Humayun Khan as an American Hero

Until last week’s Democratic convention, few Americans had heard of Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004, or of his parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan. And until two days ago, even fewer Americans had heard of ten other Muslim Americans who have died while serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The ten were profiled in The Daily Mail, not a newspaper usually associated with kindness to immigrants and minorities.)

Parting ways with Donald Trump, who engaged in ad hominem attacks against Khizr and Ghazala Khan and was slow to acknowledge their son’s sacrifice, Republican politicians have expressed unqualified respect for Muslim Americans in uniform and have paid homage to Captain Khan. Despite widespread fear of terrorism inspired by radical Islam, American public opinion appears to be on the Khans’ side. This might be taken for granted – after all, the man paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country – but it should not be, because Americans have not always thought so well of members of minorities who fought and died for their country.

During World War I, over 350,000 African Americans were called up for military service. Due to racial prejudice, most of those sent overseas were placed in service units, but 40,000 went into battle, concentrated in the segregated 92nd and 93rd Infantry divisions. The 93rd was integrated into the French forces, and 171 of its soldiers received the French Legion of Honour. After the war, African-American veterans expected a grateful nation to recognise their service and put an end to Jim Crow and other forms of racial discrimination. They were bitterly disappointed. Isolationism, the Red Scare, and rampant racism drowned out the rhetoric of civic virtue.

In World War II, blacks continued to serve in separate units and encountered widespread racism, but during the decade after the war the army underwent desegregation. American attitudes towards race began to change, haltingly and spottily. And part of that change was a growing recognition of the sacrifices of the 125000 African-Americans who served overseas and the more than 700 who died in battle.

Seventy years after the end of World War II, and after far more divisive wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the association between military service and patriotism, and between patriotism and virtue, remains intact in the United States. In turn, the military has become more accommodating of Muslims. Although 25 years ago there were no Muslim chaplains in the US military, today there are five, serving some 6000 self-identified Muslims (and perhaps many more, who did not choose to specify a religion when they signed up).

The reality of American Muslims in uniform, and the rhetoric of patriotic sacrifice, provide a powerful counter-point to Islamophobia and fear of terrorism.  Donald Trump, who himself shirked military service in Vietnam, was apparently unaware of this force, as he is unaware of so much of what has made the United States of America truly great.


Donald Trump, Jewish Stars, and the Return of Economic Antisemitism

Yesterday I came across anti-Semitic graffiti near my home in Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood. Someone had scrawled a Star of David and the words “money over love” on a poster for, a Toronto-based podcast of boogie, funk, and soul. “Money Over Love” is a song, featuring Kendrick Lamar, from Bilal’s 2015 album In Another Life.  There’s nothing anti-Semitic about the song, or the video – and the graffiti artist made a smart connection between the podcast and Bilal’s music, which has been dubbed “neo-soul,” although Bilal musical style is capacious and hard to define. But the Star of David transformed the title of a work of art into a hateful slogan.

There’s been a lot of chatter over the past few days about Donald Trump’s retweeting of a poster featuring a picture of Hilary Clinton, piles of cash, and a star of David with the words “most corrupt candidate ever” on the inside of the star.  The Trump campaign finds nothing sinister in the image’s prior appearance on a white supremacist web site. Their response is that the star is just a star, or maybe a sheriff’s badge, but certainly nothing more sinister than the six-pointed star on a children’s colouring book based on the Disney film Frozen.

This kerfuffle is not an isolated incident. Trump has flirted with anti-Semitism throughout his campaign. Trump is probably not an anti-Semite in any conventional sense of the word. He doesn’t seem to bear any animus against his daughter Ivanka, an Orthodox convert to Judaism, or against Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner. But he attracts antisemites, who have hurled abuse at trump’s Jewish critics.

There is more anti-Semitic rhetoric bouncing around American cyberspace than at any time since the intervention of the internet. For the past fifteen years, Jews have worried about a new anti-Semitism that was couched as hostility to Israel. The idea was that the old anti-Semitism, replete with associations between Jews and avarice, or presenting Jews as wielders of vast and hidden powers, had become socially unacceptable. According to many Jewish activists, anti-Semitic wine was now being poured into an anti-Zionist bottle.

Whether you believe that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are identical, totally dissimilar, or overlapping, the fact is that the “old” anti-Semitism is making a comeback. It is not nearly as powerful or noxious as the anti-black,, anti-Hispanic, and anti-Muslim hatred that the Trump camp either tolerates or actively propagates. But it’s there, it’s bonded to the Trump camp like a pilot fish and a shark, and it’s astonishing that Trump’s Jewish supporters don’t see it.

