Showing posts with label Zionism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Zionism. Show all posts

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Daniel Gordis:
Time to Change the Israel Conversation

Nearly every time I open the e-mail with the latest post from Daniel Gordis, I find myself thinking. A lot. I don't always agree with him. But he always makes me think, and I am better for the exercise. Same thing today. I will cut to the chase, but only if you promise to read to the end. For a variety of reasons, which Gordis enumerates below, he and I believe it is time to have an old conversation all over again: Why do the Jews need our own state and what should its values be? This conversation often is set aside to focus on existential threats. But it is actually the thing we all need to be worried about. 

I (and I hope many of you) care deeply about Israel and see it as central to my Jewish identity. When I speak to Jewish adults my age and younger (I am 51) I do not find that to be the norm. I imagine there are many reasons for ambivalence toward Israel by Jews. I suspect one of them is battle fatigue. Too many fights. Between Arab nations and Israelis. Between Israeli Arabs and Jews. Between Palestinians and Israelis. Between Jews and Jews. For some, I suspect it has to do with actions or inactions of Israeli governments, settlers or protesters. (Trying to allow for all political approaches, but probably failing.) And some have just stopped paying attention because they are focused on things closer to home.

In any case, I agree with Gordis. Let's dream about what the Jewish state can be. As Jews living Chutz l'aretz (outside of the land of Israel), let's re-engage and become part of the process. And let's figure out what that means, both to us and to Israelis. After all, if you will it, it is no dream.

Click here to read the original posting and comment on Daniel Gordis' page.


Time to Change the Israel Conversation
Posted by Daniel Gordis on June 21, 2013 | 10 responses
Naftali Bennett, not long ago the election season’s “candidate to watch” and today the economy and trade minister, declared the two-state solution at a “dead end” this week, and said, memorably, that “never in Jewish history have so many people talked so much and expended so much energy on something so futile.” Bennett’s controversial comments were, in part, pandering to the the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, before whom he was speaking. But he’s held these views for a long time; his famous election campaign video, still widely available on YouTube, said precisely the same thing.

Reasonable minds can differ as to whether saying publicly that the two-state solution is dead is healthy for Israel’s standing in the international community, especially at this delicate moment when US Secretary of State John Kerry is amassing frequent flyer miles as he seeks, as have many before him, to get the process unstuck. But reasonable minds should agree – though they will not – that Bennett is right. Even were there no Israeli resistance to the idea of the two-state solution, longstanding Palestinian incalcitrance would doom the project anyway. 

The world will take much more note of Bennett’s two-minute remarks than it will of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s longstanding refusal to negotiate. When US President Barack Obama pressured Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu into a building freeze that lasted for 10 months in 2010, Abbas refused to come to the table.
Now, with Kerry determined not to fail, Abbas is still complaining aloud about the relentless pressure being placed on him to do so. But if Abbas wanted a deal, why would any pressure be necessary? And even if Abbas were to change his tune, there’s still Hamas. Let’s not conveniently forget the comment by Mousa Abu Marzook, considered Hamas’s second-highest-ranking official, who said Hamas would see any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians – even one ratified by Palestinian referendum – not as a peace treaty, but as nothing more than a hudna, or cease-fire.

Bennett may be right, and he may be wrong. More likely than not, the conflict will muddle along towards some slightly altered reality over the course of many years without the fanfare of a “deal” signed on the White House lawn. Yet though all this will undoubtedly leave much of the Jewish world – in Israel, America and beyond – in a fit of desperate hand-wringing, it should actually come as a relief, and as the harbinger of a significant new Jewish opportunity.

Before us now lies an opportunity to have, at long last, a renewed conversation about why the Jews need a state and the values on which is ought to be based. For far too long, 90 percent of Jewish conversations about Israel have been about Israel’s enemies. Eavesdrop at almost any Shabbat table in New York or Los Angeles, Sydney or Melbourne, London or Paris, and the conversation about Israel is almost invariably a conversation about the Palestinians, or Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, or Iran’s nuclear ambitions. We discuss, ad nauseum, how to preserve the Jewish state, without ever asking ourselves why it matters in the first place. 

But this is a self-defeating conversation. To a generation of Jews who witnessed or survived the Holocaust, or to those can still feel in their bones the dread of May 1967 around the Six Day War or the terror of the first days of the Yom Kippur War, the need for a Jewish state seems patently obvious. To those born later, however, this is decreasingly true. More and more, a younger generation of Jews, tired of a conversation about a conflict that they intuit is not going to end, bored to the point of resentment by a discussion that never elicits anything new or inspiring about the Jewish state, feels that it has had enough. 

If every comment about Israel is really about Gaza or Syria or nuclear weapons, what’s the point? THAT IS why Bennett’s remarks actually present an opportunity, even to those who wish matters were different. If there is no “deal” to be had, then there is really little point talking about it. What we can – and should – be speaking about is why the Jewish state matters in the first place.

