Thursday, April 29, 2010

What Israel Means to David Shasha (Part 1): The Image of the Jew

For those of you who aren't familiar with David Shasha, he's yet another member of the Huffington Posts' anti-Israel blogger stable. He often writes about Jewish issues, but even when he does it is usually done for the purposes of attacking Israel and it's actions. I could have sworn he had shown up on this blog at some point, but apparently not. Anyway, his latest work on the Huffington Post is called "What Israel Means to Me." The answer? Very little, apparently, and what little there is means something negative. What can you expect? This is the Huffington Post, after all.

Shasha starts off his work with an amazing and ridiculous strawman, even by HP standards:
"Over the years there has been a constant spate of books containing the testimonials of American Jews proclaiming their teary-eyed and deeply emotional love of the state of Israel. These books are part of the larger program of Israeli Hasbarah, the form of advocacy that seeks to assert the total primacy of Zionism as the centerpiece of Jewish life the world over."
 Give me a break. He's really saying that American Jews don't care about Israel and it's people unless they are paid to talk about it by the Israeli government? Does he provide any evidence to back up his absurd claim? To be honest, this is hardly the first time that Shasha misinterprets what is going on with the American Jewish community, and it isn't the last either. I like to keep an eye on what is going on in American Jewish life, and there is no "total primacy of Zionism." Mr. Shasha puts out his viewpoints early and strongly, and it only goes downhill from there.

I'm going to take a diversion here to talk about another weak Shasha argument in his second paragraph:
"In Adam Sandler's comedy You Don't Mess with the Zohan and Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, we find that the American Jewish love affair with Israel is based on an almost erotic identification with the perception of Zionism and Israel as a form of revenge fantasy. Sandler's Zohan is a figure whose sexual potency rests in his skill as a Jewish superhero, a man who kills Arabs to defend the Jewish people. Similarly, Tarantino's Nazi-era fantasy is a phantasmagoria of violence in the name of Jewish self-doubt and an inferiority complex."
 I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Mr. Shasha has not seen either one of these movies, because he pretty clearly misrepresents what they are about. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I have in fact seen Zohan but in this case it's an advantage. For starters, Sandler's character never kills anyone, and falls in love with a Palestinian woman. In fact the whole point of the movie is that Sandler is moving to America because he is tired of fighting, his most likable qualities come from the fact that he is not in love with war. For those of who have actually seen it, we know that the movie's main theme is that the two sides need to fight the extremists, not each other. It's not about killing.

Basterds, on the other hand, is very much about killing. But Zionism doesn't make an appearance, and Judaism hardly appears in the story aside from the fact that the soldiers are Jewish. Even then, Brad Pitt's character isn't, and those Jews who are in the movie don't do anything purportedly Jewish like munch matzah or shvitz. At worst, I have heard Basterds described as a "Jewish revenge fantasy." I guess most critics of the movie aren't willing to always see their fellow Jews in a bad light the way Shasha does. Taking the above paragraph on its own, it really sounds like Mr. Shasha is drawing conclusions about these movies from their trailers, or maybe from their plot summaries. He might want to consider actually watching them sometime.

We're going to take half a step away from pop culture for a second and get into some modern Jewish philosophy. At this point Shasha begins to rely on the words of others to make his argument. Very wise. That being said, I'm just going to quote his summaries in the interests of saving space. Here we go:
The paradox inherent in Zionism is the way in which it creates the "New Jew" by rejecting what it perceives to be the "Old Jew." In both cases, the understanding of what it means to be Jewish is based on a completely Eurocentric model; the decrepit Diaspora Jew is seen in terms of the Shtetl Jew who is isolated from the general world, while the ideal Israeli Jew -- typified by the Zohan and by the vengeful Jews of the Tarantino fantasy world -- is seen as an uber-Gentile.
I'd be curious to know what exactly Shasha means by "uber-Gentile" but he doesn't explain. Anyway, I'll freely admit that one of the things that Israel did when it first started to be formed was to change what you might call "the image of the Jew." The most notable historical example of this was Ari Ben Canaan (played by Paul Newman) in Exodus, from which Zohan and Basterds would seem to follow. Canaan was beautiful, strong, resourceful, brave and (yes) violent as well. This did not fit with the image of the Jews that most people had the time, including Jews themselves. But image does not need to reflect reality. After all, there were brave and strong Jews throughout history, including the World War 2 era.

