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Academics Riff on Zionism, Diaspora

Butler, West, others speak at Cooper Union

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Four marquee academics—the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, Canadian public intellectual Charles Taylor, social theorist Judith Butler, and religion historian-cum-one-man-show Cornel West—gathered at Manhattan’s Cooper Union yesterday for a panel discussion on “Rethinking Secularism: The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere.” We caught the second half of the program, when the latter two thinkers spoke. First came Butler, who’s best known for her work on gender, but has in the past several years written about war, trauma, and Judaism. Yesterday, she returned to the theme of Jewish critiques of Zionism, which for Butler primarily means work by German Jewish philosophers of the World War II era—Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem—rather than, say, J Street (though she did name-check her affiliation with the group Jewish Voices for Peace). “I’m not here to say that Jews are obligated to criticize Israel—though I think they are—we are,” she said, then discussed the difficulties of doing so in public: the suspicion such critiques produce that “really something else is going on; really something else is being said” (the something being, of course, anti-Semitism). In fact, though, Butler said, Buber believed that a Jewish state would corrupt a spiritual, utopian form of Zionism, though he later favored a bi-national Jewish-Palestinian state. And Scholem, who introduced Jewish mystical thought to a European intellectual audience, lent her an image of what other thinkers call diasporism: “the kabbalistic notion of a scattered light … in which Jews are always scattered among non-Jews.”

West, not to be outdone, introduced himself as a “bluesman,” delivered his discussion of prophetic religion with the cadences of slam poetry, credited the Jews with the “breakthrough” philosophy that one should “treat the Other as thyself,” and alluded to Hillel: “The rest,” he said, “is just footnotes.”

Rethinking Secularism: The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere [Cooper Union]

Obama to Address UJC Assembly

First speech as president to major Jewish group

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Obama at a campaign event in New Jersey this week.(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama will address the annual General Assembly meeting of the United Jewish Communities and Jewish Federations next month in Washington, D.C., the UJC announced this morning. It will be his first speech as president to a broad audience of Jewish leaders. “The speech comes as many American Jews and Israelis have been encouraging Obama to do more to explain his Middle East peacemaking efforts,” notes the JTA in its report, “although Obama could also choose to discuss domestic issues such as health care and other social services that UJC advocates for in Washington.” Obama will speak on November 9, replacing Vice President Joe Biden, who was previously announced to speak. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also expected to attend the meeting.

Obama to Speak at UJC [JTA]

Tablet Today: Death

Jewish Body Week comes to a close

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Jerm Pollet on Jewish Body Week from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

It’s the final day of Jewish Body Week at Tablet Magazine, and today’s video testimonial is from comedian Jerm Pollet, who is surprised to find himself hot for Jews. But the other content today examines death. With an audio slideshow, we take you on a tour through a major collection of Jewish funerary objects. Sarah Weinman considers the conflict between religious imperative to leave the body intact and bury it quickly and the occasional legal requirement for an autopsy. And Diana Bletter, a member of a small Israeli village’s burial society, reflects on preparing a young woman’s body for interment. Additionally, in his weekly Blessed Week Ever column, Liel Leibovitz considers this week’s haftorah portion, on praise and kids. And there’ll be more on The Scroll throughout the day.

Chinese Jews Arrive in Israel

And we write an entire item without making a Jews-and-Chinese food joke!

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The Kaifeng group arriving at Ben Gurion.(Ynet.co.il)

Wherever you go, as that old Hebrew-school song goes, there’s always someone Jewish—even in Kaifeng, China, as it turns out. The Israeli papers are carrying news of seven Chinese descendents of the Jewish community there who arrived earlier this week at Ben Gurion Airport, made a first stop at the Western Wall, and then will spend up to a year learning Hebrew on a kibbutz and then completing the conversion process. No one is quite sure how Jews ended up in Kaifeng, but the prevailing theory is that they’re all descended from Persian traders who arrived there on the silk road in the 10th through 12th centuries, according to an article in Ynet. The community now numbers about 1,000, Ynet says, and while its members have almost completely assimilated, they’ve preserved some Jewish traditions like avoiding pork and baking matzo at Passover. “My dream is to complete the process of converting to Judaism and become a certified rabbi, after which I will return to my community and serve as its first rabbi since the dissolve [sic] of the Jewish community some 150 years ago,” 23-year-old Yaacob Wang told Ynet, in a statement that suggests he’ll have an excellent career crafting soundbites if the rabbi thing doesn’t work out. “I am excited to arrive to the holy land,” he added. “It is a dream come true.”

