Joel Kovel, 8/22/2012
Last week we ran the first half of an interview with Joel Kovel, radical scholar and author of Overcoming Zionism and The Enemy of Nature, about his conversion to Christianity. Born Jewish in Brooklyn 76 years ago, Kovel was baptized last Easter, at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem. I learned about Kovel’s conversion in July and sought an interview because of his stature in the anti-Zionist community. The first part of the interview concerned Kovel’s childhood, youth, and adult struggles with Jewish professional and religious life. Part I ended with the first question here, which I repeat for continuity’s sake. The conversation began on August 22 at Kovel’s Upper West Side apartment; it concludes with a followup interview by phone.
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.
You had too much bitterness about Judaism?
It wasn’t just the bitterness that drove me away, but the desuetude. I was angry about it. I never got over that, particularly as the anger got fueled by what I was seeing in the state of Israel. And at Einstein [College of Medicine], it was very heavily Jewish and the dean would go down to Palm Beach and come back with a sack of money. Of course that would have been just as lousy if it was Notre Dame, and the dean was going to see rich Catholics, but I was Jewish. And I believe that if I were raised in a Christian home, I could very well not be a Christian. So I was spared that experience.
It was such a slow process, deferred by the long years of medical and psychiatric training, and keeping the family going, and then learning about Marx, who is not obviously immediately a spiritual person.
But in 1980 I had a big spiritual turning point. It occurred in two ways. I was very involved in the anti-nuclear movement, working with the War Resisters League, and I was on their board and national executive committee, and there was this sensational news that some Christian priests had broken into the King of Prussia nuclear plant and poured their blood on the nose cone. Of course it was the Berrigan brothers and Sister [Elizabeth] McAlister. That had an electric effect on me. I went to some meetings and I saw the Berrigans. I thought, There’s something different about the way they’re approaching this. At this point I was a very committed revolutionary without knowing how to go about it. I never joined any party. And I thought, There was something missing in all that.
And then the big turning point, I now had a part-time job at the New School, and one of the students had been to Nicaragua, and she said I would really like it down there, there’s something spiritual down there. So I set it up to go down there, and in November 1983 I got there. During the Sandinista years. And this was to a greater extent than any other social revolution, one carried out by priests, particularly Jesuits. So I went down, and I was appalled by the poverty and the threat level. The US was seriously thinking of bombing Nicaragua. This was right after Grenada. So I’m wandering around, wandering into meetings, seeing priests. Like Uriel Molina, Argentinian by way of Spain, in the liberation church. I still remember the mural behind him, there was Jesus as a campesino and people were singing, And my Spanish wasn’t good, but I didn’t need to know the language, the language of the spirit was coming to me, I was moved.
So now it’s coming together. The stuff that happened to me in college, a calling of some sort, and now Jesus, who didn’t articulate with my life in any way. But now it was articulating with my life. These elements of faith are not outside one’s political practices. They give them integrality and wholeness.
And there were other Jesuits down there. Peter Marchetti, from Wisconsin, was one I became friends with. I went out into the countryside with them. I realize the thing that was drawing me to them was the spirit. But it was also something I was led to compare to my secular leftist friends, whether it was the high powered Marxist intellectuals at Telos magazine or Stanley Diamond’s Marxist anthropology shop at the New School or the War Resisters League. I saw there was no joy about them. They were hardworking, they had a good sense of humor, but also a bitter sense of resignation. And we’re talking now 30 years on and I’ve had a thousand experiences since then, and I can tell you that it’s the same again and again, and there are reasons for it. These religious people– they were smiling and happy all the time. Not simpleminded, because they were dealing with the worst sorts of things. But if you read Matthew 25, that encounter with Christ, we do this for the least of you–
It’s a famous passage. I love books but I also love bibles. [grabbing a bible from his shelf]
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
The whole thing always grabs me. [Kovel tears up] I start crying. There are endless passages like that. You see how I feel it. Well as soon as you get that feeling, you’re there.
