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The Heretic

David Simon, creator of the series The Wire, infuriated Jewish groups last fall by likening the plight of the country’s inner cities to a “slow-motion Holocaust.” As his latest show, Treme, enters its second season, he explains how his choice of words was no accident.

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David Simon. (Colin McPherson/Corbis)

This Sunday begins David Simon’s latest appraisal of a badly wounded American city: the second season of Treme, the HBO series about post-Katrina New Orleans. Though there’s little overt hint of it in his shows, Simon brings to his work a devotion to a distinctly Jewish brand of social justice that he picked up in part from his father, a career B’nai B’rith official. Simon’s own relationship with the American Jewish establishment turned rocky last year when he accused the federations of all but ignoring the desperate need of the inner cities. As Treme’s new season was filming in New Orleans, I caught up with the screenwriter to discuss the state of the American city, his family, and his beef with American Jewry’s central institutions.

“Look, I’m not self-hating,” he told me over a dinner of gumbo and crab po’ boys during a break from shooting his show. “I have a great deal of cultural pride and sense of people-hood as a Jew. But until organized American Jewry turns itself to the places of greatest need in this country, we cannot pretend to be a light unto the nations.”

Simon is best known as the creator of The Wire, HBO’s sprawling but intricately intertwined saga of crime, justice, politics, and the press in a terminally decaying Baltimore. A former Baltimore Sun crime reporter, Simon left journalism in the mid-1990s to write for Homicide, an NBC series based on a nonfiction book he published in 1991. In 2000, he adapted another book he authored into The Corner, an HBO mini-series focusing on the dealers, addicts, and civilians enmeshed in the drug market of a West Baltimore street. That netted Simon three Emmy awards and was the seed from which The Wire’s five-season run grew. Though the show never drew a huge audience, critics swooned over its complex structure and nuanced portrayal of the lives of those cast off, forgotten, and screwed over by the post-industrial American economy, from petty drug dealers to inner city schoolteachers to laid-off dock workers. Treme is in some ways a similar meditation on New Orleans after the storm, but it’s not another cop show. Though police, drugs, and prisons figure into its several, occasionally connected story lines, the show’s central concern is New Orleans’ unique culture of musicians and what they signify.

“This show, if we do it right,” said Simon, “is an argument for the city, for the idea of American urbanity, for the melting pot, for the idea that our future can’t be separated from the fact that we are all going to be increasingly compacted into urban areas, though we’re different in race and culture and religion. And what we make of that will determine the American future.”

Much of Simon’s work focuses on the troubles of low-income African Americans, be they heroin dealers or trombone players. It’s a preoccupation he shares with a long line of American Jewish social activists and cultural figures, from early abolitionists to the Jews who helped found the NAACP to the Jewish Freedom Riders murdered in the early 1960s. When I bring that up, though, Simon brushes aside the comparison. “The Freedom Riders and NAACP founders were doing something far more substantive, and in the case of the Freedom Riders, risking far, far more,” he says. “I wouldn’t put myself in that category under any circumstances.”

Nonetheless, he’s very conscious of that history. To him, it’s a proud legacy that the American’s Jewish federations have walked away from, to their shame and their peril.

He recently told them so in person. Last November, he gave a speech in New Orleans at institutional Jewry’s biggest annual conclave, the General Assembly. Simon raised the hackles of many of the 4,000 assembled machers by upbraiding them for not doing enough for poor urban blacks, who he said, in calculatedly agit-prop phrasing, were suffering “a Holocaust in slow motion.” The response was not exactly exuberant.

Simon was asked to speak about the good work the Jewish Federations of North America has done with the $28 million they raised to help post-Katrina New Orleans. But Simon was appalled to learn that most of that money was spent on restoring and rebuilding the city’s Jewish community—“right down to the point where if New Orleans was not your home and you’d never been here before and you had no connection to New Orleans but you were a Jewish professional or college graduate, they would subsidize your move here and pay your JCC membership and synagogue dues,” he said.

“At the point when they were doing that, tens of thousands of New Orleanians were still living elsewhere and couldn’t get home,” Simon said. “The average income of a Jewish family in New Orleans was $180,000 a year. The average income in New Orleans, $30,000 a year. And you’re subsidizing the Jews? That hyper-segregation of the Jewish community from the problems in the world, that alienation from tragedy that isn’t tribal is one of the most disappointing things to me as a Jew.”

That feeling took root during his three years on the streets of West Baltimore researching The Corner. “Everywhere I went, every single institutional endeavor on behalf of the most damaged and vulnerable citizens was being assisted by the Associated Catholic Charities,” he said. “The soup kitchen, drug outreach, job training. Jews were nonexistent. The kids that I wrote that book about, I was the first Jew they ever met. They were like, ‘What does that mean, a Jew? Does that mean you’re not white?’ ”

Simon had raised this issue with Jewish communal leaders before, and in response, he said, “they go to the anecdotal. I’m like, ‘Listen, I’m talking systemically. Don’t give me your anecdotal bullshit that you went and sang with some Baptist choir or you had some Baptist choir come to your synagogue. Or that you guys had a day where you took canned food down.’ Come on. There are lives in the balance down there. This is the community where the people are the most vulnerable, where the desperation is profound.”

“I understand all the dynamic that happened in the ’70s and ’80s,” he said, referring to the rift that opened up between Jews and blacks, once closely aligned on the issue of civil rights, over a series of issues from Louis Farrakhan to Jewish opposition to quota-based affirmative action. “I know the whole history, and I don’t care. The Jewish community has the resources to help. It should do so aggressively because there is real need, and the desperation transcends old scars and wounds. Or should.”

Simon acknowledges that there are plenty of independent Jewish groups and Jewish-funded charities doing good work in America’s ghettos. His gripe is not with the community at large; it’s with the federations, which are supposed to represent mainstream Jewry.
Simon has rounded features and an ursine frame. He’s garrulous and engaging without exactly being friendly. He deploys his formidable intelligence aggressively, strafing his listener with historic and cultural references and high-flown, occasionally hyperbolic flourishes.

It’s a rhetorical style that was shaped at the family dinner table. Simon grew up in a comfortable Washington, D.C., suburb, in what he calls “a liberal household of New Deal people.”

“We argued for the joy of it,” he said. “Your ability to maintain an argument in my household was a sign of worthiness. Friday night was a time to bring the week’s events to the table and show your prowess as a thinking person.”

Simon’s father, Bernard, was the national public relations director of B’nai B’rith, the venerable advocacy organization, where he played a role in the campaign to win Soviet Jews the right to emigrate. (He occasionally got even closer to the action: In 1977, he was one of dozens of B’nai B’rith staffers briefly held hostage by an Islamic extremist group.) Bernard brought Israeli visitors to the family’s Sabbath dinners all the time and introduced a young David to the likes of Elie Wiesel and Teddy Kollek.

Though his parents observed the major holidays and sent David and his brother to Hebrew school until their bar mitzvahs, the family was not particularly religious. “We ran the gamut from agnostic to atheist,” he said. “I’m willing to concede that if there is a God it’s probably a monotheistic entity. But I’m not sure it matters. I certainly don’t believe in an interventionist God. That’s a hard case to make in the modern age. And we certainly had no belief in chosenness. We were with Spinoza on that one, excommunicated though he was.”

Given all that, I’d wondered why the only Jewish character I’d noticed in either The Wire or Treme was Maury Levy, the blithely amoral lawyer for The Wire’s drug dealers.