Chinese Descendents of Ancient Jewish Community Make Aliyah [Ynet]

Daybreak: Iran Deal Close

But Barak doesn’t like it, plus peace-talk status reports, military exercises, and more in the news

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• The United States and allies are close to an agreement in which Iran will ship its uranium to Russia for enrichment, not to weapons grade. But Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, issued a statement saying a must require “the cessation of enrichment by Iran, and not just the removal of the enriched material.” [NYT]
• One month after the Obama-Netanyahu-Abbas meeting in New York, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reported to the president yesterday that almost no progress has been made in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. [NYT]
• But U.S. Middle East Envoy George Mitchell said the talks also aren’t yet a failure. [Ynet]
• Major U.S.-Israeli joint military exercises began in the Middle East this week, but officials insist they are unrelated to current tensions in the region. [JPost]
• And Israeli Foreign Miniser Avigdor Lieberman asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to ensure the Goldstone report doesn’t advance further, calling the world organization “hypocrtical.” [Haaretz

Sundown: Goldstone to Debate at Brandeis

Plus voices of reason, a scary costume and more

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• Richard Goldstone will discuss his contentious report on the Gaza War with Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, at Brandeis University on November 5. “What we’re in for is learned, direct, and honest drama,” says a school official. [Boston Globe]
• The Interfaith Alliance, composed of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy and leaders, has issued a letter requesting a moratorium on “inappropriate Nazi and Holocaust references” in public debate. Hear, hear. [JTA]
• Bernie Madoff costumes are hot this year for Halloween—that would be a mask of the conman’s memorable mug paired with striped jailhouse duds. “This happened once before, with Richard Nixon,” says one shop owner. [Forward]
• An immigration loophole that has facilitated a tradition of young Israelis coming to work in American shopping malls over the holidays has been closed, so this Hanukkah your local Dead Sea bath salt kiosk might be staffed by someone a little less knowledgeable. [Ynet]

Tina Brown Interviews Philip Roth

Gushingly, about ‘The Humbling,’ dildoes, and the future of books

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(TheDailyBeast.com)

Philip Roth’s 30th novel, The Humbling, was published this week, and it has prompted the author to sit for a rare interview. Tina Brown does the gushing video interrogation for the Daily Beast, asking Roth for his views on the future of the novel (what with Kindle and television, he gives the printed book no more than 25 years), on performance anxiety (she’s talking about writer’s block, people, and yes, he worries about where his next idea will come from), and on the challenge of writing sex scenes.

The Humbling has a scene in which the protagonist’s love interest, a “predatory, threatening lesbian,” as Brown describes her, straps on a green dildo, mention of which causes Brown to laugh nervously and Roth to take a sip of water. Awkward gestures aside, Roth sees this love interest as no more predatory than any of us and notes that writing such a scene was “no harder than writing a sex scene with a woman without a green dildo. Most of my sex scenes have been without women with green dildoes.” The objective in any sex scene, he says, is that “you don’t want to repeat yourself for one, you don’t want to fall into clichés for another. You don’t want to be licentious, really.” No, not really, though it can’t hurt book sales and movie options for adaptations starring the likes of Ben Kingsley and Anthony Hopkins.