The other thing is, every one of us that’s a leftist, with very few exceptions–we’re fearful. We’re afraid of the cops, afraid of the corporations, the authorities. Well, a common admonition in the New Testament is, Be not afraid, because I am with you. So you have that presence with you, and you’re not afraid. You’re not happy as a pig. You’re happy because you’re in the thick of the universal. I saw that in Nicaragua. I took communion at Casa Jesuitica. I made four trips and on one of them, we’re sitting around with the Jesuits. “Let’s have communion.” I said, “No no, oh no.” But they told me to stay, and we passed the bread and the wine. So I said, Well, ok, I’ll do it. It was the first time I did it. And it came around a table, there was no hierarchy. It was Ok– Ok. So I took communion. Then I said alright, I have to go home, I had to walk a half a mile to the place I was staying. And I was walking– I suddenly had a sense of I wasn’t walking anymore, I was floating through the air. Well how did that happen?
I stayed with a Christian-based community in Managua, in 1986, and I wrote a little book, In Nicaragua, to support that revolution.
And at the height of this, I thought, This is moving me, why shouldn’t I convert? This was 1985, 27 years ago. And it was definitely on my mind, ’83 ’84 ’85 ’86, I had all of these experiences. And again I want to emphasize they were consonant and enriched and enhanced by their being politically committed people, revolutionary.
Again, I thought the revolutionaries I knew were missing something. And if you read the Gospels, they are a revolutionary document. Jesus, whatever he was, I thought, I need to contend with that, because he was the first person to articulate a communist vision within class society. I was incredibly moved that way. And also incredibly frustrated in Nicaragua. Worn down, it was brutally hot, and seeing a lot of misery. And finally I said, I can’t convert. Why can’t I convert? All these people are Catholics. By that time, my friends from Monthly Review, Paul Sweezy and Harvey Magdoff, knew I was interested, and they gave me stuff on the Vatican and Vatican politics. They supported me. Sweezy himself was a wonderful man… He gave me something on the Vatican and the hierarchy and John Paul 2. I started studying the Catholic Church, and wrote a piece called the Vatican strikes back, in 1985.
And this made me realize, I can’t possibly convert to enter into an institution like this that’s ruled over by such awful people. In fact John Paul 2 was brought aboard to crush liberation theology. So typically, I wrote about it. I wrote a long monograph about this, 25,000 words, The theocracy of John Paul 2. And I had seen enough. I wasn’t going to convert. It was a male hierarchy.
Now later on I found Episcopals and Methodists, and lots of other movement people down there. So it wasn’t just that I couldn’t submit to the damn hierarchy. This church also had such a vicious record against the Jews. I was saying this as someone who had stopped being a Jew, but never stopped caring about what had happened over time. They exiled us and worse. And finally I said to myself, Joel you don’t really believe all that. I’m moved by it but I can’t say that I do believe it. I have to wait and see, I said, and so I backed away and got involved with a lot of other stuff.
But I read everything I could about religion, I was fascinated. And a book came out of it. History and Spirit. I’m proud of that book, though it was a dreadful failure. Beacon press did a lousy job publishing it. But I remember, in that book, it was Joel Kovel undertaking his first hostile critiques of the state of Israel. A lot of the book was written during the First Intifada, and it affected me greatly.
It’s actually a very good book. It was the introduction to my philosophy of life and spirit. And I had a very long definition of the word spirit, because it can mean many different things. Force and being in the spirit. The question of the truth. And sex, it has to do with. And the spirit opposed to flesh. An expression of the deity, which I called ultimate being. But the book was incomplete, because I couldn’t consummate it, so to speak. The marriage was not consummated. So again it lay there for years while I developed myself on the subject of ecology, capitalism, nature and socialism. Eventually I wrote The Enemy of Nature, which was subtitled, “The end of capitalism or the end of the world?”
And throughout this period I was becoming a dissident from academic consensus. I should say that I was kicked out of my academic job in ’85, patently on political grounds, and then went to Nicaragua one last time.
But I set my spiritual development aside to build up this other theme. And I didn’t quite know what to do until 2006, when I met a man named James White at St. Mary’s around the corner from here. We’re right here between the Manhattan school of music, St. Mary’s, Riverside church—which is humongous—and Union Theological Seminary, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer studied.
