James Edward Johnson

my thoughts from right to left

Archive for March 2008

Our irony.

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There is much irony in the status of American Jews. We are arguably better off than any sizable population of Jews anywhere in the world throughout history. American Jews are nonetheless justifiably defensive. We are defensive because we need not look far to see the fragility of our privilege.

Last week’s news alone illuminated this fragility. On one hand, classical anti-Semitism is alive and well in the world. In Russia, the birthplace of many anti-Semitic tropes, the blood libel reared it ugly head again. In Russia’s third largest city, Novosibirsk, Haaretz reported that dozens of homes were plastered with posters warning, among other things that, “These vermin are still performing rituals, stealing small children and draining their blood to make their sacred bread.” For a long time, such lies served as the basis for waves of anti-Jewish pogroms. For those who are unfamiliar, not only is cannibalism clearly unacceptable in Jewish law, but consuming blood of even kosher animals is prohibited. Most anti-Semitism relies on mixing a small amount of truth into the lies, but this total lie persists even today in places, like Russia, where it is hardly novel.

On the other hand, a newer anti-Semitism is on the rise in Western Europe – largely re-imported by Muslim immigrants. I use the term “re-imported” because classical anti-Semitism was brought to the Arab and Islamic world from Europe in 1840. The blood libel appeared in Damascus in that year and was blended with certainpre -existing anti-Jewish sentiments to form this new anti-Semitism. It was strengthened by the Nazi influence in the region leading up to and during WWII. Today, this new anti-Semitism is coming home to Europe.

This second news story is not about Jews per se. It is about the consequences that have been felt by those involved in the Muhammad cartoon controversy. I connect the two because I have a friend who lives in Denmark, and I know a family that lived in the Netherlands. My friend in Denmark cannot wear a Star of David around her neck because of fear of Islamic violence. The family from the Netherlands came here, in part, out of fear of anti-Semitic violence. The violence stirred by the controversy and the violence felt by those I know is the same thing. It is also the violence that has chasedSalman Rushdie into years of hiding.

The New York Times reports that the cartoonist who made the cartoon with a bomb in Muhammad’s turban, Kurt Westergaard, has been through five safehouses and that a plot to kill him was revealed last month. A man with the same name as the editor who published the cartoons, Flemming Rose, has had to change his name. Ironically,Westergaard has produced cartoons that are arguably far more disrespectful towards Jews and Christians. Even Westergaard admits regret at creating a cartoon that depicted a Palestinian Arab wearing a yellow star – a reference to the yellow stars worn by Jews during the Holocaust. The New York Times details multiple incidents of censorship in Western Europe prompted largely by fear of Islamic violence.

I have no doubt that the European majority hates Arabs and Turks and Muslims far more than they hate Jews. The hatred of Muslims in Europe is unequivocally wrong and indefensible. But, it is the Jews who are leaving out of fear of racist violence – not the Arabs or Turks or Muslims. We may be less hated by the European majority, but we are more at risk of violence because of the hatred that exists against us.

This is why American Jews raise the issue of anti-Semitism in America, sometimes at the risk of appearing overly defensive. We want to raise awareness of the problem before we, like our European (and South American – but that is for another time) family, feel the pressure to leave our homes. It is also why many of us are not sympathetic to those who feel that we allege anti-Semitism unfairly. When I know Jews who cannot wear symbols of their faith because of fear of violence, it is hard for me to take seriously that I am censoring people when I merely raise the possibility that they are encouraging anti-Semitism. Read the New York Times article on the real censorship taking place violently in Europe, and then we can talk about what censorship is and whether Jews are being too defensive.


Written by JamesEJ

Monday, March 24, 2008 at 12:41 am

Posted in antisemitism, judaism

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An Arab Muslim who is sensitive to the Jewish people.

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Shams Ghoneim is a good person. She is sensitive to Jewish concerns in ways that many are not.

During debate on the Johnson County Democratic Platform last weekend, one plank echoed the charge that Jews are not loyal Americans. The plank was shrouded in coded language, likely to mislead innocent observers. However, it was the same kind of Jew-baiting coded language that Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh and America First used to stir anti-Jewish incitement in the US leading up to WWII. While most who ultimately supported the plank undoubtedly did so innocently, they also did so with a lack of sensitivity towards Jews and the history of anti-Semitism.

