Who Has Kidnapped Who?

From a column in today’s Ha’aretz by former Speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg, speaking directly to Israelis focused entirely on three yeshiva students kidnapped in occupied territory:

All of Palestinian society is a kidnapped society. Like many of the Israelis who performed “significant service” in the army, many of the readers of this column, or their children, entered the home of a Palestinian family in the middle of the night by surprise, with violence, and simply took away the father, brother or uncle, with determination and insensitivity. That is kidnapping, and it happens every day. And what about their administrative detainees?

What is all this if not one big official, evil and unjust kidnapping that we all participate in and never pay the price for? That is the fate of tens of thousands of detainees and others under arrest, who stayed, or are staying, in Israel’s prisons – quite a few of them for no good reason, falsely imprisoned on false pretexts. The vast majority of them have been exposed to the appendages of military justice, and none of us cares a whit.

All these things have turned the topic of the prisoners into the main subject in the lives of the occupied society. There is not a single household without a detainee or prisoner. So why is it so difficult to understand their joy and our pain, fears and worry notwithstanding? It was, and can still be, otherwise.

However, as long as the Israeli government shuts all the gates of freedom, flees from all real negotiations that could solve the conflict, refuses to make good-will gestures, lies and blatantly violates its own commitments – violence is all that remains for them.


That’s Entertainment?

Does this television sequence sound familiar?

Night time. A woman brushing her teeth in the bathroom. A dark shadow appears behind her. A gloved hand clamps over her mouth. A struggle. A knife. Cut to morning. Bloodied body on the floor. Enter detective, with dumb ‘witticism’ along the lines of “Had a hard night.” Cut to commercials.

Pcriminal mindsrime-time television makes a fortune out of women being stalked, beaten, raped, tortured, and murdered.   All in high-def detail, of course. Programs such as Law and Order’s sleazy ‘Special Victims Unit’ spinoff and the even sleazier Criminal Minds are huge money-making franchises, every episode sold on first to cable and then throughout the world.

patinkinMandy Patinkin, one of my favorite actors, walked out on Criminal Minds after its first two years, calling it a huge mistake to have ever accepted a starring role on it. I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year,” he said. “It was very destructive to my soul and my personality.”

It is very destructive to all our souls and personalities.

So why don‘t all the other actors walk out? (I know — money makes their world go round). Why in fact does anyone watch these programs? (I may not really want the answer to that.) Why do advertisers pay to be in those commercial breaks? (oh yes: because people watch.) And what exactly is going on in the minds of those who write and produce and air such programs?  Doesn’t anyone in television-land realize that they‘re presenting violence against women as entertainment?

Or worse still, do they realize it very well?

No, I’m not saying that such programs create rapists and murderers, or that they present rape as okay.  Their ostensible focus is on the horror of rape, and at least on the surface, they seem to be raising consciousness of how brutal a violation it is.

Beneath the surface, though, there’s a deeply creepy fascination with rape, one that feels darkly voyeuristic.  So what I am saying is that such programs are a very visible part of a world-wide culture that still does not take rape with full seriousness — a culture that still doesn‘t register it for what it is:  not “sexual assault” nor “sex crime,” but brutality.  Rape is not about sex; it’s about brutalizing women.

There has to be someone out there who is as pissed as I am at this but with far better organizing skills.  Someone who can get at those who make such programs where it really hurts:  not in their balls, but in their pocketbooks.  Someone who can create a campaign to pressure advertisers to stop supporting programs that use violence against women as entertainment.

Imagine a boycott of the goods and services of all such advertisers.  Imagine stickers pasted on toilet paper and antacids and “feminine-care” products in supermarkets saying “This product pays for rape as entertainment.”  Imagine the publicity, the “bad PR,” the panic this would induce among directors of marketing.  They’d cave.

What Mandy Patinkin did, we all need to do. We all need to walk out on this sleaze.


The Antidote

The video is chaotic.  It shows a woman being stripped, tossed around, hit, kicked, held down, penetrated, beaten into unconsciousness by a mob in Cairo.  It’s described in this New York Times report, which avoids any link to the video itself.  In fact the original YouTube upload has been deleted.  Deleting it, however, is just another way of trying to cover it up.  As I write, this one is still active.  And yes, you are warned, it’s brutal.  As all rape is.

I know that those who read this blog, men and women alike, will be incapable of watching these couple of minutes with anything but horror.  But I also know that part of the reason it went viral when first posted is that there are men out there who are turned on by it.

Just the thought of that makes me want to gag.  As does the boys-will-be-boys response to it from an Egyptian TV host, who said, with a stupid giggle:  “They are happy.  The people are having fun.”

