The Birth of the Pill (and More than Four Crusaders)

October 16, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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As you can see, I’ve been doing a lot of book reviewing lately. This week, the National Catholic Reporter published my review of Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of the Pill, so here it is. (Apologies to those who already read it there.)


By Jonathan Eig
Published by W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95

At first glance, The Birth of the Pill may seem an odd choice for review in a Catholic publication. Of the four “crusaders” in the subtitle, only one, obstetrician/gynecologist John Rock — was a practicing Catholic.

Of the other three, the brilliant research biologist Gregory “Goody” Pincus was the son of Jewish immigrants. Fired by Harvard for the Brave New World overtones of his in vitro fertilization discoveries, Pincus went on…(Continue here.)

Jesus Was a Migrant

October 10, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The following is a slightly  revised version of a review that appeared in the current issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the U.S.A.


Jesus Was a Migrant. By Deirdre Cornell Orbis Books, 2014. 144 pp. $20.  Available at migrant.html

 Grail member Deirdre Cornell’s new book, Jesus was a Migrant, could hardly be more timely. Even as nearly seventy thousand unaccompanied minors have poured across the southern borders of this ostensibly Christian nation in the past year, too many of our fellow-citizens still oppose providing them with shelter. And in the face of this crisis, our president has allowed a mere four thousand refugee visas to be designated for these young people while failing to increase the total number of refugee visas at all.

In her very first chapter, Cornell articulates the argument that all of these Christians need to hear “Surely a God who migrated from heaven to be born to a refugee family—to be born to a people painfully and intimately versed in Exodus and exile journeys—surely this God would ask us to look for his presence among migrants. Jesus was a migrant. How can migrants not matter?”

Cornell expands this message in fifteen subsequent narratives, each of which brings the experiences of migrants into detailed and memorable focus. In Part I, we walk with the migrants of Israel, from Genesis to Exodus to Babylon and back, and then meet Cornell’s own immigrant ancestors fleeing to the U.S. during the Great Irish Hunger of the 1840s. In Part II, we celebrate with Rosa, a Central American migrant who had made her way to the U.S. at great cost only to be forced to return home a month after her quinceañera; then we bury with Deirdre the stillborn twins of Susana and Pedro even as other Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus. In further chapters we mourn with the Latino community as they raise the money to ship the body of a young migrant back to Mexico and share the visit of Deirdre and her family to their compadres and godchildren in a trailer park in Florida. Jesus and other migrants become ever more real to us as we proceed.

In some respects, Jesus was a Migrant is a continuation of Cornell’s two previous books. She continues writing in the first person, for example, weaving her own (now twenty) years of migrant ministry into the stories of the men and women she and her husband Kenney serve. Jesus was a Migrant also continues the references to and elaboration on the Psalms and the Hebrew prophets that enriched her first book, Priceless View. Indeed, the integration of absorbing and accessible study of the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospels in Cornell’s’s stories of migrant experience is one of the outstanding features of this new collection. And migration itself was already a subtext in American Madonna, Cornell’s second book, about the Virgin Mary crossing Mexican and U.S. borders.

But Jesus was a Migrant differs from these previous books in some respects. First of all, it’s a collection of shorter pieces, revisions of articles written for The Catholic Worker and other publications or given as talks. And presumably because they were created for different audiences, the articles exhibit less of the scholarly nuance that I, for one, valued in the two previous books.

Indeed, during my first reading of Jesus was a Migrant, I found it almost pious. For example, Cornell uses Marina Warner’s feminist critique of the cult of the Virgin Mary to leaven her study of Latino/a Marian devotion in American Madonna. But in Jesus was a Migrant, she draws (briefly) on the work of Ann Catherine Emmerich, a German mystic whose writing inspired Mel Gibson’s violent, antisemitic film, “The Passion of the Christ.” And while Patricia Miller begins Good Catholics, her study of the Catholic struggle over abortion rights, with a denunciation of the misogyny embedded in the doors of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Cornell begins a chapter on the lives of Catholic saints who were migrants with a reflection on the body of Pierre Toussaint in the crypt beneath those doors. Indeed, in this chapter, Cornell includes the life of one of the figures on the doors Miller find so sexist, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini.

As I reread American Madonna however, I had to admit that Deirdre Cornell had warned readers of this shift well before the publication of Jesus was a Migrant. Speaking of her years working with Catholics in Mexico as a Maryknoll lay missioner that led her to a new devotion to the Mother of God, Cornell wrote, “Immersed in a community that I loved and that loved her, I began to speak less and to listen more…I learned to tread on holy ground where I had to take the proverbial sandals off my feet.”

