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Tariq Ramadan and American Jewish identity

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Last night’s debate at Cooper Union was a great event. I watched it on live stream. You can read Ibn Tufayl’s critique of George Packer here, but I’d like to follow on in my own way.

I congratulate everyone involved for holding the event and granting as much respect to Tariq Ramadan as they did. Jacob Weisberg ended the night by telling the audience they could buy books and have them signed by Ramadan. It was a generous gesture, and typical of the evening. The criticisms of Ramadan were at once pointed and half-hearted. Weisberg early on assailed Ramadan for orthodox Islam’s circumscribed roles for women– a criticism I share– and oddly, historian Joan Wallach Scott of Princeton took Ramadan’s side and said that women’s freedom is not determined by what they’re wearing (which isn’t the whole answer). Later on, Ramadan’s defense of Islam’s teachings against homosexuality were unpersuasive to me. I want reformers to get with the modern program here– as I’ve undergone my own reformation of homophobic and sexist attitudes. This is not about Islam, it’s about traditional culture; and cultures need to evolve. Being a progressive and an optimist, I believe it will happen.

As a modern, I was thrilled by Ramadan’s evocation of "multiple identities"–he’s religiously Muslim, nationally Swiss, culturally European– though I wasn’t entirely persuaded of his modernity. But most of all I was thrilled to hear Ramadan honor historical Arab opposition to Zionism, in New York, before a crowd with many Jews in it, and not to be contradicted. And it was a beneficence on Ramadan’s part to add that his grandfather’s opposition was "in that time." I.e., not ours.

In that ameliorative spirit, a word about my favorite subject, Jewish identity. George Packer channeled Paul Berman in trying to beat up Ramadan over the grand Mufti of Jerusalem. I can’t improve on Ibn Tufayl’s commentary; read it.

But I would add this: Paul Berman and his stalking horse here, Packer, are locked in Jewish victimology. It is understandable; much of my parents’ generation is, and mine too. I grew up with Holocaust understanding– my mother called it the "Six Million" and cursed "the bastards" in the US government who didn’t do enough to save the Jews. These attitudes continue to prevail throughout the Jewish community. They explain the incredible hard line of the Zionist Organization of America toward the new designated Nazis, the Arabs, and the terrifying support the ZOA, which doesn’t believe in two states or democracy, gets from liberal politicians like Anthony Weiner and Steve Rothman and Ron Klein, who should all be ashamed.

The understanding of Jews as powerless outsiders is the one that I have tried to batter again and again on this site. We are empowered people, we are dominant in the elite media and large figures in the American establishment. The two offices closest to Obama’s belong to Jews, and one of them I’m sure is a Zionist. On the stage last night at Cooper Union, at this important event welcoming/assailing a formerly-banned world intellectual who makes Jews uncomfortable, were two Jewish writers and Packer, who I think is half-Jewish, and who was being a medium to an offstage Jew. This is power. The willingness of empowered Jews to hear Ramadan is, I say again, a great thing; and a reflection of growing introspection about Zionism.

But do we have any cognition of that power? According to my latest favorite book, Capitalism and the Jews, by Jerry Muller, Zionism’s many strains in Europe in the last century were united by a common belief, "that it was undesirable, indeed dangerous, for Jews to live tachat shilton ha-goyim, under the sovereignty of non-Jews."

I would ask all Jewish readers of this site to examine their hearts and minds and say if they believe such a thing. I do not. Benjamin Netanyahu does, and so does the ZOA and Elliott Abrams. But I don’t. We seem to be doing fine in the U.S. Our incredible rise has not been met with anti-Semitism, notwithstanding the ravages of the neocons. Young Jews simply don’t believe that it is unsafe for them to be a minority in the west.

This is a very powerful belief and in time it must transform Jewish political identity. David Remnick is celebrating the 50-year transformation of American racial identity politics in his new book on Obama; can he turn his sociological lens on his own ethnic group? I urge him to look inside and answer that question, Is it unsafe for Jews to be under the sovereignty of goyim, and then reckon honestly with the consequences for Jewish political identity, at this time of incredible Jewish prominence in the American establishment. And as for George Packer, he is guilty of proxy historicism, of living "in that time," to use Ramadan’s phrase– taking on Berman’s burdens and emphasizing the Nazi chapter of Jewish existence in the west over the powerful chapter that is before his eyes.

The greatest gift we Jews can do for the terrified Jews in Israel is to be honest about our experience as a minority. For in Israel and Palestine, the minority is actually endangered in the moment. And the general failure on the part of the Jewish community to understand who has been the real victim of the process of colonization is a delusion that is creating havoc in American foreign policy and in Jewish identity construction. Inviting Tariq Ramadan here is a real sign of progress.

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