December 27, 2000
9:58 AM   Subscribe

Jorn Barger seems to be declaring holy war on Robot Wisdom today, using the following jaw-dropping headlines on stories: "Is Judaism simply a religion of lawless racists?" and "Are Jews incapable of polite discourse?"
posted by rcade (40 comments total)
Jorn has one or two points in his entire tirade that deserve further review, but the rest of it is pure vitrol.

I tend to agree that the US news coverage of the mid east conflicts do seem to be a bit on the pro-Israel side (can't we agree that both sides have some serious issues that need to be worked out in order to end this conflict?), and it is difficult to have an argument about Judaism when you walk the line between attacking a race (genetic, unchangeable) and attacking an ideology.


you can tell from everything else Jorn is saying, he's got some serious hangups about Judaism, and many things he's posted are borderline inflammatory.
posted by mathowie at 10:45 AM on December 27, 2000

I exchanged some email about this with Jorn, as I was really offended that he chose to caption a fairly balanced Times piece with such an inflammatory headline. After some fairly unsatisfying back and forth where I tried to voice my concern that he's equating the Jewish religion with the Israeli government, he offered the cop-out that it wasn't his headline, but Drudge's.

Some links for people who want more information on Jews and Israelis who deplore the current violence and are working for peace and justice in the Middle East:
New Israel Fund
Peace Now
posted by judith at 11:13 AM on December 27, 2000

great links, Judith. While Jorn may think he's helping out in the cursade against the egregiously unjust Israeli government, he's actually hurting his cause. He needs to do some self examination or the one or two valid points that Mathowie points out are just damaged by his personal issues.
posted by cell divide at 11:16 AM on December 27, 2000

What Jorn refuses to admit--and a lot of other people are giving him a free pass on--is that Israel and Judaism are two different things. And that Israel and the Israeli government are also different things. I can dislike Tony Blair's policies without thinking that all of Protestant Christianity is to blame for them, even though that's the official religion of the United Kingdom. I wouldn't expect any citizen of the US to take the blame for both Bush's policies and Clinton's. But Jorn is acting as though every Jew, even those who have never been to Israel, is responsible for all acts by the State of Israel. Can you say double standard?

It might be worth discussing whether current Israeli policy is racist. If that's his goal, Jorn has the wrong end of the stick. Attacking all Jews because he dislikes the policy of the Israeli government is about as reasonable as yelling at your Moslem neighbors when Saddam Hussein does something outrageous.
posted by rosvicl at 11:33 AM on December 27, 2000

rosvicl, I agree with you completely in spirit but a few points need to be clarified, because I think it will help people understand better Mr. Barger's problems:

1. You can't compare England with Israel. While Protestant Christianity may indeed be the state's official religion, it has nowhere near the importance that Judaism does to Israel. Remember that Israel is the Jewish state-- it is a homeland for jews, and indeed every 'official Jew' (which is often debated by various rabbincal orders) can become a citizen via the law of return. This same right is not extended to the former residents of the land who fled or were exiled in the 1948 war. Still, your point is valid that every Jew does not bear responsibility for the actions of Israel, and indeed many Jews have been the best-argued and indeed fiercest critics of Israel.

2. Iraq is a mostly secular country, and Saddam is a secular leader. A better example would be the Ayatollah in Iran, who claims to speak for all Shi'i Muslims.

posted by cell divide at 11:50 AM on December 27, 2000

I'd like to point out that Jorn seems increasingly interested in turning Robot Wisdom into a revenue-generator. Because I do not visit Jorn's site regularly (twice since July), I do not know how long the "your-msg-here" banners have been there or the message "You will soon be able to donate money to support this website via Paypal..." but they separate him from nearly every web logger I know.

Whatever else it might be, I would suggest his behavior is a world-class troll for hits.
posted by Mo Nickels at 1:32 PM on December 27, 2000

Those messages seeking advertisers for the tiny-banner-ad space have been on Robot Wisdom for several months, but I haven't seen any takers yet.
posted by rcade at 2:28 PM on December 27, 2000

he offered the cop-out that it wasn't his headline, but Drudge's.

