Category Archives: Yiddishkeit

Acute Jew

sic semper tyrannis

sic semper tyrannis

I.

May I recommend the Israeli author Etgar Keret? His work has been widely translated from the Hebrew and he writes occasional columns in the New Yorker and the Guardian. He stands accused by certain reviewers of solipsism and misogyny, but the first is outweighed by likability and the second is guilt-ridden enough to temper its vulgarity. With punk succinctness (the bulk of his oeuvre is novellas) he lays down an incredulous exasperation, twinkling through lurking shades of methodical mental illness and characteristically verbally abusive Jewish impudence. We see these same psychic fistulae in other artists whose work cannot be fully understood without reference to yiddishkeit—Babel, Kafka, Seinfeld. The Jews have the same relationship with senile dementia as the Catholics have with epilepsy. Half Jews like Vladimir Visotsky and JD Salinger belong in a slightly different category—the mold is broken, the hybrid vigor overwhelming. “Justice, justice you shall pursue”….. this contemptuous inflexibility of conscience is everywhere from the Book of Daniel to Lenny Bruce. It’s easy to see why these people are difficult to live with; we can barely live with ourselves. Borderline Personality Disorder might just as accurately be labelled Acute Jew.

What is interesting to observe about Keret, though, isn’t this characteristic Jewishness, but that it seems to subsist without much reference to Gentile influence. To understand Kafka, you have to understand pre-war mitteleuropa; to understand Babel, you need some sense of the Russian arch. You cannot appreciate Seinfeld without first appreciating late-modern America. Keret, on the other hand, presents entirely as a product of Jewish civilization—Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi would be proud, if uncomprehending. He plays entirely on effects that went indissoluble in exile, reemerging in the Levant one fine day to resume their invidious solipsism as if the intervening centuries were nothing but an aberration.

This is an awkward thing to behold. You meet bourgeois, well-travelled Israelis, and oftentimes the most they can tell you about modern Europe is its political orientation toward Jews and Israel, or the skiing, or the prices (especially the prices). The most they can tell you about Americans is that we tend to overpay unreflectively, that we haven’t any good, fresh bread, that we act friendly but we’re just pretending. The most they can tell you about Babel or Kafka or Einstein is that they were Yidden. They smart at any notion that breaches the nationalist programing they received in primary school. It isn’t that they disagree; they can’t fathom such things. They’re in step with the most liberal current ideas about sexuality, abreast of the very latest technology. They insist that their country is on the front line of the West and of modernity in a benighted corner of the globe with a rich, Western heritage that only they, through hard luck and gumption, are suited to defend. Yet with the exception of a handful of times and places in the Western experience where Jews were heavily involved, their upbringing has utterly de-emphasized nearly every benchmark that otherwise lends commonality to the identities and intellectual traditions of the West across dozens of other cultures and languages.

Of course, Keret is of above-average worldliness, which is why I referenced him. The hucksters and harpies who populate his pages make the mundane maddening to an extent no other Israeli writer has achieved. His fiction bears traces of Chekhov’s influence, and it entirely lacks the deadening mimicry of America that one so often finds along the bourgeois cutting edge of other highly modern, marginally Western societies. But the overwhelming sense one gets from his work is the reemergence of an ancient cast of misanthropes who’ve nothing but flagrant disregard for all the rich commotion that has been taking place, aboveground, without them.

And yet, what makes this separatism remarkable is not so much its longevity, but the packing of bags it entailed. Where communism, progressivism and Christianity propose to alter the world for the benefit of various handicapped classes, where other romantic nationalisms proposed to redraw the lines around various peoples, Zionism proposed to redraw the Jew himself.

Anyone who has had their brush with Israeli culture knows this effort has been hit-or-miss. Of course, through Israel, Jews have demonstrated martial prowess, but perhaps all this proves is that the cobwebs needed brushing aside. Animals and men go mad in cages; a long enough litany of military setbacks will turn even a Yule Brenner into a Peter Lorre. Where various empires furnished the bars, the Sages made up the gilding. Modernity did away with both, but it couldn’t digest man’s tendency for tribalism. And while early 20th-century Zionism fixated on altering the Jew, under inescapable American tutelage Zionism today makes its most stringent and irrational demands of the Arab; not only does it invade his home, it demands his acceptance. This is pure insanity—the manic optimism and febrile entitlement of Democratic Man, held up by airport security off somewhere in literal East Jesus.

II.

Contrast this schizoid opportunism with Catholicism and Islam, religions that share a strong emphasis on man’s intrinsic capacity for reason, which each claims to satisfy perfectly and to the exclusion of all other ideas. Though I doubt these claims, I agree that a person’s full, healthy development depends on the opportunity to discern reason from faith, and weigh the two against one another.

A sweet, dim-witted old Adventist once told me something I liked. She told me, “You are the priest of your family.” In Judaism, the nearest approximation of this and other dissenter sects of Christianity is Karaism, whose practitioners are required to draw their own conclusions from scripture (within specified guidelines), rather than defer to experts.

Though an orthodox Rabbinic (i.e., not a Karaite) Jew, my grandfather conducted himself as though he was the priest of our family. He taught my brother, cousin and I (paternal half-breeds, all, and therefore not Jewish under Rabbinic law) basic Hebrew liturgy and scripture, as well as a smattering of Mishnah, and started officiating his own holy day services at home with a small circle of friends and family when he came into political conflict with the local rabbi. He was our last direct link in an unbroken chain of tradition.

Now I am married to an Orthodox Christian. To our marriage she brought along a sweet, gregarious and fair-minded little boy, the product of a previous marriage to a fellow Russian. Our son’s natural father was disdainful of religiosity and my wife, a non-practicing believer, opted not to have him baptized. But I understand it as my duty to furnish my children with faith against which to weigh reason—a method for counting the stars, so-to-speak.

Judaism is nothing if not the self-styling of a racial caste, and to transmit it to my unmistakeably Slavic older son would be to paint over a zebra’s stripes and mark him as a permanent outsider. So with his and my wife’s agreement I had him baptized by the nearest Russian Orthodox priest.

Though the humble little church and the manner of worship conducted within it was beautiful and uplifting, the process of getting our son baptized was somewhat uncomfortable—as a matter of course our family’s religious backgrounds were inquired about beforehand, and although I was welcomed in (which I wouldn’t have been in Russia), there was a palpable discomfort at my presence from the deacon and the arthritic old pater, who made it plain he didn’t want me around once he ascertained that I myself was not interested in converting. At one Sunday service we attended, the elderly deacon, Hungarian-born as it happens, informed me that as a child in the 1930s his parents worked in the Rome office of some German company or other, and that along with a handful of SS-officer embassy attachés, they used to host a Jewish business contact and his wife. He said this just goes to show that my background is a trifling thing because, as Christ teaches, people aren’t so different.

