Saturday, June 5, 2010

Praying with our Mitsubishi

When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked about his marching in Selma during the civil rights movement in America during the 1960's, he said he was praying with his feet. This Shabbat, my son and I prayed with our Mitsubishi. In a week that was plagued with great moral challenges and tragic loss of life on a flotilla that was loaded with humanitarian aid to Gaza, Itamar and I decided to take a trek up to Um El Fahm, the largest Arab city in Israel, to visit my friend Abed and his family.
Earlier this week, I was devouring press reports, blogs, analyses, op-ed pieces and listserv tirades. I had discussions, wrote, pondered and implored friends to address the situation with patience. Yes, something needs to be done, but the first step in solving a problem is identifying it. We don't have enough information about the flotilla and the Israeli response. I propose an independent inquiry.
Still, there is the matter of human pain and outrage at what was experienced, even if those feelings are based on possible misperceptions, misinformation, or simply desired understandings. People often see the world as they perceive it. It's a matter of the lenses we wear. By going to Um El Fahm, my son and I were addressing those feelings in our own humble way. This wasn't a revolution. It was drip irrigation.
I have known Abed for 19 years. He travels five days a week to Tel Aviv to clean hallways in apartment buildings. When he cleaned our hallways, I would have him come in for Turkish coffee and conversation. This is how our friendship was conducted. When we left Israel 14 years ago, I lost contact with Abed. Recently, he spotted my wife on the street in Tel Aviv and made her promise to have me call. I did, and it was great to hear from him, but I never made the extra effort to come drink coffee with him in his home, until now.
In the Talmud, (Sanhedrin 4:8, 37a) we learn, "Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." Jews share this quote with our Moslem cousins. I often wonder what the rabbis meant by saving a life. What we did by visiting Abed and his family was really a small gesture. No lives were saved. They fed us. Yet, I was compelled to try to be part of the solution, and, for me, that meant showing a human face and compassion in a time of great sadness. In the Ethics of the Fathers, we read, "In a place where there is no man (mensch, good person) try to be a man." This Jewish value feels like it has been replaced with the secular, "When in Rome, act like a Roman."
I am in Israel and I want to act as a Jew, at least as a Jew feels commanded. Acting like a Roman, at this juncture in time, would mean to join a chorus. It could be the choir of Jews who feel compelled to defend our homeland, right or wrong. "Either you are with us or you are our enemy," the Bush doctrine, or the choir of "Israel can do no right," which is having its heyday right now.
Being a mensch turned out much better. We had a really delicious Arabic lunch, enjoyed the great company of Abed's family, went to an art museum, and picked fruit in the garden. Our conversations were political and very personal. We both regret the loss of human life. We both hope for the end of the closure that is the meta cause of the flotilla events and we both celebrated the potential of our shared country once the craziness of war finds its peaceful resolution.

Response to a rabbi regarding the flotilla

A rabbi from a community I care deeply about recently wrote an upsetting message to the congregation in the aftermath of the flotilla disaster. In the spirit of refraining from using lashon harah, the evil tongue, I would like to address his comments anonymously. (See his piece below)

