BDS V: An Ideology of Intellectual Activism

The Intellectual Roots of AAA’s Support of BDS: Part V
An Ideology of Intellectual Activism


Howard Adelman

With the exception of this past Friday and Monday, in the last of four previous blogs I wrote on the subject of BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that promotes, among other things, the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, Israeli academics and non-Israelis who are open to dialogue with Israelis. The adherents vary. Some BDS supporters boycott only Israeli academic institutions and their representatives in the name of human rights. Some even declare that they are not opposed to Zionism, even though the “charter” of BDS insists it is at the forefront of the resistance movement against Zionism. The Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (ABIAI) within the American Anthropological Association (AAA) managed for a while, before a general referendum defeated by a narrow margin the proposal to endorse BDS, to make AAA one of the very few leading academic professional organizations to back BDS. My last blog on BDS reviewed the last three years of this political debate within the AAA. In this blog, I want to explore why the AAA was so susceptible to such an appeal by offering an intellectual analysis and critique of the rationale for AAA’s engagement in advocacy. In my next and last blog in this BDS series, I will probe why universities have appeared to be fertile ground for advancing, and, in a small number of cases among students, backing the BDS cause.

Engaged anthropology is the general rubric used to rationalize the involvement in and support for BDS by the activists in the AAA. (See the special issue of Current Anthropology 51:2, October 2010 entitled “Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas,” that followed the AAA annual 2008 conference called, “Inclusion, Collaboration and Engagement.”) Engaged Anthropology operates at six levels, at each level expressing an increased involvement:
• A basic commitment to respect informants
• Sharing and support with the communities with which anthropologists work
• Teaching and public education
• Social critiques in academic and public forums
All of the above are consistent with traditional academic norms.
• Collaboration with cultures under threat versus hierarchical approaches
• Advocacy
• Activism

Though I have worked with cultures under threat (Indochinese refugees, Sri Lankan refugees, victims of the Rwanda genocide), though I have advocated on behalf of Syrian refugees and I have also engaged in involved activism, and although these activities are informed by my research and scholarship, I do not regard that activity as part of that research. They are simply expressions of my role as a responsible member of civil society. I might ask some relevant professional associations to speak up on an issue, but I would not think of asking the Canadian Philosophical Association to take a controversial stand favouring one side on divisive social issues, let alone try to get my fellow philosophers, individually or through our scholarly association, to take such a stand. Instead, I might invite colleagues to participate in information dispersal and advocacy organizations, but I would never label them as collaborationists if they took an opposite position. I just do not believe that intellectual inquiry is based on an either/or dichotomy, especially where one side accrues the virtue and the other side is cast into purgatory. Self-righteous commitment is not the essence of my ethics of engagement.

For an ideology that insists upon a discipline contributing and adapting to global realities, it is surprising how often this mostly postmodernist approach, which defies a correspondence theory of truth and the existence of a singular reality as a point of reference, specifically adopts the position of insisting what reality is. Admittedly, some defenders of the new engaged anthropology regard the shift into postmodern symbolism and hermeneutics as a deviant sidetrack. Nevertheless, whatever mutation was regarded as mainstream, a shift had taken place away from a correspondence model of truth.

Further, for a perspective that also lauds critique, it is actually shocking to read how un-self-critical much of engaged anthropology is and closed to in-depth structural critiques that examine the effects of funding shifts to give preference to so-called engaged research. The support of BDS is merely the most extreme of the range of efforts by ABIAI to transform the discipline of cultural anthropology and make engaged anthropology the core of the discipline and, in the end, enlist more and more anthropologists into a postcolonial approach to their work. Talk about an imperialist approach to anti-imperialism!

Somehow, the reverence for diversity and breadth does not translate into a conception of itself as a discipline. As engaged anthropology seeks to achieve a virtual monopoly in the field of cultural anthropology, it also began colonizing archeology, physical or biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology as well as the overlapping turf of its cousins, cultural sociology and social psychology. As engaged anthropology claimed a unique perspective on the dialectical interaction of the microsocial with macroeconomic and political forces, it often pushed aside and/or ignored much of the valuable work of sociologists, economists and political scientists. But in the minds of its advocates, that could be explained by accusing these social scientists of being secret collaborationists and apologists for the reigning power. More generally, engaged anthropology, along with its committed sociological cousins, insisted that their political agenda should be at the centre of public policy, not the work of political scientists and economists.

For a discipline that allegedly reveres history and context, it is revealing to discover how often peer-reviewed articles display an ignorance of history and a deliberate distortion of context, all in the name of its esteem for the rights and dignity of all humans and the promotion of social justice. Even more seriously, under the rubric of advancing human rights, engaged anthropology often ostensibly offers witness to organized social violence, sometimes implicitly and at other times explicitly. Though engaged anthropology is spread thinly over numerous social problems as diverse as climate change and the performance and effects of health systems, from war, racism and genocide to economic development, I cannot tell you how many times I have found that these practitioners ignored acknowledged experts in these areas coming from other fields. For example, did Jean or Stephen Schensul in the field of economic development even read Albert Hirschman?

On the other hand, virtually every committed student of my generation, regardless of discipline, read Margaret Mead and Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict and Ashley Montagu. Sixty years ago, I specifically remember being mesmerized by a lecture by a Harvard scholar and cultural anthropologist, Clyde Kluckhohn (Mirror of Man), in Convocation Hall (the hall held 1,600 and was packed) in, I believe, 1956 at the University of Toronto. (Clyde Kluckhohn died a very few years later at a relatively young age of a heart attack; his or their work was continued by his wife, Florence.)

Though Kluckhohn was a pioneer in ethnographic analysis and intensive longitudinal observations as well as the utilization of empathetic reenactment of thought patterns, famed as both a scientist and a humanist, the lecture that I heard was more narrowly focused on five different senses of time among a specific group of Navaho whom he had studied for decades and four neighbouring cultural groups, the Zuni, Spanish-Americans, Mormons and Texas Homesteaders in the American South. He was the one who introduced me to values theory and the idea that our moral dichotomies of good and evil, our orientation to nature, our sense of personality development and of human relations, particularly between male and females, parents and children, but most importantly in my view, if not his, our sense of time, of past, present and future and their relationship to one another.

I have ever since taken Clyde Kluckhohn as a model both for respect for sensitivity for differences, nuances and variations, as opposed to homogenization, while searching for uniformities, of activism while insisting on accuracy and objectivity, of appreciation for factors that fostered dynamic change while, at the same time, respecting and appreciating traditions, and pushing me towards understanding the power dynamics of domination and subordination. I see it as a seminal betrayal of

Clyde Kluckhohn, the first elected president of AAA, when these activists in AAA are in quest of monopolization instead of appreciating the values of different methodological approaches, quite aside from the deprecation of developed scientific standards. Kluckhohn, in contrast to these ideologists, saw no conflict in working for the government during WWII, possibly for the predecessor to the CIA, studying Japanese morale and the cultural foundations for sustaining that morale at a very high level, while subsequently becoming a fierce opponent of McCarthyism. He was both an academic’s academic as well as a committed public intellectual devoted to practical issues.

It would be helpful if the current school of engaged cultural anthropologists were as active in defining the differences between them and these famous progenitors instead of simply appropriating them for the development of their way of utilizing anthropology. One did not have to be an engaged anthropologist to protest against the McCarthy persecution of academics in the fifties or the efforts to challenge the entrenched racism in the American south during the decade of the sixties or the misuse of anthropology in the study of Laotian Hill Tribes during the Vietnam War. One did not have to become a neo-Marxist to criticize the misuse of academic research or to resist attacks on the independence of academic disciplines by the power of the state.

I have not been able to find a single analysis and critique of the self-representation of engaged anthropologists as moving ever onward and upward, while suffering periodic setbacks, to the liberal vision of progress in intellectual history, even as political and economic history seems to be portrayed as in decline. If identities were constructs, what about critiquing their own self-identity? Deconstructivist and Foucault-type post-colonial theoretical perspectives are taken as givens rather than being themselves subjected to rigorous critique. Self-critique focused on the limitations of academy-based cultural critique in contrast to critical engagement, activist research and advocacy. In spite of favouring the latter, proponents of engagement research noted pockets of resistance and “considerable silence about the kinds and degree of advocacy and activism that would be supported within the discipline and especially within the academy.”
Engaged anthropologists assumed a privileged ethical position for engaging in research. Research without advocacy was considered collaborationist. Anthropology was beginning to be redefined as not even just advocacy, but demanded activism and revolutionary encounters with established power instead of rather than as a complement to detached observation and analysis. They regarded the latter as relegating what is being studied to being an object, a sign of deprecation, instead of examining these intellectual approaches as providing a standard of objectivity.

Support for BDS comes as a logical outcome of such an intellectual shift rather than as a result of an objective and detached study. The practitioners accept a number of premises:
• Zionism is a particularist enterprise concerned only with one group, Jews, and indifferent to the needs of others
• Zionism planted itself in Palestine on the coattails of colonialism and, as such, was and remains a colonialist enterprise
• The problem is not just settlements in the West Bank or even Zone C of the Oslo Agreement, but the Zionist enterprise of settlement altogether
• Zionism continues to be a presence in the Middle East only because it is supported by the imperialist forces behind globalization.
• Engaged anthropologists contend that traditional human rights discourse, that usually targeted limiting state interference in individual rights, while also requiring the state to enforce human rights protections, does little for the Palestinian cause because Palestinians have been the victims of this imperialism and colonialism AND not just the abuse of its own members by the state, thus truer to the universalist discourse of human rights

“Liberation of the beloved Al-Aqsa Mosque and Palestinians from under the occupation of Zionists by the courage provided by the Islamic Revolution and a globalized approach to systematically fighting dominance and Zionism on International Quds Day, have bestowed upon Resistance Front strength and unflagging spirit which had made of Resistance an iron fist against any compromise with illegitimate regime of criminal Zionists.” This is not a statement of engaged anthropologists at the extreme end of the revolutionary spectrum, but of the Revolutionary Guards of Iran determined that Israel not exist in twenty-five years. But it could just as well have been made by this so-called vanguard group of engaged anthropologists, but without such colourful language.

That is why Ken Stone of IJV (Independent Jewish Voices), ABIAI and large groups of engaged anthropologists can make common cause. An academic discipline has been redefined to fit a so-called revolutionary program. Its own history has been described as an exercise too often in serving colonial and imperial interests. Thus, applied anthropology in the United States is depicted as a mixture of New Deal humanitarian liberalism and progressive industrial management ideology. British applied anthropology provided a humanitarian advisory function for colonial administration in Africa. Cultural anthropology itself morphed into institutional anthropologies, such as educational anthropology, thereby replicating positivist approaches to social science in economics and sociology, defining research as a normal part of modern society’s institutional activities and betraying its authentic identity. By the end of the seventies, cultural anthropology had reached its nadir of detachment from modern society with its exclusive focus on the study of tribal and possibly non-urban societies.

However, this imperial success brought with it a revolt against the so-called sins of capitalism, colonialism and male patriarchy. The current conflicts within AAA are heirs of this thirty-five-year-old battle. It is difficult to predict whether the vote defeating support for BDS by AAA by a very narrow margin is a sign that BDSers have reached a nadir and will now enter on a slow decline, or whether, the defeat was just a second act in a longer struggle in which BDS will be reborn and reborn, again and again. Tomorrow I will deal with why universities have become such a hospitable petri dish for a Trotsky-like continuous revolution to culture politically activist cells rather than to understand and comprehend various cultures.

With the help of Alex Zisman


Orthodox Judaism in Opposition to Reform Judaism

Orthodox Judaism in Opposition to Reform Judaism


Howard Adelman

The mentality of Orthodox radical opponents of Reform is not that you are either with us or against us. Rather the point is that, as long as you do not challenge our (the orthodox) sacred mission, whatever else you do and however atheistic or indifferent you are to religion, you are not a threat. You live beside but not fundamentally in opposition to the holy spirit. But if you question whether God is on our side – on the assumption that God does indeed take sides in such arguments – whether “we” are the holy bearers protecting the word of God, then you are a heretic and Reform institutions and rabbis should be shunned by the Orthodox community. For the argument is about which segment of Judaism embodies holiness. Secular Jews do not claim to be holy so they are no threat; cooperation with the secular world is fine. But if one claims to be Jewish in a religious sense, but you are not halachic Jews in accordance with minimal requirements by the Orthodox, then that is beyond the pale.

For what is at stake for these spokesmen of Orthodoxy is the most important matter of all – the salvation and redemption of the Jewish people. Secular Jews may work towards that redemption through Zionism even if their intention is not to advance towards a religious redemption. Unconsciously, “they long for the truth and Divine light found in the Torah.” They retain a spark of holiness. Reform Jews, however, claim to offer a different path to redemption or, even worse, advance themselves as religious Jews while ignoring the whole task of redemption. They have deliberately chosen to extinguish that spark of holiness. They are despoilers who undermine both God and the Torah as God’s holy word. Better to ignore the claims of Torah than offer interpretations that disavow its essential holiness.

The secular merely do God’s work indirectly. Reform Jews are evil and undermine God’s word. They are “like an atrophied limb festering in the nation’s body, devoid of Torah and the light of true Judaism.” The limb must be amputated to save the body politic of Judaism. For Reform offers an alternative religious route that denies Oral Law as a source of religious legal authority. Reform is heretical because it plunders Torah without revering it and “uses ideological terms to lower the Torah to accept our desires and the modern liberal western ethos.” In the Reform movement, man, not Torah, defines what is true and what is good. Reform “denies G-d’s revelation to us through prophecy and the Holy Temple, denies the eternal life he planted in us through the Torah commandments.” There can be no truck with the devil, no compromises or cooperation, though this does not apply to individuals, only institutional efforts to gain even the slightest entry in Israel and gain legal and public legitimacy.

There is no way to justify granting the Reform Movement the slightest entry, and neither legal nor public legitimacy in the state of Israel.

