Appreciating Howard Zinn

Problems and all, ‘A People’s History’ has made us a better people

Zinn, with well-known admirer Matt Damon, in New York City last year.(Scott Wintrow/Getty Images)

I have been struggling to say something about Howard Zinn, the Jewish-American historian—he wrote the super-popular A People’s History of the United States—who died earlier this week at 87. Yes, the book is immensely popular. (It has sold over one million copies. And it is a several-hundred-page-long history book!) But what Zinn I read (different sections of A People’s History) I couldn’t stand, and not (or not only) for reasons of personal, idiosyncratic taste.

Zinn explicitly sought to write a history from the perspective of “the people,” rather than the elite—certainly an admirable mission, and one that broadly defines much important historical writing of the past 50 years. But too often, I felt, Zinn condescended to his crude, glorious-savage  conception of “the people” when he wasn’t misrepresenting them entirely. And that gleeful, sophomoric self-righteousness! Patting himself on the back for noticing that the Europeans who arrived in North America were (among other things—though for Zinn, there were no other things) genocidal colonizers! (The problem is not the pointing it out, it is the self-congratulation.)) Ultimately, his worldview failed to acknowledge the legitimacy, or even the existence, of alternate worldviews. It was immature.

Zinn’s death drew attention to a take-down Michael Kazin published a few years ago in Dissent. In addition to lodging several of my complaints, Kazin—an accomplished historian, writing from and for the left—showed that in many cases, Zinn’s history was more than lopsided, even beyond what it should have been: it was flat-out incomplete.

At the same time, can one really say that the world would be better if he had never written his magnum opus? One cannot.

As blogger Matthew Yglesias noted, Zinn seemed to know that his book’s main utility lay in the notions in put in the heads of young people for the first time: that the victors write the history books; that there is frequently an economic and class dynamic even to conflicts that seem purely social; that as far in a good direction as the United States has traveled in its history, there is still much room for improvement in the liberty category, especially if liberty is properly defined (blacks were and are in need of greater freedom, but so are folks without health insurance.) If Zinn’s book was sophomoric, that’s because that is how you get through to sophomores; maturity can come later. The American citizen must outgrow Zinn, but not before he grows into Zinn.

Howard Zinn, American Jewish Historian, Dies [JTA]

Related: Howard Zinn’s History Lessons [Dissent]
A People’s History of the United States [Matthew Yglesias]

New Jersey Corruption Informant Testifies

Syrian Jewish scion Dwek had turned on community

Rendering of Dwek testifying yesterday.(AP PHOTO)

Solomon Dwek speaks! The man who by wearing a wire helped reveal scandals among the Syrian Jewish elite of Deal, New Jersey—in which he had been a prominent member—as well as numerous Jersey politicians finally took the stand yesterday, in the federal corruption trial of Jersey City’s former deputy mayor. (Among other things, Dwek revealed that his first brush with corruption came as a student at his yeshiva, where his teacher solicited a $50 bribe from him.) This morning, several secret video clips of Dwek’s stings against various Jersey politicians were shown in the Newark courthouse.

Dwek, the son of a prominent Deal rabbi (who has since disowned him), cooperated with the U.S. Justice Department in exchange for a significant plea bargain related to money laundering charges. His work helped net indictments of 44 individuals, including the Syrian Jewish community’s chief rabbi and numerous north Jersey elected officials.

On Witness Stand, Dwek Tells Life of Crime [Asbury Park Press]
First Dwek Video Shown to Federal Jury [Asbury Park Press]

Earlier: Did Dwek Get a Good Deal?

Obama Defends Israel Against Critical Questioner

Also argues that Israel must attend to Palestinian grievances


The president pretty deftly handled a hostile question he got yesterday at a town-hall meeting in Tampa, Florida. Given the support for human rights that he had professed the night before in his State of the Union address, the questioner, a young woman, asked, “Why have we not condemned Israel and Egypt’s human rights violations against the occupied Palestinian people?” (Egypt has recently begun cracking down on smuggling through the Gaza border.)

