Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Yom Kippur and fat men in red suits

In my search for profundity this eve of Yom Kippur, I came across the perfect lyric for my sentiment about this day. “He sees you when you're sleeping, He knows when you're awake, He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”
Yes, there is an implication that Santa will only shmutz up his red suit in your chimney if you behave yourself, but the words are quite explicit, “be good for goodness sake.” The worldview of this song is not B.F.Skinner’s world of behaviorism. Good is not rewarded and evil is not punished. Be good for the sake of goodness; not God, not a judge, not to get good seats in heaven.
This idea is explored in Judaism. It seems rational to favor good for goodness sake than brownie points with the big guy, and the Jewish tradition knows that it needs to address this, but Jewish tradition is not monolithic. It is a trajectory with many branches. Metaphorically, it is a tree of life, just like Torah. The problem and beauty of this is that we can point to any branch we choose and call it Judaism. I would like to point to two of these branches. One is from our sages, the other from a modern sage.
“He [Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah] used to say: One whose wisdom exceeds his deeds is like a tree whose branches are many but whose roots are few [and weak]. The wind comes and uproots it and overturns it upon its top. But one whose deeds are greater than his wisdom is like a tree whose roots are many [and deep] but whose branches are few. Even if all the winds of the world come and blow upon it, they cannot even move it from its place. ” (Avot, chapter 3, mishnah 22).
This is Mishnaic Judaism supporting goodness for goodness sake. It doesn’t address the problem of determining the source of goodness or “deeds” which is a reference to the mitzvot (the 613 positive and negative commandments identified in Torah), but it also doesn’t say to do them in order to get rewarded.
Yizhar Smilansky, an early Zionist writer and professor of education, added to the Jewish canon a different approach to motivation for doing good, or just being, when he wrote, in The Courage to be Secular,
One may be non religious out of ignorance, laziness or for no reason at all, but to be secular, one must make a conscious choice…To be secular it is not enough to be non-religious. The distinction lies between finding something and losing something…What makes someone secular? First and foremost, a sense of responsibility; a sense of responsibility with no external source…The secular have chosen to face the world on their own terms. To be secular means to claim sovereignty over one's own life.
This Yom Kippur, as I deprive myself of food and blame myself for the collective sins of my people, I will be hoping and praying that more of us opt for this branch of Jewish thought that takes responsibility seriously and chooses good for its own sake. Gmar Chatima Tova, whatever that means to you.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Alternative BaMidbar Drasha

Parashat BaMidbar 5772

The Ford Pinto was a subcompact car produced by the Ford Motor Company for the model years 1971–1980, during which time 2 million cars were manufactured. The Pinto was the brainchild of then Ford CEO, Lee Iacocca, who wanted this car to weigh less than 2000 pounds and cost less than $2000 to manufacture. In 1978, the Pinto was recalled over issues pertaining to the gas tank design. Apparently, if the Pinto were hit from behind, the car would explode upon impact. Originally, it is rumored, that when Iacocca heard of this flaw and discovered that its correction would raise the cost over $2000 and raise the car’s weight over 2000 pounds, he decided to calculate the difference between the cost of settling lawsuits and fixing the flaw. When it was discovered that the largest demographic of Pinto buyers was over 60, African American women, and that these women were not highly valued by courts and insurance companies, Iacocca decided not to fix the Pinto.

When I first heard this story, I was appalled. As an American, I always took seriously our Declaration of Independence when it states, quite emphatically, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

As a Jew, I don’t have to read far into the Torah to understand that, “God created man in his image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” It’s right there in Genesis one, verse twenty seven.

But last week, in Parshat B’Chokotai, Leviticus twenty seven, I read something very different. The text tells me that,
[T]he Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, ‘If a man shall make a special vow to give to the Lord the estimated value of persons, Then the estimation shall be: for a male from twenty years old to sixty years old, fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. And if a female, then the estimation shall be thirty shekels.’”

