Thursday, September 23, 2010

An Open letter to President Abbas

Dear President Abbas,

It's Sukkot and while we are celebrating and wishing one another moadim b'simcha, joyous times, there is a shadow hanging over our heads. The shadow is violence which may occur if you choose to leave the peace talks because our prime minister chooses not to continue the building freeze in the West Bank.
Before I continue, I would like to remind you of a letter I wrote you, which I hope you read, back when our prime minister told you to recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition of peace. At that time, I encouraged you not to acquiesce. My reason was simple. I didn't want to lighten the definition of a Jewish state by having it determined from without. I encouraged you to refrain on the grounds that you are not capable of judging the Jewish quality of the state. I know that there is much more involved, that it would hurt your position vis a vis refugees, but taking my stance achieves the same goal, and I continue to urge you to not comment on the religious qualities of my state, even if this gives Prime Minister Netanyahu a chance to walk away from the talks.
Your walking away is different. It raises the possibility of a resurgence of violence accompanied by pain and fear on both sides. I want desperately to avoid this scenario. Usually, as a democratic minded person, I believe that my efforts must be directed at my own role in the situation. I can't change what others do and I must control myself, but the Netanyahu government is teaching me the meaning of Winston Churchill's famous quote, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." While other forms are far from perfect, in democracy we suffer the tyranny of majorities, or in Israel's case, the tyranny of the number 2 party and its cronies.
This Sunday, when both of us learn what my government has chosen to do with regard to building, we will be in the beginning of the week in which we read the first portion of the Torah. I know the high regard the Prophet Mohammad had for our book and its people, so I will appeal to your understanding of the book and its message regarding Genesis and the first humans.
Of course, I can only guess at the authorial intent of this great piece of literature, but I am quite certain that the message of two parents, Adam and Eve, for all of humanity is that we are siblings and must treat one another as family. This is challenged when we get the message that siblings fight and even kill one another.
"Am I my brother's keeper?" This brilliant stroke of the pen conveys the interdependence of humanity. It also conveys that ultimately we can only control our own behavior. In Judaism, our rabbi's redefine a hero as one who "conquers one's instincts." This is what I am asking of you.
If on Sunday we both awake to renewed building, I imagine that your instinct will be to pull away. Why should you trust someone who speaks from both sides of his mouth, asking for peace while continuing to build the major obstacle to reconciliation? But I implore you to be a hero and conquer this instinct because the alternative is worse. You may consider yourself justified in responding to aggression with aggression, but you won't serve either side well by letting loose the specter of violence. The Al Aksa Intifada, you have proclaimed, was a failure for your cause. Walking away from the talks could be the mother of all failures. Walking away and letting loose the will of violent instincts will not achieve peace, it will destroy hope.
While I asked you once to not judge the Jewishness of my country, today I am asking you to listen to our rabbis, the sages of the Talmud, and be a hero. Conquer your instinct and do what you can to remain vigilant about the long term goal, peaceful co-existence between our nations in this land which we both treasure. While Prime Minister Netanyahu may feel he has won a battle, ultimately, your heroics will end the war.

