Exile and the prophetic: Disaster payout czar Kenneth Feinberg, Gaza and One Fund Boston

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

I just finished a great book about the 1988 Presidential election written by the late Richard Ben Cramer. Ben Cramer died several months ago and had been a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His beat – the Middle East.

Ben Cramer uses the Presidential primaries to explore the inner workings (or lack thereof) of our best politicians. He wants to know what kind of person runs for President and survives its grueling and often nonsensical pace. Thus the title – What It Takes: The Way to the White House.

In over 1,000 action packed pages, Ben Cramer explores the lives and campaigns of George Bush, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, Bob Dole and Joe Biden. By the end of book, I had the feeling there’s little in American politics beyond blind ambition. The press doesn’t come off much better.

As a writer, Ben Cramer is lots of fun. His keen insights are softened by warmth and compassion. Somehow we will make it through this mess.

Ben Cramer also penned a book on the situation of Israel in the world – How Israel Lost: The Four Questions at the Heart of the Middle East. In this book, Ben Cramer posed four Seder-like questions: Why do we care about Israel? Why don¹t the Palestinians have a state? What is a Jewish state? Why is there no peace? One reviewer described the book this way: “Cramer illustrates how Israel is losing her soul by maintaining her occupation of the lands conquered in the Six Day War. Israel has become a victim of that occupation no less than the Palestinians, who must have a nation of their own.” Date of publication: 2004.

To publicize the book, Beliefnet interviewed Ben Cramer. The interview begins with the standard question: “Your book implies that the current lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians is mostly Israel’s fault. Has anyone accused your book of being anti-Zionist?” Ben Cramer’s response: “Has anyone not? Anything that threatens the idea of Israel’s victimhood is a threat to the industry of supporting Israel in her victimhood. When you suggest in a book that maybe Israeli policy is making the situation worse, not better, you’re bound to be regarded as a threat.”

Have we moved far from this rote call and response? What would Ben Cramer have to say now?

Speaking of prominent Jews on the progressive scale, Kenneth Feinberg, the Disaster Czar who oversaw the 9/11 and BP payouts to victims, is heading up One Fund Boston for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. By all accounts, Feinberg is an intelligent and compassionate man.

Such a high profile Jew was impossible when I was a child. Feinberg reminds me a bit of Eppie Lederer, known to the world as Ann Landers, who dished out advice to Protestant America. Of course, until it was possible to come out, Eppie – who kept her penname – remained in her Jewish closet. Feinberg hasn’t had to do any such thing.

In terms of money for victims – part of the economy accompanying our memorial structure – the American taxpayer hasn’t skimped. The 9/11 fund has paid out 7 billion dollars and counting.

Feinberg’s Jewishness? It’s on display in an interesting hour-long interview with Shalom TV. Most of the interview details his work with victims of disaster but when asked how his Jewish upbringing influences his work, Feinberg is a throwback. He talks about the Jewish home he grew up in, the Hebrew School he attended (which he didn’t like) and the Cantor who schooled him for his Bar Mitzvah. The biggest influence of the Viennese-born Cantor on Feinberg’s life: love of opera.

Feinberg is a more or less delightfully assimilated Jew – decent to the core, interested in pursuing justice, a lover of America and enjoying his upwardly mobility. He’s an American innocent with a Jewish sensibility.

What does Feinberg, who the interviewer assures us is a great lover of Israel, think about the future of Jewish life? You guessed it. Feinberg is pained by the prospect of assimilation he’s embraced. What programs work against assimilation? According to Feinberg, Jewish Day Schools and Birthright Israel are trying to turn the tide.

Feinberg’s wife, Dede, does the heavy lifting in the Jewish community. She is Chair of the Executive Committee of the Board of The Jewish Federations of North America and also, as both the interviewer and Feinberg assures us, a great lover of Israel.

Feinberg himself did venture into Israel though. In a profile of Feinberg last year Tablet offered their take on his work, beginning in 2005 and the call from Ariel Sharon’s government to consult on the impending pullout from Gaza:

At the time, it seemed to many involved that the 9/11 model could be replicated and applied to the more than 8,000 settlers about to be displaced to entice them to leave quietly. “I do not think that the settlers’ emotion or frustration is any more than what I encountered among bereaved family members and victims in America following the terror attacks of 9/11,” Feinberg told the Jerusalem Post in February 2005, six months before the withdrawal. The key, Feinberg told the paper, was for Israeli officials to adopt his practice of meeting with each family, one by one, to sell them on the terms of the relocation benefits program. It’s a grueling process, but one that he thought would defuse the opposition from supporters of the settlements, some of whom were at the time sending death threats to the head of the Disengagement Authority, Yonatan Bassey. According to a State Department cable included in last year’s WikiLeaks dump, Bassey told American diplomats after meeting with Feinberg that he agreed. “In the end,” the cable said, “they ‘got their checks and went home,’ and Bassey predicted this would be the case with disengagement in Israel.”

