Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Shonda or Two

Michael Takiff
I have no idea who Michael Takiff is, but this morning, he wrote something a piece of me wishes had rolled off my pen.  Then there's the other piece of me that cringed when I read it.

Takiff takes U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, to task for decidedly un-Jewish behavior as a one-man-human-obstacle to resolving the debt ceiling debate, casting him into a group with all the Jews who have ever embarrassed our people - think Ivan Boesky, Mike Milken, Bernie Madoff - and given "the goyim" - non-Jews - another reason to believe the age old stereotypes....

"...that every one of us is out to control their banks, run their newspapers, and make matzoh from the blood of their children."

Pthte, pthte...(Fake spitting over my shoulder.  Need you remind them?)

Eric Cantor
Takiff says Cantor is being worse than disingenous, that he's risking our country's economic well-being and all the people who will be devastated by failure to raise the debt ceiling simply to court his base,  to recall a favorite past-time of George W. Bush.  As it happens, Cantor barely won his last election against a Tea Party candidate.  He apparently has either become a convert or decided to champion the cause for his political well-being.

"Eric Cantor, didn’t you learn anything from your upbringing? Were you out on your shul’s front steps enjoying a smoke when your rabbi sermonized about the Jewish obligation to lead an honorable life?

Evidently you didn’t learn, because if you had, you’d share my belief that just as Jews should not stage multibillion-dollar Ponzi schemes, so they should not threaten to bring about world economic calamity for no better reason than to curry favor among a bunch of mouth-breathing fanatics who don’t know a principle of economics from a pulled-pork sandwich."

Takiff goes on to assert - another thing that makes me cringe - that Jews should never be Republicans.  Yet, I completely grok why he said it:  

"No less an authority than Richard Nixon used to complain to Henry Kissinger -- talk about a shonda! -- that all Jews were liberals. Norman Podhoretz, that shonda, wrote a whole book on the subject -- "Why are Jews Liberals?"

What a waste of ink. I could have told him why in two minutes. It’s because Jews know what a majority can do to a minority. It’s because Jews grow up with burdens unshouldered by most other Americans -- certainly most other white Americans -- burdens of our history, stories of our desperate struggle to maintain the existence of our tiny people in a world indifferent at best, genocidal at worst, tales of Inquisitors and Cossacks and SS men.

And that’s why, Eric, if being Jewish means anything it means that we feel for the oppressed, the poor, the powerless. It means that we ask fat cats to pay a few more dollars to the IRS so that we don’t have to slash funding for Medicaid. It means that it’s an easy decision when we have to choose between continuing to pay subsidies to wildly profitable oil companies and retaining school lunch programs."

I'm so there with his explanation.  I have, over time, acquired a few activist Jewish Republican friends who spout the party line so fervently.  They talk about the poor as though the responsibility for being hungry and homeless falls squarely on the shoulders of those who are hungry and homeless, as though these are all people who simply refuse to work like the rest of us, who opt for hunger because the government will be their nanny.  It doesn't help to remind them that our system of nanny welfare went out under President Clinton, and when I ask whether they believe that the children of these ne'er-do-wells should be punished for their parents' sins, they either change the subject or mumble non-answers.  And don't even bother trying to talk about the growing wealth gap that's leaving everyone except a select few less and less able to care for themselves, pay for health care, put away enough for retirement, etc.   I find myself wondering, do they not care what happens to all the lives that will fall through the cracks if we take this Ayn Rand-esque approach to governing?  Honestly, do they simply compartmentalize that stuff to some closet in the deep recess of their brains so that they never have to contemplate it? 

Takiff gets a couple dozen lines in about why Eric Cantor is mishandling the debt ceiling debate, but for me this article is less about debt ceiling and more about what it means to be Jewish, what our obligations are.  He has a lot to say there; much of it very "politically incorrect":

"Once upon a time Jews could be good Republicans and good Jews. Jacob Javits, Louis Lefkowitz, Warren Rudman, even Arlen Specter when he was starting out. Sure, once upon a time honorable tribe members could hold views weighted toward solution of problems through the private sector rather than the public.

