Thursday, May 29, 2014

The old south and the new Europe

With growing popularity and recent gains at the ballot box, there is good reason for people everywhere to worry about the rising influence of the far-right in Europe.

Over the past few months I have been making my way slowly but surely through Robert Caro's epic series on the life and times of Lyndon Johnson. One of the valuable  things about this book is that not only does the author offer a close-up view of Johnson, but he takes a careful look at the social landscape Johnson inhabited, offering a rich  contextual tapestry. At the moment I'm about 3/4 of the way through the third book, Master of The Senate , in which Caro examines Johnson's attitudes on race and reaction to the civil rights movement.

Reading Caro's description of the south in the 1950s and 60s, I was particularly struck by the degree to which both institutionalized and social racism fostered an environment in which racially motivated violence became acceptable, even expected. All of this got me thinking about recent antisemitic acts and violence in Europe. Acts of racist violence against African- Americans in the US are rooted in the legacy of slavery and different in many important ways from what immigrants and Jews face today in Europe, but where I see a parallel between the two is that in both the American south of an earlier era and in Europe today, there seems to be a certain level of tolerance for intolerance that is emboldening  extremists. 

In the old south the electorate was happy to elect openly racist candidates to positions of power at the local, state and federal level; in Europe far right Neo Nazi candidates recently saw success at the ballot box. To be sure, Athens and Paris in 2014 are not the same as Alabama in 1960, but when NeoNazi groups openly espousing racist and antisemitic ideas can win elections, it is a sign that something has gone deeply, and dangerously, wrong with the post WW II European "experiment."

America is a country which is still grappling with the ghosts of slavery and a deeply rooted legacy of racism, but we have also made important, often painful strides forward as a result of the civil rights movement.  Europe, and the countries which comprise it, have also struggled, with the memory and guilt of nationalism run amok in World War II,  including the Holocaust which killed 6 million Jews and millions of others.

Historians such as Caro provide us with a lens to look back and evaluate, with the advantage of hindsight, trends and ideas which have influenced society over time. It is through this lens that we can see the mistake the majority of Americans made in thinking that in putting an end to slavery that the Civil War also eradicated the racism that was its ideological engine.  Perhaps Europeans also believe that with efforts to repair relations with Jews and other minorities these last 60 years that they have successfully exorcised the demon of racism and Antisemitism on the continent.  Important and laudable as such efforts have been, the latest evidence would suggest that this an assumption worth questioning.  

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Attacks on Jews in Belgium and France highlight major cracks in European society

Long before the Holocaust, for centuries Jews were the victims of institutionalized prejudice, systematic marginalization and often outright violence. It is a fact that anti-Semitism is nothing new in Europe, but over the last few decades there have been a few small glimmers of hope, reasons to be optimistic that attitudes were perhaps starting to shift as we saw a resurgence of Jewish life in places like Germany, and many European leaders and governments began to take a more vocal stand against the kind of intolerance that fueled hatred toward Jews in the past. But there are disturbing signs that some people are working very hard to reverse this trend of tolerance.

In the last few days alone there have been a number of media reports on antisemitism in Europe today which have caught the attention of the world. Earlier this month the Anti-Defamation League released The ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism which reflected a depressing, if not surprising level of negative attitudes toward Jews in most of the Middle East/North Africa, and much of Europe. On a positive note countries like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands displayed much lower rates (lower, even, than the United States). The survey raises a number of important questions, not least of which being what is at the root of these responses, do they reflect broader attitudes toward ethnic and religious minorities in these countries and what, if anything, can be done to help steer these societies in a direction of greater tolerance and understanding?

I don’t know what the answer is, but clearly a need exists to focus our efforts on finding one.  This weekend alone we saw 3 people savagely murdered at a Jewish museum in Brussels in what is likely to have been a hate crime as well as the violent beating of two Jewishbrothers outside a synagogue in France. These are two concrete examples of the threats facing Jews and Jewish communities in Europe today. 