Appalling? I’m not sure. It doesn’t exactly match my 21st century sensibilities, but, in context, the Torah can be seen as a progressive document. Just think about the daughters of Zelophchad, who we will also read about in BaMidbar, the book of the Torah we just started to read from. In this story, Moses petitions God for the right of these five women to inherit their father’s land despite their gender, and God agrees.

In Parshat BaMidbar, we get another sense of how the Torah counts humans. When God instructs Moses to take a census, he says,
Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, every male by their polls; From twenty years old and upward, all who are able to go forth to war in Israel; you and Aaron shall count them. (Bamidbar 1:2-3)

When I think about the entirety of examples of human value, whether they come from the Torah or from our modern society, I can make one clear conclusion; being counted is a function of purpose.
·         The Torah tells us that every human is made in God’s image because the text aspires to sanctify human life.
·         When God elevates Zelophchad’s daughters as worthy of inheriting their father’s land, He is trying to make justice.
·         And when God instructs Moses to count the men over twenty, he is trying to build a strong army to protect his people.
In other words, we cannot generalize about the value of human beings from our texts because context is everything, and each example has a specific purpose.

So now let’s take this forward about three thousand years. Today we are writing new Jewish texts. We write them with our pens and we write them on our iPads. Most importantly, we write them with our deeds. So let’s examine some modern ways in which we count our people.

One area of progress is the Minyan. Today it is almost ubiquitous among liberal Jews to count women in a prayer quorum. In this dramatic change, we modern Jews have created justice just like God did for the daughters of Zelophchad. Likewise, we can say that the institution of Bat Mitzvah is a big step in equalizing the value of men and women in Jewish society. Unfortunately, however, the entire enterprise of bar and bat mitzvah and counting thirteen year olds as “adult Jews” has backfired. Instead of creating a stronger sense of Jewish commitment in adolescence, we have created a population that consider a seventh grade education adequate for adult Jewish living. I’m sure none of us would be amenable to this limited training if the subject were law or medicine, so you can understand why I am astonished by the acceptance of such an early terminal point in Jewish education.

In modern times, another area of counting is related to citizenship. Just like Parshat BaMidbar asks us to take a census, the American Constitution makes the same demand - every ten years. Now if we examine patterns of modern counting with the same lens as we did for the Bible, then we can assume the same conclusion; counting people is purposeful. Counting slaves in early America was for purposes of representation in Congress and for the distribution of taxes, thus, our foundational document is stained with the loathsome words of the Three-Fifths Compromise.

In the modern Israeli context, we haven’t even been able to achieve “loathsome” compromises. This is hard to say in a crowd of people who care deeply about Israel and have made great efforts to assure her existence as a democratic, Jewish country and a light onto the nations. Honestly, we can stand with Israel, right or wrong, or we can help her become the country we all hope that she can be. A country that reflects our particular values alongside our universal concerns for the world. The Israeli Declaration of Independence promises a constitution, “which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948.” Sixty Four years later, we still run our Jewish state without agreed upon guidelines. Some of you may know that Israel has a constitutional framework in its collection of “basic laws.” What you might not know is that a basic law is legislated in the same exact way as a law of the Knesset, by the same exact legislators. In practical terms, this means that there is no constitution for Israel because a governing coalition that doesn’t like a basic law can change that law with a simple majority. This is far from the checks and balances of American democracy. Israel may be the only democracy in the Middle East, but it is far from perfect, and it started with such promise.

The Israeli Declaration of Independence, a document that traveled with me in my wallet as I graduated agricultural high school near Tel Aviv and as I was drafted to the Israel Defense Forces during the first Lebanon War, was full of promise for a great society. Here is part of what the fledgling democracy promised to do.

it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants;
it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel;
it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex;
it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture;
it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and
it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Regarding non-Jewish citizens of the state, the Declaration has the following message.

WE APPEAL - in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months - to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.