Ironically, we now have the opportunity to initiate a conversation that instead of dividing us to the point of not being able to speak to each other, can actually unite us in a shared enterprise. What religious and secular, Left and Right, young and old can almost certainly agree on is that if we are to have a Jewish state, its society and values ought to be a reflection of the ideas and values that the Jewish people has long held dear.

But what are those values? What does the Jewish tradition have to say about balancing our need to welcome refugees who are fleeing genocide with our obligation to protect the safety of our own citizens on the streets of Tel Aviv? How do we raise a generation of young Israelis who will remain willing to risk everything to defend the Jewish state, yet who do not hate Arabs, despite the fact that we are intermittently at war with the Arab world? 

How do we balance the need to let 1,000 Jewish flowers bloom, and let Jews pray where and how they wish to pray, and teach their children what they believe they need to know, and still maintain – or create – a sufficiently cohesive public square that makes Israel not an accident of different people sharing the cities, but a meaningful collective enterprise? Conversations such as these would get us to open both and Western books. They would invite the input of secular along with religious, of progressives along with conservatives, for Jewish ideas are not the sole province of any one segment of the Jewish world.

Conversations of this sort would remind us all that the business the Jews have been in for the past several millennia is the business of ideas – imagining a world in which human life flourishes, and trying to then make that world real.
In 1762, more than a century before Theodor Herzl launched political Zionism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing in Emile, said, “I shall never believe I have heard the arguments of the Jews until they have a free state, schools and universities, where they can speak and dispute without risk. Only then will we know what they have to say.” Today, we have a free state. We have schools and universities. But we’re not having the conversation that Rousseau imagined we would. The casual observer of our conversations about Israel would imagine that when we converse about Israel, all we really talk about is Arabs.

It’s time for a change. It’s time to prove Rousseau right, and to remind ourselves – and a listening world – that the Jewish conversation is actually much deeper and richer than that. Ironically, being liberated from any hope that peace is around the corner may actually make possible a much more important and enduring conversation.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Taking Back the “Z” Word!

Like many, I have spent a fair amount of time monitoring a variety of sources to see what is going on in Israel. And like some I feel torn that I am not there sharing the stresses and helping. The truth is,  given my lack of training and experience, I would probably just be in the way their. But I can help spread the word. There are two postings I have rad over the past several days that I want to make sure as many people as possible read and think about and hopefully act on. Here is one of them. It was posted today on eJewishPhilanthropy and written by Rabbi Loren Sykes.

While over one million Israeli citizens need to be close enough to protected shelters to avoid death by missiles shot with the intention of killing civilians, while thousands of missiles have been shot from Gaza into Israel on a near daily basis over the past few year, reclaiming our 2,000 year old dream, “being a free people in the Land of Zion and Jerusalem,” from those who seek to destroy us, seems to me to be the least we can do.

With tensions escalating throughout the region, with increasing numbers of citizens living under the threat of missile attacks, it is not surprising that an important date in modern Jewish and Israeli history passed by [last week] virtually unnoticed. On November 11, 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed the infamous Resolution 3379 declaring that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” While the UN revoked the resolution in 1991 after the first Gulf War as an enticement to gain Israel’s involvement in the Madrid Peace Conference, General Assembly Resolution 4686 could not undue the damage already done. The revocation, while symbolically important, was irrelevant in practice. The basis for today’s efforts to delegitimize Israel were sown and given legitimacy by the UN with the 1975 resolution. The term “Zionism” became anathema, the equivalent of the actually repugnant “N” word.

The 1975 UN resolution initiated a process whereby individuals, countries and terrorist groups co-opted Zionism for their own purposes, turning it into the “Z” word. To make matters worse, by preceding the “Z” word with the modifier, “Anti,” they gave themselves cover from accusations of anti-Semitism. “We don’t hate individual Jews; rather, we are just opposed to Israel.” The far left throughout the world, the Jewish world included, took ownership of Zionism, turned it into the “Z” word and claimed that those who were Zionists were, by definition, racists, discriminators and murderers.

Worse still, as the far left claimed the “Z” term with greater and greater passion, many in the organized Jewish world distanced themselves from using the word Zionism. Sadly, that distancing continues today. The result is the strengthening of radical BDS groups who revel in our embarrassment while, at the same time, strengthening the true racists and murderous terror organizations and the regimes, past, present and emerging, that support them. Terms such as “pro-Israel” and phrases such as “support Israel” are wonderful. At the same time, I believe they represent reactions to the co-opting of the word Zionism by those who hate Israel, who seek to delegitimate it and to destroy it. “Pro-Israel” is clearly a reaction to “Anti-Israel.” The time has come for a new strategy, one that is proactive rather than reactive.

