The Book American Jews Most Want to Read

“It’s almost laughable,” says M. J. Rosenberg of Media Matters. “The organized Jewish community, which claims to be worried about young Jews defecting in droves, just cannot help itself from doing things that drive Jews (not just young ones) away. Between supporting Netanyahu, advocating for war with Iran and maintaining the occupation, and keeping silent as Israel evolves into a theocracy, it is also in the business of preventing debate on all these things and more.”

judisThe case in point?  New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, which describes itself somewhat oxymoronically as “a living memorial to the Holocaust,” first scheduled and then turned around and canceled a talk by New Republic senior editor John Judis, author of the newly published Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict.

As this review in the Boston Globe points out, Judis’ book is no polemic, but a serious historical study.  So why the cancellation?  The book challenges the conventional Zionist wisdom about President Truman’s recognition of Israel in 1948, showing him as a hard-nosed politician trailing in the polls in May of an election year, and being heavily lobbied by American Zionists who then helped ensure his reelection.

Judis quotes this from Truman: “I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”

Such were the folkways of American politics: squeaky wheels getting the oil. And with American Arabs and Muslims still generally reluctant to take an active organized part in national politics, such they remain.

As for the irony of a museum banning historical discussion, this is quite the trend among elderly American Jewish poohbahs when it comes to Israel.  When Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism came out last year, Jewish community centers, under pressure from wealthy donors, seem to have all but blackballed him. “Pretty soon,” says Rosenberg, “any institution under any kind of Jewish auspices will have to abide by speech limits set by the Jewish 1%. The 92nd Street Y already does (it will not allow any Palestinian to speak unless ‘balanced’ by a Jew). Brandeis University wouldn’t permit President Carter to speak [on his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid] without a simultaneous rebuttal by Alan Dershowitz. Pretty soon, Mount Sinai hospital will check what books patients are sneaking into their sick rooms.”

Or maybe not. Controversy over the museum’s about-face on Judis’ book is sparking exactly the public debate its donors sought to avoid — and far beyond the presumably hallowed halls of the museum itself. As with the conservative Indian attack on Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus, which I posted on here, the desire to squelch consideration of Judis’ book is fated to achieve the precise opposite of what it intended. Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism became a bestseller, and now Judis’ Genesis looks set to do the same.

As I post this, it’s #2 on Amazon’s list of books about Israel and the Middle East. By the time you read this post, it may well be #1.

The Book India Most Wants To Read

donigerPenguin Books India has been forced to recall and possibly destroy all copies of this book — The Hindus: an alternative history, by Wendy Doniger — in order to settle a lawsuit brought about by a fundamentalist Hindu group that says the book over-eroticizes the religion.

In case you are wondering, Wendy Doniger is not exactly a sensationalist.  She’s the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School (and despite that formidable title, writes well).

What she does do is trace the many strands of Hinduism, and argue that “the greatness of Hinduism — its vitality, earthiness, and vividness — lies precisely in many of those idiosyncratic qualities that some Hindus today are ashamed of and would deny.”

The basis of the lawsuit was not that Doniger’s book was wrong.  It was that it hurt the group’s feelings (see the quote above, from page 2).  It didn’t present Hinduism the way they wanted it presented. I’ve heard this same argument from fundamentalist Muslims about both my books on Islam, to which the only sensible response, since I’m neither Muslim nor fundamentalist, is “But of course not!”.  Such arguments leave no room for anything but what’s politely called “devotional literature” — the apparently endless stream of pious pamphlets read only by “true believers” of whatever faith. Though I often wonder if even they have the patience.

The logical conclusion of the hurt-feelings argument is that publication of anything at all — books, newspapers, websites, whatever — should be banned, because someone somewhere may have so little faith that their feelings can be hurt by even the most empathetic outsider eye.

Doniger’s response to all this on Facebook was gracious yet to the point:

I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate. And as a publisher’s daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books (unless they are bought out quickly by people intrigued by all the brouhaha) will be pulped. But I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. Penguin India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit.

Penguin India, I should add as a declaration of interest, also distributes The First Muslim, which elsewhere has been subject to a quieter and less newsworthy form of censorship, as happened when the Turkish-language publisher backed out a month before publication for fear of a fundamentalist backlash.  But at least he committed to publish in the first place.  In other countries, publishers and literary-festival organizers have quietly refrained from expressing any interest, cowed not by specific threats, but by their fear of possible threats, and the book, like so many others that do not meet the requirements of conservative piety, appears to be semi-officially banned from public sale in most Arabic-speaking countries. (I say “appears to be,” because there’s no website called where one can get a complete picture.)

This is how censorship works: it creates an atmosphere in which good people are afraid to publish, speak, listen, read, even think. When it succeeds, it brings everyone into line.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t succeed. Not any more. Not when you can order books online, or listen to talks on YouTube, or access blogs, newspaper articles, opinion pieces from all over the world.  

So guess what:  Doniger’s book is now Amazon’s #1 bestselling book about Hinduism. The fundamentalists seem to have forgotten one basic element of publishing:  sex sells.  By insisting that the book be pulped because they think it too erotic, they’ve managed to give it a huge sales boost.

