Why People Love Dead Jews
Author Dara Horn on why Jews need to erase themselves to be acceptable. Plus: a postmortem of the Seattle City Council's "Deadly Exchange" legislation.
I’m excited to be back after the crush of holidays last month. Although the holidays, which had the nerve to all fall on weekdays this year, are stressful to prepare for and balance among work, kids, and general maintenance, I realized that they also serve a purpose that more of us can use: self-care. Over the four days I unplugged, plus Shabbats, I got to spend long afternoons chatting with friends and spend evenings devouring a stack of books. Every holiday makes me appreciate the rabbinic decision to power down. I didn’t miss my phone, felt no urge to “just look something up,” didn’t buy any garbage on Amazon, and had no desire to poke my head into the alternate reality called social media. I took walks, fell asleep on couches, processed thoughts about things I don’t have time to think about.
One of the books I read was Dara Horn’s new book, People Love Dead Jews, and I was psyched when her publicist got me an interview for this latest podcast edition of The Cholent. The book has been getting great reviews, and I think it speaks to a new moment we’re in, one where we’re realizing that cultural acceptance has come at the cost of not always being welcome to tell our own story. As soon as I put down her book, I picked up David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count. Baddiel, a British comedian, follows manifestations of current anti-Judaism down various Twitter and cultural rabbit holes without an ounce of fear or apology, tying the red string between stupid things people say on the internet and historic anti-Semitic tropes. He spares no one, not least British leaders like liberal MP Jenny Tonge, who, in a Facebook post, blamed the Pittsburgh shooting on Jews because of Israel and suggested that Jews are persecuted over and over again because they…ask for it.
Where Horn is a careful and precise academic channeling her rage at history’s repetitive tendency to eradicate Jews only to build museums in their honor (or, in the case of the Middle East, just eradicate Jews and their ancient structures) through masterful storytelling, Baddiel is a pugilist poised to punch history in the face. Both books will gut you.
You guys, do we need a Cholent book club?
Horn, whose book was born out of frustration of having major news outlets call her for a kind of moral analysis after right-wing attacks on Jews, may finally help widen the scope of what Americans understand as the Jewish experience. Last week, she published a piece in the New York Times on the last Jew of Afghanistan, an imperfect and obnoxious man who, she posits, provided “comic relief, like a Mel Brooks skit injected into the relentless thrum of bad news.” What do we need as a break from the horror of the failed occupation of Afghanistan? A kvetchy old Jew. Why is that the story? Why do we know nothing about why he’s the last Jew of Afghanistan?
In the category of bringing pride and knowledge is another discovery of late, Antonio Garcia Martinez, whose recent Substack articles about his choice to become Jewish are terribly beautiful. In “Why Judaism? / On abandoning secular modernity,” he ponders the difference between a secular society of utilitarian ethics with the framework of religion:
We have arrived at a unique point in history where many Americans love nothing more than themselves, and the only functioning organization that touches their lives is a corporation. That’s all good and well as a single striver sprinting along our treadmill of an economic system; the above realization takes on a more somber tone when confronted with the only form of immortality available to most of us: our children.
Daddy, why is that man living in the bus stop? Daddy, why are you gone working so much? Daddy, can I read this book or watch this show? Daddy, what’s this flag I’m holding?
Suddenly questions like the ones above go from the heated but ultimately vain stuff of Twitter threads to daunting conversations with the one thing left in the world you’d sacrifice yourself to save. Those big, brown eyes staring at you demand an answer to those questions; her absolute receptiveness to your answers yokes you with a responsibility to posterity that hedonistic modernity has distracted you from your entire life. What do you put in that mind that will outlast yours?
I was recently part of a small group discussion about something like “why be Jewish?” The “why” to me once was “because we all get each other, it’s like family”; later, it was “because of tikkun olam and tzedek, tzedek, tirdof.” Now, I think it’s because if we’ve made it this far, we must be doing something right. We must have something to offer the world. That thing, as Martinez says, is the tree of life for them that hold fast to it, a tree we hang on to when we’re “stuck in a secular modernity that’s lost the plot.”
Whether or not you think the plot has gone to the dogs, Martinez—and Horn and Baddiel and others—are taking a bold stand. And the nice thing is, people seem to be listening.
Postmortem: End the Deadly Exchange
Q and A with JCRC director Max Patashnik about the intense push to urge the Seattle City Council to not adopt CB 120142, legislation that would have banned the Seattle Police Department from training with other countries, but specifically Israel. It was pushed by End the Deadly Exchange Seattle, an affiliate of Jewish Voice for Peace, that advocates for police demilitarization and an end to any relationship between Seattle and Israeli law enforcement. The bill was sponsored by councilmembers Sawant, Morales, and Mosqueda. The final vote was 5-4.