Instead of distancing ourselves from Zionism, we must reclaim the word and celebrate it anywhere and everywhere. While definitions abound, we must make clear that the meaning of the term Zionism is “the certain knowledge of the right of the Jewish People to a safe, sovereign State in our ancient and ancestral homeland.” We must cease arguing the legitimacy of this right with those who seek to delegitimate Zionism, Zionists and The State of Israel. Engaging in such argument is a waste of time as it simply legitimates the ability to raise the question of our right, a right that is as inalienable as it is ancient.

When others try to embarrass us by turning Zionism into the abhorrent “Z” word, we cannot not run and hide. Our response must be clear, full-throated and unbending: Those who deny the fact of the “the right of the Jewish People to a safe, sovereign State in our ancient and ancestral homeland” are the racists, the spreaders of hatred, the hypocrites. One can accept the fact of this right and still be critical of or have a problem with specific policies. One cannot, however, be a denier of the fact of Israel and expect to be invited to join, be part of or initiate conversations that seeks to solve those problems by eliminating that fact.

Being “pro-Israel” or “supporting Israel” is important. We need as many people as possible to side with Israel, to support her, to love her. What we need even more, however, is for everyone who knows with certainty the fact of “the right of the Jewish People to a safe, sovereign State in our ancient and ancestral homeland,” everyone throughout the world – Jews and non-Jews alike – to take back the “Z” word from those among our detractors who seek to destroy Israel. We must remove any sense of shame that others may give to it, shouting loudly to the world in a strong, clear voice that the “right of the Jewish People to a safe, sovereign State in our ancient and ancestral homeland” is a non-negotiable fact.

While over one million Israeli citizens need to be close enough to protected shelters to avoid death by missiles shot with the intention of killing civilians, while thousands of missiles have been shot from Gaza into Israel on a near daily basis over the past few year, reclaiming our 2,000 year old dream, “being a free people in the Land of Zion and Jerusalem,” from those who seek to destroy us, seems to me to be the least we can do.

Rabbi Loren Sykes serves as the CEO and Executive Director of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center of the USCJ. Title and organization affiliation are solely for identification purposes. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone.

Monday, April 16, 2012

How Do We Talk to Our Children About Israel?

Andi Arnovitz, Dress of the Unfaithful Wife (left), 2009,
Japanese rice paper, hair, dirt and film, 110x46x13, collection of the artist;
Coat of the chained woman (detail, right)

My wonderful daughter had her Bat Mitzvah recently. She sang beautifully from the Torah, built an amazing model of her “Personal Tabernacle” inspired by the portion, and took part in a lovely service she had helped to shape. I am overjoyed that my daughter’s experience of Judaism has been of a wise and deep tradition, fantastic stories, warm Friday nights, and inclusivity for both genders.

It wasn’t until we went with her to an exhibition on Jewish Feminist art at Ein Harod Museum that we came across a different aspect of Judaism. We walked around an exhibition created by furious female artists. Laws of niddah, modesty, and exclusion were beautifully screamed at, ridiculed, and mourned through video, photography, installation, sculpture and embroidery. From the wedding dress decorated with the hair shorn from the bride, to the photo of the disembodied hand holding a JNF box thrust through the curtain of the women’s section, there was some strong and strikingly painful work there. Yet although my daughter must be the most Jewishly knowledgeable of all her friends, I needed to explain every single reference to her.

She had had literally no idea of how aspects of Jewish tradition can be cruel to or disdainful of women.
This is because we had never taught her about them, and she’d never come across them until this exhibition. We knew instinctively that if we had exposed her to the anti-feminist narrative of Judaism at an early age she would have emerged knowledgeable about yet emotionally distant from Judaism. We didn’t want that for our kid.

I’m left reflecting on these ideological choices when thinking about Israel education for our kids. Because you see the thing is that my wife and I have absolutely no regrets at constructing “rose-tinted spectacles” for our child’s experience of Judaism. Our choice to induct our daughter into Judaism was not related to the moral rights or wrongs of the entirety of the tradition. We wanted for Judaism to be a part of who she is.
I believe we need to take the same choices with our young children with regards Israel. Prior to and irrespective of our attitudes to Israeli policies and politics, we need to make an ideological choice. Is Israel important to a Jew, or not?

As any thoughtful Israel-engaged Jew can attest, growing up with a deep connection to Israel does not have to lead one to love everything about Israel. The fact that my kid was not just surprised but also deeply concerned by much of what she learned at the Jewish Feminist exhibition shows that one can be brought up to identify with a tradition, a people, a place, and still continue to develop a moral stance that might be at odds with elements of that tradition.

Bringing up our children to “love Israel” should not mean we are brainwashing them or serving evil reactionary interests. Sometimes I fear that too much superficial education has given love and commitment a bad name. A knee-jerk rejection of “teaching to love Israel” is – I would suggest – mainly a response to the extent to which such a concept has been shorn of its depth. Love is crucial, but it’s not simple.