Best wishes and joyous times,

David Jay Steiner, EdD.
Tel Aviv, Israel

Saturday, September 11, 2010

An open letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,

Shana Tova to you and your family.
My family moved back to Israel after a 13 year hiatus in Chicago where I received my doctorate. Before that, in 1990, we moved back to Israel just in time to help elect Yitzhak Rabin, z''l, to the premiership. We left around the time of the beginning of your first tenure at prime minister.
I remember the early Oslo period as a time of euphoria punctuated with some of the worst expressions of hatred and cynicism ever. Once, a suicide bomber took his life within a football field from my apartment in Tel Aviv, and, for three hours, I searched the area for my wife and newborn daughter wondering what would happen to my capacity to hope and dream of peace if they were taken from me. My high school roommate told me that he commanded soldiers who were killed on either side of him in the first Lebanon War and, despite all logic, he cannot trust Arabs. I didn't want that to happen to me, and I don't think that is a luxury we Israelis have.
Hope is at the core of being Jewish. It, literally, is our national anthem. We live in hope and anticipation. Just think for a moment about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai who insisted that we plant trees in this world before greeting the messiah. Think of Honi the Circle Maker who taught us, through his experience, that planting trees for future generations is one of our most holy expressions of faith.
Much of our hope rests on your shoulders today. We are full of hope that you will lay the foundations for peace for this and future generations. My personal hope is that you have the strength of character that Yochanan had when he saw our people eating straw because the Thugs and Zealots had burned their food in a cynical attempt to cause a rebellion. Yochanan didn't join the infighting of the people. He rose above the pettiness and snuck out of Jerusalem in order to sue for peace. This could be how we remember you.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, we just ended the month of Elul in which our efforts were focused on self reflection. Now we are approaching the Day of Atonement on which we will take collective responsibility for our nation. With humility, we will chant aloud, "ASHAMNU: we have been guilty, BAGADNU: we have betrayed, GAZALNU: we have stolen, DIBARNU DOFI: we have spoken falsely." What self knowledge and beliefs will stand behind these words?
Why are we guilty? Have we been less than completely sincere about our intentions for peace? Are we guilty of allowing the Palestinians under our military rule to live for 43 years without civil rights?
Who have we betrayed? Have we betrayed the sacred command, "Do onto others as you would onto yourself." Have we betrayed the words of King Solomon in the Proverbs, "Seek peace and pursue it."
What have we stolen? There are many in Israel who claim that Judea and Samaria are part of the booty of the Six Day War. Other's remind us of the Geneva Convention that makes this illegal. While I fully stand behind the Geneva Conventions, I can understand the argument that loosing land is a risk of starting a war. This, theoretically, is a deterrent. Still, the subject of processing land is fraught with complexities, and it is not so simple that we can rightfully say that Israel won the right in battle or that it was promised to us by God without consideration of the residents. Just think of the respect Abraham showed for the Hittites shortly after God promised him the land. He bought the Cave of the Patriarchs to bury Sarah because he respected the indigenous people. Land comes with responsibility for the residents.
How have we spoken falsely? I would suggest that by asking the Palestinian President to say that Israel is a Jewish state as a condition for advancing peace is speaking falsely because it puts an impassible obstacle in front of the peacemakers. In Israel, we are far from understanding what it fully means to be a Jewish state. We have not reconciled being Jewish and being democratic. While our Torah tells us to have one law for ourselves and the strangers amongst us (Leviticus 19:34), we have at least two types of citizenships in the country, not to mention the status of those in the Land who have no civil rights.
Mr. Prime Minister, I don't love clich├ęs, but I want you to know that many of us prefer a land of peace than a piece of land. We also see no distinction between our Judaism and our democratic values. In fact, we see democracy as a cornerstone of those values, while we have not found a consensus on the definition of a Jewish State, we are very happy existing in the machloket (debate), as long as it remains civil.
What we don't want is to be the pariah of the world, to be thought of as a nation that does not respect the rights of all of its residents or its neighbors, to exist as the "neighborhood bully," in the Middle East.
You have a unique opportunity to fulfill the hopes, dreams and responsibilities of our people. You will not be judged better for the amount of land you retain. You will not be evaluated with distinction for the level to which we monopolize the natural resources of our region. You will build your legacy on your ability, like Honi the Circle Maker and his date palm or Yochanan and the academy he built in Yavne - outside of Jerusalem, to start a process that we need to continue as a peace loving, democracy craving, justice loving people.
God speed in your very important mission and Shana Tova to all of Israel and the world.
Best wishes,
Dr. David J. Steiner
Tel Aviv, Israel

Friday, September 10, 2010

Response to the letter of support for Israeli actors boycotting performance in Ariel and the West Bank

It's Rosh Hashana, the birthday of the world in our tradition, and I cannot think of a better birthday gift than the pursuit of justice. This is why I am writing to you about the letter you signed supporting the Israeli-Jewish actor boycott of the West Bank.
As some may know about me, I detest the occupation. I wrote my dissertation about peace education between Israelis and Palestinians, I moved back to Israel to be an active force in changing the politics of my homeland, and I am studying to be a rabbi to have the credentials and the learning to engage our people in a serious discourse about this terrible injustice done in the name of all Israelis and Jews. And yet, I am very concerned with the development of this boycott mentality within us as a people.
For certain, we have always had infighting. The Thugs (Biryonim) and Zealots (Kanaim) in Jerusalem were willing to burn the food supplies of their fellow Jews to encourage a rebellion against the Roman occupiers. Korach and others rebelled against the leadership of Moses. Jewish infighting is not a new phenomenon. But now we have a country of our own and we have to strengthen the institutions within which we conduct our discourse.
As I write, I am cognizant of Martin Luther King's letter from the Birmingham jail in which he left us the brilliant statement, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." In this letter, King tells us that, "The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation." But the actors' boycott of West Bank is not intended to open any doors. It actually closes them.
Noah Efron, a Bar-Ilan University lecturer and member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa City council, wrote that,
the only chance we have of making proper sense of the world around us is if we see what surrounds us in all its complexity, and if we are alive to voices different from our own… Arguably, artists and scholars ought to seek venues in Ariel, and other settlements, and to energetically hunt for opportunities to challenge those who live there and to be challenged in return. If we believe in the power of what we do, we ought doubly to wish to debate it with those who see matters differently.