I don't believe this is true. I remember seeing the article linked on Drudge's site, and he used pretty much the same headline the Times put over the article itself: "Shoot-to-kill policy is exposed in Israel". There is nothing anywhere in the article, not even a quotation, that says anything even remotely like "Is Judaism simply a religion of lawless racists?" Jorn wrote that himself.

At the very least, this guy has some severe misunderstandings of how Judaism operates.
posted by aaron at 3:09 PM on December 27, 2000

Update: Jorn created a message board for discussing the topic and his choice in headlines.
posted by waxpancake at 3:36 PM on December 27, 2000

Does anybody else see the irony in anti-Semitism in a devoted follower of James Joyce, and Ulysses in particular? (the title character in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, is Jewish [well, his mother's mother wasn't, so technically no {also, he converted (however, he self-identifies as such and defends himself and his race from a virulent anti-Semite in ch 12)}])
I'm so pleased with this silly little observation I think I'll post it to Jorn's message board
posted by lbergstr at 4:20 PM on December 27, 2000

By the way, for a much more nuanced take on the issue, check out this article in the New York Times Magazine on young Palestinian stone-throwers.
posted by lbergstr at 4:35 PM on December 27, 2000

It's a common error to use the term Judaism in place of Israeli nationalism (ie Zionism). It defeats any criticism of Israel and makes it look like anti-semitism.

Of course, Zionists and the Israeli Government happily make this error all the time.
posted by lagado at 5:23 PM on December 27, 2000

Still, inflammatory or not, please do not lose site of the fact that Israel is a racist country.

can't we agree that both sides have some serious issues that need to be worked out in order to end this conflict?

In defense of Jorn: Mathowie, it's simply not a case of "both sides working it out", this is about ethnic clensing on occupied land. Please read a little more critically before accusing others of having hang ups.
posted by lagado at 5:43 PM on December 27, 2000

It's a common error to use the term Judaism in place of Israeli nationalism (ie Zionism). It defeats any criticism of Israel and makes it look like anti-semitism.
lagado, with comments like "Are Jews incapable of a polite discourse?", Jorn is the one failing to make the right distinction, hence leaving himself wide open to charges of anti-Semitism.
posted by lbergstr at 6:40 PM on December 27, 2000

Look, Jorn has shot himself in the foot, agreed. He deserves to be made aware of the distinction even when it is often deliberately blurred by Israel's supporters and anti-semites alike.

In his case, it seems to me that the charge of anti-semitism is going a little bit far based on what I have seen of the links he has provided recently and in the past. While it can't be discounted as a possibility, I would say his views more likely go under the category of political and historical naivete.

To highlight the distinction between Jews and Zionists, I would love to see more Jews actively distancing themselves for the racist regime in Israel. It would make a balanced debate about the Middle East possible without this constant to recourse to making accusations of anti-semitism.

posted by lagado at 8:47 PM on December 27, 2000

So I guess, lagado, what you're arguing is that Jews -- at least the ones that according to you aren't careful enough to distance themselves from Israel -- are equally to blame for this -- how would you call it -- confusion? The anti-semitism is then to a certain extent self-inflicted?
posted by leo at 9:11 PM on December 27, 2000

Those unaware of how deeply-steeped this issue is, in terms of Robot Wisdom, should review Len Grossman's ModemJunkie article Trust or Consequences, from one year ago, and its follow-up What a Tangled Web. In a word, this is not the first time Jorn's been accused of having a problem with Judaism.

