Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thoughts about Israel

.מחשבות על ישראל

A lot has happened in the three and a half weeks since I last posted. My semester ended, I visited the United States for two weeks, and I attended the Wexner Winter Institute, where we focused on learning about exercising leadership with Marty Linsky. I've returned to Israel and started a new semester, and tonight, Jessica and I accepted a spontaneous invitation to a shiva (period of mourning) dinner at a synagogue near HUC. I'd love to write about any and all of these topics, and perhaps soon I will, but tonight, my mind is on Israel once again. In this post, I hope to address three primary topics: 1) Reflections on Operation Cast Lead in Gaza; 2) My relationship with the Land, People, and State of Israel; and 3) My thoughts about what ought to be the relationship of a Reform rabbi to Israel.

Operation Cast Lead

As were most people, I was enormously relieved when Israel pulled out of Gaza. I was in the U.S. at time and was glad that I would be returning to a country that was no longer actively engaged in warfare. As each day passes, people I hear from become calmer, and reflections about the war are quickly turning into election prediction and analysis. Israel is holding general elections next Tuesday (February 10), where the right-wing Likud party is expected to win, resulting in Benjamin Netanyahu assuming his second term as Prime Minister. Although Netanyahu and Obama don't see eye-to-eye, hopefully they will be able to work together to hammer out some kind of peaceful situation. Unfortunately, I believe that Tzipi Livni would have a better working relationship with President Obama and would therefore better be able to deliver peace to the region.

My recent post on the necessity to call for peace even when violence seems unavoidable and justifiable generated significant debate on this blog as well as within my personal conversations with others and with myself. I maintain that the cycle of violence must come to an end - we do still need peace. I will not judge those who engaged in Operation Cast Lead, as it's not my place to do so, but all I can say is let there be no more violence. My prayer for peace is renewed with the inauguration of President Obama, and I hope that Israel's own politicians will reflect this vision as well.

Of course, the catalyst of Operation Cast Lead and the monkey wrench in the peace plan was and will likely continue to be the radical leadership of Palestinian terrorist organizations, specifically and primarily Hamas. As long as Hamas is dedicated to the annihilation of Israel and as long as Hamas remains in control of Gaza, establishing peace with the Palestinian people is a distant dream. So, one of those factors needs to be changed. Either the leadership of Hamas should be engaged to reevaluate its position on the existence of Israel, or the people of the Gaza Strip need to be engaged to assert new representative leadership.

Examples of such leadership may be able to be found in the surrounding Arab world. There was a surprising lack of condemnation from Arab countries around Israel during Operation Cast Lead, and this reveals the hesitancy of modern Arab leaders to declare their solidarity with radical threats to their stability. It is becoming more clear that it is in the best interest of Arab nations to pressure for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to generate stability in the region, and hopefully these forward-thinking Arab leaders will offer their guidance and support in an initiative for peace.

Was Operation Cast Lead justified? It's extremely hard for me to answer that question, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for Israelis as well. I can say that I wish the situation hadn't been so dire as to encourage Israeli leadership to turn to force as a solution. I can even say that I wish the operation had never been launched. But it was launched, and my prayer now is that somehow it will help pave the way to peace. I'll be sure to write more on this as time goes by, but that's enough on this topic for now.

My relationship with the Land, People, and State of Israel

In a week, I'll reach the 7-month mark of living in Israel, and my perspectives on Israel have certainly changed over the last half-year. Here's a summary of where I was before I arrived:

Land - My two trips here in 2005 and 2007 were very special to me, and I had felt a special connection to the land. This is where all that history happened and therefore became to me an example of what Mircea Eliade calls a "sacred center."

People - Even moreso than the land, I am connected intrinsically to the Jewish people. This was powerfully felt the first time I was at the Western Wall; it was much more significant to me to be at a place thought about and prayed toward by Jews for thousands of years than were the stones themselves.

State of Israel - The State of Israel was to preserve the Land and People, and therefore I had no strong feelings or connections to the State qua State.

Here's what I'm thinking now. These are rough thoughts, so I look forward to challenging them and having them challenged in the near and developing future.

Land - The Land of Israel is much less magical for me now than it was a couple years ago. I do still find it significant that biblical events took place here, but the theological significance of that fact is less than it was. On the other hand, when our class examined pre-State approaches to Zionism, I was ambivalent about initiatives to locate Jews in a land other than Palestine. While for me personally, the Land doesn't hold theological value, I recognize that this land is traditionally very important to Jews and that there are millions of Jews today who do view the land as theologically significant. For our People, then, I support the existence of Israel here even though for me, the Land itself has marginal spiritual value.