The articles in Jesus was a Migrant are testimonies to this transformation. We all move toward holy ground in different ways. Some of us do so by critiquing the sexism sculptured on cathedral doors. Others cry out to the Mother of God to aid us when our children are deported or our partner gets cancer from pesticides. Jesus was a Migrant helps us hear that second set of voices.


My Buddhist Bracelet

October 4, 2014 at 5:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
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A year or so ago I was walking across Bryant Park, just behind the New York Public Library, when a man I took to be a Buddhist monk walked up to me. He held out a bracelet made of dark brown round wooden beads; one bead, which was larger than the others, had two figures on it, apparently from some Asian language. The “monk” asked if I would like one. I took out a five dollar bill and offered it to him. He replied that the bracelet cost twenty dollars. I said I was sorry but I couldn’t pay twenty dollars and started to put the money back. He scowled at me, in a not very Buddhist way, but then took the five dollars and gave me the bracelet. I put it on.

I suppose I took the bracelet because I am somewhat attracted to Buddhism. I took a required course on Japanese Buddhism in graduate school and read some Dōgen, whose thinking I rather enjoyed. More recently though, since my husband and his mother were both so sick this summer,  I have been practicing Zen meditation. I decided I really needed to calm down. I even joined the Brooklyn Zen Center, in search of a community of support.

In sharing this with you, I do not mean to mean to suggest that I am some kind of spiritual adept. Except that it would demonstrate a distinctly unBuddhist kind of grandiosity to make such a claim, I’d be inclined to say that I am the worst meditator in the world. Often I seem capable of suspending the anxious planning my next activity (sometimes my next blog post) for no more than a few seconds at a time. And most days I can barely stay sitting for the fifteen minutes that I plugged into the  Zazen Lite app on my iPad.

Let me also be clear: I am not planning to transfer from Catholicism to Buddhism any time soon. As my American-Baptist-clergyman husband is given to saying, my Catholicism is genetic. Then too, some very distinguished Catholics have found Buddhism deeply meaningful. A copy of Thomas Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite is on the book shelf next to my computer.

Despite its pitifulness, my meditation practice does seem to be helping me. As a result, I suspect, of saying “thinking” and bringing my attention back to the present the six or seven thousand times I do so in any given meditation session, I now sometimes find myself being able top stop my mind from racing on to the next task when I am not meditating. Maybe this grey haired lady will learn to be in the present before she is no longer in it at all.

A few months into my meditation practice, I heard on the radio that Asian men posing as Buddhist monks were conning people in New York by selling fake Buddhist bracelets to them. I suppose this news could have annoyed me. I was certainly glad I hadn’t given the guy the twenty dollars (though the odds on this child of Depression-survivor working class parents doing so were slim to none even if the “monk” had been authentic.)

I’ve decided, though, that something about the fraudulent Buddhist bracelet fits in perfectly with my attempts at meditation. I’m not awfully good at it, but I find it a comfort. My quasi-monk wasn’t very honest, but it’s rather a nice bracelet. I think I’ll put it on and go meditate.



After the People’s Climate March

September 25, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Last Sunday, between 300 and 400 thousand other people and I marched around Manhattan to tell world leaders on their way to the UN climate summit that things have to change. I am sure you have seen photos and videos and read articles about the March. It was in many ways inspiring and encouraging. Just seeing the outfits people wore and the signs they carried made me smile many times. One of my favorites was a crude sign–a piece of cardboard on a stick carried by a young man–that read, “I Can’t Swim.” And as a person who has made many snide remarks over the years about environmentalists being white people who love polar bears, I laughed out loud at a t-shirt with a polar bear on it, who said, in a cartoon bubble, “Save the Humans!” Furthermore, after the March, at the UN, many heads of state, including our own Barack Obama, made inspiring statements about the need to act on climate change.

But there are (at least) two things you need to know if you want to grasp the full significance of the People’s Climate March.  This first may be obvious to a lot of readers: it took a massive amount of work. For the Interfaith Contingent, with which I and my sister Grail members marched, just establishing the order for our various groups to stand in  took very many  emails and phone discussions. The people from GreenFaith and who got us organized deserve an enormous amount of credit. It is also the case that in order to be sure the police would allow us to enter the Interfaith staging area on 58th St. for the March, we had to arrive before 11 AM, even though our contingent didn’t actually start marching until approximately 2:15 PM. Marching around Manhattan for an hour is nothing compared to standing and sitting and standing some more for three and half hours. I was exhausted before we set out.