The people at St. Mary’s invited me there to speak on racism. I made friends. Then in 2009 when Bard got rid of me– I have the distinction of having been forced out of two prestigious academic jobs, plus having my book banned, I hit the trifecta—well when I left Bard, it was good riddance, and then again maybe there is something to divine providence, because in the whole city of New York, I have an apartment here, an 8 minute walk from St Mary’s Church. After settling in here, I went in and had a meeting with Earl Kooperkamp, who is a truly magnificent human being, my memoir will be dedicated to him and my grandson Desmond. He became my spiritual adviser. Thus it became different from when I was on my own and thinking about these things.
So I’m well into my 70s now, and I thought, you can’t keep putting this decision off forever. I’m the same me, I want to keep on, and keep going, I’m always taking risks. I just love this church. It’s that kind of Matthew 25 church, it’s full of broken down people, and also has intellectuals and authors, it’s black and white and Latino and women clergy. It’s what I think a true Christian church should be, and once I started going, I would go as often as I can, about 30 to 40 times a year. I really like it. At first I thought I’d force myself to go, thinking of the little boy who went to Hebrew school. I thought, even if I’m in a bad mood, I’ll go there and just sort of sit there. But after a while it will just sort of grab me, at some point I’m usually in tears. At some point in the service, I can’t explain that, I can give you lots of thoughts about it, but it’s just an existential given. The question of Why did I become a Christian– how could I not? It’s who I am. For some reason I don’t pretend to grasp, this spirit force inhabits me. It calls me. There are some wonderful thoughts about this in Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. [reaching for the book] Jesus– he’s this figure, and he’s by the lake–
It’s like this– if I look over a lot of decisions I have made, like whether to go to a prayer group, I didn’t want to go, I’m lying awake at night. I don’t want to go. Well, he wants you to go. It wants you to go. Alright–I’ll hear a soft voice. It happens to me a lot. Now that I’ve been doing it for 2-1/2 years, it is just really built into me, and it’s funny I never thought I would like going to a church, because I can see through all that stuff. But every time I go, some sort of adventure happens.
Earl and I had these meetings and at some point the question of being baptized was raised. He said, It has to be public, I can’t do that in my office. As long as you’re able to get around, it has to be public. That was a tough decision, because Earl had to move on to a different parish, and I thought about it and thought about it, and he waited, and I thought, Let’s do it. So I was baptized on Easter Sunday, April 8. I have interesting photos of it, you can see the intensity.
Did other people see you?
Oh, a lot of people came. Even my brother from Boston. Which moved me a lot, because we’ve had our differences over the years.
Has anyone been critical of your choice?
Yes. One criticism was passed on to me, a friend said, I don’t know why you’re submitting yourself to a higher power, you don’t know how to respect the Jewish heritage enough. I forgive him. See, I’m not a particularly good Christian but I’m working on it! The truth is, I have a lot of problems with the choice I’ve made. And I’ll have these problems as long as I live because there’s no easy path through the human condition. But the baptism was a fork in the road, and I’ll be going more in that direction now.
Are you happy about it?
I am happier. Very much. No question about it. Of course that little Desmond also makes me very happy [calling out to his his grandson, who is too shy to come in the room].
How was your wife about it?
DeeDee was very supportive, but she stands apart from it, because she grew up in the Unitarian church. And that would be the case with others who were socialized as Christian or Unitarian in circumstances that were not very inspiring. I had the advantage of approaching it with a full life already. It entered into my being and mixed and enhanced my being. One thing for sure is it doesn’t compromise my political views. Because those views have to be included in an ontology that is a theology. I wouldn’t have any notion of God that didn’t have at its foundation emancipation of man from his chains and his delusions, including Zionism.
I’ll be 76 on Monday [August 27], and I feel great. Maybe I have 10 years left. Well, there’s so much I want to write. I want to write this memoir. Then I want to write a sequel to Overcoming Zionism, but it would be about my predicament, that this path I’m taking is actually one offered to Jews, and still is, but that it has a different weight after 2000 years. What Jesus was doing was going among Galilee and Jerusalem, and telling them that their religions had run aground, that it was not opening up the fabric of existence enough for them, and that they had to abandon their tribalism. And Jesus and Paul never knew each other, but Paul wrote his Epistles before the Gospels and Paul founded the ideology, and that’s what he says too. There’s a famous passage in Galatians. [grabbing the book] I love reading this stuff. Galatians is very short, I might miss it.