I am very concerned with the message you presented to the community in the aftermath of the flotilla disaster. My concern stems from innocent statements which were made four days after the event, "[T]he more I learned about it, the more my reaction has evolved, "
The premise of my dissertation about peace education is that we are not literate enough to effectively manage our existing discourse with our Palestinian neighbors. As this research pertains to your statement, I must be critical of the learning, early judgment and pronouncement.
In Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), we learn, "To every thing there is a season." Four days after the horrible event is not the season to pass judgment. I would like to suggest that part of the discourse literacy we need to achieve peace is to follow King Solomon's words, "To every thing there is a season," with the same self control that we learn of from Ben Zoma, in Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, "Who is mighty? He who subdues his instinct. (4:1) "
It is our very human instinct to try to rationalize and defend our behavior. We cannot live with cognitive dissonance, the state of being in which our thoughts are inconsistent. It is hard to think of ourselves as good people and know that we have done wrong. This is the role of teshuvah, repentance, in Judaism. Jews understand we are flawed beings, "only human." We recognize our flaws, repent and try to turn them around. To try to make consonance of our actions with our positive self perception is, therefore, not very Jewish behavior. The Jewish response is in Pirkei Avot. We must try to subdue the instinct to always understand our behavior as consistent with our belief in our righteousness.
Now is not the time to judge the situation. Now is the time to call for an independent inquiry into the flotilla disaster.
During the month of Elul, we reflect on our sins and atone. We do this secondarily with God. First we do it with those who we have wronged. It is not a Kantian endeavor. We don't look into a mirror. We address the other. It is dialectical. Having the Israeli Defense Force or the government investigate itself is not the way Jews address their behavior.
You claim that, "Israeli soldiers initially fired paintballs, and only resorted to live artillery when attacked." This is what I call convenient information, at this stage in our understanding of the events. It works wonders on the dissonance we are feeling, but it hasn't gone through the critical inquiry we need to attempt to honestly understand what happened. Where does your information come from?
You said that, "[T]he turning point for me came when listening to a radio report from the British Broadcasting Corporation." In that report you heard a woman activist say," I would do it again tomorrow. It shows the terror and murderers of the Israeli government."
To this you responded, "[T]his activist would sacrifice human life to illustrate and publicize her feelings toward Israel. This kind of reaction is the opposite of the values of Israel, which two years ago released hundreds of prisoners to ensure the safe return of three civilians."
I would like to suggest that these are two very different dialogues. The activist was addressing the world when she said she wants to expose Israel. Israel was addressing two audiences; the world and Israel, internally.
On one hand, there was a complicated Jewish message to the world which needs to be unpacked. We love our sons and daughters and will do a lot to bring them home. This is why I explained to my son that after the first soldier was seen being beaten by the flotilla activists, we continued to send more troops. But there is more to this Jewish message to the world.
My son asked, "Why not just shoot from the helicopter?" This very innocent question reveals a lot. Maybe, as Israel suggests, they didn't expect to be confronted with violence from peace activists. I would like to believe something different. It is the argument we made when we sent infantry into Jenin during the second intifada instead of bombing from above and obtaining the military objectives without loss of Israeli lives. "We love all of God's creations and will do our best to protect their lives." This perspective is moral, in a vacuum, and somewhat innocent. Could it be that Israel sent our soldiers onto the boat to speak to the activists instead of fight with them? With all of my Zionist ethos, I wish this were the case, but so much time elapsed before the confrontation that it just doesn't seem plausible that Israel found it most wise to board the ship at four in the morning to discuss peaceful resolution to the situation.
The second message from Israel is to herself. It is about maintaining order within. If the government did not make painful efforts to bring home our soldiers, it would communicate to all the parents, like me, who have Israeli children, "Don't be so certain that when we send your children off to war that we will do everything in our power to return them." This is a major problem today when Israel faces four years of the absence of our kidnapped soldier, Gilad Shalit, whose parents continuously reminds us in the Israeli media that Israel is not doing enough to return their son.
The last part of your message is really the most upsetting to me. You said, "Israel is not perfect, and we should not expect it to be." As Jews we should aspire for perfection. If Israel is just a normal country, as many Israelis and Jews want it to be, then what does this say about the events of 1948, 1967, and the entire Zionist endeavor?
I am not a Zionist simply because I want to have a homeland for Jews in the historical home of my people. That is only a part of the dream. And it is not because I understand that Jews need a refuge from anti-Semitism, that is a reality forced upon me. I am a Zionist because I think our intellectual inheritance has provided something special and important for us to offer the world. Certainly, we cannot fulfill our purpose if we are destroyed by anti-Semitism or disappear by lack of interest and commitment. Likewise, I believe that much of our purpose is fulfilled in our historic homeland. But we definitely cannot fulfill our mission if we don't expect the highest of moral standards for our collective endeavors.
To excuse our behavior with a lack of moral imperative, or because, as you say,"[Israel] is surrounded by countries that oppose its very existence," is to rationalize and excuse the deep inconsistency between our behavior and our purpose. Israel will be a normal country, if it is only, " a modern-day miracle," as you claim. But anyone who reads the books of the prophets understands that miracles were not arbitrary. They were intentional.
It is not enough to be, "a place where persecuted Jews found hope and a culture was reborn." There are many cultures in the world. Jews live comfortably and contribute much from the diaspora. If we want a country, there has to be more. Israel should be a culture of peace with aspirations for justice. This requires serious introspection and teshuva, interactive atonement among neighbors. Excusing our behaviors prematurely to make us feel good about our existence is not a recipe for peace nor justice. It is not the Jewish answer to statehood.