Israeli settlers in Gaza and 9/11. Israeli settlers in Gaza and the Boston Marathon bombings. When everything can be negotiated – and paid for – what remains of thought and politics?

How did the Gaza settler negotiations work out? The financial bottom line is that each settler family received more than a million dollars in cash and assistance.

Amid the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, Feinberg published a book reflecting on his experience with the victims of September 11th. Its title, What is Life Worth?

The book should encourage us to reflect more deeply on the culture of victimhood, compensation, memorials and the apolitical world they create.

The subtitle of Feinberg’s book – The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11 – is worthy of translation. For Gaza, if we now include Palestinians and what they have suffered, how would the subtitle read?

The main title translated would be provocative, too. What is Palestinian Life Worth?

One Fund Palestine?

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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11 Responses

  1. W.Jones
    April 24, 2013, 1:20 pm

    Wikipedia reports on the choice of name:

    The creator of the ‘Ann Landers’ pseudonym was Ruth Crowley, a Chicago nurse who had been writing a child-care column for the Sun since 1941. She chose the pseudonym at random — borrowing the surname ‘Landers’ from a family friend — in order to prevent confusion between her two columns. Unlike her eventual successor Esther Lederer, Crowley kept her identity as Landers secret,

    Lederer won a contest to become the new writer of the column, debuting on October 16, 1955… Eventually, she became owner of the copyright.


  2. Citizen
    April 24, 2013, 1:57 pm

    I find it annoying that compensation for the 9/11 victims’ families should in any way be equated with the the compensation that Jewish settlers got for leaving Gaza, even thought both were paid for by US taxpayers. What’s recommended now, US taxpayers compensate the Palestinians for what Israel had done to them? Am I missing something? That 9/11 was the result of blowback from US foreign policy in the ME, especially regarding the rubber-stamping of Israel–a point left in the 9/11 Commission report body, but also left as generic blowback in it’s conclusion on motive? Read what members of that commission had to say about that later. Americans are now getting hit with big spending cuts, including, e.g., spending on Meals On Wheels for needy and/or seriously impaired seniors, and air flights are being delayed, dropped, for the same reason wrt air control operators. Both of these impacted my immediate family in the last month. While I get to read how my government is tossing shitloads more money at Israel, a country that does not represent me in any way and its Zionist mindset views me as a jew-hater just waiting to come out of the closet–and Beiden, my country’s VP, says, yes that’s the case, even though he didn’t marry a jew, I did, and I have a kid who’s jewish by traditional criteria…. What a terrible joke.

  3. American
    April 24, 2013, 2:02 pm

    ”How did the Gaza settler negotiations work out? The financial bottom line is that each settler family received more than a million dollars in cash and assistance.”

    Really, that is disgusting…the settlers weren’t victims, they were illegal victimizers. Orwell,Orwell Orwell.

  4. pabelmont
    April 24, 2013, 2:02 pm

    Wow! $1M per Jewish family to leave Gaza. And how much did Israel pay to induce 750,000 Palestinians to leave their homes in 1948? Not much, and none of it given to the Palestinians.

    Today there are, perhaps, 600,000 Israeli Jews living in Golan and OPT (WB). How much to induce them to leave? What? gun-point not enough? Oh, so sorry. Hey! USA! Got $600,000,000,000 lying around? Oh, per household, average household size 4? Only $150,000,000,000 (that’s $150B, spelled out all nice and zero-ey!).

    Ooooh, them taxpayers! But I forgot: in the USA, no-one who has real money really pays taxes, so it’s OK. Really! But, then again, why should USA pay Israel so it can induce its settlers to go home (BTW, they have a homeland to return to, unlike the Palestinian exiles of 1948), when they were present in OTs illegally and everyone knew it and many said it? Ohh, I get it, “politics”.

    • piotr
      April 25, 2013, 11:10 am

      I think it was more like a million shekels per family, with some absurd amounts given to “farmers” of which they were not many. Also, in true Israeli style that was a boondogle element to it, so while the budget entailed perhaps two millions of shekels per average family, this was much more than they received.

      And as usual, those who suffer least complain most (having energy and supporters to do so). The levels of whine were phenomenal.

  5. DICKERSON3870
    April 24, 2013, 4:48 pm

    RE: “Cramer illustrates how Israel is losing her soul by maintaining her occupation of the lands conquered in the Six Day War. Israel has become a victim of that occupation no less than the Palestinians, who must have a nation of their own.” ~ a reviewer of “How Israel Lost: The Four Questions at the Heart of the Middle East”

    MY COMMENT: And Israel’s loss of her sole (by maintaining her occupation of the lands conquered in the Six Day War) is being enabled by the “Goodle, USA” (i.e., “the good old USA”)! ! !

