The Hard Jewish Anti-Zionist Left: Lousy Allies & Gas Lighting Anti-Semitism


Something incendiary I wrote for the Forward about the radical Jewish left and hard anti-Zionism, going after Jews, and gas lighting anti-Semitism helping no one, not Jews and the Jewish community, and not the intersectional Jewish left. Michelle Goldberg writes about it at the NYT, which you can read here. Anti-Semitism on the left is a gift to the American right, the American Jewish right, and Israeli right. In their antipathy to Israel and to Zionism, Jewish radicals won’t recognize anti-Semitism unless it hits them in the face. I don’t think Rep. Omar is an anti-Semite. I want to think she got caught in the bad place to be that is in the middle. She should not have taken the bait from Glenn Greenwald, should not have answered Batay Ungar-Sargon, and did the right thing to walk her comments back. But her her allies were furious. As they escalate by going after the Forward, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is the hero of this entire episode.

Is there any interest in on the anti-Zionist left to de-escalate? My problem is less with Rep. Omar and what she said now that she has walked it back, and more about her “allies” on the intersectional left and hard anti-Zionist Jewish left. Expecting severe critical push back, I invite you  to read the entire piece here. This the basic point:

“Jews on the intersectional left are allies without allies. For the far left doesn’t take Jews, Jewish history, the history of Zionism, and anti-Semitism seriously. They don’t think anti-Semitism is systemic. While making much of their own good intentions, they don’t see how anti-Semitism is structural, and deny that it is still a problem. They conflate Jews with whiteness, money, and power; and Israel with racism, colonialism, and genocide. And here’s where the anti-Zionist Jewish left comes in, playing the role of ‘useful idiots,’ an old term of art in Stalinist circles.”

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Islamic Ornament & The Spiritual in Art (Oleg Grabar)


Just finished reading Oleg Grabar’s The Mediation of Ornament for a survey class on Religion and Art. Written by one the great art historians of Islamic art, The Mediation of Ornament is more like a meditation after a career long immersion into this visual material. By way of methodology, Grabar intentionally brackets historical-genetic interpretations as well as questions relating to the social position and function of Islamic ornament, or the taxonomies of individual motifs and formal analysis. Not inattentive to these contextual framings, Grabar’s methodological focus is on the ornament itself and the visual impression made by ornament upon the human viewer/user. The results are speculative in the deepest sense of the word.

Of signal interest is the way this study helps the reader better grasp the dialectical relations between religion, art, and larger spiritual matrices, art emerging from out of religion, into larger spiritual matrices, and then back into religion. By “religion I mean to refer here for the purpose of this analysis particular and culturally specific ideas, belief, rites, law and other institutions relating to God and the orientation of a human community around God). By matrix I mean some spiritual or cosmic super-dimension sensed as permeating the physical order. About this, more below.

For now, we start with the observation that ornamental design, as understood by Grabar is a mediating figure. By this he means something simple and something complex. At the most simple level of things, ornamental figures are applied to objects. They mediate; they sit between the object and the viewer/user. They draw the viewer/user towards the object they cover and whose space they fill. Far more speculative is what follows. At some point over the course of decades of meticulous observation, ornamental figures of applied art turn into daemonic figures. With an explicit allusion to Plato’s Symposium and the mediating figure of eros in the introduction to this study, Grabar’s sober art historical point of reflection spins off into wild and wooly speculation about energy, life-energy, and the elsewhere of the afterlife.


There are two related terms to define. “Decoration” refers to “anything, even whole mosaic or sculpted programs, applied to an object or beginning” Related to decoration, “ornament” is  that aspect of decoration which appears not to have another purpose but to enhance its carrier (the object) (p.5) Associated with adorning, ornament implies effective completion of an object or act, i.e. perfection. By associating ornament with perfection, Grabar has taken one step into medieval metaphysics and theology, without, however, having to do so. In this analysis, the action is to decorate an object, while ornament is that part of the act that brings to completion [p.26]. From Gombrich, Grabar also understand ornament to be the treatment of a surface, the filling, framing, and linking of  space, but also, for Grabar, to transform that space and its carrier (p.41) A simple substance, a stony substance, is transformed into something elegant, beautiful, sensuous, more perfect, more powerful. In doing this, ornament carries beauty and pleasure while filtering messages, meanings, signs, symbols that are NOT inherent in the form of the ornament itself (p.227). Ornament strengthens bond between user/viewer and the material object by enhancing the visual pleasure of looking at it (p.230).