Obama’s response combines standard boilerplate (“Israel is one of our strongest allies. It is a vibrant democracy”; “Israel has to acknowledge legitimate grievances and interests of the Palestinians”) with a much more sophisticated argument about how attending to Palestinians’ human rights is a security issue for both the United States and Israel.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Obama: I Will Never Waver From Supporting Israel [AP/Vos Iz Neias?]

Vikings’ Jewish QB Got Zero Playing Time

Favre was too special to let Rosenfels take a snap

Rosenfels (left) and Lord Favre (right).(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

So Brett Favre leads the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship contest, only to throw a game-blowing interception in the final minutes to give the New Orleans Saints a ticket to the Super Bowl, and the Vikes a ticket … back to Minnesota. Minnesota in January.

On top of that, though, Favre took up space that could have been filled by the NFL’s pre-eminent Jewish quarterback. Of the 50-odd players on the Vikings’ active roster this season, the only one who did not get a single down’s worth of playing-time was third-string QB Sage Rosenfels. To his credit, Rosenfels is a mensch about this: he told the AP it was still a fun year, because he was able to learn so much from Brett. Ah yes, Brett (who, in fairness, had a pretty stellar season, and who got zero help from his team’s suddenly-ineffectual offensive line last Sunday). Still: next year, put him in, coach!

Meanwhile, with all the Jewish players now out of the running, whom should you root for in the February 7th Super Bowl between the Saints and the Indianapolis Colts? Jews should identify with the Saints’ underdog status (this is their first Super Bowl, and the current spread is Colts -5.5); plus, Baltimore’s extensive Jewish community would never forgive us for pulling for the Colts, the franchise so unceremoniously ripped away from them a quarter-century ago. On the other hand, um, their name is the Saints. Maybe just root for a good game?

In Limbo Against With Vikes, Rosenfels Won’t Lament

Earlier: Why You Should Root for the Chargers

A Fine Concert

Rufus, Sting, Lou Reed, and a celebration of David Lehman’s Nextbook Press book


“I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” is a 1932 pop standard by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. It was also the title of Wednesday night’s concert in Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series—a night of music and commentary produced by the impresario Hal Willner and celebrating A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, David Lehman’s Nextbook Press book on the Jewish composers and lyricists who created much of the songbook.

Rufus Wainwright opened the show, in the Allen Room at Lincon Center, with its wall of windows overlooking Columbus Circle and Central Park, with a soulful rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” He was backed by a 14-piece band, playing sultry nightclub arrangements of a dozen pop standards behind not just Wainwright but also Shannon McNally, Jenni Muldaur, Van Dyke Parks, and Christine Olmann, who brought the house down belting a loungey arrangement of Arlen and Koehler’s “Stormy Weather” in a flowing pink ’60s dress and a towering bouffant of blonde hair.

But even bigger names played, too. Sting proved himself a master of the songbook, delivering plaintive, moving renditions of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Love Is Here to Stay” and, later, “”Someone to Watch Over Me.” And none other than Lou Reed showed up to close the show with a hard-rocking, guitar-and-drums-heavy take on Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “One For My Baby (and One More For the Road).”

All photos by Dese’Rae Stage:

Wainwright with David Lehman, author of the Nextbook Press book A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs.

Photos from “I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues?” Music and readings from A Fine Romance, at The Allen Room, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60th Street, New York City.

Today on Tablet

Cooking Tu B’Shevat-style with Eli from ‘Top Chef,’ and more


Today in Tablet Magazine, Bridget Kevane, who yesterday profiled late Argentinian dissident Jacobo Timerman, talks to his son, Héctor—now Argentina’s ambassador to the United States. Tu B’ Shevat begins at sundown. If you want to know more about this tree-hugging holiday, check out our FAQ. Want to make an appropriate Tu B’Shevat meal? Take your cue from Top Chef contestant Eli Kirshstein, now a chef at a Manhattan kosher steakhouse, who cooked for Tablet. Get further into the holiday spirit with Hadara Graubart’s look at the art in the collection of Isaac Sutton, which is botanically themed. In his column on this week’s haftorah, Liel Leibovitz dares, “Try to tell Sarah and Deborah apart”—that’s Palin and The Judge, respectively. The Scroll only hopes it can be that topical.

