Monday, December 11, 2023

In This Moment: Is Parsing Antisemitic? How Should a Jew Respond to "Merry Christmas"?


In This Moment

Is Parsing Antisemitic?

Somewhere in journalistic heaven, CNN's Bernard Shaw is smiling.

Shaw had a stellar career as a reporter and anchor, but perhaps only his live broadcast of the bombing of Baghdad could top the drama of his first question of the 1988 presidential debate between Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush.

So last week, watching from his anchor desk on high, Shaw saw the leaders of three elite universities commit the cardinal sin in this era of the shock-and-awe soundbite. They parsed when they should have passed, or screamed, or said something outrageously extreme, which would have enraged only half the onlookers and viewers at home, not all of them. In responding as they did, they managed to pull off the impossible: they united nearly the entire American voting populace, left and right, across the spectrum.

Anything but lawyerese!

But no, these college leaders went right up to the edge of Bill Clinton's "meaning of is," and then one step beyond, to the land inhabited by very few, the terrain traversed by Michael Dukakis as the nation imagined the rape and brutal murder of his wife, when Shaw asked that question, and he didn't so much as bat one of his bountiful eyebrows.

“Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”.

Shaw's query of Dukakis might have been the most cringeworthy question in the history of politics - and the easiest to answer - until last week.

We tend to trust straight talk, even when it borders on crazy, because Americans are sick of people parsing. If you listen to Dukakis's answer, it’s a perfectly fine explanation of why he opposed the death penalty, which actually was the essence of the question, but he missed the point. The point was that he should have been enraged by the mere suggestion of the rape and murder of his wife. He should have asked Shaw to step outside. Rhetorically.

Perhaps Dukakis was thrown by the fact that he was given two minutes to answer and had presumably been drilled on how to give the perfect response of that length to a question about criminal justice and the death penalty, to counter the racist Willie Horton ads that had been used against him.

He should have told Shaw, “you can have your two minutes back - now rephrase your question or I will refuse to answer it!” He could even have added, “It’s the same kind of lurid sensationalism my opponent has used in his racially inflammatory advertising - America has seen enough of that.”

But no, Dukakis parsed. 

Like the trio of university presidents parsed.

Full disclosure: I know Dukakis personally and have always admired this Brookline boy-made-good. He came to my father's shiva - while he was governor. He rode the subway to work, while he was governor. He got us through the week-long Blizzard of '78 - without changing his sweater. He was always a regular guy who stood up for all the other regular guys. He was not born with a silver foot in his mouth. That was the other guy. He is the consummate mensch, and even married into a prominent Jewish family to prove it! I rooted like hell for him to beat Bush. And he and Kitty are still going strong. His affection for her has always been plain to see.

The question was so unfair.

And he messed it up by not going with his gut. He didn't provide a natural human response because he just wanted so much to tell the nation why the whole Willy Horton thing was a bunch of crap.

Does that make him an unfeeling sociopath?

And so, here comes the corollary to that question.

The Presidents Three really blew it with the genocide question. And unlike Dukakis, they were given many opportunities to correct themselves. The question was clear and the correct answer should have been that threats of genocide of any sort against any group are completely beyond the pale. They could have thrown in an expletive or two and everyone would have understood. They should have used the word "evil." They should have demonstrated some moral clarity. People like the occasional exclamation these days, the kind they deleted from the Nixon tape transcripts in more tranquil times. Yes, comparatively civil Nixon, we hardly knew ye.

Like Dukakis, the Presidents seemed to take their eye off the ball, distracted not by the specter of a Lee Atwater-conjured Black parolee stalking the countryside, but a Hamas supporter on their campuses calling for an "Intifida" or using the clearly antisemitic line, "From the River to the Sea."

Clearly antisemitic, but possibly not to the presidents. And in their minds they were protecting that free speech - but that was not Stefanik's question. The question was about crying "Genocide" in a crowded theater, against Jews. It was Hate Crime 101. I'm conjecturing that they were steeling themselves for a question about the definition of antisemitism and how it relates to Zionism, or some such, but that question wasn't necessary, because they had just committed one of the most notorious parses in history.

Really? Genocide? Against Jews? In context?