People - I am still committed to the People of Israel, though I reject the notion that a Jew is superior to a non-Jew. I do believe that there are ethical values of Judaism that have shined through the ages in a more easily accessible fashion than some other traditions and therefore that the Jewish religion has made and will continue to make significant contributions to the development of humankind. The Jewish people, bound together by (but not only by) this religion are a diverse and opinionated family, with all the blessings and challenges that come along with that. I feel an innate bond to other Jews, and I am devoting my life to the values and people of Judaism. I am excited by the prospect of learning more about what, exactly, the Jewish People is and how it manifests itself in communities. I am very interested in communities, and I want to learn more about them and how one is and can be a member and a change agent of them. Of the three categories I'm examining now, my dedication to the Jewish People is the strongest.

State - I've been struggling the most with the State of Israel this year on a number of levels. First of all, there's the security issue. Does the Jewish State have an imperative to be more ethical than a non-Jewish state? No. However, personally, I expect more from the Jewish State than from other states because of the long ethical tradition that I mentioned earlier. There's a lot riding on Israel, and I believe that it can be a terrific model of Middle Eastern democracy. Let's live up to the highest ethical standard and wage a peace campaign like the world has never seen.

On another level, I've been struggling with the religion/state dichotomy (or lack thereof) in this country. Spend some time here, and you'll find that the religious intolerance in this country is absolutely shocking and appalling, at least from an American perspective. Freedom of religion simply doesn't exist here, and that is such a hard concept for me to internalize. People get up in arms when they hear that the practice of non-Islam religions is banned in certain Arab countries, but no one (except the Progressive Jews) says anything about the anti-Jewish (as defined by the ultra-orthodox) discrimination that occurs in this country. It's a shandah, and it's one of my biggest problems with the State.

Of course, the question of whether to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel) has been on my mind the whole time that I've been here, and I seriously don't think it's in the cards for me. The above two issues are enormous elephants that I'm not sure I can get over, and I lack the vision and courage to combat them here. I seriously admire those who do make aliyah in order to help Reform Israel, and I remain committed to Israel's continued progress because of my Jewish connection to the People that live here, but submitting myself to a country that will draft my daughter into an army wherein she won't be able to speak at her own wedding ceremony is too much for me to swallow right now.

So suffice it to say that my personal relationship with the State of Israel is in a somewhat rocky place right now, though I refused to turn my back on the State and leave it to its own devices. I may not approve of everything that it does, but I approve of what it aspires to be, and (like in America), I will work as I can to help realize the (my) Jewish dream for Israel as a land of pluralism, peace, and morality.

My thoughts about what ought to be the relationship of a Reform rabbi to Israel

So then we come to what I think about others' relationship to Israel. Although I find it very difficult to determine what others might believe or advocate personally, perhaps if I approach this from an institutional level, I can come up with some cogent thoughts. In general, what kind of relationship should a Reform rabbi have toward Israel?

I think I'll echo the director of our Israel Seminar, Dave Mendelsson, who told me that one of his goals for our Israel education program is that students will have a complex and deep relationship with Israel. It doesn't have to be positive (mine isn't purely positive, that's for sure!), but the realities of our communities are that many American Jews are keenly aware of and interested in Israel, and if for no other reason, engaging our community on their deeply held convictions is necessary for effective rabbis.

I also believe that Israel has a lot to gain from Progressive Judaism, and I would hope that Reform rabbis will perceive the street of impact as two-way. Of course Israeli issues and concerns will impact the way American Jews think about their People and faith, but the People and faith of Diaspora Jews should also impact Israelis. Progressive Judaism can offer a focus on pluralism, a commitment to ethics, and a renewed spirituality that I think could be beautifully received and enacted in Israel. I hope that Reform rabbis recognize their own worth with relation to Israel and don't give in to the extant pressures of Diaspora Judaism to bend to the will of Israel.

Overall, I hope that my rabbinic colleagues will join me in supporting Israel by hoping for its continued progress toward peace and pluralism. We should also challenge ourselves to break out of our west-centered mentality and remember that when we say "Jews," we include over 6 million Israelis in our parlance. Let's stop assuming that Jewish = eats bagels and recognize that our communities are not entirely (or shouldn't be entirely) bifurcated. Just as we should feel free to offer words of encouragement and criticism to Israel, so should we be open to similar words from the other side of the sea.