The other thing you need to know is that, hundreds of thousands of marchers in NYC and around the world notwithstanding, the March doesn’t begin to be enough to force world leaders to take action on climate change. This is the case because neoliberalism, the economic system that came to dominate the world during the reigns of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, simply won’t permit some reasoned process of changing our energy system, no matter how desperately such change is needed. As Chris Hedges points out in a devastating Truthdig column published a few days before the March, the NYC police, under the leadership of our ostensibly progressive mayor, wouldn’t so much as allow the March anywhere near the United Nations, despite the fact that it was explicitly aimed at the UN summit occurring later that week. The fossil fuel industry owns the government, and as Hedges argues compellingly, we’re going to have to engage in non-violent protest in very large numbers to turn things around. (I myself am  terrified at the prospect of going to jail, so don’t think I read Hedges’ article with equanimity.)

Adrian Parr’s galvanizing book, The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politicsclarifies the ways in which the neoliberal economics that is inscribed in our societal DNA again and again appropriates environmental and climate change discourse (and actions) for its own purpose, the endless expanse of profit. It does this by rendering invisible the full cost of various climate related practices and products. For example, in her chapter on water, Parr explores the ways in which the water wars in Cochabamba, Bolivia in the early 2000s did and did not reverse the impacts of neoliberalism on the thirst of the average Bolivian. For water activists like me, the success of the citizens of Cochabamba in overturning the forced privatization of their water as part of the World Bank’s “structural adjustment program” was a glorious example of an environmental victory. Unfortunately, deeply inscribed class differences and political corruption mean many Bolivians must still struggle mightily for access to reasonably priced potable water. Similarly, the government of India touts the marvels that genetically modified seeds are doing and will do for the farmlands of India increasingly devastated by climate change. No mention is made of the profits the corporations who own these seeds are making, the increasing debt of the farmers who buy them, and the rising suicide rate among them. We might also ask who owns the factories where solar panels are manufactured and what  the laborers in those factories are being paid.

The argument that we can mitigate climate change and grow the neoliberal economy at the same time is what my doktormutter, Laura Levitt, calls a “happy narrative.” Enslaving somebody, destroying the environment,  and growing the economy go hand in hand, and only a radical commitment to stopping all of them can get us where we need to go.


Home from Vacation

September 22, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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Some readers may have noticed a certain silence on my part. My last post appeared on August 16.  Well, we’ve been on vacation. But as with most things, there’s more to it than that.

At one level, there’s my esteemed companion’s absolute objection to mentioning in a blog post that we’re away, even as I find it hard to blog without doing so. We live in the middle of Brooklyn, and while I feel fairly safe here–lots safer than I felt in Brooklyn in the 1970s or 1980s–we really can’t afford to be inviting people over while we’re gone.

But at a deeper level, I just needed to knock off. I mentioned in an earlier post that my husband was seriously ill this past spring and summer, first with pneumonia, then with (thank God, early-stage) kidney cancer. Years ago I took a vocational aptitude test and got a score of less than zero for nursing, so you get a picture of me dealing with all that. Then, as Keith began to recover, Betty, his ninety-three year old mother down in Florida, became seriously ill–sort of lost her mind, leg swelled up, already had congestive heart failure, had surgery, stopped being able to breathe, had a tube down her throat, etc., etc. For days, every time the phone rang we expected to hear we’d have to fly down there for Keith to do the funeral. And in the midst of all that, a tooth popped out while I was flossing, and I ended up having a root canal and other fun dental procedures.

But we seem to have survived. Not only is Keith much better, his mother is about to go back to her independent living apartment, having regained her faculties and begun walking again. And I myself am having the occasional thought.

So let me share a few of them, after which, tomorrow or the next day, I’ll write something about yesterday’s People’s Climate March which I participated in.

During our time away, we spent a week at my brother’s place in rural Vermont, and almost two weeks in Quebec City, east of Montreal, in Canada. Regarding Vermont, let me say that it’s quite an experience for someone who ordinarily shares a borough with two-and-a-half million other people to go walking for an hour and not see a soul. Sometimes I really like it; other times it kind of freaks me out.

