Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The rapist, the politician and the definition of Jewish Identity

Reading the news about Sabbar Kashur, the Arab man going to prison for sleeping with a Jewess while posing as a Jew, in the same sitting as I read about the Rotem Conversion Bill and Avrum Burg’s new Arab-Jewish political party, Shivyon Yisrael, Equality for Israel, I cannot help but question what it means to be a Jew.

In the case of the woman who consented to sleep with Mr. Kashur, being Jewish was in name and race. Sabbar’s nickname was Dudu. Even his wife called him by this variation on the Hebrew name Daveed, as in the king. I don’t know the personal beliefs of Mr. Kashur, but as a Palestinian, he comes from one of two (possibly three) monotheistic religions. He’s also not a foreigner in this land. All this leads me to conclude that Kashur’s “crime” was not his lie, Jews embellish on J-Date all the time, it was his race or ethnicity or whatever you want to call being a Palestinian Arab. In this sense, for Mr. Kashur’s accuser, Judaism is her race, not his.

For Yisrael Beiteinu’s Dudu, David Rotem, Jewish is both something that jives, exclusively, with his orthodox religious beliefs and serves as a form of legitimization for the over a hundred thousand immigrants from the former Soviet Union, his constituents. He didn’t bring his bill to the Knesset floor to offend Diaspora Jews. He didn’t have the foresight to think about it. He was advancing the political will of his beliefs and his party. This political jockeying is one of the byproducts of being a people with a state. Rotem’s Judaism is orthodoxy and the orthodox stamp of approval.

For Avrum Burg, being Jewish is a personal praxis of individuals who consider themselves within the big tent of Judaism. (I may be doing a disservice to Mr. Burg who probably would reject Jews for Jesus and others like them.) I think Avrum is juggling three identities; Jewish, Israeli and democrat. It may be hard for someone outside of Israel to conceptualize the struggle we have as democratic people who want to preserve the refuge status of Israel for Jews and not just be a country with a Jewish majority. Once, former Meretz leader Yosi Sarid, in his vulgar way, said that in his wet dreams he wakes up and there are no Arabs here. I’m not even sure that fantasy is good for the Jews. We have a lot to learn from our co-nationals, as they from us, and their presence here reminds us that we were never alone in this land. For Avrum Burg, and probably Yosi Sarid, Judaism is the private religious choice of individuals. It is not state business.

There is one thing that should be pointed out above all; in the 21st century, identity is not reified. It is fluid. For instance, I am studying to be a rabbi. Both schools which I attended in this pursuit are non-denominational. Some people ask, what kind of rabbi will you be? My standard answer is, “A good rabbi.” I can guarantee you that when I am looking for a job, if need be, I will declare a denominational identity. This is what it means to say that identity is fluid. For me, being a Jew is living within the Jewish myth.

In Israel, there are two identities in an I.D. card; national and religious. The purpose of national identity is clear. Can you vote? Must you pay taxes? Will you travel with an Israeli passport? The purpose of the religious identity is less clear. Donniel Hartman, in his book The Boundaries of Judaism says that Israel has adopted the lowest common denominator definition of a Jew, someone with a Jewish grandparent, the same as the Nazi definition. The reason for this is that part of Israel’s purpose is to remain a refuge for Jews, something most of us agree upon. The State of Israel has come up with a different reason for defining Judaism, to create authority over the various religious groups in Israel. Here, in Israel, each religion has a czar of its own.

MK David Rotem’s conversion bill is about the authority of official Judaism in Israel. Rotem was, on one hand, strengthening his orthodox cronies, on the other, he may have been trying to cater to his constituents who have difficulty becoming legitimized as Jews. Either way you look at it, any Orthodox converted immigrant from the former Soviet Union who would have a sexual encounter with Mr. Kashur’s accuser would not be required to give his pedigree nor would he have to explain his religious beliefs. Simply put, the Kashur case is about official Israeli racism toward Arabs.

I don’t know about you, but racism is not part of my Jewish values. It is historically true that defining ourselves in contrast to others has always been part of defining who we are. This is not unusual, even among non-Jews. It’s also true that Judaism traditionally discouraged intermingling. But this is not the problem we are addressing.