We need our children to be knowledgeable and wise enough to be able to question what they have received, and at the same time we need them connected enough to care. Their commitment will be inherited from that of their parents – hence the necessity for us as parents and future parents to make that first ideological decision that Israel is important to us and to our children.

What would an education look like that seeks to establish a commitment that is strong and passionate but not blind or paralyzed? How might we cultivate the roots of critical loyalty in our young?

We at Makom would advocate for two approaches. We would take care to give pre-teens what we might call the “philosophical training” for them to embrace complexity, “and we would give them a framework of “spiraling questions.

Embracing Complexity
Rather than simplifying issues for a little kid to grasp, we should encourage them to grapple with the complexities of simple situations. For example, at the age of five, issues of “Hugging and Wrestling with Israel” are tough! But questions such as “has your best friend ever done something you thought was the wrong thing to do?” fit right in to their lives. Follow up questions can go further: Did you tell your friend they had done wrong? Did you tell them in private or in public? Are you still friends despite the wrong-doing? Rather offering a simplistic explanation of Israel’s Separation Barrier, we might ask where there are fences in our children’s lives? (House? School?) What are the advantages and disadvantages of fences? Do good fences make good neighbors or deepen divides? Who decides where to put a fence, and (why?). Our “Car Pool Conversations” about Israel are freely downloadable here.

These are the kinds of conversations that can help our kids develop a familiarity with complex moral issues, and build a suitable vocabulary to begin to address them when they arise. In this way our children learn that complexity and “messiness” (Israeli characteristics if ever there were!) can be fascinating and not frightening.

Spiraling questions
At Makom we would suggest that the moral and political issues of Israel emerge from four key values expressed in the Hatikvah anthem: To Be A Free (Jewish) People In Our Land. What does it mean and what does it take to survive (To Be)? What does it mean and what does it take to be free? What does it mean and what does it take to be connected to the Jewish People? And what does it mean and what does it take to be In Our Land?

These four questions underlie every headline we ever read about Israel, and they are four questions that we can ask and explore at every age. As little kids our questions about being Jewish and connected to other Jews will yield different answers from those we may reach today. Likewise the expansion of our understanding of freedom – its limitations and responsibilities – will grow with the years. But the more we empower our children to engage with these four “pillars of Zionism”, the more we enable them to connect to, critique, and affirm Israel at every stage of their lives.

All the above opinions have been developed and inspired by my work with Makom, and consultations with Dr. Jen Glaser who first introduced me to the teachings of Vygotsky.

Robbie Gringras is Artist-in-Residence at Makom, a partnership of Jewish communities around the world and the Jewish Agency.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

We Are No Longer Accepting Comments For This Article

I spotted the new issue of Time magazine while I was in line at the grocery store with my cart loaded in preparation for my Erev Rosh Hashanah cooking marathon (actually not such an ordeal, with a great new fast and easy roast beef recipe from Arthur Schwartz). The cover was intriguing and troubling.Why Israel Doesn't Care About Peace winked out from a string of daisies in the form of a Magen David. I didn't pick it up, because I knew I didn't have time to read it and I was pretty sure I wanted to begin the New Year with other thoughts. The ideas suggested by the cover wouldn't go away if I waited for the weekend. Those kinds of ideas don't ever really go away.

By the time I got around to reading the story (and don't just read it online - the print version is fuller and presents a visual gestalt that the web version does not), there were many responses floating in the blogosphere. A partially annotated list of some of them is below. After reading the story and the blogs I am every bit as disturbed as I expected to be in the grocery store. I am glad I waited until after yontiff, since it seems like the monster under the bed of my childhood has crawled out again - and it is not cute and fluffy like Sully from Monsters, Inc.

The title of this posting comes directly from the Time Magazine web site which shows the article by Karl Vick. I assume they have shut down the comments due to either the volume or intensity of the responses they have received in the nine days since it was posted. Clearly, they would like to let their article be the last word on the subject.

When you read Daniel Gordis or Rick Teplitz - and you MUST read them, you will understand that there is trouble in River City. I could reiterate what they say. I could be alarmist, intellectual or angry. Welcome to the Next Level and Davar Acher are blogs that are primarily about Jewish Education. So I want to issue a challenge and an invitation to all of you who read them, since you are among some of the most creative educators I know.

