Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Racism & Religious Radicalism in Modern Jewry

Racism and Religious Radicalism in Modern Jewry 
Am Yisrael Arevim Zeh LaZeh."
Lulav and Etrog,
a symbol of Sukkot,
 often interpreted as a symbol of the
unity of human beings
amid their diversity
By: Payman Akhlaghi
December 28th, 2010

The following draft appeared first as a Note on Payman's Personal Facebook page, December 28th, 2010, where it has generated a heated debate on discrimination, what's in the best interest of Israel, and other related issues. If you have an FB account, you may wish to follow the FB Thread 1 and FB Thread 2. Send me a message via FB if you encounter any problems viewing the page. The viewpoints expressed therein reflect the individual opinions of their respective authors. Be advised that given the nature of the subject, some comments may be emotionally distressful to the reader.

In an FB response to a report by Jerusalem Post, the Iranian Israeli political analyst, Meir Javedanfar worte, "Racism starts with Arabs, then moves to Russian Jews, then Jews of Arab origin and before we know it the country will fall apart. Like a virus, racism sees no boundaries.This is why we need to fight racism with vigor and determination." (The JP report could be found here.)

His wise remarks brought back some old memories, and brought together some lingering thoughts. It seemed they were worthy of being placed together in a single note.

Pianist Anton Rubinstein once said, "Russians call me German, Germans call me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, Christians a Jew. Pianists call me a composer, composers call me a pianist. The classicists think me a futurist, and the futurists call me a reactionary. My conclusion is that I am neither fish nor fowl – a pitiful individual." [Quote found in Wikipedia; also found in Harold C. Schonberg's "Great Pianists".] One could say, In Iran, you were a Jew; in Israel, you'd be an Iranian, or "Parsi", to be exact!

As a kid, between 1972 and 1980, my family and I visited Israel for some short periods. I distinctly remember how some of my young cousins had hidden their Persian background in fear of harassment by their "Ashkenazi" Jewish friends. It was so confusing to me (Ca 1978) since I saw myself as their equal, as another Jew, in a Jewish country. Racism is part ignorance (xenophobia), part convenience (shortcut to eliminiate competition), but always a top-down process (deliberate manipulation of the public by the "leadership".) It's been best described in Brecht's "Round Heads and Pointed Heads", and it's been best analyzed in Zinn's account of the first incident of hate crimes against Catholic Irish American workers. It's one thing the governments should be held responsible for.

This is my thesis: When Iranian Jews left Iran, the intellectual Jewish segments of the West, and Reform Judaism, largely ignored them, while the Orthodoxy with Eastern European, or Sephardic/Mizrachi, roots did invite them in. A majority of the Iranian Jews who went to Israel, or later on, to America via Europe, found their new cultural place within the orthodoxy, by sheer happenstance. This has had some adverse consequences for the Iranian Jewish community worldwide (the rise of an isolationist conservatism), and by a ripple effect, it's led to the rise of a right-wing radicalism in the Israeli society at large. (Shas, the strongest religious party, has strong roots in the Sephardic/Mizrahi communities.) In short, the secular/intellectual Jewry looked down at the early Jewish immigrants from the East, leaving this population in the hands of the religious radicals. That condescending attitude is now coming back with a vengeance.

The above is not to suggest that I would ignore the verifiable cultural differences which exist between different communities, or the achievements of the European Intellectual Jewry. But it's been manifested through the success of the Alliance Israélite projects in Iran that a more secular, well-educated, generation could have been raised, if that tradition had continued, saving the younger Iranian Jewish generation, fearful of the larger world around them, from the grasp of the well-meaning, but misguided Orthodox Judaism.

On the personal level, I have found prejudice and discrimination to be like weeds: To keep the garden of mind free of their harm, one needs to be on constant vigilance and self-examination, and uproot the arbitrary bias whenever it appears.

Please feel free to share your thoughts.

P.S.: Mr. Javedanfar later reminded me that: "... Yes here there are Persians who have kept quiet about being Persian, but that has been changing over the last 15 years. With new films from Iran which have been shown in many cinemas people have felt more comfortable. Here at least Persians admit to it, many Moroccans are not even willing to say their parents are Arab!"
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© 2010: Text, except when cited: Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.

(*) Payman Akhlaghi (پیمان اخلاقی, sometimes "Peyman") is an LA-based composer, pianist, piano teacher. His offers piano lessons throughout the Greater Los Angeles area, including the Westside, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, as well as Van Nuys, etc. Music lessons include classical music, as well as pop, film, and persian music. He also does offer lessons in sightsinging, music theory and composition. Payman holds a BA and MA in music composition from UCLA. He's currently working on his dissertation toward the degree of PhD, also in composition.

For more information about lessons, book his performances for weddings and receptions; or to commission songs or film scores; please call (310) 208-2927 [USA]. Other information could be found by following the links provided on this weblog.

Thank you.

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