Well that just doesn’t make things very interesting, and of course I beg to differ. I recently bought two children’s bibles for my sons, one Christian (The Golden Book Children’s Bible) the other Jewish (The Book of Adam to Moses). The Christian one leaves out almost all the jealous, avaricious intrigues of the Old Testament. Its Queen of Sheeba is a chaste diplomat (and white!). It omits the Song of Songs (always a source of adolescent wood in the shul pews), and its Proverbs has nothing to say about the advisability of joining a gang, of committing a robbery, or of going whoring. Its illustrations are bright and cheery. In contrast, though it uses ambiguous language, its Jewish counterpart omits none of the original’s salacious and morally disturbing details. Its illustrations are black, white, a bit abstract and dissonant.

Dissonance, for most people, is exasperating, and Judaism is as exasperating as the Jews. The first in a trifecta of characteristically Western theodicies that sacralize mankind’s aspirations against nature’s starkness, it fails to follow through and build upon those ideals, neither with the kind of comfort food Christianity holds out, nor the unambiguous finality of Islam. It contains laws, and hidden meanings, but no ready logic, and no real bedtime stories.

The Coen brothers deal with this omission in their updated Book of Job, A Serious Man. In this film, a decent family-man is hamstrung by egregious, unearned misfortune. At the end of his rope, he consults with a series of feckless, indifferent rabbis, only to be told kitschy allegories and peppered with unactionable platitudes. A meticulously fair (read: neurotic) man who expects the world to at least be fair at bottom, he seeks solace from his faith as his misfortunes multiply unabated.

As it happens, there’s an astute review of this film at the pseudo-highbrow white supremacist web journal, Counter-Currents, whose editors are big into Savitra Devi and the Hidden Hitler (or something). Its design gives the feel of a Rothschild coven; one gets the sense they aren’t big fans of Orwell. Most of the pieces they publish are written in the style and at the level of a college admissions essay, but they’ve also got a good many editorial gems and some excellent crib notes on modern European heavyweights like Heidegger. Among the gems is this Serious Man review, by one Trevor Lynch. Check it out; it’s brisk reading, I promise.

Anyhow, the reviewer concludes from A Serious Man that the Coen Brothers are confirming his revulsion of Jews, by breaking their congenital mold to lambast Judaism’s hollow, compulsivity. It apparently never occurs to him that this is not apostasy so much as self-criticism, and though he pinpoints Judaism’s stultifying verbosity and solipsism, he cannot concede that so thorough and ineluctable a capacity for self-criticism is a virtue, nor that it’s indicative of how large a measure of the insights that Jews like the Coens bring to modern storytelling arises from their grappling with the conceits and deficiencies of character peculiar to our kind. But if Judaism, as the reviewer maintains the Coens are saying, offers “no meat and no marrow for the serious man”, perhaps protagonist Larry Gopnik’s mistake is that he takes Judaism, along with everything else, so goddamned seriously. The goy’s teeth (you’ll have to see the film) represent absurdity, which the rabbi and the dentist greet with apprehension but ultimately wave off with a characteristically Jewish shrug, while Larry Gopnik allows himself to nearly be driven insane by it. Not-so-subtleties like these are as lost on the hapless Professor Gopnik as they are on vindictive and equally serious ideologues like Trevor Lynch.

But far from exemplifying a strictly Jewish penchant for platitude, Job is just the Jewish take on a universal theme. The Coens aren’t recapitulating it, as our Aryan brother presumes. They’re augmenting it out of a peculiarly Jewish inventory. This is the yiddishkeit that’s so despised over at Counter Currents, and it will always elude their steely knives. But no religion, no philosophy, no manner of thought or line of inquiry is going to be more or less adequate than any other when it comes to the really big mysteries. Or, its relative adequacy is going to depend in turn upon the deductions of the source and each recipient’s own proclivities, rather than the peculiar merits of the milieu it emerges from. True, relative to other faiths Judaism tends to exacerbate the tensions the great mysteries provoke, rather than ameliorating them. But for Job and A Serious Man, the message (the reviewer’s “meat and marrow”) is real straightforward: suck it up, and lighten up, respectively. If the good Saxons at Counter Currents prefer Marcus Aurelius, that’s up to them, but don’t go barking up my boabab if the message doesn’t tickle your pickle. Like Rabbi Marshak, I’m thinking. That Judaism is replete with nonsense like any religion goes without saying, but Job isn’t it.

Christianity and Islam may not offer entirely satisfying answers either, but in attempting to, they stop the proverbial buck. In contrast, by positing a chosen caste, Judaism demands a measure of self-confidence that Christianity eschews, and Islam overdoes. And while the Hebrew God’s anthrocentricity innervates millennial Western theodicy, in His capriciousness He remains an Eastern God of Nature, the nature of the political animal in the anthropocine epoch. Western politics have their genesis as much along the colonnades of Athens as they do in the tent camps of recriminating Bedouins. In a democracy, we’re all elders of Chelm. Not even by putting words into God’s mouth have the Christians and the Muslims succeeded in stemming man’s internecine cat-scratching, not within families and not between nations. Not for wont of ventriloquy, the Jews have long been rending and gnashing at His silence. Neurotic? Hell yes. But don’t count it out. Buck-stopping imperial religions can run from this dissonance, but they can’t hide.

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Nazi Hussein

the_lone_gunmen_b

“I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn…..”*

Part I of a series in progress…. Part II here, Part III forthcoming

In an absolute sense, you never really know what’s true. In the case of second hand stories, you can only relate what you’ve been told.

The year was 2005. I had an eight hour layover in Amsterdam. It was sometime in that cleft between dawn and the start of business hours on a frigid weekday in late winter, and if you’re getting high at that hour it can only be for one of two reasons: because you have a serious drug problem and have been up all night awaiting your chance to smoke, or because you’re a tourist in friggin’ Amsterdam and this just happens to be the time of day your plane landed. Although on that particular day the latter reason was certainly true of me, I was getting high for the former reason.

After a forty-five minute stroll past shuttered storefronts, I happened upon a coffee shop that was open and operating. Beside a squat, bald, mustachioed Turk with greasy facial moles who apparently ran it, the place was empty of customers except for two guys having a conversation in Arabic, whom I sat down next to at the bar.

The one nearest me, on my right, was late-middle aged, stocky but dapper and a tad swarthy, with piercing green eyes, a bulbous nose and a five o’clock shadow. He wore a dark blue trench coat and grey slacks, assiduously polished black leather shoes and a felt fedora, and assessed me guardedly as I pulled out the stool to his left and goofily nodded my unmistakably American amiability. To his right sat a tall, gangly youth with a long, acned face and wavy, greased black hair, wearing skinny jeans, Adidas, and a beige turtle-neck. This younger Arab was adamant about something, intent on his interlocutor and bantering at length a mere inch or two from the right side of the latter’s face. Periodically this older gentleman, staring straight ahead, would indifferently muster a monosyllabic reply before taking a hit off the little green plastic house-bong that stood between them, filthier than a store-sock and giving off little whisps of stale smoke from its top-hole. When the old Arab exhaled, the Turk, stationary behind the bar and leaning against the back wall in front of us with his hands in his pockets, would grimace conspicuously, give a passive-aggressive grunt of objection and slowly, begrudgingly turn his head away from the oncoming cloud.