Of course, these are all very general and very similar to my own perspective. But it's worth keeping these thoughts in mind as I head into my future years of rabbinical school. Will it be hard readjusting to life in America? Will I continue to think about Israel on a frequent basis when I'm back in the States? How will Israel affect my rabbinate? These are important questions for me to keep alive, and I hope that my colleagues will continue to challenge me as I hope to challenge them.

I think that's enough for now. Now that I'm back at school and readjusting to the swing of things, I hope to be able to get some more thoughts down in the blog. It's good to be back. Here's to a great semester!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dinner with the Neighbors

This evening I had dinner with our neighbors the Katzes. They are lovely kind people who welcomed me into their apartment because they knew that Daniel was away. We chatted for a very long time over soup, salads, and pasta - they told me that they cooked just about every recipe that they have for something without meat or fish! They told me stories about living in a Moshav during the Yishuv period - about the culture that existed here at that time, the way that people were trusting with one another and everyone knew everyone else. They talked about their family, about the way the Hebrew language has changed over time, about technology, and music, about Obama, and even about their pet turtle who has been living with them for over forty years. They were very patient with my Hebrew, asked me a lot of questions about myself, and I am so appreciative to have had such a lovely evening - and very proud of myself to have spent a whole evening speaking Hebrew (three hours!!)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

At the Foot of a Mountain We'll Climb Together

And now we have a new president. A new vision for our future. From the depths of our hard times, we look up and see the heights to which we can travel, and through the strength of the words of our new leader, we trust that our legs will carry us there. And we hope together, as we set off on that perilous journey.
I watched the inauguration by myself in our Jerusalem apartment, Barak Obama's assured voice overwhelmed by the simultaneous Hebrew translation that covered some of his words. Alone in my apartment, I cried, smiled, I was overwhelmed by the historic implications of the moment, and the personal implications of having someone I trust in the highest office of America, when almost half my life has been otherwise.
Today, I am proud to be an American.

Language Partners Program

Today I met my language partner for the first time. We were paired up by the university to speak together in Hebrew and in English and to practice our languages together.
Dafna is in her fourth year studying computer science at Hebrew University. She is from Jerusalem and currently lives in an apartment with two roommates. She has a younger sister in the army and an older sister who is a pastry chef in Tel Aviv. Dafna's hobbies include seeing movies and juggling, and she is the president of the Hebrew University juggling club.
It is very hard to meet someone for coffee that you've been randomly matched with in order to form a friendship. We had to push hard to keep the conversation flowing. What music do you like to listen to? What movies do you watch? How do you like Jerusalem?
At the same time, we learned a lot about each other. Dafna never was in the army - she says that they told her that they didn't want her, so she spent a year working and juggling before going to school. She doesn't like school, but is a bit nervous about what comes next. She is very secular, has never been called to the Torah and isn't interested in Judaism at all. She has some cousins who were involved in a Reform community, but she seems to think that this was pretty strange. Dafna also told me that she has no friends who are religious, nor does she have any friends who are Arab. She then clarified for me, though, that she doesn't have that many friends to begin with, as she is pretty introverted. Dafna loves to travel, and after she graduates at the end of this year, she hopes to spend a few months travelling the world, couch surfing and sight seeing. She seems in some ways much more adventurous than I am, and in some ways much more conventional.
We'll meet every week, we think. We'll speak in English sometimes and in Hebrew sometimes. We are both excited at the possibility of getting to know one another - she says that it is hard to make friends outside of the world of computer science majors, and I am eager to make friends with a 'real' Israeli and leave the Anglo-bubble that is such a big part of my social life.
Nevertheless, can two people become friends just because they want to? Or does there have to be some kind of real shared interests between them? It seems to me that Dafna and I are very different, and that it might be hard to find topics to discuss for an hour every week. We'll see...

Monday, January 19, 2009

more on preschool

I was in the middle of writing an essay for another purpose when I composed this piece, very much a work in progress. Thought you might be interested.

The first time I entered the gan, I was greeted by a troop of three year olds chirping, "What's your name? in a language I barely knew. “Jessica,” I answered, and they repeated the unfamiliar “Dshess-ee-ca” hesitantly before encircling their tiny hands around my fingers and leading me to the toy trucks.