First off, Simon told me, he was careful to include two other, more upstanding lawyers with Jewish surnames in the show. “But you ask why Maury Levy is Jewish, and the answer is simple,” he said. “The four biggest drug lawyers during my years of covering Baltimore were all Jewish, one of them quite observant. Should I have pulled the punch and made them Gentile? What would that have said about me? That I was willing to depict black gangsters, Greek/Turkish drug suppliers, drunken Irish detectives, but when it came time to create an appropriately Jewish character of poor morals, I ducked the moment? I owe it to every other ethnicity not to punk out when it’s my own ox being gored. The Wire was about all of us being complicit in the same rigged game. The Jewish writer does not get to self-censor that theme when it comes to that particular place in reality where some very talented and very ambitious Jewish lawyers did their city a real disservice.”

After my return from New Orleans, Simon and I continued our conversation through a series of emails. In one, I pointed out that when the federation system was originally developed a century or so ago, it was intended largely to provide charitable help to Jewish immigrants—the urban poor at the time. Given today’s realities, it’s perhaps understandable that the federations have shifted their emphasis toward “Jewish continuity”—the effort to keep an increasingly assimilated community Jewish.

Simon replied: “The preservation of the Jewish faith and people-hood, while an essential task, says nothing to any other nation beyond our own, especially if we preserve ourselves for no purpose other than the perpetuation of one branch of monotheistic thought. Surely, the world needs the Jewish mind and spirit for something more fundamental than that.”

“Until there is a hard moment of real self-reflection here,” he continued, “younger and more secular Jews like myself—who were raised in the tradition and who still are proud of their Jewishness—are going to be increasingly abandoning organized Jewish giving and going directly at the actual problems.” (Count Simon’s son Ethan among them. For his recent bar mitzvah, Simon and his wife told well-wishers not to send the usual checks, but to give instead to Habitat for Humanity or other charities working in New Orleans.)

OK, so there’s a case to be made about Jewish responsibility to the urban poor. But what’s with throwing the word “Holocaust” into the argument? Why poke that most sensitive of nerves? Can you really call what happens in America’s ghettos “genocide”?

“I used the phrase ‘slow-motion Holocaust’ knowing how provocative it was,” said Simon. “But I used it with precision and thought.”

Of the seven boys aged 14 and 15 whom he followed while researching The Corner, he said, the results are as follows: three shot to death, one a heroin addict, one a homeless alcoholic, and one in prison. Only one has a job, working in a nursing facility.

“None attended a college. None ever held a job with benefits,” said Simon. “None were educated in a school system that did anything but raise them as fodder for the corners. America had no use for these lives. We considered them extraneous to our version of society.”

It’s that proximity to and intimate knowledge of the deaths of so many people from one particular group that gives Simon both an authoritative voice on the subject and to some extent diminishes his objectivity toward it. When you’re that close to the trees, it’s hard to say exactly what kind of forest it is. I covered the Bosnia war for a time, I tell him, and it always struck me as inaccurate to call that conflict “genocide.” In Bosnia, the goal of warring Serbs, Croats, and Muslims was to drive one another out of their respective territories. In the process, they slaughtered thousands of people. But the killing was a brutal side-effect, not the actual objective. For the Nazis, on the other hand, the killing was the whole point. They prevented Jews from fleeing German-controlled territories because they wanted to massacre every last one. That was real genocide: the deliberate attempt to annihilate an entire race.

That doesn’t diminish the horror of Bosnia, nor of West Baltimore, but it does, I think, make them something that requires a different label than “genocide.” It’s something like the difference between premeditated murder and manslaughter. They’re both horrible crimes that result in death, but one is an ethical shade darker than the other.

Simon doesn’t buy this at all.

“Perhaps you’ve found a distinction in the Bosnian experience that is eluding me,” he said. “Because all I’m seeing is the net results: bodies piled in the ditch with bullets in the back of their heads.”

“No, there is no barbed wire around West Baltimore. No, there is no political imperative to segregate them from the greater society, or ultimately, to murder them en masse. That would be a Holocaust at normal speed. Instead, we have simply participated—either tacitly or actively—in constructing a national economic model that throws away 10 to 15 percent of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. There is no work for more than half the adult black males in Baltimore. Other than the drug corners, of course. Can anyone argue that the percentage of human destruction among adult males of color in these neighborhoods has not for generations approached the genocidal?”

“I know there were people at that federation gathering who resolved not to listen to me because of the Holocaust reference, self-righteously claiming a higher perch on the pyramid of collective martyrdom. That’s the corruption of holding the Holocaust experience to be something beyond any possible point of comparison for other collective tragedy. We like to tell ourselves that we are educating the world about the extraordinary nature of the Shoah, that we are sensitizing them to the breadth and depth of the horror. In fact, the opposite occurs. By holding ourselves aloof from the rest of human tragedy, by denying any possible points of comparison, we desensitize ourselves. And we only manage to alienate the rest of the world from their natural commonalities with the Holocaust experience.”

Vince Beiser is a Los Angeles-based writer. His work has appeared in Harper’s, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Wired and Mother Jones.

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David says:

Though I am not a huge fan of David Simon’s TV series (my tastes are a little more mainstream), his criticisms of Jewish Federations are well founded. Having served on the board of my local federation and Jewish Day School for years, it was obvious to me that the goal of the federation was to compete in the Jewish “marketplace” for dollars and then spend those dollars along carefully crafted lines and politics in order to assure future dollars. An entire generation of “professional Jews” has grown up that makes its living off of Jewish philanthropy and they are not about to jeopardize that typically high income. The federations started out as a way to centralize Jewish fundraising but have devolved into just another group of shnorers at the door (or on the telephone). The most successful Jewish campaigns in recent years have been far more goal-oriented such as Taglit-Birthright or direct gifts to “Jewish” institutions such as nursing homes or synagogues. The reality is that the vast majority of Jewish philanthropy now does not go into the Jewish community and the portion going to Federation will drop significantly with each passing year and generation.

“An entire generation of “professional Jews” has grown up that makes its living off of Jewish philanthropy and they are not about to jeopardize that typically high income.”

Well stated, David. As a former “professional Jew” I can tell you that the executive directors number one job is to perpetuate their jobs.

Mary Ann Oppenheimer says:

I, too, am a former Jewish communal professional and agree wholeheartedly that the major organizations have lost focus and now seem more concerned with survival than with tikkun olam.

Yes, no distinction whatsoever between Baltimore and Bosnia. Any attempt to distinguish between the two would be pure sophistry. Thank god we have David Simon as our moral lodestar. And by god, I mean the non-sentient prime mover immanent in all being, just as Spinoza described.

I am troubled by Simon’s presumption and assumption that Jews in any fashion should be “…a light unto the nations.”

Jews are people, no better/no worse and no wiser/no more foolish than others.

Why should Simon or anyone give ourselves airs nor take on obligations which belong to everyone in the world?

Of course if organized Jewry is not doing its just share — which perhaps is all that Simon is saying — then I agree with him entirely.

But to do more? Why cant about “…a light unto the nations?” Why? Why such pride?