He has valid points but they are overshadowed by his intemperate approach. One supposes he would countercritique his critics (I'm sure he has) in some of the ways listed above. But in light of his previous comments I'm not ready to give him that kind of pass.
posted by dhartung at 10:39 PM on December 27, 2000

roscvicl, although I certainly agree that Israel and Judaism are different things, that's certainly not how the Israeli government treats its citizens of Arab descent. I'm with lagado on this, I do think the Israeli government is racist and engaged in ethnic cleansing -- I wish people would just call a spade a spade. I've never heard or read any major media outlet use that phrase in regards to what's going on there; meanwhile, no-one hesitates to apply that term (quite validly) to what's been happening in Somalia and Indonesia. Now why is that?I read Jorn's headline not so much anti-Semitic as extremely frustrated with how unequal the situation and the treatment of it has been, heavily weighted as the coverage and support has been for the Israeli government, especially from the US -- does anyone remember how large the backlash was when Hillary Clinton dared to say what she really felt about the whole debacle? Saying anything that might be said to be pro-Palestinian in any way (or against the Israeli government) is taken to be anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic by a LOT of people, and a large brouhaha will undoubtedly ensue; meanwhile, how many people noticed or protested when a mainstream Hollywood movie portrayed arabs as terrorists? There were a few stories in the media, but nothing really became of it. The same script (and it wasn't a good one), with almost any other ethnic group substituted, would probably never even have gotten optioned. (and yes, what I'm coming to is that it isn't just the Israeli government that's racist, so is the US response to the situation, official and otherwise)
Should Jorn have been more sensitive? Yeah, probably. Did he bring this all on himself? Yup. Was there a point to the obviously inflammatory thing? Well, yes. Some of us are offended, others are offended that some are offended, but at the very least we're getting to talk about issues that rarely get talked about because they're so incredibly touchy. It would've have been nice if the discussion could have started more, well, civilly, but then perhaps it wouldn't have started at all.
posted by lia at 10:48 PM on December 27, 2000

Jorn has shown an occasional tendency to let his biases over rule the reality of what he was covering in the blog.

He linked a Washington Post article with his tag of "How World Bank policies have destroyed Mozambique economy" when the article makes a point of stating that the World Bank's involvement was a net positive for Mozambique despite reaming out the cashew industry (and quoting Mozambique officials to illustrate this).

I asked him what gave with the blatant misrepresentation. He said he didn't bother to read the whole article, and also in his e-mail response he continued to ignore that the article stated that the World Bank had been an overall benefit to Mozambique and said that he would have been safe if his original tag had substituted "devastated Mozambique economy" for "destroyed Mozambique economy." Uh, no.

What he did do was change the archived copy of his tag to read "How World Bank policies destroyed Mozambique's cashew industry," without acknowledging that this was corrected or in any other way changed from it's original appearance on the blog, while adding links to other pieces that bad-mouth the World Bank.

My take on it is that Jorn was unwilling to let the reality of the article he was pointing to interfere with his drive to paint a negative picture of the World Bank. I can't get too excited about the World Bank, but I do think it shows the critical eye a reader has to use when reading robotwisdom or any other media source. Personally, I still find great value in Jorn's work and read several times a week, but incidents like this one and the Judaism stuff just show that he's no more immune to biases and mistakes than anyone else.
posted by NortonDC at 3:08 AM on December 28, 2000

Thanks lbergstr for that link to the NYtimes. One of the best articles Ive read about the war.
posted by fullerine at 3:45 AM on December 28, 2000

So I guess, lagado, what you're arguing is that Jews -- at least the ones that according to you aren't careful enough to distance themselves from Israel -- are equally to blame for this -- how would you call it -- confusion? The anti-semitism is then to a certain extent self-inflicted?

Err, no, leo, I fail to see how you could have reached that conclusion.

Anti-semitism is a charge that is so often leveled at opponents of Zionism. By deliberately blurring the line between nation, race and religion, Israeli nationalists seek to portray all criticism of their oppressive tactics as an attack on the Jewish people as a whole.

This is so cowardly but it does a great job of stifling real debate about Israel especially in the media. This term should be reserved for real cases of anti-semitism instead of being bandied about as a tool for silencing dissenting views.

