Sunday, July 26, 2009

One man's catastrophe...

I have always thought that it must be very hard to be an indigenous American in the United States on Columbus Day or even Thanksgiving. It must be hard to celebrate the fall of one’s culture and the turn of events that forcibly changed the direction of one’s nation. For this reason, I found it quite objectionable this week when I read that in Israel the new Education Minister, Gideon Saar of Likud, has decided to use his position to force Palestinians living in Israel to rewrite their own history in a way that is palatable to the Jewish majority but not their own narrative.

According to the Associate Press, found in the Baltimore Sun “The Israeli government will remove references to what Palestinians call the ‘catastrophe’ of Israel's creation from textbooks for Arab schoolchildren.”

In Israel, for those who don’t know, there are three publicly financed school systems; Jewish-secular, Orthodox Jewish and Arab. If this reminds you of America before Brown versus Board of Education, I am not surprised. Yet, on the other hand, I think the intention of this system is not segregation but respect for the plurality of ways of living in Israel. I am a Zionist and I am proud of this attempt, but separate has not been equal, and Israel should do more to level the educational playing field when it comes to funding.

The fact that Israel included the reference to a catastrophe, al naqba, for the Palestinians experience of Jewish independence in the state is quite remarkable, but it is also very recent and short lived. As Minister of Education under the centrist Kadima government, Princeton trained political philosopher and Labor party Minister of Education, Yuli Tamir inserted the naqba reference in 2007. With the fall of Kadima and the rise of the Likud led, right wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the progressive leadership of Ms. Tamir has also died. Long live progressive education.

The Associated Press reported Education Minister Gideon Saar as saying, "No other country in the world, in its official curriculum, would treat the fact of its founding as a catastrophe." While Israeli Arab lawmaker Hana Sweid responded, "It's a major attack on the identity of the Palestinian Arab citizens of the state of Israel, on their memories and their adherence to their identity,"

In the first pages of Jonathan Kozol’s On Being a Teacher, you can read the following quote from Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this:

You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best that we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of a particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetrating system… Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.

As I read these words, I wonder what the, “narrow and particular needs” of Israeli society could be that would cause them to want to change another people’s narrative. I am reminded of the vicious words of the late Prime Minister Golda Meir when she proclaimed, “There are no Palestinian people.” And I am reminded of our pain as we recall the vicious lies and propaganda spread against us by over the years by our detractors.

What is so wrong with two narratives coexisting side by side? Does their naqba lessen the joy I feel for my Jewish independence? Should it?

I am proud to be a Jew and proud of the State of Israel, and still I can look at myself in the mirror and see my faults and blemishes without rushing out to buy another mirror or put blinders on my eyes. Our independence had an effect on the world, just as it had an effect on us. That is basic physics. All the curricula in the world cannot change the past. As Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit likes to say, we cannot revivify the past, all we are able to do is retell it.

Personally, as an Israeli and as a Jew, I was much more proud when my country and my Jewish homeland let all its citizens tell their narrative as they saw it.

