Wednesday, April 22, 2009

An Open Letter to Senator Durbin regarding waterboarding

Dear Senator Durbin,

Yesterday we memorialized the victims of the Nazis. As a Jewish educator, I struggled with the purpose of memorializing since my job is to facilitate the process.
Some have taught that it is a commandment “to remember,” while other’s say that memory for its own sake is a waste of time and other resources. These people believe that memory must lead to hope and change.
I voted for the Democratic Party and President Obama, with his platform for change, but I want to be sure that change is synonymous with progress. Hitler was a change from the Weimar Republic, but he was anything but an improvement.
I share these thoughts with you in the context of what most occupied my thinking yesterday. What occupies my mind, and was magnified in the shadow of the memory of the Holocaust, is the torture perpetrated by American officials, paid with my tax dollars, in the water boarding stories which fill our nations newspapers and broadcasts.
Those who remember strictly because of the loss during the Holocaust, and those who remember because memory can be a catalyst for progressive action, would both agree that we ought never become like those who victimized us.
On this Holocaust Memorial Day, many people rightfully thought of, and were called to action about, the genocide in Darfur. As my teacher, Rabbi David Wolpe taught, the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was not the Nazi Holocaust, it was the Cambodian holocaust which followed because the world was clearly aware of the atrocities human beings are capable of, and they still did not intervene.
This Yom HaShoah, the greater evil is the water boarding because we Americans perpetrated it, collectively, and not enough of us individuals took part in stopping it. Now that it is over, there remains a small window for justice.
In the Talmud, we learn that the world and strict justice could not co-exist. We had to relent if we wanted a world. We needed to give up strict justice. The same applies now. We desire justice, but it is complicated. Did the individual perpetrators follow our laws? Did the law makers act ethically? Did we put our own security needs over the human rights of the victims?
I understand that there is a difference between laws and ethics, and that it is not only about enforcement. As my legislator, I hope and trust that you will legislate to the highest moral standards.
In the aftermath of the torture American officials perpetrated against their victims, I hope you will legislate with the most common phrase associated with the Holocaust; “Never again!” Senator Durbin, you have the power to legislate in such a way as to memorialize our temporary fall from human civility and to assure that we do not let ourselves stray again. This should be your charge as you work through the process of investigation and consequence in this misguided epoch in our American history. Please turn this memory into politics and laws that assure American and human decency. Your righteous leadership can make “never again” work for all of humanity.