I paid the harried little Turk for a gram of hashish and set to mixing half of it with the contents of a Winston light, with all the ritualistic lighter-flicking and foil-oragami that entails. Enamored as I was at that age with the contrast Levantine hospitality posed to the American wariness and insincerity I had known all my life, when my mixture was complete I gestured in the direction of the bong and, when the old Arab handed it to me, packet the bowl and passed it back to him. His face registered surprise without breaking the exasperated pallor the younger man’s ranting seemed to have induced, and he lit up, inhaled and passed the bong back to me.

I packed another bowl and offered it to the younger man, who gestured refusal without a let-up in his Arabic banter. So I lit up, and as I exhaled it the older man, in unaccented American, asked “Where you from, kid?”

“From California. I’ve got a layover on my way to Tel Aviv.” That last bit of information was superfluous and intentionally provocative. I have no major objection to the basic Arab view of Israel, at least not on strictly logical grounds. If I was Arab, I’d share it. My objection to that viewpoint, such as it is, is mostly an accident of birth, and I figured that relations with an Arab who isn’t entirely determined to not get along with me are liable, ironically, to be all the more fraternal on that account.

The older man snorted an amused and oddly satisfied chuckle and glanced snidely at his compatriot, frozen of a sudden as though he’d just been slapped in the face.

“Where you guys from?”

“Palestine!” bellowed the youth, also in unaccented American, with a force he perhaps hadn’t anticipated from himself.

“He’s from Los Angeles” the older man, now in better control of his amusement, corrected him. Not being in on the joke, I was starting to feel rather like the object of some conspiratorial roast.

“Oh cool, I’m from Santa Cruz! What do you do in LA?”

The younger man glared at me with unselfconscious hostility. The older one continued, “His family owns some kind of bodega in the hood down there.”

“What brings you to Amsterdam?” I asked the youth.

“I’m on my way to Kuwait” he sullenly replied.

“What’s going on in Kuwait?”

“My uncle owns a business.”

“I see. And is this man your uncle?” I was still concealing my provocations beneath that insoluble veneer of American obliviousness. The older gent let slip a snort that broke into a chuckle.

“No, no, no, we just met in here and this kid” (he pointed with a jerk of his thumb) “started talkin’ Arab at me. I’m from Michigan. Name’s Nazee, nice to meet you.” He extended a hand.

“Likewise; Aaron” I said as we shook hands. His handshake was not lithe but firm and smothering, more midwestern than middle eastern.

“What brings you to Amsterdam?”

“Well, I’m moving to Israel to enlist in the Israeli army.” The younger man’s jaw and brow dropped an inch apiece as if he hadn’t figured his day could get any worse.

“You’re from Santa Cruz and you want to move to the middle east?” asked Nazee. “Why in the hell would you wanna go and do a thing like that?”

“Well, I think it’s a beautiful place.”

“That’s certainly true. But what are you going there to do? I mean, why join the Israeli army? Are you Jewish? Are your parents Israeli?”

“Well, my parents are both American. I’m half-Jewish. A couple years back I lived over there for a few months, and since then I just haven’t been able to think about anything except going back. So I figure, if I learn the language and enlist in the army, that would make me a part of the place. I wouldn’t just be a tourist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an ideologue. I’ve got nothing against you people, and I can imagine how you must view an American joining the Israeli army. But I figure once I’ve become a real part of the country, I’ll stay out there and pursue peace in my own way, as a journalist and an author. So I dropped out of college and I’m on my way.”

“Well, I agree that nobody really needs college to make it.” A silent moment passed and the youth recovered from his disbelief and resumed ranting in Arabic. I took another bong hit. Pretty soon they got up, and Nazee said, “My pal and I are going to grab a bite if you wanna come.”

A bit surprised, I threw on my huge backpack and set off with them.

We meandered through the red light district and along the canals for about half an hour, occasionally passing a joint between us. Very little was spoken to me in English. Finally we came to an Arab restaurant where we sat and ordered. As their conversation continued, I got the feeling I was the butt of some joke unbeknown to me. When the food came, I dug in with my hands. “He eats like an Arab!” Nazee exclaimed. The conversation switched to English for awhile. At length we paid our tabs—separately, like good Americans—and got up to accompany the young Palestinian to the train station. As Nazee and I were leaving the platform we’d seen him off from, I said blankly, “Well, he was a nice guy.”

“No he wasn’t. He was making fun of you the whole time.”

“Well, I can understand his resentment. I shouldn’t have said anything about Israel.”

“Look, kid. I got two boys your age, that kid’s age. You’re all a bunch of fucking retards. You’re going to Israel, right?”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t mean I can’t respect other people’s feelings.”

“Respect away. But you wanna go work for Sharon and Peres? That’s no joke. Those guys are fucking gangsters, man. Gangsters. Not movie actors, not mixed up kids with silly tattoos. Mass murderers. And you’re softer than rotting fruit. You can’t think the way you do in the place where you’re going.”

Laden with that whole post-9/11 constellation of enemy-of-my-enemy stereotypes, I was still confused about something. “I thought you and that guy were friends.”

“Fuck that guy. What’s the problem with being friendly and just speaking English? All three of us speak fluent English, but he spoke Arab the entire time just to exclude you from the conversation.

“Fucking Arabs, man. They’re always trying to implicate one another in some little pissing contest. You’re suspect unless you’re pledging loyalty over and over. They need Israel though, ’cause they all hate each other. And Israel needs them, ’cause the minute there’s peace you people will be at each other’s throats. How much can a Russian and an Ethiopian really have in common, anyhow?

“That kid’s parents made good in the States”, he continued. “He’s going to make good money living in Kuwait on a US passport. People like him want all the benefits of being American, but they hate America. I live in Michigan, yeah? There’re a lot of Arabs over there. Most of them hate Americans. Not just George Bush; their neighbors, too. Fuck that. I didn’t go to America to just hunker down with my kind.

“I came to America from Syria almost thirty years ago. I was nineteen years old. Back then they took you to the army right out of high school. Still do, as a matter of fact. It was the mid-seventies and there had just been this God-awful war against Israel. I didn’t know a thing about politics, I just couldn’t see the point of dying for the asshole that was in charge over there. So I took a bus to Jordan and found my way to the US embassy. I swept floors at a bakery, slept on the street and just waited in line at the embassy for hours, every day I could get down there, for about nine months.

“By some miracle I finally got in to see this woman, I didn’t know who she was, her title, or what gave her authority to decide my case, but she asked me why didn’t I wanna go back to Syria, and I told her straight up that I didn’t wanna get drafted. She asked what I wanted to do in the US, and I couldn’t tell her, and she looks me right in the eye, something about her voice and the way she’s facing me kinda changes, and she says—I’ll never forget it—she asked me if it mattered to me to marry Muslim, or if I could marry a Christian or a Jewish or a Chinese girl, and I said through the interpreter, I said, lady, I don’t give a rat’s ass, I’ll marry who I love. And she stamped my passport right there.