There seem to be two different cultural forces at work behind this violence – one is an ultra-nationalist, right-wing ideology that is gaining increasing traction on the continent, while the other comes from within the ranks of Islamic extremists. Each presents its own set of difficulties.
In the case of right-wing nationalism, a push by politically active and ideologically vocal leaders to gain political legitimacy and ultimately influence on policy, stands on a platform that is nativist and intolerant, expressing distaste and disgust for any group seen as “the other.” It is a stance which is unapologetically anti-Semitic, anti-Immigrant and very often anti-Muslim.   

We find its representatives in France in the form of Marine Le Penand her National Front party, in Greece with Golden Dawn and in Hungary with Jobbik It is particularly frightening that not only are these political movements gaining popularity at home, but that they also have their sights set on influencing the European Union as a whole.

The other threat facing Jewish communities comes in the form of Muslim extremist terrorists who target not only Jews, but broader society as well. The most prominent example of this was the heartbreaking murder of 4 people at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, last year. 

Antisemitism itself has also become a tool in the discourse around Russian aggression in Ukraine, as Ira Forman, the US State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat antisemitism, notes in a recent post on the official State Department blog that despite Vladimir Putin’s assertions to the contrary “Members of the Jewish community in Ukraine do not see themselves as victims of Ukrainian government-sponsored anti-Semitism. And where those acts of anti-Semitism have occurred, they are often associated with pro-Russian provocateurs.” 

There is no doubt that anti-Semitic incidents have taken place in Ukraine in this period of great internal turmoil – last month there was a firebomb attack on a synagogue.  But exactly who is behind these incidents and what their precise aims might be (beyond using the Jewish community as a convenient target for attempted intimidation) remain unclear, but it is telling that Putin has felt comfortable in using anti-Semitism in his rhetorical (and literal ?) siege of Ukraine. 

So where to start? I think the first thing people need to do is pay more attention to events happening in Europe when it comes to political activity by right-wing nationalists both when it comes to their efforts to gain political legitimacy as well as the influence they are likely having in preventing the vigorous investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. The latter is particularly pernicious, contributing to a culture of impunity and undermining the tenets of democratic civil society that so many European nations have worked very hard to achieve in the post World War II period. 

The more we shine a light on these people, the harder it will be for them to hind behind the thin veneer of respectability they are trying to cultivate as cover for their odious behavior. In the case of Muslim extremists the response is perhaps a little more complicated, since part of what fuels their ability to find support in Europe lies in the hostile climate surrounding immigration and identity that the aforementioned right-wing nationalists are actively cultivating. 

Certainly education has a role to play in helping immigrants from Muslim and Arab lands to understand that lashing out at the Jewish community is not going to help them when it comes to finding their place in Europe. Prominent leaders have also pointed out that a hatred for Israel, often the propaganda target of choice for unfriendly Arab leaders, is also having a spill-over effect in Europe.  Such vitriol has had the effect of not only placating the masses at home in the Middle East and North Africa, but infecting emigrants with a hatred for a country they know nothing about, that they carry with them to their adopted countries. To be sure I am only offering a glancing touch at the surface of the issues that lie beneath recent acts of Anti-Semitic violence in Europe – the murders in Belgium and the attacks in France this weekend are but the tip of a very large iceberg of intolerance and hate that is creeping once again into European society, but they are warning signs nonetheless. I think it would behoove us to pay attention.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Integrity, at home and abroad - thoughts on Secretary Kerry's remarks at Yale University

It’s commencement season once again and as they do every year, a few speeches (and speakers) seem to be getting a lot of attention. As I surveyed the landscape of speeches in my own rather unscientific way, I ended up zeroing in on remarks that Secretary of State John Kerry delivered at Class Day at Yale University this past Sunday. With so many thorny problems flooding onto the international stage in the last year, from Syria to Ukraine to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and much more, I was curious to see if he might use his opportunity to speak at Yale as a platform for reflection.