Just as my name is new to them, so too do I have trouble with their names, and just as sometimes I have trouble understanding the words they garble between lips new to speech, so too do they give me puzzled looks when I correct myself nervously while I speak. Still, somehow, we have a good time.

I had taught in a preschool before, and there I had used words freely and playfully to engage my students. “What is that?” I would ask them, and if they asked me the same question, I’d give a preposterous answer that would make the children shriek with gleeful laughter. At Gan Pshushim, where I volunteer for six hours every week, I am often silent.

Different types of students are drawn to me now than before, in America. When I was at an English-speaking preschool, the most outgoing students were eager to tell me a story or make-believe with me. Now, it is the quietest and smallest students who look at me through wide and trusting eyes. Like me, they don’t want to speak, they are afraid of making mistakes. I stumble over simple words as I ask them if they would like to play with me, to dance with me, to bake imaginary cakes with me in the sandbox. They nod, silently, and follow me wherever I go.

Ours is a wordless language, and as a writer, a literature enthusiast, and an avid Scrabble player, it was a language I had never used so fully until now. We put puzzles together without knowing the names of the objects we’re creating. We dance to songs with unfamiliar words. We ask for food by pointing, we read books by looking at the pictures.

The other teachers don’t speak our language. Whether they are asking in soft, soothing voices or chastising with harsh consonants and sharp tones, whenever they ask these children to speak, I can feel and understand their fear. They shake their heads, cross their arms, and shrink into themselves.

But when I don’t ask them to speak – how we have fun! Once I sat for a full half hour in the sand box, piling sand and sifting it between my fingers, two children on my lap and three by my side, in complete silence.

Sometimes we talk. I say something in Hebrew, probably incorrectly, and they process it slowly, and sometimes they answer me softly. If I had been busy with the more extroverted children, I may not even have heard their response.

And what have I learned? Is it a lesson about patience? About the ability to connect to people regardless of the divide? About perhaps the needlessness of language?

It’s even more simple than that, I think. It’s about seeing the students who are to shy to want to be seen, and about knowing that they have something to say, if only you ask the right questions, in the right way. Reaching out a hand might be just the question that they need, and even if I had all the words in the world, maybe it would still be the best question to ask.


Incidentally, I do actually spend most of my time here not in preschool, though that might not come out in these blog posts. Today, for instance, I woke up early, went to class where I learned about the Holocaust - about more specifically the decision making process that led to the Final Solution and whether it is more a result of Hitler himself or the entire administrative and institutional apparatus. After that, I went to Hebrew class, where we read a bit of reportage by Amoz Oz. I stayed after to talk to my Hebrew teacher about the paper I had just turned in - the first paper I've ever written in Hebrew - which she offered to correct, grade, and then hand back before the deadline so that I can revise it and turn it in a second time if I would like. Over lunch I studied Yiddish, and in the afternoon I read a story by Abraham Reizen with my Yiddish class. The story, called "Feminine Fears" is about a woman who is losing her eyesight and is afraid her husband will divorce her as a result. I then went to my class on Mendele Mocher Seforim, where we compared "Fishke the Lame" and "The Travels of Benjamin the Third" - though as it turns out I'd read the wrong version of Fishke the Lame, so it was hard for me to follow the conversation. I came home very tired, cooked myself dinner and watched a little Israeli TV (OK, so it was American TV with Hebrew subtitles...) and then started writing this essay. All of this is by way of a clarification that I do, in fact, have a substantial life outside of the gan. (gan = preschool)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Lovely Shabbat in the Midst of Hard Times

Earlier in the week I was feeling pretty lonely without Daniel here, but things are picking up, and people have been incredibly generous and nice in spending time with me. Last night after services at the synagogue around the corner from our apartment, I went to the home of an HUC couple for dinner and we chatted well into the night. This morning I went to services and the cantor invited me to his home for lunch, since he saw that I was alone. I had a lovely afternoon with the cantor and his wife, his parents, a lovely woman from the synagogue, and the cantor's bright and energetic toddler. The cantor made aliyah several years ago, and his family is all from the New York/ New Jersey area, so it was so warm and wonderful to hear the familiar accents. The cantor's wife is from Northern Virginia, and so I was able to chat about both of my homelands at one table! It was very nice.
The cantor asked me to sing in the synagogue choir for the commemoration of the birthday of the synagogue, so I'm going to be practicing for that. It's so nice that people are so eager to make me feel as though I belong. I really love this synagogue and in many ways it reminds me of CBI in Charlottesville - a small close knit community with a lot of things happening, people committed to their Judaism and to one another... If you're ever in Jerusalem, you should check out Har El.


