non-Jews are not also children of god.

        “no one claims there is any such thing as a Christian people” is a statement that would take a long time to “refute.” About the same time it would take to, for example, read a book about the history of Christianity and Christian ideas. That is, a but longer than just saying something cause it sounds about right.

        Ummah, by the way is an interesting concept. A Muslim scholar told me it is related to the Hebrew word Am, as in “people” generally i.e. Am Yisrael, the Jewish people. Furthermore my friend says, the concept of ummah included non-Muslims, people living in early Muslim communities. It contains an aspiration for the universal which I not only don’t deny I admire. Christianity has this aspiration as well. The idea, however that it -is- itself universal is an assumption which assumes its correctness in a chauvinistic, not pluralist, way.

      • Joe Catron
        September 7, 2012, 1:20 pm

        “his church seems to really walk the talk”

        Unfortunately, this is untrue. As Kovel’s fellow Episcopalian, the Mondoweiss tradition of confessional self-criticism obliges me to report that no other mainline American denomination has so consistently – and outspokenly – done the wrong thing on Palestine. The heroic example of Desmond Tutu is entirely lost on this shameful lot.

        http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2012/03/28/presiding-bishop-on-middle-east-peacemaking-dont-divest-engage
        http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2012/07/09/israel-palestine-deputies-support-positive-investment-engagement

        Unless Kovel’s willing and able to fix this sad spectacle – and wouldn’t that be something – I’ll probably see myself out about five minutes after Tutu joins the company of saints.

      • Mooser
        September 7, 2012, 1:47 pm

        “Kovel did not convert from Judaism to humanism, he converted from Judaism to Episcopalian Christianity”

        Oh, no. Jeez, the least he could have done was go AME, and get some great music and preaching along with the wade in the water. But I guess he needs to stay where the alabaster titties gleam.

      • Mooser
        September 7, 2012, 5:05 pm

        Sorry, you all know my eyes aren’t very good. I just squinted real hard at the picture, and there might very well have been some fine music at the service. And it’s not as if New York isn’t packed with fine musicians of every religion. Why else do you think I moved so far away?
        But I must admit, it’s a good plan. When the consequences from Zionism hit the Jews of America Kovel can just melt into the congregation.

      • Elisabeth
        September 8, 2012, 6:58 am

        God’s frozen people…!! I love that. It describes a good section of Dutch Protestantism too. I find it worse when they loosen up and get all happy-clappy and Evangelical.

      • RoHa
        September 7, 2012, 10:22 pm

        A fair point, Ranjit.

      • ColinWright
        September 15, 2012, 3:17 pm

        Ranjit Suresh: “There’s a difference. He has accepted a universalistic creed. Personally, I won’t beat around the bush about this point anymore.

        To put it bluntly: a universal vision of man, however superstitious, is ethically more advanced than a tribal ethos.”

        Yeah. There are, of course, innumerable ways in which the above can be interpreted — but ultimately, I have to agree.

  11. Madrid
    September 6, 2012, 8:25 pm

    Reminds me of my two favorite verses from the NT:

    “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

    And

    “There is neither Greek nor Jew, neither woman nor man, neither slave nor freeman before Christ, for all are equal before Christ.”

    Somewhere between those sentiments, the drive towards charity– the notion that the person in need before you might just be Christ–and the drive towards humanity as one family, equal before their maker is Kovel’s conversion narrative. Giving up your eliteness, your specialness– joining the human family and being willing to provide and to receive charity to and from the other.

    • tokyobk
      September 7, 2012, 5:18 am

      The idea that leaving a particular, even tribal faith, and joining Christianity means giving up “specialness” and “joining the human family” is exactly what the Pilgrims thought about the natives, as well as the Belgians who emptied the Congo and the English in India.

      Christianity, a great faith whose liberals and reformers of the least few hundred years are responsible for much of the good in human organization and philosophy, is -not- a stand in for humanism. It is a particular religion with its own history and agenda and way of dividing humanity into groups.