How will we teach this to our students? Obviously there are different needs for learners of different ages. I don't think I will be pushing the issue in Kitah Bet (2nd) or Hey (5th). But Kitah Zayin (7th) and above students are going to have some questions that we are honor bound to address. I have created a document in Google Docs which can be accessed by clicking here. It is a blank document right now. Please go there and fill it with your ideas for addressing the issues raised - Anti-Semitism, Zionism, Media Bias, Anti-Israel, Civil Rights, Peace, Arab/Palestinian-Israel Conflict, or any other that occurs to you. They can be a sentence, a link or a fully articulated lesson plan. Whatever we all put there is available for all of us to use. And as you develop things, please add to the document. Invite others to share. Just having the link ( gives you permission to edit, just like a wiki. All I ask is that you do not change other people's words. Comment freely, supplement and add your own ideas.

A Partial List of Blog Responses
Cross posted to Davar Acher

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    Constructive Criticism vs. Destructive Criticism of Israel

    This article was published in the New York Times this past Sunday and on their on-line edition on Saturday. I posted a link on Facebook as did a gozillion others and it has gone a little viral. In cased you missed it here it is. My friends who lean a little or a lot in one political direction or another may disagree about many of Friedman's opinions, particularly about Israel. Let's agree to disagree on that if we must. My friend Fred Greene says (and I agree) that "Friedman writes a brilliant article on constructive criticism vs. destructive criticism of Israel." And my old camp friend Rick Teplitz said "Want Israelis to listen to you? Start by reading this" referring to this article. So I invite your comments, not on Friedman's general political leanings, but on what he has to say in this article. As educators I think we can learn something about how to teach the reality of Israel and have real conversations about really hard topics - and help our students and ourselves come out the other end still loving Israel and being hopeful for its future. Maybe I'm a cockeyed optimist, but I think it has more to do with believing that Israel is more than a dream and more than some bitter realities.

    One other point. In Hebrew, the name of the film is Chaim Yekarim. It is a literal translation. My midrash is on the fact that grammar requires the word for life - Chaim - be in the plural, and that the adjective, precious be in agreement. More than one life is precious...
    - Ira

    The New York Times
    Op-Ed Columnist
    Steal This Movie

    Published: August 7, 2010

    I just saw a remarkable new documentary directed by Shlomi Eldar, the Gaza reporter for Israel’s Channel 10 news. Titled “Precious Life,” the film tracks the story of Mohammed Abu Mustafa, a 4-month-old Palestinian baby suffering from a rare immune deficiency. Moved by the baby’s plight, Eldar helps the infant and mother go from Gaza to Israel’s Tel Hashomer hospital for lifesaving bone-marrow treatment. The operation costs $55,000. Eldar puts out an appeal on Israel TV and within hours an Israeli Jew whose own son was killed during military service donates all the money.

    The documentary takes a dramatic turn, though, when the infant’s Palestinian mother, Raida, who is being disparaged by fellow Gazans for having her son treated in Israel, blurts out that she hopes he’ll grow up to be a suicide bomber to help recover Jerusalem. Raida tells Eldar: “From the smallest infant, even smaller than Mohammed, to the oldest person, we will all sacrifice ourselves for the sake of Jerusalem. We feel we have the right to it. You’re free to be angry, so be angry.”

    Eldar is devastated by her declaration and stops making the film. But this is no Israeli propaganda movie. The drama of the Palestinian boy’s rescue at an Israeli hospital is juxtaposed against Israeli retaliations for shelling from Gaza, which kill whole Palestinian families. Dr. Raz Somech, the specialist who treats Mohammed as if he were his own child, is summoned for reserve duty in Gaza in the middle of the film. The race by Israelis and Palestinians to save one life is embedded in the larger routine of the two communities grinding each other up.

    “It’s clear to me that the war in Gaza was justified — no country can allow itself to be fired at with Qassam rockets — but I did not see many people pained by the loss of life on the Palestinian side,” Eldar told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Because we were so angry at Hamas, all the Israeli public wanted was to [expletive] Gaza. ... It wasn’t until after the incident of Dr. Abu al-Aish — the Gaza physician I spoke with on live TV immediately after a shell struck his house and caused the death of his daughters and he was shouting with grief and fear — that I discovered the [Israeli] silent majority that has compassion for people, including Palestinians. I found that many Israeli viewers shared my feelings.” So Eldar finished the documentary about how Mohammed’s life was saved in Israel.

    His raw film reflects the Middle East I know — one full of amazing compassion, even among enemies, and breathtaking cruelty, even among neighbors.

    I write about this now because there is something foul in the air. It is a trend, both deliberate and inadvertent, to delegitimize Israel — to turn it into a pariah state, particularly in the wake of the Gaza war. You hear the director Oliver Stone saying crazy things about how Hitler killed more Russians than Jews, but the Jews got all the attention because they dominate the news media and their lobby controls Washington. You hear Britain’s prime minister describing Gaza as a big Israeli “prison camp” and Turkey’s prime minister telling Israel’s president, “When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill.” You see singers canceling concerts in Tel Aviv. If you just landed from Mars, you might think that Israel is the only country that has killed civilians in war — never Hamas, never Hezbollah, never Turkey, never Iran, never Syria, never America.