Not that Trump’s supporters will listen to someone attempting to be reasonable, but here is an interview I gave to the Wharton School of Business about myths and realties of Jewish economic life. It may come in handy in a political argument.

Is There a Link Between Ethnicity and Economics?

Size Matters, and Other Lessons From Counter-Factual History

In a 2006 interview, the distinguished scholar and commentator Walter Laqueur indulged in a bit of counter-factual historical fantasy:

“Israel (and the Jews) have been singled out for attack because they were few and weak. Let us engage in a simple exercise in counterfactual history. If the Ottoman Empire had collapsed not in 1918 but at the time of the Crimean war, or after the Russian-Turkish war 1828/9. What if the great majority of European Jewry would have decided to migrate to Palestine , and what, if with a birthrate like the Gaza Strip, it would now have fifty million inhabitants or even more? Such a Greater Palestine extending from the Nile to the Euphrates with substantial oilfields would be a major force in world politics. It would live in peace with its neighbors, the refugee issue would be settled, just as it has been settled everywhere else, no one wants to trifle with a country this size. It would be a honored member of the United Nations, Muslim religious leaders would invoke quotations from the Koran and the Hadith stressing the closeness and friendship between Muslims and Jews, children of the same ancestor— Abraham-Ibrahim. The Norman Finkelsteins of this world would sing songs of praise concerning the miraculous renaissance of an old people its progressive, tolerant character–or legoyim–a shining beacon to the rest of the world.” (

We can doubt the plausibility of Laqueur’s counter-factual.  But Laqueur poses an important point- to what extent is global outrage against Israel a product not of the country’s military power but rather the limits of that power? Is sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians augmented by the sense that Israel, unlike major world powers like the United States, Russia, and China, could be vulnerable to economic pressure in the form of the BDS campaign?

An affirmative answer to these questions does not in and of itself delegitimize BDS, but it does demand an honest accounting of BDS’ rationale, one that has been notably absent from the campaign’s public statements.

The Left has historically presented the causes of particular groups such as the Palestinians in universalist terms such as the global struggle against colonialism and racism. But the Palestinians are among the world’s smallest peoples, amounting to about 1/7 of one percent of the world’s population. Asking why the plight of the Palestinians receives such minute attention begs the question why the plight of the Jews – another minuscule people, only slightly more numerous than the Palestinians – was, in an earlier era, similarly at the centre of public awareness. The Holocaust is not the only answer to this question, just as the Nakba and post-1967 Occupations do not, in and of themselves, account for the primary of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the international community.

Laqueur’s counterfactual reminds us that perception and representation are constitutive, not reflective, of political action. Size matters, but it does so counter-intuitively. Israel’s minuscule population and territory make it appear vulnerable despite its appearances of military and economic strength. Similarly, the Palestinian tragedy, which originated in the loss by some 750,000 people of their homes and homeland, is of a comprehensible scope – something that cannot be said of the 25 million people who have been killed in global conflicts since 1945.

Fauda, Israel, and the Middle East

The popular television series Fauda testifies to a profound cultural shift within the state of Israel. The program shows that Israel is becoming increasingly Middle Eastern precisely in pace with the growing intractability of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Fauda tells the story of an elite undercover IDF unit of mistarevim, whose members go undercover in the West Bank. The operatives, and a Security Services interrogator with whom they work closely, speak fluid Palestinian Arabic, and are intimately familiar with Palestinian culture. When the lead character, Doron, assumes the identity of a member of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service in order to seduce a Palestinian doctor, he quickly falls in love with her, and he appears to be much more at ease speaking with her in Arabic than with his own wife in Hebrew. Inside a mosque, Doron plays the role of the pious Muslim so comfortably that one wonders if what he’s doing is entirely performance.

Many of the program’s characters are Palestinian – guerrillas and their family members, brains and brawn from Hamas and the Palestine Authority’s security services. Some seventy per cent of the show’s dialogue is in Arabic. Israeli television has never broadcast a program that so thoroughly mixes Jewish and Arab characters and the cityscapes of Tel Aviv and Ramallah. (The show’s West Bank scenes were actually filmed in the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Qasim). Both Jewish and Arab characters are depicted with empathy. They are all trapped in a conflict not of their making and which their gruesome, cruel, and barbaric acts of violence can only exacerbate.

In real life, few mistarevim are such consummate shape shifters as Doron. Israeli Jews seldom speak Palestinian Arabic with native fluency. Fauda may not be entirely veracious but it reveals a truth about Israel that is deeper than its depiction of terrorism and counter-terrorism. That truth accounts for the show’s enormous popularity. Viewers love its gripping plot, high production values, and excellent acting. But more important, the show touches a nerve.