“I didn’t speak a word of English. I spent three years cleaning toilets and flippin’ burgers by the beach in Miami, almost didn’t eat anything except hamburgers in all that time. But I learned English. Over the years I spoke Arabic with my parents and sisters by phone, but it got harder and harder. The truth is I haven’t really spoken Arabic in thirty years. I don’t know if you noticed that kid was doing most of the talking. I can’t speak much Arabic anymore. It’s too emotional for me.

“I been back to Syria a few times though. I’m considered a deserter, so I gotta fly through Amman, cross overland and pay a shitload of money. I can’t fly straight in or they’ll arrest me at the airport. I paid $10,000 the last time. One time, there was some kind of disturbance at the airport in Jordan, and our flight just circled and circled above Amman for like, half an hour. Finally, the captain got on the intercom and said we may just have to land in Damascus. I almost shit myself, ’cause they would’ve cut my balls off if I showed up at the airport in Damascus. But we ended up landing in Amman.

“My kids don’t have that problem. When they were old enough, I sent them to see their grandparents and cousins. They can just fly right in on US passports. But the police followed them everywhere. Fucking everywhere. That’s why I don’t understand this ghetto mentality a lot of the Arabs around Detroit have, ’cause they don’t have to put up with that over there.”

“But that’s not true!” I interrupted. “What about the PATRIOT Act and all the domestic surveillance of Muslim-Americans?”

“Look man, I got a welding business. Sheet metal fabrication. I work with my sons. All the contractors around town, we all know each other. On 9/11 I was in this lunch spot we all go, and a bunch of these guys were at the counter, they came in without noticing that I was already there at a corner table with my back turned. The World Trade Center was on the TV above the lunch counter for like, the five-thousandth time that day, and they all started talking about the fuckin’ ragheads and how we need to bomb ’em to smithereens.

“Then one of these guys pipes up, he says, ‘Wait a minute, what about Nazee? He’s Arab, ain’t he?’ And someone else says, ‘Yeah, but he’s not like that.’ And they all kinda quieted down after that, maybe they felt like they went too far with what they’d been saying. That’s just the way people are. The PATRIOT Act ain’t about Arabs. Arabs are an excuse, like the Jews used to be. You think they’re just gonna spy on Arabs now? They’re gonna fuck everyone. What you gotta be worried about is not getting fucked! But racism? Racism’s older than prostitution. Get over it. You can hate people’s guts and still get along with ’em if you’re willing to try. Most of the Arab immigrants in my neck of the woods don’t try though, they stick to themselves. They’re hostile. But they want all the benefits. Like that Turkish guy in the coffee shop giving us dirty looks every time we blew smoke. For christsake, asshole—you sell weed for a living!

“Look at this fuckin’ Arab over here” he whispered, jerking his head rightward to indicate a snowy-haired man some meters away, walking along an adjacent canal with a hijab-clad younger woman by his side. “You think they put those grocery bags on their women because they think it’s wrong for a man to stare at girls? Hell no. It’s because they’re busy looking at everyone else’s girls. They come to a place like this so they can do that. Guy probably brought his daughter to the fuckin’ Netherlands and then put a bag over her head and forced her to marry a stranger or a cousin just because the guy’s from the same country. Well stay the fuck over there if all you’re interested in is the old country.

“You got these mass murderers like Sharon—same story. He’d have fit right in at the KGB. It don’t matter for some people what to believe, as long as they can get their little hard-on. You know what they want? Approval. Behind that tough guy stance, they’re only doing what other people let them get away with. They want to be admired, be remembered. Same reason the pharaohs built those pyramids, man. It’s in our DNA to want to leave a legacy, to shape the future, especially for men. So we come up with all these bullshit rules about what’s best for other people, and pretty soon even a mass murderer thinks he’s doing everybody a favor.

“Look, I think it’s stupid for you to go fight with people who ain’t done you any wrong, but you gotta figure that out yourself. Maybe you got a point, a good reason. I can’t know. Maybe, if I’da been born in the states, I’d have gone the opposite direction. I mean, I’m not much smarter than you. But at some point you gotta worry about yourself and stop implicating the whole damn world in your bullshit, stop trying to make the whole world’s bullshit your own. It’s just a matter of making that choice yourself, or being forced to by circumstances.

“You know how easy it is to get along with people? Look, I’ll prove it. My name’s Nazee, right? Nazee Hussein. This is my business card.” He reached into his coat pocket and handed me a little white rectangle of tagboard with blue letters on it that read, “Nazi Hussein and Sons. Sheet metal fabrication.”

“You spell your name Nazi?”

“I spell it like it sounds. Politics aren’t my department.” In his fedora and trenchcoat, the Bogie quote was well played.

We continued in silence for a few minutes and eventually stepped into a little souvenir shop where there was a big glass display case full of iron-on flag patches for backpackers. The clerk sneered as Nazi reached in and took out the little Israeli flag and handed it to me. I looked at the clerk and pointed to the Palestine flag, and she started to reach for it, but Nazi laid a hand gently on her forearm to stop her. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” he asked me.

“I want to wear both flags to show that I’m open-minded, that I want peace, that we can all get along. Like you said!”

“You walk into the Tel Aviv airport with a Palestine flag on you and they’re gonna tear open your ass. Think, man! You gotta firm up. We all want peace, but that’s not where you’re going. You want people to be reasonable, but what’s reasonable to a guy who had the good fortune to grow up in the states is different than what’s reasonable for an Israeli kid working airport security who grew up his whole life with his neighbors wanting to kill him. If you wanna be with your people, then be with your people. America’s the opposite direction.”

I paid for my Israeli flag patch, handed Nazi a couple safety pins and turned my back to him while he pinned it on my Jansport. Then we walked back to the train station together and stood on the platform smoking a joint. When the train to the airport came I gave Nazi Hussein a big hug, stepped onboard, and made my way to Israel.

I can’t say that I really strongly countenance or object to any of Nazi’s criticisms of his people—I’ve just never walked in his shoes. But his words have been kicking around my head for over a decade now. They were there when I was living in Israel, when I served in the Israeli army and when I returned to California with my tail between my legs.

Israel: Wagging the Dog?

Obviously

Resentment of Israel’s regional military dominance is near universal throughout the Arab countries, representing perhaps the only political issue uniting vast majorities of public opinion there.[1] Thus, being seen as patron of Israel’s military jeopardizes US geostrategic prerogatives.[2] Is the cost of damage control worth the leverage over Israel that the United States exerts, or is it the Israelis and their US supporters “playing Iago to America’s Othello,”[3] mustering undue influence over domestic politics and undermining US strategic objectives?