Most sincerely,

David Steiner

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Talking to walls

I am becoming more and more convinced that we, Israelis and Palestinians, need to develop skills and capacities to end the conflict between our nations. I wrote about this extensively in my dissertation, and I experienced it, once again, last night in the synagogue where I work when we held an educational program to hear Palestinian voices about the conflict.
What I heard last night, I have heard a thousand times. Palestinian grievances are real and legitimate. On the other hand, as I have heard over and over, the assessment of “the other” was way off target. I am the other. I should know.
When I say I am the other, I realize that this is not exactly true. I am not a Palestinian, nor a Muslim, nor a Christian. I am just one of 13 million Jews and one of both six million American Jews and six million Israelis, although I understand that that means I am being counted twice. But I do hold dual citizenship and have a hyphenated “Jewish” attached to each nationality. As one of 13 million, my opinion is not necessarily the definitive opinion of my people, but I think that in this case I am not in the minority.
The assessment I heard is that we are obsessed with occupying the Palestinians. This claim accompanied many descriptions of the tragedy occupation can mean for both sides. The Palestinians are constantly humiliated, their basic human rights denied and they live without sovereignty in their homeland. For Israelis, the occupation means sending our young people to the army for three of the most transformative years of their lives, dedicating a lion’s share of our GDP to defense and not having resources for dealing with other significant social and religious issues in our state. It also means living as oppressors. In order to occupy the West Bank without giving human and political rights to the Palestinians in the territory, we become oppressors.
I am certain that there are numerous inaccurate assessments of the Palestinians on our part. I think it would be most fair to have them qualify those instead of me saying what their nation is on their behalf, but it would also be perfectly fair for me to articulate for them what they get wrong when they assess us, even if there really is no concrete, reified perspective that represents all Jews or Israelis.
So what do they get wrong about us and how does it affect the discourse between our nations? In a nutshell, they believe that we want to be occupiers, and I believe that this is far from the truth for the majority of the Jewish people.
And now, I will make a risky generalization. I think this assumption about the Jews/Israelis wanting an occupation is a majority opinion among Palestinians. For instance, yesterday I read an article in HaAretz by Kobi Ben-Simhon ( , about Dr. Zvi Sela, a former senior police officer and a psychological consultant, who at one point in his career, “held two-hour weekly meetings over a three-year period with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin when the Hamas founder was incarcerated in Israel.” In the article Sela says, “I always told him, 'Stop blowing up buses, stop murdering women and children.' [Yassin] replied: 'Tzvika, listen, we [Palestinians] had good teachers: You [Israelis] established a state thanks to your military power. The dead I take from you are for the sake of establishing a state, but you are killing women and children for the sake of the occupation. You already have a state. You are dirty and hypocritical. I have no interest in destroying you - all I want is a state."
In essence, people all over the Palestinian spectrum, from the murderous Sheik Yassin, founder of Hamas, to the very nice Palestinian presenters last night, believe that we want to occupy the West Bank, and I say this is far from the truth, and I think I speak for the majority.
It is quite possible that many of us wish there were no “Others” living in the Land of Israel. Even the very liberal Yossi Sarid, former leader of the Meretz party, in inappropriate explicative, said in a moment of lapsed etiquette, that in his wet dream he wakes up in Israel to find that there are no Palestinians. But then there are less liberal, more mainstream people like my brother in law who say that they value the Palestinians living within Israel because of the enormous intellectual and cultural cache they bring to the state. So, clearly, we Jews are not monolithic about whether we want the Palestinians around or not.
Then there are the religious issues. Was the land promised by God to our forebears and is this a deed on the property? But this argument is only held by a minority of people on both sides. My rabbi says that it would be very consistent to say that we believe that the land was promised to us and to still believe that there are heavenly realities coexisting alongside earthly realities. In other words, God may have promised it to us, but there are also facts on the ground.
And then there is the issue of demographics which I take partial blame for promulgating as a member of Peace Now which has made this argument for 30 some years. The demographic argument says that Israel has to choose two of three options; democracy, Jewish character and greater Israel - meaning Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. At the inception of this argument, we in Peace Now tried to say that we cannot be a democratic state with a Jewish majority and occupy the territories because we would have to choose between democracy and a Jewish majority. In today’s reality, this argument sounds racist to anyone who is not Jewish, but this is part of understanding my otherness. We Jews are guided by a collective ethos that claims, “All Israel is responsible for each other.” If we want a democratic state, we must give away land and its Palestinian inhabitants in order to remain a Jewish democracy. I don’t love this argument because it separates democracy from Judaism. In the Talmud, the rabbis argued that democracy was willed for us by God. It is a Jewish value.
All of this leads me to stand very firmly on my premise that we Jews are not interested in occupying the territories at the expense of our Jewishness. Of course, this leads to another problem. Some could conclude that democracy is simply procedural and that we could have democracy among Jews if we transfer the Palestinians from our land. This is a sick, inhumane, not-Jewish argument. If protecting Judaism meant seriously violating the basic human rights of another people, then I would not be in favor of protecting Judaism. We are not talking about fighting Nazis here. We are talking about two people who have claims to a common homeland. But Nazis are very relevant.
While we do not want to occupy the Palestinians, the Nazis have taught us a lot about the world that makes it hard for us to just give over land to our neighbors. What Palestinians, and probably most of the world, do not understand is that we live with the Holocaust on our skins. This is not academic or theoretical. The speaker last night gave lip service to our pain and fears. Many Palestinians do, though not enough. But having the genocide of so many of our people, in the manner that we experienced it, is not something we can escape. We are very motivated by our worst fears. Some have called the Israeli nuclear program the Samson option, a reference to the biblical Samson bringing down the temple with his own destruction. This is not so far from the truth. The Holocaust has made survival a core principle for Jews. At times, I believe it has become more important than our fundamental beliefs as a nation and religion. If there is one thing that unifies all Jews, it is the anti-Semite. For him, we are all the same and need to be exterminated. This is not the simpler past where Jews were the people who failed to understand that Jesus or Mohammad received the most recent revelation from God. The Nazi Holocaust proved to us that anti-Semitism is alive and well and not just concerned with our beliefs. They hate us because of our blood. And they are capable of killing millions of us without the world putting up much of a fuss.
So, my big epiphany is not so grand or new at all. Let others speak for themselves and listen and respond appropriately. This is the skill. These are the capacities we need to develop in order to find reconciliation. What I hear you, Palestinians, saying is that you want autonomy in part of our common land. Although, there are some/many of you who openly declare your will to autonomy in all the land.
What we want is a place where we can assure our future independent of the world because we don’t trust that anyone will do this for us. Not all of us want to live in that place. Some want it just to exist in case we need it. But all of us want to know that it exists in security.
When both of our sides develop the skills to listen to each other and the capacities to think constructively about achieving our goals, then the reconciliation will begin. In my humble assessment, currently we are just talking to walls.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Passover 5769

Four sons
Four questions
Answers that aren’t satisfying
Four dead friends
A God who can't stop cancer
Who let my friend die from a muggers bullet
Who left me with four big holes in my heart
And tear ducts that aren’t given a chance to shut
My teacher says that “the Haggadah is the product of a people hungry for God’s active intervention in history, yet compelled to focus this hunger not on their own experiences but on the vivid memory of past biblical events.”
I just want my friends back