[1] Writing as ornament, i.e. ornamental writing. Ornament in writing evokes control and forcefulness (p.230). Is the script legible or illegible? It would seem that so much of Islamic ornamental writing is not immediately legible, even to speakers and readers at home in the language. This kind of ornament conveys a message but more than that [p.98, 101]. In deluxe manuscripts, the writing is reduced to almost illegible. The script hides in and peeks out between geometric squares full of vegetal figures. The text is not intended to be read. The effect is “monoptic,” i.e. to be taken in at one glance to make a visible impression prior to reading and semantic comprehension.

[2] Architecture, i.e. architectural figures used in ornament. Architectual figures determine relations between the inside from outside. They signal importance (p.193). And also boundaries and protection, authority and and power (p.230)

[3] Geometric figures evoke regular figures creating regular patterns (p.130).And also order. order (p.230). Apart from that, Grabar resists reading geometric ornament in terms of thematic or doctrinal messages or correlates. What is given is simply the creation of richness of material and tacticle feel, alson with enchantment, psychic involvement, freedom, and thinking.

[4] Nature, i.e. vegetal and animal figures evoke growth and movement, the raw life of nature, but in dream-like and unreal figurations that heighten the visual impact (pp.217, 221, 224). .


Reading Grabar with critical attention, we can deduce three logical relations by which we might want to understand art in relation to “religion” and to “spiritual matrix,” as we have tentatively defined these above. The first relation is the act of severing the relation between religion and art, in this case ornament. Second is the integration of the aesthetic material into a larger spiritual matrix. Third is the integration of religion into that matrix by reintegrating the art and the spiritual matrix in art back into religion. This third relation goes entirely missing in The Mediation of Ornament. I tried looking for it in The Formation of Islamic Art and couldn’t find it there.

Here are the three steps:


The referential relationship between ornament and “religion” is first severed in Grabar’s analysis of ornament and in ornament itself. Let’s assume that this is not just his subjective viewpoint, but that he’s onto something important about ornament itself, or at least about ornament in Islamic cultures. Grabar give us to consider how Islamic ornament itself is unhinged from direct reference to “religion.” Ornament makes no appeal to real organization in the world. It creates its own order. In relation to religion, geometric and floral ornament in Islamic art makes no one-to-one reference to the written text of revelation or to beliefs and rituals. Throughout the entirety of The Mediation of Ornament, Grabar will be found resisting symbolic, iconographic readings of ornament. Vegetal motifs do not refer to Paradise. Geometric ornamentation does not refer to the unicity of God in Islamic theology, and so on and so on. This is most obvious in artworks that are “secular,” that have no religious function per se, but which ornament the objects and ornament the lives of princes and courtiers and other members of the dominant ruling class (things like rugs, drinking cups, ceramic bowls, and lusterware). It’s also true of the ornament that works to enhance mosques.


Grabar’s interest in ornament is not simply art for art’s sake, ornament for the sake of ornament. About the material, Grabar looks upon ornament in relation to a spiritual matrix, one that is bigger than “religion,” and which undergirds and permeates life and the meaning of existence. Readers should note the register of Grabar’s writing stepping up. As much as Grabar resists religious or symbolic interpretations of Islamic ornament, he keeps coming back again and again to the language of “life,” “energy,” “eternal life,” “transformation” and “elsewhere” in his art interpretation.

The word “matrix” is my own. I could also call it “the spiritual in art.” To be sure, Grabar never uses either term or theorizes about his own performance of this dimensionality as such. Reading into Grabar analysis of Islamic ornament, what I am calling matrix is something not unlike what Shahab Ahmed in What is Islam? calls “pre-text.” By pre-text Ahmed means a larger truth or dimension that is prior to and behind the written text of Islamic revelation. As per Ahmed, The relation between Text and Pre-Text is the relation between the Seen and the Unseen. Beyond Quran, law and so-called essentials of faith like the five pillars of Islamic devotion, Ahmed sees the Pre-Text of revelation, an Unseen matrix of power and meaning evoked in scholastic rationalism, Sufi mysticism, erotic love poetry and the culture of wine drinking, and also Islamic art. Not simply to be looked upon as elite phenomena, Ahmed sees this reflex widely defused throughout a complex of Islamic cultures extending from the Balkans to the Bengal. If I am justified in reading Ahmed and Grabar in tandem, then it would be the case that Grabar’s analysis lends this speculative concept or dimension a more intensely involved visual aspect.