M. Brukhes says:

I think David Simon’s chastising and haranguing voice directed squarely toward what he sees as the moral bankruptcy of Jewish institutions fits in very easily and admirably with the rhetoric and passions of the later prophets (nevi’im). Sure, he exaggerates and judges those institutions unfairly: is it really their mandate to help all poor people everywhere? Isn’t it understandable that Jewish organizations exist to support Jewish communal life? What about the AJWS? What about the AJWS? etc. etc. But the prophets also exaggerated and distorted the actions of their enemies, and that’s what got them noticed, transcribed, and committed to historical memory. It’s what made them prophets.

Regarding the equation of David Simon with the Freedom Riders or the Civil Rights crusaders of the 1960s, I agree with him that their sacrifices and courage were far greater than his. But there’s another comparison with the past to be made: David Simon is part of a long and outstanding tradition of American-Jewish artists who somehow have confused or equated being Jewish with being Black–like George Gershwin, Norman Mailer, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Lieber & Stoller, and the Beastie Boys. Where would American civilization be without their contribution or their initial confusion?! I hope David Simon at least never outgrows his misperceptions!!!!

M. Brukhes says:

P.S. @David Sucher: the phrase “a light unto the nations” doesn’t originate with David Simon; it’s the prophet Isaiah’s coinage, and Jews have aspired to it for nearly 3000 years. You can take issue with it if you want, but in so doing you’re saying that you reject the ethical imperatives of being Jewish as it’s been understood since the origins of the religion and its people….

Peter W. says:

That Simon likened the plight of America’s inner cities to a slow-motion Holocaust shows how profound and deep is his total non-understanding of what people who lived through the Holocaust experienced.

Nicely explained, M. Brukhes. But please don’t lump Simon in with venerable Jewish cultural icons like Gershwin and Dylan. Television shows loom large in the public consciousness while they’re on the air, but tend to be quickly forgotten, and for good reason. And that pomposity you describe may be characteristic of the prophets, but it’s also endemic to Hollywood, the unmistakeable stamp of which Simon bears, for all his preening.

A close reading of Simon’s “light unto the nations” quote shows that his point is not quite that Jews “should” be one but, rather, that the insularity of the Federations negates the traditionally Jewish values of empathy and responsibility for our fellow humans – Tikkun Olam – and makes them hypocrites by still claiming to uphold those values. I see David Simon as a brilliant and powerful example of how the best of our prophetic tradition insists on asserting itself in the broken world. It would be easier for him to ignore the Jewish community and simply make his beautiful, inspiring, painful art. But, instead, he tells the truth to entrenched and powerful Jewish insitutions. I’ve long felt the “The Wire” is a true masterpiece and “Treme” may prove to be one too. Now thanks to this article, I’ve learned that there’s also a Jewish context to Simon’s work and that some good old, righteous, progressive, Jewish DNA lives on!

And to fw: the Wire and Treme “endemic to Hollywod?” if only.

Denise says:

I had mixed feelings on reading this as my own personal Venn diagram: Black, Jewish, and a resident of New Orleans.

Many Jewish youth and many synagogues came down to work on houses in the New Orleans area. They are still coming. So it’s not correct that Jewish money and time went only into the Jewish community.

Yes, the Federation helped to subsidize Jewish migration into New Orleans. We lost at least one third of our residents. In order to have a Jewish community, you need Jews. I am excited to see all of the young Jewish professionals that moved into town. They have revitalized the city immensely.

I have to admit that the average salary quoted amazed me because most of the Jews that I know are teachers and social workers. I’m certainly not in that salary range.

Like Simon, I don’t think that Holocaust is a sacred word that can only be used Jewish deaths. The African-American community has experimented with “Maafa”, but that word is specifically associated with the slave trade. The idea of saying whose genocide was worse is ridiculous, imho.

Cory, I was referring to Simon’s bloated opinion of himself, which informs the opinions the dispenses so freely in the article. (Not one of the Freedom Riders? Thanks for clearing that up, David). But so long as you’re discussing Hollywood, among the many strands of its history is a trailblazing concern for civil rights, so I wouldn’t be so dismissive.

Second, the at-best ambivalence he has toward Jews is gratuitous; nothing prevents him from exploring social issues in his work without casual racial slander.

Finally, it points up his responsibilities as someone with access to mass media that some of the children in the community he has chosen to depict have, to their knowledge, never had any encounters with Jews. What message will he be sending them in his work? Is it likely to help mend some of the bitter rifts alluded to in the article. I might have said ‘between blacks and Jews’, but as Denise has pointed out, that is not necessarily a valid distinction.

“The Wire” was brilliant, but David Simon’s arguments are ridiculous.

Jewish federations’ primary responsibilities are to nurture Jewish life here in the U.S., support projects in Israel, and help ensure Jewish continuity. Of course they will focus on those aspects, first and foremost. But Simon conveniently ignores the federations’ generosity whenever there is a crisis at home or abroad – whether it is the S. Asian tsunami, Katrina, or the earthquake/tsunami in Japan.

Simon’s comparison between the plight of U.S. inner cities and the Shoah is offensive in many ways, but none more so than the way he ignores the role of agency. No one is forcing inner city youths to commit crimes and perpetuate poverty. I don’t think Jews had much choice during the Shoah.

Simon acknowledges the “problems” between the inner-city black community and Jews, and plainly says he doesn’t care. Presumably the federations who decide where the money goes to can give the same reasoning as to why they focus primarily on their own (Gd forbid!)

Simon’s thinking that American Jews should financially support those in inner cities b/c Jews are, on average, wealthier than those in such communities, is like saying the NAACP should give all of its funding to Israel, because terrorist attacks are worse than residual American racial discrimination.

David Simon (no relation) demonstrates himself here to be utterly ignorant of Judaism, Jewish history and Jewish tradition; spectacularly solipsistic and grandiose in demanding that his fellow Jews become more authentically Jewish by emulating him and sharing his beliefs, opinions and priorities; and completely assimilated into his local Gentile milieu, while claiming deep ties to a Jewish identity that he has in reality thoroughly rejected.

In these respects, of course, he is following a rich and venerable vein of Jewish tradition, one that American Jews as a group seem to be particularly fond of embracing.

Yoki says:

My wife is Jewish and spent most of her childhood in New Orleans. She has over 70 Jewish relatives all over the city. None of them have anywhere near the income that Mr. Simon stated. I wish he would give the source of this information. Otherwise I suspect that he is a propagandist.

I myself am also Jewish and spent a year teaching in an inner city school in New Orleans (at a salary of approximately 15% of what Mr. Simon claims is the average income). During that time I observed many of the fundamental problems of the inner city Black community. These problems are internal to the Black community and can only be solved from within the Black community.

There is no “Holocaust in slow motion” occurring. No non African Americans are doing bad things to African Americans and the government is not doing bad things to African Americans.

Mr. Simon’s statements are ridiculous propaganda.

I was just driving around Rye, New York with my wife and family. The homes are spectacular, and evidently among the most expensive in the country (#3) according to a Coldwell Banker survey in 2010. Wikipedia has the average family income there at about $130,000, and lists a number of heads of investment banks as residents. I don’t know where you get an ethnic breakdown of incomes–not from tax or real estate info, certainly, but $180K is an off-the-wall average, which I don’t find credible. I’m glad other writers questioned it, and I’d like to know what Simon’s source is.

To M. Brukhes.

Yes that is precisely my point:
Jews, no better, no worse.
Just people.

Yes, I reject the idea that Jews should have (much less do have) some sort of special “ethical imperatives” to the world.

And let me explain that I believe that to take on such a mantle (special “ethical imperatives”) takes on the sin of pride. And if I believe that if one wants to take on such extra human responsibility, modesty should be the watchword.