The issue is not which movement does or does not embody holiness, but rather Orthodoxy insisting this is what is at stake. In contrast, Reform argues that the law of the land, the law of a secular state should not be used to adjudicate such a debate or even confirm that this is what is at stake in the debate. My argument is that the Orthodox are truly following in the steps of Moses in defining heresy, in defining who and what embodies holiness, in defining who are the elect of God, and most importantly, insisting that this is the debate while the opposition insists it is about arrogance, about quashing other views, about a failure to listen, about usurping political and legal authority to advance one’s position using spurious arguments that distort the nature of the debate.

Though this debate may seem like a family or in-tribe argument, I suggest, especially in light of my reading of Korah, that it has wider implications. What follows is an article by Rabbi Baruch Efrati distributed by Arutz Sheva in preparation for a forthcoming conference on Reform and Israel. It puts forth this Orthodox position. After that brief paper, I include two very different responses to my interpretation of Korah. Tomorrow I will return to discussing BDS and its intellectual roots.

Op-Ed: The critical difference between the Reform Movement and secular Jewry
Arutz Sheva has received a position paper written for the Zion and Jerusalem Conference to take place next week on the topic of the Reform Movement and Israel.
Published: Tuesday, July 05, 2016 7:38 PM

Rabbi Baruch Efrati

Translated from Hebrew by Rochel Sylvetsky
In contrast to the words of individual rabbis who called on Israel to cooperate with the Reform Movement, our message is a call to stand firm and declare, in the immortal words of the Prophet Isaiah “Your plans will not be realized nor will your words be upheld, because G-d is with us.”

Let us explain our stand on the matter.

Historically, G-d fearing Jews approached the Zionist Movement in one of two ways. Some turned their back on the Zionists because most of the new movement’s adherents were not religious. They placed prime importance on negating anything secular, thereby protecting their communities, but also ignoring earthshaking Jewish national developments. Rabbi Kook, zts”l, did not respond that way, but sought to join the Zionists, to be involved and try to raise the spiritual level of our people, of every sector, by imbuing their endeavors to return to Zion with an aura of holiness.
Rabbi Kook spoke and wrote often on the uniqueness of Israel and on the obvious and revealed Redemption that was taking place before his eyes. Non-observant people of integrity, he said, do not come here to be free to lead a decadent and erring way of life, but because unconsciously, they long for the truth and Divine light found in the Torah. Ideological secularism is being revealed in confused souls whose hidden inner desire is the light of the Almighty, the light they lacked in the exile before our nation’s coming back to life here. The secular world is one of impurities. but in its depths there is a spark of holiness that keeps it alive – and that allows the appearance of the true Jewish soul to come to the fore.

This viewpoint led Rabbi Kook to have faith in the tikkun that the secular Zionists would experience, and, he believed that even those most adamant in their antagonism to the Torah would return once the vibrant and holy light of the Torah was apparent to them – and in the end, they would contribute much to the revival of G-d’s Word in Israel. We believe in the Almighty Who has stretched out His hand to redeem His people, he said, and all the vicissitudes of Israeli culture are attempts to reach spirituality, to search for the grandeur of a G-d without limits – and will, eventually, lead to tikkun.

In contrast to Rabbi Kook’s loving and empathetic approach to the non-observant Israeli, he castigated the Reform Movement vehemently in his writings, and wrote the following letter to American Jewry, which he saw as fated to disappear because of the activities of this movement:
B”H, The Holy City of Jerusalem (may it be rebuilt speedily in our time), 1922
To our brothers, to the beloved and holy congregations in the United States of America and Canada, may G-d protect them, those who seek to keep the word of G-d, believe in the heritage of Moses, the Written and Oral Law, G-d’s Covenant with the people of Israel: Greetings to you from the Holy Mount of Jerusalem.
My dear Brothers,
The state of true Judaism as it is upheld by the faithful in your midst has been brought to my attention and it breaks my heart. The despoilers have come, those who have destroyed the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts, and are even now are causing many to abandon the G-d of Israel and His eternal Torah – They, the inventive Reform leaders to whom many, even from within the faithful religious camp have been drawn unwittingly, uproot the foundations of the world that are intertwined with the basic principles of Torah and Judaism.

And these cracks are in the wall of sanctity, evidenced in the words that are publicly uttered, the actions that leave their mark on entire congregations, including the way synagogues are constructed and what customs they follow – and they go from evil deed to evil deed, one sin leads to another, destruction brings on more destruction, to the point where they have laid their hand on the holy mesorah, in place from the beginning of time, that mandates separate prayer sections for women and men.

We know what happened to the first despoilers who began destroying and abandoning the original Jewish tradition and heritage, we know what happened to them, that almost all of them are lost to the people of Israel, having left the faith along with their offspring. Many of them have been swallowed up without a trace by the non-Jewish world, and those who have not yet been lost are like an atrophied limb festering in the nation’s body, devoid of Torah and the light of true Judaism. Our eyes see this and are filled with longing for them, while the best of them regret the sin of their fathers once they see the spiritual ruin that it spawned.

There is no way to justify granting the Reform Movement the slightest entry, and neither legal nor public legitimacy in the state of Israel.
Why did the sainted Rabbi Kook have such a vastly different attitude to Reform Jewry than the one he evinced towards secular Jews? Why didn’t he seize the opportunity to call for cooperation with the Reform Movement the way certain rabbis do today? Why did he refer to them using sharp names such as: “despoilers,” “destroyers of the vineyard,” “wreckers,” “uprooters of eternal foundations,” “instigators,” “cut off from the house of Israel,” “atrophied limbs in the body of the people” – epithets that the rabbi never used in describing anyone except the Reform Movement and Jews who converted to become heretical Christians?

The answer is crystal clear. The secular world and the observant world live side by side. The non-observant have chosen wrongly, the Rabbi felt, but they are open to tikkun because of the light spilling over from the religious world existing beside them and their sacrifices for the Jewish people. The secular Jewish world does not want to take over the religious world from a theological point of view, but to live beside it – hence, the possibility of influencing that world, listening to its hearts’ desires, elevating its holy sparks to their heavenly source. The secular are actually non-observant Orthodox, they do not present an alternative organized religion that turns transgressions into an ideology intended to take the place of the Torah. They have not invented a made up religion but are in the midst of a process where secularism is withering and faith is blossoming, as one can see over the last few years in which there is constant strengthening of ties to Torah, baruch Hashem.

In contrast, the Reform Movement has a “progressive” ideology that wishes to exchange the Oral Law’s G-d-given message. It does not wish to ask questions about the Torah but to create a religious empire of its own. It has an organized theology that grants legitimacy to transgressions and turns them into religion. There is no possibility of living side by side, but a battle over who will lead the nation. Our dialogue is thus one between enemies, not lovers. It is either we or them, the holy or the ritually impure and their ideological rebellion against the Oral Law.
Isaiah describes idol worship as gaining strength because it justifies man acting according to his baser desires. When a man bows to idols, he is really bowing to himself and his desires, turning his sins into an ideology and sanctioning them a priori as religious activities. Idols were always lascivious or murderous in their design, and an example of this is Ashtor, a nude female holding weapons of war and symbolizing lust and bloodshed. The idol is really the worshipper himself, he alone decides what constitutes ethical behavior with no heavenly agent above him. The lust for idol worship is so pervasive, that people would sacrifice their own children to prove their loyalty, but really succeeded in proving that they were true to their basest instincts and not to a Supreme Being who restrains and sets limits for human behavior.

The Reform Movement originated in a form of heresy that wished to establish a new religion based on plundering that which is holy. It is a model that does not speak of raising one’s level of purity in order to accept the Torah, but uses ideological terms to lower the Torah to accept our desires and the modern liberal western ethos (some of whose beliefs are beneficial to man in themselves). It does not sacrifice children, but it sacrifices G-dly values in the same fashion, and that is just as grave.

The Reform Movement wishes to accomplish exactly what its name says, to effect a critical change in the foundations of Torah, putting man in the center to define truth and falsehood, good and evil. It denies G-d’s revelation to us through prophecy and the Holy Temple, denies the eternal life he planted in us through the Torah commandments. Its goal is not to strengthen efforts to achieve a higher plane, as Israel’s non-observant Jews do, but to lessen and remove the sanctity of Jewish tradition. It does not believe that Jews are the Chosen People and wants the world to unite, as do the Christians, under one faith – that of belief in man, his desires, his wants. The Reform Movement is against a biological definition of the Jew, instead emphasizing his personal feelings and self-definition.
This is not Judaism.

Confronting this heresy, there are no compromises and no cooperation. Just as no one would join forces with the man who steals his wife and wrecks his home, so there can be no joining of forces with a movement that wishes to do the same to our home, the State of Israel, to our Jewish identity, to our Torah-true values.

As I have written before, this movement made a strategic decision to infiltrate the State of Israel from the United States and to change the balance of power in Israeli society so that the religious world would not continue to be a place of commitment to mitzvot and the guidance of Heaven, but, become, instead, a folkloristic tradition. The movement donates large sums of money to yeshivas and other organizations and it is hard to stand strong in the face of this temptation, so that one can already discern their devious influence on rabbis and concepts in the religious Zionist world.

This has to be the rule: i
Individual Reform Jews are our brothers and we will welcome them warmly as part of the Jewish people (those that actually are Jewish), and we are prepared to explain their mistaken view of Judaism to them if they wish to listen. However, we will wage an everlasting war against their ideological movement, a war that does not affect our relations with individual members There is no way to justify granting the Reform Movement the slightest entry, and neither legal nor public legitimacy in the state of Israel.

Two shining luminaries, the High Priest of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and the High Priest of Religious Zionism, Rabbi Avraham Hakohen Kook, were unequivocal about this issue and came out strongly against legitimacy and cooperation with this misguided and destructive movement. At the same time, they told us to love every Jew. We, their students and the students of their students must grasp the folds of their garments and not swerve from the path of our Torah, even if we have to pay a high price – literally and figuratively – for our principled stand.

What now follows is a selection of two responses to my commentary on Korah, including my reflections on them.

Comparing Moses to Kim Jong is inexcusably offensive and misses the whole point of the Korah narrative, showing he was wrong and Moses was right. For if Korah’s doctrine had prevailed, Moses’ project would have been aborted then and there. The teachings of monotheism would have been checked. For if these tribes already are the holy people of Yahweh, no further reforms are necessary and no further struggles need to be waged. This Moses cannot accept. He knows that the people have a long way to go; and he fears they may never get there if instead of hallowing themselves through the new teachings, they look upon themselves as already holy. (See Buber,Moses,p.190,in Irving M.Zeitlin, Ancient Judaism: Biblical Criticism from Max Weber to the present).

Thanks very much for the feedback. It is greatly appreciated.

Of course, the point of the narrative is to show that Moses was right and Korah wrong. But on what basis? Due process? A fair hearing? Further, Korah’s protest was not about the project itself, but about how decisions were being made, and, even more, about the attitudes behind them, even if behind it all there was a deeper challenge. If the argument is made that Korah stood for a reactionary position in insisting that the people were already holy and, therefore, did not have to undergo further change, that is a separate argument. I merely read the text as asserting that all of holiness is not embodied by the top leader but shared to some degree by the people. It is not about perfection having been achieved. I said in my blog that I was not favouring Korah’s argument or the way he challenged Moses. What I argued is that the challenge was deformed and Korah was subjected to a kangeroo court.

As for the substance of the issue – the holiness of the people – I would consider that Korah, in arguing that the people were holy, was not so much proclaiming an accomplished task as insisting on a form of populism, a reference used to oppose Moses’ assuming all power through reference to a higher authority rather than in his own name. Populism, of course, is a frequent way of challenging authorities and has its own problems. Even if Moses had done that fairly and with consideration, it would be another matter. But Moses dealt with the matter through distortion, escalation and, as another reader noted (see below), by displacing responsibility. The true richness of the text comes through in that, while history is written by the victors, there is no real effort to whitewash Moses. He is on display with all his faults.

What happened to Korah and his fellow protesters was indeed worthy of Kim Jong-un. I, obviously, do not care for idolizing heroes in Jewish history or rationalizing their actions in terms of the future justifying a drastic action in the present that goes beyond the pale, which I have a sense Martin Buber did, but such an analysis would require a separate examination than the one I provided.

A very different response follows.

From the perspective of a non-religious, agnostic reader, who is largely ignorant of the contents of both the Torah and the Bible but eager to learn from the learned so as to become a better person: This situation reminds me of more contemporary vertical hierarchies where people on the ladder hide behind the higher up when it comes to assuming individual responsibility: “I am just a simple administrator and executor of the Board’s wishes. If you don’t like what I am doing, you are in effect criticising the leadership above, not me. They had put me into this position, it was their choice, ask them if you have questions regarding their decisions.”

Moses does not engage at all in a discussion of Korah’s points (like a good manager would do), he immediately escalates the issue to the Board. This is cowardly authoritarian move, disrespectful to Korah, who after all has all the human qualities to get promoted into the same leadership position. Moses hides behind the Board’s authority, and “tells on” Korah’s move to them, without trying to solve the disagreement at the level where it was raised. He does not at all assume leadership, appropriate to his position, but places all the responsibility onto the higher-ups. Plus, Moses attempts to silence Korah and his followers by “threatening” them to tell on them to the “boss.” In this move Moses acts like an ass- kisser, sure in his belief that the “boss” will take his side, regardless of the fairness or unfairness of the situation. As if that was not in poor enough judgment, Moses tries to divide (and further intimidate) the followers of Korah. It is to their great (and wholly unappreciated by subsequent interpreters) credit that they do not cave, despite the tremendous potential (and, as we know, ultimately actual) repercussions.

Like any ass-kisser, Moses first tells on them, and then quickly “pleads” to the boss to save the “wrong-doers” in order to present his role in this whole scene as squeaky clean. First he had explained his actions as the “boss” made him do it, then as the “rebels” forced him to report their move to the authorities. Nowhere does Moses claim that it is his sovereign decision to act the way he acts because, e.g., this is the ethically right thing to do. Is he aware of his ethical wrongdoing in his heart of hearts? Most cowardly, authoritarian ass-kissers seem not aware. “The Fuhrer made me do it!” is how far their justification of their acts go. Moses is all too banally human after all, which does not excuse, only explains his actions.