About this spiritual matrix in ornamental writing, Grabar points our attention to those frequent examples when the script becomes harder and harder to read and where the visual impression lifts off semantic meaning. “It is as though the point of the writing is no longer the concrete message of its words, but something else…It is rather as though an unbridled energy transformed letters into floral designs, combatting heroes, smiling faces, or severe linear compositions” (p.101). Grabar insists that none of this is about religion as narrowly conceived, or to be read as revelation or as esoteric mystical doctrine. Instead, ornament is more profoundly woven into fabrics of classical Muslim life. Grabar goes on to say that ornament in writing evokes “the transient nature of life and on the mediating power of the community in making possible the preparation for another life, the true and only life. Words, spoken, but especially written, held the whole community and later a number of independent communities together. They were the natural cement or glue of society. But their importance was not in themselves, it was rather in their mediation between several different lives or levels of living, this life and eternal life, the life of the simple man [sic] and the authority of the ruler, the life of toil and the desire for pleasure” (p.111).

About geometric ornament, it reaches a limit past which it can become formulaic, according to Grabar. To avoid this, he looks to geometric folk art traditions, especially weaving and textile traditions associated with women. Geometry remains “powerfully creative” when aligned with “continuous life forces of society.”  “Geometry really works only as an intermediary. As an intermediary, it leaves to the viewer or user a freedom of choice no other intermediary seems to offer. In this respect, as a harbinger of free choice, geometry is a most dangerous mediator. It forces one to look and to decide what to think, what to feel, and even how to act.” Here, we might add, is how ornament has nothing to do with conventional religion. Grabar continues, “[I]t rarely forces us to do anything precise and concrete like sleep or pray.” For instance, “Humble triangles on a dress or in the weaving of a basket or the very sophisticated brick walls of Iranian towers share an ability to make us wonder what they mean, because, like moths or butterflies, we are attracted to an abstraction that seems to be devoid of cultural specificity. It is only meant to be beatify” (p.154).

But is that all there is to ornament, only to beautify? Just earlier, Grabar writes about geometric ornament in terms of “passage” between worlds. In a speculative voice, there he wrote how the “beautiful Timurid walls circumscribe some other space than the observers and make it desirable or admirable. The muqarnas of a Mamluk gate is the threshold between two worlds. The multifaceted cup or ewer adds to the pleasure of drinking from it. In all cases, the geometry is a passage, at best a magnet, to something else that it does not identify which the culture deems desirable. Inside palaces or mausoleums, as in the royal tombs near Rabat or in the Alhambra with rich textures of geometric designs, it is a passage toward the functions of living or awaiting eternal life that is expressed by geometric forms” (ibid.). In this tradition and in this analysis, beauty is spiritual.

In architectural figures of mosques that appear in Islamic ornament, the reference is not to specific buildings. The function of this ornament as it appears in a Quranic codex is to signal “importance and uniqueness by physically and visually separating it from its surrounding or by inciting in the user a sentiment of awe, perhaps of holiness, certainly of anticipatory and sensory pleasure, as he opened the book.” Here is the intimation of “a force of presence and a solidity of power or of authority that is transmitted to whatever is connected with it.” Grabar insists that the pleasure here is not “paradisiacal in the afterlife.” But this is a strange thing to say because, as per his own analysis, they evoke “the dream that life can be as beautiful as one imagines Paradise to be and as sacred texts have said it is.” The key point is this. Ornamental figures “evoke rather than represent.”