(To Tablet editors — it would be nice if you could add an editing function to comments.)

Stan Revich says:

It is difficult to argue with a fool; it is even worse when that fool is a liar. That the average Jewish family income, ever, is or was 180,000 dollars a year is ridiculous. It is bad enough when non-Jews toss around Holocaust comparisons to every social pathology in the world. What we don’t need is another self-hating, pompous, self- centered Jew enabling the world’s anti- Semites through his rants. We Jews have trouble enough surviving in this world without worrying about being a “light unto the nations”. If Mr. Simon is unhappy about the plight of New Orleans blacks then let him sound the rest of his life down there in the ghettos and do something worthwhile instead of pandering to his ” Hollywood” crowd.
If the truth be known, the REAL truth, not the white- washed liberal pap that is propagated in the so-called MSM, the plight of blacks in the inner U.S. cities lies in their own hands and in their own leaders, not in Jewish hands. The prime of function of the various Jewish federations and organizations is to assist Jews, not blacks. Do you really think that blacks will demonstrate any gratitude towards Jews even if we showered them with every penny the Federations receive? If you do I have a bridge I would like to sell you. Jews put their own lives at risk, gave millions to black causes and what did they get in return — the Reverand Wright and Louis Farrakhan. Go back to your sycophants in Hollywood Simon and let loose your venom on them.

Bill Pearlman says:

We have a black president. I don’t want to hear about this anymore. BTW, I thought the wire was a great show.

Karen says:

I’m one of about 200 reading tutors in a Jewish Federation of Cleveland program that has been sending people to inner-city schools every week for many years. We also donate books and school supplies and uniforms. In addition, the Federation has been involved in other inner-city programs and was the catalyst in a recent effort to open an international welcome center for new immigrants. It also raises money for every major disaster in the world. For example, the Federation and the Jewish community in general made a huge effort to assist New Orleans (and not just Jews) after Hurricane Katrina. So I think Mr. Simon’s criticisms are unfair. Has he actually talked to federations across the country to learn about their programs?

Letty says:

As a local and regional leader of a major Jewish organization, I feel that it is important for all philanthropic organizations to state their missions clearly and to adhere to them faithfully. Fundraising dollars should not be diverted to outside interests. But, in the interest of tikkun olam, local Jewish organizations can and should sponsor events and programs that emphasize good deeds: food drives, clothing drives, meals for the less fortunate, volunteer at local school programs, co-sponsor health issue related programs that with organization dedicated to a particular issue.
It’s important for all us as individuals to assign our charitable giving to a broad range of charities that not only cover Jewish communities, Judaism, and Israel, but also address disadvantaged children, disasters, environment, health issues, etc.

This has nothing to do with Jewish organizations. It is, as is so often the case with someone who ostentatiously repudiates their Jewish heritage, a parent issue, in this case a daddy issue.

As far as his facts are concerned, two words: Greg Mortenson.

Actually, fact wise... says:

The income disparity of $180,000 to $30,000 annually between Jewish households in the NOLA area and all households was in the Federated’s own GA reported information on their efforts to aid the Jewish community to NOLA. Get it? Those facts were offered by the Federated itself. As was the fact that at the time Simon made his speech, 90 percent of the Jewish community had returned to its homes in the NOLA area. Census figures for the enter area show that overall only 70 percent have returned. Those figures were also provided by the Federated at the time of the GA.

Interesting that when anyone criticizes the established norms or institutions of Jewish communal life, or civic life the only responses — based on these comments at least — is not to directly engage the substance of the critique, but to:

1) Quickly call the critic a liar and immediately deny any facts cited, even if those facts can be sourced to Jewish organizations themselves.
2) Resort to ad hominem arguments against the critic — he’s arrogant, self-important, is a Hollywood hack, has daddy issues, etc. Simon may be a sonofabitch. He probably kicks dogs and small children. He may even drink the blood of Jewish babies in secret. But proving such won’t mean much to refuting or countering the content of his critique. When criticism goes at the man and not his argument, it is usually because the critic is unprepared to address the argument itself directly.

Denial — and instantaneous denial at that — has become the natural state of American Jewry when it comes to any critique of its civic stances, its priorities, its charitable reach. This response in itself is telling for a people whose heritage was once moral iconoclasm and the tolerance and cultivation of dissent.

Actually, the arguments were directed precisely at the facts.

1) Bosnia is not Baltimore. Are you really going to argue otherwise?

Make your argument; I’d love to see it.

2) Baltimore, or New Orleans, is not a slow-motion Holocaust.

Disagree? Why? That is Simon’s argument. Not the author, not the commenters.

Simon is the one who introduced this ridiculous hyperbole which loses any rhetorical strength it might have derived from a mild exaggeration because it is just so insistently stupid and offensive.

He’s the one who reached for it. No one here was comparing him to Hitler, and no one’s comments were as outlandish as you would portray them as being.

3) The report of the Federation–well, I’d like to see how they gather their facts, after I’d seen the report. Not only is that average staggeringly high, it’s hard to imagine what could conceivably support it. I was only in New Orleans once, years ago, but where does that income come from? What’s the industry? Did they go door to door? Again, it’s not from taxes, so how was it done? I say this as a former fundraiser in Manhattan, for a Medical Center.

4) Simon is happy to make anecdotal arguments based on conversations he’s had as an individual; they are contradicted by anecdotal remarks in the feedback. He actually went so far as to suggest that Jews are completely absent from any of the urban areas ravaged by the flooding. Again, how does he explain some of the feedback? Are there no Jews on the faculty of Tulane, for example, who might have felt an obligation to contribute their time and resources to relief efforts?

5) The latter half of your argument is just venom directed at American Jews, a polemical thrust that is really as tiresome at this point as it is inaccurate and racist.

Jews don’t act monolithically, or in concert to silence dissent. We do, however, exercise our right to express disgust with wannabe gadflies who use the power of their medium to invoke pernicious stereotypes.

…moreover, it’s entirely characteristic of those who would cover themselves in the mantle of the prophet not only to depict their own achievements in outsized terms–‘well, I’m not a Freedom Rider, but….’–but also to denigrate the moral stature and deeds of their peers to burnish that image of singular bravery and insight. And that tactic is so incredibly pervasive among Jewish, self-styled moral scolds.

So is the threat–if Jews don’t do so and so, then so and so is going to happen. In Peter Beinart’s case, we’re going to abandon Israel. In Simon’s case, ‘younger more secular Jews’ are going to abandon Judaism and ‘go right to the problem.’ First, ‘younger’? Compared to his dad, I guess. Second, the Jews abandoning Judaism will, I suppose, be the ones who aren’t currently working in education, medicine, government, and social work, for starters. Television executives, I guess.

Yeah, we ossified illiberal Jews, the ones who came out in force to support Obama in greater numbers than any other ethnic group, other than African-Americans, who as a group Obama himself has described as instrumental to his being elected. Apparently, we just don’t measure up to other religions, like Catholicism, according to Simon.

If you’re going to reproach us Jews, facts guy, why don’t you try something other than gale-force bloviation, and tell Simon to do the same.