In sheer terms of total dollars received, the Israeli state is the single largest beneficiary of US foreign assistance, both cumulatively since 1945 and annually from 1976 to 2004, surpassed in recent years only by Iraq and Afghanistan.[4] What accounts for the unparalleled magnitude of such apparent largesse? Perhaps the most controversial attempt at answering this question, one which may be said to have set the tenor for much of subsequent discourse,[5] is a 2006 article in the London Review of Books, “The Israel Lobby”, by preeminent international relations theorists John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard. Their thesis is straightforward:

One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides [Israel]…. [How] are we to explain it? The explanation is the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby. We use ‘the Lobby’ as shorthand for the loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.[6]

Disappointingly (and counter-intuitively, considering the paper’s title), this is as close as the authors come to a working definition of “the Lobby.”[7] Moreover, “shared strategic interests [and] compelling moral imperatives” are only two possibilities of many, but the possibility apparently does not occur to Walt and Mearsheimer that no comprehensive, consensus definition of the national interest exists (nor of morality, for that matter); and that the US government does not actually function as a unified whole, but is instead staffed throughout and propelled from outside by representatives (both formal and informal) of myriad interest groups and thought-trends, who are not bound by any compelling commitment to the nation as a whole. If this is the case, it can hardly be true of pro-Israel interests alone, nor would it be likely in such a state of affairs that any one interest group would turn out to be objectively more moral or more invested in the common good of the entire citizenry than any other.

In any case, of the several interrelated phenomena the authors seek to account for (including the motivation behind congressional legislation, the causes of US voting at the UN, the relatively intimate relationships between Israeli and US business interests, the range of acceptable public discourse in the US and the overall tenor of media coverage of the middle east) one of these—“the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides [Israel]”—is eminently quantifiable.

Based largely on those numbers, “The Israel Lobby” posit a laundry list of claims against Israel and its American supporters over their involvement in US domestic affairs. All have been assailed from various quarters, but the present paper seeks only to outline an alternative to the thesis quoted above. Namely, that long-term geostrategic considerations and stateside business interests motivate US mid-east policies much more than pro-Israel interest groups and operatives, that these impinge upon Israeli sovereignty, curtail Israeli economic independence and actually expose Israel and its citizens to greater risk than that state and its stateside supporters may be said to have ever exposed Americans to.

If we limit our definition of “the Israel Lobby” to tax-exempt Zionist organizations dedicated to lobbying public officials, then dollar-for-dollar (in terms of lobbying expenditures) their influence in the capitol is dwarfed by that of the domestic defense industry, constituent entities of which maintain prosaic, material—not altruistic, ideological or even necessarily strategic—interests in US policy, including the conditions of Israeli clienthood.[8]

Still, overall influence on the political process can be a more difficult thing to quantify—indeed, in the immediate aftermath of its publication, “The Israel Lobby” came in for some criticism for neglecting to do so.[9] However, a simple comparison may furnish prima facie evidence for part of the foregoing counter-thesis to “The Israel Lobby”: defense industry spending to lobby Congress, which totaled over $1.6 billion from 1998 to 2013, while pro-Israel money accounts for less than $38 million in lobbying expenses for the same period (in contrast, human rights sector lobbying totaled $45 million for 2007 alone).[10] And of the lobbying sectors ranked by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) in terms of total yearly contributions, defense aerospace appears among the top twenty for eleven of the past sixteen years, while the pro-Israel sector doesn’t make the list once during that period. Furthermore, CRP’s list of 140 “Top All Time Donors, 1989-2012” (which ranks individual organizations, as opposed to sectors), does not contain the name of a single Israeli company or pro-Israel organization but does include seven aerospace defense conglomerates as well as the Machinist and Aerospace Workers’ Union. Perhaps this accounts for aspects of the US-Israel relationship?

Indeed, the US stipulates that nearly 75% of expropriations for Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to Israel be spent in the US,[11] rendering these allocations not only a multi-billion dollar annual subsidy of US-based defense contractors, but a back-channel for Pentagon reselling, because most Israeli procurement from the US takes place indirectly, through the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Program, rather than via Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) from defense contractors.[12]

However, Walt and Mearsheimer point out that Israel enjoys exclusive privileges under the terms of its aid arrangement with the US: unlike aid to most other US clients, FMF is transferred in a lump sum (rather than installments), enabling the Israelis to earn interest on it; billions in periodic US loan guarantees enable Israel to borrow on America’s good credit; and Israel is allowed to put roughly 25% of FMF toward subsidizing and making purchases from its domestic defense contractors.

“The Israel Lobby” omits crucial background regarding these arrangements. For instance, in much the same way that US aid finances Israeli procurement within the US, US guaranteed loans are used largely to pay off Israel’s existing external debt[13]—the bulk of which is owned by US investors.[14] But while the US takes care to mitigate risk to private US entities, the Israeli government owns US Treasury securities worth billions more than current US loan guarantees—$17.2 billion[15] versus $12.8 billion.[16] Meanwhile, these guarantees are a proven form of US leverage over Israel.[17] As for the comparatively high proportion of FMF Israel is permitted to spend domestically, in light of the country’s high level of human development relative to other state importers of US arms, as well as its peculiar and extensive defense needs, it can be argued that subsidizing Israel’s domestic defense industry only shores up the country’s long-term viability as an arms market—in other words, the 25% of FMF Israel spends domestically renders a long-term benefit to private sector US partners of Israel. Moreover, due to the extent of procurement the Israelis do in the US per the terms of the aid agreement, the fact that Israeli manufacturers need US patents to sell their products, and Israel’s scarcity of overall economic scale and manufacturing power, subsidizing Israel’s domestic defense industry guarantees that Israel will be able to keep relatively few industrial secrets from the US, and that Israeli defense aerospace companies will have to partner significantly with (and channel innovation and human capital toward) US counterparts, benefits that would otherwise accrue to other advanced industrial partners of Israel, such as Germany and France. Clearly, Israeli companies would be the junior party in any such corporate partnership with US manufacturers.

These considerations bring a larger picture into view: that the overall thrust of US Israel policy—the close consultation, the outsized annual aid package, the loan guarantees, the “qualitative edge”—is to circumscribe Israeli competition in the global aerospace defense market by co-opting Israeli innovation to Pentagon-contracted projects with US private sector senior partners, tethering an Israel shorn of aerospace independence to a perpetual cycle of counter-demand in competition with neighboring regimes for defense products financed by bloated stateside public subsidization. The fate of Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) Lavi fighter jet is illustrative in this connection.