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
The second book I’m planning is kind of about that. The necessity is that you have to understand a lot of literature, a lot of books on the subject, scholarship, and the political economy of first century Palestine. It was a classical colonial situation. Pompey invaded it in 63 BCE and destroyed the Temple. Then the Romans put up a quisling, a compliant Jew, Herod, and paid him handsomely, and gave him the right to tax, and he built—well, like Brecht said, Who built the great wall of China? The laborers—but Herod made the decision to build the Second Temple, that was built by a goddamned quisling, using forced labor, and it became the site of commerce and banking. And look at what was happening to the countryside: enclosure of the commons, taxation, class structure. Sure, the Jews didn’t kill Jesus, but the Jewish hierarchy saw to it that he was eliminated. Not because it was Jewish but because it was a hierarchy that made a Satanic compact with empire. And that’s not very far off from where we are, when you have a Jewish hierarchy deeply embedded in empire. Obviously it’s fantastically different: the average Jew then was an indentured peasant, now the average Jew is quite comfortable. But the hierarchy makes a nice comparison to the Jewish neocons, the stewards of our empire, and the Sadducees, and the rabbinate, and the lower pharisees, and the rabble. Well, here comes this guy from the bottom of society. And of course the thing that really did it for him–he knocked over the money tables in the temple. You can’t have god and mammon together. Well, see what many Jews are doing today, what kind of deep compromise in the soul is taking place. It’s very hard and I don’t want to make any blanket judgment, because there are splendid human beings with Jewish identities out there who are fighting this. I am saying that there is a kind of existential decision before Jews which all too few and all too few inside established synagogues are willing and able to confront: what has been their complicity in empire in order to preserve their tribalism?
I can get in a lot of trouble for this book, but I’m too old to be worried about it.
Have you read Norman Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh? The point he makes– these hill people in Canaan fighting the little kingdoms there, they developed this notion of a god, Yahweh, a singular god, and it was very serviceable when they were hill people, and it came into the flowering of Jewish monotheism. But I will never accept the notion that a god of such grandeur and power will be for any particular subset of humanity. And to cling to that belief is the doom of the Jewish spirit.
Do you see a Jewish conversation happening now about chosenness?
I don’t think many think about it. Maybe they do. There are a lot of very intelligent people. But I’ve seen all too little evidence of questioning– that there can be such a God of such grandeur for one people.
The Old Testament is full of fantastic stuff. Deuteronomy, Judges, so much is about preludes to the state of Israel. The Shema, right at the center of Judaism, equivalent to the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught, Hear o Israel, the Lord is one. One thing that sticks in my mind– Deuteronomy 6. If you follow it, you can go to these other societies, you can kill the other people and it’s right there, and it’s outrageous.
When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…. you may go in and take over the good land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors, thrusting out all your enemies before you, as the Lord said.
This is what follows the Shema: it is the narrative of a people which has been recapitulated so much in the collective conscious and unconsciousness of Jews, and they’ve not come to grips with it, and Israel is the result.
Part of your identity at Yale was Jews are smarter. You believed that.
Yes. I have to recollect all those things. We used to say, it’s MOTs, we’re MOTs. Members of the tribe at Yale. We had this group, the John Dewey Society, progressives, and you didn’t have to be Jewish, but many were, and Tom Cohen said we should call this the Don Jewey Society. These weren’t ordinary Jews. Andre Schiffrin [the publisher], my very close friend, was very, very secular. He was with Norman Thomas. And Richard Posner.
He’s a rightwing judge, right?
Very eminent, yes. On the circuit court. He’s a libertarian but he’s not so bad actually. He’s critical of Israel. He was one of us.
But what about the belief we have more intelligence than others?
I think it’s a lot of crap. I think the Jewish culture is very strong and it may very well select for certain mental tendencies, which have survival values. But so what? What’s the good of it? Is that what God is there for, to give out points and gold stars? What have you done with the gifts from God ?– that is the question.
But how was that belief in Jewish superiority broken down in you?