Dr. David J. Steiner

The "Free Gaza" Flotilla and Its Aftermath

The recent incident involving the "Free Gaza" flotilla and Israeli Navy has generated enormous publicity. It is saddening and tragic. I must admit that when I first heard the news reports, I said to myself, "How could Israel have done this?" Yet, the more I learned about it, the more my reaction has evolved.

I am thinking not only of the violence--clearly illustrated on video--engaged in by the "nonviolent" protesters, and the indication that Israeli soldiers initially fired paintballs, and only resorted to live artillary when attacked. These are important facts, but the turning point for me came when listening to a radio report from the British Broadcasting Corporation.
The BBC is not known for being pro-Israel. Yet, in interviewing one of the leading activists on the flotilla, its reporter asked her if she had any regrets in leading the "humanitarian" mission that resulted in at least nine deaths. The reporter wondered if--given the subsequent loss of life--the activists regretted not accepting the Israeli offer (prior to the raid of the ship) to deliver its humanitarian supplies to Gaza. She replied, "Absolutely not. I would do it again tomorrow. It shows the terror and murderers of the Israeli government." 

In other words, this activist would sacrifice human life to illustrate and publicize her feelings toward Israel. This kind of reaction is the opposite of the values of Israel, which two years ago released hundreds of prisoners to ensure the safe return of three civilians, and which has already begun an investigation into what happened aboard the "Free Gaza" ship.  

Israel is not perfect, and we should not expect it to be. Neither should we automatically excuse wrong-headed acts simply because they are done by Israel. Yet, we cannot refuse to recognize the predicament in which Israel lives. It has an extraordinarily strong military and vibrant economy, yet it is surrounded by countries that oppose its very existence. Even with deep-seated problems among its own political and religious leadership, it remains a modern-day miracle, a place where persecuted Jews found hope and a culture was reborn. The vast majority of its citizens yearn to live in peace with its neighbors. It is our obligation to bring this fleeting dream closer to reality. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Explaining the attack on the flotilla to my ten year old son