It all makes me so furious. But only a little less furious at Elise Stefanik. She may have exposed the corrosive tone-deafness of these leaders, and maybe even latent, systemic antisemitism, but I don't think it proves that they or their campuses are antisemitic. We've been awakened (a new thing to be woke about?) to some real dangers, no doubt.

But Stefanik also gratuitously and causally used the hypothetical devastation of my people as a part of cheap political trap to score ideological and partisan points. Next time, Elise, please pick on someone else's people when you want to raise a few bucks. The more people talk openly about killing Jews, the more it becomes an accepted part of the public discourse. Certain words, like "genocide" and "Holocaust," should never be cheapened.

Keep your paws off of my people, Elise, And that goes for anyone who refuses to give full condemnation to far-right Christian nationalists who shoot up synagogues, along with university presidents who watch masked defenders of genocide down below while they remain safely ensconced in their ivory towers. While everyone has been piling on the tone-deaf parsers from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, we should ask a few questions about the arsonists too, those on the campuses, online and in Congress.

I'd like to see someone elevate the conversation with civility for once. A politician was asked recently why he continues to work in the arena that has become such a cesspool. He said,  “What’s the alternative? If you want to live a meaningful life. We do it because we love it and we think we can make a difference. There’s no magic here.” That politician was Michael Dukakis, who just turned 90 last month.

Budding journalists everywhere can be good and proud of Bernard Shaw's viral gotcha moment. Elise Stefanik can give herself a bunch of back slaps too. As for me, to the end, I'll remain good and proud of Michael S. Dukakis, a decent man, whose only sin is that he parsed.

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An Iconic Menorah: From Germany to Gaza

a timeless classic from the Shabbat-O-Gram archives...

How should a Jew respond to ‘Merry Christmas’?

Q: It’s that time of year, when everyone everywhere is saying “Merry Christmas” to me, even people who know that I am Jewish. Should I simply smile and repeat the greeting or politely correct the greeter and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t observe Christmas.”

A: Now I know why Lenny Bruce said that Christians celebrate while Jews observe. We never get to be happy, even at this most celebratory time of year. We’re always observing. And in December, we’re always agonizing over how to find our little niche in this annual Yuletide cultural bombardment.

There is nothing wrong with wishing a non-Jewish neighbor “Merry Christmas,” just as it would not be a betrayal for her to wish you “Shabbat Shalom” when leaving work on Friday afternoon. In the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Moses Isserles notes the need for being good neighbors in a society where Jews and non-Jews mingle and do business together, even regarding problematic greetings. It’s all done for the sake of peace. The idea is to reduce tensions, not increase them.

It’s even halachically OK to mention a holiday whose name includes the name of a foreign deity. At least it is in this case, since the word “Christ” is not really a name at all, but the Greek translation of the Hebrew term for “Anointed One.” If the holiday were called “Jesus-fest” or “Zeus-mas, there might be cause for concern. So when I speak with my Christian clergy colleagues, I have no problem acknowledging their holiday in my seasonal salutations.

Ironically, Jews tend not to label our festivals when extending greetings. We traditionally just say “Happy Holiday” on Passover or Sukkot (“Hag Sameach” in Hebrew or “Gut Yomtov” in Yiddish). The only exception to that rule happens to be Hanukkah. We say “Hag HANUKKAH Sameach” in order to distinguish this minor non-biblical festival from the more significant biblically mandated holidays.

A greeting should be seen as a verbal embrace, the extension of blessing, rather than as an assertion of xenophobic power. In a perfect world, “Happy Holidays” would not be seen as a cheapening of the meaning of Christmas, but as an enhancement of its deepest spiritual message.

So, let’s try to get beyond the clichéd salutations that have backed everyone into a corner. If you feel that someone is deliberately trying to impose upon you the hegemony of Christmas, wishing you a “Merry Christmas” while knowing that you are Jewish, let’s look for a reply that is both respectful of diversity yet deeply spiritual, something that could be uttered simultaneously to Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly without blinking an eye. Here are my nominations:

“Wishing you a Blessed Season!” (Sounds too much like Red Skelton, or a Debbie Friedman song, not that there’s anything wrong with Debbie Friedman songs.)