By the transvaluation brought about by Jesus, that the last shall be first and so forth. By not believing that
worldly things really mattered that much. So what!
You had prestige and cared about it.
I worked to get it and I tried to use it to help people. But yes, it was hard up to the point that I discovered Jesus and then it became very easy. I don’t measure the worth of a person by IQ, and I believe whatever marginal advantages are conveyed that way are greatly offset by the lack of the conditions that other children are afforded in this society. We know very well that the human brain is maybe the most amazing entity in the universe, and that we use far less of it than we have… and so yes it fits into a certain pattern that enables a certain facility with numbers or things of that sort. But the weight of the cultural side is vastly greater than the weight of the genetic side, and it doesn’t begin to compare with what everyone is capable of in a society that is fully realized.
You took your intelligence very seriously at Yale.
Sure I perceive that a lot: There was once a time, when I dabbled in thoughts of that kind and was preoccupied with being a great success. I thank the lord that I was given a good mind, and I’m sure that there are people smarter than me, but so what? The question is so much larger than that. What does means this petty seduction of success mean, when life is about our expansion into the universe, and if we don’t have that sense of that expansiveness into the universe, which believe me no people is granted access to by virtue of being members of a tribe. So much of that sediments into racism. If we take that view, then we’re not fulfilling our responsibility to life on earth, which is the key thing to us now. Look, we’re facing our extinction. We’re facing the annihilation of our proud civilizations. I’m on high ground herein this neighborhood,so we won’t be flooded. But many people will lose their lands to climate change.
And you don’t know the pain I have, that this child– what have we laid out for him? And he has that spark, that spark that can’t be quantified into IQ or technical skills, it’s spirit. If you don’t bring people together around that, you betray everything that life offers us.
Tell me about your spiritual practice– and is it a Christian one?
It’s not easy to change what you do, but it’s relatively easier to change what you do than what you think and what you feel. ‘What you do’ would have to include reaching out to others and making a serious effort to reexamine your life and the history of things, so therefore it would include what you read and include groups that you join, likeminded people, and within that there can be changes and should be changes in one’s thinking and this can get integrated at a more and more developed perspective.
I most definitely am not saying that, ‘I found the answer in Jesus.’ I don’t understand that really. I hope I live long enough to understand it a little bit better. But I don’t think I’ll ever understand it completely.
I don’t think you’re supposed to understand it completely. I think there’s lots in this world, as powerful as our minds are, that we’re never going to get. And we should have a very great humility on that score. And we should try to do correct practice and develop certain rules of how to think about things…
One thing that I haven’t solved at all is, How do I speak to people about this big change in my own life in such a way that I don’t appear patronizing to them, that I don’t appear that I’m exhorting them, or I’m laying a trip on them. So I don’t want to come across as a Jesus freak who found the true path. And yet I feel it to be at least a true path if not the true path. And I know that something really important happened to me, and that it’s happened to many millions of people. You know, if you look at it over time, for some reason that I do not yet fathom, that figure who some say doesn’t even exist named Jesus has had more influence over human existence than any other human being. My friend and guide Earl Kooperkamp says well, that’s when God became man. And I say OK. I’d like to carry that forth. But I have trouble doing that, because we live in such spiritually confused and barren times that I still feel diffident. I told you at the beginning that I have the temperament of an Old Testament prophet. Well I do in a way. But I don’t have the nerve of an Old Testament prophet. Though some people think I have a lot of nerve!
If someone were to say, I accept this spiritual challenge, I want to change my behavior, and ultimately change my feeling, but I want to do it Jewishly, I don’t want to alienate myself from this tradition that helped form me—I mean, I’m not trying to blackmail you for your own choices, but–
Sure. I understand that. It was oddly easier for me because I had a traumatic episode in my youth that effectively severed many ties and left me to forge a different way of faith.
You would honor that?
Of course, if it’s conscientiously carried out.
You think it’s possible.
I think it’s possible, but I think you’re entering a situation which is very difficult.
Because of chosenness.
Yes, the idea of the covenant, and everything that’s been done around it. But I think actually the Zionist part has a kind of ironic upside in that it provides Jews with a great many openings for putting that damn tribalism behind them.