Nature in ornamental figures such as trees, grapes, vine, scrolls, birds and animals is not supposed to represent life and eternal life, but rather evokes life and eternal life. With his eye on traditional and contemporary art criticism in China, Grabar writes about “a sense of growth and movement” and “a feeling” of “life forces.” Vegetation and other natural figures transform “everything [they touch] into something…It always leads everywhere and yet hauntingly comes back as an evocation of life, a form that, most of the time, appears in movement, as though, like life, it had a beginning and an end.” In this transformation, the object covered in ornament now “vibrates” with vegetal or animal life. Just life? Ornament from nature “always leads elsewhere than toward itself.” (p.224).

This second register is the one that heightened by Grabar’s enthusiasm and energy, as if in his art historical writing he seeks to channel for us, to communicate the . life force that saturates ornamental figures. If he is right in his subjectively felt response to the visual impact of ornamental objects and figures, then we have learned something about the spiritual in art, in the case relating to the power of ornament to transform objects, the cold hard surface and material structure.



Grabar clearly wants to hold conventional religion at a critical distance. But there is a third formal relation between religion, art, and the spiritual matrix in art that goes entirely missing in this animated and animating study of ornament. This is the inflection point at which ornament as super-matrix is re-attached or reintegrated into “religion.” To use Ahmed’s terminology, Grabar’s meditation on Islamic ornament gets to the Pre-Text and Con-Text of Revelation, while occluding questions regarding the Text of Revelation, i.e. religion.

What Grabar’s exploration of ornament as visual presence would tell us about religion is that the relation between “religion” and spiritual super-matrix is complex. They are not identical. They are distinct without being entirely separable. They allude to each other and intertwine. Ornament cuts across all sectors of Islamic culture, leaving us to wonder whether or not religious things like the shahada, prayer, alms, fasting during Ramadan, and hajj are themselves ornamental figures, not “mere” ornament qua decoration, but ornament in the deeper spiritual sense intended by Grabar.

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Gentiles Must Think Jews Are Out Of Our Minds


I live in something of a Jewish bubble, so I often find myself wondering what gentile family, friends, colleagues, and students think when Jewish social media goes off the rails every so often or with great frequency concerning Israel or anti-Semitism. I mean, not the anti-Semites, or the committed anti-Zionists. They make themselves clear. But offline, I never ask anyone directly. It would be rude to put someone on the spot, and I refuse to do it. It is an awkward silence. You/they must think we’re out of our minds.

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Velocity of Animal Flesh and the Art of Empire (Delacroix)


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The big Delacroix at the Met is long gone, but I wanted to post just this bit here. On the one hand, there’s a lot that’s boring about his painting, but when you compare it with the preceding Neoclassicism of David, we begin to see many things that are unique and even interesting about France and the nineteenth century. The first has to do with the fleshiness of the flesh, particularly in terms of the turn to the female nude, but not just. The second concerns concerns animal bodies, represented here by horses and tigers and lions. The third is the velocity of these bodies, particularly in the scenes of Arab horsemen, the fusion of riders and their mounts, and the tangle of bodies, those of the hunters and those of the hunted. The third relates to something that resembles journalism, these being figures drawn from the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottomans. The fourth concerns the Orient and orientalism, Arab figures who are the object of the painter’s gaze and those who return the gaze. Delacroix allows us to see that romanticism, not the Enlightenment neoclassicism, is the consummate art of empire, that all of these points of human and animal interest are inseparable, and that these relate to different kind of bodies and different corporeal intensities. And, lest I forget, drama, represented by scenes from Shakespeare and Goethe, not a little of which pervades the entire ambient atmosphere.

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Messianic & Sacrificial Logic of Anti-Zionism (Hermann Cohen & Yoel Teitelbaum)

sacrificial altar

Anti-Zionism was once a consensus across the Jewish ideological spectrum. But so what? Consider two key examples are the classical liberal vision of Hermann Cohen as reflected in the Religion of Reason and in the Va’Yoel Moshe of Yoel Teilebaum, the Satmar rebbe. Both texts were written at times of or on the traumatic heels of great Jewish suffering, the other more terrible than the one. Both thinkers situate this suffering in larger religious frames. Astonishing really are the common binding motifs that connect two such distinctly different thinkers. These are: Jewish suffering, messianism, and sacrifice.