There is a tension in Israel between being a state of Jews and a Jewish state. We need a refuge for Jews. This is a given. We may also believe that whatever it is that we define as Jewish is valuable, otherwise we wouldn’t choose to remain Jewish in a world where we are free to assimilate. But the big question is whether a state can have a character. France is dealing with this at the expense of their democracy by not allowing free religious expression. Israel is dealing with it at the expense of Diaspora Judaism and non-Jewish citizens (which also hurts our democracy).

If a state can have a character and we want our state’s character defined by Judaism, then there remains the question of how we determine what Judaism is? Donniel Hartman, head of the Shalom Hartman Institute where I learn, writing on the Conversion Bill and the affect the bill has on Israel-Diaspora relations, says that “Israel must be a place …where the various Judaisms of the Jews have footholds and a place of respect.” (Notice, he doesn’t say Israeli Jews.) Ari Elon, a Hartman fellow, in his wonderful book From Jerusalem to the edge of heaven, suggests a difference between Judaism and Jewishness. Neither of them address, specifically, the Arab members of Israeli society, but both are known to value democracy.

Having a Jewish character and being a state of one form of Judaism seem mutually exclusive. Jews have always been varied in their praxis and belief. What we need to do is separate religion from the state’s powers and maintain a Jewish character. This will require change from all parties to the discussion. Who is a Jew is too important a question to be left to politicians. It requires all of our input and a willingness to engage each other as legitimate equals. Can we stand up to this challenge? I don’t know. When Yochanan Ben Zakai fled Jerusalem to sue for peace from the Roman captors, we was not acting as the spokesperson for the people, even if he acted on their behalf. Maybe what we need is a Yochanan Ben Zakai, maybe just a large table where we can sit together and talk. Whatever the case, let’s not leave ourselves out of the discussion. The ramifications are too big to be left to others to decide for us. Chazak, Chazak v’nitchazek.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Finally, a pushke with my vision of Israel

Living in America, I was starting to feel like a doctor (not of education, which I am.) Every time I would push my check into the blue pushke, I would take the Hippocratic oath, “do no harm,” and write in the memo line, “Not for use over the Green Line.” Now I am asking myself, what was I thinking all those years.
This past Sunday, I went on a rabbinic tour of Tel Aviv with the New Israel Fund. It accomplished exactly what it had intended. It showed us how the money donated to this alternative vision of Israel is spent. I am reluctant to say “new” because the NIF vision is the one I was raised on as a child in Habonim. If only I wrote my checks to NIF all these years, I would have been able to feel like I was part of the solution, not the problem, and I would have been a participant in forging the vision of Israel I was supporting.

Our Sunday NIF trip through Tel Aviv started, of all places, in the NIF offices in Jerusalem at a breakfast with former member of Knesset, Avrum Burg. What a delight! Avrum came in to the room and shamed me. How can I take of the leisure of being pessimistic about Israel when he is such an optimist, especially Avrum Burg, the man maligned for expressing the evil (sarcasm intended) opinion that we need to come out from the ashes of the Holocaust and start thinking about what kind of society we want. Avrum told us about the work of the New Israel Fund in Israel and the meager beginnings of the organization which started 30 years ago in the Bay Area with a mere $80,000. This was clearly a Herzlian story of “if you will it, it is no dream.” The lions share of his talk was not about the external threats. It was about what Israel could be. Ironically, or maybe intentionally, days before Tisha B’Av, Avrum also discussed Sinat Chinam, infighting, and looking for a way to end this 2000 year old Jewish virus.

