Friday, January 30, 2009

Peace Now vindication in IDF Report

"Kill the messenger" has always aptly been applied to Peace Now for delivering the difficult news about Israel not being a state that respects its own laws, but a news article in HaAretz reveals that, all along, Peace Now has been doing a fantastic job watching over and reporting the abuses of the Israeli government of its own system of laws with regard to settlement activity in the West Bank.
I, for one, am very proud to be affiliated with Peace Now, a decision I made as a high school student during the first Lebanon War.

Please read this excellent reporting job by HaAretz and contribute to the discussion. Then go to the Peace Now web site and make your contribution to support this important work.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Waltz with Bashir: One viewer's thoughts

As an Israeli and a Jew, I was very proud that Israel could make itself so vulnerable and be introspective in broad daylight about such a serious and disturbing topic. This is a testimony to Israeli democracy at its best.
The movie itself probably resonates differently with every viewer. On the literal level, this is a compelling voyage of one individual grappling with his past through a documentative narrative that weaves between the two forms of story telling with great ease. The animation is rich and in-vocative. The merger of comic-bookesque two dimensional animation and 3-d environments was a visual feast for the eyes. The music set the tone of the narrative and would probably stand very well on its own, and the combination of all these factors led to a product that was greater than the sum of the parts.
Every person seeing this film will have a different experience. That sounds like a simple statement, but it isn't. I saw the movie for the first time in Tel-Aviv and discussed it afterwards with a friend who was in the Israeli Defense Force with me during the first Lebanon War. Neither of us was in the IDF during the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, but we both experienced the ugliness of this war. My friend became an officer and commanded troops on the front lines, while I delivered food and blankets to people living behind the front lines. As my experiences were less dangerous and had an element of humanity to them, I never had to eliminate my memories of the war. My friend, on the other hand, forgot everything, and really doesn't care to remember.
My experience of the movie in Evanston, Illinois, just after the cease fire in Gaza, was much different. The movie ended. The audience remained in their seats. A woman yelled, "That's Gaza. They Israelis are now doing what the Christians did to the Palestinians." Many yelled for her to "shut up." Another person said that this was our American tax dollars at work, and another suggested that we stop paying our taxes.
While these were just shouts, their violence was magnified by the juxtaposition to the movie. Waltz with Bashir is not just about a war. It is about war. It is a statement about the demagoguery of political leadership. It is about the chaos and banality of battle. It is about the lowest forms of human interaction and it is about the human mind and its potential to allow for such agency to exist in the world.
To suggest that Israel perpetrated a Sabra and Shatilla like massacre against Palestinians is hyperbole. The intentions of the war were not genocidal. Israelis seek security. This drives them to do things they never had to do as a people without a country. I believe that they might not have to do them if they end the military occupation of the West Bank, but I am a optimist.
Regardless of all the drama surrounding the movie screen, Ari Folman's work is to be commended to the fullest degree. Israeli cinema has come of age, and Waltz with Bashir is a world class production.

Friday, January 23, 2009

On Qaddafi's One State idea

A Mennonite friend asked me to share my thoughts about Qaddafi's New York Times Op-Ed about a one state solution for Palestinians and Israelis. I thought I would share my response here.

There is a Biblical source for looking for the Dignity of Difference, as England's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues in his book of the same name. He uses many sources to discuss it. One is in the Tower of Babel story. God created diversity. When we were all working together to reach the heavens, God reminded us that we are not gods by giving us different languages and ultimately cultures.

I think there is a lot wrong with nationalism and nation-states. Creating two national entities to solve a human problem, on the surface, seems like a step backwards. It could become a barrier to peace between people. But sometimes good fences make good neighbors. The wall between Palestinians and Israelis is not a good fence. It is an unjust barrier between two people because it is not on the green line, it separates Palestinians form their livelihood, it restricts their freedom of travel and it keeps them from reaching their holy places. Still, the idea of letting two nations that have been at war with each other for at least 60 years find time to cool down and adjust to their co-existence is a good idea.

I believe that we only have control over our own actions. Mixing two groups in order to create the climate that has each side take responsibility for itself is not a good method. This is why I am not a fan of Seeds of Peace. Even in the program I have been pushing for with Israeli and Palestinian teachers, I have not focused on their collaboration as much as the literacy of their discourse.

Qaddaffi's argument that a Palestinian state beside Israel will pose a threat to Israel may have some validity, but it is not a proof for the need to mix cultures. The idea that there exists a right of return for each people is unrealistic. Even if such a right exists, it is impossible to fulfill. When there are two states, Jews who lived in Hebron, for instance, before the state was created will need to compromise, likewise Palestinians who were in Jaffa before the state and fled will need to compromise. As for the people currently existing in the other's territory, we will need to be creative. I favor moving Israeli settlers to make them live in pre-1967 Israel. I am not a fan of doing this to Palestinians in Haifa, Akko and other Arab Israeli cities. This is a question of justice and it is certainly open to discussion. The bottom line is that we will need to be more creative.