When did the Federation first realize that the End the Deadly Exchange legislation was going to be a Jewish community challenge?
I want to say it was late May, early June, because it was basically directly after all the violence between Israel and Hamas. I think eight different anti-Israel, pro-BDS things that kind of crossed the line into anti-Semitism, at times there were all these different things happening. At first this was just one of a million fires that seem to be coming up. We were seeing this explosion of all of these things happening, labor unions, the City Council, Block the Boat, et cetera.
At that point it was just like, okay, let's just keep our finger on the pulse with this. But I think it really just showed that because of that violence, activists and groups pushing various boycott efforts and various efforts tangentially related to the global BDS movement, that they were capitalizing on public sentiment at that time about what had been happening, you know, the disproportionate levels of casualties between Israel and Gaza. This is not the first time Deadly Exchange has come up in Seattle. I mean, the national director of Jewish Voice for Peace is based here in Seattle and JVP has made the End Deadly Exchange campaign a top priority for years. So long story short, late May, early June, we knew they were trying to build energy around this because part of the business item that the Seattle Teacher's Union passed had within it endorsement for this Deadly Exchange campaign. And the activists that we knew had pushed that at the labor union were also pushing this at City Council. And they were the same names that were popping up on social media and had to do with Block the Boat.
I noticed that all of a sudden Deadly Exchange was everywhere, and I was like, what is this thing? Tell us about this group.
Yeah. So there is a campaign called End the Deadly Exchange, and the campaign really is concerned about police exchanges that happen between the US and Israel. And when those police exchanges happen, what are the tactics that are taught? What are police officers bringing home, which is a legitimate concern, I think, about any country in the world, right? The problem really lies in a lot of the inflammatory nature, the rhetoric, and the mischaracterization, and what might follow from that. I think one of the first mischaracterizations is what actually happens on the trip. The ADL is one of the entities that has run these trips in the past, and these trips include conversations with law enforcement. They also include visits to Yad Vashem. They also include conversations and collaboration with Palestinian police officers. And so the idea, the picture that's painted about what happens on these trips is a really myopic focus on like militarized tactics, not necessarily really valuable stuff about counter-terrorism or how we are supporting communities and using less violent tactics. Because, as you and I both know, even though it has its problems, the Israeli military is held to an incredibly high moral standard.
And then from that, there's this conflation of the dynamics between Israelis and Palestinians. But those problems are not the same as problems with systemic racism here in the US. What they're doing is both creating a false narrative that Israel has the same systemic racism issues, or worse, in their country. They're also blaming the problems to some degree that we have with our police on Israel. There's no nuance. You can talk about human rights. We need police reform here. You can talk about all those things, but they're not the same. And so the logic of the argument just really doesn't stand up. It's possible that the Israeli police and the US police might use the same tactic one time. But that doesn't mean that these exchanges are to blame for what is wrong with our police here in this country. And, you know, when false narratives are continually presented, they start to gain more traction, right? If something is said enough, it almost becomes true.
What were some examples of things you saw or heard that really raised red flags and made you nervous?
Just one of the concerns was the way that people accepted this false narrative. And people kept saying, “It’s not about Israel, it’s not about Israel.” It's not about Israel, because the legislation went through a number of changes and a number of different iterations. And so originally the legislation did name the ADL explicitly. It did call out Israel, but this [version] in particular had a number of different criteria and countries that ended up being added.
So I think the first thing was the concerning nature of the acceptance of this narrative. The last couple of days it became really intense. [ADL regional director Miri Cypers and I] were both really appalled that there were different people who were testifying who kept referencing “Zionist forces.” That was quite disturbing. I think “Zionist forces” and anytime you see Zionism being replaced for Jews, or where you could see it replaced for Jews, it really just evokes some of those old tropes, and you can see it kind going down the rabbit hole, especially because nobody addressed it, nobody talked about it. I sent an email to Council President [Lorena] Gonzalez about that. She had a hard job that day. My God, I would not want that job. I said, thanks for all her work and her leadership. And also that I was really concerned that these things were said, and nobody addressed them at all. I don't know what normal protocol is in a council meeting if somebody were to say something that's tracking in racist or homophobic tropes. It's so important to do education around anti-Semitism, because there's so much that people don't understand.
You said that the bill was a solution looking for a problem. Can you explain more about what you mean by that on the legislative level?