In the replies to the Jorn's (inflammatory) post I see plenty of people (many of whom are Israelis) making the distinction very clearly and distancing themselves from Israel's racist policies. This, I think, is a very positive thing.

posted by lagado at 4:46 AM on December 28, 2000

Here's an interesting article from Israel's IndyMedia.
posted by lagado at 5:42 AM on December 28, 2000

Confession: I haven't read the articles on Jorn's site, and I don't plan on reading them (I grew up in a highly-charged Zionist household, and after 18 years of Israel, Israel, Israel, I can't listen to much debate on the subject without getting a stomach ache).

But I would like to make a naive observation based on lbergstr's post (which I think sums up the feelings of many people here):

with comments like "Are Jews incapable of a polite discourse?", Jorn is the one failing to make the right distinction.

The text inside the quotations marks is NOT a comment, it's a question.

Of course, it's possible to editorialize within a question. "Why are you so fat?" may be a question, but it also contains the claim that "you are fat." And you might be justifiably offended by that claim. Similarly, if the headline had been "Why are Jews incapable of a polite discourse?", I would have been offended. But that WASN'T the headline. The question was open-ended and didn't make any claims at all.

Some of you might have suspicions about Jorn's political views which lead you to interpret the question as a "comment," but not knowing anything about Jorn, I can't share your interpretation.

All I see is a question--a VALID question. It's valid, because no matter how you define Judaism (religion, political stance, etc.), it's a social construct. Which means it's a set of rules/customs that a bunch of people follow. So the question is "Do these rules lead to an incapacity for polite discourse?" I would answer, no, they don't necessarily lead to such an incapacity. Do Jewish cultural rules lead to a tendency away from polite discourse? Possibly? It's an interesting question, anyway.

When is it wrong to ask a question?
posted by grumblebee at 6:09 AM on December 28, 2000

I think it's specious to claim that Jorn's questions are absent of any value judgments about Jews. You don't ask a loaded question like "Are Jews incapable of polite discourse?" unless you harbor some serious anti-Semitic hang ups.

Do you honestly think that questions like this lead to polite discourse:
  • Are blacks too stupid to play quarterback?
  • Are Native Americans simply a culture of irresponsible drunks?
  • Is Catholicism a religion of child molesters?
I've been a fan of Robot Wisdom, sending a few people Jorn's way who might have been interested in sponsoring his site. After wrestling with this topic for a day, I can't see any way to view his attitude towards Jews in a charitable way. I'd love to think otherwise.
posted by rcade at 6:56 AM on December 28, 2000

Keep scrolling, no content here, just housekeeping...
posted by xiffix at 7:06 AM on December 28, 2000

"Have you stopped beating your wife?"

Jorn doesn't do himself any favours: that said, his comments are brief enough to make one want to judge them from the links, rather than the compiler. (Compare, for instance, Ethel, which is equally partisan in its own way, but where the commentary deliberately takes priority.)

What's difficult, as previous threads have suggested, is that the appearance of anti-semitism, and/or the accusation of anti-semitism, too often curtails discussion, rather than leading to the more informed posts on show above. The mainstream media won't touch it, and so the debate retains a cartoonish quality.
posted by holgate at 7:57 AM on December 28, 2000

lagado: Err, no, leo, I fail to see how you could have reached that conclusion..

Err, lagado, if you condemn anti-semitism and in the same breath cannot resist a lamentation over the "blurring" of Judaism with the state of Israel, people might assume that you are somehow relating the two. Sometimes it's enough just to condemn something pure and simple without, for example, looking at it as an opportunity to promote what are, in your opinion, model Jews.

In any case, charges of anti-semitism are equally as valid coming from people who support the state of Israel (in one form or another) as they are from those more in line with your own political views. The kind of litmus test you're trying to apply here just won't wash.

posted by leo at 1:39 PM on December 28, 2000

leo, let me try to make myself crystal clear.

I condemn anti-semitism as I condemn all forms of racism.

I condemn the practise of making accusations of anti-semitism against people who are in fact criticizing the government of Israel.

I condemn the racist policies of the government of Israel which I think should be considered to be a pariah state and treated accordingly.