As for Quebec City, it’s pretty amazing. You may know that the old part of the city is walled, the only walled city in North America north of Mexico. Founded in  1608, it’s also full of museums and monuments about the history of New France, a subject I knew very little about before we went there. One of my favorite parts of the visit was taking a tour of the Museum of the Ursulines, which explores the history of the oldest order of Catholic sisters in North America, brought there by Sister Marie Guyart of the Incarnation. Sister Marie was a widow in Tours, France, who entered the (cloistered) Ursuline order but in 1639 traveled to New France and started the first convent in North America in Quebec City; the school she founded was also the first women’s educational institution in North America. A mystic, she also wrote dictionaries in three indigenous languages and an Algonquin catechism. And lest you think everything has changed in three-hundred-fifty years, she struggled against efforts by the bishop of Quebec City, Francois de Laval, to take control of her community.  Pope Francis canonized both of them together last April; I’m sure Archbishop Laval was thrilled to have feisty Soeur Marie join him at the same level of churchly adulation.

The other thing I love about Quebec City is that when I’m there I know how to speak French, whereas when I’m in Paris, I’m way too ignorant to be able to do so.  Seems as if only 10 percent of English Canada speaks French, so when an English speaker starts speaking in French, the Québécois are thrilled. A sales person said, “You really know how to speak French, don’t you!?”  whereas the snotty Parisians say, “Your accent is terrible. Speak English.” Finally, my seven years of French classes have been redeemed.

There’s lots more to be said about Quebec City, but not now. Stay tuned.

Righteous Over Gaza

August 13, 2014 at 11:43 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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As I explained in a previous post, I was shocked to learn the history of the relationship between the State of Israel and the Palestinians, how the Israelis drove the Palestinians off their land, even attempting to eradicate Palestinian traces from the landscape. Aware as I was of the history of Western (and Christian) antisemitism, I had avoided the whole question of Israel and the Palestinians. And I do believe that the current killing of Palestinians in Gaza and the destruction of Gaza by the Jewish Israelis is totally unacceptable, something the international community must stop.

Yet even as I acknowledge all this, I must admit I am also deeply disturbed by the self-righteous tone of many of the anti-Israeli articles, listserv posts and demonstration announcements coming my way of late. By mentioning this I do not mean to suggest that I agree with the majority of Americans who blame Hamas for the current conflict. I don’t blame Hamas. At least, I don’t blame them any more than I blame myself and the rest of us supposedly virtuous USies.*

To begin with, as I’m sure you’ve heard, the United States is helping to fund the Israeli military, at the rate of $3 billion a year. That’s somewhat, but not massively, less than the amount Congress says we can’t afford to intervene in the refugee crisis on our borders. And as a result of this $3 billion, we help to guarantee that the Israelis, whether they are the attackers or the attacked, will lose a minute number of soldiers and civilians compared to the deaths and destruction in Gaza. And let’s be clear: my husband and I are funding the Israelis, as you are if you are paying U.S. taxes. I am not refusing to pay those taxes now,  just as I did not refuse to pay them during the invasion of Iraq, a military catastrophe that we not only made possible but implemented.

And that’s not the only reason we and our European allies are not entitled to feel righteous toward the Israelis. Another is that the U.S. fought with the Europeans who had gone to war against the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Then, as part of the League of Nations, we agreed to  the establishment of the British Mandate for Palestine, which took what is now Israel , Gaza, and the West Bank out of Arab hands. With the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British had pledged themselves to establishing a Jewish State in Palestine, and after World War II, that state was established; Gaza came under the control of Egypt, and the West Bank under Jordan.  I myself have often wondered why the victors in World War II didn’t give Bavaria to the Jews for a homeland, considering the crimes the Germans had perpetrated against them. But since the British already controlled Palestine, I guess it was just easier to hand a chunk of that territory over to the State of Israel. We colluded in this mess from the beginning.

The other reason many of us here in the U.S. and Europe have no reason to be righteous about the ongoing catastrophe in Israel/Palestine is that Christian antisemitism and the Holocaust did and still do play a major role in Israeli violence. There are those who question how the Israelis can continue to invoke the Holocaust as a justification for their actions, as if a people can recover from a genocide in a few decades, or even seventy-five years. Those who take this position need to get real. In my studies of the history of Ireland, I have been struck by the extraordinary length of time that it takes for a people to truly work through and move on from  traumas such as  massacres and famines. In The Shadow of a Year  Irish historian John Gibney documents how Catholics and Protestants in Ireland used a Catholic uprising and massacre in 1641 to justify violent attacks on each other up to and including the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the late twentieth century. I wonder how long we USies* will continue to fixate on 9/11 and use it to justify our own Middle Eastern wars?