Of brokered kidneys, money laundering and the Halacha

Is it me, or is it getting quite embarrassing being a Jew and reading the headlines in our nations newspapers. The Madoff scandal was bad for our public image, but he was a lone individual, every people has a bad egg. But last week, next to the headline, 44 Charged by U.S. in New Jersey Corruption Sweep, there was a picture of black suited rabbis wrapped in hang cuffs, not tefillin, and this list; "the rabbis arrested included Saul J. Kassin, 87, a leader of the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn and New Jersey; Mordchai Fish and Lavel Schwartz, both rabbis in Brooklyn; and Eliahu Ben Haim and Edmund Nahum, who lead congregations in Deal.” Oy!
When the last two governors of my great state of Illinois were arrested for corruption, I was embarrassed, but I had only voted for one of them, and neither was a member of my tribe. Now we have five community leaders, rabbis who teach and interpret Torah, arrested by the feds, how could this be? Or maybe we should ask why it doesn’t happen more often?
When I read about the rabbis in New Jersey and Brooklyn, my mind went directly to something Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the Israel scientist, Talmud scholar and peace activist explained about his orthodox beliefs, something that has bothered me for a while and may explain why some observant Jews can see themselves as so pious and yet behave so unethically.
For Leibowitz, whom I happen to see as a very ethical person, there are no such things as Jewish values. Observance is not a matter of right and wrong, it is about doing what God asks of Jews. While in our morning prayers we proclaim that God listens to our prayers, Leibowitz believes that worship is merely the fulfillment of a commandment. It is the service of the God who asks us to pray thrice daily. The same is true for other commandments that would seem otherwise neutral and value free such as keeping kosher or not mixing linen and wool. This is what God wants, so we do it. There is no value judgment. Not mixing milk and meat is just as important as visiting the sick because both are commanded by God. For me this explains why some rabbis can justify for themselves their money laundering and brokering of human organs. It affords them the ability to build their communities and continue to observe mitzvot. For me, this is observance of the letter of the law without respect or concern for the spirit of the law. I wonder what kind of God they imagine they are loyal to. In my system of beliefs, Judaism is designed to make us holy. What these rabbis in New Jersey did was not even mundane. It was a desecration.
This is not to say that those commandments that are not clearly ethical are null and void. That Reform approach to the Halacha, our Jewish way, also seems antithetical to the spirit of Judaism. Halacha is not a shmorgasbord of commands to be picked through like items in a rummage sale. It is a system of our practices that should be studied and reinterpreted in each generation, for the same reason that we pray to, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, The God of Jacob…” and hopefully the matriarchs as well, because in each of our forebears generations there was a unique understanding of the law and it’s inception. Starting out the Shmonah Esar, our silent prayers, with a reminder of this changing understanding keeps us in that beautiful and vital tradition. Jewish tradition that is fundamentally good, not fundamentalist. The letter of the law is subjugated to the spirit of the law and its adherents. Just ask Rabbi akiva.
While I am ashamed of these rabbis in New Jersey, and dread the public scrutiny of our beliefs, there is a part of me that wants to make lemonade from these lemons. Now we have a chance to confront the fundamentalism in our own backyard and ask what it really means to be observant. Now we are nudged to ask why we observe the way we do and what are the intentions of our laws. And now we are confronted with a conflict between laws and ethics, and good thinking comes out of these conflicts. So let’s not totally hang our heads low and feel the well deserved shame of our co-religionists. Let’s take this as an opportunity and reexamine where we stand and why we stand there so that each and every one of us can own the tradition as we understand it in our time.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Another lens on the indivisibility of Jerusalem