This isn’t “just” an Egyptian problem.  Or a Nigerian or Somali or Brazilian or Turkish or Italian or Swedish or Indian or Pakistani one.  My first association was with last year’s photo of an unconscious near-naked girl being lugged around by wrists and ankles, like a carcass, by high-school rapists in apple-pie Steubenville, Ohio.

This sickness infects some men, but affects every woman.  Yes, all women.  The Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen took off in response to the misogynistic shooting rampage in Santa Barbara, California two weeks ago, and here’s the formidably intelligent Rebecca Solnit on what it means.

Solnit was in Seattle last week talking about her new book, Men Explain Things To Me, and when she mentioned her unease at finding herself alone on an elevator at night with a strange man, there was a lone weird laugh from a man behind me in the audience.  It wasn’t clear what he found so funny.  Perhaps he simply couldn’t understand this kind of unease.  But every woman can.  It’s the year 2014, and yet it’s still not “wise” for a woman to go down a dark street at night, or ride in an empty subway car, or walk in the woods.  What was most remarkable about Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, was not the length or the difficulty of the hike, but the fact that she was a woman walking alone.  If she had been male, there would have been no book to be written.

It’s absurd that the onus is still on women to avoid being subjected to violence.  One way and another, we are told to avoid this, avoid that, take care, take karate classes, be on the alert, be afraid.  Don’t go out at night, say some.  Stay home, lock yourselves in, adopt the behavioral equivalent of a chador.  (Don’t go out at night?  An equally rational ‘solution’ would instead be to tell men not to go out at night.)

But there’s an antidote.  And it comes from men — men who really do respect women, and who know that to remain silent in the face of woman-hatred is only to give it free rein.  As former president Jimmy Carter put it in A Call to Action, violence against women is not only a woman’s issue;  it affects us all, and the only way to win this battle is to work together.  I take heart from this photo that artist D.K.Pan posted on his Facebook page after the Santa Barbara massacre.  Women are finally speaking out;  we need more men like Jimmy Carter and D.K.Pan to speak out with us.



“I Had No Idea…”

macklemore2There’s a back story to this post.  I was asked to write it yesterday by Seattle’s alternative paper The Stranger.  Specifically, they asked for some “historical perspective” to singer Macklemore’s perverse twist on wardrobe malfunction onstage last Friday night, when he decided it’d be cool to perform in what’s sold in variety stores as a “Sheik/Fagin mask,” huge hook nose and all.

When the shit hit the fan, the Seattle-born Macklemore said his get-up was merely a “witch mask” and there was nothing anti-Semitic about it.  This morning, Tuesday, he finally issued an apology: “I had no idea,” he said.  And later this morning, despite huge numbers of comments on its coverage, The Stranger decided that “this story is over.”

I disagree, so am posting what I wrote right here:


For years I thought of myself as a wandering Jew. I moved not just between cities but between continents — London to Jerusalem to New York to Seattle. It was as though I fit the stereotype of the “rootless cosmopolitan.” Yet while I now seem to have become rooted after all, or at least as rooted as anyone whose houseboat floats on forty feet of water can be, I still can’t help thinking of rootless cosmopolitanism – anti-Semitic code for shiftless, untrustworthy, disloyal Jewishness — as a rather attractive existential state of being. And I still romanticize the idea of the wandering Jew, even though I know it began as an anti-Semitic legend in Christian Rome.

The story goes that a Jewish cobbler wouldn’t allow Christ to rest on his stoop during the trek to Golgotha, for which Christ condemned him to wander the world for eternity, with no rest. The Crusaders brought the legend back to England in the 12th century, where it was embroidered and expanded, and where this particular wandering Jew was born several centuries later. I’d be the only Jew in a Catholic convent school whose nuns referred to me as “the Hebrew girl” — with a certain pause before the word Hebrew, as though to emphasize that they were using a delicate euphemism. At least they refrained from telling me that I’d killed Christ (or given him no rest). Instead, they told me I was going to limbo, which seemed to be a kind of mezzanine between heaven and hell. To their horror, I kind of liked the idea of limbo.

This was only a few years after the end of World War Two. No, I’m not going to bring the six million in here; I have no desire to contribute to the obscenity of invoking their memory in support of current argument. My point is that despite its anti-Nazi stance, England was still deeply anti-Semitic. Which is not surprising given that it was where the “blood libel” first burst into murderous flame.

The blood libel was a medieval urban legend about Jews ritually slaughtering Christian boys and draining their blood to mix into Passover matzos (I kid you not). It spread like wildfire. Thousands of Jews were burned alive and otherwise massacred (and several boys declared saints) until Jews were expelled completely from British shores in 1290, to be allowed back only in 1655. In the light of which, Queen Isabella of Spain’s much better-known expulsion of Spain’s Jews in 1492, followed by that of all Spain’s Muslims thirty years later, seems pretty par for the course.