Israel hoped to be a country that fulfills the values expressed in the Bible.  
Exodus 22:21, “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.”
Leviticus 19:34, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”
Deuteronomy 23:7,   Do not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. Do not abhor an Egyptian, because you lived as an alien in his country.”
Ezekiel 47:23, “In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance," declares the Sovereign LORD.”

Unfortunately, it hasn’t lived up to the Biblical commandments or its own founding document.  

·         According to The Guardian, in 2006 just 5% of civil servants in Israel were Arabs despite the fact that Arab citizens of Israel comprise over 20% of the population.
·         The New York Times reported, in February 2007, that 53 % of the impoverished families in Israel were Arabs. Since the majority of Arabs in Israel do not serve in the army, they are ineligible for many financial benefits such as scholarships and housing loans.
·         Of the 40 towns in Israel with the highest unemployment rates, 36 are Arab towns.
·         According to the Central Bank of Israel statistics for 2003, salary averages for Arab workers are 29% lower than for Jewish workers.
·         Hebrew University's School of Education, in an August 2009 study, claimed that Israel's Education Ministry discriminated against Arabs in its allocations of special assistance for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

On a more human level;
·         Dr. Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of Knesset, has been physically attacked and had water thrown on him on the Knesset floor, but when he responded with a whimsical poem, members of the governing coalition called for his censure.
·         My close friend Muchamad Darawshe, a senior executive at the Abraham Foundation, told me the horrors of experiencing the Second Lebanon War, in the Yezreel Valley below Nazareth, when the closest warnings of incoming missiles could only be heard from the neighboring Jewish villages and kibbutzim.

These are just some of the ways in which Israel does not count its Arab population as full citizens. But maybe the most appalling is the unstated, unofficial, yet consistent boycott of Arab parties from participation in a coalition government. Yes, we have an Arab on the Supreme Court, we have Arab deputy ministers and ambassadors and we have Arabs in Israeli Jewish parties, but even Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who made some of the grandest gestures toward the Arab citizenry of Israel, was unable to extend coalition agreements to Arab political parties, despite the fact that they stood by him as he made peace with Jordan and initiated the Oslo Peace Accords. This is a stain on Israeli democracy.

So today, as we start reading Bamidbar and read about the census, and tonight when we stay up to study and recall the giving of the Torah, we could respond to these problems in Israel by saying that ours is the only democracy in the Middle East, which it is, but what purpose does that serve?

Speaking as an Israeli and as a Jew, I want my country to hold itself to higher standards. Democracy is clearly not a panacea. Churchill has said that it “is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” But I want to believe that when God says, “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil, (ex.23:2)” His intention is to protect the interest of minorities and to serve justice. This is what I want for Israel, and as good as Israel may already be, I always strive to be better.

Shabbat Shalom

BaMidbar 5772 בְּמִדְבַּר

BaMidbar 5772

    This week, as we open the fourth book of Torah and read from Parashat BaMidbar, I would like us to put on a pair of spectacles that allow us to look at the text through the Foucaultian understanding of power. The French post structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault believed that the way to understand most texts was through the organizational structures of power and authority.

    The parasha begins with these words.

א  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד:  בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית, לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם--לֵאמֹר. 1