And that is the kind of unintended consequence I adore.

An Alternative Me

sim me2I’ve been wandering recently in the unreal estate of mathematical infinity, where ‘recently’ has zero meaning. In fact infinity may be an alternate way of thinking about God. Among other things, it’s a conceptual space where multiple mirror universes are not only possible, but inevitable. So it seemed rather perfect when I surfaced for a gulp of air this week to find that Adit, a reader in Indonesia, honored me last year by putting me into The Sims. Or rather, an alternative representation of me: an avatar.

virginiaThe Sims, says Wikipedia, is “a strategic life simulation video game series.” Since I had to go to Wikipedia, it’s clear I’m no gamer, but I’m guessing you might think of it as an alternative universe which may or may not be related to this one.  Which might mean that I may or may not be related in an alternative kind of way to Virginia Woolf, looking all cool and austere and maybe just a little bit fey.

It’s heady stuff, this simulation business. As is infinity. But it looks like my avatar just made a safe landing in a Virginia-Woolf-era plane — thanks, Adit! — so I’m hoping real life simulates the simulation:

sim me3

Shuffling My Mind

Apologies, accidental theologists.  I seem to be on hiatus.  (Or should that be in hiatus?  Or swallowed up by one?)

Any way you look at it, the blogging impulse has evidently gone into low gear for the time being.   Bear with me, though.  I have a feeling it’ll return very soon.  As soon, that is, as I figure out the structure for the new book, which right now is in the form of hundreds of pieces of paper spread all over the floor.

I know there’s a great book here on my floor (I think of it as ‘the agnostic book’).  I just have to discover it.  So I spend my days shuffling and reshuffling these pieces of paper, moving them from here to there and back again, trying to figure out a linear sequence that will make them readable by anyone other than me.

In other words, I’m shuffling and reshuffling my mind, and it’s hard work.  Made harder still by the fact that I keep on making more notes, thus only adding to the number of pieces of paper.

There’s heady stuff under my feet, and it’s easy to get lost in it.  So I know I need a weird kind of balance between subjective and objective, between calm argument and impassioned rant.

This morning, however, I woke up thinking “Write the rants first!”  And bounded out of bed with an anticipatory grin.

I might post some of the rants here (maybe I’ll be polite and think of them as riffs).  Or I might change my mind yet again.  Provided I can keep both head and feet on the ground, I’ll keep you updated on how it goes.

And speaking of updates:

It’s paperback time for The First Muslim.  Which makes it more affordable, which in turn makes me very glad.  The US paperback edition comes out two weeks from now, on February 4.  And the paperback of the UK edition will appear in a staged release from April through August (depending on where you are in the world, for reasons beyond my ken).

A Picasso for Jezebel

The come-on, in a brief item in the New York Times arts section:  “A Picasso for $135?  There’s a Chance.”

Yeah, sure.  I would have ignored the headline except that it ran under a photo of a run-down street somewhere in the Middle East.  Tyre, as it turns out.

The $135 is for a raffle ticket, and the raffle is a fund-raising project run by the International Association to Save Tyre.  How exactly the intended arts center and research institute could save this war-battered town on the coast of south Lebanon is not at all clear, but the organizers sure know how to get attention.  Apparently reckoning that international big spenders wouldn’t know Tyre from Timbuktu, they came up with a splashy prize:  a gouache said to be worth a million dollars.

tyre-picassoThe most I’ve ever spent on a lottery ticket before is $2.  Yet it wasn’t Picasso that made me go here and drop 67.5 times as much.  Nor the absurd idea of a million dollars hanging on the wall of my houseboat.  In fact much as I admire Picasso (there’s a bronze head of his in the Tate Modern right now that I could stroke all day if they wouldn’t throw me out at first touch), this piece, Man With Opera Hat, doesn’t really do much for me.  Perhaps because I’m just not that into men in opera hats (men in fedoras would be something else…).

No, what inspired my extravagance was Tyre itself.  Or rather, Tyre’s most infamous princess, Jezebel, who was born when it was at its most splendid, three thousand years ago.  The same magnificent Phoenician princess who married the king of a small mountain kingdom called Israel, challenged the fierce prophet Elijah and sent him packing, died one of the most gruesome deaths in a book not known for eschewing grue, and and was branded a harlot for her trouble by the men who wrote the two biblical books of Kings.  I wrote a biography of her some years back, and I’m still half in love with her.

Even her sworn enemies, the Hebrew prophets, were half in love with her.  Maybe more than half.  Here’s Ezekiel delighting in the splendor of her home city even as he savored its eventual fall:

You were an exemplar of perfection.  Full of wisdom, perfect in beauty.  You were in Eden, in the garden of God, and a thousand gems formed your mantle.  Sard, topaz, diamond, chrysolite, onyx, jasper, sapphire, ruby, emerald, the gold of your flutes and tambourines – all were prepared on the day of your creation.

So you might think the New York Times would ask the organizers what happened to Tyre, and how come the most sophisticated civilization of its time was reduced to battle-scarred poverty, its run-down buildings overlooking the archeological remains of what once was.  Instead, they asked this:  “What would Picasso have made of the raffle?”