If, in the future, two secular democratic countries want to build a federation, I'm all for that. But it will take some time to cool down first. Jews need to figure out a lot about themselves before they can become partners with another nation. We are still trying to define who is a Jew? What rituals and beliefs comprise Judaism? And most importantly, how do we behave under this very unfamiliar beast called sovereignty. Merging our two nations under the current set of challenges within each camp is a recipe for disaster.

I hope that answers your question, and I'd be delighted to hear your response.


David Steiner

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Israel Education and the Jewish Problem

During times of great moral and ethical challenges, it’s quite normal to reflect on one’s judgments and actions and sometimes reconsider them to fit new realities. As an educator, I’m doing this right now in the face of the war in Gaza. And my focus is turning to questions of education about Israel.
Israel has always been a component of Jewish education, but the goals need to be clear and the methods need to serve those goals. What should Israel education look like during times of conflict?
I was raised with Zionist education as a child in Habonim, the Labor Zionist youth movement. We learned about Israel through the lens of idealism. The heroes we were taught about were men and women who, like Abraham our forefather, left their homelands and travelled to a land they didn’t know to start a life that they could only imagine. When the pioneers of Israel arrived, they had returned to the land of Zion, the place where Solomon built our First Temple, the place where we Jews lived as a sovereign nation. They had also left a brutal Europe where anti-Semitism was rapidly morphing into Nazism.At that time, Zionism served two purposes: the reconstitution of a Jewish nation in its original homeland and the establishment of a national refuge for our people. Just as these purposes of the state are very different from each other, so are Israel education and Zionist education.
I am very familiar with Zionist education and still cling to the somewhat anachronistic goals that brought us the revitalization of the Hebrew language, the kibbutz, the Israeli, universal health care system and much more. I am proud of the accomplishments of the pioneers and of many projects of the Jewish state but teaching Israel is not the same as teaching Zionism.
I find it very comfortable to teach Zionism because it is an ideal. In this curriculum, there is the proud tradition of Judaism as a spiritual and religious body of knowledge, tradition and ritual. According to Jean Jacques Rousseau, “It is an astonishing and unique spectacle to see an expatriated people…scorned by all nations…preserving its characteristics.” Zionism adds to that story the aspirations of a dispersed people to reunite, grow together and be a “light onto the nations.”
But as a story of and curriculum about a nation-state, Israel education is much different. Israel is tangible. It has absorbed Jewish immigrants from all corners of the world. It has made great contributions to medicine, digital technology, agriculture and much more, and it has provided the Jewish people with a Hebrew culture par excellence.
And there is the Israel that has engaged in numerous wars during her mere sixty years of existence—not all defensive. I even served during what many call Israel’s Vietnam—the first Lebanon War. Add to this the 41-year-old military occupation of the West Bank with its significant Palestinian population.
Teaching the gray history of any nation is challenging, but the difficulties are lessened by the fact that when we learn the history of the country we live in, we are more willing to find ways to accept the stains that compromise the aspirations of the inhabitants. As an American, I can be upset with slavery and the treatment of the indigenous people, or I can be optimistic and recognize the growth of our democracy to include African-Americans and women. It’s almost incumbent on me to be optimistic because I live here and this makes me a participant regardless of whether or not I agree with the direction of the country.
To educate about Israel from abroad is so different. We are not active participants in the building of that state. We may put coins in our JNF boxes or write to our legislators about our concerns for the state, but we don’t vote there. We don’t pay taxes and we certainly don’t serve in the military. So when the state doesn’t behave as we please, we can act like the good consumers we are and shop elsewhere. This is the challenge for Israel education from abroad.
Ironically, the solutions that have been devised to address this problem have been harmful to Israel. Some develop affinities with Israel from a distance through the celebration of the state’s successes and through visits to its many wonders, but I suggest that this approach is bound to fail. Teaching with the goal of having Diaspora Jews love Israel through acquaintanceship without sharing her shortcomings is dishonest. And I am not suggesting that teaching her failures would be any better. Going to the deprived Arab villages in Israel or discussing the occupation will not create Israel loyalists either.
What I suggest is a new kind of Zionist education that roots our relationship to Israel in history, culture, ritual and prayer. What we need is a strong and enduring connection with Judaism and the uniqueness of our people. If we love our mission as Jews, we can decide to fulfill it in the largest national drama the Jewish people have staged in 2000 years or we can support it from afar, but our support will be Jewish in nature and not nationalist.
The State of Israel fulfills two functions for our people—asylum and collaboration. Let’s focus on strengthening Jewish education instead of Israel education which is nationalist in nature. The conflation of nationalism and Judaism is not going to disappear, but our goal should be to make Jewish interests always come first. This will give us a country that we all can be proud of without jeopardizing the religion that is the purpose of our being.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The price of choosing peace

From my jailed, orthodox, Israeli, feminist, peace educator friend.