If you're putting forth a piece of legislation, the first thing you want to ask yourself, “How is this legislation really going to make a tangible impact?” If you don't work on this legislation, what is going to happen? And the reality was that the ADL is the main local organization here who has taken folks on law enforcement trips. They do not, from what I understand, have any current plans to take more law enforcement officers there. The last trips happened in 2013 and 2015, and there have been only two officers who have gone. When you look at the agenda from the trips, they weren’t focused on learning militarized tactics. When you look at the issues with the Seattle Police Department, there is no logical connection you can build between the issues that are currently a problem and these police exchanges. So let's call something what it is. If this is an effort to malign Israel, to call out Israel, to punish or boycott Israel for something, then just be upfront about it. But don't pretend that it’s an authentic effort to really reform the Seattle Police Department. I think that was one of the most frustrating things.
The Federation is not anti-police reform. I mean, we supported a really big package of bills this last legislative session. We're the first in the country to ban chokeholds, to create standards for use of force, to create an independent investigation and prosecution process — really tangible things that are addressing real problems on the ground as articulated by victims and the families of victims of police violence. But this was none of that. It just wasn't.
It was a really close vote. It makes me think it's going to be coming back. So why did people vote in favor of it?
Some of them believed that this was really going to make a tangible impact in Seattle policing. They felt it was making an important philosophical statement and argument that Seattle shouldn't be training with the military of any country, and Seattle shouldn't be training with police departments that have unresolved issues around human rights. So they thought they were doing a good thing there. I think constituents also play into it a lot. Who elects them, who the constituents of their district? Do they tend to be on the uber progressive side? Do they tend to be on the less progressive side? Who are they counting on? I don't mean to be crass, but getting reelected as part of politics. For Councilmember Sawant, she's been connected with the Deadly Exchange for a long time. This campaign has been around for years now. I don't know when it started, but I know that the city of Durham, North Carolina, I think it's still maybe one or one of two cities in the country that has actually banned police exchanges with Israel. We've heard rumblings about Seattle and Deadly Exchange for a long time. And they are a huge part of her base.
You mentioned how exhausting this was for you. Can you talk about how you felt personally during this time?
Yeah, I mean, I think because of the number of issues that were going on at the outset, the volume of work was just exhausting, but also it's exhausting to continually have to explain to people why the global BDS movement is problematic in a city like Seattle that is progressive. Boycotting and the global BDS movement, they've got great messaging: “Hey, this is like a super important nonviolent way you can support peace.” When you phrase it like that, well, who's opposed to peace? I’m feeling like, Oh man, I'm coming in here and people are looking at me like I'm some sort of villain who's opposed to human rights. Trying to explain that over and over again, it’s really tiring.
And, of course, there are the things like you find out last-minute: Oh, something's happening tomorrow. We've got to rejigger everything. And when we looked at our staff, our team of three, the hours that we were spending on efforts like Deadly Exchange over the last few months, we had to really shift our priorities. And that's painful, too, because that is spending time away from really awesome, proactive, important work. When you spend too much of your time doing that, then you're like, I don’t know how much longer I want to do this. This isn't what I signed up for. I'm doing it because I feel like we've got a responsibility to do it, and it's important, but what's really more important is not to just let the conversation end here.
Even though we need a rest, what are we going to do proactively to try and ensure that stuff like this doesn't happen in the future. So that's where we really want to look. I think the other part is just the pulling us away from advocacy and consensus building and civil discourse and all the other things that we want.
Lastly is really the division within the Jewish community. I heard a lot of Jews giving public testimony and very proudly stating that they were Jewish and that they supported this. And it's really painful to me; even though I disagree with them, I understand why they're saying what they're saying.
I think we've got to create more space in our community to have conversations about stuff like that instead of pushing those people away. I don't think it does any good. Ultimately, our objective here is in opposition to them. But what are the ramifications for our Jewish community in the long run? What's behind this, what's going on? It's a symptom of something bigger. What is that? And can we dig into that together?
This week’s parasha is Noach.
Candlelighting in Seattle is at 6:15 p.m.
Shoutout to the Seattle Mariners for rekindling this fan’s love of baseball. Does anyone know if TV announcer Aaron Goldsmith is Jewish?! —Greg Scruggs
Shout out to our Meta Buttnick Award Winner for all her work and energy for the WSJHS. Cynthia Flash Hemphill. Join the WSJHS Annual Meeting on 11/3 at 7pm to see her accept this prestigious award and much more: www.WSJHS.org/annual meeting. —Lisa Kranseler
Mazel tov and yasher koach to Oscar Magalnick and Talia Nelson as they become Bar and Bat Mitzvah this coming Saturday. —Joel Magalnick
Shout out to the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies for putting together a great virtual conference last weekend! People and panelists joined the dialogue from all over the world. —Kathleen Alcala
Happy Birthday to Elyse Behar Cohanim! XOXO Mel and David
Mazal Tov to Rachel Benoliel and Jacob Hanan on their engagement! —Mel and David