Over the course of this Shabbat I've finally been able to understand a little bit about what it means that this country is at war. A few days ago an air raid siren went off in Jerusalem by accident while I was in class at Hebrew University, and the teacher told us that she was sure there was nothing to worry about. Class went on as usual and I didn't think much of it - I assumed that it had really been a police siren and I had been mistaking it for something more serious. However, last night at services during her sermon the rabbi spoke about hearing the siren, and trying to get all of the preschoolers out of the building and into the nearby bomb shelter (I later overheard a conversation where the cantor said that they should build a bomb shelter in the basement of the shul because if there was an emergency there's no way that they could get all of the kids to safety on time as things are). She talked about how scared the kids were, and how hard it was to see them so scared, and spoke of how this was only a taste of what children are experiencing in the south - on both sides of the conflict. The ferverency of the prayers for peace this week were almost palpable and when we prayed for the safety of the soldiers in the army, at least five pairs of parents and grandparents mentioned their loved ones who are in Gaza by name before we recited the prayer. Until now I had not really sensed how the conflict was affecting people here, as it is not disrupting the daily flow of life. But what must it be for so many people to go on with their lives knowing that their children or grandchildren are fighting not far away? On the other hand, last night at dinner I was speaking to some friends about the conflict and we remarked on how few Israeli casualties have resulted from this conflict as compared to Paelstinian casualties... Some say that Israel was right to start the conflict, but that now it has gone too far. Some say it should never have happened in the first place. Some say that it has been very successful so far and that when civilians are being used as human shields, perhaps it is moral to kill them in order to execute the aims of the war. I don't know what to think... I just keep reading the news and hoping that a lasting peace will come, and soon.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Conversations at the Preschool, and a Very Painful Root Canal

There's a teacher at the preschool named Mazal who treats me as though I was a Hebrew speaker. While other teachers sometimes choose not to talk to me because they know I won't understand everything, or they practice their English with me, Mazal, who is very chatty, pretends not to notice that I don't always understand what she is saying. We've talked about her family and mine, about education, about child psychology... all in my very stammering and hesitant Hebrew and amidst the noise and interruption of the preschool classroom, in between commenting on how terrific childnrens' drawings are.
Sometimes, Mazal says things that surprise me, and I'm not sure if I just didn't understand her. She is very opinionated and often expresses ideas with which I am uncomfortable, but I am powerless to contradict her because I simply don't have the language to do so. Also, I wouldn't want to get into a conflict with her because I like her so much and I appreciate that she talks to me and is so patient with me.
She loves the kids, and when they produce things that she thinks are good, she acts as thought they are miracle-children, well beyond the scope of their years. She'll often show me a picture that a student drew and say, in front of him, "can you believe that he did this? and he's only three!" She's also much stricter than I am used to. She yells a lot at kids who are not doing what they are supposed to, like cleaning up areas that are messy, and is very hard on them. If someone talks during circle time, she pulls them out of the circle completely. She has high expectations. Craft projects have to be done the way she wants them - if someone leaves a blank space on something that is supposed to be filled with color, she does not see it as an artistic choice, but as laziness or a mistake, and she corrects it in a way that seems to me to be rather stern.
What's most striking about the conversations that I have with Mazal is the earnestness of her opinions and her desire to share them with me, and also her lack of knowledge of the US. Many of the people I speak to, even if they are Israelis, have been to the US, speak some English, etc. Mazal has done neither. She has one son who is Haredi and has studied in Brooklyn, and that is her experience of the US. She doesn't understand really how big it is and how many differences there are regionally. She'll say things like, "Do you know this singer of Jewish children's music? He's from the US" and not realize how silly that statement is.
Today we talked about three topics that each seemed rather striking to me. First, we talked about men, and love. She was joking about how after the wedding men are no longer interested in the women they are with, whereas before the wedding they are very attracted to their partners and life is good. She was talking to another teacher about it but I was nearby and she put her arm around me and said, "That's right, isn't it Jessica, it's good to be living with a boyfriend!" It was all in jest but it brought out to me the way that gender is in some ways much more strongly delineated here than in the US, even though here women are also in the front lines of the army. There's a strong masculine identity here in Israel that is complex and I don't really understand it. I only know that in Hebrew class I often find myself in arguments with the teacher when she talks about gender, I've even found myself close to yelling at her about it, and I get very frustrated because there are some women in my other class who claim to "hate feminism" even though feminism is what brought them to university in the first place....
The second topic of interest was when Mazal asked me what people in the US think of the situation here in Israel. I'm being asked all the time by friends at home what people in Israel think of the situation, but this is the first time I've been asked the question from the other side. I didn't know how to answer, and it was hard because of both the language barrier and the situation - in the middle of a group of kids, while helping them put together puzzles. I said something about how the US is a big country with many different people with many opinions. Mazal said that she was worried about Obama becoming president. She asked if there was any way for him to be taken out of office if he proved to be bad for the country or anti-Israel, and was disappointed when I told her that there's no vote of no confidence in the US governmental system. She told me that she was concerned about Obama because he is Arab, and Muslim. I told her that he was Christian, but that it didn't really matter what his religion is, just his beliefs. She said that even if he says he's a Christian, he isn't a real Christian because he is of Arabic background. I told her that perhaps in the US it is different from here insofar as peoples' political beliefs are not necessarily connected to religion. This was an inaccurate statement both in the case of the US, where religion is often very tied to politics, and in the case of Israel, where religion does not have to be the biggest factor in deciding politics, but again, it was a hard conversation to have for a number of reasons. In any case, the conversation ended soon because one kid hit another, who started to cry, and that was the end of that.
Later, Mazal talked to me about violence in the schools. She said that it was very hard to teach kids not to hurt other people, and then know that when they grow up they will have to hurt people when they are in the army. She also talked about how big a problem violence in the Israeli school system is, and during circle time she asked the kids to talk a bit about times when other kids hit them, and how it made them feel, and admonished them never to use their fists instead of their words.
I don't have time to analyze these three conversations as I have to run to class, but I just thought they might be interesting glimpses into the mind of one Israeli preschool teacher.