A product of nearly a decade of development, the fourth-generation fighter was slated to become the pillar of the Israel Air Force (IAF).[18] However, because IAI—obligated, unlike its US counterparts, to stay within budget[19]—kept development costs low by utilizing existing components,[20] the US “controlled much of the technology earmarked for the Lavi, including besides the engine the advanced composite materials for the airframe and wings.”[21] Completion would necessitate contracting for parts with US manufacturers including MarathonNorco, Hughes, Lear Siegler, Astronautics and McDonnel Douglas, and perhaps for this reason forty percent of the project was financed with American FMF. [22]

But IAI’s project showed too much promise and, in 1987, after two years of US pressure, the Israeli cabinet finally cancelled it, costing 6,000 Israeli engineers their jobs[23] and resulting in significant brain-drain for the country,[24] as

many Lavi engineers at [IAI] said they would have to leave Israel to find work. “The decision closed down aeronautic development in Israel for the next 25 years,” said one engineer, Rafi Meir. “For people like us, the alternative employment they will offer us here is not on our level.”[25]

As inducement to scuttle the Lavi, the Reagan administration offered to intercede with General Dynamics in order to secure IAI a role in developing future generations of F-16 and “promised to increase the amount of American military aid Israel can….spend at home.”[26] Given that throughout the 1980s the IAF was seeing action its American counterpart did not undergo anything comparable to between 1975 and 1991, Israeli participation in developing the F-16 presented unique advantages for General Dynamics. But was it worth it for Israel to scrap the Lavi?

Reflecting recently on the long-term fallout from the Lavi affair, aeronautic engineer and former defense minister Moshe Arens (at the time the most vociferous opponent of cancellation in the Israeli cabinet) made an intriguing comparison:

When IAI…. was developing the Lavi, a small company in Brazil entered the aerospace business. In 1974, Embraer got its start by assembling light Piper aircraft. Over time, it grew exponentially to become a rival to Boeing and Lockheed with its line of medium-size jet passenger aircraft and its modern military transport aircraft. While IAI has almost abandoned the manned aircraft business, which used to be its core specialty, Embraer has succeeded in penetrating an important segment of this market. Numbers tell the story of these two companies. While IAI’s revenues in 2012 were $3.3 billion, with a profit of $69 million, Embraer’s revenues that year were $6 billion, with a profit of $340 million. IAI’s failure to fulfill its great potential is a loss to the Israeli economy and its industry…. The question IAI management should now be pondering is: can it catch up with Embraer?[27]

The difference is clear: IAI was essentially developing advanced weaponry, while Embraer developed ancillary military equipment like transport aircraft.

But inducing Israeli reliance on US aerospace sector preeminence—and its deleterious effects on Israeli R&D—is only one side of this story. Shifting of Israeli procurement priorities in line with US corporate objectives also characterizes the two countries’ relationship, to the extent that Israel is effectively a captive market. The country’s most recent major arms procurement package strongly hints at such a state of affairs.

Ahead of a week-long official visit to Israel by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this past April, word began leaking to the press from unnamed US officials about an arms deal unprecedented in size, sensitivity and technological advancement, intended to supply the Saudis and the UAE to counter Iran while bolstering the IDF’s qualitative edge. Aside from the near-uniformly positive media coverage, the only peculiarity was that Israel had not solicited such a deal. Buried at the bottom of a Reuters report on “one of the most complex and carefully orchestrated arms sale packages in American history” (in the words of an anonymous US defense official, whose claim Reuters parroted uncritically) was the following detail:

Defense officials said the Congress had not been formally notified of the arms sale as part of the approval process. That will come once the different countries finalize their purchase decisions and submit formal letters of request.[28]

Ten days later, a somewhat more enlightening caveat came to light:

“The secretary probably meant to say that when the government of Israel is ready, it is welcome to submit letters of request for the mentioned systems,” a US defense source said.[29]

Among these indispensable appurtenances of national security was the plane/chopper hybrid V-22 Osprey, a $16.4 billion, 29-year “R&D nightmare” responsible for the accidental deaths of thirty US service-members,[30] along with the KC-135 Stratotanker, an outdated model that has also been involved in preventable US service-member deaths, [31] [32] and which “Israel declined at least twice in the past decade….due to the prohibitive cost of reconditioning slow and aging tankers.”[33] Nevertheless, headlines emphasized that Israel will be receiving the Osprey ahead of even the US Marines,[34] perhaps because the Pentagon determined that the Osprey has already killed enough of them.[35]

The package did include anti-radiation missiles and top-shelf radars, however. In a press conference with his Israeli counterpart, Hagel said

the United States will make available to Israel a set of advanced new….capabilities….which [it] has not released to any other nation.”[36]

Lest we find ourselves unable to dispel the sense here that the United States Secretary of Defense sounds disconcertingly like an infomercial huckster, it’s worth keeping in mind that his trip to Israel was part of a multi-country regional tour touting similar bargains—he’s more like a travelling salesman.

Indeed, Israeli defense officials “questioned the extraordinary publicity generated by typically closed-door deliberations”, and an Israeli defense industry executive wondered,

Are these capabilities destined only for us? And are they willing to deliver under terms and conditions that meet our immediate security needs? If the answer, as I suspect, is no, then you need to ask if our American friends generated the headlines and hype to rationalize their sales of very troubling advanced technology to our neighbors.[37]

But the neighbors are needy, if not always in a financial sense: post-WWII, the Israeli state is the only government between Morocco and Pakistan that hasn’t either been rent by popular uprisings, civil war, coups d’etat, or faced with other grave internal threats—including massive kleptocracy—to its long-term viability. Israel’s being a fellow democracy is less important than its fundamental competence, cohesion and reliability. In contrast, by virtue of the corruption and ineptitude of the Saudi regime, the very pumps and pipes that keep America running are some of the most precariously positioned infrastructure in the world.[38] Quite simply, partners like Israel are difficult to come by in the mideast. Mearsheimer and Walt have failed to ask fundamental questions.

They argue that Israel was a liability for the US during Desert Storm because “resources (e.g. Patriot missile batteries) [had to be diverted] to prevent Tel Aviv doing anything that might harm the alliance against Saddam Hussein”, which included key Arab countries. But the coalition against Saddam held, in part, because Israel agreed in historically unprecedented fashion to weather SCUD missile attacks on its cities without response, attacks provoked by the US rescue of Kuwait (essentially a petrol-wholesaler protectorate) in a display of immediate post-Iron Curtain triumphalism of no comparable benefit to Israel. Like all of Iraq’s neighbors, Israel benefited from a weakened Iraqi regime, but in this case Israeli life and vital infrastructure were subordinated to long-term US objectives. In terms of the danger one country’s imposition precipitates upon the other, Walt and Mearsheimer have their analysis exactly backwards.

They argue that “US efforts to limit nuclear proliferation appear…. hypocritical given its willingness to accept Israel’s nuclear arsenal,” as if any state has the option of not accepting another’s nukes once they exist, and as if Israel was open about its possession of them. But if non-proliferation is a US policy aim, then America is getting a two-for-the-price-of-one bargain by partnering with Israel, as preemptive IAF strikes on nascent nuclear reactors in both Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007) attest.