Cohen, vicarious suffering. Not an anti-Zionist text per se, the opposition to Zionism figures in Cohen’s notion that the Religion of Reason drops the Jewish state idea. It means so little to this people because what matters is the idea of monotheism, not empirical human life as such. The state falls away and the people are preserved, which is itself a providential symbol of messianism (pp.251-3). A figure of sacrifice, Israel is the image (in the image) of suffering Humanity. The logic is sacrificial. The suffering of Israel is vicarious; they suffer for the sake of others a vicarious offering, a terrible sacrifice. The Messiah takes upon his own shoulders and the Jewish people take upon theirs the suffering of man [sic] (pp.263-8). The Jewish people suffer vicariously for the sins of man. They are a vicarious offering. We don’t quite have the image of a burning altar. But to complete the picture, we can imagine it right over there, just out of view.

In the Va’Yoel Moshe, the sacrificial motif is picked up in reation to the vision of the Temple, not the physical Temple in Jerusalem, but the Temple in heaven. He imagines tzadikim building the Heavenly Temple by their own good deeds. But the kind of heresy represented by Zionism has this long metaphysical reach, the power to defile and tear up a metaphysical object. This is a power in mirror opposition to the power of the righteous to build the Heavenly Temple and to destroy idolatrous heavenly temples. One day, when the Messiah finally comes, God will be so pleased with the righteous of Israel for waiting for so long and through so much.

Both Cohen and the Satmar Rebbe look for big frames larger than the small one of a Jewish state. They are both sensitive to state violence. They both look toward the future.  But at what cost? First, we know that for Cohen, atonement is the key term and we know that atonement is ties up in Torah with the ritual offering of animals. And this: at some point I want to post about the Esh Kodesh, a Chasidic text written by Kalonymus Kalman Shapira from the Warsaw Ghetto. There’s this image there of a heavenly altar, and the archangel Michael (or is it Gabriel) burning the souls of the righteous. In this awful light, I’m reading Cohen and Teitelbaum. There is for both of them the offering, the sacrifice, the slaughter of Jewish lives, Jewish animal life on the altar of monotheism and morality, the altar of God and the Torah of God, the altar of a heavenly Temple, the altar of messianic waiting. Framed theologically, the anti-Zionist spectacle is terrible in its complete disregard for human life.

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Netanyahu & Trump (A Different League)

trump netanyahu

a picture of political corruption


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(Rabbinic Fantasy & The Land of Israel) Tractate Ketubot Is More Complex Than Zionism or Anti-Zionism


The concluding mishna and gemara of tractate Ketubot is a locus classicus of Haredi anti-Zionism and an even more interesting textual unit in its own right. It is most famous for the almost mythic posing of three primary vows in relation to the Land of Israel and the nations of the world. First, the people Israel is made to swear not to ascend like a wall to the Land of Israel before the coming of the messiah. Two, they swear not to rebel against the nations of the world. Third, the nations of the world swear not to oppress Israel, or not too much. Perhaps in the form of an afterthought, an additional three vows emerge as the text moves forward: The prophets are allowed to reveal the End, the Jews are sworn not to distance the End, and they swear not to reveal the secret to gentiles.

Rather than split apart the text into various historical, geographical, and ideological strata, I am reading the sugya not as a miscellany, but rather as constituting a coherent five part program that modulates the tension between affection for the Land of Israel and stubborn allegiance to Babylonia born of political caution:

[1] The first part is composed of halakhic rulings about domicile in the here and now in the Land of Israel. It begins towards the bottom of 110b, apropos to a baraita that builds on the point of the Mishnah that a person should always dwell in the Land of Israel. There are a number of rulings about husbands, wives, and children, relocating from one place to another. Attraction to the Land of Israel trumps patriarchal authority. A husband can neither prevent his wife from ascending to the Land of Israel if they live abroad or from leaving the Land of Israel if they already live there. The bold upshot is that whoever dwells in the Land of Israel is as if they have a God, and those who dwell outside the Land are as if they have no God.

[2] What follows is a disavowal of politics, if by that we mean the mass action of a large and organized collective. R. Zeira wants to go to the Land of Israel and Rav Yehudah wants to hold him back from leaving Babylonia. In this patriarchal move, meant to establish dominance, according to Rav Yehudah, it is, in fact, a positive commandment to stay in Babylonia, the Song of Songs adjuring the daughters of Israel, by the gazelles and hinds of the field, not to rouse live until it pleases, until God wants it. It is R. Zeira who brings up the three oath, in order to argue that they refer only to collective action, ascending to the Land of Israel like a wall, and rebelling against the nations. As an individual, he has license to leave. But the oath hangs over the people. Whoever violates the terms of the oath may be eaten like the gazelle and hinds of the field by human predators.