And the LORD spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt,

    I would like to parse this out a bit through the Foucaultian lens. Even the pshat of this verse is complicated. God is the speaker. The speaking takes place in the Sinai wilderness, but who is in the Tent of Meeting. It seems like Moses is clearly there. He is a human with a physical presence. But what about God? Professor Azzan Yadin of Rutgers University, author of Scripture as Logos: Rabbi Ishmael and the Origins of Midrash, would tell us that Rabbi Ishmael would assert that God is transcendent and is not entering the world to speak.Rabbi Akiva, his academic nemisis would probably claim the contrary; God is eminent, thus everywhere, including the Tent of Meeting. In this debate, like our teacher Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, I would likely side with Rabbi Ishmael. This, in itself is a great statement about power. A transcendent God does not exert power in our world. This responsibility is left to us.
    The second message of this verse has to do with historicity. Why does the text insist on telling us the exact date? Is this a historcal claim or is it a matter of teaching us that time must pass from receiving Torah until we organize the elements of our society. Since the next verse commands Moses and Aaron to take a census of the men over twenty who are capable of defending the Israelites during their journey, I believe that the purpose of telling us the date of this conversation is more about teaching us something about nation building than it is about history.
    One of the biggest critiques that atheists have with religion is literality. They question the scientific truths of the Bible. This has always puzzled me because I am not sure why they believe that God gave us a history book and not a book of legends that is meant to teach us about behaviors that He considers righteous or immoral. Could it not be that God gave us a book of stories to illustrate the behaviors he appreciates or disdains simply because he respects our ability to make meaning on our own?
    There is one more issue that needs to be understood in this verse and it requires a bit of contextual knowledge. In Exodus 33:7, we learn about the Tent of Meeting.

ל'ג:ז  וּמֹשֶׁה יִקַּח אֶת-הָאֹהֶל וְנָטָה-לוֹ מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, הַרְחֵק מִן-הַמַּחֲנֶה, וְקָרָא לוֹ, אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וְהָיָה, כָּל-מְבַקֵּשׁ יְהוָה, יֵצֵא אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, אֲשֶׁר מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה.

Now Moses used to take the tent and to pitch it outside the camp, afar off from the camp; and he called it the tent of meeting. And it came to pass, that every one that sought the LORD went out unto the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp.
    The Tent of Meeting in Exodus is a very democratic place where anyone can come to speak with God. This changes in BaMidbar. It also goes by the name Mishkan.

 וּבִנְסֹעַ הַמִּשְׁכָּן, יוֹרִידוּ אֹתוֹ הַלְוִיִּם, וּבַחֲנֹת הַמִּשְׁכָּן, יָקִימוּ אֹתוֹ הַלְוִיִּם; וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב, יוּמָת.    

 And when the tabernacle set forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up; and the common man that draws near shall be put to death.

    If the Mishkan in BaMidbar is not the Tent of Meeting of Exodus, that my thesis that there is a new power dynamic 13 months after our remption form Egypt needs to rely on different prooftexts. But I think they are synonyms. Here is my reason. In BaMidbar 7:89, it says;

פט  וּבְבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ, וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת-הַקּוֹל מִדַּבֵּר אֵלָיו מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת, מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים; וַיְדַבֵּר, אֵלָיו.  {פ}    

And when Moses went into the tent of meeting that He might speak with him, then he heard the Voice speaking unto him from above the ark-cover that was upon the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim; and He spoke unto him.

    Why does this work to show that the text uses Tent of Meeting and and Mishkan synonymously? Because the Tent of Meeting in chapter 7 houses the ark, which is the very purpose of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Of course, we could use source theory and discuss the possibility of various authors of the text, but that is not my goal.