Senate Approves Iran Sanctions

But the U.S. may not really want them


Yesterday afternoon, the U.S. Senate passed a bill—similar to one the House of Representatives has already okayed—that would impose significant additional sanctions on the Iranian elite as well as energy companies that do business with the Islamic Republic (the bill was passed by voice vote, so the yeas and nays are not reported). This came one day after President Barack Obama warned, in his State of the Union address, “As Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise.” He was unmistakably referring to the same thing the Senate bill is: Iran’s U.N.-flouting, probably-not-merely-peaceful nuclear program.

The bill would:
• Bar U.S. financial institutions from extending loans or other assistance to companies that export gasoline to Iran or contract with it for oil-refining projects;
• Ban U.S.-Iran imports and exports (other than food and medicine);
• Empower the U.S. to freeze the assets of Revolutionary Guardsmen and other Iranians involved in proliferation or terrorism;
• Make private-sector divestment from sanctioned energy companies easier;
• Crack down on the technology black market.

The next step is for a joint committee to craft a compromise between the House and Senate bills. That bill would then be voted on by both houses; then, Obama could sign it.

Obama supported the House bill … sorta. As Allison Hoffman noted last month, the threat of further congressional sanctions may be more valuable to U.S. diplomats than actual further congressional sanctions. That’s because much more effective sanctions could come from the international community—most likely in the form of the U.N. Security Council—and the White House believes it will have an easier time corralling reluctant countries (that is, Russia and especially China) if it has a bit more flexibility to offer carrots along with sticks, and if it can point to the potential for that kooky legislative branch to do something all crazy and such if the Security Council fails to get its act together. Plus, the sanctions the bill envisions could find themselves harming these other countries’ cherished energy companies, which likely will not endear them to yet further sanctions.

It did not take AIPAC long to send us its statement praising the Senate and condemning Iran, and adding: “AIPAC urges conferees to move rapidly in order to return the bill for final passage as soon as possible. This is an urgent matter.”

While the realpolitik-inclined may not share AIPAC’s sense of urgency, at least regarding these sanctions, they probably do share its desire for a nuclear-free Iran: the White House was on record approving at least the House bill; and so was dovish “pro-Israel, pro-peace” J Street, AIPAC’s bedfellow at last.

U.S. Senate Approves Sanctions on Iran’s Fuel Suppliers [AP/Haaretz]
Senate Passes Iran Sanctions Bill [Laura Rozen]

Earlier: House Passes Symbolic Iran Sanctions Bill

Daybreak: IDF in Lebanon, Mostly Peacefully

Plus Israel cracks down on (Palestinian) dissidents, and more in the news


• Israel has a military presence just inside the Lebanon border, protecting over 2,000 citizens who reside on the Lebanese side of the town of Ghajar. The United States and United Nations have asked it to leave; Hezbollah, a U.S. diplomat says, would prefer it to stay—it’s a P.R. coup. [WSJ]
• President Barack Obama defended Israel as one of the U.S.’s “strongest allies,” while also insisting, “Both the Palestinians and Israelis have legitimate aspirations.” [Haaretz]
• The U.S. Senate approved a bill that would impose further sanctions on the Iranian elite and on energy companies that do business with Iran (more on this at 10 A.M.). [Reuters/Haaretz]
• Formerly tolerant of them, Israel has begun preventing West Bank Palestinian protests of the security barrier and arresting organizers. In some cases, the protests have resembled “a creeping, part-time intifada.” [NYT]
• Prime Minister Netanyahu told U.S. envoy George Mitchell that he is okay with releasing hundreds of Fatah prisoners as a good-will gesture in the run-up, hopefully, to formal peace talks. [Haaretz]
• The Senate confirmed the appointment of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to a second five-year term. [LAT]