Those days are gone. Does the GOP even pretend to care about the poor and the powerless anymore? Even more alarming, does it have any respect for learning?

The Republican Party is in the hands of bigots and radicals and ignoramuses, people who think default on the national debt would be salutary, climate change is a hoax, and our barely left-of-center president is the reincarnation of Joseph Stalin. It’s in the hands of Christianists, people who hate Muslims now that they’ve decided not to hate Jews. In fact, they love Jews and they love Israel -- because the Book of Revelation tells them that the Jewish state will hasten the day when Christ returns and all Jews are swallowed into hell."

Which leads to my other reaction.

Yet another cringe.  Because deep within my Jewish genes is the tense urge to look around when I hear stuff like that, to see if any goyim are listening.  This urge made its way into my DNA at least as far back as the time of the Exodus, when we were slaves in Egypt.  There is an urge to make nice and not to draw undue attention to myself and to my people.  To keep heads low.  I once kept my faith a secret from my neighbor because, over a cup of sugar she'd just borrowed, she spouted anti-semitic comments about what her husband would like to do to her Jewish landlord.  My daughters once asked why we could not hang blue and white Chanukah lights on the outside of our home like the lights our neighbors hung for Christmas.  I had to tell them that not everyone likes Jewish people.  Keep your head down.  Let trouble pass.  As if it ever does.

And anyway, if we somehow neutralized the radical right, aren't we simply left with the radical left?   Check out these comments to a recent article on  Also scarey:

    "Zionism is modern Nazism. Zionists use Jewish mistreatment at the hands of Nazis and other
     throughout history as justification for the way they treat Palestinians.

    And then out of desperation, Zionists claim criticism of Israel is anti-semitism.

   That is like saying that criticism of Nazis is anti-Germanism."

A brave Jewish guy was standing ground as best he could against the anti-Israel comment onslaught, but not me.  I sat there, anxiously wondering whether it was best to assert myself or close the site and slink off, no one the wiser for my being there.  

                                                                        #  #  #

Since we know the Republican party is populated by a lot of folks who don't meet Takiff's definition, isn't it somewhat outrageous for him to make such extreme claims, catching up a lot of innocent Republicans in his net?

Perhaps.  I know if I had written this piece, it would be rife with qualifiers. 

Bruce Bartlett
The thing is, Takiff is only describing a portion of the GOP, but he's not describing it incorrectly.   It dawns on me that it would feel safer if I could find a non-Jew to point this out.  So let me direct us to a blog post by Bruce Bartlett, entitled "Why I am not a Republican."  Bartlett is not only not Jewish, he's an old school conservative, former policy adviser to President Reagan and Treasury official under G.H.W. Bush.  I've reproduced poll results used by Bartlett to demonstrate why he's moved away from the party.   The poll is an opinion poll of Republican sentiment.

It's so complicated.  We Jews are suffering some sort of conflict between our very strong 'head down' gene - I mean how many rounds of attempted genocide can you go without developing a strong head down gene -  and a completely different Jewish gene that abhores mistreatment of the poor, the elderly, the indigent. The gene that drove so many of us to the south during the civil rights era to stand with the black population against discrimination.

But wasn't this exactly Takiff's point?  That Jews should lead by example.  Jews - like the brave "goy"  Bartlett - should be the first to climb out of the net that holds a large number of ideologues who are just fine, thank you, with letting millions of Americans fall through the cracks in homage to their ideology.

If we learned anything from Jewish history, it is that we survive only if we elevate community well-being over personal power.  If we learned anything from the Holocaust, it is that we must never ignore radical speech, or the power of radical speech to morph into human destruction.  It is for these two sins that Takiff has called Cantor to task, labeling him a shonda, an embarrassment to the Jewish faith. 

It is for the third sin, of giving in to the urge to keep our heads low and falsely soothe ourselves that no bad thing will come of silence, that I - and much of the Jewish community - are guilty.   This, too, is a shonda.

Click here to read the rest of Takiff's column.

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