Rebecca says:

Until the black community steps up to the plate and focuses on their community and their issues, I will not feel sorry for their lack of integration in to “mainstream” society. What I didn’t hear mentioned by Simon was the massive migration of middle class blacks to traditionally back cities such as Atlanta. Poverty is poverty and it should not be up to “the rich Jews” to fix it. I’m Jewish, grew up poor and never once did any Jewish program help put food on the table or give us money to buy clothes. did I choose prostitution or drugs because of it? No. Yes, this may be an over simplification but to say that inner cities are a slow moving holocaust that affects only blacks is misguided at best. Look at the other poor communities, immigrant communities……. they help each other. There are thousands of poor white communities but no one focuses on that. Poor hispanic communities, which invariably causes the racism card to be shown. An alcoholic cannot be helped until he/she admits there is a problem.

Yoki says:

If the statement “The income disparity of $180,000 to $30,000 annually between Jewish households in the NOLA area and all households was in the Federated’s own GA reported information on their efforts to aid the Jewish community to NOLA.” is true, then the Federated’s own GA made up this number out of thin air. None of my wife’s more than 70 relatives all over New Orleans were ever asked to supply information on their income to anybody other than the taxing authorities. And the taxing authorities never ask for people’s religious and ethnic background. The question therefore remains, where did the Federated’s own GA get this number?

I’m glad Marc Tracy linked to the piece on the scroll linking to the article on Simon in New Orleans. It features this quote from Simon:

“For years now, one of the fascinating questions for me is how progress in a city as vibrant and as essential as New Orleans always comes so slowly, or not at all. Why is it that consortiums and consensus-building and cooperation are all so elusive? Well, after being tossed between the mayor, preservationists, reporters and the generalized and absurd resentments and suspicions of many ordinary New Orleanians yesterday, I am beginning to see more of the light.”

Yup, those dumb residents of New Orleans. I mean, I knew about the greedy Jews. But don’t they know how fortunate they are to have me here, a Hollywood Jesus.

Michael says:

Simon is being way too hard on Jewish organizations, whose resources are finite and who by their very nature should put the Jewish community first.

I contribute money to hunger organizations and to the Red Cross, in the hope that it will help alleviate suffering. Similarly, I give money to Jewish organizations in the hope that it will further Jewish interests.

To ask Jewish organizations to address a bottomless well of worldy despair is asking too much. Perhaps he should ask his Hollywood brethren (and their immeasurable resources) to pick up the banner instead?

To endorse your remark, and echo something said above, if Jewish organizations were dedicated to reconstituting the Jewish community, that would imply that the Jewish community itself had been dispersed, in the same way as other residents of the City. Are they less deserving than those other residents? It’s also not clear to me that those funds the collected were dedicated exclusively to Jewish recipients, based on material on the Federation website. I’ll concede that that might be window-dressing, but they do have video of the mayor thanking them, among others doing the same.

With respect to income, anyone who’s worked in non-profit fundraising knows that there is a sub-field called ‘prospect research’, which involves trying to ascertain the wealth of potential donors. With all the information available on the web, that’s still very hard and never anything more than an estimate. For starters, you never ask someone what they earn, any more than you would in polite conversation. You would risk offending them and losing them as donors. Housing values are approximations, as is employment information. Stock information doesn’t exist, unless they have at least 5% of a company, or are directors. Sometimes you can find boats. There are data mining companies that charge a lot to find out that info, and even then, it’s a rough estimate.

Again, if a substantial number of Jews left the City, how is it the average income is $180,000?

Gabriel says:

The Wire is the best television show I have ever seen in my life. It is on par with Dickens but in a televised format. There is nothing like it, and unfortunately in the profit-driven world of massmarketed television there won’t be anything like it again. If you want to look at the underbelly of the American dream watch this show. It is brutally honest (which is why it never one a single critical award).

No he isn’t a civil-rights hero, but he’s a man who doesn’t give a crap about what anyone thinks and has decided to take the depressing story of a once great city and turn it into accesible and beautiful art. What he lacks in tact he has in moral clarity. Sounds like a Jew to me.

To those of you who see Simon as some corrupt pretentious Hollywood lackey, I can only shake my head at how incredibly off you are. A muckraker journalist turned muckraker television producer, Simon doesn’t suck up to the morally corrupt bozos in Hollywood. Why should he give contemporary Jewry a free-pass?

beni says:

American Jews use the expression “Tikkun Olam” all the time. You never hear an Israeli, a Russian Jew, a French Jew, an English Jew and so on.. use it. And for a good reason – it does not mean what US Jews think it means. Tikkun Olam is about Kabbalah, and nothing else. It has nothing to do with “helping the poor” or other left-wing nonsensical propaganda.

This perversion of Judaism is part of the reason why US Jews, in opposition to the rest, are so liberal and ignorant of their own tradition.

M. Brukhes says:

To fw: you seem to be fully in the fray on this discussion! I can only add to what others have already commented about the distinction between David Simon as a television producer (auteur) and the more canonical/venerable figures I equated him with in my first posting: although you’re correct that most television shows are ephemeral, disposable commodities, the great exception to this rule is Simon’s “The Wire.” It’s telling that the best realist novel of the 21st century is a television series, but there’s nothing else I’ve ever seen/read/experienced that better captures the social sweep and the political significance of private relationships than “The Wire.” It’s Tolstoy, Balzac, and Zola all-in-one, and all in contemporary Baltimore (where I happen to live…). As Simon himself says, nothing better has “captured the Dickensian element” of contemporary American culture….

Moreover, all the other figures I compared Simon with–Gershwin, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, etc–were also working with disposable, ephemeral popular mediums which they themselves, almost singlehandedly, transformed into enduring works of art. Simon has done the same with television drama. Mark my words!!

Andrew G says:

“actually fact wise” like Mr. Simon is making up facts entirely. I stayed in NOLA through the storm and the entire aftermath. There was and continues to be a very real concern about the loss of a major portion of the Jewish community. Anyone who says otherwise was not here or is clueless. We were able to attract many young professional Jews (lots of public school teachers who I can assure you do not make 180K) through the incentive programs. Mr. Simon’s world view is very simplistically black and white and he has a big megaphone – the reality of our situation in New Orleans is much different than he believes and much different than depicted on his very nice television show. His high opinion of his opinions reminds me of Sean Penn – well intentioned but not well informed. The liberal version of Fox News.

Stan Revich says:

In response to “fact wise”, I repeat, the figure of 180,000 dollars family income in New Orleans. Is pure fiction. The Federation’s own newspaper in Greater New Orleans. In it’s March/11 edition gave the Jewish household income as being 120,000 dollars/yr.
The closest I could come to obtaining a figure of 180,000 dollars is by using the federal census figure for ONE specific ZIP code tract in New York City populated by the city’s wealthiest Jews. The average individual income for that ZIP code was 90,000 dollars/ yr. In 2006.
Mr, Simon has obviously just doubled the New York figure to make it a family figure and decided that it would apply to New Orleans as well.
So again, where did this supposed 180,000 New Orkeans figure come from when their own newspaper this year said 120,000, a far more reasonable HOUSEHOLD number.

Sharon Gibson says:

Misuse of the term, Holocaust, by applying it to the ills of the nation’s inner cities, diminishes the former and results in people dismissing the latter.