So I found a copy of the full text online on the Wall Street Journal website and began to read. Once I got through the obligatory jokes and graduation-grade bromides, it was actually a pretty interesting piece of text to explore. Centered around the idea of “integrity,” Kerry told the graduating students that “In a complicated world full of complicated decisions and close calls that could go either way, what keeps you awake at night isn’t so much whether or not you got the decision right or wrong. It’s whether you made your decision for the right reasons: Integrity.” It’s an ideal-driven worldview, offered by someone whose work, I imagine, is most often driven by considerations of real politic. 

I imagine there are many people who would argue with the idea that “integrity” drives our foreign policy – some might say that when it comes to international relations the foreign policy which does best is that which does least, and that this preserves our integrity in the world, while others would undoubtedly state that having “integrity” means standing up to the evils and injustices we see happening around the globe each day and that in order to maintain our moral integrity, our moral authority, we need to take a greater role in world affairs. When taken to extremes the former runs toward isolationism, the latter toward hegemony.  

People will fall on different sides of this debate, but Kerry makes another point that perhaps most people can agree on, which is the need to be more engaged in the world on behalf of causes we believe in. In his speech he cites the powerful role played by ordinary citizens willing to speak out when it came to vital pieces of environmental legislation, Title IX and ending the war in Vietnam in order to make the institutions and individuals in power respond to the will of the people.  This is the kind of integrity I believe he was talking about, and it is much too much in short supply today.  

Regardless of where we fall on the partisan divide, it’s hard to ignore someone who has devoted practically his entire adult life to the service of his country and in these remarks Secretary Kerry has thrown down the gauntlet not only before Yale students, but in front of all of us. True, it can be easy to ignore this challenge if we see it as merely a rhetorical device inserted by a speechwriter – but if we take it seriously it’s an idea that can change the societies in which we live.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Avoiding invisibility in Ukraine

Trying to get a handle on events in Ukraine is no easy matter – Although the escalating conflict has received steady media coverage there are still conflicting reports about the motivations and actions of the different factions involved. Are we to believe, for example, that there is in fact a massive groundswell of support among Russian-speaking Ukrainians  to leave Ukraine and join Russia ? Who are the armed men that have taken control of government buildings in some disputed areas ? What does Putin ultimately hope to achieve and what can the US and Europe actually do about Russia’s expansionist aims?

There are no easy answers, but I do think that Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss do a pretty good job of unpacking some of the complexity in a piece recently published on the Politico website. In it, they write of the confused situation in Ukraine ,“The biggest obstacle to walking back from the Abyss is Chaos. It has become a fact of life in many parts of eastern and southern Ukraine that nobody knows who is in charge and nobody seems to know who is in charge.” 

They go on to consider how an atmosphere tinged with anarchy has essentially created a power vacuum in this eastern European nation and, adroitly pointing out the actual limitations that the US and Europe face in bringing influence to bear on Russia, outline a number of logical steps to take, conclude that a “national conversation” in Ukraine is needed. I agree, but can’t help wondering in the middle of this explosive brew of Russian nationalism, ethnic tension and political tension, in which people have already lost their lives, how anyone can effectively apply the brakes in order to convene such a conversation. In my mind, without a cessation of violence on the ground, such a move seems intensely difficult. 

There are no shortage of reasons to be concerned about this conflict, but there is also a burning humanitarian question here: if the chaos continues and more of the Ukraine is washed away (only to arrive on Russian shores, as it were) will it be a neat and orderly transition that reshapes this part of Europe, or will those who are often most at risk in such situations, including women, children and minority groups, bear the brunt of any violence that follows? 

