Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Cynthia Ozick's Blindspot

Everyone has blind spots. No one is immune to selective sight, even brilliant writers such as Cynthia Ozick. To wit: this is from an interview with Cynthia Ozick, The Writer's Chronicle (May/Summer 2009), p 13.
What you've said is profoundly pertinent--the European destiny of Jews and the American destiny of Jews. How different. Even at this very moment, anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe, and there is a mean-spirited effort in Britain to smash academic freedom and intellectual international intercourse through boycotts of Israeli scholars and universities. Europe is a particular problem for us because we love European culture. It's ours. America is a European offspring. Culturally, we are Europeans. The difference is that America has offered us a country without kinship rules.

I often see a parallel, as a matter of fact, between the notion of Torah, a set of moral and juridical principles open to anyone who chooses them, and the American Constitution. In other words, you don't commit to a bloodline in this country. We're all different. We all have different origins in terms of "blood." We all commit to an idea, a system of values. Europe has not had that ever because essentially they have been ethnic nations. If were a German, you were a German. If you were a Swede, you were a Swede. Of course, this is changing now. Europe is having a lot of multicultural trouble and they look to us to see how we have done it--or how the genius of our Founding Fathers has done it. We are all spokes that can feed into and draw nourishment from that central concept.

To live as a nation by an idea is enormously important, and it is so different from the old European idea that you lived as a nation through some kind of blood kinship, fraternal, maternal, paternal. These are European words--fatherland, motherland. We don't use them. We we saw fathers we think of the Founding Fathers, and they lead to the idea, the Constitutional idea. So the American difference for Jews is the same difference as for everybody--that we all belong.

My question is, to circle back to her original worry over the boycotts of Israeli scholars and universities--is not Israel a continuation, in crucial respects, of the idea of the nation "through some kind of blood kinship"? Certainly, there are differences, but her admiration for committing to an idea, a system of values, (i.e. citizenship based on common core values and race-blind laws and practices) may be in tension with her desire to support a Jewish state. Am I missing something?


e b bortz said...

Secular democratic ideas and principles will always be in conflict with a "religious state"...regardless of "the" religion. Some argue that Iran and Israel have more in common than they like to admit.

When will we realize that nationhood itself might be an outmoded idea...along with the disenfranchisement by ethnicity,
color, gender, and religion that many nations were founded on.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks for your comment, eb.

Anonymous said...

Elegantly said Philip.

Ozick is, as you say, a brilliant writer. I've always admired and cherished her mad blends and inspiring singularity in fact. I was rereading Messiah of Stockholm at the end of Dec. and the slaughter in Gaza didn't stop me, though it stopped most other things [me, in my tracks with utter horror. Again] and did give some perspective to that gorgeously obsessed book.

CO's blind spot is massive in this regard and you're right to point to the scale of it; on the one hand blind and shrill support for an eternal bond between blood and dust and then this, which seriously unravels her entire argument. I say this with regret, regret for such a brilliant mind's actually unforgivable blindness. Her perversity, the gentlest word available to me, involves universal scales of wrongness, doesn't it?

I'm not going to engage this here, but this is not merely aesthetic, intellectual, or about religiosity and political form! No, this is an absolute corruption of the spirit/self, which in C's case I almost daily try to wriggle around, I have to admit, and so use these words with my own regrets.

Anyway, thanks for telling the truth!

Philip Metres said...

Dear Anon,

Thanks for your enlightening thoughts, and perspective on Ozick.

I don't pretend to fathom the full story of Israel, Palestine, or the conflict, though I've been reading, talking, and listening voraciously about it for the past ten years or so.

It seems to me that, as human beings, as critical thinkers, it's our duty to confront lazy thinking, to probe blindspots--not to score political points, but to help be part of the way out, to tell the truth, to end oppression, find peace.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for more of your wise, gentle, exact words Philip.

I agree with what you say, though am older -no wiser!- and been around the same bush a few more times now, and the veins harden [though never simply. Oh I'm getting muddled!]

Thank you for that Alice Walker video, the third one is esp. moving. I'll be sharing it...

A lighter note. Do you know that Devil's Blind Spot collection of Alexander Kluge's? It doesn't equate blind spots with devilishness, quite the obverse in fact... It's very fine.

And btw this very week I'm grateful to CO for getting me to read Steven Millhauser at long last! See?