An open letter to Dr. David Hartman

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at
Thu Aug 29 10:10:55 MDT 2002

On Thu, 29 Aug 2002 10:10:13 -0400 Louis Proyect <lnp3 at> writes:
> Dear Dr. Hartman,
> I saw you last night on David Shipler's fine PBS documentary on the
> Israeli-Palestinian conflict where you were billed as a "Jewish
> philosopher".

Yes, Dr. Hartman is a noted Spinoza scholar, which is rather unusual for
an Orthodox Jew.

> I myself was raised as a Jew and attended both Hebrew School and an
> orthodox synagogue in the Catskill Mountains until I was bar
> mitzvahed.
> Nowadays, my identification with Judaism is fairly constrained. I
> enjoy
> very early Woody Allen movies and good cantorial singing, like Josef
> Rosenblatt's.
> As I am sure you are aware, Jews have largely abandoned orthodoxy in
> the
> USA as they became more assimilated. My own 82 year old mother hates
> orthodoxy with a passion and attends a Reform synagogue in a nearby
> town
> with her 87 year old friend who was one of the founders of the
> temple. When
> I asked him recently why local villagers launched a reform synagogue
> when
> they already had an orthodox shul, he spat out, "The orthodox rabbi
> used to
> make us feel like a bunch of goyim." My understanding is that the
> orthodoxy
> in Israel is instilling the same feeling among many Jews who do not
> pass
> their litmus test.
> I am taking the trouble to write because of something particularly
> disturbing that came out of your mouth during Shipler's show. (Now
> granted
> nearly everything you said smacked of the kind of self-righteous
> Zionist
> apologetics that is turning Israel into a pariah state backed only
> by the
> most rightwing Christian sects in the USA.)
> But when you likened the Palestinians to American Indians, I nearly
> threw
> my shoe through the TV. You shrugged your shoulders and said, "What
> if some
> Indian showed up on 57th street and asked for his land back, nobody
> would
> take him seriously." That doesn't seem like philosophy to me, David.
> It
> seems like justifying genocide.

It is curious that Dr. Hartman would chosen to pursue
that particular line of argument.  I suppose that
it reflects both Dr. Hartman's American origins,
where many people uncritically accept the idea
that it is perfectly legitimate for the US to rest
on lands taken from the American Indians,
as the consequence of genocide.  I guess it is
easy for someone who comes from one settler
state, to defend the legitimacy of another settler
state, by appeal to the right of conquest of lands
taken from their aboriginal occupants.  Still as
a philosopher, one would have expected to be
a bit more self-aware concerning the type of
arguments that he was making, and of their

> What are the statues of limitations for genocide? What if Hitler had
> been
> victorious against the allies and it took a long, protracted war of
> resistance to overthrow Nazism? Would we tell Jewish victims of
> genocide
> that they could not be compensated for crimes committed  beyond some
> arbitrary cutoff date, like 50 years? I would think that we Jews
> would have
> much more compassion for the American Indians, who in fact are
> suffering as
> if their Nazis had won the war. I speak here of course of the Andrew
> Jacksons and Teddy Roosevelts of this country who considered the
> Indian an
> 'untermenschen'. Can you imagine what it would be like for a Jew
> living in
> Nazi Germany to see soccer teams called the "Munich Kikes"? That's
> what it
> is like for Indians who have to put up with racist baseball team
> mascots
> like the Cleveland Indians:
> In any case, you should be aware that many younger Jews would find
> your
> views deeply offensive. Rather than identifying with the victorious
> racist
> American conquerors of the indigenous peoples, we Jews should be
> identifying with the oppressed of the world.
> Unlike yourself, Jonathan Sacks, the chief orthodox rabbi in Great
> Britain,
> seems to be moving slowly but surely in this direction, as reported
> in the
> Guardian 2 days ago. He said that he was "profoundly shocked" at the
> recent
> reports of smiling Israeli servicemen posing for a photograph with
> the
> corpse of a slain Palestinian. As I am sure you are aware, there are
> many
> photographs of the American cavalry gloating over Indian corpses in
> the
> 19th century.

As it so happens, I have been peripherally involved in some
Usenet discussions concerning Rabbi Sacks in the newsgroup
soc.culture.jewish.moderated.  I think it is fair to say that
people there (who are mainly religious Jews, including
many who are Orthordox) have been shocked by his
statements as reported in an exclusive interview in
The Guardian.  Some people have responded by
arguing that his statements must have been distorted
by The Guardian to fit its editorial stance concerning
the Middle East.  That leaves unanswered the question
of why Rabbi Sacks chose to grant The Guardian an
exclusive interview in the first place, when if he felt
like being interviewed, he could have gone just as
easily to say, The Daily Telegraph, which has been
cheeleading for Ariel Sharon.  Other people,
have reluctantly accepted, that he probably did say
things atrributed to him, and they have begun to
condemn him strongly for them.  A number of
people have responded to his statements
by attacking The Guardian, which they regard
as "anti-Semitic", apparently because that
newspaper does not regard Sharon as the
best thing to come since sliced bread.

> While Dr. Sacks has earned the wrath of uncritical supporters of the
> Sharon
> government, there are many other Jews who back him, including Dr
> Michael
> Harris, the Orthodox rabbi at the Hampstead Synagogue in London, who
> wrote
> in yesterday's Guardian:
> "Both in the British Jewish community and in the wider national
> arena, it
> is the voice of the chief rabbi, Professor Jonathan Sacks, that has
> in
> recent months provided probably the most sustained, powerful and
> articulate
> reminder of the essential justness of Israel's cause. As reported in
> yesterday's Guardian, the chief rabbi has now drawn attention to the
> moral
> dangers inherent in a situation of prolonged conflict such as that
> between
> Israel and the Palestinians.

Yes, and what the critics of Sacks forget, is that in The Guardian
interview, he makes it clear that he still very much regards
himself as being a committed Zionist.  But in certain quarters,
even the mildest of dissent concerning the present Israeli
government's policies, is something that must ruthlessly
be stamped out.  This does not auger well for the future
of Jews.

> "He is right to do so. As far as religiously aware Jewish exponents
> of
> moral values are concerned, justice, compassion and sensitivity are
> not
> merely liberal western ideals grafted on to the fabric of faith.
> Rather,
> moral concerns and empathy with the suffering of others are rooted
> in the
> deepest layers of Jewish tradition and belief. It is the Hebrew
> Bible that
> first taught us to see in other human beings the image of God. In
> the 12th
> century, Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher of the Middle
> Ages,
> described the purpose of the Torah as the fostering of mercy,
> compassion
> and peace in the world. That is why, despite the healthy diversity
> of
> political opinion concerning Israel in the British rabbinate, I am
> happy to
> be one of several Orthodox rabbis who support Prof Sacks's wise
> words of
> caution concerning Israel's current situation.
> "In the Book of Chronicles, God tells David that he may not build
> the
> Temple because of the blood that he has spilled. Maimonides argued
> that
> David's wars were morally justified; nevertheless, he explains, the
> very
> fact that David took human life itself invalidates him for the task
> of
> constructing the House of God. Even the justified, coerced
> imposition of
> suffering on others is morally corrosive. The chief rabbi is right
> to warn
> that, in the long term, Israel has no authentically Jewish
> alternative but
> to find another way."

Jim F.

> Louis Proyect

Juno offers FREE or PREMIUM Internet access for less!
Join Juno today!  For your FREE software, visit:

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list