Shams, despite obvious peer pressure to the contrary, did a simple thing that demonstrated deep compassion and understanding towards the Jewish people. She refused to support that coded language. She is willing to display, publicly, that she is unwilling to help those who are insensitive to our concerns, even when they are superficially “on her side.”

Shams and I have serious disagreements. But, she can set aside those disagreements and make difficult choices when necessary. She is an asset to the Iowa City community, the Muslim community, and the Arab community. She may not be a member of the Jewish community, but because of her courage, she is an asset to our community as well.

Postscript: The foregoing is a letter I wrote that was published in the Iowa City Press-Citizen today. My initial submission did not explain the details of last weekend’s Johnson County Democratic Convention and much of the second paragraph was omitted. It is not my desire to unfairly criticize the Johnson County Democratic Party. I am already exchanging e-mails with those who I feel were most responsible for this troubling language, and I hope we can reconcile our differences. I also want to note that there were a couple people who spoke for “our side” on this issue Saturday. They were not Jewish and, prior to Saturday, were not known to “our side.” They were moved by our concerns to speak in our favor. They represent what I think of when I think of Democrats generally. I was worried that I might have written something very different coming out of the platform debate. People like Shams, and these other gentiles who care about our sensitivities, preserved the integrity of the local Democratic Party and acted in a manner consistent with historic Democratic interests in diversity and sensitivity towards minority populations.

Written by JamesEJ

Saturday, March 22, 2008 at 9:23 am

The Gaza prison camp.

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Nonie Darwish was raised in Gaza and her father was a Fedayeen Jihadi militant who was assassinated by Israel.  She places blame for Gaza’s prison-like conditions squarely on Arab states.  She writes in the Huffington Post, ” Arabs claim they love the Palestinian people, but they seem more interested in sacrificing them.”

It is worth reading her words.  They are illuminating.  Read ‘The Gaza Prison Camp’ by Nonie Darwish in the Huffington Post.

Written by JamesEJ

Tuesday, March 18, 2008 at 9:59 pm

Posted in israel

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How would you handle a terrorist?

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What is the ethical way to treat a terrorist, and when innocents are killed in stopping terrorists, who is responsible? I have a set of hypotheticals that I use to address the question.

The basic situation is this: A man is shooting into a crowd. He is using another person as a shield. You have a gun. What do you do? Assume you cannot kill the terrorist with certainty AND avoid killing the human shield with certainty.

Minor modifications to the question make it suited to any real world situation. Does it matter if the human shield is there willingly? What if the shield is a child of the shooter? An accomplice of the shooter? An innocent bystander?

What if the shooter has bad aim – most of his shots hit no one and most of the hits only cause casualties but not deaths? What if you expect that waiting will increase your chances of a “clean” kill where the human shield escapes unharmed? How long would you wait? How many people would you let get maimed or killed before shooting the shooter (and putting his human shield at risk)?

So imagine you shoot, kill the shooter, and maim or kill his human shield? Who is morally responsible for that person’s death? Does it matter if the human shield was a willing accomplice?

Personally, I would not hesitate to shoot. I would disable the murderer before he had an opportunity to kill again. If he was obviously a very bad shot, and there was little risk to his targets, I might pause for a better shot that would be less likely to harm the human shield. But such pause would have to come with a significant expectation that it would save lives on net. If the human shield were a willing accomplice I would not hesitate. In any event, any harm to the human shield would be a moral burden to the one using him or her as such. I would have sorrow if I killed either the shooter or the human shield, but the moral guilt would not be mine.

In the Israeli-Arab conflict – particularly in Gaza – this is the moral dilemma. The shooters are Palestinian Arab terrorists and their sponsoring organizations. The human shields are Palestinian Arab civilians, many of whom are, sadly, willing accomplices. The crowd is the Jewish people – the vast majority of them are innocent Jews. When I look at Palestinian Arab terrorists and the frequent hesitation of the Israeli government, I can easily put Israel in the moral right. I would rarely hesitate half as long.