Similar success against Iran, however, appears unlikely without US involvement. Mearsheimer and Walt maintain that “Israel and its American supporters want the US to deal with any and all threats to Israel’s security [by doing] most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding and paying,” but in the case of Iranian nukes and which country would pay most dearly to prevent them, this analysis has the respective roles reversed once again. After all, “an Iranian nuclear breakout would pose first-order challenges to the stability of the entire global economic order via its impact on energy prices.”[39] Surely this isn’t a concern that was foisted on the US by Israel. And Israel can scarcely be implicated in the bulk of America’s sordid post-WWII record of involvement in Iran, which isn’t incidental to the ayatollahs’ pursuit of the bomb. But in the event either of a US or Israeli first strike, presumptive US strategic objectives—prevention of Iranian energy independence, reducing the ayatollahs’ geostrategic reach and their influence on the world energy market, or outright elimination of a traditional US adversary—will have been met at the risk of Israeli military and civilian life and critical infrastructure (all of which lie in range of Iranian ballistic missiles) while most Americans feel the pain at Wal-Mart and Chevron. Contra Mearsheimer and Walt, sheer dollar amounts do not always correlate with true cost.

Sources:

[1] “Poll of Arab World finds fear of US, Israel”, Tim Fitzsimons, GlobalPost, March 10, 2012

[2] “U.S. general: Israel-Palestinian conflict foments anti-U.S. sentiment”, Haaretz, March 17, 2010

[3] “A Prosecutorial Brief Against Israel and Its Supporters”, William Grimes, New York Times, September 6, 2007

[4] “Israel: Background and U.S. Relations”, Jim Zanotti, Congressional Research Service Report to Congress, November 1, 2013, p. 25

[5] See Glenn Greenwald in Salon, “The mainstreaming of Walt and Mearsheimer”, September 18, 2011

[6] “The Israel Lobby”, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, London Review of Books, March 23, 2006

[7] For this reason, the term appears in quotation marks throughout this paper

[8] Stephen Zunes elaborates on this angle of the debate in “The Israel Lobby: How Powerful is it Really?”, Mother Jones, May 17, 2006

[9] See, for example, “Jerusalem Syndrome”, Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs, November 2007

[10] According to data available on the website of the Center for Responsive Politics (opensecrets.org)

[11] Mearsheimer and Walt

[12] “U.S. Military Assistance and Arms Transfers to Israel: U.S. Aid, Companies Fuel Israeli Military”,  Frida Berrigan and William Hartung, World Policy Institute, July 20, 2006

[13] “What are Israel’s Loan Guarantees?”, Ed Finn, Slate, August 6, 2003

[14] Israel Ministry of Finance, September 30, 2012, http://ozar.mof.gov.il/debt/ext/char.asp

[15] “US extends loan guarantees to Israel for four more years”, Stuart Winer, The Times of Israel,October 25, 2012

[16] “Israel Has Dumped 46 Percent of Its U.S. Treasury Bills; Russia 95 Percent”, Terrence P. Jeffrey, cnsnews.com, September 19, 2011

9

[17] US Department of State, Office of the Historian, Milestones: 1989-1992, “The Madrid Conference”. Online.

[18] Martin Van Creveld, The Sword and the Olive, p. 274

[19] “Cost overruns have military facing ‘train wreck,’ McCain says”, cnn.com, February 24, 2009; see also “GE’s $3 Billion Pentagon Boondoggle”, Adam Weinstein, MotherJones, April 25, 2011

[20] “Israel Aircraft Industries Lavi” Ruud Deurenberg, Jewish Virtual Library

[21] Van Creveld, p. 274

[22] Deurenberg

[23] “Israelis Decide Not to Construct Lavi Jet Fighter”, Thomas Friedman, New York Times, August 31, 1987

[24] “Some of [IAI’s] best Israeli engineers are now working for aerospace companies around the world.” Moshe Arens, “A tale of two aerospace companies”, Haaretz, October 1, 2013

[25] Friedman

[26] Ibid

[27] Arens

[28] “U.S. near $10 billion arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE”, David Alexander, reuters.com, April 19, 2013

[29] “Israelis Slam US-Hyped Arms Package”, Barbara Opall-Rome, Defense News, April 29, 2013

[30] “Saving the Pentagon’s Killer Chopper-Plane”, Ron Berler, Wired, July 2005

[31] “History of fatal Fairchild KC-135 mishaps”, Rob Kauder, kxly.com, May 3, 2013

[32] “Air Force names airmen killed in Kyrgyzstan KC-135 crash”, Stars and Stripes, May 6, 2013

[33] Opall-Rome

[34] “Israel Bumps Marines, Will Receive 6 Ospreys in 2 Years”, Richard Sisk, DoD Buzz (online), November 1, 2013

10

[35] “Bodies of 19 Marines Recovered From Osprey Wreckage”, Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, American Forces Press Service, April 13, 2000

[36] Opall-Rome

[37] Ibid

[38] “The Fall of the House of Saud”, Robert Baer, The Atlantic, May 2003

[39] “Iranian Nukes and Global Oil”, Matthew Kroenig and Robert McNally, The American Interest, March 2013

[40] “Kerry says now the ‘best chance … in a decade’ for Iran nuclear deal”, Greg Botelho, cnn.com, November 20, 2013; see also “White House: Israeli demands on Iran nuke program will lead to war”, The Times of Israel, November 22, 2013

 

 

­

I was a Teenage Communist

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But how can you be certain they won’t have you?

I had been getting in fistfights with whoever crossed me, shoplifting, smoking cigarettes—the kind of behavior that amounts to a typical cry for help from your average fifth-grader.

Growing up in a snooty neighborhood next to a leftist university campus where affluence was something to be obscured or compensated for, I was initiated into contrived downward mobility from an early age. Pensive and cowardly, I tended to hang out with whomever would accept me. From the first grade on, I only made friends with the token, bussed-in poor kids (this was back when at least a few of those were white) who smelled like mildew and nicotine on Mondays, anti-lice shampoo from the school nurse’s office on Tuesdays and were wards of the county in some other school district on Wednesdays, their parents’ mugshots featured prominently on the evening news.

Actually, only one of them fits that description precisely.

Anyhow, other than afternoons up the street with the home-schooled kid who liked to sniff my butt and compare wieners (at six years old, I was pretty obliging), throughout elementary school my only regular play dates were with Reno, a perpetually toothless, wall-eyed scamp whose grandma bagged groceries to support him, his alcoholic mom and her racially varied gaggle—a veritable United Nations—of offspring by select VIPs of the county jail. She used to scare the shit out of me. Though not much taller than five feet, from my then pint-sized perspective she was a white trash Jabba the Hutt, bedsore-riddled and sprawled like so much viscous slop on a sweat saturated old velvet couch in a dusty, poorly lit living room strewn with crumpled Burger King wax paper and discarded ketchup packets.