Until Sunday night and please don't worry I am fine and even strengthened politically. I participated twice in protest watches in Beer Sheva (standing with signs with no microphone is legal and does not require police permit by law but the police of course does not know this). I carried a sign in Arabic "In Ghaza and Sderot children deserve to live" and near me someone carried a sign in Hebrew that said, "stop, hold fire, talk". The group Darom4peace is that wishy-washy, yes, very middle of the road we thought, no extreme left, no accusation of Israeli govt or army, not even "peace now"type of thing. Yet the police these dark days is apparently instructed to play an active role in boosting public morale and national unity, so they jumped into our midst lieterally and grabbed six of us on Wednesday into their cars etc. Four univ students, myself, and Nir Oren, the director of an NGO called The Parents Circle (look it up on the net), or in Hebfrew, Forum Mishpahot Shakulot, Israeli and Palestinian families who lost a family member in the conflict and work together towards peace. His own mother was killed in a suicide bombing of a bus in 1995. It turned out that one of the arrested students also lost his father in a terrorist attack several years ago and showed a great interest in joining the circle. So now I am in house arrest for a few days, am not allowed into Beer Sheva for two weeks (my students will probably come to Yeruham instead), and we face trial on January 28. This is totally silly as Israel already has a landmark Supreme Court ruling from 1953 on freedom of speech (Bagatz Kol haÁm) but it does drive the message home that only traiters resist killing for their own group. No one is surprised that the police wrongly thought we were breaking the law, disobeying the police, rioting (???!!!) and disturbing public peace (Orwellian enough, if you wish to disturb the war you actually disturb peace because war is peace, ie consensual, and we are controversial). What is surprising and I think worrisome is the silence of the press on all this in a country where there is freedom of the press, ie it is self imposed censureship. many journalists called, were there at the watch, took pictures and interviewed, telephoned later, promised to come to the court, and nada, not a word, no coverage published. So Israel crossed the line from self-defense to war crimes in my opinion the minute it refused to cease fire when Hamas requested it. We shall not give in. Arrests only radicalizes politically, but I am holding my ground and I still refute the reasoning of the extreme left ("Israel is fascist", ä nation state cannot be democratic").
Leah Shakdiel Yeruham, Israel, and shabbat shalom, no computor until tomorrow night

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What would Moses Do?

As a young man still not ready to meet with God, Moses goes out of Pharaoh’s palace and sees the hardship of the Hebrew slaves. He spots an Egyptian beating a slave and kills him. This is the immature Moses’ execution of justice on his own. He is disturbed by the violence that he encounters, but acts hastily and commits murder.
The next day he sees two Hebrew slaves fighting. He has matured now, and even though the Torah has not yet been revealed, and Moses is unaware of the command to rebuke his friend, he admonishes them at the risk of their revealing his deed of the prior day. Then Moses flees to Midian, a self imposed exile from the land of his childhood. Here Moses rescues Jethro's daughters from attack by outsiders.
The pattern of Moses maturation is very instructive for us. This series of three ethical decisions lead up to God’s decision to make Moses the leader of His chosen people. God hear the cries of the Hebrew slaves and finds a leader to help them leave Egypt in this son of the tribe of Levy. What can we learn about leadership from Moses behavior up to this point?
Clearly, Moses has a strong sense of justice and the courage to act. Many of us have strong feelings about the war in Gaza, and few of us have taken a stand. A mere 1000 Jews stood in public to stand by the Jewish state in a public display of support, and fewer were present at the counter demonstration that reports to have had 3000 protesters. Pundits have written columns, but how many of us have written to our legislators and political leaders asking them to act on our behalf in one way or the other.
Moses also had his priorities straight. By seeking justice for the Hebrew slave, Moses was forced to give up all the comforts of Pharaoh’s palace. Moses was a prince. He was raised by the daughter of the most powerful person in the land, yet he chose to leave everything behind in the pursuit of Justice. Fortunately, we are not confronted with these choices. We can have all the comforts of our lives and still write checks to Jewish and Zionist organizations like the Jewish National Fund or Americans for Peace Now. To take an afternoon off and go demonstrate our will about the war in Gaza would hardly set us back. The question I would like answered is why, if we don’t have to give up as much as Moses, do we not pursue justice with even a fraction of his vigilance?
I am particularly impressed by the fact that God sees the willingness, ability, and calling to rebuke a fellow as an attribute of leadership. God wants us to stand up for justice before loyalty to any group or people. To rebuke a fellow in the name of justice could be very difficult and lead to ostracism from one’s own community. Clearly, the message that God is sending us by making this a criterion of Moses leadership is that justice is above all loyalties because the pursuit of justice is divine.
The order of Moses’ maturation events is also very instructive. It could be argued that it is easier to seek justice for your own people, as Moses did in the first instance. To seek justice between two members of your own people is a bit more challenging for the reasons just stated, but to seek justice between strangers must be elevated to a higher level. When Moses helps Zipporah and her sisters, he is stepping into a conflict between strangers. The consequence of this battle has reduced personal implications for him.
The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit distinguishes between ethics and morals based on a spectrum of personal implications. He says that ethics are about thick relations; relationships with people or groups who influence your live. This could be enemies or friends but doesn’t include strangers. Morals guide our behavior towards strangers, thin relations, because the distance between our lives and theirs is so great that there are virtually no implications to their behavior or suffering. Morals, according to Margalit, are about how we should care for strangers because, if there was no moral in place, we would probably not act. Moses intervention on behalf of Yethro’s daughters is a moral decision. He acts because sometimes the parties to injustice need outside intervention, even if the intervention doesn’t help the people who intervene.
I like the distinction between ethics and morals and the description of thick and thin relations, but I am uncomfortable with Margalit’s final conclusion; that all action is motivated by personal gain. I think the author of the Torah wanted us to ask these questions as he carefully positioned this episode just before the meeting between God and Moses on Sinai.
Writing about justice, ethics and morality at a time of war between my people, Jews & Israelis, and Hamas, makes me ask some tough questions about my own sense and execution of justice.
Do I do enough to stay informed before coming to ethical and moral decisions? Am I discerning in how I read the press? Do I let national loyalties disturb the criticality of my inquiry?
Once I make my decisions about justice, do I accept the status quo of my decision or do I continue to seek new facts and information to constantly challenge my opinions and decisions? What do I do with the opinions I have? Do I seek justice in the Jewish way by giving tzedakah? Do I write letters to legislators and politicians? Do I call my representatives in Congress and push for my agenda?
And of course, there is the space of my communal action. How should I be in my community? Can I teach about the situation? Can I open minds and hearts to the plight of the injured and bereaved? Can I train a new generation to be more careful before it chooses the military option?
I am not interested in blame right now. I am interested in the sanctity of human life. I’m interested in the behavior of my people, and I am interested in the justice of my creator. This is the lens through which my behavior in the world is motivated, and it is the motivation for my decision to do, in the words of President Elect, Barack Obama, “all that is in my power,” to seek justice and pursue it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Teaching Peace in Times of War