In today’s HaAretz, an Israeli newspaper I read daily, I was informed that “The United States views East Jerusalem as no different than an illegal West Bank outpost with regard to its demand for a freeze on settlement construction.”
In response to the American policy, HaAretz reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that, "United Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people in the State of Israel, and our sovereignty over the city is not subject to appeal,… Our policy is that Jerusalem residents can purchase apartments anywhere in the city. This has been the policy of all Israeli governments. There is no ban on Arabs buying apartments in the west of the city, and there is no ban on Jews building or buying in the city's east. This is the policy of an open city."
I feel obligated to parse apart and unpack whatever I read in the news in order to come to a clear understanding of what messages I am receiving and what meaning I make from them. This is what I do before acting in the world.
Some would say that meaning is not made, rather facts are delivered. Often people use the word facts and truths interchangeably. I am of the opinion that facts are perspectives on things that happen; truths are the subjects of our meaning making.
As a Jew and scholar, I use a form of Jewish critical literacy to unpack the meaning of messages I read. It is called Pardes, the Hebrew word for a grove and the acronym that prescribes that we read the literal meaning of text first (pshat), followed by an inquiry into the hinted meaning which is clearly the product of an author with motivations (remez). The next letter, dalet, represents the interpretive meaning (drash) which is the domain of the interpreter with all the personal baggage brought to interpretation. And last in the very linear progression is samach, representing the word sod, which translates in modern Hebrew as secret, but I have learned that the sages who developed this system of inquiry understood sod to mean kehillah, community, thus I understand the sod to be the conjoint meaning the community creates for the message. In my application of Pardes, as I understand the rabbis intention, we are obligated to go through this serious regimen in order to create meaning and act in the world. Reading the news is our job, and there are specific guidelines to doing it properly.
In the article I am trying to make meaning of, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday that "Israel will not agree to edicts of this kind in East Jerusalem." An edict, according to the Merriam – Webster on-line dictionary is “a proclamation having the force of law.” The choice of these words sets the stage for a relationship between the presumed edict maker and the subjects of the edict – America is laying down the law and Israel will not agree. The audience of this message is the Jewish people, at large, and the Jewish Israelis in particular, with some room for ancillary recipients and less engaged media consumers. As a Jew, edicts remind me of the period of Seleucid rule in the biblical Land of Israel described in the books of the Maccabees. These edicts were created to end Jewish practice and were vigorously opposed by some members of the Jewish community living in the land at the time. To really understand the use of the word edict to a Jewish – Israeli audience, which itself is diverse, one must study how the Maccabees are represented in the Books of Maccabees and how the sages later recall and canonize the celebration of Hanukah. Without digging to deep, Mr. Netanyahu is trying to evoke parallels between the hated Seleucid monarch, Antiochus, and the US president.
All of this is just an example of what I mean by a critically literate, Jewish reading of any text. To this goal, Jews study in groups called chevruta. The root of this word, chet, bet, reish, is reminiscent of the modern Hebrew word with the same letter combination, chaver, meaning friend, but I see a much greater correlation to the primary meaning of these three letters combined in this order – chibor, which means joint or seam. In a healthy study partnership, respect for the seam that creates the relationship is essential. In other words, we cannot have the relationship without the seam, so we must find a way to make meaning together. What Prime Minister Netanyahu does very well is present complicated ideas in simple terms that pull our seam to his understanding and will for the chevruta. As a member of the large Jewish chevruta, woven together by a rich and binding seam, our internal dialog which vies for dominating the making of meaning for the nation, I would like to present an alternative understanding of the Prime Minister’s other comments about Jerusalem. To do this, I will start with a joke.
At the time of the creation of the United States - Canadian border, the people laying out the border found a home in the middle of their path. They asked the family living in the home whether they want the border to be laid around their home to the north or south, which would determine the family’s national identity. The family asked to think it over for a week during which they received bribes from both sides. The Americans sent baseball tickets, an apple pie, and a Chevy. The Canadians sent maple syrup, Canadian bacon and a mounty on a horse. At the end of the week they returned and asked for a decision. The family decided to become Americans, which upset the Canadians and elated the Americans. The Canadians, wanting to learn from their mistakes, asked for an explanation and the family responded with a simple sentence. “We hate those Canadian winters.”
Okay, it may not be funny, but it does illustrate the human hand in many things that we accept as inevitable. For instance, “Undivided Jerusalem.” What does this term mean? As far as I understand, King David and his son Solomon did not rule over West Jerusalem, let alone most of East Jerusalem. The Jerusalem that resonates in our hearts is a mere 2 square kilometers and is located along the armistice line of 1949. It is a fraction of the modern Jerusalem that Mr. Netanyahu can’t fathom dividing. But why has this modern, human designation of land become so sacrosanct? Why is Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem “not subject to appeal?” Who can appeal it anyway? And who determines the rights of any people to live anywhere, let alone a territory that was conquered in a war?
For millennia, Jerusalem has been changing hands through military conquest. Nebuchadnezzar conquered it from the Ancient Israelites centuries before the Seleucids and Romans did. Crusaders and Muslims, the Ottomans and the British, all took control by military might. But when Israel became a state, it was vested with its rights through the United Nations, the body that is supposed to represent the will of nations. And at the same time, some would like to suggest that the reclamation of the Land of Israel is the will of God, something that is neither provable nor universally accepted.
As I see it, the bottom line is that this boils down to a matter of authority. Once authority came at the price of military conquest, and today if comes via international consensus. “But,” many would argue, “the Jewish people can’t wait for a consensus. Look what happened in the Holocaust.” And I would not disagree. Still, what is so sacrosanct about an undivided Jerusalem?
Is it in our best interest to rule over 200,000 Palestinians with metropolitan but not national identity and rights? East Jerusalem Palestinians are Jerusalem citizens but not afforded Israeli passports. Is it better for the Jewish people and their state to have a security wall run through the borders of its undivided capital? Currently, the wall that was erected to secure Israelis and “make good neighbors,” runs through the “indivisible capitol. What would be so wrong about gerrymandering the human drawn borders and “dividing” the capitol into two cities, one for Jewish Israelis and the other for our Palestinian neighbors who want to rule themselves in a majority status in their own sovereign state, just as we want for ourselves?
The bottom line is that those who make claims about an undivided Jerusalem are really just leaning on rhetoric that connotes the ancient past but does not reflect it. Jerusalem was never as big as the Israeli government has drawn it on its maps. It has no necessary need for including our Palestinian neighbors at the exclusion of their civil rights as Israeli citizens, and there is no need to make us become a nation that denies basic rights to its residents. In essence, when you peel away all the false illusions to the ancient metropolis, what you are left with is a big fat emperor without any clothes. The arguments don’t hold their own, and what they do support is the behaviors of a state of Jews guided by ideals that are hardly Jewish. As far as I’m concerned, that’s hardly worth the efforts of my brand of Zionism.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Summer fun with Jojo the Scarecrow

My friends Bryan Libban, Joel Frankel and I created Jojo the Scarecrow and a whole bunch of media around his world with venture funding in the 1990's. We were almost bought by Mattel until they had a major multimedia mishap with the purchase of The Learning Company. If you want to read the Jojo the Scarecrow screenplay, click here and then send me your feedback.

Now we just want to share our labor of love. If you want to buy the album in English or Spanish, Joel is selling it on CD Baby. The Spanish version includes Juan Dies of Sones de Mexico. Try out my favorite track - Pigs Love a Puddle of Mud.