Sundown: IDF to Improve Soldiers’ Foot Odor

Plus Anne Frank banned and Gibson as Tricky Dick


• Israeli soldiers are about to get some new gear: socks guaranteed not to stink for two weeks straight. No word on whether the laundry-impaired civilian will have access to the miracle footwear. [AFP]
• Public schools in Virginia have removed the “definitive edition” of Anne Frank’s diary from shelves, citing “the sexual nature of the vagina passage.” Genocide may not be taboo, but genitals are a different story. [AP]
Time magazine has an interesting casting suggestion for Mel Gibson: “This guy should play Nixon—another complex man of significant achievement with a debilitating belief that his enemies were bangin’ nails into him.” They might have something else in common. [Time]

Israel’s New Organ Donor Policies

Getting the inside track on insides


Israel is infamous for having one of the lowest organ-donation rates in the developed world: a paltry 8% of Israelis are listed as organ donors, compared to roughly 35% in most Western countries. The problem is mainly that many observant Jews believe (incorrectly) that a body must be buried with all its organs intact.

Yesterday, a Slate article explored how the Israeli government has gone about trying to encourage donation. More prominently, the country gives “slight priority” to people who agree to be donors if and when they themselves are seeking an organ. (Which makes a bit of intuitive sense, no?)

More quietly, but no less importantly, Israel recently became the first country to compensate organ donors’ families. The ostensible purpose of the rewards—which run to several thousands of dollars—is to “memorialize” the deceased, but who’s kidding whom?

The Halachic Organ Donor Society exists to educate Jews and to encourage Jewish organ donation to Jews and non-Jews. Maybe it’s time to “compensate” them a bit?

Kidney Mitzvah

Earlier: Organ Donation’s Legality, Jewish and Otherwise

J.D. Salinger Dies

‘The Catcher in the Rye’ author was Jewish

J.D. Salinger.(Javno)

The wires are reporting that J.D. Salinger died at 91. The ultra-reclusive author—a Jew who grew up in Manhattan—published only four books in his lifetime: one novel, The Catcher in the Rye; one story collection, Nine Stories; and two collections of two novellas each, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. The Glass family, which featured in many of his stories, was half-Irish, half-Jewish; so were the Salingers, though, according to Wikipedia, his mother passed as Jewish (without converting) and J.D. himself had a bar mitzvah.

Though we can be sad for his passing, in another sense this is actually potentially exciting news. Salinger has not published a book since 1963; the last thing of any kind he published, a story, appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. Since then, he has lived almost as a hermit in New Hampshire. We will now see if his typewriter has been on these past 45 years. Here’s hoping it has been.

Rabbi Links Quake To ‘Evil,’ Anti-Orthodox Articles

Cites Tropper revelations broken by Tablet


Rabbi Avi Shafran, who is prominent in ultra-Orthodox American group Agudath Israel, had an … interesting explanation (well, sort of; explanation is slightly too strong a word) for the earthquake that devastated Haiti. In the quake’s aftermath, he wrote to Jews, “We must introspect, and make changes in our behavior.” He continued:

the Jewish world today is rife with “evil speech” … Jewish media are filled with accusations and “scoops”; they compete gleefully to find the vilest examples of crimes to report, to do the most attention-grabbing job of reporting them, and to be the first to do so. The very week of the recent catastrophe in Haiti, a national Jewish newspaper published a comic strip featuring grotesque depictions of religious Jews and aimed at disparaging Jewish outreach to other Jews. And another Jewish newspaper ran an editorial placing the alleged ugly sins of an individual at the feet of Jewish rabbinic leaders, simply because the presumed sinner, before he was exposed, had arranged for several respected rabbis to deliver lectures and had encouraged people to make donations to their institutions.

The comic strip, drawn by (friend-of-The-Scroll) Eli Valley, appeared in the Forward. The editorial appeared in The Jewish Star, and it concerned “accusations and ‘scoops’” about Rabbi Leib Tropper that Tablet Magazine broke. (UPDATE: Rabbi Shafran emailed in to note, correctly, that in his article, he also said that some of this stuff comes from within the Orthodox community, too.)