[3] As the text carries forward, the point of this exercise is to uphold the privilege of Babylonia, the Babylonian rabbis, and their talmud Torah. Yes, only in the Land of Israel will there be resurrection of the dead. But the righteous of Babylonia need not worry. Babylonia is like living in the Land of Israel, but only better because, they are promised, they won’t have to endure the terrible birth pangs of the Messiah. They will, in fact, enjoy resurrection in the Land of Israel, with tunnels underground easing the passage of their bones as these roll towards the Land of Israel where they will come to life. There are other points, gem-like in terms of attitudes that will later crystalize today in the State of Israel. These include  expressions of hatred for non-rabbinic Jews followed upon by the notion that rabbinic Jews not hate the am ha’aretz (too much) or compare them to the dead as long as they support the rabbis, marry their daughters to their students, finance religious academies, and so on.

The text could have stopped there as a strict diasporist manifesto. It doesn’t.

[4] What follows in due order is a fantastic panegyric to the Land of Israel. We’re at the top of 111b. There the the gemara makes one final lurch back to the resurrection of the dead and to the Land of Israel. The righteous among the dead will sprout and arise in Jerusalem. They will stand up in their clothes. The Land of Israel will produce ready to eat baked goods, abundant grain and marvelous wheat stalks that grow as high as a date palm, as high as a mountain, its fine flour falling to the ground at the rustle of the wind. There will be wheat as fat as kidneys, stalks of mustard grains and cabbage, enormous grapes full of wine that one can tap into with a spout and drink from like from a keg. The text paints red eyes from wine and whiteness of teeth, figs dripping honey up to your ankles, the entire land flowing with milk and honey, gigantic peaches, clusters of grapes that look like calves. The fertile land surpasses Egypt, even in rocky parts like Hebron.

[5] The fantasy motivates impetuous acts and acts of devotion, and one final warning. R. Zeira pulls himself across the Jordan River to enter the Land of Israel, now before he sins and it’s too late. R. Abbas kissed the stones of Akko. R. Chiya bar Gamda rolls in the dust, animating the verse “For your servants have cherished her stones and favored her dust.” The Bavli reminds us, once more, that the End won’t come without contempt for Torah scholars, without smelting after smelting, purging of Israel, and plundering; not things that the Babylonian rabbis want to live to see. But at the End, all the barren trees in the Land of Israel will bear fruit. And that’s the end of the sugya, the end of the gemara, the end of the tractate constituting the last word on the topic at hand.

Back and forth, our text moves steadily from one point to the next. Halakhic rulings about living now in the Land of Israel. A sharp disavowal of collective political action, one based on fear. The supremacy of the Torah taught in Babylonia and the good fortune enjoyed there. Back to the Land, In short, the sugya is more complex, more complex than Zionism or anti-Zionism, more savvy about the political than radical politics. What the Babylonian rabbis cannot have in this world, it wants in the end. The very text that disavows political action vis-à-vis the Land, that cements Babylonia as the privileged place of talmud Torah is finally given over, back to the Land of Israel. One will note the non-appearance of the messiah as a figure in this eschatological spectacle, or mention of the Temple in Jerusalem. Is this vision natural or supernatural or some amalgam? In Babylonia, the rabbis shut their eyes and dream about the Land of Israel as a fecund site of intense natural life, no longer stinting, no longer merely natural. Not anti-Zionist by a long shot, the text attenuates the sense of the here in the Babylonian diaspora. The Babylonian rabbis agree not to rebel against gentile rule. They do not engage the community in collective action. It’s too late for that. Completely infatuated, it is a richly imagined fantasy that preserves by way of “instituting” a real while not actual connection to a faraway place and future. Insofar as people act towards the Land of Israel, it is not without a certain strangeness.

One last word about “the political,” which is that I think it’s telling that fantasy gets the last major substantive word in this sugya. It tells us something important about the Bavli, about the imagination and about “religion.”

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