What is more disappointing is god’s response. He simply takes the ass-kisser’s word for it and “reorganizes” the company with mass lay-offs, and that without severance pay: he just gets rid of it all, never asking himself whether his choice in appointing Moses and Aaron to top managers was the right one in light of the situation and Moses’ cowardly role in it. He also does not check individual participation in the alleged rebellion: all must go: a tyrannical move. Like all tyrants, god does not tolerate dissent. If we read this under the unshakable belief that god is always right then there is nothing more to add…

If we read it however as a negative case study for bad management in a business course it all makes sense. After all, not leading the children of Israel into the Promised Land right away (milk and honey notwithstanding) upon reports of this being a high-risk undertaking on account of the powerful and hostile locals was not a bad move after all. It may be deemed as the decision of a low-risk taker; nevertheless, it could have been explained and discussed and the other leads’ opinion asked and maybe put up for vote. But all that was not done: the Israelites remained in a fully dependent child-like relationship with the authority at that time, where discussion, not to mention dissent were not tolerated. This may have been a realistic depiction of leadership of the times when the text was conceived, in which god was created in the image of well-known human characteristics and dynamics. The question is: have we evolved at all since that time?

Korah Number 16


Howard Adelman

The section is most often labelled Korah’s Rebellion and not just Korah. I initially avoid such a heading lest we beg the question in labeling Korah’s protest as a rebellion. Instead, one of the questions I ask is whether this is fair question.

The text says that Korah and his fellow “rebels,” each a chief of a congregation, each chosen by that congregation, each a well-recognized leader among them. The text does say that they “rose up.” But that could simply mean that they stood up at a general meeting of the Israelites. They certainly stood up in opposition to whatever Moses and Aaron were planning to do. But according to the text, Korah began with a personal attack. Korah accused both Moses and Aaron of elitism, of giving themselves a special holy status denied to the rest of the Israelites.

“You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (16:3)

How did Moses respond? Like a Muslim today, he “fell on his face,” he lowered himself in a beseeching way to Korah. At the same time, his words were anything but beseeching. They were defiant. Wait until morning, Moses told Korah. Then God will determine who is holy and who is not, that is, whom God favours and whom he does not. The determination of holiness and favouritism seem to have been equated. Favouritism means that they have been chosen. How is this determined? By the one God chooses to draw near to Him? So holiness, favouritism, proximity to God and the determination of holiness are all equated.

It is self-evident that Korah has made a serious tactical error in challenging both Moses and Aaron. He had allowed his words to be twisted so that the protest was made in Moses’ terms. Korah had asked why Moses and Aaron were acting “holier than thou” and Moses twisted that to mean a question, not about arrogance and self-inflation, but about proximity to God and His holy word. Moses then raised the stakes even further. He accused Korah of going too far in charging Moses and Aaron with arrogance and self-importance. For it was NOT they that has assumed their roles. God had cast them to perform those tasks. The challenge was really against God’s choice, not the actions of Moses and Aaron.

Then Moses made a third charge. He accused Korah and his co-protestors of ingratitude, not to Moses but to God. “Hear now, you sons of Levi: is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the LORD and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, 10 and that he has brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you?” (Numbers 16:8-10) God chose you to be rabbis. Now you challenge God’s choice of me to be your political leader and Aaron to be the High Priest. In other words, the charge of arrogance was just a cover and a superficial attack. They were challenging whether or not Moses and Aaron had been chosen by God. “I’ll show you,” Moses seemed to be saying, “who God has chosen. Who is the holier one!”

Then the fourth charge comes like a hammer blow. Not only are they accused of demeaning Aaron and Moses, challenging the holiness of each and challenging God’s choice, but of seeking the priesthood. Not political power. Not of trying to take his position. But of trying to displace Aaron. That is not just a question about God’s choice, but defiance against it. “And would you seek the priesthood also? 11 Therefore it is against the LORD that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?”

Moses then summoned Dathan and Abiram before him in an effort to divide the opposition. But both disobey his summons. They are sticking with Korah and the protest. And now we first learn of the substantive issue behind the protest while trying to reverse the path of the verbal sparring back to the home ground of the protest, accusations that Moses and Aaron are being arrogant and self-important. “Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us?” (Numbers 16:14) Moses and Aaron were leading them back to the wilderness for forty years ostensibly because 10 out of 12 scouts reported back about how strong their enemies were and challenged the attack plans.

Now on top of challenges of arrogance, efforts to push themselves as occupying the holy ground, naming their protest an exercise in ingratitude to God given their own chosen status as religious leaders among the people, and even efforts to usurp the position of High Priest, Moses turned to God and pleaded innocence of any effort to act against them. They feared being tortured and their eyes burned out and refused to come before Moses. “And Moses was very angry and said to the LORD, ‘Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, and I have not harmed one of them.’” (Numbers 16:15) Moses claims innocence of any power trip because he neither threatened them nor took anything from them. But he did ask God to reject their sacrifices. He did ask God to take away their religious roles. Is that not an act of revenge simply for launching a verbal protest and alleging that Moses and Aaron had been arrogant?

So Moses went back to his original position. He gave up on trying to divide the protesters but, instead, summoned them to come beside him and Aaron before the Lord. “We will now see who is right.” Each one of the 250 rabbis was to bring his censer (see Numbers 4:14; also Leviticus 16:12), the brass bowl in which they put coal and burned incense, What happens? It is unbelievable! God appears before the whole congregation of the protesters and asks Moses and Aaron to step aside so He can “consume” the others. Then Moses reverts to divide and rule again, this time not asking Dathan and Abiram to back away from Korah, but asking the other 247 local religious leaders to back away from the rebellious triumvirate.

They presumably refuse and stay loyal to Korah and the other two leaders. The protesting priests, as well as their families and children, are summoned to watch whether Korah, Dathan and Abiram will be consumed by the Lord, giving an ironic twist to the report of the ten scouts that the land would consume them. The earth literally opens up and swallows them, not just the three leaders, but all 250 of the protesters – and before their wives and children. Then they seemed to have been destroyed a second time and in a second wave, God consumed them in fire.

The two versions are not incompatible. Imagine earth torn with a big rift and hundreds being swallowed up and falling into the hot lava. But the issue is really not how two sources are merged in a single story, but the politics of escalating a verbal protest into a rebellion and sentencing the rebels to death for simply criticizing the leadership. Further, the Israelites themselves and not just their leaders lose 14,700 people to a plague before Aaron manages to stay the wrath of God.

Today we might compare the actions of Moses and Aaron to that of Kim Jong-un of North Korea, but without displacing the initiative onto God, for Kim Jong-un is revered as if he were a god. Today we watch Kim Jong-un subjected to American sanctions for the first time while Moses (and Aaron) are treated as the heroes of the story. I am not suggesting that the initial protest against the high-handedness of Moses was correct and certainly not that it was carried out in the best way given that Moses and Aaron held all the reins on the use of coercive power. But Moses’ response has to be read objectively as extremely unfair in both the interpretation of the challenge and certainly grossly unfair and even wicked in the response.
But that is not the interpretation handed down. Moses’ assertion that they were not just accusing him of usurping authority but accusing them of undermining God’s authority is presumed to be valid by religious fundamentalists.

“Korah and his rebellious group had no idea who God is and they ultimately had no fear of God. The bible said they gathered against God and his anoited and the Lord destroyed them. You would believe that the rest of the people would have learnt a lesson, but they continued to rise against the anointed of the Lord and paid again with their lives. People have to learn obedience.”

Reform Judaism does not dissent either. Here is the official summary.
“Korach and his followers, Dathan and Abiram, lead a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. God punishes the rebels by burying them and their families alive. Once again, God brings a plague on the people. (16:1-17:15)”

Korah is relegated to the status of one of the great villains of the Torah and Moses is not only totally exonerated, he is virtually beatified for his behaviour. Incivility is attributed to Korah and not to Moses simply because Korah accused his leader of arrogance against the background of Moses and Aaron leading the people back to the wilderness simply because 10 of the 12 scouts thought success in conquest would be too costly and that there was a high risk of failure. Instead, the narrative is treated as a tale of obedience and disobedience, and the punishment, deemed appropriate, for the latter. Simply challenging authority and suggesting it is arrogant and insensitive is enough to deserve being condemned to death. It is outrageous!

With the assistance of Alex Zisman

Ten International Film Previews

1. Coming Home (Chinese)
2. You Call It Passion (Korean)
3. A Decent Engagement (Indian)
4. A Separation (Iranian)
5. Mustang (Turkish)
6. Footnote (Israeli)
7. The Source (French about North Africa)
8. Poli Opposti (Italian)
9. Barbara (German about East Germany)
10. The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles (French)

Ten International Film Previews


Howard Adelman

These are not reviews per se, but sketches and reflections on what these films may say about the world today and one country in that world. They are not representative of their country. Their selection depended on films that I have watched in the last week, mainly on the flight home from Israel. The list excludes the Hungarian film, Son of Saul, on which I wrote three blogs. The compilation is not comprehensive either – no Russian films, no Latin American films and no films from Black Africa. The order of the previews is arbitrary, simply traveling from east to west and then south to north.

Coming Home (China)

First shown at Cannes in 2014, the title of this film in Chinese literally translates as The Return, a name that makes far more sense in terms of the plot and theme. For the film is about a professor, Lu Yanshi (Lu played by Chen Daoming), sent away to a “re-education” camp during the Cultural Revolution who returns twice to his wife, Feng Wanyu (Yu played by Gong Li) and daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), an aspiring ballerina. [I know that referring to Lu – the husband – and Yu – the wife – can be very confusing; it was while watching the movie, at least for the first half hour. But that is how they refer to one another.] The first time when he escapes, his family is intact, but he is re-arrested when he tries to meet his wife. He returns a second time when he is rehabilitated years later. In neither case does he come home, for the first time he cannot reach home and the second time there is no home to come to; intervening events have destroyed “home” in any meaningful sense except the physical.

The film is superbly acted, but it is far more than a domestic drama or even an indictment of the Cultural Revolution. The film is an allegory of recognition. In fact, Yanshi, the name of the professor, literally means “how to recognize” in both Cantonese and Mandarin. But the term is more often associated with passionate romance, definitely not the passion of the next film discussed. Yet this is a film of passionate romance on the deepest level.

When the professor first returns and encounters his daughter whom he has not seen in over ten years – he was arrested when she was four years old – she does not recognize him as her father or her responsibilities to him. Ironically, this loyal child of two revolutions – a communist and a cultural one – only knows personal ambition. As a direct result of this failure of recognition, and the trauma of a blackmail Yu was forced to endure, Lu’s wife will suffer amnesia and no longer recognizes her husband when he returns a second time. The movie offers an allegory that suggests that it is one thing for greed, blind ambition and power mongering behind a Cultural Revolution to produce an authoritarian and repressive state. It is perhaps even worse when contemporary China enters a state of amnesia about that period creating a double calamity for the victims.
You Call It Passion (Korea)

Newspaper stories can be about publishers and the pursuit of power, such as Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane, or about juxtaposing a journalist’s ethos of setting truth against power by covering the tale of two very different but dedicated, determined and diligent journalists (Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) trying to uncover the Watergate scandal. Or it can be about a hard bitten reporter who turns out to be a very good detective as James Stewart did in Call Northside 777. Newspapers used to be excellent backdrops for interweaving glamour and intrigue, money and power, ambition and ethics. This is no longer the case as newspapers struggle to stay alive in the world of the new media. This tale of the tabloid press is a little bit of all of these themes, but never seems to focus on any of them as it narrates the tale of a very bright but innocent newspaper intern, Do Ra-hee (Park Bo-young) who joins the workforce of a very large, likely pulp, newspaper in the entertainment section that is more about scooping for scandals than it is about allowing readers to get greater insight into the artists and entertainers in Seoul.

Though the intern is a woman who looks like a teenager to a North American, this is no weak feminist track like Front Page Woman. The movie is about getting the scoop on a famous young male actor, but as a cross between the reporter as detective as well as one torn by ethical concerns when offered material by “a reliable source” that could destroy a career but enormously advance that of the young reporter. I initially thought the movie was going to be a contemporary Korean remake of the classic Hollywood tale It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, but this time with a young female rather than male reporter trying to get the goods on a celebrity. But the closest this movie gets to the hard bitten reporter is the entertainment editor, Ha Jae-kwan (Jung Jae-young), who yells at his journalists to put passion into their jobs and make passion what their jobs are about. But the movie is really about saving their own jobs by uncovering economic skulduggery. The film is a lesson in lack of direction where a movie fails to decide at the core what it is about. Neither comedy nor romance, neither exposé nor ethical drama, neither a poem to a journalist’s passion for truth nor deconstruction of an editor’s drive to get a scoop while being a bit of both of the latter, the movie is a lightweight addition to the genre of newspaper movies.

A Decent Engagement (India)

India makes excellent movies, from Bollywood entertainment to serious court room films about justice, like Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court. This is clearly not one of them. Put an American hunk into an Indian setting where he is finally to meet the love of his life in a traditional arranged marriage and you have the basic elements of tension and conflict, comedy and romance. But not one of them is in evidence here. The situations are clichés. The script is terrible. The film is not helped when the lead cannot decide whether he is mentally challenged or an innocent abroad or, more accurately, an American with the patina of an Indian in Delhi. As soon as the lead opens his mouth, we learn that he cannot act. The best part of the movie is the plethora of scenes of Indian life that serve as fillers to a threadbare script, but also serve as a respite from a disastrous movie.

A Separation (Iran)

Iran has wonderful directors and actors. In a country with a built-in stress between creativity and repressive control, especially under the auspices of religious law, the opportunities for exciting and great films certainly exist, even if the conditions for exploiting the opportunities are extremely difficult. Asghar Farhadi’s movie walks that line with a great sense of balance. It is a simple courtroom drama about the unintended consequences of competing but legitimate personal interests and priorities clashing where both truth and a hierarchy of norms are both very unsettled in spite of the claims of Sharia law to have a monopoly on both.

Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) may love one another, but Nader is attached to his father who suffers from dementia while Simin wants to ensure that their daughter has a future. Thus, past and future clash in the present. And the film is greatest in showing that there are no easy answers as two excellent actors pursue that task.

Mustang (Turkey)

Set in a small remote agricultural village far from Istanbul, Mustang is an absolutely wonderful film. There is no difficulty in determining on which side of the modernity-tradition divide the female director (Deniz Gamze Ergüven) falls, as five very close sisters grow up in the home of their aunt and uncle who fall back on protection and policing when the first threat appears on the horizon to the couple’s reputation. The girls, all with a great sense of joie to vivre that is wonderfully portrayed and at all times infectious, is viewed from the perspective of and also driven mostly by the youngest, a mustang determined not to be tamed.

The film begins with the will to live and celebrates life’s joyful, comedic and happy moments, but gradually, and very gradually, descends into claustrophobia in a house made into a prison for confining the human spirit before the plot turns to loss, the greatest being the camaraderie among the five girls, and eventual tragedy. The movie is touching without in any way being cloying, funny without being farcical, and horrific without any of the usual exposure to gross torture. And though clearly on the side of freedom and feminism, the movie somehow manages not to be didactic. Unlike the Indian film above, all the beautiful cinematography of landscape and life are integral to the flow of the film.

Footnote (Israel)

This is one film I did not see in the last five days. But not for lack of trying. Since I was flying from Israel, I was looking forward to watching one of the many excellent Israeli films. I could speculate why I could not find one, but instead I will simply add a footnote to an excellent 2012 Israeli film about both the love and the competition between a father and a son who happen to be in the same realm of scholarship. But there is a difference. The father is engaged in pilpul, a minute engagement in teasing out inconsistencies and insights from small passages in the Talmud. The son, by contrast, is a populizer of Judaism and a public intellectual instead of probing into the minutiae of scholarship.

I loved the movie, not simply because it was about the real tension I experience between the minutiae of scholarship and the desire to communicate to a larger audience, but because the movie was about the fact that neither aspiration can substitute for love within the family, and especially between father and son. To do so with an acute comic sense is masterful. The brilliant hilarious scene of s cluster of great scholars crowded into a tiny office to resolve a dispute offers the humorous side of Israel, precisely because it exemplifies what is so maddening and tragic about the wonderful country.

The Source (France about North Africa)

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata provides the template for this contemporary version of women in a small village using a sexual strike to force their underemployed men to undertake work that can ease the burden of their overworked and treacherous effort at carrying water back from a well. Instead of striking for peace in opposition to the Peloponnesian War, these North African women declare a sexual war to overcome the resignation to and backwardness of crippling tradition. Like the Turkish movie above, Mustang, the setting is in a small remote village. Like Mustang, the film flirts with the comedic against a backdrop of hardship, but that is physical as much as it is moral. Both films are about women in motion that brings forth the poetry of that action.

In this film, an outsider Leila (Leila Bekhti) is married to a village teacher. Rather than the youngest daughter of a family acting as the spur to upset the settled applecart because there is neither a road nor a cart to bring the water from the village well, Leila organizes the protest against assigning women to carrying water hanging from a pole slung across the backs of the women, including pregnant ones. The result of the current obsolete system leads to a disproportionate number of miscarriages and deaths of children. Unlike the Turkish film, and unlike Turkey itself these days, Radu Mihaileanu imbues his movie with love and hope rather than tragedy and despair.

Poli Opposti (Italy)

This movie is a sophisticated contemporary comedy set in a thoroughly modern world, not only one where sexual repression has been removed, but where the women have become the hard bitten, cold and insensitive ball breakers, and the men have been transposed into sensitive souls. Often funny, always very well acted, this traditional version of a comedy of opposites that attract and fall in love, is conceived in an inverted mode. It is a delight to watch precisely because credibility is not a stake. The female warrior divorce lawyer (Sarah Feiberbaum) and her son are saved from being cast into the cold of an unloving world by a sensitive human relations counsellor (Luca Argentero) who believes in pushing cooperation and dialogue rather than exacerbating already deep divisions. If Lysistrata informed The Source, the sophisticated comedies of traditional Hollywood provide the template for this movie, but it is updated by reversing the archetypal male and female roles.

Barbara (German about East Germany)

The story portrayed in Coming Home of abuse by political authorities in China was mirrored by events in East Germany. But Barbara is a film about voyeurism rather than intimate love in the face of oppression. Nina Hoss plays a brilliant physician, not sent to a re-education camp, but to the boonies because she applied for an exit visa. Lu Yanshi just wanted to return home. Barbara just wants to get out. Escape, not unlike that of Huckleberry Finn, a book she reads to a patient and escapee she is protecting. But Barbara had become hardened, not by male abandonment, but by male domination and real repression. She smokes heavily and smiles rarely. But when she does, she lights up the screen.

Though a failure in trust imbues both Coming Home and Barbara with an enormous degree of tension, it is all the more oppressive in Barbara because it appears to be so total and comprehensive leaving very little room for humanity and empathy. Yu in Coming Home develops cold and expressionless eyes, but they are sometimes awakened and we delight in the joy and sensitivity of those rare occasions. The same look, however, in the landlady in Barbara is menacing rather than simply vacant. Both films record the devastating effects of state oppression with great attention to detail, but the regime of surveillance, the informers in East Germany, are omnipresent and anonymous. In the love story of Lu and Yu, the informers are intimates and the party secretary is portrayed in a sympathetic way. East Germany and Stasi reached a dead end; If Coming Home is any indication, there is some hope that China can overcome or get around oppression because, after the Cultural Revolution, room has been made for inter-human sensitivity and empathy even as the government retains its iron grip on society in general and the country suffers from collective amnesia.

However, excellent films can emerge from the worst conditions.

The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles (France)

Two sisters, one glamorous, cold and self-serving, Iris (Emmanuelle Béart), the other, Joséphine (Julie Depardieu), mousy, intellectual and self-effacing, one oblivious to the needs of her son, the other sensitive but often clumsy in dealing with the needs of her two daughters, especially the older one who is so caught up in the attraction of the glitter of her aunt, provide the core of this story of recognition both on the inter-personal and collective level but from a radically different standpoint than Coming Home. In Yellow Eyes, the deceit is obvious and eventually self-destructive. That is why it is a comedy. In Coming Home, the failure of recognition becomes buried deep in the broken families resulting from the Cultural Revolution.

The acting is brilliant as is the direction by Cécile Telerman. One of the greatest rewards in watching foreign as well as American films is observing women come into their own as great directors. When the variety of directors throws light, not only on the screen, but on and into the world in which we live, the rewards are enormous.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Son of Saul III

Son of Saul III


Howard Adelman

Three blogs on the same film! What more is there to say? I begin with one tardy response that I received after the second blog was sent out.

I imagine that you waited so long to see Son of Saul for the same reason I did. It seemed inconceivable that the film industry would have anything ne to say about the Holocaust; why throw myself into a needless depression? What is there to be said that hasn’t been said already? I finally saw it at the TIFF a while after it opened and found that it took us into a new layer of evil and raised new questions.
Son of Saul takes us into the horror that other films only allude to – the engine room of the CAPOs and SonderKommando, the gas chambers themselves, the heart of darkness, and the diabolical method of forcing Jews to be collaborators in their own destruction.

If I were to write a philosophical essay on Son of Saul, I would stress two themes.
1. The director’s reversal of Arendt’s” banality of evil”. Arendt, who invented this concept, uses it (wrongly, I believe) to dehumanize the perpetrators. In Son of Saul, it is the victims who are engulfed in it. Saul goes through his routines as though he were a factory labourer. He seems slightly bored, shoving bodies into gas chambers and then retrieving them. The perpetrators, on the other hand, are normal brutes, sadists and tyrants. No profundities are necessary to describe them.
2. He illustrates the concept of resistance, as the determination to rescue the human from the anti-human This is the meaning of the main story line of the film, Saul’s determination to give his son a proper burial. a concept that is at the heart of Emil Fackenheim’s account of the Holocaust. Your German correspondent illustrates these moments of resistance very beautifully. But there is an ambiguity. He chooses his act of spiritual resistance against the possibility of joining a scheme of armed resistance. What are we to make of this?
Much to think about.

This comment is in line with the first pro-humanism interpretation of the film that I sent out by my Hungarian correspondent currently living in Germany, but probes the issue on a deeper, more philosophical level. Second, it assumes that the boy was Saul’s real son. Is there a connection between taking the son to be a constructed fantasy and a pessimistic perspective on the assertion of humanity in the face of utility versus the assumption of a real son and viewing the film as a statement of hope for the human spirit?

Before probing both those questions, I now want to include a series of reviews of the film in Germany, most viewing the movie as kitsch rather than a great piece of art. Again, these were forwarded to me by my Hungarian reader living in Germany.

Népszabadság is a major left-leaning Hungarian newspaper, 50% owned by Bertelsmann AG (Germany). In its online version I found an article written in Hungarian by Hanna Ongierth, published March 14, 2016, that summarizes some of the write-ups by critics of major German newspapers about the movie Son of Saul. I do not have time to read all the original articles she is summarizing here, but I thought you might be interested in learning what the leading media in Germany wrote about the movie, so I translated it for you. At the end of my translation of her article I included links to the original write-ups, if someone wants to read them. The title of her article, a quote from one of the write-ups, summarizes the overall judgement of German critics:

“The Son of Saul: nauseating”

László Nemes’ Oscar-winning film, The Son of Saul, opened March 10 in Germany. It has been hotly anticipated; every major newspaper wrote about it. They did not mince words: “lager-kitsch”, “ghost train”, “pornography” were some of the opinions it received. But there was also a critic who considered it a “poignantly great work of art”.

Verena Lueken, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung film critic, wore a darkly gleaming gray suit talking about the film on the paper’s online video. Her outfit was to underline her sharp features and stern judgment. Whenever she likes a movie, she wears bright colours. In an unwavering tone, she explained the traditional manner Holocaust themes are to be dealt with. Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary Shoa issued a tacit ban on the pictorial representations of death camps. And since this circle of fire has not faded at all during the last 30 years, Auschwitz-Birkenau is still not to serve as a venue for fictional works.

“László Nemes is trying to be awfully clever” – Lueken interprets the imagery of Son of Saul – “by showing and not showing things explicitly. Nauseating: Exploitative violence, pornography” – she sputters her curses darkly. “Lurid – all just calculated for effect,” she says. In the columns of her paper, she calls the director an arrogant creep, and this because he knows that he is touching on taboos, but decides not to knock them down. The Son of Saul fuels the same lies as Schindler’s List when it claims that, even in horror, there is room for humanity, and in hell for dignity, and that hope will not dissipate in the smoke of the crematoria. This one is the same old lager-kitsch as Steven Spielberg’s film. But at least – Geza Röhrig is a great actor.

Jan Schulz Ojala, the Tagesspiegel critic would agree with those who say it would have been better for Nemes to shoot a movie about the Battle at the Don River [the Hungarian army suffered terrible losses on behalf of Germany due to the overwhelming power of the Soviets in 1942-43; BG], or anything else, as long as he left the Holocaust well alone. Ojala’s greatest problem is not that he does not think The Son of Saul is a good movie, but that Claude Lanzmann thinks it is so. “This movie is nothing but a series of dramatic scenes, typical for an action movie – otherwise it is an average thriller. Not like the Shoah, where the silences between the phrases uttered by the survivors are the most dramatic. In comparison, The Son of Saul is like a ghost train in an amusement park – by the end of the ride, the shivers stop.

According to Susan Vahabzadehnek, the Süddeutsche Zeitung critic, taking a quick ride through the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp sitting in your comfy armchair is like getting your picture taken with the starving children of Africa on a cruise. The viewer cannot be more than a rubbernecking bystander – a thoroughly passive tourist. Therefore, The Son of Saul is no more than a pornography of pain. Besides the horrors of the KZ are impossible to portray, so why even try it?

The Feuilleton editor of Die Welt, Elmar Krekeler has a wholly different opinion. He intensely dislikes the 107 minutes spent on watching the movie. Not because he does not consider it a good movie. But it hurts as much as to even think about it as it was painful to watch it. He disagrees with the label “ghost train” as on that he would love to take another ride. This film, however, engulfed and crushed him. And in the end it vomited him out as a different person. “We all should watch it – he writes – so that we know our task: to shape the world in such a way that there is no need in it for such works as The Son of Saul “.

“How can one demand realism from a feature film? And, anyway, what’s the point of comparing it to a documentary film?”- asks Hannah Pilarczyk, in Spiegel Online. Rather, one should ask whether The Son of Saul adds anything new to the cinematic narrative built around the Holocaust. “It certainly does!” she writes, by breaking the well-known cliché of the “passive Jew” and by complementing the best possible way the existing series of works. In her view, it would be a big mistake to label it as “lager-kitsch” and then yet another time end up with Lanzmann’s work as the only solution.

Anti-Schindler’s List
Claude Lanzmann, the now 90-year-old French director, created the alpha and omega of Holocaust films in 1985, the Shoa. In his nine-and-a-half-hour long work, he let survivors talk, showing locations; however, none of the corpses. “No; I did not use archival materials. Firstly, because this sort of thing is not my thing, and, secondly, because such materials do not exist. And if they did, and I had stumbled upon them, I would have burned them,” he declared in 1994 in Le Monde. Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List is a feature film, considered by many as the “Hollywoodification” of the Holocaust. Lanzmann has also had a low opinion of him; he thought Spielberg’s work “trivialized the Jewish tragedy”. But Lanzmann is pleased to note that Nemes “does not try to show death”. Although Lanzmann missed the first 20 minutes of the movie, yet he thinks of it as the “anti-Schindler’s List,” and he is satisfied that “the director did not want to put the Holocaust on the screen, just the short story of the Sonderkommando.”