Right. Going to Palestine, and meeting these people.
Really doing it and putting your life on the line. You know, this is the choice that needs to be made. That’s the doing part, and the thinking and the feeling parts will follow along from that. It’s really there, but it’s really difficult–
And it’s ours.
It’s really difficult, because even at the end you can’t say I’m really proud to be Jewish. How can you be proud to be Jewish considering what’s happened in Israel? I don’t understand that. I think there’s a huge mourning process ahead for righteous Jews especially in those countries where empire has enabled Zionism. You can have Yom Kippur every night of the year. That’s a specialty within the Jewish faith– well let’s make it real by serious practice– I mean there are serious transgressions to overcome. Serious transgressions. And you’re not excused by saying you’ve been kicked around so much, or suffered the Holocaust. You honor the Holocaust by creating a world in which Holocaust-like circumstances do not arise, and we know that we’re having one now in the eastern Mediterranean.
Followup conversation, September 6.
You say your views are extreme. I wouldn’t be so engaged with you if I were not also a tormented spirit, but isn’t calling your ideas extreme an admission that you will fail to convince others of them?
Well– a good question. There’s something inside me that always pushes on beyond what is given, I don’t think that’s necessarily a good way of being or a rational way of being, it is just mine. In everyday personal life I’m given to compromise, and sometimes I get fierce in attitude but usually I’m rather mildmannered. However my thoughts and by extension what I want to write, always wants to push on to what’s not there, even if at times I’m seen as quixotic or unrealistic or in any case extreme.
To give you an example, as soon as I arrived at the notion of climate change being driven by carbon
injected into the atmosphere, this meant you must have a transformation of the capitalist system. It has to be stopped, it cannot expand forever. I’d like to be proven wrong, but on this point I never have been proven wrong. The idea that the natural system can heal itself exposed to such a force—that’s something that defies the logic of the matter.
In matters pertaining to Israel and the Jewish state, from the time that I began to engage my full self with these questions, it didn’t take very long before I saw that what was generally being called the two-state solution was temporizing and an attempt to block the critique that the only possible solution that would work would be the one-state solution. And when I’m in a gathering of any sort on this subject, I always find myself on the far end of the question, and it’s certainly the case that my views are extreme views. They’re not violent views. But I’m explicitly for the dissolution of the Zionist state. And I’m struck by how few people get the idea that a state is only a social contract, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with bringing a state to its end, and replacing it with a better form of society. But it makes people very very anxious, this idea of the Jewish state coming to an end, it brings up fears of the Holocaust that are completely unwarranted under the circumstances. I think it’s driven by latent assertions of Jewish power, it’s not driven by reason and logic. So I try to apply logic to all these things, though I’m very passionate about my emotions…
Abolitionists were extreme in the 1850s.
Yes. I would have been an abolitionist for sure. The figure of John Brown was problematic, but he’s a man who excites enormous admiration on my part. He was magnificent.
He believed in using violence against slavery; and he ended slavery.
Not singlehandedly. But I think, if I were the way I am now—and young enough– back in 1936 I would have gone off to fight with the Lincoln brigades.
People are going to read this, read your ideas about chosenness and tribalism, and say, these are traditional arguments from a self-hating Jew.
You know Phil, that’s a question that is logically and practically on the level– have you stopped beating your wife? I think the time is long overdue where we refuse to accept questions of this kind as legitimate modes of getting at the truth or correcting deviant behavior. They’re preposterous. They’re patently used in order to inhibit people’s justifiable anger and outrage at what is taking place in what was Palestine once, and it’s basically– these are very crude arguments, they’re a form of guilt-tripping. So I don’t accept the legitimacy of that kind of discourse.