Reno and I played with lighters and rusty nails underneath a big red-and-black swastika flag (which must’ve belonged to one of his mom’s boyfriends) in the garage, where I learned how to make sparks with a hammer. Though today that dilapidated house and all the others on the far side of the freeway are inhabited by hip, over-paying student renters and owned by a handful of absentee slumlords, this was back when poor people in Santa Carla could still manage to scrape enough to keep up payments on them. If my mom had known what went on inside, she might not be so outraged today about the sub-prime mortgage implosion. But then, her alimony money is dwindling nowadays. Back then she used to drop me out front and then drive off in the Beemer in a painkiller-induced haze, tires screeching, on her way to yoga or Neiman-Marcus.

Bussed-in kids like Reno had limited shelf life at Upper Westside Elementary. I myself, unable to penetrate the periphery of the tackle football alpha-group of other boys from snooty families, began punching other kids when they pissed me off and running off in the afternoons to hang out downtown with bus station runaways—shoplifting, drinking stale beers obtained from old homeless people and smoking pot. For my parents, the last straw came in the sixth grade, when Bobby Hoffman told everyone in school that I had a crush on Lulu Katan, which was true. One fine afternoon I caught him on his way home from school and, with a lit cigarette between my clenched teeth, snatched him by the proverbial lapels, thrust him onto the pavement, kicked him in the stomach a few times and introduced his bicycle to his face for good measure. He blubbered and howled for mercy while rubbernecking yuppie parents on their way home from picking up their children slowed their cars to a crawl, mouths agape. Nobody pulled over or tried to stop me though.

All that, and I still didn’t have the balls to talk to Lulu Katan.

Not only did the cops pay my doctor daddy a visit the next morning in his patient-filled waiting room but Bobby’s dad—a recent graduate of a prestigious law school—sent him a letter brandishing his credentials, convincing him that my educational needs would be much better met two towns over, at Valley Christian Middle School.

Now, whereas Santa Carla teems with sprout eating hippies and pot-smoking queers—not a few of whom teach primary school—Saddle Valley, home of Valley Christian, is all big-box stores, big-box churches and big-box homemakers, whose real-estate enterprises, chain franchises and husbands’ white collar gigs felch enough government pension and welfare money out of the local Section 8 trailer trash to keep themselves in golf clubs, Dooney-Bourke paraphernalia and Mercedes-Benzes. And among their sadistic, church-going Aryan progeny and that of their serfs, I was the only Jew.

It didn’t help that I was a supercilious little blabbermouth. I spent the first few months being slammed into lockers and having my head shoved in toilets by a welcoming committee of eighth-graders, current alcoholics and future high-school dropouts all. My fellow sixth-graders could not be called upon for assistance, as a handful of them were busy pelting me with rocks and calling me “Jew-faggot” every day at recess…and in PE class…and in homeroom, where they passed me notes that read “Jew faggot.” At recess I used to walk around with a Mexican kid who didn’t speak English.

One summer long before all this, my parents had tried sending me to Jew camp out by Yosemite, but I threw a vicious tantrum and, like typical bourgeois self-esteem parents, they relented. Instead of Jew-camp, I spent several consecutive summers perusing downtown bookstores and watching MTV (I had long ago had enough of having my butt sniffed by the kid up the street). I read a lot of history, so late in the sixth grade I started raising my hand and speaking in history class. Now the other sixth-grade boys not only hated me, they sensed in me something repugnant and suspected me of something god-awful. What exactly, they couldn’t be sure, since they understood nary a word I said.

Every week a local cop guest-speaker would give a lecture about the omnipresent specter of illegal substances. Aware (from fliers posted on bus benches) of all the ingenious little bullet-point factoids of the pro-legalization degenerates on the local university campus, whenever it came time for Q&A at the end of each week’s lecture I would pester the lieutenant with smarmy little objections to the war on drugs, invariably getting myself ejected to the principle’s office.

Then there was speech class with Mrs. Willard, who exuded vindictiveness every morning from beneath her eyeless smile. A kitsch-enamored Puritan with (I imagine) a pink polo-shirt clad husband who plays golf every weekend rather than being dragged along on antique-store outings, it was apparently all she could do to keep the crow’s feet from spreading across her face like crackling dust-bowl topsoil each time she squinted, appalled, in my direction. Her assignments consisted of reciting passages from Chicken Soup for the Soul (too much bible and the ACLU would’ve been on her, I guess). Whenever I raised my hand she would flash me that icy, passive-aggressive once-over that you sometimes get from pissed-off gay men. Of course I hadn’t done anything wrong, I merely bore the stigmata of alienation and incredulity that her type has eyes for the way only dogs can hear certain high-pitched sounds.

One week our assignment was to bring a book and read a favorite passage in front of the class, using a costume or prop of some kind to emphasize our chosen book’s theme.

Arriving on the morning in question, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t gotten the memo: everyone else was reading passages from illustrated children’s books, as opposed to my somewhat more advanced selection. Rather than panic, I assured myself that my smooth grasp of college-level material would propel me to a higher grade than the girl who had decked herself out in an elaborate, sparkly green homemade tree costume and read from The Giving Tree, or the one dressed like a mouse who recited a passage of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. When my turn came, I soberly approached the little podium and solemnly began to read a three-page passage of Live from Death Row by Mumia Abu-Jamal, describing a vicious beating of the author at the hands of prison guards and his resulting, simultaneous vomiting and defecation of blood. As I read aloud I thought to myself, I’ll tell these chipper little automatons what life is really all about. Now we’re getting somewhere—now we’re really learning. I felt vindicated by the gape-jawed stares of the other pupils. College level, bitches. College level.

All was going smoothly when, a few sentences past the part about simultaneously vomiting and defecating blood, I found myself being hoisted by the ear and dragged out into the hallway to be slapped across the face repeatedly by Mrs. Willard, who alternated front and backhand as if attempting to fend off a gang rape by the Three Stooges.

Sometime in the seventh grade, a new kid appeared in homeroom. Chad Sweeny’s father was (and still is) filthy rich. He owns car dealerships and used to feature himself in cheesy TV commercials. He left Chad’s mom in the middle of her chemotherapy, for a trophy wife half his age.

Somewhere on my mom’s bookshelf, between the Robert Mapplethorpe coffee-table book and 20th Century Masters of Erotic Art was an illustrated pamphlet entitled “Introducing Marxism.” I brought it to school to show Chad and we decided we’d become communists, which we vaguely understood to be menacing and naughty. But it wasn’t enough to simply be communists. We sensed (quite astutely) an imperative to take decisive action on behalf of the proletariat. So, to announce the arrival of the revolution at Valley Christian, we torched a big American flag in the quad over by the principle’s office.

I could’ve sworn I had once heard some university students on the city bus talking about having received credit for a lower division Poli-Sci class assignment by doing the exact same thing at their school, so when Chad and I were dragged to the principle’s office, I was certain I could assuage the consternation of the authorities by educating them, enumerating the untold injustices of the corporatocracy and its stranglehold on US foreign policy, in regard to which, I assumed, any reasonable person would reach the same conclusions that Chad and I had reached, if only someone were thoughtful enough to inform them.