Original articles:
Spiegel online:

So there you have it. Is the film an anti-Schindler anti-Hollywood movie that does not trivialize the Holocaust because it does not focus on death, or does it do the very opposite of Lanzmann’s dictum by tacitly breaking the ban on the pictorial representations of death? Does it break the cliché of the “passive Jew,” invert Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” and engulf and crush you so that you emerge after watching it a different person.? Or, on the other hand, is the film just an average thriller based on a series of dramatic scenes like an action movie, a nauseating and lurid film of violence as an exercise in exploiting the pornography of pain, that, even in horror, claims that there is room in hell for humanity and dignity? Is the movie an exercise in lager-kitsch expressing the shallow sentiment that hope will not dissipate in the smoke of the crematoria? Or is the film great art because it can elicit such a wide variety of reactions?

I think the movie is indeed a great piece of art, but not because there are so many varied and often opposite reactions. It does NOT deal with shallow sentiment, and if some find that it expresses the view than even in hell there can be human dignity, this is far from shallow sentimentality. I myself thought the film had as dour a view about the world as the actor/poet who plays Saul, that in a crushing authoritarian environment of mass murder, rebellion, witnessing and escaping into a fantasy longing for religious nostalgia in trying even to giver youthful hope a decent burial, all may be of equal value and equally futile as different exercises in resistance.

But the film is definitely not lurid; it is not a thriller – I was never on the edge of my seat and there were none of the superbly choreographed crash scenes of cheating death that make good action films a thrill to watch. The message is the reverse. Death cannot be cheated. The film is not about the pornography of pain. It is not pornographic or voyeuristic at all, for it is through Saul’s blank and stolid vision that we see what takes place as the camera focuses in close-ups on him or follows him around. I agree with Lanzmann that the film avoids the pornography of death. I can differ from some critics, but respect them. Other critics are just stupid.

I disagree with the conviction that the film breaks the stereotype of the passive Jew, not because that is not a theme in the film, but because it is in a minor key. The resistance is there, but is not the focus of the movie. The film certainly breaks the cliché about the Sonderkommando as willing, selfish opportunistic collaborators of the Nazis. In that sense, my reader is entirely correct. For that alone, the film will be an important addition to the Holocaust genre.

The movie does certainly overturn a major theme of Hannah Arendt, an idol of my young intellectual life, her view of the “banality of evil” when in the Eichmann trial she totally and naively bought into Eichmann’s planned posturing that he was just a normal bureaucrat carrying out orders. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” For Arendt, evil was considered banal because it was carried out by normal individuals, “people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” In the film, though mainly background figures, except in the scene of the Nazi doctors watching as another Nazi officer taunts and ridicules dancing at a Jewish wedding, Nazis are brutes and enforcers, bullies and murderers. Nazis are not ordinary in the least.

Evil is banal, not because it is carried out by ordinary people rather than brutes, but because such extraordinary evil reduces life to such a banal level – questing for a piece of bread and becoming to a greater and greater degrees totally banal, an automaton, in the process. It is not that Eichmann was “terribly and terrifyingly normal,” but that totalitarianism reduces life to obedience. While Arendt claimed that, “normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together” she was purveying, not a great insight, but utter nonsense. The ultimate goal of atrocities is to make that realm of atrocity the norm.

The film is, in some sense, a beacon of hope because the Nazis never succeeded in destroying the capacity to think, to decide, to act, whether as preservers of the record of hostilities, resisters to it or even wanting to resurrect a ritual from which the protagonist himself had become detached, but one that required that life always be respected and dignified. Some sort of Christian forgiveness based on Arendt’s reading of St. Augustine was not “the key to action and freedom.” The resisters, those committed to witnessing or Saul obsessed with at least one proper ritual burial, all fought against their oppressors in different ways and did not forgive them. When Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1958 book The Human Condition, that it was “far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think,” the film demonstrates the opposite to be the case. Under conditions of tyranny, it is virtually impossible to engage in effective action, but the effort is necessary as is the exercise of thought.

Son of Saul is a love story of a conscripted Sonderkommando forced to do what is most abhorrent, more abhorrent than death itself and doomed as well to end up in death after four months of forced labour. Love is not a stranger, as Arendt wrote, a destructive force in partnership with hatred, but a source of opposition to hate and tyranny. We did not need the Nazis to understand the truly radical nature of evil. It has been ever present in the history of humanity. To create a love story in the midst of such evil is a work of great art.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Son of Saul II

Son of Saul II


Howard Adelman

AGAIN WARNING: Only read this blog, at least after the first page or so, either after you have seen the film or after you have decided never to see it.

Yesterday, I wrote about a Hungarian film called Son of Saul that won reams of awards, including being recognized as Best Foreign Film at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. I noted that almost all my friends and family, who are fascinated by movies and love the genre of art, had not seen it. I myself had avoided seeing the movie and only dared to watch it in a most inhospitable place for viewing a serious movie, but, on the other hand, a very safe place for a film like this.

I also printed one excellent response of a Hungarian reader of my blog who lives in Germany. She praised its camera work with its shallow and very narrow focus of vision that forces us to identify with the experiences of the Sonderkommando who is at the centre of the film who was surrounded by a cacophony of sounds where indecipherability enhanced the film’s narrow and apparently shallow focus that also put all the horrors in the background. The design of the crematorium at Auschwitz was carried out by a foremost expert, László Raik, who worked on the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Hungarian exhibit.

It was an authentic film. The lead actor and direction received enormous praise from critics. Yet, this morning, I looked up some statistics. This prize-winning extraordinary movie only took in less than $US 8 million overall. Since the movie was only released by Sony Pictures on 18 December to be eligible for the awards season, perhaps taking in only $1,777,043 in domestic attendance in 2015 could be explained. The movie only took in $37,930 its first weekend in spite of advance raves and the awards it had already won.

The low attendance cannot be explained by the fact that it was a foreign film since, in comparison to all the films in that class, the movie ranked 231st in box office returns and among all genres of films, as one of the best films ever made, it ranked 6,474 in terms of box office receipts. After reaping all its awards and the publicity around them, the movie has barely recovered its production costs – which were very low for a film of this scope – and its distribution costs. A million dollars of that return came from Hungary. Son of Saul has been Hungary’s highest grossing film. Inexplicably, almost a half million came in from each of Spain and Great Britain. Why the discrepancy between the quality of the film and the relatively low attendance?

Though the box office returns were relatively small for such an extraordinary film, the host of accolades were very numerous. Claude Lanzmann of Shoah fame raved about the film as did many critics and intellectuals. I knew a great deal of this, yet waited until this past weekend to watch it, and watched it out of desperation for a good film and in an atmosphere most conducive to repressing one’s feeling and sensibilities. Why had I waited so long? My conclusion – in late life I have succumbed to an overall propensity of contemporary North American society of guarding my sensibilities. The general pattern of children being protected by their parents, from hearing or seeing hurtful things, has influenced my own choices, as much as I criticize that over-protection.

I am especially pleased that I shared my thoughts with readers. Because I did receive a relatively large number of responses. I have selected a few below.

We saw the film in one of the repertory houses on Mt Pleasant some time ago. I think it managed to capture the hellish atmosphere that must have prevailed in the death camps, but it left unresolved issues that should have been faced, the most important being why it was so important to the central character to find a rabbi, and why he took the boy’s corpse along on the escape attempt. We left the theatre feeling that it was a very moving and significant piece of art, but we were also rather baffled by it.

Since this was the first response, I replied, “So am I.” However, I am not any longer. See below.

Dear Howard: I was intrigued by the movie and also watched it on the plane, from Toronto to Brussels, now 4 days ago. I was hesitant, because of the subject and the setting, but went for it. Watching movies on a plane, however imperfect, is often particularly emotionally intense, and this was certainly the case with this movie. I missed much of the sound (my hearing is already bad so even worse in a plane), so I couldn’t sufficiently appreciate the impact of the sound described in the excellent review below. The imagery was obviously also reduced to a very basic level. But what I saw (in combination with the little I heard) was overwhelming. I definitely want to see it again in better circumstances. The review you sent is excellent. One of the intriguing aspects for me was how the viewer and most of his co-sonderkommandos remain sympathetic to Saul and his desire to provide a ritual burial, even if they are often irritated and at times understandably angry even about the impact of his obsession on others who try to survive (one person is likely even killed as a direct result of his actions). This sympathy by his co-prisoners is even more remarkable since they themselves have put aside most of their human empathy in their daily actions, just to be able to survive the place and do what they are forced to do. In the horror and the unspeakable inhumanity of the place, a place worse than hell where an instinctive desire for survival seems the only driving force and any idea of an equitable and respectable God seems absurd, people still appreciate the meaningfulness of a father wanting to perform a religious ritual with the body of his son (or whoever it is). How strange it may seem at times, it also is a small sign of remaining humanity and hope…

I will definitely watch this movie again, hopefully at the TIFF. I did have a certain discomfort watching this type of movie in the banal setting of a plane…

Thanks for sharing this review.

This respondent agreed with my original reader whose response I reprinted yesterday who insisted that the film offered a sense of hope. In this response, “people still appreciate the meaningfulness of a father wanting to perform a religious ritual with the body of his son (or whomever it is).”

I did receive an answer which dealt with my puzzlement.

I agree this unwatchable movie is a must-watch. By that I mean that I find it difficult to recommend that people be traumatized (or for most Jews, re-traumatized) by this brilliantly, horrifyingly immersive Holocaust story.

That Saul’s insistence on treating the corpse of this boy with some measure of respect, of humanity, is patently irrational in their context encapsulates what the Nobel committee expressed in its award of the 2002 prize to Hungarian writer Imre Kertész, himself an Auschwitz survivor, for depicting “the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.” (But don’t all successful depictions of the Holocaust focus on the individual experience? Is it not the only way our poor minds can approach the otherwise unencompassable. Six million paper clips don’t do it. We need Anne Frank and Saul Auslinger.) [Typo: the writer meant Ausländer.]

In the world in which Primo Levi’s guard explained “here there is no why” it seems out of place to question an inmate’s protest, no matter in what form, no matter how futile. Anything he does that resists his reduction to no more than a beast in a slaughterhouse is understandable.

The answer, simply put, is that it does not matter whether one organizes a revolt, tries to document and communicate what is going on, or obsessively seeks to bury one body of a boy in accordance with Jewish ritual. In such a totalitarian extermination system, all efforts at resistance and establishing a small degree of humanity end up being futile. I myself would, I hope, have opted for rebellion, but the brilliance of the film is that it shows that, even when all options are futile, the respect for choosing any of them, including going to great lengths to bury a Jewish boy whom you do not know in accordance with religious requirements and, in so doing, compromising both the rebellion and the effort to serve as witnesses, is the most important.

That very insightful reader also sent me two references. One was to a short biography of the film’s star.

Of enormous interest to me, and I suspect to you and your readers, is the life of star Géza Röhrig , a life that seems to have been lived to prepare for this role.

The reference was to Cnaan Liphshiz’s article, “What’s behind the dark charisma of ‘Son of Saul star Géza Röhrig ,” that was distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on 18 February 2016.éza- Röhrig

First, Géza is a poet with a poet’s sensibilities. He was an orphan who was adopted by a Jewish family at the age of eleven. Why does Saul wake from his automaton uniform of self-protection as he is forced to usher victims into the gas chamber, search through their clothes for valuables and then dispose of the bodies afterwards until he too, after four months of such despicable enslavement, will also meet the same fate? Why become obsessed with a boy who miraculously survived but was then subsequently exterminated? Why seek to bury that body when, as a result, as mentioned above, both the rebellion and the act of witnessing are both undermined?

When he was four years of age, Röhrig was not permitted to attend his own father’s funeral by his uncle. By not burying his father figuratively, his father’s death remained unresolved. I can fully identify, even though the decision was not made by my uncle but by my father himself who opted for no funeral and donating his body to our medical school, and even though I was then a student in that medical school and not a four -year-old boy, and even though I had been estranged from my father for over a decade. As Röhrig said, “this film is about someone who desperately wants to bury a loved one. For me it was my father.” For me it was also my father whom I ostensibly insisted I did not love.

There is one other piece of crucial information in that interview besides the fact that, as a teenager studying in Krakow, Poland, 30 miles away, he had spent endless hours at Auschwitz where he had a religious awakening. Röhrig, after he became religiously observant at the age of twenty-one in New York, to earn money, he took a job as a shomer guarding the bodies of Jews before burial as well as ensuring those bodies were washed prior to burial. (Hence, the authenticity of that scene in the film.) The cleansing was not done to allow the person to be clean when they go though the pearly gates, for there is little focus on an afterlife. It is what the act of watching, washing and caring does for those who are living. Washing the body of the boy being prepared for an autopsy not only has an unusual authenticity, but we get a glimpse of why Saul fell in love with the boy and that he did. Michael Schulman in his article, “Watching” in the 29 February 2016 issue of The New Yorker got that, and much more.éza- Röhrig -corpse-washer-and-movie-star

Finally, the original reader whose comments I reprinted yesterday sent me a follow-up.

I have just found this great interview with Nemes: (there is a readers’ forum after the interview: interesting read as well).

The key sentences regarding our respective views are these:

Nemes: “There are no survivors in my film; I have only the dead. I didn’t want it to tell the story of survival. All these older films establish a safe road for the viewer, and at the end, some kind of liberation. But that’s not the story of the Holocaust. That’s the story of how we want the Holocaust to be. It’s not the story I wanted to tell.” He admits, however, that the film’s vision is not one of total nihilism: “There is a hope there, I think: not the hope of survival, but the hope of the inner voice that might still exist, when everything, including God and religion and sanity, is gone.”

So, his thinking is close to yours, I must admit. Nonetheless, I still think ending the movie with the boy running freely in that beautifully bright forest area under the blue sky is a symbol of hope that we can shape our future differently after Auschwitz. Evidence shows we can and we did: Israel exists.