Mr. Simon seems to have directed his ire at the wrong community. Jews do not need anyone to prove their bonafides as offering extraordinary support to the downtrodden and poor regardless of race or faith.
It is also well known that Jews set up their own ethnic charitable and service organizations primarily to help their fellow Jews improve their economic and social conditions since few non-Jews were available to offer any assistance.
Today there is a rich and influential black community growing rapidly in America who can use the experience of the Jewish community as a matrix for helping those of their race stuck in poverty and abandoned in urban ghettos.
It is to this community that Mr. Simon should direct his criticism instead of using a brickbat to insult his own ethnic compatriots. His political correctness is typical of people in the entertainment business and is often wrongheaded,inaccurate and disgustingly sanctimonious.

I think that beneath the bitter accusations of Simon’s Jewish self-hatred (a new coded term for dissent), arrongance and ignorance lies a conflict of moral values, metaphors and narratives that is also being played out in current US politics. As George Lakoff brilliantly puts in “The Political Mind,” it’s a conflict between the values of empathy and mutual responsibility on one hand and the values of authority and individualism on the other. In this case, though “individualism” stretches to include the “tribe.” Simon seems to have really pushed the buttons of those who see him as an outsider who is challenging or denegrating (= disobeying) the authority of Jewish institutions. The ire raised by his daring to use the H word to describe the effects of US racism is evidence of some deep fear and defensiveness that only underscores Simon’s self-admitted use of the word to get his audience’s attention. Sure, as Jews we have an undeniable visceral response to anything associated with the Shoah. But for me the important question for Jews today is: do we channel that response towards separating ourselves from the suffering of others or towards caring and acting about all beings? No one can hold only one of these responses. I know I move between extreme selfishness and a degree of care for others as often as I breathe. But the prophetic voice energizes our aspirations and urges us to transcend the bondage of the ego, be it personal or collective.

We do need editable comment fields or previews. In my previous comment the sentence:

“But for me the important question for Jews today is: do we channel that response towards separating ourselves from the suffering of others or towards caring and acting about all beings?”

should read: “But for me the important question for Jews today is: do we channel that response towards separating ourselves from the suffering of others or towards caring about and acting for the good all beings?

It amazes me that people are attacking Simon instead of offering solutions to the issues he outlines. We jews do have an obligation to the less fortunate. That is the issue, not Simon’s characterizations of Ghetto plight and of Jewish Organizations.

Hank Essay says:

Let’s be clear about what David Simon said and didn’t say: his comments were about the Federations ONLY, not Jewish groups and Jewish people in general who, he rightly notes, do a lot of work in urban areas.

This IS about Federations, people, and the smug, insular, circle-jerks they have become. Anyone who has any passing familiarity with Jewish philanthropy knows this is clearly the case. To be sure, some Federations do good work and, of course, the primary goal of a Federation should be Jewish continuity…But, the amount of money that is raised and given annually to outdated, outmoded, and ineffective organizations, run by Jewish industry lifers, is simply stunning.

If, perhaps, Federations expanded their missions a bit on a day-to-day basis (not just after global disasters), perhaps they wouldn’t be losing young Jewish givers so rapidly. That, perhaps, if they made a conscious effort, to be fully part of their metropolitan areas on a consistent financial basis, that, in fact, they would raise MORE money from young Jews instead of being seen as out-of-touch bastions of old money…

Again, people, this is about Federations and organized Jewish philanthropy. Take a look at the first few comments. They know the deal….As do I.


Jeff says:

Happily, there are a few exceptions to the smugness and self-righteousness that characterizes most of the the critical comments directed at David Simon’s willingness to speak the truth as he sees it. The argument over how many tens of thousands Jews earn as compared with that earned by African-Americans does not disguise the fact that the low points of Jewish experience in the US pale besides those experienced by black Americans since their ancestors were brought here in chains, held in legal bondage until 1863, and in extra-legal bondage under Jim Crow until the Sixties. Compared to that the American Jewish experience has been a joy ride.

shame, shame, shame says:

“You can hold back from the suffering of the world. It is your right and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.”

Franz Kafka, quoted in “The Wire”

What would the great Jewish humanists such as Isaac Luria or Martin Buber think of our ethical heritage reading many of these comments. No longer tikkun olam. No longer fixing the world. Just selfishness and self-justification, with a dollop of self-righteousness thrown on top. There are many individual Jews who carry on the great traditions of philantrophy and tzadukeh in and outside of their community; there are many who extend themselves. And many more who see nothing beyond the tribal.

As a self loving Jew I think Simon is spot on. The federations are not interested in anyone but themselves and waste vast amounts of resources. Further i think too many Jews are busy(especially on this thread) feeling offended by being challenged about their dedication to justice and/or their familial sacrifice/struggle (or lack thereof)……American Jewry continues to strive to “pass” in society, trying to become gentiles, gain membership in their clubs and institutions. Instead of building off our critical contributions to civil rights movement, the labor movement, consumer rights and women’s rights many have moved away from the struggle for a more just society to putting the blinders on and allow our country to re-segregate and have more inequity then the guilded age

Jeffrey Ellis says:

Dan Simon, you personal attack on David Simon is despicable, as is your use of overblown verbiage. As a former Federation professional, I left Jewish communal work when I saw the balance of my Federation’s concern tip heavily in favor of parochialism and insularity. Today, synagogues and smaller Jewish agencies carry on with demonstrating the best in Jewish values. Federations have become mostly a shell organization, consumed with raising money, while providing very little moral leadership or courage in addressing important social and economic issues that weigh on most Jews, as well as non-Jews.

Jeffrey Ellis says:

Spelling correction — should read “… your personal attack…”

Prem says:

This in effect is saying: “Take up the White Man’s burden…”. Do you have any idea how patronising this is?

andrew the jew from baltimore says:

Mandatory minimums; redlining; the war on drugs; police brutality; the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow; systemic racial discrimination; conservative opposition to Welfare and Medicaid; the crack epidemic; AIDS; Lost Causers; failing/failed inner city schools; nonexistant sex/STI education; little to no gun control; underfunded and undermanned police departments — the hysterical reactions found on this comment thread demonstrate a profound lack of self awareness and a greater awareness of the interconnected ills that affect this country’s peoples of all colors. A Holocaust in slow motion refers to all of the above issues and many many more — the poor and the uneducated and the hopeless dying, one by one, to drugs and malnutrition and neglect and starvation and homelessness and exposure. The phrase is an attempt — a deliberately confrontational attempt — to look for a different metric for measuring the quality of our humanity, a different tape measure for our collective progress.

That’s the bigger picture, more important than David Simon, more important than Judaism, more important than the ridiculous pedestals brought to this comment thread.

Beatrix says:

Of course Jews donate to causes that cover human rights, homelessness, Katrina’s aftermath, civil rights, women’s rights, Darfur, Democratic and Republican parties, hunger here and abroad, and even animal rights.

I don’t have much money, but I spread out what I have to many different organizations and causes. The money I donate to Jewish causes, I want to be used for that purpose because practically no one except Jews cares about Jewish issues. Non-Jews talk about Jews and Israel—they don’t finance our charities.

Many people, including Jews, care about world issues.

B”H Heresy,?! Realize the lamp of humanity is being snuffed out by city clog and the assimilation of Jewish people out of existence is nothing less than a Holocaust. Learn the truth about the origins of Jewish thought; study history, know the rules of the game and play for life or don’t survive to tell the next generation.

I’m heartened to see recent comments supporting Simon’s challenge to the Federations. I too have had experience in that world, in a Jewish arts organization that has sometimes been funded by a JFed. It’s clearly time for some deep reflection on the mission(s) and practices of these complex institutions and their relationship to all the communities they’re involved with, within and outside the Jewish ones, which themselves are much more diverse than is sometimes understood.