“May the Light Increase” (Sounds a bit too Star Warsy)

“Peace” (A little too ’60s, especially if you are wearing a Nehru jacket)


Think about it. Shalom is perfect. These days, everyone knows what it means – like schlemiel and chutzpah. The reply is spiritual, identifiably Jewish yet increasingly universal. Listen to a parade of Christian leaders lining up to speak at a conclave supporting Israel. You’ll hear more “Shalom”s uttered there than in the hallways of the Knesset, where the politicians are more likely to be spitting at one another.

So the next time someone who knows you are Jewish says “Merry Christmas” just to get a rise out of you, take the high road and elevate the conversation by replying “Shalom.” But if it’s simply a total stranger on the street, movie theater or supermarket, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” would be equally fine.

Anything but, “Oy vey. My children never call!

Five Thoughts About a Ceasefire

from Israel's Great Communicator - Peter Lerner

Israel's Front Pages

Jerusalem Post


Yediot Ahronot

(check these links in the evening to get tomorrow's front page)

Recommended Reading

  • In the City of Slaughter (Daniel Kane - Public Discourse) - What was, just weeks ago, a deeply divided nation has emerged more unified and collectively resolved than at any point in recent history. In September, the highways were littered with political banners accusing each and every political faction of “betraying the nation” or “destroying democracy.” But the banners that fly today carry only one message: B’yaḥad N’natseyaḥ—“Together, we will be victorious.” Jews can readily imagine what it would mean to become homeless and stateless. We still remember a world in which, as today, many greet the enthusiastic slaughter of Jews with indifference or celebration, but also, in which we lacked a Jewish state that could respond and retaliate. In being forced to recall the world before Israel—to confront the enduring possibility of national tragedy and a return of Jewish vulnerability—we can no longer take our shared home for granted.

  • Norman Lear, Pioneering Television Producer, Dies at 101 An excerpt from ‘Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish’ (Tablet) - Archie Bunker was a racist, sexist antisemite, but his creator, Norman Lear, reminds us he was all talk. “There was nothing violent about his attitudes about anything,” Lear says. “He was more fearful than anything else. I mean, he wouldn’t light a cross on a lawn or be any part of that. But his invective would cover the landscape.” Lear says there are too many instances in All in the Family’s nine seasons on the air to recount the times Archie knocked the Jews, but in one episode, he needed a Jew: When Bunker feigned injury from a minor traffic accident in order to recover insurance, he wanted to hire a Jewish attorney to help him win. “He went to Rappaport, Rappaport, and Rappaport or something like that [it was actually Rabinowitz] because he wanted the smartest lawyer, so he wanted a Jew,” Lear recounts. “And of course, when the law firm sent somebody out to the house, the attorney was, from first blush, anything but Jewish. This lawyer explained to Archie that since his firm knew the neighborhood, they figured Archie couldn’t be Jewish: “So of course they sent me: I’m the house goy” (a reference to the designated gentile who would turn the lights on and off for an Orthodox family during Sabbath).

Lear says his brand of Judaism is social consciousness. “I will say this about my own Jewishness.” He leans forward. “I was inordinately aware of antisemitism in the world. I listened to Father [Charles] Coughlin on the air as a kid—I don’t remember how old I was. And I listened to a fellow by the name of Carl MacIntyre out of New Jersey who was a Protestant Jew-hater. And I had a nose for antisemitism unlike any other. People for the American Way came directly out of that nose.” 

He’s referring to the organization he started in 1981, which became an influential watchdog safeguarding constitutional freedoms. He founded this group after spending hours watching ministers Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson on television—preparation for a screenplay he was writing which, he says, was going to “savage” their profession. Lear recalls his revulsion watching these evangelists: “I thought, ‘Not in my America,’” he says. “‘This is really dangerous.’ And so I decided to create a TV spot—a 60-second commercial which ended with a fellow saying, ‘They can’t tell you you’re a good Christian or a bad Christian depending on your political point of view: That is not the American way.’ So somebody suggested, ‘Call the organization “People for the American Way.”’” Lear chuckles. “I’m on sort of a rant here, but it all began out of this Jewish nose.”

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