    I’m not here to defend Israel’s bad behavior. Just the opposite. I’ve long argued that Israel’s colonial settlements in the West Bank are suicidal for Israel as a Jewish democracy. I don’t think Israel’s friends can make that point often enough or loud enough.

    But there are two kinds of criticism. Constructive criticism starts by making clear: “I know what world you are living in.” I know the Middle East is a place where Sunnis massacre Shiites in Iraq, Iran kills its own voters, Syria allegedly kills the prime minister next door, Turkey hammers the Kurds, and Hamas engages in indiscriminate shelling and refuses to recognize Israel. I know all of that. But Israel’s behavior, at times, only makes matters worse — for Palestinians and Israelis. If you convey to Israelis that you understand the world they’re living in, and then criticize, they’ll listen.

    Destructive criticism closes Israeli ears. It says to Israelis: There is no context
    Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
    that could explain your behavior, and your wrongs are so uniquely wrong that they overshadow all others. Destructive critics dismiss Gaza as an Israeli prison, without ever mentioning that had Hamas decided — after Israel unilaterally left Gaza — to turn it into Dubai rather than Tehran, Israel would have behaved differently, too. Destructive criticism only empowers the most destructive elements in Israel to argue that nothing Israel does matters, so why change?

    How about everybody take a deep breath, pop a copy of “Precious Life” into your DVD players, watch this documentary about the real Middle East, and if you still want to be a critic (as I do), be a constructive one. A lot more Israelis and Palestinians will listen to you.

    Thursday, July 2, 2009

    Living is learning: Israel Lessons at the Y

    Dr. Lisa Grant Associate Professor of Jewish Education on the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and a member of my congregation, B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT is my guest blogger this week. This was originally posted on Tze L’umad, a blog for the continuing education for the alumni of HUC-JIR. The editor of that blog wrote: “Her reflections remind us that it is not just curriculum and content that shape education; experience is a critical element in our learning, solidifying and challenging the knowledge we acquire in more formal settings.”

    Currently, I’m in Israel as part of the faculty for the culminating seminar of this year’s cohort of Mandel Fellows, a group of seven HUC rabbinic-education students from New York and Los Angeles. Since I’m here for almost all of June, I decided to join the pool at the YMCA for the month. Navigating these waters has been a lesson in cultural literacy.

    First there are the hours. I swim first thing in the morning. On Monday and Shabbat (or more accurately in the Y world, Saturday) there is mixed swimming. On Tuesday through Friday, men and women alternate between the early shift (5:45-6:25 am) and late (6:25-7:05). I discovered this after arriving at 6:00 am on a Tuesday to find the door into the pool from the women’s locker room locked up tight.

    In good Christian fashion in this Jewish state, the Y is closed on Sunday.
    Then, there are the people. By far the friendliest face is that of the Arab man who sits at the desk. Then there’s a cast of regulars who come at these early hours, older women who are rather fixed in their ways. My first day in the pool, I was stared at but no one said a word. If there was a pattern to how these women swim, it was beyond me to figure out. It seemed where ever I swam I was in someone’s way. I basically wove my way through the lanes, trying to avoid the onslaught. This went on for a couple of days. Then I decided to hug the wall and take up as little space as possible. That worked for about 6 laps and then a woman arrived who immediately told me to move.

    “I swim back stroke so I need this space,” she said.

    “But I’m swimming here now,” I said.

    “You are in my space,” she replied emphatically.

    So I acquiesced and moved over. Not only did this woman take my lane, but her stroke was so wide that she spilled over into my lane as well, resulting in inevitable bumps and brushes as we swam past each other. After a few laps, she stopped me and started yelling in Hebrew.

    “Don’t you see I’m swimming here! She said.

    “But I am staying in my own lane. You come over into my space!” I replied.

    “You keep hitting me. You must stop. This is unacceptable,” she said.

    “But, you are hitting me as well,” I said.

    “Just stop it!” she yelled.

    “I’m trying, you try too” was my retort. And then I swam off.

    The next day, I was waiting with three or four other women for the women-only time to begin.

    “Are you from the hotel?” one asked.

    “No, I’m here for a seminar.”

    “Are you from the hotel?” another asked.

    “No, I bought a membership for the month,” I replied.

    “Are you at the hotel?” the first woman asked again.

    “No.” I said, and thankfully the lifeguard unlocked the door and we could go to the pool.

    On the morning of my seventh visit, the women greeted me more warmly. One said good morning; two made eye contact.

    Two others whispered, “I thought she was from the hotel.”

    My adversary wasn’t at the pool that morning. I swam against the wall, uninterrupted. It was a much better workout, no weaving among the lanes, no glares, no strife. Serene, contemplative, and ordinary.