Forest says:

What I see is another Jew who has no pride. Decades of Jewish solidarity with African American causes has only brought African American leaders who spout the worst forms of antisemitism. Relationships have to be 2-way. When I hear their leadership condemning antisemitism and backing Israel I’ll be a lot more likely to support them.

benj says:

Funny. Coming from a non-American background, if my Jewish community was giving lots of money to non-Jewish causes, it would cause an uproar among the Jews. And rightly so. Nobody helps the Jews but the Jews. Let the goyim help themselves, they are only 7 billions of them.
We really have other things to do than helping the people that all the world is already helping.

Bennett Muraskin says:

I agree with Simon’s criticism of the Jewish federation’s selfishness, but differ on the Holocaust analogy. I venture to say that despite the toll drugs and unemployment and poverty etc. has taken on Baltimore’s black community, its population has not suffered a catastrophic decline or probably any decline at all. That places their plight in a different category than the Holocaust.

The Wire depicted middle class and politically well connected black Baltimoreans too. Middle class and upper class Jews suffered a similar same fate as poorer Jews during the Holocaust.

But his larger argument stands. We are all Americans and organized Jewry, which includes many highly privileged individuals with vast financial resources, should help their fellow Americans in need. Tying assistance to their position on Israel is an ugly manifestation of ethnocentrism.

Forest says:

To Bennett–you call it ethnocentrism, I call it self-respect.

benj says:

“To Bennett–you call it ethnocentrism, I call it self-respect.”

I call it Judaism: “עניי עירך קודם” – the pours of your city first – meaning your own people first. And of course: “אם אין אני לי מי לי” – if I am not for myself, who will be ? Hillel also says here that you have to help others and not only yourself – but he is speaking inside the Jewish frame, and anyway, the order is clear – you have to help yourself before you help others.

Apparently, some people have so much internalized the antisemitic rhetorics than they really think that all Jews are rich (they earn 180,000$ a year which is of course a lie), that they don’t need help, that all is fine. This is not true. And I am not speaking just about poverty – there is assimilation, antisemitism, war against Israel. This is what should be the first and foremost fights of any Jew.

Bennett Muraskin says:

If you think the Jewish community in New Orleans needs more help than the Black community or that it does not matter, because Jews should only be concerned about the welfare of other Jews, shame on you.

I have alot more in common with broad minded non-Jews than narrow minded Jews.

Thankfully we progressive Jews can support organizations like the Jewish Funds for Justice and the American Jewish World Service that take the humanistic approach.

Forest says:

To be honest I don’t know if the Jewish community in New Orleans needs more or less help than the Jewish community there. I do know that Israel is the only country in the world who’s very existence is called into question, that the world’s largest population of Jews lives there and that most of the world is not willing to lift a finger to defend Israel. If the Jews don’t defend themselves no one else will do it for them.

corey says:

@ Forest “If the Jews don’t defend themselves no one else will do it for them.” Ever hear of Raoul Wallenberg, or other “Righteous Gentiles?” Having produced theatre and radio on the subject of Black-Jewish relations in the US, I know something of the long and complex history involved. For now, I’ll just say, check out Dr. Cornel West for an example of an African-American public intellectual who is able to be critical of the current Israeli government and its atavistic, short-sighted, destructive policies while still defending the Jewish State and respecting and admiring Jewish tradition, spirituality and social engagement.

The planet is far too small these days to hold to a fortress mentality. No people is ever going to be secure from threats of racism, aggressive nationalism and violence unless *all* people are.

Forest says:

Corey–all I can say is that your last paragraph reminds me of quotes from Jewish figures in the early days of the Soviet Union, and we all know how that turned out.
Righteous gentiles are the exception to the rule. That is why they are singled out.
How many gentiles have we heard protesting about Hamas randomly firing thousands of missiles into Jewish cities hoping to kill as many innocent people as possible? How many gentiles have expressed an sympathy for the nearly 1 million Jews ethnically cleansed from Arab countries?

benj says:

Dear Bennett,

“I have alot more in common with broad minded non-Jews than narrow minded Jews.”

Yes you are so enlighted and superior. We all know how the only thing that really interest the liberals is to feel morally right and superior to other “bad” “narrow-minded” people. You don’t care about the reality, just your feelings.

The thing is, the Jews are a small persecuted and hated people with a lot of problems. I think it is morally wrong to go help other people when your own people have problems. Help your people first and also other people but later and /or with more limited means. If not, well, you can claim all you want you are a Jew but your acts prove you are not.

JimG3 says:

As an African-American (G-d I hate that term but it makes it easier to say what i’ve got to say) this whole discusion is meaningless. The man is a Leftist of some type and feels that the Jewish community owes something to black people. Since the collapse of the Civil Rights Movement, and the growth of Black Power, the Black community hasn’t wanted, or asked for the Jewish community to lend a hand. Mostly we’ve bitten the hand that was offered. Now that the Palistinians have become, as John Lennon would say, “The N… of the World”; and the righteous gentiles are all Christian evangelicals, maybe a new level of thought is necessary. As for professor West, he’d just as soon give me the back of his hand as any Isreali; it’s just his job to define authenticity for all and sundry tribemembers. For some other thought on this check out Walter E. Williams “Race and Economics”, out this week, or any of the work of Thomas Sowell.

um, JimG3... says:

Have you spent any time in West Baltimore lately? Or in East St. Louis? Or North Philadelphia.

If indeed, the black community hasn’t asked any outside community for any help, it surely hasn’t managed on its own, with its own resources, to address the horror show of those left behind in America’s inner cities, utterly divorced as they are from the American economy, from the national political discussion and from their fellow Americans. The black middle class has walked away from the urban poor with as much speed and indifference as the rest of the country.

If Simon or others argue that those with more should address themselves to those with less in this society, how does that differ from any empathetic or charitable impulse. Simon is saying that the Jewish mind and Jewish humanism call for charity not only to Jews, but to those in the most need. Tikkun olam, or “fix the world” as he references. Why do you assume that he thinks Jews owe blacks — as a matter of race — anything. He’s not arguing that race requires empathy. Poverty does. And economic neglect does. And a rate of violence unseen in any other developed nation. And a rate of incarceration unseen in any other nation on the face of the globe.

Why do you reduce basic empathy and an argument for charity to race? The poor in America’s cities — where the rate of violence, unemployment, undereducation and incarceration is profound — are more often black and brown. That’s not the point. The point is they are poor and isolated and that a society is judged on how they address their most vulnerable and desperate citizens.

This isn’t about race. It’s about class. It’s about affluence and poverty and the ideal of a shared national future. Get past the simplicity of race, or religion.

Affluence, poverty, race, religion are all involved in the question of empathy since all can be used as coded markers for “other” who is unworthy of empathy. Re: “shared future” the great historian, Manning Marable, of blessed memory, said that the only way to have one is to understand our *shared* history. Re: Forest’s “Corey–all I can say is that your last paragraph reminds me of quotes from Jewish figures in the early days of the Soviet Union, and we all know how that turned out.” I’m delighted to be placed in the company of visionaries like Shlomo Mikhoels, Peretz Markish among many others. How sadly reductive to use their murders by Stalin to discredit their generosity of spirit. Sure, hindsight shows their tragic error in trusting Soviet power, but give them respect and honor for for the values they stood for.

