Posts Tagged ‘Anti-Semitism’

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Shelved: How A Borders Bookstore Linked the Economic Crisis with the “Israel Lobby” (and why I won’t shop there anymore)

July 4, 2009

UPDATED 7/15/09:   As an update to the post below, I understand that the management of the local Borders has altered the  offending display after determining that an employee acting on his/her own accord placed the Mearsheimer and Walt book in “recommended books” display.  I also understand from individuals familiar with the matter that the display was not, as previously suggested to me by store management and  customer service, intended to include the Mearsheimer/Walt book.  While I am appreciative of the fact that this display was not by the design of Borders’ corporate headquarters,  I am nevertheless troubled that this incident occurred and could occur in the future. Borders has a responsibility to regulate its own employee’s behavior, especially when that individual is acting as an agent of the store in stocking and displaying books. I urge Borders to confirm is employee policies in regard to this type of occurrence so it can be limited from happening again.

I spend hundreds of dollars annually at my local Borders bookstore, purchasing books and periodicals that I consume at a pace (and to my wife’s chagrin, cost and volume) that makes it one of my largest discretionary expenses.  I love books, and despite the cost (and space in my home) I refuse to give in to the digitized/Kindle-ized future that I know is forthcoming.

But now I will refuse to do something different – I will refuse to shop at Borders bookstores. Here’s why – in its merchandising design and choice of book recommendation it made a choice that I find deeply irresponsible and equally offensive, both as a consumer and as a Jewish American.

In the front of my local store in Atlanta, Borders has a display that groups books together as a form of suggestive advertising (“Like these?  “Try these…”).  On this particular shelf, Borders suggests that if you like The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein, you should try:

•    Between the Lines:  A View Inside American Politics, People and Culture by Jonathan Alter

•    Reckless: How Debt, Deregulation and Dark Money Nearly Bankrupted America (And How we Can Fix It!) by Byron Dorgan

•    Now or Never:  Getting Down to the Business of Saving Our American Dream by Jack Cafferty

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt

Photo of Bookshelf  (Like These? Try These...)

Photo of Bookshelf (Like These? Try These...)

Read that list and look at that picture closely. See something wrong with it?  I sure do – and it is why I won’t shop a Borders anymore.  Chaos, American politics, dark money, saving the American dream and… the Israel Lobby.  On one shelf, Borders visually (and not so subtlety) links commentary on the “disaster capitalism”  and the global economic crisis with reckless assertions (and conspiratorial theories) about the power and influence of advocates for a strong U.S./Israel relationship. On one shelf, Borders reinforces the perception oldest of anti-Semitic canards (that distressed economic environments are linked with the power and influence of Jews) while reinforcing the dangerously modern trend of delitigimization of Israel and its supporters in subtle and not so subtle ways.

With the stocking of one shelf, Borders reminded me of the subtle danger in every economic crisis – the danger that it will be used to question the Jewish role in economic and political spheres of influence.

Now to be clear, I am not asserting that Borders should not stock and sell Mearsheimer and Walt’s book, nor am I suggesting that Borders not display the book towards the front of the store. Borders is a commercial enterprise that has the right to market and sell all sorts of books in the manner it desires, and I don’t question that right or prerogative. I am also not suggesting that we revisit the substance and the merits of the Mearsheimer/Walt book. While I think it is a deeply flawed and strongly biased work that diminishes rather than enhances the debate about the basis and nature of the U.S. foreign policy relationship with Israel, there have been far more experienced critics that have taken Mearsheimer and Walt to task on the substance of their research and argument, and I will not rehash those arguments.   Although I would not encourage anyone to read its faulty reasoning and distorted analysis (other than to see it for what it really is), Mearsheimer/Walt’s book should not be censored.

Nor should it be suggested reading – especially by a national bookstore. And even more so, it should not be suggested reading to readers with an interest in the arguments about the current economic crisis.

That is what concerns me the most – how subtle the suggestion is, and how the association of contemporary American challenges and the “Israel Lobby” is not only displayed, but suggestively reinforced. When I first noticed the shelf I struggled to reconcile the display with common sense. Perhaps all the books were on “contemporary topics of political interest,” as I am sure Borders might suggest. But that argument doesn’t hold. The other books  focus on economic and domestic issues and the causes/challenges of our current economic environment  (even the Klein book, which makes some one-sided and dubious charges against Israel, is largely a book on the nature of global capitalism) – so what is the link with U.S. foreign policy, especially US/Israel foreign policy?  If a book on international affairs was to be included on that shelf, why not include a book about U.S./China economic relationship or a book about the influence of bank lobbyists (topics that are much more likely to relate to the current U.S. recession than U.S. foreign policy towards Israel)?  Why direct readers to this particular book when they have a particular interest in unrelated economic circumstances?

I hated to ask why, because I hated to contemplate the answer.