But the Jews have sustained persecution by the Christian West since well before 1641–since at least the 4th century, when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. In Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll argues that, had it not been for pogroms and conversions, in 2000 there would have been two hundred million Jews in the world, not a mere thirteen million. Seventeen hundred years of ethno-religious persecution, even without the Holocaust, might well result in a culture of paranoia.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I am not on Israel’s side. I believe it is a telling sign of the dysfunction of the entire international order that the slaughter of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, and the inhumane blockade that facilitated the conflict, continue.

But I also think that those of us with Christian roots, or who are citizens of the United States, have an obligation to be extremely careful about how we talk about this conflict. Self-righteous condemnation of Israel risks making us sound all too much like the Euro-American antisemites and colonizers who played a major role in getting this conflict going in the first place.


*”USies” is a term I  formulated so as to avoid describing myself and other resident of the U.S.  as “Americans,” a term some Central and South Americans find offensive.


Please Come to the People’s Climate March September 21!

July 30, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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I don’t need to tell you about the dangers of climate change. The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is hair raising–and they’re noted for the moderation of their reports. The U.S. report is equally chilling. It used to be that if you had kids and grandkids you were supposed to be concerned about this. Now if you’re planning to live fifteen more years you need to be afraid.

On September 21, climate action groups from around the world, including religious, spiritual, and interfaith groups, are converging on New York City for what we hope will be a huge march down the middle of Manhattan to get the attention of world leaders who will be gathering later that week for a climate change summit at the UN. World leaders have been pretty much AWOL on this subject. Some of the best, like Germany, who pride themselves on green technology, are importing increasing amounts of coal from the U.S. where numbers of coal burning power plants are being phased out. I kid you not. We need to scare these guys and gals to death.

To accomplish this, we need you to come to the People’s Climate March on September 21. If you live in the NY metro area you absolutely HAVE GOT TO COME. And if you live somewhere else, you should really try. Imagine telling somebody in 25 years that you participated in the  climate change equivalent of the March on Washington! Won’t you be proud? Churches and non-profits are arranging for places where out of towers can stay, so you just need to get yourself here.

This is how you sign up for the March:

1. First, click here on this link:

2. Then, RSVP for the March by clicking “Join”

Then start making plans!


Contextualizing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Contested Land, Contested Memory

July 19, 2014 at 10:26 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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(Apologies to the regular followers of my blog if you receive this post twice; when I published it the first time, it was mailed out to you but did not appear on my actual blog page, so I am posting it again.)


It is my hope that this review essay will shed some light on the current round of seemingly endless hostilities between the State of Israel and various Palestinian groups. The post is longer than usual;  I trust it will reward your perseverance.


 Contested Land, Contested Memory: Israel’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophe. By Jo Roberts. (Toronto, Ontario: Dundurn, 2013). Paper. 304 pp. $24.99. Kindle, $8.69.

As a member of the post-World War II generation, my Holocaust learning followed a fairly standard trajectory: watching The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959, Holocaust with Meryl Streep in 1978, Lanzmann’s Shoah in 1985. Then, in graduate school, I read that Catholics constituted 60 percent of the Nazi army and that after the war the Vatican used “ratlines” to sneak Nazis to Latin America. I concluded that, as a Catholic, I was not entitled to an opinion about the State of Israel.

I suppose I considered my silence penance for centuries of Christian antisemitism. But as I read Jo Roberts’ stunning new book, Contested Land, Contested Memories, I began to wonder if my motives were entirely virtuous. Perhaps they included naiveté. Or romanticismhow comforting it is to believe that unambiguous good has triumphed over absolute evil! Or maybe it was sloth that underpinned my stance, sloth in the face of an unbelievably complex situation.

As its subtitleIsrael’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophesuggests, Roberts’ book includes the Holocaust frame within which I and millions of others understand contemporary Israel. But it expands that frame to include what the current million-and-a-half Palestinian Israelis, Palestinians in exile and those in the Occupied Territories call the Nakba, the catastrophe that befell them as a result of the 1948 War of Israeli Independence. Included as well are the ghosts of that catastrophewhatever memories remain after Jewish Israeli attempts to eradicate them from national consciousness, as well as the ghosts of that other catastrophe, the destruction of European Jewry. The words Shoah and Nakba both mean catastrophe.