Our next stop was Tel Aviv. We met at one of the beneficiary organizations of the NIF, the Hotline for Foreign Workers. This was truly amazing. Hotline for Foreign Workers is an open society organization started by volunteers who were concerned with a prevalent problem is Israeli society which was not address by its creators, the government. Israel, since the first Intifada, has been trying to wean itself of Palestinian labor. This is not an new story in the land of our forebears. I have a poster in my kitchen that says, “Hebrew watermelon,” which was the early Zionist call to support Jewish labor over Arab. Today things are worse. We have not managed to do what Ber Borochov and Nachman Syrkin prescribed for us, to flip the social/economic pyramid of the Jews who were excluded from European society for so long. In Israel we maintain the pyramid but change its base. To replace Palestinian labor, we bring outsiders to do our dirty work. This wouldn’t be a problem if, as our hosts explained, they didn’t behave like human beings and fall in love, hope to be treated with dignity and need the basics of human sustenance. In Israel, we seem to want laborers who were not made in the same image of God as we were.
The Hotline for Foreign Workers is a magnificent organization on the meta level because it is the fulfillment of Hillel’s teaching, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” The nuance is also superlative. They address the real problems of affordable housing, labor justice, the absurd Knesset attacks on the children of these foreign workers and now they have entered the new realm of dealing with foreign workers who didn’t come here by choice. They were chased away from their home countries. Yes, it is beautiful that the Moslem Sudanese man who now runs a computer center in South Tel Aviv decided that Israel was the best country to turn to of all the neighborhood, but it would be better if we welcomed him with the same Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming of guests, demonstrated by Abraham.

After lunch at Dr. Shukshuka in Yafo, we went to see how the other half lives. No, not the Israeli Jewish downtrodden, of which there are many, we went to the cousins in Yafo. Before I describe the visit further, I must disclose a terrible fact from my marriage. My wife, who is also not a fan of this, comes from a family that moved into a house in Yafo where dinner was still cooking on the stove when they arrived. Now, in all fairness to them, they had just arrived from Algiers, had no money and were confronting an Ashkenazi bureaucracy in Israel that was anything but sympathetic, but this is not the fault of the Arab family that fled their home trying to either escape Jewish attackers or fleeing with the hope of getting more when their brothers in Egypt got rid of the Jewish menace in Palestine. I am not planning to judge here the ethics of people who had to deal with existential questions in times of war. As a peace educator, I can only hope to prepare others for making better decisions in the future.

In Yafo with NIF, I learned about the close interconnection of economics and ideology. My impression is that Judaicizing Israel is exploited for the economic gain of the few. It is no wonder that the building contractors in the West Bank settlements are the biggest supporters of the right wing ideologues. In Yafo, the situation is very complicated. Arabs who left their dwellings and moved south but stayed in the general vicinity of their homes, those who didn’t get the luxury tents in Gaza, are now being forced to move again. This time the pressure is not military, it’s economic and legal.

From his Birmingham, Mississippi jail cell, Martin Luther King once wrote,

One may ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all.

I have difficulty understanding how anyone in Israel can see fairness in a law that forces Israeli citizens to leave their homes because of convoluted statutes that benefit the upper echelon of society. Maybe the Jewish state doesn’t always intend to live by the spirit of the Biblical call for equal justice between ourselves and the strangers amongst us. Are we just a state of Jews or do we want something Jewish about our character? Maybe if those affected by this miscarriage of justice were Jewish, people would be up in arms. This is why we need the New Israel Fund.
Remember when President Obama said, “There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.” Something of this spirit has to be part of the Israeli vision for itself. Jews have always lived with strangers among ourselves, otherwise God, the master of tzimtzum, sparing use of words, would not waste ink inscribing for us the command to have equal justice for the stranger. Ironically, it takes an American founded, Israeli non-governmental organization to remind us that the Jewish state, before all else, must maintain some of its Jewish character. And by this, I don’t mean forced orthodox weddings, but this is an issue for another blog post.

I am so glad to have been part of this NIF trip and thrilled not to have to write in the memo line of my checks, “not to be used over the Green Line.” Tzedaka given without fear of its misuse is much nicer than the experience with my blue pushke. The only problem now is that switching to the “dark side,” as NIF is often portrayed by the McCarthyistic right in Israel, will mean having to bring my brain. As an NIF donor, I will have to be cognizant of the fact that my shekels affect change and I will need to have a vision for that change. I will have to be a literate civilian in the Jewish nation, and I will have to maintain vigilance in the face of the fury of right wing attacks. I guess this is a small price to pay for a openly Jewish, Israeli society. Who know, maybe one day there wont be a difference between a Jewish state, a State of Jews and a modern democracy.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tisha B'Av food for thought

Forgetfulness prolongs the exile; remembrance is the secret of redemption. - The Ba'al Shem Tov