The two most infamous Jews in all of literature were created by Englishmen strong and true: Shylock in the 16th century and Fagin in the 19th. Both were portrayed as hunch-backed, lecherous-lipped, greedy-eyed, and of course, flamboyantly hook-nosed (a word that is inherently prejudicial — in Arab countries, it’s known as an eagle’s nose, and has traditionally been considered a sign of nobility). But neither Fagin nor Shylock were new creations. They were personifications of cartoon stereotypes that had become widespread with printing. The Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer didn’t invent the style, but it did help propagate it so widely that it still features on hysterically anti-Semitic websites from the USA to Poland to Yemen. It appeared in Egyptian schoolbooks and newspapers for years. And it turned up with an ironic twist in Denmark in 2006 with the publication of cartoons caricaturing Muhammad and all Muslims as terrorists, all with the “Sheik/Fagin nose” sold so amusingly as a mask at party stores. One Semite apparently looks pretty much like another.

Mild-mannered Seattle might seem a sweet respite from all this. Yet it was in Seattle that I first heard someone say “he Jewed me down” — quite blithely, with no self-consciousness, as though it were perfectly normal. Here that someone tried to make me her token Jew (“Wow, I’ve never had a Jewish friend before,” she said, and she didn’t after either). Here that a former Catholic schoolboy who didn’t realize I was Jewish (“that’s Jewish, you don’t look funny” went the old music-hall joke) assumed that I’d join him in changing the words of the carol “Joy to the world” to “Fuck all the Jews.” Here that I get a finger-pointing “you people” or “you Jews” as I’m held responsible for the actions of an Israeli government I criticize far more bitterly than those to whom the accusatory fingers belong. And it’s here, in the comments on The Stranger’s coverage of the Macklemore affair, that I find all the usual anti-Semitic code words: “touchy,” “thin-skinned,” and that old standby “pushy.”

Seattle is a young city, almost an ahistorical one compared to Jerusalem, and this ahistorical sense has allowed me to find calm writerly perspective on what happened halfway round the world in the Middle East of fifteen hundred, two thousand, even three thousand years ago. I’m immensely grateful for that. But could an absence of historical awareness just be another way of saying innocence? Or should that be ignorance?

When the subject of literary fraud came up in conversation not long ago, for instance, I mentioned the most infamous example of all – “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” And was stunned to realize that nobody had heard of this screed, which first surfaced in Russia in 1903. Purportedly the record of a meeting of leading Jews plotting to take over the world, it’s a classic demonstration of the ornate convolutions performed by the paranoid-conspiratorial mind, and has thus proved remarkably resilient to all evidence that it’s a fiction. Hitler made much use of it, of course, and America’s own tainted automotive titan Henry Ford had half a million copies printed and distributed in the 1920s. You can still find the full text on anti-Semitic websites, while print versions, complete with the usual hook-nosed illustrations, continue to sell steadily in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

macklemorePerhaps Seattle is a bit less innocent after Macklemore’s now infamous twist on the idea of wardrobe malfunction. Or perhaps not. I opt to believe him when he says that he had no idea of the anti-Semitic stereotype, and can understand his initial defensiveness — nobody likes to have their unconscious biases paraded in public. But as he now acknowledges, it’s precisely this no-idea-ness that’s the problem. And that may be true for Seattle as well as for him.

We pride ourselves here on being progressive and tolerant. That’s part of our civic image. But tolerance is an ambiguous ideal. You only need to tolerate what – or whom — you don’t really accept. Stereotypes are inherent in the idea of tolerance, and until we can get beyond them, our proud progressiveness runs the risk of being… well,  just another mask.

Colonizing Everest

The use of “native guides” might seem a peculiarly nineteenth-century mode of exploration. Not so. In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary would never have been the first to climb Everest if he hadn’t in fact been the second — hard on the heels of Sherpa Tenzing, without whom he’d never have made it. And so it still goes. Some 600 people now summit Everest each year, but most are not westerners paying up to $100,000 for the privilege. They’re Nepalese sherpas, “at least” thirteen of whom were killed in an avalanche last week. And those huge sums don’t go to them, but to the mountaineering outfits that hire them at minimal wage to do the dirty dangerous stuff and ease the way for their wealthy clients.

That’s two underpaid, heavily-laden sherpas per overpaid, lightly-laden westerner. Sound familiar? Since I’m more of a desert rat than an icepick-and-piton type, I think instantly of another climb much boasted of, as in Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, which includes his account of an 1867 trip to Egypt:



and this photo from 1870:



Heave ho, my hearties.  Anyone for a spot of post-colonialism?