Jim G: what impresses me about Dr West is his refusal to “give the back of his hand” to anyone. Even those he disagrees with most intensely remain, without irony, his “beloved brothers and sisters”

JimG3 says:

Don’t you just love commentary threads!
To my alter ego, why does the black community, as opposed to any other, need special help from Jews or anyone else? My own famliy was quite happy to get out of the South, and then the ghetto as soon as possible. Were my Grands supossed to sacrifice themselves to some fantasy of racial solidarity? And how far does that go? Am I now to give up the life I have here to find some way to end the war in the Congo for the same reason? Maybe Bob Marley would have written a song on the subject. However, I “reduced” the argument to one of race because that was the basis of the argument, and I didn’t want “my beloved brothers and sisters” to mistake me for some Jackson city honky redneck. And if we’re talking about “class”, why hang the Holocaust label on race, that’s just shifting to the other foot.
No, I’ve never been to the neighborhoods mentioned by Corey, but I have been to their equivalents in NYC, even working and living in them over various times in my life. To my eye the amount and result of volunterism for the people’s fate was palpable. And to me that smarmy phrase of Brother West’s is just part of his flow. Some other things I mentioned seem to have just been passed over. Hmmmm….

David S says:

Two words in response to Simon’s juvenile rants:

Season. Five.

So poorly written, that he actually penned an article for the Huffington Post, yelling at critics for not liking it.

Doc says:

There is no doubt that organized Jewry has moved away from supporting progressive social justice. We were the leaders of the civil rights movement, organized labor, the feminist revolution. Today, we may be involved in good causes, but as individuals and not as Jews. The JCPA (the social action arm of the Federation system) did not even take a stand on the Wisconsin union battle. The AJC, the oldest human and civil rights organization, that used to be a the forefront of progressive change was silent on the healthcare debate. The question is: WHY? We still vote liberal. Why have we lost our activist impulses? Could it be that the Orthodox community has dominated more and more of our institutional leadership and they are usually less interested in gun control, separation of church and state, reproductive freedom, etc.? Just a thought….

benj says:

Doc – there is NOTHING Jewish with the “liberal progressive” agenda. On the contrary. The fact that US Jews vote for the left is a shame on them and a further proof of the fact they are alienated from their own identity and traditions.
The more a Jew is close to his tradition and culture, the less he is liberal and left-wing. That’s a fact. Maybe you should draw the logical conclusion – that Jews have nothing to do with your Marxist nonsense.

So now “liberal” = “Marxist”? This thread has really devolved into ignorant name-calling. To say as does benj that “the more a Jew is close (sic) to his (sic) tradition and culture…” implies that Jewish tradition and culture is monolithic and homogenous. Truth is there are Jewish traditions of authoritarianism and others of democratic and progressive communitarianism.; of secularism and theocracy; of radical antinomian “heresy” and rigid hierarchy. When it comes to politics, esthetics, languages and belief systems, you name it, we got it. My bubbie was a proud Jewish socialist from Odessa who saw no difference between the oppressive tsarist regime that fomented the pogroms that nearly killed her and the oppressive Soviet ones that followed. In America, she campaigned for Eugene Debs and homesteaded in Wyoming. She was as close to her particular Jewish tradition and culture as any Hasid might be to his. The wonder of being a Jew in the 21st century CE is the unprecedented access we have to the inexhaustibly rich, multiple varieties of Jewishness. The “fact” is that Jewish identity is not confined to belief in any religious dogma, nor, since the 19th c. has it depended on Halakhic observance. Many American Jews like me were raised in a tradition of secular Jewish progressivism whose roots are found in the Yiddish awakening in mid-19th c. E. Europe. I’d not argue that this is the only Jewish tradition or that neo-con Jews or orthodox Mizrachi Jews or secular Israelis or Falashas or even Karaites are any less Jewish because they identify as Jews in very different ways than I do. We are a crazy tapestry that’s been woven from the threads of our uncountable historical experiences. Moreover, it’s a work in progress. The weaving continues.
You name it

Whoops! That last fragment: “you name it” should have been deleted. WE NEED A PREVIEW/EDIT FUNCTION!

Just to let you know, Jews have secret meetings where we tell our children not to shoot each other.

And African Americans are always saying, ” I wish more Jews would come to my house and tell me how to live”.

Theodore says:

“Funny. Coming from a non-American background, if my Jewish community was giving lots of money to non-Jewish causes, it would cause an uproar among the Jews. And rightly so. Nobody helps the Jews but the Jews. Let the goyim help themselves, they are only 7 billions of them.”

Wow, so what should Oskar Schindler have made of this Or Raul Wallenberg? Or Irena Sandler? Or Kugler? Or the thousands of others who did their utmost to help as much as they could? Should they have cast off any desire to help and let the people they saved die because “Nobody helps the Jews but the Jews”? Or perhaps will you realize that cultural isolation is one of the most prominent values upheld by nationalists (“we are all alone in the world”). In fact, almost every nationalist I have met (be it Greek, Turk, Serb etc. etc.) has stated “the only friend a [place given ethnicity here] has is a [same ethnicity]”.

corey says:

Thank you Theodore! There’s a nearly forgotten history of pre-nationalistic cultural Zionism (I wish I knew more about it myself) that thinkers like Martin Buber were part of. As far as I know, they were among the early 20th C. immigrants to the Land, believed in sharing it with other residents and had no interest in replicating what they saw as problematic in the concept of the modern nation-state. Cultural isolation was not one of their values. Maybe their story is due for retelling.

Theodore says:

What is ironic is that, if you read the work of Saul Friedlander’s two-volume work “Nazi Germany and the Jews: 1933-1939/1939-1945″ you will read that in fact many Jews failed their own people. For instance French Jews sold out Belgian Jews to collaborating officials (French), so long as they could be spared; while German Jews looked down upon and sold out their Polish co-religionists. In all of these cases, the given group sold out the other by appealing to the greater authority (French in France; German in Germany). While early Zionists in Palestine seemed to be more concerned with the failure of their enterprise than the whole human cost of the event. All of these groups ignored and sold out the converts. You can watch this here:

It goes to show how, in the face of real danger and death, such ideologies end up failing. It is nice for benj to believe in such a thing, but it is a construct. It is not based on actual practice but ideology. And ideology seems to always give in when actually pushed to the test.

I find this whole discussion fascinating. I, too, am African American. I worked one summer at the Anti-Defamation League – plenty of nice folks who work there. I was always struck, however, that they never spoke up about causes for non-Jews. (It doesn’t cost any money to say, “Hey, that sucks!”) And I have always been equally disappointed that Black organizations never came to the defense of Jews. I mean, where is Al Sharpton when issues of anti-Semitism pop up? I am deeply Christian (not evangelical, however) and I do believe in the God of Abraham. And I’d like to think that Jewish community (and every community, for that matter) can do more to help other children of God.

I am impressed with the sheer brilliance of David Simon (and some of you people as well). I hope these types of dialogues help elevate the type of relationships we have with one another. I think David Simon made an interesting point about how his Holocaust reference does more to unite than divide. As a gentile, I definitely endorse that statement.

God be with you all.

Hey Corey, I love Martin Buber!!!! (And I’m African American…)


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The Heretic

David Simon, creator of the series The Wire, infuriated Jewish groups last fall by likening the plight of the country’s inner cities to a “slow-motion Holocaust.” As his latest show, Treme, enters its second season, he explains how his choice of words was no accident.