I could start by kvelling about my ten year old who is so concerned with world events and justice, but that would be inappropriate the day after 9 (or more) people were killed by my army on the high seas.
I could also start by condemning the actions of the government which led to this catastrophe, but that would be uncritically assessing a very complex situation, something that goes against my democratic sensibilities.
I will start with the pain I feel for the deaths of 9 civilians whose families will miss them forever and whose country folk will make martyrs of them, further perpetrating the violent animosity.
Last night my children couldn't watch the news with us. They were terrified by the images of Israeli soldiers being beaten by angry mobs of metal rod bearing thugs. This is what they saw before they ran away to their bedrooms. This is what many Israelis will see and never look deeper. But in a democratic country, a country not defined exclusively by free elections (only 63% of Israelis voted in our last election, the lowest number ever) but by democratic values, it is incumbent upon citizens to look deep and ask challenging questions. This is what my son did this morning as he grilled me on the situation.
"Why did we drop our soldiers into a boat of angry people with clubs?" "Why didn't they just shoot from the helicopters?" "What was on the boat that was so important they had to fight over it?" "Why didn't Israel just let the boat go to where it was headed?" OK, I will kvell for a second. My son asks great questions. The challenge is answering him in a way he can understand and come to conclusions for himself, unlike the way Israeli citizens will be answered by their government.
There are some answers I cannot portent to provide at this point in time. I want my son to know that I don't have all the answers and that there are good and bad ways of acquiring them. I tell him that we will need an independent commission of inquiry (not in those words although I do work to improve his vocabulary) into the situation. I explain that we cannot expect the army or government to investigate themselves, and get full disclosure of the facts. For his sake, I compare this to him fighting with his sisters. When we ask him what happened, does he ever say 'I acted wrong. I should have thought more before…'?
"Why didn't Israel just shoot from the helicopters?" I through this question back at him. "Why?" His response was exactly where I hoped it would be as a result of my parenting. "If we did that, we would probably kill a lot more people." For my son, this was a great answer. My fear is that in Israel we will take this to illustrate how "moral" we are and how highly we value human life, but that is a crock of … (I won't say it). Asking questions on their own, without context is a great way of getting the answers you want instead of the answers you need to hear. There is no way to examine this issue without the remaining questions. "What was on the boat that was so important they had to fight over it?" and "Why didn't Israel just let the boat go to where it was headed?"
These questions really address the crux of the matter and open up a slew of other important questions. It is important to address the question "What was on the boat that was so important they had to fight over it?" in a manner befitting the situation. We were told that there was humanitarian aid. We can't be sure without checking? We had to weigh the possibilities of not checking and having "bad stuff" get into Gaza, against the possibilities of blocking aid from getting to people who need it.
Here I didn't go into all the details because it is a lot for the young mind of my son. There is a precedent for dishonesty and smuggling "bad stuff" into Gaza, I told him. I didn't know how to explain that Gaza is ruled by Hamas, a terror organization that won the Palestinian election and lost control over the majority of Palestinian territory in a violent civil conflict with Fatah. I didn't try to explain that many of my Palestinian friends told me that they couldn't vote for Fatah any longer because of the corruption, even if they didn't vote Hamas. I didn't try to explain that the Palestinian election system can run two candidates from the same party on one ticket against one from the opposition ending in loss by plurality. These are the kinds of information I expect my fellow citizens to look for when they judge our neighbors, but my son is too young to understand this.
What was hardest to explain was that Israel has been conducting a siege of Gaza and blocking humanitarian aid to its civilians in order to get Hamas out of power. This point I considered explaining. I had an analogy, the South Africa divestiture movement I participated in as a college student, except in that case the people who would suffer from the lack of aid were the ones who asked for the divestment. Gazans, whether they agree with Hamas or not, want to rebuild their homes after the devastation of the war we had with them two winters ago. They want medical supplies and food. I was embarrassed to tell my son that Israel was spreading videos on You Tube showing that Gaza has plenty of food and supplies. What would I tell him, that what really matters is what people think about the bad things you do not whether they are bad in and of themselves?
Why didn't Israel just let the boat in is also complicated? Many will claim that that would be a terrible precedent. I told my son that this question is great and asked him how he might have done this. He said, "Can't America check what's on the boats for us?" He said, "If it's not bombs and guns, then why not let the people deliver the stuff?" Again I kvell. My son's insight was amazing. Would it have been so hard to seek a neutral inspector for these boats? On one hand, Israel claims that they acted according to international law, on the other, they reject the involvement of international bodies designed to prevent these types of situations. How crazy is this?
In the Judaism that I grew up with, that makes me want to live in Israel, that makes me want to be a rabbi, we have a saying that goes, "whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:8 (37a)" Islam shares this saying. I cannot understand, and I can surely not explain to my son, how it is that our Jewish homeland and country has not acted according to this very important and contemporary value.