Fauda is about a conflict that appears to have had no beginning and that will have no end. Both sides are equally capable of savagery. (In a reference to a backstory, we learn that the unit’s head and the Israeli Defence Minister once killed five bound Palestinian prisoners in cold blood.) The Israeli operatives are intensely, viscerally connected to their enemy. They can live neither with nor without the Palestinians. Like the Maronites in Lebanon during its decades of civil war, the Israelis are natives of the Middle East even though they claim ties to the West. They are both dominators and victims. The IDF is vastly more powerful and effective than all of the old Maronite militias put together, but the conflation of political and military power, and the deterioration of war into a blood feud, are similar.

The Israeli separation barrier, which in Jerusalem takes the form of a terrifyingly high wall, looms in many scenes. The wall symbolizes the separation between the Israeli-Jewish “us” and the Palestinian “them,” and between the well-ordered Israeli state and the chaos (Fauda in Arabic) of the West Bank. But as the program’s characters show us, there can be no absolute separation between Jew and Arab. Israel is in, even if not of, the Middle East, and with every generation it moves further away from its European roots. Israel’s close political and economic ties to the United States, and its status as an EU member in most respects, exert a diminishing effect on the country’s political and military culture. Israel’s strong state and relative homogeneity have kept it from following Lebanon’s path. But Israel’s Jews are becoming to the entire Middle East what the Maronites are within Lebanon – a minority that is alienated from a majority as much by their commonalities as by their differences.

From Zion to Uganda…and New York?

From today’s Haaretz, a piece commemorating the notorious  Uganda proposal of 1903, in which the British government offered the Zionist Organisation an opportunity to settle in British East Africa.   The article is very good, but it doesn’t mention that unexpected support for the proposal came from none other than Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew.  Ben-Yehuda despaired of creating a vibrant modern Hebrew culture in the Holy Land, whose Jewish community was at that time overwhelmingly Ultra-Orthodox, and he thought that Hebrew culture would have a better chance of flourishing in Africa, beyond the reach of rabbinic control.

Israel has created the flourishing Hebrew culture of Ben-Yehuda’s dreams, but that culture can also be found throughout the world, and not necessarily only within major Israeli diaspora enclaves like New York.  “Israeli” and “Hebrew” culture are interrelated but not identical.  True, non-Jews producing Hebrew culture are rare – the poet Robert Whitehill is a fascinating exception – but Hebrew has become a global language, Israelis travel everywhere, and bi-national, bilingual authors like Shelly Oria (whose stories include one called “New York 1, Tel Aviv 0”) are likely to become increasingly common in years to come.

Hebrew Fiction and the World Market

Europe is said to be rife with anti-Israel sentiment, far more so than North America, yet Israeli literature – written by authors across the political spectrum – is much more likely to be available in French, Spanish, German and Italian translation than in English versions.

In North America, Israeli literature is read largely by Jews, and aside from the holy trinity of great Israeli authors – Amos Oz, A B Yehoshua, and David Grossman, it is far from assured that any Israeli author will as a matter of course be translated into English.  Fortunately, electronic publishing is cheap enough to allow for the dissemination of works of Hebrew literature that might otherwise never have made it to the English-speaking world, e.g., Yoram Kaniuk’s fictionalised memoir of his experiences during the war of 1948; or Assaf Gavron’s The Hilltop, an edgy novel about Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

The fact remains that more Israeli titles are translated into European languages than into English, and the appearance of a major Israeli novel can be a major literary event in circles far beyond the Jewish community.  Why? Part of the reason has to do with the general insularity of English-language readers who shy away from translated literature, and the reluctance of publishers within the vast English-language world to invest in translations when there is so much talent to draw on within the world of Anglophone letters.  But there is another reason.  However conflicted Europeans’ feelings about Israel may be, they are fascinated by the country.  They see Israel as having originated as an extension of Europe and are haunted by the genocide that European civilisation perpetrated upon the Jews three generations ago.  Israel is, literally and figuratively, much closer to them than it is to most North Americans.

Will recent films based on Israeli novels – Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness and Sayed Kashua’s Dancing Arabs – arouse the interest of American publishers and readers in Israeli fiction?  Fortunately, all of Kashua’s novels are available in English, but these darkly humorous explorations of Israeli-Palestinian identity have not yet found the audience they deserve.  And what of great Iraqi-Israeli novelists such as Sami Michael, whose masterpiece Victoria appeared in an English edition that almost immediately went out of print, yet remains readily available in French?

Israeli literature, whether written in Hebrew or Arabic, speaks to a global audience.  That audience should include more readers in North America.