Stanford Professor, Poet and Ex-Sixties Radical Hilton Obenzinger on What it Means to Be a Jew

obenzingerHighly recommended: this recent interview with Stanford professor Hilton Obenzinger, who among other things is a prolific writer and poet and was one of the student leaders of the 1968 Columbia University protests which led to the six day takeover of the President’s office.  Obenzinger definitely speaks my heart on all kinds of issues. (h/t: Susan Klonsky)

A few choice excerpts:

What makes you proud to be a Jew?

Jewish culture is rich and varied with a transnational sense of peoplehood. In Europe, my ancestors were everything from ultra-orthodox to Polish nationalists, to escape-to-America émigrés, to Zionist and Communist. The Nazis murdered almost all of them. In the face of that horror and other horrors of history, Jewish survival is astonishing.

I’m especially proud of the American Jewish experience that pushed me, and others, to join the civil rights and social justice movements. I’ve heard it said that support for equality and justice flows from Jewish ethics and from the history of Jewish persecution. I’d like to believe it.

What are you most ashamed about Jews as an ethnic group?

From my point of view, Zionism turned out to be a moral disaster for the Jews. American Jews have been suckered into supporting Israel in unthinking ways. This has been changing, but not enough American Jews are yelling and screaming to stop Israel’s expansion.

Forty years ago, did you believe there would be a resolution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?

Yes. And I still do.

Do you see a resolution to the conflict in your own lifetime?

Assuming I live another decade or two, probably not. But you never know. Who would have thought the Soviet Union would collapse? Or a black man would be president? I may not live to see it but it’s likely to happen.

Do you think that there can be a one-state solution to the conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis?

Of course, there can be — which doesn’t mean it will happen, at least in the near future. The conflict is not at root religious and it hasn’t been going on for thousands of years, as many claim. It started about 130 years ago when Zionism, a Western political movement, called for the settlement of Palestine and the exclusion of the native people. It’s a conflict started by people, not by God; humans created it; humans can fix it.

What do you see happening now?

Israeli Jews are a nationality with their own language and culture, as are the Palestinians, so it would take a lot of good faith to fit all of them together, including the refugees. Good faith is not an abundant commodity nowadays. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has been doing all it can to prevent a two-state solution by expanding settlements and uprooting Palestinian communities.

One state may be inevitable, since the foundations for a viable Palestinian state have been greatly undermined. Israel might move further in its current colonialist direction, creating reservations for the natives and a large open-air prison in Gaza. I don’t care if there are one or four states, actually, just so long as equality and democratic rights are at the core of all of them.

What have you learned from studying the Holocaust?

When we protested the war in Vietnam many of us didn’t want to be “good Germans” — people passively accepting evil and genocide. My family’s murder always weighs on my mind, so for me it’s imperative to speak out about injustice.

I produced my aunt’s oral testimony called Running through Fire about her escape from the Warsaw Ghetto. I learned from her that everything is muddy — with some Germans acting morally and courageously and some Jews acting in a craven fashion. I also leaned that in a situation of utter horror, no matter how smart and skilled and, in her case, how beautiful you were, pure luck is a determining factor. I’ve also learned to keep my passport up-to-date.

What does it mean to you to be a Jew?

After my son’s birth I felt compelled to pass on to him a positive Jewish experience without the corruptions of anti-Arab racism, and the “Jewish Disneyland” kitsch that American Jews love. I wanted my son to laugh, to enjoy the bar mitzvah experience, to feel comfortable being Jewish and Filipino — which is his mother’s ethnic identity.

What do you think Jews and Arabs have in common?

I told my aunt who survived the Nazis that if she could meet Palestinians in refugee camps she would like them, and that they were a lot like her. Palestinians, like Jews, value education and culture, and they insist on persisting. They, too, have historical memories that they won’t allow to be erased and that they act upon. Both Israeli Jews and Palestinians have also managed to drive each other insane. It’s painful watching two peoples destroy each other.


2 Comments on “Stanford Professor, Poet and Ex-Sixties Radical Hilton Obenzinger on What it Means to Be a Jew”

  1. Marian Blanton says:

    How do you propose to bring your common-sense ideas to mainstream, institutional Judaism?This subject remains “the third rail” no one is courageous enough to confront openly. AKA the “elephant in the room.” Blogs are fine ways to diffuse individual frustration, but changing institutional mindsets presents the real challenges. We keep talking to ourselves, don’t we?

  2. Beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing this Brant!


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