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    In the goodle USA
    Everything’s a-ok in the USA
    In the goodle USA

    It’s like everything and nothing leads to wisdom
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  6. Daniel Rich
    April 24, 2013, 7:51 pm

    Q: The key, Feinberg told the paper, was for Israeli officials to adopt his practice of meeting with each family, one by one, to sell them on the terms of the relocation benefits program.

    R: You mean those ‘poor’ people that kept building and extending homes until the last minute, because of all those yummy financial goodies awaiting them at the finish line?

    Rachel Corrie = Anne Frank

    9/11 victim = Israeli settler


    I’m with Citizen on this one.

  7. Krauss
    April 25, 2013, 2:43 am

    Feinberg is a mensch. He’s misguided in his genteel Zionism, but he does that because he is a communitarian. Still, I remember him often refusing to brand critics of Israel as anti-Semites and often works as a calming balm on the idiots and the fanatics.
    He’s also not an Israel Firster, like many of his peers are.

  8. ivri
    April 25, 2013, 8:48 am

    One Fund Palestine? That is already on for 65 years now, paid by a host of UN agencies and other numerous donors

  9. seafoid
    April 25, 2013, 11:46 am

    “Cramer illustrates how Israel is losing her soul by maintaining her occupation of the lands conquered in the Six Day War.”

    That was 2004. The issue was still fairly remote for people who don’t think much beyond what they can see in front of them.

    The occupation is now brutalising Israeli society. Kids are growing up feeding on its memes. The results are very clear to see. It’s not very attractive. Israel goes further away from Menschheit every day the occupation continues.

    It is understood by everyone who bought into Oslo. Fool me once, shame on me. “Israel’s soul” is a fairly vague concept. But Israel has to deal with the real world costs of its intransigence. And that’s going to be far more painful.

    John Hewitt wrote a great poem about middle class attitudes to political breakdown in Northern Ireland. Israel will be no different.


    You coasted along
    To larger houses, gadgets, more machines
    To golf and weekend bungalows,
    Caravans when the children were small,
    the Mediterranean, later, with the wife.

    You did not go to Church often,
    Weddings were special;
    But you kept your name on the books
    Against eventualities;
    And the parson called, or the curate.

    You showed a sense of responsibility,
    With subscriptions to worthwhile causes
    And service in voluntary organisations;
    And, anyhow, this did the business no harm,
    No harm at all.
    Relations were improving. A good
    useful life. You coasted along.

    You even had a friend of two of the other sort,
    Coasting too: your ways ran parallel.
    Their children and yours seldom met, though,
    Being at different schools.
    You visited each other, decent folk with a sense
    Of humour. Introduced, even, to
    One of their clergy. And then you smiled
    In the looking-glass, admiring, a
    Little moved by, your broadmindedness.
    Your father would never have known
    One of them. Come to think of it,
    When you were young, your own home was never
    Visited by one of the other sort.

    Relations were improving. The annual processions
    began to look rather like folk-festivals.

    When that noisy preacher started,
    he seemed old-fashioned, a survival.
    Later you remarked on his vehemence,
    a bit on the rough side.
    But you said, admit, you said in the club,
    ‘You know, there’s something in what he says’.

    And you who seldom had time to read a book,
    what with reports and the colour-supplements,
    denounced censorship.
    And you who never had an adventurous thought
    were positive that the church of the other sort
    vetoes thought.
    And you who simply put up with marriage
    for the children’s sake, deplored
    the attitude of the other sort
    to divorce.
    You coasted along.
    And all the time, though you never noticed,
    The old lies festered;
    the ignorant became more thoroughly infected;
    there were gains, of course;
    you never saw any go barefoot.

    The government permanent, sustained
    by the regular plebiscites of loyalty.
    You always voted but never
    put a sticker on your car;
    a card in the window
    would not have been seen from the street.
    Faces changed on posters, names too, often,
    but the same families, the same class of people.
    A Minister once called you by your first name.
    You coasted along
    and the sores supperated and spread.

    Now the fever is high and raging;
    Who would have guessed it, coasting along?
    The ignorant-sick thresh about in delirium
    And tear at the scabs with dirty finger-nails.
    The cloud of infection hangs over the city,
    A quick change of wind and it
    Might spill over the leafy suburbs.
    You coasted along.

  10. RoHa
    April 25, 2013, 9:58 pm

    “Cramer illustrates how Israel is losing her soul ”

    Israel’s got a soul?

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