    What I am trying to illustrate is simply that our Torah is trying to speak to us about the changing dynamics of power. As a newly redeemed people leaving the oppression of Egypt, we were eager to discuss our reality in a publicly accessible space. The Tent of Meeting of Exodus is akin to Hyde Park in London, and the Mishkan/Tent of Meeting in BaMidbar is more like a closed session of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee or, better yet, a private meeting in Stalin’s Politboro. With one wrong move, you could find find yourself fertalizing cactuses in the desert.
    And why is this teaching of Torah relevant today? Because Jewish power has changed dramatically with the establishment of the State of Israel and the conquest Arab lands in the Six Day War. For 64 years, the Jewish people have had a national army. We have a Knesset and we are a significant player on the world stage. Unfortunately, with power, Israel has gone from nearly universal suffrage, with nearly 87% of the population voting in the first election, to the most recent elections with 63% participation and a predicted drop in the next. Today in Israel, if you have money, you have power. The mouthpiece of the present government is a free daily newspaper called Yisrael Hayom, and it is funded by the gambling empire of Mr. Sheldon Adelson of Nevada. This same Mr. Adelson is a major supporter of impressive programs like Birthright, but much of his financial success comes from the lucrative business of casinos and building settlements in the West Bank. If you are a Liberal Jew in Israel today, your power is limited by the hegemony of the ultra orthodox. I was personally affected by this when I had to come to the United States to get married because my Israeli Reform rabbi was not accepted in the Jewish homeland. If you are a woman and want to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall, you better not wear a tallit because you will get arrested. And if you are an Arab citizen of Israel, you really have no power. Your political parties will never be invited into a coalition government, your schools will not receive the same funding from the Ministry of education as Jewish schools and you are a lot less likely to get a job than a Jewish Israeli. The peak of disempowerment, however, was established this week in Tel Aviv when a throng of protesting Jews, led by Form Kahane disciple, MK Michael Ben-Ari, stormed through South Tel Aviv breaking shop windows, lighting fires and shouting racist epithets at immigrants and refugees from Eritrea, Sudan and the Congo, among others.
    Jewish power, it seems, has run amok, and I would like to suggest that this has to do with our lack of respect for the message our rabbis sent us when they changed Shavuot from a biblical harvest holiday to a celebration of the Jewish constitutional congress at Sinai. The rabbis made Shavuot a holiday about the giving of Torah, a constitution for the people of Israel. One remedy for today’s malady might be a constitution for the State of Israel.
    With a constitution, maybe we could define the equality of all citizens of the state, we could separate religion from government and we could define the jursdiction of our law so that all people living under Jewish soveriegnty will be treated equally. This year, as we start reading BaMidbar and anticipate the celebration of Shavuot, this is the lesson I receive with the giving of Torah.


Monday, April 23, 2012

I am a Zionist

I am a Zionist, a liberal Zionist, a “beautiful soul” as my detractors would have it, and “I will not die but live” (Psalm 118:17) because my mission is too important. I am an heir to that divine command, “Walk in my ways and be innocent (Genesis 17:1).” And I take my inheritance seriously.

My identity was ascribed in Egypt and assumed at Sinai. Not only did I chose to be a Jew, I was also labeled one, but I will not allow labels to tell me who I am; not by Pharaoh, not by the Romans, not by the Spanish, or even the Nazis. I will continue to “choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19),” as my earliest teachers prescribed, and I will do so from a position of independence, not fear. I am a Jew.

I will not make idols out of land, nor put ideals before human lives. I am a Jew.

I will not censor, nor deal falsely, nor lie to cover my shame. I am a Jew.

I will rebuke my fellow and try not to transgress in the process because I am bound to all of Israel. I am a Jew.

I shall not defraud my neighbor, nor rob him of his land or his human rights. I am a Jew.

The wages of my foreign laborers will not remain with me all night until the morning, nor shall I exile his children from the land of their birth. I am a Jew.

I shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, because I seek honest discourse with just outcomes. I am a Jew.

I will not stand idly by as the blood of my neighbors is shed by my own countrymen. I am a Jew.

I will not hate my brother in my heart; and will reason with my neighbor, and not allow sin on either account. I am a Jew

I will not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of my people but shall continue to love my neighbor as myself. I am a Jew

Monday, April 16, 2012

Bully movie embraced by BBYO, Kudos! What about the rest of us?