And it is to Israel’s existence and its legitimacy that I will turn back to tomorrow in my continuing discussion of BDS.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Son of Saul I

Son of Saul I


Howard Adelman

Watch this film, and you must watch it, BEFORE reading the review below. I wrote a reader of my blog of Hungarian background who now lives in Germany the following note:

Have you seen Son of Saul, directed by László Nemes and co-authored with Clara Royer that won an academy award as Best Foreign Film as well as a Golden Globe in the same category? Stop reading if you have not seen the film and wait until you have. If you have seen it, is there a difference in watching and listening if you know Hungarian? What did you think of the film? Is the “son” real, legitimate or illegitimate, or an imaginary construct of Saul Ausländer? What is the significance, if any, that the young boy was still breathing after being gassed? Does Saul deep down know his Greek rabbi was a fake or does it even matter whether he knew or not as he obsessively pursued his self-appointed mission of giving the boy a proper Jewish burial? What did you think of the tension between picture-taking as witnessing, rebellion and adherence to religious ritual, especially since all three options fail? I have still not yet been able to make any sense of the order of events in the film. Do you have any idea?

I saw the film for the first time on the plane on my way back from Israel and that was probably the worst context to see the movie, that is, on a plane and not because I was returning from Israel.

I would appreciate any other comments you might have such as the cinematography of the constant close-ups on Saul and the vague sense of background, on the enormous importance of sound which seemed almost as important as the cinematography.

All the best.


She replies below. Her response is excellent. I now have no need of writing a review though the answer to my key question did not satisfy me because I tended to take an opposite interpretation of futility rather than affirmation of life – that life-affirming gestures are themselves madness when the world has gone mad, especially when the gesture is so obsessive and driven by fantasy. The film deservedly won its awards, but for such an accomplished film, it is absolutely surprising how few people that I know and who seek out great films have seen it. The subject matter of sonderkommandos was perhaps enough to turn them (and me) off. But it is a Must Watch film.

Hi again,

Prompted by your questions, I promptly set out to find a copy of the Son of Saul movie. It is available for online watching, but purchasing it as a DVD or blue ray won’t be possible before July 21 (at least in Germany). My internet connection is not very strong and so I did not think I would be able to watch the whole movie, but, in fact I managed to watch it, in its entirety, a pirated version with Chinese subtitles (!), online. Here is my immediate, first-impressions feedback:

I have never seen this subject matter filmed quite in this manner: it is an acoustic and visual masterpiece. It definitely should not be watched on a plane ride, with cheap disposable earphones, on a small screen, munching stale peanuts from a crackling cellophane bag. Not sure who got what prize for it, but those responsible for the sound effects alone deserve all sorts of accolades. Ideally, it should be watched in a theatre with state-of-the-art Dolby surround sound…

It does not matter whether or not one understands the language of the subtitles, and it also does not matter if one understands the Babelian cacophony of the many languages spoken by the prisoners against an ongoing, horrifying background of German commands screamed, dogs barking, shots exploding, the dull noise of random blows on people’s backs and heads, metal doors banging shut, the constant whoosh of huge flames ablaze, chaos, and people screaming in agony: Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Hungarian, French, or German whispered in surreptitiously hurried sentence fragments, the voices hoarse from the air polluted by the constant presence of death, poisonous gas, smoke, flames, and ashes. It does not matter that the main character happens to be Hungarian like the makers of the film: he could be from any nation; his name is, tellingly – Ausländer (foreigner).

It is hard to understand the dialogue alone acoustically. I think this was done on purpose: it gives you, the 21st century viewer sitting in your comfy armchair, a bewildering, frightening, physical, first-person experience at the gut level of what it must have meant to be thrown into this hellish environment, literally and figuratively not being able to grasp what was happening around you and to you (prisoners got shot on the spot simply because they did not understand the German commands, and did not remove their cap in time – I always wondered about the added stress the multilinguality of the environment must have caused). Other Holocaust movies tell a well-scripted story to the interested bystander, accompanied by sentimental violin solos (which normally I am a sucker for): this one pushes you physically into the middle of hell and bangs the door shut behind you. There is no escape here.

Visually, too, the movie does not narrate: it grabs you and forces you to be in the middle of it, peering through half-opened doors, being pushed and shoved amidst panicky crowds, lining up for the roll call, amidst vague shadows backlit by fire and shrouded in smoke, working feverishly on horrific, mindless tasks, must not stop, must not speak, must not think, just keep shoveling, sorting mountains of effects, scrubbing floors, dragging bodies, feeding the fire, and most of all, avoid calling attention to yourself.

The images are blurry (sometimes repetitive, just like the real daily routine of the Sonderkommando), except for the close-ups of the main character and his occasional interlocutors; your grasp of the events as a viewer is also blurry. You keep asking yourself: What is going on? What is happening? What are these people doing? Where are they going? And again, I think this is done on purpose: rather than hammering into your brain the horror with the sledgehammer-like force of explicit, meanwhile sadly familiar images, you get only glimpses of it, which is the more alarming as you can never quite be in the know of what is happening and why. And even when you get a glimpse, you cannot quite believe you are seeing what you are seeing: you become one of the new arrivals, and don’t have time to think it through; you are just thrown from one scene to the other, never knowing how it will end. Life is precarious, and death can become yours at any moment. This is precisely how it must felt to be dragged into a camp. This movie affects you like music: viscerally, not intellectually. You feel like being carried helplessly by the wild torrent of pointless, industrial-scale killing. How could have one gone on doing this if one had clearly understood what they were forced to do? The blurred background imagery is a perfect visual depiction of one’s possible mental state in such a context.

That prisoners, especially members of the Sonderkommando, “enjoying special privileges” for a limited time in exchange for their services would engage in picture taking and religious ritual is a symptom of maintaining “normalcy” even under the most abnormal circumstances. (And in fact, photos, drawings and diaries made by prisoners were found after the war, and religious ritual was adhered to as much as it was possible. There were philosophical discussions and poetry readings held. Gustav Mahler’s sister organized an orchestra and was very tough with them and criticized them for not being good enough – like it mattered… Did these attempts failed, just because the people performing them died? No, because the survivors reporting them are witnesses of the survival of humanity). The abnormal becomes the new normal. The normal human brain is designed to get “accustomed” to standard repetitive stimuli, and the synapses will fire only when something new and unusual stimulates them. This innate “attention deficit” has a definite survival value. The expressionless face of Saul reflects these comatose synapses, only lighting up for one purpose: the proper burial of the boy. That gesture is his poetry reading. It also does not matter if it is his own boy, a boy he would have loved to have, or a total stranger: the boy is the embodiment of his Mentschlichkeit.

There is also another quasi musical aspect to the film: a forever growing crescendo, acoustically, visually and in terms of the sequence of events, moving from a mechanical well-organized daily routine of gassing masses of people through the frenetic dialogue between the SS and the Sonderkommando about not being able to manage the volume, towards the uncontrollable chaos of burning the victims alive in that humongous fire at the pits (one of the rare images with a strong colour, other than the constant grey, black and brown) and the shots and explosions during the uprising: things really get out of hand (which, we know, is historically accurate – but we are not regaled with historic facts, instead, we are made to feel like we are among the crowd pushed and shoved and killed).

In contrast to the crescendo from a chillingly well-coordinated routine to uncontrollable chaos, there is one constant throughout the movie: Saul’s quest to give a proper burial to the boy. The boy’s survival under the circumstances is miraculous (although we heard of survivors crawling out from under several layers of dead bodies from a pit they were shot into, and possibly some people were also found alive after the gas). That the boy is killed by the doctor does not at all diminish this fact. That murder is predictable (part of the camp routine – so to speak), but that it was possible to survive the gas, survive the camp, survive the entire Holocaust is an idea we must believe in; we must hold on to this belief, it is what gives us hope that life is precious and worth living, no matter what. It is a fundamentally Jewish credo, put to fiery test throughout history and never given up or forgotten, despite all. This life-affirming attitude of the Jewish people is quite contrary to that of other people dismissing the value of earthly life of the here and now, and positively extolling the virtue of death, and of martyrdom as the key to that dubious other realm (Paradise and 72 virgins notwithstanding).

The boy is a metaphor of this life-affirming idea, in the most unlikely context, but precisely because of it. During the many close-ups on Saul, his face remains expressionless, just a part of the machinery he is forced to submit himself to; the first time we see a hint of gentleness and love on his face and hear him breathing heavily is when he lifts the shroud of the boy he has already thought lost. We then see a close-up of his back, while he is standing there, gazing at the boy’s wax-like face, and there is pain in that slightly crouched, much beaten and tormented back of the man the first time. Later, we see the gentlest gesture of his hands washing the body of the boy.

That the would-be rabbi is not a rabbi for he does not even know how to say Kaddish, does not make a difference. Real rabbis during particular hardship were known to give permission for modifying the rules, understanding that the intention to follow the rule may be superior to the actual ability to do so in reality. See the differentiation between accidental versus purposeful breaking the law in this Sabbath’s Torah portion: the penalty is lesser for the former.

During the climactic uprising, Saul manages to smuggle the body outside (as he comes up and outside from some basement we see a perfect blue sky in the door frame the first time (a quasi-reverse image of the victims filing down the stairs to the gas-chambers) and the subsequent images show the green of trees, the river, the sky, outdoors, freedom, the first time after all the grey of smoke and ash. We very much want to believe in this moment that he will succeed in his quest. Saul attempts to give the body a proper burial as much as it is humanly possible under the circumstances. He could just drop the whole project and run. Only the appearance of his mates, with the noise of the pursuers makes him move. He drags the body with him into the water, but accidentally loses it while struggling across the river with his mate (the real rabbi). You just know he will not go under, martyr-like with the body (that would be nauseatingly kitschy): His own struggle against drowning becomes the new metaphor for life. They survive initially (again, by sheer miracle) and hide in a hut in the forest. The peasant boy, accidentally finding them and standing there staring brings the first smile on Saul’s face. We breathe a cautious sigh of relief seeing that the boy does not tell on them (as you would expect in the Hollywood version of the story). He is being pushed out of the way by the approaching SS and runs for his life. He runs for LIFE which goes on with him and his generation, even if we hear (but don’t see) the predictable shots finishing off the escapees.

Even if individual attempts failed, life itself did not. Somebody said poetry after Auschwitz was not possible. This great movie, despite the horrifying experience watching it is, assures us that not only poetry and great art, but life as such, is possible, even after Auschwitz.

Terrific depiction of the film!

With the help of Alex Zisman

Coercion and Justice: Shelach Lecha Numbers 13-15

Coercion and Justice: Shelach Lechah Numbers 13:1 – 15:71


Howard Adelman

I left Canada just after Shavuot when we stayed up all night to study Torah and I personally gave a talk on the treatment of strangers and the treatment of refugees. As I write this morning’s blog in an apartment in Tel Aviv and before my last day in Israel on this trip, the city is winding up its all-night celebrations of White Night (Laila Lavan), the celebration of the city’s secular culture that began when UNESCO designated Tel Aviv in 2003 as a World Heritage Site. The celebration now consists of a myriad of cultural activities from poetry readings to concerts, outdoor dance parties to indoor lectures that only ends with the dawning of a new day. There is no symbol that is as significant of the gap between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, between the vitality of secular culture and the seriousness of Israel’s religious culture, between West and East that so divides modern Israel.

There are different ways to worship and different objects of worship, experimental poetry versus retelling and reinterpreting ancient narratives, playing and dancing to music or studying and dissecting ancient texts, and, as I would suggest from reading this week’s Torah portion, between the advantages and disadvantages of dealing with matters “straight up” as it were and tackling them through indirection. Next week we read and study Korach, Numbers chapter 16:1 to 18:32 and the account of the famous rebellion against the rule of Moses. The groundwork for that rebellion is set in this week’s portion, Numbers 13:1 to 15:41. Shelach Lechah, שְׁלַח-לְךָ, the sixth and seventh words in the portion.

The words mean to send, shelach, and to or for yourself, lechah. The latter is best known in synagogue services from the song, Lechah Dodi, the liturgical song recited Friday at sundown to welcome Shabbat prior to the evening or Maariv service. In secular celebrations, we celebrate the coming out and up of the sun, as in White Night in Tel Aviv. In religious celebrations at the beginning of shabat, we sing to the moon and invite the divine to come forth: “Come out my beloved, my bride to meet the inner light.” So the princes of the Israelite tribes are being sent out to reveal themselves as much as to scout out the land. Shelach Lechah begins with openness, with directness. The scouts are sent out, however, in order for the inner to come forth.

The portion is about the inadequacy of directness. We deal with the outer to bring forth the inner. Purportedly a story about Moses sending spies to the land that the Israelites are about to conquer, it is really about scouting out rather than spying on the land. There is no apparent secrecy involved, yet much is revealed about the Israelites that was hidden, so much so that what comes forth dooms the Israelites to wander in the wilderness for forty more years until “their carcasses” drop. (14:29) What emerges is not so much about the land that lay before them as about themselves. At the same time, Joshua is allowed to emerge as a national military leader in the same way Moses was taught to recognize himself as a political leader, removing the sandals from his feet so he too will realize that the land on which he stands is holy. To recognize this, each must take off his “dancing shoes,” must leave the secular (and the profane) behind at the entrance to the holy land.

Why must one come forth into the holy land with bare feet? When a finance minister in Canada introduces his budget, he dons a pair of new shoes. That is how we govern the realm of everyday life. But the land the Israelites are about to conquer is not an ordinary land. It is supposedly a holy land and only holy ones in bare feet are destined to exercise power in that land. “Put your feet [not your boots] upon the necks of these kings.” (Joshua 10:24) It is insufficient to have boots on the ground to win a true victory. One must enter the holy of holies unshod with your soul revealed as much as your soles are. For in the world of holiness, one may need military power to acquire civilian power, but one does not rule with coercive power but through the power and authority of the law and the rule of justice and, even more importantly, by baring your soul as much as ruling over the body politic.

I used to be very puzzled by this section. Here were the Israelites entering a land with an army of over 600,000. The Gauls could sack Rome with only 40,000 and destroy the Roman Empire. The army of the Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan numbered no more than 150,000. The Israelites had an army four times that size to conquer a miniscule portion of the surface of the earth. They sent out scouts (laturim) to literally “scout” out the land. They were not spies and were not called neraglim. The twelve princes were clearly not spies in any normal sense of the word. They were scouts. To conquer Jericho, Joshua would later send two true spies, not a dozen royal scouts and emissaries. True, the scouts needed to survey a much larger territory rather than just one walled city, but they were just scouts, not spies as we understand the term.