      • bilal a
        September 7, 2012, 8:07 am

        Yes Judeo Christendom, what we call the West, emerges as a global power through slavery and colonial mercantilism, and has produced the most viciously carnal, violent, and spiritually empty culture known to human history, with the possible exception of the ancient pagan european (roman) culture, or is the EU-West ‘s secular judeo-paulianity just a modern manifestation of the same pagan feudal roots ?

        {Not to give modern non-violent green humanist paganism any association with such]

      • Madrid
        September 7, 2012, 10:09 am

        You’re both wrong– first of all there is no such entity as Judeo-Christendom, except in the minds of American liberal Christians who want to be extra careful not to exclude Jews. If you are going to have Judeo-Christendom, you might as well have Judeo-Islamic Christendom, since Muslims have been involved with Christianity a long time as well, and Islam has more in common with Christianity than Judaism.

        Secondly, Christendom has never been equivalent to Europe or the West, etc, etc. It’s hard to believe that one has to make this point, but given the comic book version of history that most people have gotten from school these days, it bears repeating. Christendom never enslaved anything– Europeans did. To ironic liberals like I suspect you two are, that may seem like a distinction without a difference, but to historians it is very important. In reality, as Anthony Pagden showed, when he was doing really good history, and not trying to write the Global history of the West, there were two forces in early modern Europe during the beginnings of the enslavement of the Amerindians. On the one side were the secular authorities, encouraged by court humanists, using Aristotle’s Politics to argue that the Amerindians were natural slaves, who favored enslaving people whom they considered non-human. On the other side, were the conservative bishops like Bartolome de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria and Antonio Vieira, who used the line above about everyone being equal before Christ to argue that there were no gradations of humanity– that Aristotle’s Politics were wrong. All humanity was one. Interestingly, on paper, the latter argument prevailed– and the proof of that is that both Ferdinand and Isabella and their son Charles V, wracked by their consciences, freed the slaves at the end of their reign. But in practice, because the slave drivers were on the sea and in South America, they could ignore what the prince said where it really mattered.

        As for the exclusiveness and “chosenness” of the puritans (the New Israelites) who excluded the North American Indians from their communities, they comprise relatively one tiny and abberant expression of Christianity that existed for a short period of time in England, Holland, and North America. IN other words, they are by no means representative of the vast majority of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Armenian, Coptic, Anabaptist or even Calvinist Churches throughout the world.

      • tokyobk
        September 7, 2012, 11:59 am

        I agree “judeo-christian”has more to do with recent politics than history, but the idea that Islam is closer to Christianity doesn’t make any sense at all from either a Muslim or Jewish perspective, two legal systems as much as creeds. From Judaism, Maimonedes in particular, a Jew may not pray in a Church but can pray in a Mosque. From Islam, Judaism lays no claim for Allah having partners, that is a truer monotheism. etc…

      • Madrid
        September 7, 2012, 12:26 pm

        Wrong– Umayyad Mosque in Damascus was for a certain period of its history a place where Christians and Muslims worshiped side by side.

        John the Baptist and Jesus are both revered as prophets by Muslims.

      • bilal a
        September 7, 2012, 12:57 pm

        exactly, judeo-christendom’s slave colonialims economy was neither thocratic nor morlly justified, but minaly, as today, a synergy of trade in flesh, intoxicants, and their by products:

        “slave trading was a major feature of Jewish economic life in Surinam which as a major stopping-off point in the triangular trade. Both North American and Caribbean Jews played a key role in this commerce: records of a slave sale in 1707 reveal that the ten largest Jewish purchasers (10,400 guilders) spent more than 25 percent of the total funds (38,605 guilders) exchanged….The economic life of the Jewish community of Curacao revolved around ownership of sugar plantations and marketing of sugar, the importing of manufactured goods, and a heavy involvement in the slave trade, within a decade of their arrival, Jews owned 80 percent of the Curacao plantations. The strength of the Jewish trade lay in connections in Western Europe as well as ownership of the ships used in commerce. But for merchants holding letters of endenization, opportunities were not lacking. Barbados sugar-and its by-products rum and molasses-were in great demand, and in addition to playing a role in its export, Jewish merchants were active in the import trade.”[Jews and Judaism in the United States a Documentary History]