I believe that Rumer and Weiss have correctly focused on the chaos at the core of this conflict as a dangerous catalyst, but they leave unaddressed the question of how the US and Europe might successfully reorient the principle stakeholders (Russia, Ukraine, Russian-speaking separatists) in the direction of dialogue. Without such a pivot, there is no reason to think that the chaos will abate any time soon, or that the world should not be watching closely to make sure that the most vulnerable do not become invisible in this conflict. It's the very least we can do.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Words and our world: A series of occasional essays on the intersection of life and literature


One of the wonderful things about a liberal arts education is that  it presents students with the opportunity to come into contact with literature. While there are myriad lessons to be learned in chemistry labs and business seminars, it is in the exploration of novels, poetry and short stories that we see a multifaceted reflection of the worlds we inhabit, and begin to think about our own place within them.

Literature dramatizes, sympathizes and humanizes - it makes palpable the intangible and concrete the abstract, it provokes and engages. For all of these reasons I believe that a constant connection to literature, both in the classroom and beyond, contributes to the health and well-being of democratic societies. So with this idea in mind I've decided to post a series of occasional essays here on my 36 Voices blog about the intersection of literature and civil society, human rights and public policy, which I'm calling "Words and our world: A series of occasional essays on the intersection of life and literature."

In this first piece I'm going to go back and look at john Updike's Rabbit tetralogy, a series of novels I first explored when wring my masters thesis.

Rabbit is still running

When I was in graduate school and looking for a topic for my master's thesis I considered and rejected a number of possible ideas, including an examination of the portrayal of Cold War fear and politics in the work of several novelists whose work in the 1950's and 60's - Vonnegut's Slaughtehouse Five, Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King - but in the end I decided to write about the portrayal of class and socioeconomic mobility in john Updike's Rabbit tetralogy. I enjoyed exploring the topic, bringing in historical and sociological sources to provide greater context for Updike’s chronicle of the internally tortured  life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Anyone who has read the books knows that Updike’s protagonist faces frustration at nearly every stage of his life and I argued that one source of his near constant frustration was an inability to find his way in a rapidly changing America where the economic landscape is difficult to read and the nuances of socioeconomic mobility feel opaque at best.

While overt discussions of class remain something of a taboo in America, the topic of income inequality has become the subject of frequent discussion in the media. Histor, economics and sociology have much to teach us when it comes to understanding the potential dangers of a society in which there is a vast gulf between rich and poor, but Updike’s Rabbit series, bring great value to this discussion as well.

In the opening chapters of the first book in the series there are powerful parallels to be found between the state of affairs in which we find Harry Angstrom, an optimist whose dreams seem within reach, and a current generation of Americans, both young and old, who find themselves  struggling following the economic turbulence of 2008-2009.  

The frustration that Harry Angstrom feels is not just economic, but social - financially his life is a roller-coaster ride, sometimes he is flush and at other times, nearly destitute - but he only briefly touches the trappings of social stability along the way, constantly frustrated by his inability to gain access to the spheres of influence and respectability that he sees around him.

It seems to me that that there are many people who feel this way today, essentially shut out of a system they can glimpse but not grasp, and something tells me that this not a good thing for our country. While we can (and should) watch the news, read history and engage in conversation about the apparent limits of socioeconomic mobility in America today, I would make the case for reading Updike's works as well.

Not only are they engaging works of literature, but there is something deeply human and humanizing about following his protagonist on his personal journey through American life from the 1950's to the 1980's. Although these books are an exploration of the latter half of the previous century, in Harry Angstrom, Updike has created the perfect avatar through which to view the frustrations encountered by those seeking to move "up" the socioeconomic ladder today. Anyone who cares about the growing gulf between rich and poor in America, and the lasting impact such inequality can have not just on societies but individuals, would do well to pick up a copy of Rabbit, Run  - and keep reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

But what do we do the day after Yom ha Shoah ?