Getting High

Remember George Lakoff and his wonderful book Metaphors We Live By? He and co-writer Mark Johnson argued that metaphors are not “merely” symbolic;  instead, they shape and determine how we think. That’s why I’ve been playing with the metaphor of height, which appears with remarkable frequency in the increasingly tiresome theist-atheist debate.

sky godThe assumption is that what’s high is good and what’s low is bad. Thus evangelical Christians tend to raise their eyes skyward as they talk about (or to) God or heaven. This is a cultural remnant of the ancient sky god (Baal, Zeus, or Yahweh, depending on where you lived), shown in statuettes wielding a lightning bolt. It also happens to be a clear negation of the assumed monotheistic principle of God as universal and omnipresent, but as Lakoff showed, metaphors trump principle.

We have a long history of altars built on high places, presumably on the basis of “nearer my God to thee,” whatever god or gods were involved. We have steeples and spires, needles and minarets soaring skyward, from the Tower of Babel to Dubai’s Burj al-Khalifa. (And if you happen to live in a valley, or worse, in a canyon, whether concrete or natural, you may find yourself “at the bottom of the heap.”)

The heavenly counterpart is of course hell as the underworld, stoked by fires of molten lava deep beneath the earth’s surface – the hadopelagic, from Hades, the deepest depths. But you don’t have to believe in heaven or hell to be mesmerized by height.

Some evolutionary biologists talk of humans as the “pinnacles” of creation (though I would have thought life as a pinnacle would be an alarmingly lonely business). Others see humans as a “higher order” of evolution (some of them even described as high-functioning).

We have upper and lower classes (both socioeconomic and biological), and upper and lower cases (of course God gets an upper case). We have high and low IQ, high times and low times, high achievement and low, hi-def, hi-fi, hi-res.

Phrases such as “a higher consciousness,” “higher math,” and a “higher power” come tripping off our tongues. As well as “beneath contempt,” and “above reproach.” Our spirits can sink, or soar. We get high, and feel low. And above all, as it were, we occasionally engage in high-level negotiations, rise above our emotions, and give each other a resounding high-five.

None of this would seem to bode well for any consideration in depth, but I intend to keep puzzling at it nonetheless. Maybe I need to climb to a mountaintop…

Pure Zen



My copy of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard bears the marks of a well-used life, much like the photo of him in today’s New York Times. The cover is torn and tattered, the linen boards worn and faded, the pages yellowing at the edges. The end pages are full of scribbled notes to myself, the text scored and marked in the margins. This is a much-read book.

I’ve placed it high on the reading list of every writing course I’ve ever taught, tracing the intertwining of its parallel journeys: on the one hand, into the hidden inner sanctum of Dolpo on the Tibetan plateau, in search of the elusive snow leopard; on the other, into the mystical and equally elusive peacefulness of Zen Buddhism.

There were far more than two hands, of course, which is why I read the book so many times and never tired of it, entranced by the intense lyricism of its descriptions of landscape, and the sharp contrast with the pared-down writing about Zen practice.

I have most of Matthiessen’s other books too, both fiction and nonfiction, but this is the one I keep coming back to (in a way I suspect would have deeply disappointed him — no writer cares to be defined by one book above all the others).

I didn’t know much ‘about’ him other than what he revealed in his writing, which was carefully calibrated. I had no idea he worked a naively youthful two years for the CIA, for example, using the Paris Review as a cover, though I did know he’d become a Zen priest, that he was fiercely involved with environmental issues, and that he was… well, not exactly good-husband material. No matter: the writer was more important to me than the man.

Yet much as I love and admire his writing, I haven’t ordered my own copy of his last book, a novel called In Paradise. Instead, it’s waiting for me at the library as I write.  And has been waiting a few days. I delay picking it up because even though it’s Matthiessen, something in me doesn’t want to read it. It’s set at a meditation retreat at the concentration camps of Birkenau and Auschwitz, and the very idea of such a retreat seems, at least to me, a horribly ironic oxymoron. Which may indeed turn out to be his point. I’ll find out soon enough.

Matthiessen died yesterday, at age 86. “I don’t want to cling too hard to life,” he’d said, and by not doing so, I suspect he arrived again at the place he described in this quote from The Tree Where Man Was Born, which serves as the ending of the extraordinarily timed piece on him in today’s NYT magazine. Here it is:

“Lying back against these ancient rocks of Africa, I am content. The great stillness in these landscapes that once made me restless seeps into me day by day, and with it the unreasonable feeling that I have found what I was searching for without having discovered what it was.”

What is this if not pure Zen?



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