Underlying Roberts’ analysis is a scholarly conversation about collective memory, initiated by the sociologist Emile Durkheim in the late nineteenth century and continued by his student, Maurice Halbwachs. Collective memory is a memory or memories shared by a group that contributes significantly to the group’s identity. Halbwachs expanded the concept with a second notion, that of “instrumental presentism.” In this case, groups not only remember, but their leaders choose which past events should be remembered and which forgotten in order to make the past useful to the needs of the present. By the late twentieth century, scholars such as Peter Novick were applying collective memory directly to the Holocaust, a fitting use since Halbwachs himself died in Buchenwald in 1945.

Initially, Roberts uses collective memory to explore the ways Jewish and Palestinian Israelis have understood 1948. For the Palestinians, the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war meant the expulsion of most Palestinian Arabs from the new State of Israel; for those who remained, it meant the destruction of their society, their culture, entire villages, the land itself. For Jewish Israelis, on the other hand, 1948 meant that David had triumphed over Goliath, the vastly stronger Arab League.

Because the Palestinian Arabs lost the 1948 war (and several thereafter), Jewish Israelis had the upper hand in the political reconstruction of the collective memory of 1948. In the decades that followed, Israeli textbooks presented the Israeli defense forces as having had nothing to do with the seven hundred thousand plus refugees who poured out of what became the State ofIsrael during and after the war; the Palestinians simply chose to flee. And in those same years, Israel eradicated as many traces of Palestinian culture as they could, bulldozing towns and villages and mosques, constructing high-rises over cemeteries, replacing Arabic geographical names with Hebrew ones.

Yet the Nakba was not the only catastrophe rewritten in the years after 1948. For me, as a Christian, one of the most stunning sections of Contested Land, Contested Memory is Roberts’ narrative of David Ben-Gurion’s using the 1961 Eichmann trial to make the Holocaust the center of a new, unified Israeli identity. Who knew that Zionists, before 1961, stereotyped Holocaust survivors as victims or Nazi collaborators? Who knew that Sabra (socialist) Zionists looked down on Mizrahi (Arab) Jews for their Arabness and their excessive religiousness? Yet after the Eichmann trial, Mizrahis felt more at home in Israel and Zionists and Holocaust survivors came together around the Holocaust as the foundation of the State of Israel. In the 1960s, victimhood became central to Jewish Israeli identity and extermination by Palestinians and other Arabs a constant threat. As the Zionists had argued, Jews are safe only in a Jewish state.

Roberts makes clear that such transference of collective trauma is by no means limited to Israelis. Throughout history traumatized peoples have attempted to reconstruct their identity by obliterating the collective memory of the Other; the Shoah and two millennia of Christian anti-semitism led to the attempted obliteration of the collective memory of the Nakba. But the ghosts of collective trauma refuse to be obliterated; they live on, in this case, in Arab Holocaust denial, guerilla attacks, and suicide bombings. One catastrophe begets another.

Writers besides Roberts have used the discourse of collective memory to understand the transmission of catastrophe. In The Shadow of a Year (2013), a book of particular interest to me as a descendent of Irish Catholic immigrants, John Gibney traces massive misrepresentations of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 for Irish Protestant as well as Irish Catholic political purposes from just after the rebellion to the Northern Ireland Troubles of the last sixty years. Irish Protestant convictions that Catholics had massacred hundreds of thousands of their forebears in 1641 contributed directly to the catastrophe of an Gorta Mór, the GreatPotato Famine of the 1840s. And who knows what shadows—ghosts—of ostensible Irish Catholic barbarism hovered around the May arrest and questioning of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams for a purported political assassination in 1972?

Yet Contested Land, Contested Memory distinguishes itself from other studies of collective memory on several counts. To begin with, Roberts’ fine writing makes the discourse of collective memory accessible in ways that scholarly studies often fail to do. And because the catastrophes that concern her happened fairly recently, Roberts is able to use the memories of actual Palestinian and Jewish Israelis to frame her subject matter. Stories of Jewish Israelis discovering with horror that their home or vacation cottage stands on the site of an obliterated Arab dwelling, or of Palestinians’ attempting, often without success, to return to a beloved village or mosque, bring the ghosts of the Nakba to life.

For Roberts, as the book’s title suggests, the land itself is central to her story. The prolific vines overgrowing an abandoned and deteriorating Arab structure on the book’s cover and spine alert the reader to this from the outset. Narratives of the destruction of towns andvillages (and sometimes the murder of their inhabitants) during the 1948 war are sobering enough, but to read of continuing efforts to remove all traces of Palestinian material culture throughout the more than a half century of Israel’s existence is genuinely shocking.