        Mutual cooperation between Christian political authoritites and Jewish financial interests , in areas of dubious Christian ethical questionings, then is not unique to evangelical -zionism of this decade.

        Muslim-Jeiwsh trade enslaved a great deal of whites from Ukraine, etc, from which we have the origin of the word, slave, from Slav. making them equal opportunity slave traders ?
        Go figure.

      • Mooser
        September 7, 2012, 5:09 pm

        “From Judaism, Maimonedes in particular, a Jew may not pray in a Church”

        That’s ridiculous “tokyobk”, I’ve done it a hundred times. Certainly fifty. And every time I come out, I put my hands in my pockets and check around, yup, I’m still Jewish, nothing has changed.
        Feh I’ll give them this, you get wet, your perm gets ruined, but jeez at least you come away from it whole.

      • Mooser
        September 7, 2012, 5:11 pm

        Oh, sorry, tokyobk, forgot the subject of your post. Yup, you are right, Judaism is just a little better than Christianity, but it’s a whole lot better than Islam, and we ought not to forget it!

      • AlGhorear
        September 10, 2012, 8:27 pm

        Mooser: “Oh, sorry, tokyobk, forgot the subject of your post. Yup, you are right, Judaism is just a little better than Christianity, but it’s a whole lot better than Islam, and we ought not to forget it!”

        Mooser, you are a gem :).

      • G. Seauton
        September 10, 2012, 9:27 pm

        “Christianity … is -not- a stand in for humanism.”

        True enough. In fact, Christianity is not humanism per se.

        However, the following sentence is unfortunate:

        “The idea that leaving a particular, even tribal faith, and joining Christianity means giving up ‘specialness’ and ‘joining the human family’ is exactly what the Pilgrims thought about the natives, as well as the Belgians who emptied the Congo….”

        The Belgians emptied the Congo? And the Israelis, who are not Christians, are emptying Palestine (of Palestinians). I’m not sure your example was well chosen, Tokobk.

      • ColinWright
        September 15, 2012, 3:24 pm

        tokyobk: “The idea that leaving a particular, even tribal faith, and joining Christianity means giving up “specialness” and “joining the human family” is exactly what the Pilgrims thought about the natives, as well as the Belgians who emptied the Congo and the English in India.”

        I think all your examples fail.

        Did the Pilgrims want to include the Indians in any sense at all? I doubt it: they were unwilling to include even other English immigrants. They had a very exclusionary mindset. They used to rigorously chase off Quakers, for example. Finally had to hang a few to make their point clear.

        The ‘Belgians in the Congo’ (leaving aside the question of whether they ‘cleared it’) didn’t start out trying to redeem anyone. It was a private mercantile attempt on the part of King Leopold to make money. When that crashed in scandal, it was succeeded by a conventional colonial administration which was benevolent enough, in its own terms.

        The British in India did India a whole lot of good. All one has to do is to consider the condition it would probably be in if they hadn’t appeared to see that. Indian nationalists may find that fact unpalatable — but it remains a fact.

  12. MRW
    September 7, 2012, 1:48 am

    Fascinating interview. I could hear him talk and lurch back and forth with his feelings as I read it. Looking forward to part 2.

  13. Sheldonrichman
    September 7, 2012, 10:02 am

    “A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad.” –C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

    What else do I need to know about that religion?