In any event it’s meaningless. What exactly does self hatred mean? I don’t know what that means. I don’t hate myself. I am angry at myself sometimes. I have a very tough conscience. I also have a judgment that the state of Israel is deeply wrong. It doesn’t have to do with the fact that I hate myself as a Jew. Also, it is empirically the case that self hatred is a phenomenon that is rather common among Jewish people because of the complexities of Jewish life, and people who want to defend Zionism from rational critique and political pressure and change, resort to this kind of existential phenomenon within the Jewish experience that has been written about for many many years, and that has a lot to do with the peculiarities of being Jewish. Which for sure exist. Although I am very much aware that we are not superior as a race or entity of any kind, we certainly are our own kind of people. But one of the things that inhibits Jewish people is a considerable degree of guilt, which is to say self hatred in the collective psychology. And if the defender of Zionism wants to project this self hatred on to the critic of Zionism–I also think that in some ways, it’s very complex, but Zionism is a kind of negation of that guilt. Instead of hating oneself as Jews, let’s aggrandize ourselves as Jews. You’ll find that in the history of Zionism. One of the most common themes that they were writing about, Herzl and the early Zionists, was how awful the Jews were; and the way we can stop being so awful is to have our own state. That’s an arguable position, and certainly 100 years on we can look at how terribly it’s turned out. But they were trying to externalize and eliminate or overcome that historical current of self loathing that marked the Jewish experience in Europe, in the diaspora.
It also ties into anti-Semitism. Do you know Daniel Barenboim? The great musician, he was born in Argentina, and is a citizen of Israel. He has said, What is anti-Semitism? Anti-semitism is hating Jews more than is necessary. You can see you’re dealing with a profound theme about Jewish existence, negated by Zionist aggrandizement, and this has to be overcome by finding one’s being and identity in humanity as a whole and in the universe. As the one god demands. As a truly monotheist god would demand. Not finding it in a moral or intellectual or economic or whatever kind of power of the Jewish people, but finding it in the end with an identification with the universe.
An identification with the universe?
No that would be a delusion, to think you are the universe. Rather, experiencing one’s being as universal.
More on self-hatred. We know what an Uncle Tom is, we wouldn’t deny the meaning of the Uncle Tom figure. Well I once saw Mortimer Adler, a convert to Christianity who was embarrassed by his Jewishness he said in his own memoirs, and he seemed to me to have converted in part out of social aspiration. And here he was lecturing on the Nicene Creed and the hypostasis of Jesus and I found him a ridiculous figure.
I think it’s a quite cogent observation. I never saw Mortimer Adler, but a certain number of Jews switch to Christianity because of their shame or their desire to belong or to be accepted by a society whose dominant religion is Christianity. Many many Jews have done that. I don’t think it’s self hatred, but a sense of weakness and exclusion and desire to fit in and be a part of the majority and all the privileges that come with that. It’s a very real motive.
Empirically there are certain people who could be classified as self-hating Jews. Most certainly that’s not me. During part of my life, I became very critical and very rejecting of Jewishness, I didn’t respond to Judaism in a positive way, but I didn’t hide my Jewishness. After the incident with my aunt, I felt I didn’t want any part of it, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t belonging or fitting into our society; there was something about being Jewish that I was rejecting on its own grounds, as an internal critique, of tribalism. It wasn’t that Jews were excluded and in order to get included you have to stop being a Jew. That was never in my thoughts. There was something really seriously wrong with these people who want to use their tribalism to gain economic and social power and foster an apartheid state in former Palestine.
Are you Jewish?
Ha ha. [laughing] That’s a question. Well it depends, like Clinton said, on what the definition of is is. I was born of Jewish parents. I grew up with the idea of the Jewish lineage that I belonged to. I came to reject at many levels the religious ideology; and I think I found something, which was the subject of a world transforming event in the first century of the Common Era, namely Jesus and his claim that Jews have to become a universal people– that’s my Jesus, and inasmuch as I reject the tribalism of the Jews, I can’t consider myself Jewish.
I know I have been given a Jewish identity by birth and early upbringing. But I refuse to say that a person must be limited by what he has been made to believe from his birth on. Which is not to say that I reject all of the traditions. I have serious problems with the Old Testament to be sure, but there is much about it that I find magnificent and deeply meaningful. I think the Jewish people have made tremendous contributions under awful, awful conditions over many centuries, and they’ve also made mistakes, and they’ve been distorted by those conditions. So that we see in the Talmud, giving over the power to the rabbinate; that was a mistake.
It’s complicated. It’s completely impossible for me to say I have nothing to do with Judaism. In fact I think about it a great deal. But I think about it as something I have to a significant degree moved beyond.