I do not fully agree with Efron. We should seek to debate the collective policies of our country. The tyranny of the majority is exactly why Winston Churchill says of democracy that it is a terrible system, except for all the rest. But we can overcome that by creating as many venues for civil discourse as possible without asking our artists an scholars to compromise their values and perform in settlements that they believe are illegal and immoral.
On the other hand, in an opinion piece in Haaretz,, Theodore Bikel, unintentionally, gave me the reason to oppose the boycott as a collective effort of Israeli artists. He refers to "Pablo Casals, the world-famous cellist, who chose life-long exile from his native Spain because of the fascist dictator who ruled the beloved country of his birth, [and] said this: 'My cello is my weapon; I choose where I play, when I play, and before whom I play.'” My art and my scholarship are not weapons. They are my voice, and when they become weapons, I have changed my perspective relative to the discourse. I believe in civil discourse.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their book "Metaphors we live by" argue that the metaphors we use become the frames that shape our thinking and behavior. I cannot chose raising weapons on my people, even those who I detest politically. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the avowed pacifist Catholic theologian who was executed for his efforts to assassinate Hitler, I agree that there is a time to fight and even kill, but that is a last resort. At this time, our efforts should be directed at engagement and discourse. A boycott is an act of force. I prefer not to end the occupation through force. I want to end it through creative, democratic exchange. In the Arab market in Jerusalem they sell t-shirts with a slogan that explains my feelings. "Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity." I think the idea of boycotts, other than possibly against corporations, is pregnant with negative ramifications. It brings us down to their playing field. It makes our means inconsistent with our ends.
The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and the Palestinian Call for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel are both intent on forcing Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank. While I concur with this limited goal, I disagree with the means. Likewise, Im Tirzu, the right wing, Israeli political organization funded in part by Rev. John Hagee, uses the same methods to force their way on internal Israeli opponents. Recently, they threatened to bring their protest to funders of Ben Gurion University in order to make donations for the academy conditioned on their political will. Both of these examples are uses of force for political gain, and neither is willing to attempt to achieve their aspirations through discourse. To my sensibility, this is McCarthyism for the 21st century.
Since I opened this door, let me say one small thing about McCarthyism. My absolute favorite response to Senator McCarthy and his ilk was the movie Salt of the Earth (1954) written by Michael Wilson, directed by Herbert J. Biberman, and produced by Paul Jarrico, all blacklisted by the Hollywood film industry. Instead of fighting censorship and fascism, they engaged it, creatively, in the public realm. This might be what the actors of Israeli theater troupes should be doing in Ariel. Noah Efron suggests, " At the end of each show, they could turn up the house lights and enter into discussion and debate with the audience. Such meetings would be heated, no doubt, but they might help thaw the frozen seas inside those of us who live in Tel Aviv and in Ariel alike." Again, I like the intentions, but I question the methods.
Performing in Ariel is legitimizing the occupation. I don't travel on Highway 443 because it cuts through the West Bank on its way to Jerusalem. I am not as diligent about East Jerusalem. I travel there to protest in Sheik Jarrah, which is fine, but I also visit friends in East Talpiot. I always bring guests from abroad to the Old City, and I travel to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian activists and scholars. These issues are very complicated. One of the most beautiful things about our Hebrew language is its complexity. Appropriately, for our conversation, the three letter root of the Hebrew word for "abstraction" (hafshata) is also the root for the word "simple" or "literal" (pshat). In English we say, it’s a thin line between love and hate.
I am not afraid of complexity. Another great movie that deals with this issue is The American President. For most of the film, the president, portrayed by Michael Douglas, does not want to engage his opponent, played by Richard Dreyfus, about attacks on his personal behavior because he is not willing to go down to his level. Eventually, he decides that the time has come and he fights fire with fire. "There is a time for every purpose under heaven." Maybe the time has come.
It is impossible to have this type of conversation, when Israel is involved, without referring to our sages. There are two brilliant references that should be considered in this situation. When faced with the infighting that ensued after the destruction of the Second Temple, Yochanan ben Zakai snuck out of Jerusalem in a coffin in order to sue for peace. It wasn't a democratic move. He acted on his own, but, in doing so, he saved the Jewish people from destroying themselves from within.
The other example is the chevruta, the study partnership, of Reish Lakish and Rebbe Yochanan. After converting Reish Lakish from a life of crime into a life of piety, Rebbe Yochanan verbally spars with his student in the classroom. This leads to Reish Lakish's death. Not having clear civil borders for the discourse ends in tragedy. In recalling their study partnership, Yochanan remembers how through a process of challenging each other with 24 questions they get to the fullest understanding of the subject. While I certainly agree that individual artists and scholars should not engage in behaviors that offend their moral and political sensibilities, I think you have an obligation, if you want to boycott collectively, to create alternative frameworks for engaging your political opponent. It is not only for their fair participation in the decisions of the larger collective, it is for everyone's benefit in achieving the fullest understanding of the issues.
This is the kind of pluralistic discourse I want for my country. I don't want pluralism because I like every idea out there. I want pluralism because I have the humility to know that I don't have all the answers in here. Furthermore, while I am not an advocate of nationalism, I am fully intent on working with my country men and women to make our homeland the best that it can be. A country, for better or worse, is not a marriage. We cannot simply end all our conflicts be divorcing ourselves of one another, and we ought not end them through force. This could very well be why the sages put the family and marriage at the center of our community life. They did create an escape. We have divorce in Judaism. By our hopes and dreams are for healthy homes and families in Israel. This includes finding ways to constructively, as equals, get beyond our problems and work for the fulfillment of our dreams.