    • Mooser
      September 7, 2012, 2:55 pm

      “A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad.” –C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain”

      “What else do I need to know about that religion”

      That’s right Sheldon, those Gentiles are so dumb.( and ROTFLMSJAO, so guilt-ridden!) We Jews know how to deal with man’s sinful nature! We do it surgically! One little trip around around the prepuce with a blade, and that ol’ sinful nature’s been covenanted away for good.
      Or is their another, more temporal advantage to be gained by it?

      • Mooser
        September 7, 2012, 3:05 pm

        “What else do I need to know about that religion?”

        They haven’t put a bullet in your Jewish ass. I call that pretty nice, myself, and I thank them daily for it. You’ve got to admit, it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

    • ColinWright
      September 7, 2012, 4:30 pm

      Sheldonrichman says: ““A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad.” –C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

      What else do I need to know about that religion?”

      That seems rather dismissive. I’ll be the first to agree it doesn’t work out in practice very often, but at its best, the idea Lewis suggests does have the rather happy result that people focus on their own shortcomings rather than denouncing the failings of others. Then, instead of lynch mobs, we get everyone trying to be better themselves.

      As I say, it doesn’t actually work out that way very often — but it really is an attractive idea.

      • Mooser
        September 7, 2012, 4:52 pm

        “the idea Lewis suggests does have the rather happy result that people focus on their own shortcomings”

        And so where does that leave you, Colin? As far as I can see,from your posts the only option you have under that dictum is to try and bring others to a sense of their own shortcomings. Anything less would be unworthy.

    • Mooser
      September 7, 2012, 4:59 pm

      “What else do I need to know about that religion?”

      Okay, now Sheldon, chew the stem in a meditative way, and let out a little puff of smoke. You’re not afraid that things gonna give you an oral cancer or something? And I hate to get personal, but do you kiss people with that mouth? Yeesh!

    • Elisabeth
      September 8, 2012, 8:54 am

      In my experience human suffering and not sin is an important theme in Christian churches, but denominations come in many flavors.

  14. Mooser
    September 7, 2012, 1:28 pm

    I have no truck with renegades, traitors, or mosers. Why do you think I added the extra “o”?

    He’ll be singing (if you call that singing) in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir next.

    On the other hand, I do have a natural sympathy for anybody who makes a sleazy move to escape consequences. I mean, we’ve had a bunch of Rabbis telling us that all it takes is a wave of the hand and a quick “I’m not responsible, I’m a new man” to escape the consequences of losing (or even worse, winning) our bet on empire. But this guy is a regular Houdini.

    • Don
      September 9, 2012, 12:51 pm

      “Why do you think I added the extra “o”?”

      ??? Am I to assume, Mooser, that your nickname has nothing to do with…Moose and Squirrel??

      I don’t mean to say I am shocked and disappointed…

  15. Mooser
    September 7, 2012, 1:35 pm

    “he said that he had been baptized on Easter, at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem.”

    So that’s how they do it? Well, I’m taking no chances with my patrimony (before my father, a noted cobbler, died, he promised me, “Someday, son, this awl will be yours”) see if anybody ever gets me into a bathtub or shower again! And I’m steering clear of any nasty little kids with squirt guns!

    • Philip Weiss
      September 7, 2012, 2:19 pm

      Mooser I was hoping you would seriously engage Kovel’s ideas; I am curious to hear what you think of them, because I know you’ve thought about these issues. But looks like you’re being the shtikmeister. Part 2 goes up Monday… maybe we will see a more sincere Mooser then?

      • Mooser
        September 7, 2012, 2:41 pm

        Any Jew who converts to Christianity is not worth engaging seriously, except as a vehicle for improving one’s expectoratory accuracy. I mean, hell, if he likes having water dumped on him, here’s some more, convert boy!
        I know his kind! Right after the baptism he probably bestowed his +15 on some dull Gentile. Couldn’t give it away fast enough.