On a more fun note, let me tell you a little anecdote about preschool. I was building with blocks when a kid came up to me with a little plastic crocodile with an open mouth and a giant plastic saw with a yellow handle. "I'm cutting his mouth," he said. "Why?" I asked, "did he ask you to?" "Yes," he replied. "I'm cutting his mouth because there is a problem with his teeth." Let's reiterate the picture: tiny crocodile, giant plastic saw. Dentistry.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

An Update from Jessica

It's been a long time since I've written (sorry) and the reason for this is that despite everything that you're watching on TV and reading in the newspapers, things in Jerusalem have actually been very quiet and normal. Students still gather in a throng to push each other impatiently as they climb onto the buses, nonplussed about the violence nearby and the implications that this kind of violence has had on the past for the safety of bus-riders. Still there are people on the streets, going about their business, honking their car horns, eating outside next to these strange outdoor-heater contraptions on the chilly Jerusalem nights, joking, laughing, and many of them wearing funny hats. (My friend Anka just purchased a VERY funny hat - it looks like an old fashioned sleeping cap, only it is made out of fleece and she wears it outside and not to bed. Terrific.)

Today at the preschool a student had just come back from being sick for a few days, and the teachers asked the rest of the children to thank G-d together for their friend's recovery. I thought this was sweet and sort of exciting, that the kids could pray such ancient words and understand them (I assumed) as they were in their mother tongue. Later, some kids were playing in the sand and "baking" bread for me to taste, and one did the motzei before trying to shove the sand between my lips. I noticed that he stumbled over and mispronounced the words, "hakotshi lechem m' ha'aretz" just like any old American kid might have done. So maybe these very old prayers which don't sound that much like contemporary speech are just as foreign and strange to the two year olds as the "Pledge of Allegience" was to me when I was a kid "And to the mapudik for which it hands, one nation, under G-d, inderisable..."

In any case, it does seem that "G-d talk" is more a part of secular Israeli culture than it is of secular American culture. "Thank G-d" is not an uncommon answer to "How are you?" even for a secular Israeli. I think G-d is a more accessible concept for Jerusalemites than for, say, New Yorkers, and phrasing things in terms of G-d comes more easily here. I'm not sure if I believe in G-d, but I kind of like the idea of being able to say G-d without sounding very religious. It seems like it would be easier to become comfortable with the concept if I didn't feel so, well, Christian when saying it.