It is Tisha B’Av, 5770, and, as usual, I want to take our calendar seriously. Most people might say that means fasting. I’m not so certain. I understand that we take the loss of Jerusalem seriously. But things are different now. What did Jerusalem really mean to our people? What does it mean now? Was it the 2 square kilometers inside the Old City walls or was it a symbol for something more significant than land? Certainly it wasn’t the inflated Jerusalem of the cynical political leaders who claim that [greater] Jerusalem is the indivisible capital of Israel and the Jewish people. It is clear that Jerusalem was the center of our Jewish longings for two thousand years of exile. At weddings we said, and continue to say, “If I forget thee Jerusalem may my right hand wither…” (Psalms 137:5-6), and we break a glass to remember the sorrow over our loss, even in the midst of our most joyous celebrations. We sing and lament "By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion." (Psalms 137:1-2). We bury our dead with their feet in the direction of Jerusalem so that they can rise and start their trek back home upon the coming of the Messiah, and we comfort those who suffer a loss with the words, "May God comfort you among the other mourners for Zion and Jerusalem". But we also have the arguments in the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18b) about what will be of the rituals on the four minor fast days once we have “peace,” which can be understood many ways. Rav Papa held that, The ninth of Av is in a different category, because several misfortunes happened on it, as a Master has said: On the ninth of Av the Temple was destroyed both the first time and the second time, and Bethar was captured and the city [Jerusalem] was ploughed. Others believe that Megillat Ta’anit will be annulled based on the words of the prophet Zechariah “Thus saith the LORD of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons; therefore love ye truth and peace.” My inspiration comes from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai who had the ear and favor of the Roman ruler Vespasian and asked for Yavne, instead of Jerusalem. When he set up the post-Temple forms of Jewish practice, he didn’t insist on incense or small barbeque grills in the sanctuary to remind us of the sacrifices. He didn’t try to build a new Judaism that was wed to a specific land. The rituals I recall above relating to Jerusalem are not about a longing for the way we lived then. When we ask God to return us to the earlier days, we are not asking for the earlier rituals, we are asking for the sovereignty which we now enjoy. True, we do not have peace, as our forebears may have intended as a condition for changing the nature of Tisha B’Av ritual, but we have a country. The design of Tisha B’Av ritual was a use of historical, collective memory to affect our behavior and, more importantly, our longings. It was designed during a period when we didn’t have control over our destiny. Now we are like other nations with borders, inhabitants and neighbors. If anything, the function of Tisha B’Av needs to change. George Santayana claims that, “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” I am not suggesting that we forget. I don’t want to make the anniversary of our tragedy into a shopping holiday like Memorial Day has become in the United States. On the other hand, I think we can draw new conclusions. The tragedy of Jerusalem and the fall of Beitar can also be seen as blessings. We left our land for two thousand years and gathered many fruits. We are returning from all corners of the globe. We bring traditions from all over the world and our internal Jewish discourse is much richer than ever. The road to sovereignty was not easy. It had more and bigger potholes than a Chicago street in mid winter, yet we are finally here in our land. And those of us who haven’t joined the national project are free to remain where they are without fear of oppression. This is a great time to be a Jew. If you don’t believe me, imagine, for a moment, how your great, great grandparents might react if you brought them here from their ghettos. Today we have a strong Jewish army, a distinguished Supreme Court, rich Hebrew culture with feature films, songs and novels which are translated into every language. We had a Jewish vice-presidential candidate, Jews in the Baseball Hall of Fame and Jews, Israeli ones, traveling in space. I don’t know about you, but I’m positive that my ancestors would be in shock. Would they be pleased is another very important question. Did we really want the responsibilities of a national homeland all those years when we considered ourselves in exile or was it really one of those pipe dreams that make anticipation so fun? Some of us don’t think it is a pipe dream at all. They are planning the building of the Third Temple. Others, like the Naturei Karta, think we are causing cosmic disturbances by expediting the coming of the messiah. I am not for throwing the baby away with the bathwater, but my assessment of the Jewish situation today is that we have little to mourn and a lot of work to do. I don’t think we should cancel Tisha B’Av, but we should definitely reassess the curricular goals of our praxis. Why are we fasting? In Judaism we don’t even mourn the loss of our parents for a complete year. Why are we prolonging the mourning for a city that is again in our control? If the purpose of our mourning is to force us to be introspective about our actions and take responsibility for our grief, then I think we should keep the fast. What I love about Tisha B’Av is that we never made it a day about blaming Nebuchanezer, the Romans or our other tormentors. We blamed the destruction of the first Temple on our behavior in relationship to God, i.e. idol worship and improper moral behavior, and the destruction of the second Temple was about the poor relationships among ourselves and the infighting within the community. This model of introspection should be preserved, and I am willing to forsake my culinary pleasure to achieve this important goal, but not because I mourn Jerusalem and not because I want to return to the practices of yesteryear. Today we are a sovereign and free people. But we still have room for self reflection. Did we long for independence for two thousand year to have the biggest social gaps in the world behind the United States? Did we create a state to be led by corrupt and cynical politicians? Did we envision our country to be one where differing opinions and religious practices are frowned upon? We may not have complete control over our security and our relations with the neighbors, but at least we should do everything in our power to make those relationships right. This year on Tisha B’Av, let’s stick with the introspection, question the usefulness of fasting and think hard about what we want our redemption to look like. If we do this, and work at it together, just like Israel, the work of our hands, we will make great things happen.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Israel is not normal