        Look Phil, if you think you can trivialise the I-P issues to death, go ahead, if you’re right, you’ll save everybody a lot of trouble.
        And how on earth, never having met me or talked to me face-to-face can you know how “sincere” I am? (Not that I wouldn’t make every effort to avoid that) And be “sincere” what if I don’t value sincerity, which I don’t? Take your sincerity and stick it where the sun don’t shine.
        Do you really think sincerity will keep people from seeing how desperate you are to avoid an accounting and the inevitable real consequences? Not to mention how transparent that desperation is.

      • Philip Weiss
        September 7, 2012, 3:47 pm

        I take that back! I dont think I want the sincere Mooser!

  16. proudzionist777
    September 7, 2012, 1:37 pm

    Another anti-Zionist on a ‘revenge mission’.
    Kovel’s raison d’être began after an ugly occerance at Aunt Betty’s funeral.

    • Mooser
      September 7, 2012, 2:45 pm

      “Another anti-Zionist on a ‘revenge mission’.
      Kovel’s raison d’être began after an ugly occerance at Aunt Betty’s funeral.”

      Gee, I thought the Mondoweiss system precluded two commenters having the same name? Well, you ought to know, “proudzionist777” there’s a guy with your exact screen name on another thread, railing against religious prejudice. You wouldn’t want him giving people a false impression would you? I just cjecked, and it’s exactly the same name, right down to the number.

      • proudzionist777
        September 8, 2012, 10:57 am

        Another day in the life of Mooser. Another mistake.

        I’m not the guy who rails against religion.

  17. Mooser
    September 7, 2012, 1:43 pm

    Even tho I have been noted throught my life for what I might kindly called a certain ethical flexibility, and others might call rank dishonesty and underhandedness (ach the world is full of anti-Semites), there are some principles I have held fast to, and never violated. But the Ellis and Kovel and Rabbi Rosen articles have changed my mind.
    I’ve always thought it was a dirty trick til now, but I am beginning to see the absolute necessity in some cases, of putting LSD in somebody’s coffee or fruit juice without telling them. Do ’em more good than a week at the seaside!

  18. Mooser
    September 7, 2012, 3:02 pm

    I gotta go! In the time it took me to write a couple of comments on this travesty of an outrageous apostasy, all the “sincere” people showed up. And welcome to ’em. I’m gonna go make sure the blood level doesn’t get too high in my drugstream.

    • Mooser
      September 7, 2012, 4:37 pm

      Gosh, guess I lost my normally sanguine (I get it from drinking lots of sangria) temperament. You wouldn’t hold it against me if you knew what the weather has been like here. Very unseasonably hot and dry, and we aren’t used to that. There must be a way to get cooled off, and unlike settlers, I have no swimming pool. And it looks like we haven’t paid the bill, so no sprinkler…Hmmm, I think I’ll Google “denominations with full-immersion baptism”….

      • LeaNder
        September 7, 2012, 4:57 pm

        Hmmm, I think I’ll Google “denominations with full-immersion baptism”….

        LOL, don’t drown.

      • bilal a
        September 7, 2012, 6:39 pm

        Why not find a pre-rabbinic non Talmudic synagogue for a full immersion baptism,

        “Toward the beginning of the Christian era, the Jews adopted (as a custom unrelated to Divine guidance) the custom of baptizing proselytes seven days after their circumcision. A series of specific interrogations made it possible to judge the real intentions of the candidate who wished to adopt the Jewish religion. After submitting to these interrogations, he was circumcised and later baptized before witnesses. In the baptism, he was immersed naked in a pool of flowing water; when he rose from the pool, he was a true son of Israel. After their baptism, new converts were allowed access to the sacrifices in the Temple. “

  19. Mooser
    September 7, 2012, 5:27 pm

    “I just thought we were the smartest people on the block and I was very into being smart.”

    And then you go and write this article. Oh well, go ahead and blow the whistle on yourself. I’ll reserved a dignified Jewish silence. You know, better to be thought a fool….

