Sunday, July 31, 2011

Of Tents and Tea Parties

Today I’m feeling like I decided to remain with the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menasheh on the other side of the Jordan. It’s hard to live in the Diaspora, especially in a time of great pride for all Israelis, really all Jews. More than 150,000 people took to the streets in Israel (the greatest number since the demonstrations surrounding the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in the first Lebanon War) to demand of their government the kind of society they want; I want. They were shouting, "the people demand social justice" and "we want justice, not charity." I wanted to take out my Israeli identity card and wear it on my chest. I feel like wrapping myself in the flag.
Living with a dual identity, American and Israeli, I naturally compare the two countries. In Israel, a tent revolution, how natural for a people who lived in sukkot as they traveled from slavery to freedom. In America, a tea revolution, also natural given the historical source of the name, but unfortunate in that it is far from the idealism that inspired the break from the British monarchy.
The Arab spring has reached Israel’s impermanent borders. It has penetrated the violence of the occupied territories and the injustices of the blockade of Gaza and reached the citizens in Beer Sheva, Jerusalem, Ashdod, Nazareth and especially Tel Aviv. But this is not a reaction to tyranny. Our tent revolution is a tikkun in the trajectory of the self correcting vector of Jewish existence. Judaism has always sought to better itself, and it has always been the work of mindful Jews who insist on staying loyal to our people’s pursuit of justice and human dignity.
In light of Israel’s tent revolution, the Tea Party in America looks particularly shallow and selfish. Just like many things in this “land of power and glory,” as Phil Ochs so proudly referred to it, we Americans have come to resemble the brands of our existence and not the substance within. The Tea Party is not a revolt against injustice and tyranny. It is a bastardization of a great collective memory we Americans share of a moment in time when we said no to taxation without representation, not to taxation.
In reflecting on the difference between the tent revolution in Israel and the Tea Party in America, I have come to the conclusion that language really matters and that the Hebrew word for taxation, maas, is so much more representative of what we citizens should feel as we contribute to our own societies. Maas could be translated as taxes, but it also means “dues,” and dues are part of what we owe to each other. In this sense, Jews who traditionally contributed two taxes, the universal half shekel and the tithe, understood that citizenship is a reciprocal relationship. As we learn in the Talmud (Talmud, Shevuot 39a), “All of Israel are guarantors of each other.” But in America, taxes, those dollars that go to the salaries of our armed forces, our police, our teachers, the men and women who pave our streets, the people who collect our garbage and many more, these taxes are branded as evil. When President Bush spoke his now infamous words, “read my lips, no new taxes,” he knew what he was saying. Even though he couldn’t keep his promise, he knew that he would get further appealing to the based greed of humanity rather than the civilized dignity of those who know that we are nothing without each other.
This is why I am proud today to be both Israeli and Jewish. My people, once again, are showing their collective will to create justice in the face of power. As we learn in the Sayings of the Fathers, “Who is a hero? One who conquers his instincts.” As Jews, we have defined heroism as the ability to transcend the base instincts of our nature, to be civilized, and to reciprocate with our fellow citizens. Now all I can hope for is that we can shed the light the prophet Isaiah demands of us onto the nations, so that all social movements can be tent revolutions and not loosely branded tea parties.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

1st Shabbat outside of the Land

This is my first Shabbat as a non-resident Israeli. I’m in Los Angeles, and the Shabbat is definitely keeping the Jew. Living outside of the Land, it takes a lot of work to be Jewish, but this is work that I like. There is a debate in the midrash about whether the sukkah of clouds that escorted the Jews as they made there way to freedom from Egypt to the promised land was real or metaphorical. The Shabbat and Jewish ritual seem like that sukkah. It’s as real as we make it and a metaphor we can live with. As a secular Jew who is deeply committed to his people and tradition, I am happy to be able to celebrate this first Shabbat in the metaphorical sukkah of my Judaism. I wish it were closer to the promised land, but I’m delighted to have this place outside of time that doesn’t rely on geography. Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Shabbat farming with my Palestinian neighbors in the West Bank

This past Memorial Day eve, I tried something different. I went to a service organized by the bi-national group Combatants for Peace, and we used the Israeli holiday to remember the victims of our wars from both sides of the battlefield. Remembering only our fallen soldiers, I have observed, has not successfully contributed to our will to end the conflict with our neighbors. In some ways I think it embitters us toward them. Maybe my expectations of the day are mistaken. Professor Avishai Margalit wrote a book about The Ethics of Memory which was triggered by a news article about an officer who didn’t remember the names of his fallen soldiers, even though he remembered the soldiers lives in detail. He starts with the question, what are our ethical obligations to remember. I am not sure what the purposes of Memorial Day are, but certainly a healthy society doesn’t want to add to the list of those it mourns for. 

Yesterday, I went with the Combatants for Peace to Kfar Yanoun, a village of 300 that has dwindled down to 36 residents as a result of attacks by settlers who have built illegal outposts on every side of the village and who insist on making the villagers lives miserable. When I say miserable, I need to explain because some of the things these “idealistic,” “pioneering” settlers have done are beyond my active imagination. In Kfar Yanoun, for instance, they found a murdered dog thrown into their drinking water tanks. Snipers have randomly shot taxi drivers bringing villagers to and from town, and the army is often called in to stop them from farming. Currently, they claim, they subsist from working only 3% of their registered agricultural fields.
Combatants for Peace is an organization that refuses to engage in the familiar paradox, fighting for peace. They are made up of equal numbers of Jews and Palestinians in each area that they work. They insist on being a collaboration of former enemies. For this reason, they brought a bus load of “beautiful souls” from Tel Aviv to work together on agricultural projects in the village. The term “beautiful souls” is pejorative in Israel. It tries to mock the good intentions of Israelis who are trying to creatively seek out a better mode of coexistence than the current, failed model. It tries to serve as a substitute for more literal terms like foolishly na├»ve.

In Kfar Yanoun, we planted trees and moved boulders to create a path through the village to the water towers. It was symbolic work. We weren’t needed to get the job done. We were very needed to send the message that there still exists a segment of Israeli society that recognizes the humanity of the other.
After lots of thought on the bus ride back to Tel Aviv, which included a humiliating stop by our own border patrol at the check post, I decided that my work on Shabbat was not a desecration but, rather, a sanctification of God’s name, to borrow from the religious Jewish lexicon. By going to Kfar Yanoun and helping with agricultural projects on my day of rest, I was upholding two of the most basic Jewish values. I was loving my neighbor as myself and I reaffirmed my conviction that all humans are created in the divine image.