I must comment on the sacred cow known as national unity. I am not aware , in Jewish history or in any other history, of a worthwhile achievement of ethical, social, intellectual or religious character, which was attained thanks to national unity. Whatever is of worth was achieved through difficult struggles, sometimes even bloody civil wars. It is clear that values are not a basis for unity. It is possible to unite on the basis of interests, and, even then, only the most commonplace interests lay the grounds of unity. Struggle among people is a normal and healthy phenomenon. The very thing fools fear is what we desparately need, what in European political jargon is called Kulturkampf. This struggle is essential for intellectual and moral health. Value differences necessarily entail a struggle. (Yeshayahu Leibowitz, 1968)

This Friday I skipped the “Pro-Israel” demonstration in downtown Chicago and avoided the Arab anti-war demonstration that followed it. This is not “I don’t want to be a member of a club that would have someone like me for a member.” I don’t shy away from demonstrations and I certainly have a lot to say about this ongoing war in Gaza. I just think I have a better uses of my time teaching and writing than I do cheering or demonizing the other.
I had a clear measure of my success in this realm when one of my students came to tell me this morning that when a classmate of his bragged about how Israel was kicking Hamas’ butt in the war, he responded by saying that he can’t celebrate when hundreds of people are being killed.
What I liked best is that he didn’t say innocent civilians. He just said “people,” as if it doesn’t really matter what label they wear or what side of the border they live on. In my adult, academic lexicon, we might refer to that as not dehumanizing people. But this is one of the many skills that us adults have lost. We are so caught up in being right that we have built our right on others being wrong.
Being principle of a Religious School has some great benefits. The biggest is that I get to listen to my students and learn from them those things that we tend to lose as we age. Today was a particularly fruitful day for me. I learned a lot.
My friend, David Netzer, taught me a lesson which he does with Palestinian and Jewish kids in Northern Israel and I tried it out on my students. I gave them two pieces of paper; one from my recycling bin and the other a plan white sheet. I had the students make war with the recycled page and then draw peace on the white page. Without discussion, I then had them make peace with the tatters of the war page and war with their drawings of peace. Before the discussion started, I had them make peace with their drawings. Having two pages was my addition to David’s lesson. I wanted the students to compare war on a page they didn’t have an investment in with war on the page they drew of something very dear to them – their conception of peace. I also wanted to point out, by having them draw peace, that we all have very distinct conceptions of peace. Some students wrote the Hebrew word “Shalom” and many others wrote “Peace.” This was great because it gave me space to teach them the different linguistic conceptions of peace. Peace, from the Latin root Pax, refers to a cessation of violence, whereas Shalom comes from the Hebrew root Shalem which means whole or complete. I wanted to make the students proud of the fact that their language held peace as an ideal. I also wanted them to see that no two people have the same vision of peace.
When we spoke about the difference between making war with the recycled paper versus making war with the picture of peace, everyone said that making peace with the recycled paper was easier, but one of my truly great teachers said that she thought that making war with the peace image was a bit easier because she had already experienced making war with the recycled page.
I asked the students what could we deduce from our own and collective experience, and they were quick to respond that the more they were invested in the image, the more difficult it was to go to war. This sounded like the Thomas Friedman hypothesis that no two countries with McDonald’s will go to war with each other, but this turns out not to be true.
When the conversation went to solutions and alternatives to war, the students suggested getting familiar with the other party, but one of my more behaviorally challenging students jumped up and said something that sounded brilliant in the moment. “What if you become familiar and you discover that the other side is bad?” The student really touched on something important here. Is it enough to get to know eachother?
Organizations like Seeds of Peace try to prevent conflict by getting adversaries to live with each other in a summer camp, have dialog sessions and play together. With a non-critical eye, this sounds great. It’s like getting a lion and lamb to sleep next to each other. But what really is so great about it.
Through a source that should not have revealed itself to me, I learned of a breakdown in a moderated electronic discussion between Palestinians and Israelis who experienced something very similar to Seeds of Peace. When things collapsed and the invectives started flying, each side became increasingly convinced that “the other side is bad?”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England, has a rather great take on this problem. According to Rabbi Sacks, “We will need to understand that just as the natural environment depends on biodiversity, so human environment depends on cultural diversity, because no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind (Sacks 2002, P.62).”
In other words, we cannot continue to use tolerance as a mode of teaching peace, we must move to a model of pluralism wherein others can be different and “we” should not be so sure of ourselves as to say we have a monopoly on righteousness. By becoming familiar and tolerating difference, we will only accept it until we are not willing to accept it. By teaching pluralism, we are more likely to acknowledge our own limitations and act cautiously.
I concluded my lesson with the story of Ahknai’s oven from the Talmud. In this narrative, Rabbi Eliezer is very sure that he is right and all the rest of the academy is wrong. He tries proving it through sorcery but they remain unconvinced. Then he brings down the voice of God to announce his righteousness, which it does. But the rabbis respond by saying that “The Torah is not in heaven.” Meaning that humans have to be the judges of their own behavior. And that “We should act according to the majority,” which I explained was a misquote of the original citation from Genesis. The story concludes with God laughing in joy that his creatures have matured enough to take over ruling their destiny.
I told this story to get the kids thinking about the risks and responsibilities of having the judgment over right and wrong sit in human hands. I also wanted them to question the validity and wisdom of acting according to the majority.
In Fiddler on the Roof, there is a great line about a teacher who admires himself having a class of one. At the risk of being that teacher, I must announce my pride in the decision to end with the story of Ahknai’s oven because it went over so well. The students started discussing the fact that the Nazis came to power through democracy and that human beings are fraught with misjudgments. They discussed the difference between self-defense and suicide. It was amazing to see how successfully I had complicated something that the rest of the world is so eager to make simple. I am really proud of my work today and really proud of my students. Now let’s go out and stop this ugly war.