    My experiences in the pool could be seen as a parable about the Israeli street - the erratic traffic behavior, the vacillation between rudeness and kindness in interactions with strangers, and in a much more significant way, the self-righteous and intractable claims on space and territory that different peoples make on this land.

    I could leave it at that. Indeed, it’s that Israel that we often encounter in the news and as tourists through our brief encounters with Israeli society. Far from serene, or ordinary, and far more heated and contentious than contemplative.

    We have been privileged to delve deeply into a much more hopeful and inspiring side of Israel during this seminar. Throughout the year, this group of HUC Mandel Fellows has been studying issues of leadership, vision, and community building. For our Israel seminar, we added a fourth dimension, the question of Jewish peoplehood. We have been exploring various conceptions of peoplehood through text study and encounters with scholars and through a variety of site visits at innovative organizations that are working to address different tensions and imbalances in Israeli society.

    We visited Bet Yisrael, an urban kibbutz, a group of young adults living together and volunteering in a low-income neighborhood in Gilo, a neighborhood in the southernmost part of Jerusalem. The primary “industry” of the kibbutz is a mechina, a gap year pre-army study program for high school graduates. This mechina includes both secular and religious Israelis, and also a few Americans who’ve come to study Jewish texts and volunteer for the year before college.

    In Yerucham, a development town in the Negev, we visited Atid Bamidbar, a Beit Midrash that focuses on bringing together the residents of this isolated area through a variety of programs that attempt to bridge the social gaps between secular and religious, and Ashkenazim and Sephardim through study and song.

    Debbie Golan, Director of Atid Bamidbar, and some of our HUC Mandel Fellows, and some of the students in one of the sessions we observed (learning and singing mizrachi piyuttim)!

    In Tel Aviv, right across the street from the central bus station, we visited Binah, a secular Yeshiva, another study program for young adults either before or after the army. The goals of this institution are to link social action with Jewish study, exposing young Israelis who lack any substantive Jewish learning to the riches of the Jewish bookshelf. Along with study, they work in this difficult, run-down neighborhood that is home to poor Israelis, foreign workers and hundreds (if not thousands) of refugees from Sudan and Eritrea.

    These institutions are examples of the many third sector (non-governmental) initiatives to bridge the divides in Israeli society - between rich and poor, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Arab and Jew. While each are situated in different contexts and have different missions, what they share in common is an active commitment to social change linked with Jewish learning.

    In our seminar we’ve have many conversations about what makes us a Jewish people, what binds us, what divides us? We have struggled with definitions and with questions of obligation and commitment to the mixed multitude that makes up the Jewish people and that is so evident in Israeli society.

    While ideas are still in formation, we have come to a strong consensus around at least one big idea. Jewish learning is something that all Jews share. Jewish study provides opportunities for rich encounters with our sources, with Jewish tradition and with others who may not share much else other than a willingness to engage with the text and those others sitting around the table. Through Jewish learning we have the opportunity to understand ourselves and others better, to join in a share enterprise and perhaps to discover or forge shared commitments.

    Swimming in the sea of Torah together may start out like my swimming at YMCA pool, but once we really make eye contact and listen to our study partner, we break through those barriers of suspicion and tension, and find a way to calmer waters that can nourish us all.

    Sunday, June 21, 2009

    What do we really think about a Jewish State?

    This is a post from THE HOT TOPIC - a regular blog on the Haaretz web site and co-produced by Makom. (Find them at Robbie Gringrass, an outstanding educator and performance artist living in Israel posted it to his Facebook page. It borders on heresy, yet it asks a question each generation must wrestle with.

    What do we really think about a Jewish State?

    The time has come. When even arch-enemies such as Gideon Levy see in Netanyahu’s speech reasons to be cheerful, we may presume that Netanyahu has hit on something approaching Israeli consensus.

    Among many other statements, contradictory or vague as they may have been, one of Netanyahu’s messages came clear. Those who call for two States for two Peoples must declare
    their acceptance of both halves of the statement: a Palestinian State for the Palestinian People, and a Jewish State for the Jewish People.

    The Arab and Palestinian leadership could not have been sharper in their response: a Jewish State is out of the question. In so doing, they would seem to be only confirming Bibi’s essential narrative: That the Arab world has never wanted to make peace with a State for the Jews in the Middle East.

    Before we go to town excoriating ‘Arab rejectionism’, or chastising Netanyahu for 'destroying the Peace Process', it is time to turn our gaze inwards. Do we Jews accept the idea of a Jewish State? Do we accept that like the French and Greeks, Norwegians and Turks, we Jews are allowed a nation state? Or do we feel that ethnic nation states are racist? (In which case we probably reject the idea of a Palestinian State, too.)

    Or do we refute the key Zionist proposition, and insist that the Jews are a religion, a culture, and should not be defined as a nation at all?