In other news, I've been reading about social constructionism in my Multiculturalism class, and I think it is terrific. I don't want to bore you with it or go on about it, but I just want to say that I get such an emotional high when I read a theory that I completely buy, and that addresses and explains thoughts that I've had before. It is very exciting for me, and I think I'll be considering and reconsidering what I read for a very long time. Also, it's been a very productive few days for me, if a very lonely few days, as I've been pushing myself to get work done while Daniel is away. I've been working on a Hebrew project, a Holocaust paper, and more. I've also started working toward my personal goal of reading my very first whole book in Hebrew. I think that will take a while, but I'm already 20 pages into it, so we'll see. Wish me luck!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

We need peace.

.אנחנו צריכים שלום

Yesterday, I learned about an Israeli phrase from the 1980s and 1990s: "Shooting and crying." It refers to the Israeli who defends himself and his country with deadly force but regrets having to do so. There are voices in Israel that focus on shooting: Kill our enemies at all costs. There are those that focus on crying: The pain caused by violence is unacceptable. And there are those who do both: I hate to kill you, but I have to do it.

The sermon I heard yesterday mounted a defense for shooting and crying. The offensive in Gaza, the speaker said, is necessary for the security of Israeli citizens, but the moral considerations cannot be forgotten even in such a critical situation. It may seem hypocritical to some, but it's the best we have.

Shooting and crying.

We're in a bad spot here in Israel. Hundreds of people are dying and everyone is weighing in with her opinion. What's the right thing to do in this situation? What's the right thing to say?

The advocacy group J Street (a liberal answer to AIPAC), released a statement condemning both Hamas and Israel and calling for an immediate cease-fire:

Israel has a special place in each of our hearts. But we recognize that neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on right or wrong. While there is nothing "right" in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing "right" in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them.

And there is nothing to be gained from debating which injustice is greater or came first. What's needed now is immediate action to stop the violence before it spirals out of control.

I have to say that I agree. And it's hard to do so. The President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffe, publicly opposes the sentiments expressed in this statement:

These words are deeply distressing because they are morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve. A cease-fire instituted by Hamas would be welcome, and Israel would be quick to respond. A cease-fire imposed on Israel would allow Hamas to escape the consequences of its actions yet again and would lead in short order to the renewal of its campaign of terror. Hamas, it should be noted, is not a government; it is a terrorist gang. And as long as the thugs of Hamas can act with impunity, no Israeli government of the right or the left will agree to a two-state solution or any other kind of peace. Doves take note: To be a dove of influence, you must be a realist, firm in your principles but shorn of all illusions.

These words were welcomed by the commenters on the blog and likely reflect the prevailing attitude among American Reform Jews. We hate violence, but Israel has to defend itself. Moreover, Israel is the victim here: If Hamas didn't attack Israel, Israel wouldn't attack back, and therefore, every civilian death is on Hamas' hands. Rabbi Bob Orkand, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, defends this view by quoting Michael Walzer: "When Palestinian militants launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves responsible--and no one else is--for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli counter fire."

But I don't buy it, and I certainly can't sell it. This view seems sound on paper: Israel's the victim, and Hamas is to blame for the people being killed. But is it entirely unimaginable for us to entertain the opposite view? If Israel hadn't acceded to the illegal settlement of Palestinian land and enforced hardships upon the Palestinian populace, maybe Hamas wouldn't be so powerful today. Both views are right, both views are wrong. And I return to J Street's point: "There is nothing to be gained from debating which injustice is greater or came first. What's needed now is immediate action to stop the violence before it spirals out of control."

I'm not surprised at what Israel has done, and I'm not surprised at the various reactions to Israel's decisions. However, I am disappointed that the rabbinic leadership of the Reform Movement isn't acting as the still, small voice reminding the public that it's wrong to kill. It's wrong to be killed, it's wrong to impose hardship, it's wrong to abandon your public. But it's also wrong to kill and that's a Jewish and universal value. And someone has to say it.

I would have been much more proud of Rabbi Yoffe if, instead of saying that influential doves have to condone killing sometimes, he had said that it's wrong to kill. Of the shooters and cryers, I'm a cryer, and I'll cry quietly to myself about the deaths of hundreds of people and I'll cry loudly from the rooftops that it's wrong to kill. Do with that information what you will, but do not ignore it.

I think that it is rabbinical responsibility to be the voice of moral conscience in this conflict, and regardless of what's politically sound or best for the people of Israel or more justifiable based on historical circumstances, someone has to be the voice that reminds the people that it's wrong to kill. Because we've seen what happens when people forget this most essential value.

I hear over and over again that "we pray for the end of the military action in Gaza." That's not my prayer. My prayer is simple.