An Open Letter to the President Elect, Mr. Obama

Dear President Elect Obama,

I traveled by bus (with a broken heater) in minus 3 degrees to Springfield with my 7 year old son and 10 year old daughter to see you announce your candidacy for president. During your campaign, we traveled from Chicago to Des Moine, Iowa, Gary, Indiana, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Southwestern Michigan to canvass for you. I was proud to have you represent me in the Senate and I am proud to soon be able to call you my president.
I never wanted anything in return for my hard work, just good, honest leadership and moral direction for my country. But now I have a favor to ask of you. Please get involved in the conflict between my second homeland, Israel, and the Hamas. I know you say that there is only one president at a time, but I’m really feeling like this is a cop-out. I think you can be a powerful force for good, and I am sure no one would fault you for getting involved with the problems that will face you when you wake up in the White House on January 21st.
So you understand, I am an Israeli by choice and Zionism came with my mother’s milk. I lived in Israel for ten years, served in the Israeli Defense Force and plan to return to Israel for my rabbinic training. I was born in Chicago and moved to Israel when I was 15 to study agriculture and start my life in the Jewish homeland. I love both of my countries of citizenship, but the relationships to each is mature. I don’t think everything a person or country does is always going to be decent and just. I can love my countries and still not always be pleased with them. My Jewish understanding of this term, justice, is that it is an aspiration and an ideal, but it is also more of a journey than a destination.
I became Israeli because I wanted to be part of my people’s collective effort of creating justice in the world and shedding a light. My idealism was diminished when I witnessed the ugliness of the first Lebanon War, first through friends who were drafted before me, and then as a soldier. My idealism took a second blow during the first Intidafa, but it was successfully resuscitated during the Oslo period. The night I took my 4 month old daughter to proudly participate in the celebrations of our successes, we witnessed the assassination of my prime minister, and my idealism took another dive. This was followed by the one-two punch of the Second Intifada. Last year I defended my dissertation about peace education for Palestinians and Israelis, and my research and writing managed to increase my sense of hope. But just after I celebrated the one year anniversary of the defense, I was met with a new, critical blow to the face; this war in Gaza.
Let me be clear, I am not a pacifist. I believe that it is an obligation of all people to defend themselves, but I question the claim of self defense which Israel has taken. In the Bible and Talmud we have references to the “Bat Kol,” the voice of God, which tells us what God had really intended or desires or thinks is right. The rabbis of the Talmud, when facing the Bat Kol, claim that the “Torah is not in Heaven” and therefore the job of interpretation is left to us and not God. In other words, there is no absolute right. God is pleased and laughs when he hears the rabbis say this. The job of interpretation is now in our hands, and you, Mr. Obama, are the one among us who can take powerful action as a result of our understandings of the world.
How should we understand a war that has resulted in such disproportionate deaths between the two sides? How should we understand a war between a people with a country and military and a people who are denied both? How should we understand a war between two parties who both disrespect international conventions of warfare?
I am not a fan of Hamas. I have no tolerance for fundamentalism, terrorism or theocracy. I respect the Palestinian people’s right to choose their own leadership, and I understand that you make peace with your enemies, not your friends. I agree with you that we need to be open to discussion with even our most vilified enemies, like Iran, but I am critical of your statement, “If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that.”
I just read that Israel is using white phosphorus in its conduct of this war. Does this fit into the definition of “everything in my power?” What about shooting at schools?
Mr. Obama, I implore you to call for an immediate cease-fire, even a temporary one, so that we may reach a hudna, a truce, and maybe one day we can even reach an agreement on peace. I’m not expecting miracles. I am not a starry eyed peacenik that thinks we can undo all the pain and anger that has accumulated for all these years. But we are at a critical juncture in our conflict, and we need direction.
Please Mr. Obama, end this insanity and force us back to some form of humanity before both us Israelis and our Palestinian neighbors lose everything that is good about our unique cultures. If ever we needed two presidents at a time, it is now, especially when we have you to off-set the mishugas of your predecessor.