Equally unforgettable is Roberts’ documentation of the Jewish Israeli remaking of the land itself, not merely the structures on it, in the interest of obliterating Arab traces. After Independence, we learn, Palestine’s traditional rural landscape was transformed into a socialist-modernist one: tens of thousands of olive trees, the signature tree of the Arab-Palestinian culture and the source of its two primary exports, were uprooted, even as whole forests of other trees were planted tomake the land look more European.

In her close attention to the land, Roberts actually expands John Gibney’s historiographic portrait of the shadows of Irish catastrophe. Two decades before the Potato Famine, as they were mapping Ireland, the British Ordnance Survey transliterated the names of geographical locations across Ireland from Gaelic to English, a language many of the Irish did not even speak, never mind read. This is what colonizers do, Roberts observes.

Some of the conclusions Roberts draws in Contested Land, Contested Memory are discouraging. The State of Israel has moved steadily to the right politically since the election of Menachim Begin’s Likud party in the 1970s. The identification of Mizrahi Jews with Likud because of previous discrimination they had suffered and the arrival of a million Jewish Russians in the 1990s has contributed to an increasingly racialized society. In 2012, 70 percent of ultra-Orthodox Israelis, a group whose numbers have exploded in recent years, supported barring Palestinian Israelis from voting, while 71 percent supported their forced “transfer” (explusion) from Israel. Today, more and more, as Roberts observes, “Palestinian Israelis are the intruding stranger in the Jewish homeland,” the Other who maintains the margins of Jewish Israeli identity. Connections with the most recent outbreak of hostilities are obvious.

Nonetheless, Roberts finds reason for hope. Already in the 1980s, Jewish Israeli scholars known as “the New Historians” had begun heroically documenting the other origin of the State of Israel, the Nakba. Since then, groups such as the Jewish Israeli NGO Zochrot (Hebrew for “remembering”) have formed to bring forward the hidden history of the Nakba. For Zochrot, a major effort is leading Jewish Israelis on tours of villages and urban neighborhoods that had Arab populations sixty years ago. Scholars and journalists also continue to write about these unacknowledged ghosts. For Roberts, the very nature of these efforts “allows for a glimmer of hope, the potential for…’multiple narratives with multiple beginnings’ to tell the history of this land.” Reconciliation is possible only when the ghosts of both catastrophes are acknowledged and a new history constructed from them.


Two events occurred as I was reading Contested Land, Contested Memory. One was the visit of Pope Francis to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel. The pope’s decision to go from Jordan straight to Bethlehem, his references to the “State of Palestine,” and his unscheduled stop at the barrier between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, while making him unpopular with some, hint at a shift in the global view of Israel and Palestine. A reference to “competing narratives” in a New York Times article about the pope’s visit also suggests that long-buried memories are resurfacing.

But even as Pope Francis was visiting Israel, the 9/11 Museum opened at the World Trade Center Site in Lower Manhattan. Certain aspects of the museum are contentiousthe presence of a gift shop, and the location of the remains of unidentified victims below ground, for example. But overall, the museum stands as the representation of yet another unambiguous narrative, the barbaric terrorist attack on innocent Americans of September 11, 2001.

Yet perhaps because of my reading of Roberts, it came to me that I had virtually no knowledge of why the terrorists had attacked the Twin Towers. When I asked others about this, nobody knew. They were just terrorists, my friends replied; it’s what terrorists do.

But with a little effort, I learned that al-Qaeda had, indeed, stated its reasons for the attack. Already in 1998, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri had issued a fatwa to “kill the Americans and their allies…in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque (the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) and the holy mosque (in Mecca) from their grip…” And in a 2002 letter, bin Laden described the U.S. support of Israel as the motivation for 9/11. Later he claimed that the idea of destroying the towers had first occurred to him when he witnessed Israel’s bombardment of high-rise apartment buildings during the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war.

The mass killing of civilians can never be justified, and other motives besides the ones mentioned here doubtless contributed to the 9/11 attack. But as Jo Roberts articulates powerfully in Contested Land, Contested Memory, catastrophe begets catastrophe. Only when communities face their ghosts and reconcile with one another can they prevent the next catastrophe, the one that is otherwise surely on its way.