We need peace.

We, Israelis. We, Palestinians. We, the people of the entire world. We can't separate ourselves from our neighbors, close or distant, and we can't forget that every single human being is created in the image of God. To save a life is to save the entire world.

Need. We don't want or wish for or expect or fight for or plan for or even hope for. We need. It is a basic and inalienable requirement for our lives. Our humanity depends upon it:

Peace. Non-violence. Co-operation. Reciprocal community. Respect, justice, brotherhood, acceptance, virtue, enrichment, depth, education, broadness, embraces, laughter. It's political, familial, moral, historical, and messianic.

We need peace.

That's my prayer.

It's not complex, it's not nuanced. It doesn't take into account historical arguments, and it doesn't discern winners from losers. It's a statement of existential reality, and it's my heart's loudest cry. And I believe that it needs to be heard and understood and taken into account and adhered to. You can't hear this sentence and then dismiss it because it's inconvenient right now. "We don't have time for peace, we're under attack."

We need peace.

Now. Can I simply say "We need peace" and go home? Can I make a blanket moral statement without applying it to the situation on the ground? If I do, is that irresponsible? Perhaps. So let me say this:

It's wrong for Palestinians to kill. I condemn terrorism, and I support freedom and democracy, two principles which Hamas tends to withhold from the people of the Gaza strip. Hamas is bad for the Palestinians, and if wishing made it so, I would wish that every Hamas-nik woke up in the morning and decided to step down from power. The poltical reality is that Israel has enemies, and they're trying to destroy Israel. Israel is defending itself and is not maliciously killing for the sake of killing. I understand the situation to the best of my ability, and if I had to cast a vote, I'd vote for democracy over terrorism every time. It's wrong to kill.

So what does that mean with regard to Israel today in the Gaza strip? I wish I knew... Is it justifiable for Israel to invade Gaza, trying to minimize civilian casualties, in order to demolish an aggressive enemy? Could very well be. Is it just? It's much harder for me to say. Is it right? I don't know.

But what I do know is that it's wrong to kill and that we need peace. So long as our first priority is security instead of peace, we'll be fighting for a secondary goal. We have to change our perspective, to realign our priorities, if we're ever going to reach the goal of peace that almost everyone can agree on. I believe that if, starting tomorrow, Israel's first priority were peace (regardless of what Hamas' goals are), their thinking process would be different. They would ask the question, "How do we protect Israeli citizens?" but they would also ask the question "How do we work for peace with ourselves and with our neighbors?" Right now the first question is the only one getting asked, and as soon as they find an answer, they go with it. I don't see the second question getting discussed, and that's painful to me.

So, the situation is very complicated, but I feel that there's a responsibility for a group of people to speak the moral truths that our tradition imparts upon us. We need peace. I'm at a loss for what else to say. What would I do if I were a politician? I don't know. But I believe that my role as a rabbi is to speak my heart on this issue and my heart reminds me that we need peace, and that's my message.

That's my prayer.

More News Coverage

As you probably well know, Israel began a ground offensive in Gaza yesterday. Again, life here in Jerusalem continues as usual, and in fact we didn't know about it at all until we got back from dinner and opened up our e-mails. (Incidentally we had a terrific dinner with a former professor of ours from UVA). We've been concernedly reading news and op-eds, and I thought, as before, I'd share what I've been reading with you: -- This is pretty good play-by-play coverage --- The Israel Defense Forces blog -- a good news 'round up',7340,L-3649818,00.html -- EU President says Israel is acting defensively - Haaretz reports on sending ground troops into Gaza -- about the role of Jews outside of Israel -- Khaled Hroub, author of several books on Hamas, including Hamas: A Beginner's Guide, talks to Al Jazeera about the organisation's social and political strengths and explains why he believes Hamas is looking forward to an Israeli ground incursion into the Gaza Strip. -- on the goals of the offensive -- Haaretz analysis of goals of the operation - Arab Israeli journalist in support of Israel's actions -- journal of a Palestinian in Gaza -- interactive timeline -- Europe at odds over Israeli land offensive in Gaza -- "As my son goes to war, I am fully Israeli at last" ---- this is a very good article that I highly recommend. -- UN Security Council Fails to Agree on Gaza Ceasefire Call -- an article very critical of Israel's propaganda effort

This list could go on forever, but I hope that these articles help you to understand the situation in Gaza a bit better. We will, of course, keep you updated, but please know that here in Jerusalem we are safe.