Some will say that my hypothetical does not consider the oppression Palestinian Arabs suffer. Palestinian Arabs indeed suffer under Israeli security measures. But, think back to the hypothetical. Do you really care about the grievances of the shooter? He is shooting into a crowd of innocents. A motive may explain how a heinous act happened, but it cannot excuse it.

Written by JamesEJ

Tuesday, March 11, 2008 at 7:57 pm

Posted in israel

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Karl Rove is a tool. Protesters are major tools.

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I just checked out the protest of Karl Rove here at the IMU at the University of Iowa. I went to document any anti-Semitic signs or messages. To their credit, the UI Antiwar Committee appears to have suppressed such messages. Last year, they were not so effective. At a major antiwar protest, one protester carried a sign that blamed the Jews for 9/11. Oops!

The normal entrance to the main ballroom where the event was to be held was reserved for protesters. Attendees had to enter using the main entrance. Entering that way, attendees had to walk through a narrow gauntlet lined with protesters. The protesters were pretty lame and their signs and chants were too. It isn’t hard to attack someone like Karl Rove. People like me who can find value in conservative politics find none of it in Karl Rove. Only those narrow Republican partisans really like him, and then, only because he can get people elected.

What disappointed me most is the lecture committee. Last year, when Jimmy Carter came to visit, I worked with Hillel to get some table space at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where he was speaking. We were given a flat “no.” and were relegated to handing out leaflets outside. We did not want to protest, but we did want to present information critical of Jimmy Carter’s recent attack on Israel.

I suppose that the Lecture Committee didn’t worry about whether a bunch of Jews would be disruptive and was comfortable pushing us off. The Committee was apparently more interested in appeasing a group of loudmouths with a history of attracting Jew-haters. What a bunch of cowards.

Written by JamesEJ

Sunday, March 9, 2008 at 9:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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The vicious barbarians of Hamas.

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My friend, Adam, is safe. The reason why that is newsworthy is that he is pursuing his rabbinical studies in Jerusalem right now.

When I saw the news of the terror attack on a yeshiva (a Jewish religious school) in Jerusalem today, I was immediately concerned for my friend. Fortunately, just seconds later, when I read that the shooting took place at Mercaz HaRav, I felt the guilty relief that my friend was not likely among the dead. When my wife and I saw him in Jerusalem last summer, he told us about the places where he studied. Mercaz HaRav was not one of them and it would have been extremely unlikely that he would have been studying there. Not long thereafter, I saw that his Gmail status said he was safe and at home.

It did not take long, however, before my guilty relief was washed away. Gaza’s streets had turned into spontaneous celebrations at the news. Hamas announced, “We bless the [Jerusalem] operation. It will not be the last.” This is the difference between the dominant cultures in Israel and in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Just last week, Israelis held rallies calling for restraint in Israel’s Gaza operations. When Palestinian Arabs die, Israelis do not celebrate. Even when we find it necessary to go to war, we lament the deaths of our enemies. When Jews are murdered, Palestinian Arab militants and their supporters cheer. Most likely, these events will only bring tougher security measures on Palestinian Arabs, and yet the militants and enemies of peace among them celebrate.

Some people complain often about Israel’s security measures and military operations. Their arguments rely heavily on the assymetry of power between Israel and, say, Hamas. My simple response is that we should thank God that Israel is far more powerful. Because, what underlies this power assymetry is a deep morality assymetry. Israelis care about Jewish lives and Arab lives enough to seek to minimize deaths on both sides. Palestinian Arab militants hate life so much that they seek to maximize innocent deaths on both sides. Where Israel takes precautions to avoid killing innocent bystanders, Palestinian Arab militants target innocents like they did today and like they do every day when they launch rockets into Israeli population centers. Where Israel tries to protect its population from the ravages of war, Palestinian Arab militants shelter themselves behind human shields drawn from their own population. Where Israel protects accused Palestinian Arab militants with rights under domestic and international law, Palestinian Arab militants either torture and kill Israeli military personnel upon capture or hold them for ransom in violation of all laws regarding the treatment of POWs.