Most sincerely,

David Steiner

Thursday, January 8, 2009

From my Israeli Jewish feminist, orthodox friend, Leah

Darom in Hebrew means ""south". This is the group formed these days. of Jews and Arabs living in the Negev, to protest jointly the deadly violence perpetrated by the Hammas and the Israeli govt. We held our first demonstration yesterday in Beer Sheva and got some press and TV coverage and some attention of the by passers. Due to the missiles sent daily into the city, the police did not actually allow us to congregate, so we walked about in twos and threes carrying signs in both languages. Some people yelled at us without bothering even to get our message straight, just the fact that Jews and Arabs were doing this together was too much of a cognitive dissonance for them.
In my opinion, Hammas continues its criminal inhuman ways, by firing out of schools (including the UN school), ambulances, hospitals, by imprisoning civilians in the houses where they hide and not allowing them to respond to warnings from Israel to leave battle areas, by stealing food and medication supplies sent to civilians for their own fighters only, and by continuing to deny the right of Israel to exist, and continuing the firing not into the Israeli army but towards civilians in Israel. At the same time, in this war Israel is doing major efforts to avoid unnecessary killing, lightyears beyond anything anyone has ever done in wars globally, certainly beyond the US in Iraq for instance. We got an email message yesterday from a Palestinian in Ghaza that they called the IDF publicized emergency humanitarian hotline and asked for rescue of 4 civilians trapped under ruins, and this indeed worked. I saw photos of people trapped in the bombed ammunition tunnels helped out from under by IDF soldiers. I am struggling publically to stop all this, because Israel is certainly guilty for not doing enough politically over the years to end all this, but I am not naive, the blame is much more on the Arabs, including Palestinians, from the refusal to accept the UN 1947 Partition Plan because it included the two states solution, on until today.
Take even Egypt. For three years, ever since the Disengagement of Israel from Ghaza in 2005, it allowed Hammas to be armed freely through the tunnels and refused any political pressure to stop this, because it supported the idea that this is used against Israel of course and not against Egypt. At the same time it prevented any Palestinians from fleeing Ghaza into Egypt, again cooperating with the Hammas in its single track war on Israel. Suddenly Egypt is now pushing for a ceasefire that will include no ammunition transport along its border with Ghaza, oh how nice.
The Jewish state of Israel (including its substantial Palestinian national minority) and Palestine are Siamese twins. If Palestine wants to live, it should first accept the fact that the most they can get is a State alongside a safe Israel. Ironically, Israel is the only state in the world that has a long-run vested interest in this. And I think that the wolrd idealists everywhere now demonstrating against Israel need to understand this also.
Take Venezuela. I spoke a while ago in the GA (General Assembly) of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, about the need for Jews to work towards Tikkun haOlam ("making a better world") for humanity at large everywhere and not just in Israel and not just for Jews. Some were upset. One executive said, "for years Israel brought Venezuelans here to train them in modernizing agriculture to alleviate poverty, and look at how Antisemitic Chavaz is!" I retorted, he may not be Antisemitic but anti Israeli and there is ample reasoning for this due to the Occupation etc. But should not we be proud for having supported for years Native American farmers, training them here, and now they finally have the first Latin American president? It's like the frustration of League for Women Voters in the US, when they see the poor Afro American women they empower vote for Bush.
I am a proud Jew, a proud Israeli, a proud Zionist, and my 35 years of struggling on the "left"of issues does not make me any less proud. It is just very painful and exhausting.
Leah Shakdiel, Yeruham, Negev, Israel