Catholics and Contraception: A Page Turner

June 28, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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A while back, I mistakenly thought a Catholic Studies scholars’ group I belong to was going to read Leslie Woodcock Tentler’s Catholics and Contraception: An American History (Cornell 2004) so I sent off for a copy from Amazon.  (Someday I am going to analyze my addiction to Amazon Prime, but not today.) The brand new hardback copy of Catholics and Contraception (C&C) that I received cost $2; lucky Tentler and I aren’t in this business for the money.

Truth in advertising requires me to admit that I spent most of the 60s and 70s in Catholic women’s schools and then living in residential communities of the Grail, an international women’s movement; we had  more arguments about lesbianism than about contraception, and I was more upset by the Vatican rejection of women’s ordination in 1976 than by Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical condemning artificial contraception  When I finally got married, at the age of 47, I had already undergone a complete hysterectomy. Of course, I had school friends with seven or ten or twelve siblings, and I got to know the mothers of such families in the Grail. But generally speaking, contraception was not my issue.

C&C examines contraception in U.S. Catholicism from 1873 to 1970, with an epilogue addressing the following three decades. My initial inclination, after finishing the book, was to go on a rant about how these men–popes, bishops, and priests for the most part, along with the occasional male lay leader– could have dared to tell married couples, and women in particular, what they must do with their sexuality. But this would have been a projection of the current situation onto the past. The striking point I took away from C&C  is how very much has changed in an astonishingly short period of time. As Tentler notes, according to a study done in 1970, fully 78 percent of U.S. Catholic women aged twenty to twenty-four were limiting their families by a means other than abstinence or rhythm; during the controversy over the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptives mandate, I in turn read that 97 percent of Catholic women surveyed reported having used artificial contraceptives at some point in their lives. But before the 1960s, this was much less the case.

A good deal of this change Tentler attributes to the “non-reception” of Humanae Vitae by the vast majority of American Catholics, (as well as the Vatican II emphasis on freedom of conscience, and the sexual revolution). Not all aspects of these changes were positive, in Tentler’s estimation, leading as they did to sexual promiscuity, high rates of divorce, and out-of-wedlock births. Ultimately, we learn, the Vatican decision to condemn contraception based on little more than the pope’s “no” undercut massively the church’s own authority. More’s the pity, Tentler suggests, since many of the positive aspects of Catholic teaching about sexuality and marriage went down the tubes along with the ill-advised encyclical.

Yet it’s not only what Tentler says about the effects of Humanae Vitae that I found fascinating. I also learned much that I had not known about Catholics and contraception in the century before that encyclical. I had no idea, for example, that a number of moral theologians had initially condemned rhythm–the only contraceptive method (besides sexual abstinence) that the church eventually allowed to couples attempting to limit the size of their families. These earlier moral theologians believed that even the rhythm method would create a “contraceptive mentality” in users. And Tentler would seem to agree; after the failure of rhythm, Catholic couples often did move to the pill.

I was also initially annoyed by Tentler’s extensive attention to the experience of priests and bishops regarding contraception. The first five chapters draw to a considerable extent on interviews Tentler did with these men, as well as on archival material by and about them. “A book about contraception according to Catholic priests. Thanks a lot,” was my first response. Yet Tentler’s research on the clergy demonstrates what a mess the question of contraception was for almost the entire American church, not married couples only. Many priests were reluctant at best to question laypeople in confession about their use of contraceptives, even when bishops demanded that they do so. And Humanae Vitae only exacerbated the crisis of priestly morale and identity that occurred after Vatican II, especially among younger men; fully 50 percent of American priests disagreed with the substance of the encyclical. This surely contributed to the departure of a large number of American men from the priesthood in the decades that followed.

But Catholics and Contraception does more than fill readers in with details about the past. It also provides an essential context for the current, seemingly endless disputes over the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, the Supreme Court is expected to issue their decision on the Hobby Lobby case any day now. But the context Tentler provides is particularly important in relation to the claims of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other conservative Catholic groups that the contraceptives mandate is a violation of Roman Catholic religious freedom.  But it’s not only non-Catholics working in Catholic institutions who will be deprived of free contraceptives under the ACA if the mandate is gutted; most sexually active U.S Catholics working in those institutions will be as well. The Roman Catholic religious freedom under consideration in these cases is that of the 447 Roman Catholic bishops in the U.S. and the relatively small number of priests, nuns and laypeople who agree with them on this issue. The institutional church has never afforded the vast majority of Catholics “religious freedom” regarding the use of contraceptives. Most days I doubt it ever will.

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