Exodus (and the image of the Jew that it contained) inspired American Jews and contributed to the emerging pride that they had in Israel and their fellow Jews who lived there. At this point I feel I should talk about the role that violence plays in these forms of media. These three movies all feature characters who are men (and women) of violence, in contrast with the old image of the Jew. Shasha bemoans the new image of the Jews fighters, because in his mind Jews should be seen as peaceful. He will go on to say that Zionism (and the love affair that American Jews have with it) is destroying souls with it's irreparable ties to violence and the "image" of violence.

But here is something for Shasha to consider: Drama is built around conflict. There are two kinds of conflicts that are common in fiction: Love and death. Most dramas are built around conflict either of the romantic kind or of the violent kind. They aren't all war related, movies like 12 Angry Men have a suspect's life at stake. To Kill a Mockingbird is another movie based around a trial. How does this apply to our Jewish movies? Let's take a look:
-Exodus: Paul Newman is a Jewish fighter. He does fight and kill Arabs (as well as his fellow Jews). But he also wins the heart of Kitty, pretty decisively too I might add.
-Zohan: Adam Sandler's character spends more time seducing women of all age categories than he does throwing punches or holding weapons.
-Basterds: Shoshana (unlike the men) is an object of desire for the German sniper, and she is also the only character to be in a relationship in the movie. She also moves the plot forward.

What am I getting at here? That in a narrative, violence (and sexual prowess) equals power. And power equals strength and independence. Characters who kill and fight and win are those who are in control and are strong. Characters who seduce other and fight for true love are those we sympathize with and respect. They make us stand up and cheer. That is what was changing in Jewish life, Mr. Shasha, both in Israel and America. Jews were starting to stand up for themselves and take control of their own lives.

He is right, the image of the Jew did. Before the formation of Israel, Jews were seen as weak and powerless. They were villains or sidekicks....usually villains. Now they are seen as people who can be the heroes, and are just as good as anybody else. That is what it means when Zohan kicks somebody in the face: Not that Jews love fighting, but that Jews aren't going to be bullied any more, both on the world stage and in America.

Perhaps Mr. Shasha would prefer the image of the "Old Jew." And it's true: It's a lot easier to be a victim. You don't need to agonize over whether you are doing the right thing by taking a life to protect yourself and your family. But Jews were powerless victims for centuries, and it did them no good at all. In fact they were hated more then then they are now that they are strong. Mr. Shasha may want to consider that before he writes his columns bemoaning Jewish strength, Jewish success and Jewish pride. Because that is what Israel symbolizes in the minds of many American Jews. It is really so difficult for him to believe that that is why they love it?


  1. Mr. Shasha has so internalized the anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish weakness and dependence that he cannot imagine that anything else could be Jewish. Yes, Israeli culture is essentially a rejection of this image of the "Jew" (indeed, Zionists often called themselves "Hebrews," dissociating themselves from the shtetl-bound "Jews"), but that doesn't make it any less authentically Jewish. Confidence, initiative, and independence are not "Gentile" values.

  2. Whatever Israel's shortcomings and the flaws of some Jews may be, the fact Jews have power has transformed the way the world - and those who hate them - look at the Jews. For the first time in Jewish history, Jews no longer have to look to others to keep them safe; they can take care of themselves. That's the point about Israel that is lost on the David Shashas of the world.

  3. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

  4. "He is right, the image of the Jew did. Before the formation of Israel, Jews were seen as weak and powerless"

    In Europe perhaps. In the Middle East? Not at all.

    I won't sit here and detail for you all other ignorant comments that completely disregard Sephardic heritage and culture. I don't see how the wholly Jewish idea of Religious Humanism fits in your article at all. The threat of death and killing is power. That's exactly how the Torah, commands us to live, by intimidating our neighbors. You hit the nail right on the head.

    1. Are you claiming that, prior to the formation of modern Israel, Jews in the Middle East were *not* seen as weak and powerless? Please don't even think of pointing to the existence of a few wealthy Jewish families in the Middle East to support your absurd contention. As a Jew whose family lived in the Middle East amongst and under the feet of the Arabs for centuries, I can assure you that you are full of it.

  5. Shasha is a communist anti-Semite who spreads conspiracy nonsense that he got from UFO chaser Barry Chamish