  20. Mooser
    September 7, 2012, 6:02 pm

    “and I think that my temperament, my emotional affiliation, is with the Old Testament prophets.”

    No! Let me guess! Not, what’s-his-face, who had that Greco-Roman interlude with the unidentified guy? Anyway, doesn’t matter, there’s plenty of you around here.
    Next week at Mondoweiss, the Jew-of Conscience Cage Match Slapdown! You can’t all Isaac, Ellis, Kovel, Rosen, keep beating on that same poor angel, or whatever he was. Why not pit you against each other and put it on pay-per-view! Finally something which might buy Mondoweiss a faster server, or a better comment system.

  21. Linda J
    September 7, 2012, 9:50 pm

    How could he do this to Aunt Betty?

  22. thetumta
    September 7, 2012, 9:55 pm

    You will, of course follow this up with a reformed Klansman? One that figured it all out on their own, 40 years ago. There are no shortcuts. They drop you in the middle of this mess and you have to figure it out, all by yourself. I have yet to come across an idea in all of this?
    Hej! Tumta

  23. Stephen Shenfield
    September 8, 2012, 10:46 am

    By transcending ethnicity — at least in principle (“neither Greek nor Jew”) if not always in practice — Christianity is an advance on Judaism. So is Islam. But neither Jewish tribalism nor Christian or Moslem universalism has any historical association with tolerance. All three religions have an atrocious record of persecution of free thought (“heresy”). Their shared God is a deeply immoral character.

    What surprises me is that anyone who has been exposed to Marxian thought should then fall back into religion. The humanist critique of religion that Marx adopted from Feuerbach seems to me powerful enough to inoculate anyone against religion. I suppose the answer lies in the superficial nature of the exposure.

  24. geoffff
    September 8, 2012, 9:06 pm

    Sometimes you can’t believe what you read. What a terrible story. Dear me. What a nasty spiteful family our “something of a public intellectual” has sprung.

    Here is Joel Kovel’s story. He is the favourite son of an affluent Brooklyn family and a Yale brat down for the funeral of a favourite aunt who died tragically. Up until then his only adverse experience with religion had been a cranky old ratbag rabbi who didn’t like Jesus. Just the one?

    I should have thought that was pretty good. Wouldn’t you?

    This is Brooklyn in about 1954 for crying out loud.

    Let’s put it to the secularists for a vote.

    It could have been easily much worse.

    What would he have preferred? A bunch of priests, brothers and nuns who would have been much closer and common in his life and who loved Jesus for sure but probably hated Jews almost as much and said so and may have hated you as well and showed it in the most abominable ways. We know this now. We have all heard from the survivors.

    fuller piece

    Geoffff’s Joint
    http://geofffff.blogspot.com.au/

    • Annie Robbins
      September 9, 2012, 3:25 am

      What would he have preferred? A bunch of priests, brothers and nuns who would have been much closer and common in his life and who loved Jesus

      cute link geo. since you ask and i am a secularist my impression was he just felt something go off inside of him like an epiphany wrt what people reference as christ’s love. he just felt something and i suppose he never had that connection with judaism,nothing comparable. so that was already there, that no feeling wrt judaism and his hurt for the aunt he loved pushed him over the edge in terms of what he could endure and so he dumped what he had already not loved. it (his aunt) gave him the courage to discard judaism( which was secondary because he already didn’t like it) and disconnect on some level with the rest of his family.

    • ColinWright
      September 10, 2012, 12:11 am

      Geofff says: “…Geoffff’s Joint
      link to geofffff.blogspot.com.au ‘

      That site makes me thankful the options for typefaces here are limited.

  25. ColinWright
    September 10, 2012, 12:14 am

    Anyway, I thought it was a good piece. A minor Jewish intellectual responds honestly to some penetrating questions put to him about his personal development.

    And? If you’re not interested in the subject, don’t read the piece.

Leave a Reply