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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