Philip Roth Unbound [Daily Beast]

Livni Praises J Street

And implicitly disses Netanyahu

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Livni in Washington for the AIPAC conference in May.(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week Tzipi Livni, head of Israel’s Kadima party and opposition leader in the Knesset, attacked the Netanyahu government for isolating Israel on the world stage. “You have managed to beat the president of the United States, Israel’s greatest friend, or at least this is the impression you and your people tried to convey after the meeting,” she said during the opening of the Knesset. “You have managed to humiliate the only partner for a peace settlement Israel has. In short: We have beaten America, humiliated the Palestinians, isolated ourselves. Raise your head from the small politics and see what has happened, see that Israel is excommunicated.” This week, she’s continuing that line of attack, though a bit more subtly. While Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, very publicly declined an invitation to speak at next week’s J Street conference, sponsored by the left-leaning Israel lobby, Livni made a point of sending J Street’s founder and executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, a letter praising his group and apologizing for missing its confab. (Steve Clemens posted a copy of her note at The Huffington Post.) “In my view, the discussion within the pro-Israel community of what best advances Israel’s cause should be inclusive and broad enough to encompass a variety of views, provided it is conducted in a respectful and legitimate manner,” Livni wrote. In other words: I like you, even if closed-minded Bibi doesn’t.

Tzipi Livni Shows Prime Ministerial Stuff on J Street Conference [HuffPost]
Earlier: Oren Still Undecided on J Street Conference

Ortho Kids Like Ritual, Summer-Camp Study Shows

While Reform campers define Jewishness through success

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An Israeli sociologist has published a study based on surveys he conducted with more than 700 kids at Jewish summer camps across the United States. Campers were presented with a list of 132 symbols—a range incluiding a talis, the Talmud, a Star of David, the Holocaust, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen—and asked how much each one “expressed an aspect of their personal Jewish identity,” Ynet reports. The results are interesting: Kids at Orthodox summer camps identified their Jewishness primarily with religious practice, the Holocaust, Israel, and discrimination; at Conservative camps, they associated it with values like democracy, co-existence, ecology, and peace; Reform campers saw their Judaism best expressed through such achievements as wealth and success. Anne Frank and Hanukkah are apparently Reform, while Auschwitz and Talmud study are Orthodox.

Study: US Youth Differ in Perception of Jewish Identity [Ynet]

Tablet Today

As Jewish Body Week continues, the body falters

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As Jewish Body Week continues on Tablet Magazine, we’ve got an excerpt from the playwright Amy Fox’s novel in progress about a Jewish American that acquires a black-market kidney from a Palestinian child. Jo-Ann Mort writes about tattoos and why she decided to get one in Tel Aviv. In a Vox Tablet podcast from the archives, journalist Masha Gessen reflects on learning that she carried a genetic mutation that put her at high risk for cancer. And in an essay from the archives, Marco Roth tries to recall the day he learned his father was dying from AIDS. There will be more Jewish Body Week tomorrow, plus, as always, more on The Scroll all day long.

Israel, Iran Talk at Secret Atomic Meeting

‘Haaretz’ reports reps of both nations were at Cairo non-proliferation conference

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Last month, Israel and Iran both took part in a secret Cairo conference on nuclear non-proliferation—or, at least, so says the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and so Iran officially denies, according to Haaretz. Yael Doron, spokesman for the Israeli atomic group, insists that “no dialogue or interaction” took place between the enemy nations, while Ali Shirzdian of the Iranian Atomic Organization calls this disclosure “sheer lies” and ties it to a “psychological operation to undermine the successful [nuclear] meetings” that have taken place in Geneva and Vienna. Haaretz says that one noteworthy tete-à-tete did occur, between Meirav Zafary-Odiz, director of policy and arms control for the Israeli side, and Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency. They met “several times over September 29 and 30,” according to the paper, which also reports that though the two were not seen interacting together outside of the three closed panel sessions they attended, one eyewitness claims that in one session Soltanieh, the Iranian, asked Zafary-Odiz, the Israeli, “Do you or do you not have nuclear weapons?” Zafary-Odiz, the witness said, didn’t say anything, only smiled.

Iran, Israel Attend Secret Nuclear Meet in Cairo [Haaretz]

Checking In on Ariel Sharon

Four years after his stroke, he can wiggle his toes but not do much else

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Sharon lighting Hanukkah candles at his Jerusalem office, 2005.(Kevin Frayer-Pool/Getty Images)

Four years ago, a massive stroke sent Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister and one of the nation’s most decorated warriors, into a coma. The rapid pace of Israeli politics being what it is, Sharon quickly faded from the public’s consciousness; but now, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more mired than ever, there are those who look to the ailing Sharon for inspiration. If Sharon hadn’t suffered a stroke, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Daily Beast for a sort of profile of the comatose former leader, “I think we would have a Palestinian state.”