Yesterday, Shafran clarified his earlier post. “I did not ‘blame’ the earthquake on anything, much less a particular piece of writing or art,” he said. “I simply cited the Jewish mandate to soul-search in the wake of disaster, and quoted a Godol of our generation who suggested that speech fueled by ill will is a particularly rampant evil in our day. I cited the cartoon and editorial as recent examples, nothing more.”

It probably is an oversimplification to describe Shafran as having argued that “evil speech” caused the quake (as Gawker did). Still, the rabbi did call upon Jews “to perceive Divine messages in humankind’s trials”—he was asserting that the “evil speech” and the quake were at least somewhat related. But it is hard to believe the Richter scale is sensitive enough to register those sorts of early warning signs.

The Earth Trembles [Cross-Currents]
A Personal Note to Cross-Currents Readers [Cross-Currents]

Related: The Odd Couple [Forward]
A Smart Career Move [The Jewish Star]
Sex, Lies, and Audiotape [Tablet Magazine]

Come Fly the Tefilin-Friendly Skies

El Al won’t confuse davening and bombing

(Museum of Flight)

Are you worried that your daily prayer, including your wrapping yourself in tefillin, will end up grounding your plane and placing you in handcuffs and on the nightly news? Then have we got an airline for you! El Al, Israel’s national airline, has responded to last week’s tefilin-related airplane debacle (in which a flight was grounded in Philadelphia after an attendant thought tefilin was an explosive device) with a witty, fun advertising campaign: “Fly with us! Our cabin crew will know how to ‘defuse’ them …” reads a poster.

(Okay, okay, there’s a chance that it’s not actually a legit El Al ad. But it should be!)

El Al: We Can ‘Defuse’ Teffilin in Flight [Arutz Sheva]

Earlier: BREAKING: N.Y. Plane Grounded Due to Teffilin Scare

Today on Tablet

An Argentinian dissident, a Yiddish poet, Afro-Semitic beats


Today in Tablet Magazine, Bridget Kevane examines the late Argentinian dissident and publisher Jacobo Timerman, who, sometimes by necessity, played a complex game when it came to exposing anti-Semitism in his country. Zackary Sholem Berger eulogizes the great Yiddish-language poet Avrom Sutzkever, and bemoans Sutzkever’s underappreciated status (go appreciate three of his poems—the final one especially). Music columnist Alexander Gelfand profiles two bands that combine Jewish and African folk musics: the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra and the Afro-Semitic Experience. Reading The Scroll is its own sort of experience.

Jews Reading About WASPs

Novelist Louis Auchincloss died at 92


Louis Auchincloss, who wrote several delightful novels about delightful and not-so-delightful rich Manhattan WASPs, passed away Tuesday evening. He was—as Adam Sandler sang of O.J. Simpson—not a Jew. But in a 2008 essay in Tablet Magazine, Mark Oppenheimer expounded on experiencing Auchincloss as a Jew:

many decades later, reading Auchincloss is something of an education, skewed but wildly entertaining. Like watching Mad Men to learn about Kennedy-era businessmen, or HBO’s Rome to learn about ancient Rome, the more stereotyped the characters, the better; the payoff is not psychological intricacy but rather a kind of romanticized encounter with the past as other. Only it’s the WASP, not the Jew, who is the Other.

And Oppenheimer’s fine closing observation has decided what my weekend reading is going to be:

Now that Jews have been admitted to the club, we discover that it’s a rip-off, with bad food and overpriced drinks. There’s a poignant sense that maybe, in another time, it really was glamorous, that once we were being excluded from something worth having. The morality was bad, but the aesthetic was grand. Auchincloss continues to give us the pleasure of the latter without the worries of the former.

Louis Auchincloss, Chronicler of New York’s Upper Crust, Dies at 92 [NYT]

Related: Tales from School [Tablet Magazine]

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