Joshua’s spies were very different than the scouts sent by Moses. The latter were public and royal figures, not nameless intelligence officers. They were sent to bring back reports for a popular referendum on future action not to prepare the army of the Israelites for invasion and conquest. Should we go was the question, not how we should go about it. So Moses’ scouts reported back to the whole community at Kadesh, not just the military commander. These scouts met the Canaanite leaders and traded with them to return with the icon of Israeli tourism, a bunch of grapes hanging from a pole and borne by two carriers to bring back the message that this was a land of “milk and honey.” In Joshua’s mission, the two agents of Joshua’s equivalent of the CIA, were truly secret spies, interested only in intelligence, not the prospect of spoils. Further, there is no evidence of the twelve scouts traveling surreptitiously.

The twelve scouts were sent out to ascertain the strength of the enemy and the bounty to be acquired by immigrating into the land. Were the inhabitants few or many, welcoming or hostile, strong or weak? Were the towns and cities fortified? This was macro information available through public means and useless in devising a military plan of conquest. In fact, sending forth the scouts undermined any resort to military means for it removed the first rule of warfare, surprise as a result of secrecy. There is a huge difference between sending notables on a public mission of inquiry and sending spies to help design the strategy and tactics for conquest. The latter do not need to bring back the abundance of the fruit in the land. The scouts are on a mission of migration and settlement, not a military assignment. When the Israelites do opt for the latter, they approach from the east crossing the Jordan not along the Mediterranean coast to enter via the lands controlled by the Philistines or via the Judean Hills to encounter the Canaanites. They go the round way in and enter through Jordan to attack Jericho.

Clearly, when the scouts return they reveal that, although the Israelites had a huge army, they were not ready for battle. The leadership, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, may have exaggerated the strength and hostility of the local population, but they were undoubtedly accurate in reporting back that the Israelites would not be able to migrate and insert themselves among the local population peacefully. They would have to spend forty years in the wilderness preparing themselves for battle and leaving behind the peaceniks who initially believed that entry could be obtained by immigration alone. They would have to enter through the back door as it were, through the exercise of coercion and based on intelligence and not just as a result of a public scouting mission, through Samaria rather than Judea.

So the modern Jewish state is called Israel and not Judea. The right wing revisionists recognized all along the hostility of the inhabitants and their resistance to large scale migration. The hawks, including Ben Gurion, recognized the necessity of using force to conquer the land, unlike peaceniks and the promoters of immigration primarily as the means of settling in Palestine. In contemporary Jewish ideological divisions, the positions have shifted. It is the hawks who are obvious in their goals. For the right, the political “conquest” of all of Jerusalem and Hebron remains an unfinished task. These hawks are not very secretive with respect to their aim of conquering all of what was for years referred to as Palestine.
That which comes indirectly results more from the failures of others than from one’s own arrogant and obvious actions. If we read today’s portion to grasp this as the lesson, we miss another main point. For the portion does not end with chapter 14 but with chapter 15. Chapter 15 is very different than chapter 13 and 14. Chapter 13 begins with the instruction to Moses to send forth the scouts and emissaries to survey the land of Canaan, but to do so to reveal themselves for themselves and to themselves. They could be revealed to others and even named because they were not literally spies. In the survey mission they would ascertain what the resources were and the strength of the local inhabitants.

What was their report after spending 40 days on their mission? It included no information on troop strength, locations and armaments, about the thickness of the walls around cities and other fortifications, only the fact already known that there were no parts of the territory free of people already living there. Those people, the local inhabitants, were fierce and determined to hold onto what they possessed. There were many tribes and enemies in the different parts of the territory, Ammonites and Hittites, Jebusites and Canaanites. Ten of the twelve princes reported back to Moses that the locals combined were stronger than the Israelites.

Those ten also possibly lied. The land was so tough that it devoured the people who lived on it. In any case, they said that it was inhabited by giants, and perhaps they were for undernourished populations are generally shorter in stature. In contrast and in comparison, the ten emissaries saw themselves as grasshoppers, inyenzi in Kinyarwanda, locusts to be those they threatened to swarm and who would strive to exterminate them in turn. What did the popular will express? Dismay and disillusion. The equivalent of a united Europe was not the promise they were led to believe it was. A populist revolt took place. Both Moses and Aaron bowed down before the will of the people. But Caleb and Joshua indicated that the hopes of and promises to the Israelites were now dead. Further, the people had lost their faith.
God remonstrated them and promised to decimate them for the absence of leadership and for the leaders and the population in general surrendering to their fears. “I will smite them with the pestilence, and destroy them, and will make of thee a nation greater and mightier than they.” Ten of the tribes would undergo the fate of Egypt, God threatened. Only the tribes of Caleb and Joshua would thrive to become a nation greater than that of Israel.

Moses shifted position and once again stood up for loyalty to God rather than prostrating himself before the populist will. The bulk of the population, however, was led by fears even greater than the fear of their God that they had humiliated and brought shame upon. Moses once again prostrated himself before God and asked Him to forgive His people. So God did not smite them. He allowed the Amalekites and Canaanites to do the job.

At the same time, chapter 15 offered instructions on how the Israelites were to prepare for victory and how they were to perform once they had succeeded in conquest. The usual instructions on rituals of thanksgiving were presented in some detail. The key political instruction begins in verse 14. You shall not do to the inhabitants what they were prepared to do to you.
“And if a stranger sojourn with you, or whosoever may be among you, throughout your generations, and will offer an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD; as ye do, so he shall do.” They shall do as you do and conform to the same law.

Strangers who abide by the customs of the land shall be welcomed and treated as equals for “there shall be one statute both for you, and for the stranger that sojourneth with you.” Verse 16 repeats: “One law and one ordinance shall be both for you, and for the stranger that sojourneth with you.” If either party disobeys the law in error, they shall be forgiven. But if that disobedience arises out of arrogance, by either the Israelite or the stranger who lives among you, those who committed the offence must be ostracized.

However, in verse 32, an allegory is told of a man who picks up sticks on shabat while the Israelites are still in the wilderness. Is that man an Israelite or a sojourner among them? Not likely the latter, for they are still in the wilderness and have not yet conquered the land. Further, as an Israelite, he is to be subjected to the most extreme punishment, stoning to death, and for what appears as a relatively trivial offence. In the light of the generosity to be offered to the stranger who respects your law, why is picking up sticks on shabat deserving of stoning?

It is not as if this stand commandment does not stand out. It is repeated again and again. Don’t light fires on shabat. (Exodus 35:3) Don’t cook on shabat. It is a day of solemn rest, that is rest from the labour of membership in the mundane world. (Exodus 16:22-26) You were not even to travel on shabat. (Exodus 16:29-30) Shabat was definitely not to be used as a White Night. The violation of shabat was a capital offence, for it was a violation of the covenant between the Israelites and their God.

What is common to the populism that backs off out of fear from moving en masse into a hostile land and the actions of the man who picks up sticks on shabat? They are situations in which people are both deliberate and defiant in their non-observance. The peaceniks fail to examine themselves as they move towards migration into the promised land. Those preparing to move in through the use of force must prepare for nation-building in advance and treat every local as a stranger in their midst with respect to protection by the law and punishment for its breaches. Strength must be married to the rule of law. But some breaches of the law by a member of the tribe which offends the centrality of the covenant between God and His people are subject to a death sentence by stoning.

Strength must be balanced with justice and realism has to offset our idealism. In any case, populism, surrendering to the whims of the people, the fears of the future and of strangers, may be the greatest danger. The dichotomy of being direct and open must be balanced with secrecy and the use of real spies. Direct talk and indirection are both requirements in politics. Importantly, the missions of plenipotentiaries must go forth, whether it be UNSCOP or inquiries into abuses of rights and of the laws of war, more to reveal our own inadequacies and short-sightedness than just record what is publicly observed. For over against Socrates, knowing thyself requires knowing the other and is accomplished by becoming acquainted with the other. Finally, living in the daylight of the everyday world and welcoming in the bride to meet the inner light of shabat are required to make a 24-hour day.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

“Observe” and “Remember” in a single word,
He caused us to hear, the One and Only Lord.
G d is One and His Name is One,
For renown, for glory and in song.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

To welcome the Shabbat, let us progress,
For that is the source, from which to bless.
From the beginning, chosen before time,
Last in deed, but in thought – prime.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Sanctuary of the King, city royal,
Arise, go out from amidst the turmoil.
In the vale of tears too long you have dwelt,
He will show you the compassion He has felt.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Arise, now, shake off the dust,
Don your robes of glory – my people – you must.
Through the son of Jesse, the Bethelemite,
Draw near to my soul, set her free from her plight.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Wake up, wake up,
Your light has come, rise and shine.
Awaken, awaken; sing a melody,
The glory of G d to be revealed upon thee.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Be not ashamed, nor confounded,
Why are you downcast, why astounded?
In you, refuge for My poor people will be found,
The city will be rebuilt on its former mound.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

May your plunderers be treated the same way,
And all who would devour you be kept at bay.
Over you Your G d will rejoice,
As a groom exults in his bride of choice.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

To right and left you’ll spread abroad,
And the Eternal One you shall laud.
Through the man from Peretz’s family,
We shall rejoice and sing happily.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Come in peace, her Husband’s crown of pride,
With song (on Festivals: rejoicing) and good cheer.
Among the faithful of the people so dear
Enter O Bride, enter O Bride;

O Bride, Shabbat Queen, now come here!

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The American Anthropology Association – BDS Redux IV

BDS and AAA: Part IV


Howard Adelman

BDS is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that promotes among other things the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, Israeli academics and non-Israelis who are open to dialogue with Israelis. Some supporters of BDS may adopt more modest goals, such as boycotting only the first category, Israeli academic institutions and their representatives. Like BDS itself, these advocates dub themselves as defenders of human rights rather than opponents of Zionism whether they have a narrower focus of institutional opposition or target all academics who may engage in cooperation with Zionists, i.e., those who do not join the resistance movement against Zionism. The so-called more modest effort is the official position of Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (ABIAI), a self-funded lobby group consisting of graduate students, those called “contingent labourers” as well as faculty who are members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

Whether this more modest effort is tactical, because the supporters of BDS believe this is as far as they can go at this time, or principled because they do not believe in boycotting individuals and only institutions, may be moot since BDS as a movement itself, as I documented in my last blog, endorses boycotting individual academics if they believe in dialogue with Israelis. To escape being boycotted, individuals must adopt a position of opposition to the Zionist “oppressors,” of what is deemed co-resistance.

In my last blog, I wrote about BDS targeting and boycotting the Lebanese-French writer, Amin Maalouf. At the recent Association for Israeli Studies (AIS) meeting in Jerusalem that I attended, one of the best talks I heard at the conference was by Mohammed Wattad at the plenary session on, “Challenges to the Israeli Justice System.” To summarize and simplify his paper, he argued that the Israeli Supreme Court has been the foremost Israeli institution defending individual rights and democratic principles. However, that same Supreme Court is at risk as there is some evidence of the court pulling its punches recently in the face of the Knesset becoming a centre threatening individual rights and democratic principles.

Dr. Mohammed Wattad is currently the Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professor at UC Irvine and a professor of law at the ten-year-old Zefat Academic College in Tsfat that serves the Galilee. He had clerked with the Israeli Supreme Court. Wattad specializes in international and comparative criminal law, comparative constitutional law, international law and legal issues surrounding war, torture and terrorism. He is one of the scholars most targeted by the BDS movement for cooperating with instead of practicing co-resistance against “the enemy.” Though I never had a chance to find out, it would be ironic if he were indeed the son of the Israeli politician by the same name who served in the Knesset in the eighties.

Let me explain. Wattad (the politician) was born in 1937, a year earlier that I, but died tragically in an automobile accident almost thirty years ago when Professor Wattad would still have been barely a teenager. It is ironic because many of the Jews leading IJV (Independent Jewish Voices), strong supporters of BDS, are children of ex-communists and the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO) where I played basketball on Christie Street in Toronto as a young kid. The irony arises because the late Mohammed Wattad, the politician, once belonged to the Israeli Communist Youth, was a member of Hashomer Hatzair and was an MK for Mapam. The year he died he had left Mapam to join Hadash because he fell out with his Jewish colleagues in the party over the appropriate response to the First Intifada. In some sense, the Jewish children of UJPO in IJV may be engaged in a conflict with the Arab Israeli children of Israeli communist politicians. Unfortunately, I never learned who the father had been of the legal scholar, Mohammed Wattad. This is the second time I missed talking to Professor Wattad about this since I met him briefly when he was the Faculty of Law Halbert Fellow at the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto.

Mohammed Wattad is not the only scholar targeted by the boycotters. BDS has boycotted Michael (Mousa) Karayanni, the Dean of the Law School at Hebrew University whom I know only through his writings on multiculturalism, though I believe I met him long before he was dean when he lived at Neve Shalom. But I am not sure. In any case, BDS and its supporters, including those in the American Anthropological Association, endorsed the boycott resolution opposing “normalization” and collaboration, especially with Israeli scholars who represent institutions, which Karayanni certainly does as a dean. If he still lives at Neve Shalom/Wahat el-Salaam, he clearly espouses co-existence rather than co-resistance so fundamental to the ethos of BDS.

But my subject this morning is not so much the boycott against individual Israeli scholars, but the effort to enlist academic associations, like the American Anthropological Association (AAA), to support the boycott. The AAA has been a prime target over the last few years. A few weeks ago, it finally held a ballot to see if the members supported the resolution passed at an annual meeting to endorse the boycott. At the AIS meeting, Dani Rabinowitz in the panel on BDS offered a rundown of the running battle between the Israeli and the American Anthropological Association. (At the end of this blog, I will let you know the result, but if you do not want to wait, you can find the vote on the AAA website.)