But Sharon can do very little nowadays. He is in what his doctors define as a “persistent vegetative state,” not precisely brain-dead but incapable of doing much more than occasionally wiggling his toes when asked to do so by a physician or a family member. A television set in his room broadcasts images of animals, particularly cows. His sons are by his side, trimming his hair and playing music for his enjoyment. “There is a feeling of communication, of realization—I mean, the eyes are open and there is kind of, like, you feel that he feels your presence,” said Dr. Shlomo Segev, Sharon’s longtime personal physician. “So it’s not completely what we call a coma. Not a deep coma, for sure. But if you asked me to quantify that, I cannot.”

Ariel Sharon’s Twilight Zone [Daily Beast]

Susan Rice Really Likes Shimon Peres

But has nothing to say about Netanyahu

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Rice speaking at Peres’s ‘Facing Tomorrow’ conference yesterday.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, is in Israel, doing what diplomats do, which is not saying anything when you don’t have anything nice to say. Yesterday she met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who subsequently released a vague statement thanking Rice for a “very friendly” meeting and for the Obama Administration’s help fighting the allegations of war crimes leveled in the U.N.’s recent Goldstone report but saying nothing about a resumption of peace negotiations. Next Rice went to a big, fancy conference hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres and delivered a speech in which she didn’t mention Netanyahu but explained in great detail what an “inspiration and hero” Peres is. “I want to extend America’s deepest thanks for everything you do to move Israel and the world toward lasting security and peace,” she began, and went on to credit Peres with helping “bring Israel into being,” working with American presidents back to Kennedy, and even with helping pioneer the development of electric cars. (No, seriously!) “As President Peres always reminds us, being serious about peace means taking risks for peace,” she said. “We know what is holding us back: short-term, short-sighted definitions of self-interest.” Wonder who she could be talking about?

U.S. Envoy: Lip Service for Mideast Peace Not Enough [AP]
Remarks by Ambassador Susan E. Rice [State.gov]

Daybreak: Hymietown No More?

The end of New York’s Jewish voting bloc, plus Israel on Iran, a Chinese shift on Goldstone, and more in the news

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• New York City’s once-formidable Jewish vote “is declining in both significance and cohesiveness,” even as two-thirds are expected to vote for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. [Forward]
• Israeli officials believe Iranian nuclear negotiators are not interested in legitimacy, but in playing for time. [JPost]
• Though China previously voted to endorse the Goldstone Report at the U.N. Human Rights Council, it will oppose attempts to introduce it at the Security Council or any war-crimes trials. [Jewish Chronicle]
• But in an Al Jazeera interview, Richard Goldstone challenged the Obama administration to tell him where he’s wrong. [Haaretz]
• Trade through the estimated 1500 tunnels between Gaza and Egypt has never boomed more; the tunnels’ owners are Gaza’s “nouveau riche,” and are millionaires. [NYT]

Sundown: Oren Says No

Israel ambassador to skip J Street, plus planets’ names, Lambert’s laments, and more

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• Turns out the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, won’t speak at the J Street conference next week, after all. The embassy announced the final decision yesterday. [JPost]
• In honor of the International Year of Astronomy (who knew?), Uranus and Neptune will be given Hebrew names, the last two planets to get them. Vote for your favorite here. [JPost]
• Sometimes, former American Idol star Adam Lambert gets tired of all the attention he receives from Christians looking to save him from his raciness: “I’m Jewish, okay? I don’t need another crucifix! This is not an appropriate gift for me!” [Details]
• “[W]ithout meaningful services,” says the writer of an op-ed in the Jewish Week, “all you have is a community center with a Torah in it.” He advises Conservative rabbis to “focus on the eternal, not the topical,” and cantors to “try to impress the shul with the congregation’s singing, not yours.” [JW]
• An Israeli organization has arranged for seven people from Kaifeng, China, “home to a flourishing Jewish community for more than a millennium,” to make aliyah and convert. [Arutz 7]

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