Of course I lament the blurring of race, religion and state. I consider this to be dishonest and makes debate impossible. Maybe, I should add that I condemn nationalist chauvenism as well.

Please misconstrue this as you see fit.

posted by lagado at 4:37 PM on December 28, 2000

I just wonder how many countries wouldn't be pariahs if judged by the standards that many people are applying to Israel.

Iceland is probably safe--the settlers there really did find empty land, off in the middle of the Atlantic, full of volcanoes and glaciers. But the rest of us? I'm sure I'm not the only American posting to this thread. Let's sort out the land we took from the Cherokee, the Cayuga (who have an ongoing court case against New York State), the Lakota, and everyone else who got here before the English, Dutch, French, and Spanish.

Human populations move around. The consequences of this are complicated and often tragic, and not just in one small part of the world.
posted by rosvicl at 7:17 AM on December 29, 2000

rosvicl please provide us with other examples of modern populations displacing other modern populations by force. Thank you.
posted by cell divide at 1:12 PM on December 29, 2000

Hutus and Tutsi's?
posted by thirteen at 1:15 PM on December 29, 2000

Germans of the Nazi regime in Eastern Europe.

The Balkans - most recently, Serbs attempting to displace the Kosovars.

posted by tomcosgrave at 1:31 PM on December 29, 2000

Try the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees daily newsletter Refugees Daily.
posted by Avogadro at 1:40 PM on December 29, 2000

China's demolition of Lhasa and of Tibetan culture.

rosvicl, there's a difference between these things taking place in the past and taking place now. All we can do about the past is to learn from it, so we can act in the present. I'm aware of the tragedy of auto deaths too; I find seat belts for my kids a better response than catharsis.
posted by rodii at 1:51 PM on December 29, 2000

Human populations move around. The consequences of this are complicated and often tragic, and not just in one small part of the world.

Sure, that doesn't make ethinic clensing an acceptable practice. It doesn't make it any less criminal.

Let's sort out the land we took from the Cherokee, etc.

I'm in total agreement. America should face up to its own history of genocide too.

posted by lagado at 5:06 PM on December 29, 2000

rodii, last time i checked, china's demolition of tibetan culture was ongoing. and then there's all the mess happening in indonesia... i'm pretty sure most people think they've learned something from the horrors of the world wars, but current events say something completely different.
posted by lia at 10:27 PM on December 29, 2000

The one thing we fail to learn is that silence doesn't work.

In the case of Indonesia, the Australian government turned a blind eye while Indonesian forces exterminated one third of the East Timorese population.

posted by lagado at 10:54 PM on December 29, 2000

lia, you lost me. Weren't we looking for modern examples? And aren't Rwanda and Burundi, Bosnia and Kosovo, Tibet and Indonesia modern examples?

The fact that they're still ongoing doesn't mean that we aren't making progress. In fact, just recently China replaced its hard-line governor of Tibet with someone a little more pragmatic (hopefully). It may amount to nothing, but it wouldn't have happened without concerted pressure from world public opinion. If we see these things happening, the next question becomes how to resist them[*]. But we have to see them happening first. And saying "oh dear, shit happens, how tragic" just isn't helpful, is all I'm saying.

*Branding all Jews as "lawless racists" probably isn't the preferred approach.
posted by rodii at 7:26 PM on December 30, 2000

I've been asked for modern examples. Someone here already mentioned the genocide in Rwanda. We're all aware of the wars and murders and "ethnic cleansing" in the Former Yugoslavia.

The difference is, when Orthodox Christian Serbs commit mass murder on the basis of religion and ethnicity, most outsiders are capable of condemning the genocide without condemning Orthodox Christianity. When mobs in Indonesia attack Christians, that isn't held against Islam as a whole.

Why is only Judaism expected to produce perfection in its adherents?
posted by rosvicl at 7:10 AM on January 2, 2001

Who "expects" that again?
posted by rodii at 5:58 PM on January 2, 2001

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