There is no comparison in the morality of these two sides. Israelis suffer grievous harm because of the disgusting immorality of Palestinian Arab militants. But, even moreso, the innocents who are simply trying to live in Gaza and the West Bank suffer the some of the most terrible inhumanities because they must live at the vicious whims of Palestinian Arab militants.

If you doubt this, consider these facts and the sources that lie behind them:

Israel takes care to minimize risks to Palestinian Arab civilians and ensure that responses are proportionate (pdf).

Israel gives terror suspects many rights – considerably more rights than terror suspects have in the US – even in spite of the greater risk from terror in Israel (pdf).

Palestinian Arab militants, particularly Hamas, make extensive use of Palestinian Arab civilians as human shields.

Written by JamesEJ

Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 8:10 pm

Posted in israel

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Deace gives Christians a bad name.

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I listen to both NPR and 1040 WHO. NPR is generally to my left and WHO is generally to my right. On my way home, I usually listen to NPR. But, occasionally, I turn to WHO. When I do, Steve Deace is commonly on the air. Such was the case this evening.

Almost every time I tune in to his show, Deace is railing against homosexuality. His language is overwrought with heavy-handed appeals to sectarian Christian values. He reminds me of those Christians who would confront me growing up. Back then, my understanding of God was simplistic and I affirmatively rejected God and Christianity. I was attacked as a non-believer by the Christians at school and so I responded with similar hostility.

One particularly unpleasant run-in happened when I was a sophomore at Urbandale High School in 1993. I gave a speech on tolerance towards homosexuals. The first question I got, in front of the teacher and the entire class was, “Are you a faggot?” The teacher tried to intervene in my defense, but I would have none of it. The last thing you want as a kid is to rely on a teacher to protect you. It makes you a mark for bullies. Instead I used my presence at the front of the class to humiliate the student who questioned me. I said something along the lines of, “Well, even if I were, you would have nothing to worry about. You aren’t that attractive, and it would be very easy to do better.”

My animus against Christians motivated me to study Catholicism (all my attackers were Protestant) and Judaism. I made sure I knew more about the history of Christianity than my Christian attackers. When I was confronted, I wouldn’t defend myself as much as I would humiliate them with their ignorance. Given that kids don’t learn much in confirmation and many of my attackers hadn’t even completed confirmation, humiliating them was easy. And when it came down to it, I was quick to call them hurtful names, usually in combination with a profanity or two, that insulted their inelligence.

Every time I hear Steve Deace, I am reminded of that punk kid in my speech class. I am a better person now, but he always reminds me of the spiteful person I once was. His homophobic rants remind me of the worst kind of Christian-based hatred I experienced growing up. I know better now, and most Christians are not hateful. But as a child growing up, it was much harder to distinguish between decent Christians and hateful ones. In another post, I will discuss more at length why Steve Deace is horribly wrong about homosexuality and gay marriage. For now, I want to share what I wrote to him:


Listening to your show today, you reminded me why I am not a Christian. Your sectarian intolerance is downright appalling. Fortunately, I have met many decent Christians who have rehabilitated the borderline hateful view of Christianity and God I developed growing up. I was once a hard-core atheist. I am now a believing Jew in spite of Christians like you. It is only by learning that God is greater than what is offered by your narrow and hateful view, that my rehabilitation has been possible.

I was wondering, what do you think of Jews like me? I believe Jesus was at worst a myth and at best a Pharisee and a Rabbi who learned the teachings of the Rabbi Hillel and spread many of them to his followers. In any event, it is my belief that Adonai alone is God and that Adonai is One. Jesus is not God and nothing on earth can be God. I don’t think Christians are against God, I just think Christians are wrong about God. Most Christians are good people who have an equal share in the world to come.

I know that this is against your view of your bible. Based on what you have said on your show, I can only imagine that you see my faith as being “evil” because it is against your god, just as you see homosexuality as “evil” because it is against your god. I would be interested in your comments in this regard.

James Eaves-Johnson

Written by JamesEJ

Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 11:29 pm

Posted in judaism

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