Spoiler Alert! But a different sense of spoiler. This account may include errors since it is based mainly on my notes. Even if those notes were originally accurate, a dubious assumption, they are barely legible and serve only to remind me about what Dani said, or, at least, what I believe I remember him having said.

Dani Rabinowitz is a cultural anthropologist teaching at Tel Aviv University, not to be confused with my philosophical colleague of the same name who writes on religious epistemology and is at Oxford. Dani (the anthropologist) offered a political context for the effort to enlist the AAA, an account of why AAA, like a very few other academic associations, were open to the entreaties of BDS, and then outlined the progress of the debate on a number of campuses. Part of the attraction of anthropologists to BDS is because AAA has been very sensitive to issues of racism, and anthropologists were once used to justify and rationalize racism. ABIAI as well as BDS ostensibly oppose racism and claim (falsely) that Zionism is founded on racist premises. The basic political agenda argues that Israel should not exist.

At the annual meeting in Washington in 2014, of the ten thousand members, 638 of the 662 of the members who voted, or 95.8%, supported a debate on the issue. Four out of five academic panels at the association meeting dealing with BDS in 2015 were stacked with supporters of the boycott. The business meeting had a record attendance – 1500. The impression was that an overwhelming majority favoured a boycott. The vote in favour of the boycott was confirmed by a huge margin of those in attendance – 1044 to 136. A ratification ballot was to be held in 2016 and social media were flooded with arguments leading up to the electronic ballot. My notes say they were 125,000 views expressed, but that seemed inordinately high and I suspected I had either heard wrong or made an error in my notes. But a quick survey of various sites suggests this figure may be accurate.

As the debate continued over six weeks, a number of factors seemed to influence the outcome. First and foremost, those promoting the boycott had for years been organized as the Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (ABIAI). They were a very determined and focused lobby group. (

Secondly, they were assisted by the fact that the current leadership of the AAA supported the boycott and the executive members may have been promoted into leadership roles to push the boycott. Third, as is frequently the case in academic organizations, scholars who are focused on their scholarship and uninvolved in advocacy issues take a backseat to academic advocates with an agenda, whatever that agenda might be. Fourth, at the annual meeting to debate the issue under the chair, Nathan Brown, three of the four panelists favoured the boycott. Fifth, as I have experienced personally (I do not participate in such debates any longer), instead of a normal academic detached presentation of different views and interpretations, instead of a debate that is both civil and informative, the discussion becomes suffused with vitriol and even name-calling, overwhelmingly from the side opposed to cooperation and in favour of co-resistance. Sixth, it was reported that archeologists and many physical anthropologists resigned over the determination to become an advocacy organization.

88% of the membership, an overwhelming number, endorsed holding a referendum on the sanctions resolution at the AAA Denver convention. Given all this lead up to the electronic vote, the wonder is that, of half the members of AAA voting on the issue (almost 5,000), the no side won by a margin of 39 votes, 2,423-2,384 (50.4%-49.6%). The pro-boycotters were undeterred by their defeat. They vowed to continue the fight. After all, their loss was influenced by a professional legal advisory (commissioned by the AAA I was told, but on this I am uncertain), that, given the constitution of the AAA that defined the organization as purely academic and the organization as explicitly chartered not to engage in advocacy, the AAA was subject to being sued if the resolution to endorse the boycott was adopted. ABIAI called the initiation of such a suit by the Israeli anthropologists as “frivolous.” The resolution precluding the AAA from engaging in any formal association-level collaborations with universities or research centers in Israel was defeated even though it did not include preventing Israeli scholars from participating in AAA activities or collaborating with AAA members. In other words, even a modest sanctions resolution that modified the BDS position did not pass.

Despite this setback, the decision to hold the vote in the first place was considered by the supporters of the boycott as a historic step forward in putting the boycott issue in front of an academic association. The claim that the U.S. enabled Israel to allegedly engage in widespread and systematic abuses against Palestinians had been publicized, even if the truth value of that assertion was not fairly examined in a comparative light. The past three years of debate about the boycott brought exponentially more discussions of Palestinian claims in the AAA than ever before in the association’s history. An AAA Task Force claiming settler-colonial practices by the Israeli government and its predecessor, the Zionist movement, had been given wide publicity and a degree of academic respectability. Separately, over 1,300 anthropologists signed a petition pledging to uphold the boycott through their own personal practice.

Those academics claimed they were in the vanguard opposing the denial of Palestinian rights to an education by opposing the aid and unconditional political support Washington provides to Israel and America’s history of colonialism. ABIAI advocates lauded expressing solidarity with Palestinian colleagues (excluding, of course, Palestinian scholars like Wattad and Karayanni). Israeli policies, according to these BDS advocates, only obstruct and never advance Palestinian education, a bare-faced lie if ever there was one. These BDS advocates claimed that they had achieved this degree of success in spite of intimidation and disinformation by opponents, as if their own propaganda was free of disinformation, and boycott proponents had not engaged in catcalls at an academic meeting. They also claimed that untenured and adjunct scholars had been targeted and harassed without documenting that assertion in any way. Perhaps the claim is true and that alone would be worthy of debate and strong protest. But this assertion is made as a claim, like many of its other claims, without empirical evidential support.

Members of ABIAI and BDS openly lobbied to advance the boycott, but criticized civil society organizations, including Jewish organizations and others, for lobbying to oppose the boycott in the name of academic freedom. Why should the ABIAI have the exclusive right to lobby? Should not the reverse be preferred – that academics should argue for the right of civil society organizations, to lobby to advance their positions while academic institutions and organizations, except in extreme circumstances, restricted their activities to testing the truth claims of those organizations?

The problem is that for boycott lobby groups, defeat at the ballot box does not entail respect for a democratic outcome, but merely signals the need for a renewed effort to succeed the next time. The Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (ABIAI) will press on with its campaign to “educate” colleagues about Israel-Palestine to mobilize anthropologists to support Palestinians through a boycott. This is not regarded as harassment of professional colleagues who simply want to go on and produce high quality professional scholarship independent of any political position. But, of course, the pro-boycott lobbyists regard this as a cop out and a failure to assume their responsibility to oppose cooperation in favour of co-resistance.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Cultural Boycotts – BDS Redux III

BDS III: Cultural Boycotts


Howard Adelman

The French novelist of Lebanese origin, Amin Maalouf, wrote a book called In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong (2001) recently discussed in an article in Tablet. The book is a penetrating study of identity politics applicable to France and the countries of the Middle East, including Israel. It is an incisive attack on communitarians. As much as I may sympathize with his criticisms and disagree with his overall thesis, my goal here is not to counter-attack but to depict how Amin has been treated by BDS supporters.

BDS set up Maalouf as a primary target. As Tablet reported, when Maalouf proposed cultural exchanges between Lebanon and Israel, he was criticized for attempting to “normalize” relations with Israel. One must not only boycott Israeli events, projects, publications and academics, but attack and vilify anyone who disagrees. Suddenly, for BDS, the defence of the right to free speech and expression of one’s views crashes through a glass window and splinters on the sidewalk thirty floors below. All talk of reconciliation and overcoming barriers must be attacked while chastising Israel’s creation of a wall and fence for security purposes. Creating walls between groups of intellectuals and artists eager to exchange with one another is legitimate, but building a wall and fence to deter those who would commit violence against oneself is considered illegitimate.

It is not my purpose here either to defend or criticize Israel for constructing its security wall and fence. I merely want to draw a parallel between efforts to construct cultural and intellectual walls between people and security walls. Security walls may or may not be appropriate depending on the context. Efforts at constructing intellectual and artistic walls are not relevant to criteria of appropriateness or efficacy for they are used both in defiance of appropriateness while trying to stand under a universal umbrella – of human rights in this case. The aim is to define a group and the grounds for inclusion and exclusion.

All economic boycotts are not wrong. It is arguable whether boycotts against economic products of settlements in the West Bank that often employ Palestinians is a correct and useful policy. But those who advocate this position end up being tarred with the same brush as BDS, equating them with the more universal BDS anti-Israel boycott position. At the same time, it has to be recognized how easily boycotts against West Bank Jewish-produced goods and services slip into the boycott of specific Israeli products, first in Palestine, such as when Palestinian factions decided to ban the goods of six specific Israeli companies and products in the West Bank (Tnuva now owned by a Chinese firm, Strauss, Osem, Elite, Prigat and Jafora), allegedly in response to Israel’s punitive measures when the PA pursued full membership in the UN – including delays in the transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority and land appropriation. So very modest boycotts are used as recruitment tools inviting an innocent passer-by to become an initiate.

The slippery slope easily slides into boycotts of all Israeli products. Boycotts of specific products are viewed by advocates as “the first among several steps … to boycott all Israeli goods that reach the Palestinian market.” The next stage of the slide is then the boycott of firms doing business with Israel, then of Jewish firms and individuals who support Israel and then of anyone who gives any credence to and support of the Zionist project. The boycott of Israeli artists and intellectuals then is positioned at the extreme end of this spectrum. Given that the banner of BDS has been built most around this extreme boycott position, and that BDS has established its brand worldwide as by far the leading anti-Israel boycott organization, anyone joining the anti-Israel boycott movement as a fellow traveler risks, indeed virtually invites, being identified as a BDSer and is labeled as one by BDS in its catholic embrace of all anti-Israel boycott positions.

Which brings me back to the Lebanese-French writer, Amin Maalouf. He was targeted by BDS. What was his “crime”? He gave an interview to an Israeli television journalist. Further, he advocated the normalization of relations between Arab countries and Israel, beginning with cultural and intellectual exchanges, as the best route to overcoming barriers. BDS adamantly opposes “normalization.”

PACBI (the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) “urges international cultural workers…to boycott and/or work towards the cancellation of events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israel, its lobby groups or its cultural institutions, or that otherwise promote the normalization of Israel in the global cultural sphere (my italics), whitewash Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights, or violate the BDS guidelines.” ( Further, if an “international cultural worker” fails to heed the call for a boycott and crosses “the BDS picket line,” even in the form of “fig-leafing,” such persons will themselves be subject to ostracism by BDS and not just “Israeli academic and cultural institutions.”

The rationale? These “institutions are complicit in the Israeli system of oppression that has denied Palestinians their basic rights guaranteed by international law, or has hampered their exercise of these rights, including freedom of movement and freedom of expression” for, “Cultural institutions are part and parcel of the ideological and institutional scaffolding of Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid against the Palestinian people.” This is a method of undermining “the hegemonic Zionist establishment in Israel.” “A cultural product’s content or artistic merit is not relevant in determining whether or not it is boycottable.”

Though PACBI claims that cultural products not attached with political strings are not subject to boycott per se, though Palestinian cultural products which receive Israeli funding directly or indirectly are, normalization projects (which are very broad and inclusive), such as the efforts of Amin Maalouf, certainly are subject to boycott.

Normalization Projects are boycotable. Cultural activities, projects, events and products involving Palestinians and/or other Arabs on one side and Israelis on the other (whether bi- or multi- lateral) that are based on the false premise of symmetry/parity between the oppressors and the oppressed or that assume that both colonizers and colonized are equally responsible for the “conflict” are intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible forms of normalization that ought to be boycotted.

These include “events, projects, publications, films, or exhibitions that are designed to bring together Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis so they can present their respective narratives or perspectives, or to work toward reconciliation, ‘overcoming barriers’; they are only exempted if they challenge the Zionist hegemonic agenda the “common struggle against oppression,” and join in the campaign of co-resistance rather than co-existence. Further, although PACBI does not advocate even much broader “common sense” boycotts by “conscientious citizens,” PACBI understands and sympathizes with such efforts. These common sense boycotts presumably include efforts of individuals to harass and not just boycott any individual even perceived to be supportive of Israel.

In my next blog I will depict the process leading to the decision of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) as one the very few academic associations to join and support the BDS boycott, I want to explore a broader understanding of boycotts and efforts at exclusion that have been mined by cultural anthropologists themselves, the hardcore of anthropologists who support the boycott. Mary Douglas, one of the most famous cultural anthropologists, in her 1966 classic, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, attempts to explore actions intended to preserve the purity of a group or a movement and the function of such efforts. Engagement in pilpul or the counting of angels at the end of a pin, such as refining in great detail when and where boycotts of Israel and its supporters as well as non-detractors comply, are ostensibly just efforts to define which boycotts in general and which academic boycotts specifically meet the test of being kosher. They had to be efforts at co-resistance and not foster cooperation or reconciliation.

Mary Douglas initially viewed kosher food laws as part of such an effort rather than being driven by concerns for health or tests of commitment to God. They were efforts at solidarity maintenance. In 2002, she revised the specific thesis with respect to kosher laws to define them as efforts to protect animals that were not herdable in contrast to the effort of Hindus to protect cattle who were. Laws, policies and practices in the context of boycotts are intended to both define the proponents and supporters of the Palestinian cause in an effort to define the in-group. Calling them human rights supporters and protectors of Palestinians is merely a rhetorical gesture to occupy the high ground of freedom of expression.

The function of boycotts is not really to weaken Israel – and they have clearly not accomplished that task – but to consolidate the supporters of the Palestinian cause, not just to acquire self-determination for Palestinians, but to eliminate the alleged oppressor state, whether all at once or by degrees. Those excluded support different degrees of cooperation with Israel as the historic oppressors of Palestinians. They are undeserving of protection of their rights of free expression and association since by definition they are guilty of herd-thinking.

In sum, boycotts as a mechanism for forging and maintain group solidarity behind the Palestinian cause and defining the Jewish effort at self-determination as inherently oppressive and illegitimate, just as the effort of organizations such as B’nai Brith and others like it to brand BDS anti-Zionists as anti-Semitic and even Holocaust deniers are attempts to consolidate group loyalty and brand BDSers as treif, as non-kosher. The conflict between the BDSers and their vocal Zionist opponents is a fight between rival brands. BDSers insist that support and/or cooperation with Israel and Zionism is not kosher and boycotts are ritual methods of expressing both this attitude and forging group solidarity. Institutional opponents of BDS seek to brand boycotters as treif because they are anti-Semites and even deniers of the Holocaust.

With the help of Alex Zisman