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Another day

Another day, another rocket. Another pundit explaining the motives behind the war and the possible outcomes. Another soldier lost to friendly fire, a child lying peacefully as she enters her eternity with her body trapped under what was once her home.
Am I completely insane or has the world gone mad?
What is an absolute right to defend oneself? Where does that right come from? What does it mean to defend oneself? Would it be fine for Stalin to defend himself against all the millions of families who lost loved ones to his horrific regime? Would it be Hitler’s right to defend against the Jews and Gypsies and Homosexuals and political enemies who met their end under his rule?
Sure. I know, “How can you equivocate? Are you comparing Hitler and Stalin to the Israelis?”
No! I am absolutely not. I am a Jew by birth and by choice. I think our rabbis handed us a beautiful tradition and I want to walk in their ways.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the great scholar of Talmud writes,
Once the ‘craft of Esau’ has been granted legitimacy, the distinction between the permissible and the forbidden, between the justified and the blameworthy, is very subtle – it is like the ‘handbreadth between heaven and hell.’ We must constantly examine whether we have transgressed and crossed that fine dividing line.
I unequivocally denounce the shelling of Israel by Hamas. I think they are violent fundamentalists, the worst kind. I also know that no person is born Hamas. No infant is born a Muslim or a Jew or a Christian or a terrorist or a soldier. We learn these things in our homes, our families, our public walkways and places of education. We learn them on television, on the Internet, in books and on billboards. We learn to be Jews and Muslims and Christians and terrorists and soldiers, and we can learn to be good neighbors and friends and lovers just the same. This is a matter of will and discipline.
When I was raised in the socialist Zionist movement, I learned that if I will something it is no dream. Why have we lost our will?
I don’t have a dream. I have a plan. I plan to teach my children, and their friends and their siblings and our neighbors and people I will never even meet, far away in distant lands, and in my backyard, I plan to teach them what our sages taught me, not to do onto other what you would not like done to you.
I am not a golden rule person. I do not want to love my fellow as myself. Wouldn’t that be a lot of chutzpah? Why should I decide how anyone should be loved?
I used to sit in the living room of my childhood home listening to the soundtrack of the Broadway musical Hair, and I remember these words which have burned their way into my sensibility. “You know kids, I wish every mom and dad would make a speech to their teenagers and say kids, be free, be whatever you are, do whatever you want to do, just so long as you don't hurt anybody. And remember kids, I am your friend.”
I know the world is not this simple. In my dissertation I wrote about “realistic conflict theory” which raises its ugly head when there are conflicting wills for the same resources, whether they are land, human power, beliefs, legal powers, etc. I put this theory next to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Sure we will fight for a slice of bread or a glass of water if our life depends on it. Sustenance is the base of our needs. But when did land and nationalism and democracy and capitalism and religion become such great needs that we have to kill in their defense.
I don’t like Hamas, but I can imagine how horrible it must be to watch fundamentalist Jews pillage Hebron, attacking school children, breaking windows, calling for the kidnapping of their own countries soldiers, and watching as the government of these Jewish Cossacks trembles before it takes action to limit their progroms.
It must suck to be Palestinian and watch Israelis on their television screens debating the morality of occupying Palestinian lands, most of which were acquired in contravention of Israeli law, while over a quarter million Jews settle this land at great public expense and thousands of Israelis live in poverty. What a scary picture that must be? They must ask themselves why the Israelis hate them so much they would rather break their own laws, and have a large portion of their society live poorly, in order to support a military occupation that violates international conventions and ostracizes them in the world.
I am not saying that leaving the territories, and obeying our own laws, and being civil with our Palestinian neighbors, and treating them with the respect due to all humans, will result in Hamas making plowshares of their rocket launchers. I’m only saying that when we do this, I will have a much easier time sending ground troops into Gaza and bombarding them with artillery if they continue to launch rockets at our cities in the south. That kind of self defense I can understand and support.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Ramblings on the Conflict between Israel and Hamas