The Wall Street Journal reported on July 8th about the declaration of a minyan of former legislators, executives and ambassadors who call themselves The Friends of Israel Initiative. Their claim, that Israel is a normal country. Of course, this is not new. David Ben Gurion declared it after the first rape occurred in Israel, or so the historical myth factory has it. In any case, both Ben Gurion and The Friends of Israel Initiative have it wrong. Israel is not a normal country, and this is its blessing and its curse.

Why a curse? Because statehood forces us to confront anti-Semitism differently. We now have a law on our books that grants immediate citizenship to any Jew who wants to become a citizen, regardless of belief of political inclination. In some ways, this is the same type of racial definition of Judaism that Hitler proposed. Dealing with anti-Semitism is not a normal problem and it is one Jews, as wanderers among nations, never had to confront as a nation-state with borders. In essence, the practical solution to anti-Semitism, the Israeli Law of Return, makes the country a refuge for almost anyone who had a Jewish grandparent with the exception of Al Capone's accountant, Meir Lansky, and a Catholic Monk named Brother Daniel who was converted to Catholicism to save his life during the Holocaust but was refused Israeli citizenship in the 1950's because of his beliefs.

Today, however, we have thousands of Jewish Israelis who profess beliefs in any number of religions, including Jews for Jesus, Buddhism and Islam. Likewise, with the establishment of an official Judaism in Israel – orthodoxy – many Jewish citizens now see their religion in conflict with their Israeli identity. These are not the problems of a normal nation.

Why is abnormality a blessing? Because it is our difference that gives purpose to our existence.

I believe that I live in Israel wherever I make my home, because being in Israel is not just the geographical designation most people give to the Jewish project taking place in the Land of Israel. Living in Israel is part of living in a grand old myth that believes the world is redeemable and that we have to pursue justice to redeem it. How, exactly, we pursue justice is a uniquely Jewish. Part of it is in our beliefs, much in our ritual. We believe that we are a nation that was oppressed and found salvation in freedom and obligation. We left Egypt to become a free nation and chose to live within a covenant.

If there were no anti-Semitism, being Jewish would only be about choosing to live within the covenant, and our biggest concern would be how we interpret that covenant. Without anti-Semitism, we would be equal but different from other nations. But we live with anti-Semitism, thus we are forced to have a balance between a state of Jews, as defined from the outside, and a Jewish state, which we constantly redefine from within.

If the State of Israel were not to aspire to synchronize itself with the covenant of Israel, I would not support it. But we declare ourselves to "be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel." Everything else we declare is frosting on the cake of Western Democracy; to "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all [our] inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; [to] guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; [to] safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and [to] be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations."

The meeting point of Israel, the people, with the modern realities of nation states and continued anti-Semitism force us to live in a balance between secular, Western democratic values and Jewish values. The nexus of many of these values is quite clear. How we Jews get there is uniquely Jewish, and I wouldn't trade that for all the normality in the world.