However, I did question store management and then, via phone, Borders customer service. Specifically, I asked who makes the decision how to stock shelves the particular “suggestion” shelves. Both representatives told me the decision to group books in that format, and the particular groupings, are determined by individuals at corporate headquarters. They didn’t know what the factors were in choosing the books, or who approved the selections. Regardless, those books ended up stocked on a shelf in one of Borders busiest in the Atlanta metro region (and presumably elsewhere) – directing curious readers about contemporary issues to a book of questionable academic veracity and one that openly questions the motivations of hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Christian Americans that actively support Israel.

We need to call this what it is – a bookseller of national influence’s deeply irresponsible decision that propagates a dangerous myth of an associated relationship between the current economic crises and the Jews.  It is offensive, and it is outrageous. And while we must be vigilant in not over-exercising the assertion that such decisions are in and of themselves driven by anti-Semitic biases, we must recognize that these types of decisions further establish an environment where anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes do not garner the outrage they deserve.

Chaos, American politics, dark money, the need to save the American dream and… the Israel Lobby. On one shelf Borders connects dots that have no basis to be connected. And it does so in a way that even discerning shoppers may not realize. Borders may not have an obligation to advance public discussion and intellectual curiosity, but when it undertakes to do so it has a responsibility to do so in a conscientious, rather than in a biased and provocative manner.

Everyone has a right to shop how and where they choose, and stores have the right to attract and serve those shoppers in any way they see fit. Personally, I will not support booksellers who specifically recommend to buys a book that misrepresents Jewish political involvement as a nefarious activity, and especially when that book is suggested to readers who found unrelated books of interest. Accordingly, my support of Borders has been shelved, and I suggest readers consider shelving their support as well until Borders explains its rationale and utilizes policies that prevent theses types of irresponsible decisions from occurring again.

If we all don’t stand up now to these types of subtle messages that reinforce ancient biases and faulty reasoning, then there may be new chapters in the long history book of how times of economic distress have fomented anti-Jewish bias. And that is an updated history book I don’t want in my collection – no matter how much I love books.

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A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (In Praise of Officer Stephen T. Johns)

June 10, 2009

One of the things that I enjoy most about being a volunteer in the non-profit world is how often I am amazed at the seemingly limitless capacity for individuals to love another individual, a cause, a nation, and even an entire people.  These compassionate and caring individuals, whether they are professionals, volunteers, donors, or even occasional consumers, constantly remind me that love is a powerful source of charity and that the ways that love manifests itself is near limitless.  On one side of a line, love is what drives imagination and invigoration, in Jewish life and in life in general.  Love is, in essence, what drives so many of us do so many amazingly good things.

But there is another side of that line, and on Wednesday, June 10, 2009 events in Washington D.C. reminded all of us that on the other side of the line from love is pure, unadulterated hate.

Unfortunately, just as love is a powerful motivator, so is hate.  The Shoah was a manifestation of hate, an expression of humankind’s capacity for destruction in the name of hate. So often when we speak of the Holocaust we mention the ‘banality of evil’ – how such a monumental expression of hatred was exercised in the most mundane of actions.  But we can’t forget that the hatred embodied in the Holocaust, while not novel, was anything but banal when we consider it in the context of the senseless death of six million Jews and millions of others. There is no way to memorialize that kind of hate; instead we strive to create memorials to the goodness that such hate extinguished.

And one place that jointly houses the recollection of devastating hatred and the remembrance lost goodness is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where once again good encountered evil, love encountered hate. When James Von Brunn opened fire at guards protecting a space housing the memory of devastating hate, he created new, all-to-painful memories that hate has not yet abated.  Just as Jews have endured the consequences of hate since the Holocaust, hatred of Jews has endured since then as well.

James Von Brunn reminded us that there is a thin line between love and hate, and that the line has not faded one bit.  It is a line that has not dimmed with the passage of time or the relocation of place.  Just as that line was once drawn between the 22 year-old SS soldiers who operated gas chambers and the 70 year-old righteous gentiles who hid and saved Jewish souls from those very camps, another line has now been drawn between an 88 year-old murderous anti-Semite and a 39 year-old security guard who served in his own way as a righteous protector of a place of memory for six million Jews.

Officer Stephen T. Johns served as a bulwark on that thin line between love and hate.  In a place built to memorialize how at one time hate bled over the line to decimate a people of love, yet again there was blood spilled on that line; blood of a defender of memory and an obstacle to hate.

So once again, all of us who embrace the desire to do acts of loving-kindness are reminded that while we live so fully on one side of the line, there is another side of the line as well. A side that is holds back more than just despair and ignorance, more than just fear and loathing. It is a side of mankind that is dark and it is evil.

Yes, there is a thin line between love and hate. Stephen T. Johns lived and died defending the better side of that line. His death leaves one less defender on that line, one less defender of boundless love against the ferocity of unrestricted hate. We need a lot more Stephen Johns on that line – including every single one of us.

Then, perhaps, the line won’t be so thin after all.