Last month Jewish communities around the world paused to remember the victims of the Holocaust, a unique and uniquely horrifying genocide which was not only an assault on the Jewish people, but on fundamental values of respect for human life, freedom of religion and democratic principles. When we honor the memory of those who fell victim to the monstrosity of Nazism we not only make sure that those who were murdered are not forgotten, but we remind ourselves and our fellow citizens that we share a collective responsibility to remain vigilant and on guard against prejudice and hate.

Each year we go through these rituals, these sacred acts and actions of memory and commemoration, but do we truly confront the horror of a society consuming itself with hate, greed and violence ? We can look at the events of the Shoah from many different angles, through many lenses and in many different contexts, but at every scale the cruelty of the events which define this shameful period of human history defy description, let alone comprehension.

So what can we do ? We cannot turn away from the Holocaust and its attendant tide of despair, for doing so would not only dishonor the dead whose memories we seek to keep alive, but fail in our duty to remind the world that what happened 70 years should never happen again. So what do we do ? We go community centers and synagogues and memorials, we read aloud the names of the dead, we pray and reflect. Perhaps we hear a survivor share their story or light candles in memory of the dead. We come, really, to sit and to stand in silence with others - both an act of solidarity and compassion.

This is what happens at Yom Hashoah commemorations around the world, but what do we do the day after ? What do we do once the fullness, the emotion, the silence of the moment have passed ?

Then, I would argue, we have a responsibility to take these lessons and put them into action in the broader world - the Holocaust was unique, sui generis, a singular horror visited upon  the human race - but there are many other tragedies taking place in which civil society is destroying itself and taking innocent lives with it, in Syria a brutal civil war rages, in Nigeria more than 200 female students have been kidnapped by Islamic militants and in the Ukraine government forces are fighting Russian-speaking separatist militias, with plenty of innocent civilians caught in the middle. Holocaust Memorial Day is incredibly important and a lot of thought and time goes into commemorations - perhaps it's time we also imbued  the day after Yom HaShoah with significance as well.

 Maybe this day should be one for action on human rights, for supporting civil society and democracy, for shining a light on places where the principles, ideals and freedoms that 6 million Jews and millions of other people of good conscience died for  in the holocaust, are under siege once again. Perhaps in this space where so few adequate responses seem possible, this is one that might just make a difference.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Welcome to 36 Voices

About this blog

36 Voices is a new blog I've created to write about issues relating to the Jewish community, Israel, the Middle East and international relations, human rights and civil society around the world.  The name for the blog comes from Jewish legend, which says that at any given time there are 36 righteous individuals in the world, who, through their actions, justify the continued existence of humanity. I've always liked this idea, because it highlights the notion that what we do, how we act, how we treat other people, has an impact not only on ourselves and our immediate circle, but on the world as a whole. There is something important about the fact that tradition says there are 36 of these individuals walking around - not one, not two, but thirty six - setting aside any temptation to go off the path here into a discussion of gematria (Jewish numerology) and the significance of the number thirty-six itself, I  really like the idea that there is no one way to be  a righteous person, no one perfect, ideal path to follow. Presumably, each of these thirty-six special people relates to the world in their own way, which is , of course, another valuable lesson: that people of good conscience can (and most certainly will) have differing opinions and argue from time to time.

With so many challenges facing leaders today in the Jewish world and beyond I would suggest that it is crucial that we keep the lesson of the 36 in mind, that we realize that people of good conscience and good will can disagree when it comes to difficult issues and decisions, and that rather than letting these disagreements serve as stumbling blocks we see them as intersections of opportunity. This is an idea I try to hold close in my daily life and work, and the guiding vision for this new blog.

About me

I have been writing for publication 24 years, and from 2007-2012 was the founder and publisher of the New Vilna Review, a journal of Jewish thought and culture. I was educated at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Harvard University where I was also a Literary Fellow at Dudley House, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and non-resident tutor in creative writing at Eliot House, Harvard College. I previously served as Assistant Regional Director for the AJC Boston office and as Director of Public Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel to New England.