    Is a Jewish State an un-Jewish idea?

    I don't think so. I think we a faith tradition. I also think we are much more. We are a people and a nation. This flies in the face of what we were taught as kids, as our parents generation tried to melt into the melting pot of America. Like every other ethnic group maintaining ties to their culture and homeland, we need to see ourselves as mart of the American mosaic - one variety in the tossed salad of American life.

    Similarly, I think the Zionist endeavor (no longer an experiment, over 100 years after Herzl and 61 years after independance) is still a very Jewish idea, even if at times throughout its history political leaders may have made decisions at odds with Jewish values. It is a Jewish state, made up of flawed humans, not a Jewish utopia filled with tzadikim who who always make the right choices. And each of those humans brings his or her own interpretation to the table. I have a boyhood friend living in Ma'ale Adumim. We see the map differently. Time may tell us who is correct, but we both believe we are approaching the idea of the Jewish state from a place of integrity.

    What is the difference between a Jewish state and a racist ethnic state? No matter how I might want to be a Greek or an Italian or a Somali, I cannot. Those are identifications that depend upon genetics. I could marry in, but I would not be able to become authentically a part of those groups. While for most of our history Jews have not actively sought converts, they have always been welcome once they completed the process. Their children are our children.

    I hope the day comes in our time that Israel is able to be the best it always promised it could be without compromising security for all. I hope its leaders can find a path to peace with integrity. Smearing Israel with the label of racist is both facile and cynical, and at it its core a lie.

    The deeper question is for my friends living here in the Diaspora with me. We need to get over our ambivalence and weigh in on the idea of Eretz/Medinat Yisrael. Our children need to hear our voices express how important Israel is the the continued health of the Jewish people, just as we heard it from our parents.

    My sixteen year old son just returned from a semester outside of Jerusalem. He reminds me of when the fire of Israel came alive for me at his age. He gets his connection to the Jewish people and to Eretz Yisrael. As he told me his teacher Shira explained: "Guys, this is a learned Jew kind of thing."

    The Jewishness of the Jewish state? Guys, this is a learned Jew kind of thing.

    Wednesday, April 22, 2009

    Our Israel Problem

    I believe that the State of Israel is central to the identity of the modern Jew. There. I said it. One problem is that the data do not support it. There have been many reports published over the last two decades that tell us how few of us have visited Israel, how many of us don’t make it a point to read or follow Israel in the news and how much Israel has faded into the background of the average Jew’s perception. Still I believe it she (Medinat Yisrael – the State of Israel – is a feminine word form) is central to us all. Like a loved one we haven’t thought about in a long time. So, in light of this, how do we process, connect to and teach about Israel in a time of war – especially the current conflict?

    My friend and teacher Joel Grishaver writes in his blog for teachers and parents:
    "Crossing the internet are two prayers. One is a prayer for Israel’s soldiers. The other is a prayer for the civilians of Gaza. Both are recommended as the way for teachers to begin their classes.

    The problem is not that one is being asked to choose between these two prayers. Supporting both wishes is not a problem. Prayers for safety can’t be too many. And the problem is not that prayer seems to be the major response to war. Prayer is a good response to war. The problem is that this seems to be the only major public response besides a zillion causes to join on Facebook."
    On November 10, 1975 the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 3379, stating that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” I remember helping to organize 3 busses from my high school to the Chicago Civic Center Plaza (where the Blues brothers were finally captured in the film). There were hundreds of buses and tens of thousands of people there from all over protesting the foul resolution.
    Because Israel is at War, we need to be shouting “you are connected to Israel.” “You have a relationship with Israel.” “Israel’s future impacts your future.” Now is the time to emphasize knowledge about Israel, Zionist (or post-Zionist) ideology, and simple family relationships. We can teach “The War” or not teach “The War,” but we need to teach “the love.”
    What I – and I think most of us really want is for our kids to care about Israel the way that I care about the Chicago Cubs. I rarely go to games, since I live in Fairfield. But Chicago is one of my homelands and the loveable losers of Wrigley Field are ingrained in my neshama – my soul. I keep a schedule above my desk and track the wins and losses. I have the team news feed on my Google home page. Ideally, I’d want our students to care more about Israel than I care about the Cubs, but at the very least, like me and the Cubs I want them to care about the outcome.
    So now is a time to make falafel and sing “Im Tirtzu.” We need to be dancing “Hinei Mah Tov u’Mah Nayim” and “Mah Na’avu.” Students should be finding Haifa on the map and learning that Ben Gurion like to stand on his head cause he thought it was good for his health. What we – as teachers and parents need to be doing is teaching Israel more than ever. And, if we do so, the questions about The War will come, and we will be able to answer them the way we want to answer them, providing we add, “And you are still connect to the land, people, and Nation of Israel—no matter how you feel about some of her actions.