Let me start by saying that even the claim that a person or a country has an “absolute right” to defend itself needs to be picked apart. I have heard people preface all their comments about the situation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza as a matter of self-defense and as a right, and I do not accept these arguments uncritically.
In the Talmud we learn about the right of self-defense. We heard the voices of our rabbis telling us that the commandment, “Thou shalt not murder,” means exactly what it says, no more, no less. In other words, there is room for killing, just not the kind that is deemed murder. Murder, of course, has different nuances to it. In legal terms they have degrees of murder.
I have always taken a position on the spectrum of violent responses to injustice on the non-violent side of two historic cases; Bill Ayers and the Weather Underground and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bill Ayers was on my dissertation committee. I consider him a mentor and friend. I strongly disagree with the turn of his faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) which chose to split off and form the Weather Underground. I am not absolute in this opinion because I don’t know how I would respond if I thought my country was engaged in massive atrocities and I had exasperated all civil and non-violent means of preventing this behavior. I know that I have only demonstrated and written letters, taught and lobbied to change things that bothered me about my community’s, my country’s and my people’s behavior. I have done the same about “other’s” like Apartheid South Africa and the JanJuweed in the Sudan, but I have never resorted to violence. This may be a result of personal cowardess, but I like to believe that I have stood by my belief in non-violent means to achieve peaceful and just ends.
A challenge to this thinking comes with the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German, Catholic theologian and pacifist who joined a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. It’s relatively easy to say that I agree with Bonhoeffer and would have done the same. I see Hitler with 20-20 vision. Or do I? For most people, myself included, the various artifacts and histories of the Second World War are enough for me to see Hitler as the closest thing to evil incarnate we know of. Who wouldn’t eradicate such evil? But the point is that in hindsight, it is easier to give Bonhoeffer the thumbs up and question the Weather Underground.
Another question I would like to raise is if there is room to consider not eradicating evil? The Eastern, and possibly Jewish, approach to this question must include the idea that the forces of good exist in contrast to the forces of evil; yin-yang or for Jews, yetzir hatov and yetzir harah.
One of the beauties of studying Torah is that it is rarely absolute. Our sage Hillel overturned what he believed were God’s commandments about debt by creating a legal fiction called a Prozbul. We leave the opposing perspectives of two or more great scholars to guide us as we study Talmud, and we allow for a Mara D’atra, to make determinations about our law on a local level based on specific knowledge of a community. Little within Judaism is absolute.
So is there room for the view that evil should not be eradicated but transformed in Judaism? I am not knowledgeable enough to make this claim, but I will take a stab at something close. From my limited knowledge of Talmud, I would make a case that ultimately we are required to worry first and foremost about our own behavior and commitment to achieving justice. And my reference is a quote from Rav Kahana who said that when a Sanhedrin court of 23 members sees a person, unanimously, as guilty, “he should be absolved of guilt.” The reason given for this leniency is the presumption that if he has been seen by all the same way, he hasn’t really been seen, and I am rather certain that the rabbis always decided to fail on the side of not doing the greater evil.
For me, this brings us back to the main point of the discussions about the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis (also a complicated issue since we have Arab Israelis who consider themselves Palestinian and Jewish Palestinians by birthright before the State of Israel existed).
Is it fair to say in a vacuum that any country has the right to defend itself? Many people remind us about the comment of President-elect Barack Obama who said, “If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”
I am constantly awed by Obama’s thoughtful rhetoric, and here is a good example. He leaves us with a remedy – “everything in my power” which is really very ambiguous. The Sanhedrin had the power to execute a person. They avoided exercising it. It was not an individual power. It was a collective power accepted by the system and people who ascribed to it. Soon Obama will have the power to execute justice through his position as Commander and Chief. He’ll also be the boss of the Attorney General. But when he says, “everything in my power” he is leaving himself room for saying, “this is not in my power.”
President Bush says, "I understand Israel's desire to protect itself.” You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that. Self preservation is near the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It could be argued that self defense is a hard-wired human characteristic. But I am amazed at the fact that nobody ever asks deeply why Israel finds itself in the position of needing to protect itself. The sound bite answer is self defense against Hamas rockets directed at Israeli citizens. The accompanying explanation is always something about giving back Gaza to the Palestinians. The way we fight in the court of public opinion is by painting our enemies as evil - “no partner for peace.” But I am reminded of the slogan, “You don’t make peace with your friends. You make peace with your enemies.” The word “partner” is a metaphor that makes the equation sound like conflict is easy to remedy if you just act as a good partner, but conflict is about adversarial relationships boiling over.
Hamas does bad stuff to Jews. They shoot rockets at our cities, for God’s sake. They kidnapped our soldiers. But that is what happens in a conflict when the parties are not civil.
I ask - what do we do to them? It is just too simple and unsophisticated and unproductive to say that they want to get rid of us and push us into the sea. “Look at their charter,” someone will say. “They want the elimination of the Zionist entity.” OK. Now what?
Faced with a situation like ours, we can try to change them, which we do through our military might, or try to change ourselves, which we don’t do enough, or wait for a third party to initiate the change.
We have the best control over change when it relates to our ourselves. We could stop the settlers from doing pogroms in Hebron. We could stop building outposts against our own laws. We could work to guarantee the human and civil rights of all the people living under our occupation. The problem with this is that it makes us look at our own behavior and be critical. It’s a lot easier to be critical of Hamas. In the short run, it may be more expedient to use force to obtain our objectives. But what does it do to us? What will we become? Do we want their obstinacy to change our character? Can we allow it to happen after all we have been through to protect our Jewish way of life?
Yes, countries and people have the right to protect themselves, but is that an absolute right, and is it diminished by the fact that some things we do are highly questionable? If I punch someone in the face, I will need to worry about defending myself. But do I have an absolute right to do so? Where does that right come from? And is it compromised by my initial behavior?
I am not saying that Hamas would be an ideal “partner” or enemy if we were completely innocent. They would likely still want to push us into the sea. But I’m not as concerned with them as I am with us, because I’m really scared that our overzealous outward concern about their evil has had a terrible affect on us. And I see worrying about my own behavior as the first step in personal and national self-defense.