Pfah!  They could at least have asked what Jezebel would have made of it.

“A tiny little gouache?” I can hear her saying.  “That’s it?  With all the wars fought and blood shed since I was alive here, wouldn’t Guernica have been more fitting?”


Doris Lessing, Uncovered

doris_lessingThere was something unsatisfactory about the New York Times’ front-page obit for Nobel literature laureate Doris Lessing, at least for me.  So I went back to the archives to look for the magazine piece I wrote on her in 1982, and there I found the complex, ornery, fiercely intelligent writer I’d spent a whole day talking with.  It’s long (the NYT Magazine really ran magazine-length pieces back then), so if you want to read the whole piece, click here.  A few out-takes:

On Euro-centrism:

“I’m glad that I was not educated in literature and history and philosophy, which means that I did not have this Euro-centered thing driven into me, which I think is the single biggest hang-up Europe has got. It’s almost impossible for anyone in the West not to see the West as the God-given gift to the world.”

On marriage:

In retrospect, she says, ”I do not think that marriage is one of my talents. I’ve been much happier unmarried than married. I’m probably unmarriageable now. I just can’t imagine a marriage that would make sense to me. Once you’ve passed 30, I think, it becomes harder and harder for a woman to do. It’s easy when you’re a teenager; perhaps that’s the built-in mechanism for continuation of the species.”

On religion and politics:

”There are certain types of people who are political out of a kind of religious reason,” she says, digging dirt ferociously out of the kitchen table. ”I think it’s fairly common among socialists: They are, in fact, God-seekers, looking for the kingdom of God on earth. A lot of religious reformers have been like that, too. It’s the same psychological set, trying to abolish the present in favor of some better future — always taking it for granted that there is a better future. If you don’t believe in heaven, then you believe in socialism.

On Sufism:

”I’m not a Sufi, I’m studying it,” she says. ”It takes a very long time to become one, if ever, which distinguishes us from all these cults that create instant mystics. The Sufis see the whole guru phenomenon as a degeneration, and the people who pursue gurus as unfortunates.”

On the long view:

“We’re a species under extremely heavy stress. We emerged from the last ice age 12,000 years ago, and we are shortly — say, next week or in a thousand years’ time — going back into another ice age. Compared to that threat, nuclear war is a puppy. We have lived through many ice ages, through wars and famines. Look at Barbara Tuchman’s book on the 14th century, ‘A Distant Mirror’ – nobody thought they would survive that century, but they did. We can survive anything you care to mention. We are supremely equipped to survive, to adapt and even in the long run to start thinking.”

I wasn’t a “fan” of Lessing’s.  I admired her, but clearly with considerable reservations.  It wasn’t until a few weeks later, with the piece edited and ready for publication, and myself back in the United States, that admiration won out.   I got a panicked phone call from the New York Times:  “Can you call Doris Lessing and try to talk some sense into her?”

Um, come again?

Apparently they’d wanted to send a photographer, and she’d said no.  “There’s plenty of photos of me out there,” she’d said.  “You can use any of them.  No need to go taking another one.”

“But Mrs Lessing, we’re running this as the cover story,” they’d objected, with all the weighty consciousness of the magnitude of a New York Times Magazine cover.  “And we can only do that if we have our own photo of you.”

“So don’t run it as the cover story,” she’d said.  “What do I care?”  And hung up.

I loved it.  Most people would jump any number of hoops to be on the cover of the NYT Magazine.  But Doris Lessing truly didn’t care.  And even as I realized she’d done me out of a cover story as well as herself (they’d run the piece, of course, but with an old black-and-white photo and not as the lead), I started laughing out loud.  And could all but hear them down the line thinking, “Christ, she’s as crazy as Lessing.”

Yes Woman, Yes Drive

Can comedy do what common sense can’t?

In case you somehow missed it, this video mildly satirizing the Saudi regime’s absurd ban on women driving has gone totally viral since it was posted on Saturday:

That thing about ovaries?  The Sauds seem to imagine that driving can make a woman infertile.  I kid you not.  Being a back-seat passenger has no such effect, it seems.

Could this possibly have anything to do with the idea of control?

(In case you’re amazed at how uniquely backward the Sauds are with respect to women, by the way, you might consider this ironic detail:  exactly the same argument was used in Israel for decades to stop women from flying planes.  Again, being a passenger was held to have no such effect — just being at the controls.  As a result, the first group of female Israeli air-force pilots graduated not in the ’70s or the ’80s or the ’90s, but all of two years ago, in 2011.)

So who is the guy in the No-Woman-No-Drive video?  He’s Hisham Fageeh, he’s a Riyadh-based stand-up comic who’s studied religion, and thanks to Mother Jones magazine, there’s more on him here.  And if you need a sense of what the dozens of women who defied the ban this past weekend were risking, here’s a TED talk by the wonderful Manal al-Sharif, who went to jail for doing it.

Meanwhile, I’m taking to the road (and the air) through mid-November, with Bob Marley on my playlist. But will I ever be able to listen to ‘No Woman, No Cry’ the same way again?


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