I read this morning about the adoption, by BBYO, of the noble goal to have loads of Jewish teens see the Bully movie, and I think that is wonderful. It did, however, make me think about the rest of us. I'm thinking specifically about Peter Beinart's recent book, The Crisis of Zionism, which has made us all come to the table and discuss the issues surrounding our embrace of Israel. Unfortunately, it seems that everytime we have a difference of opinion these days we end up calling those we differ from either Nazis or self-hating Jews.
As this is the time of the counting of the Omer, and we are mourning the loss of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died in a plague which is reported to be the result of in-fighting (Yevamot 62b), I would like to take this space to wish for my people the following prayer from Rabbis for Human Rights.
May I recognize my failure to understand those who oppose me. May I be able to look at the face of my enemy and see the face of God. May we all be instruments of peace.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

If I was Ozzie Guillen

The big irony of the Ozzie Guillen-Fidel Castro episode is that it happened over easter weekend. Please don't take this in the wrong way, but it sounds like Jesus got his and now Ozzie is the new sacrifice. Of course, Jesus wasn't sacrificed. He was censored in the strongest sense of the word, and now it is Ozzie's turn. Unfortunately for him, the anti-Castro Cuban community is almost as strong as the 1st century Roman empire.
One major difference between these two examples is that Jesus had a soft and gentle message for people living under Roman oppression, while Ozzie was insensitive to a bunch of angry and powerful emigres who occupy the city where he manages a baseball franchise. But what was so bad about Ozzie's message? If I were Ozzie Guillen, I would have responded much differently.

Members of the press, Marlins fans and people of the western hemisphere, I want to take this opportunity to apologize for my hurtful comments. Sometimes I say things that I haven't thought through well enough, and clearly I have hurt some feelings, which I never intended to do. I didn't come here to Miami to hurt feelings. I came to bring pride to a city with millions of Latin Americans, like me. I am a baseball manager, not a politician or historian. I don't know enough about Fidel Castro to have made comprehensive comments about the man's life. That said, my comments were about his longevity. He has managed to stay in power, under extreme odds, for over half a century. I couldn't even stay with the White Sox for a decade, and I brought them to the World Series.
If I were really bold and had brought Miami to a World Series before facing this firing squad, I might add...

Since I now have to take responsibility for my comments, I would like to take this opportunity to teach something about this man that you have vilified. Fidel Castro came to the United Nations, upon his ascension to power, and promised full literacy for his people within a year. Before he came to power, just over half of all Cubans could read and write, but within one year of his promise, 99 percent of Cubans were literate. Also, despite the fact that wealth was redistributed by force, Castro created, universal health care for Cubans, something tens of millions of Americans don't have. Today, in Cuba, all children go to high quality public schools. All citizens have housing, employment and food. They may not enjoy the freedom to amass great wealth, but they all have the freedom to go to bed with food in their stomachs. So while I can understand the pain of those who left their country and their wealth because they were not willing to share it with their fellow country men and women, I completely resent this effort to stifle my freedom of expression, the constitutionally guaranteed right that makes this country great. I didn't exercise my freedom with the intention to hurt, and I am sorry for any pain I have caused, but if you don't want to watch the baseball team under my management because you want to make a political statement, that's fine, just don't be so selfish as to try to determine the future of Miami baseball based on your political baggage. That behavior has no place in any country, especially this one.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Some thoughts about 'Why should Jews care about the rights of Israeli Arabs?'

In his book about the life of Mahatma Gandhi, Louis Fisher (1950) writes,

"Hitler," Gandhi said, "killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs... It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany... As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions."

This is a very difficult quote to read, and it needs parsing out. I am guilty of previously not doing the work necessary to reach Gandhi’s intention and have taught this as a call for Jews to go, “as sheep to slaughter.” I think I have done my students a disservice.

Today I am reading this quote in the context of an article I read by Rabbi Sid Schwartz (JTA, 1/12/2012) titled Why should Jews care about the rights of Israeli Arabs? I can already imagine some of my readers jumping from their seats in anger and accusing me of equating between the Shoah and the treatment of Israeli Arabs. This knee-jerk reaction is one of the greatest threats to the Jewish people. Human and civil rights are core Jewish values, and the Shoah may have been one of the greatest violations of these rights, but we need to discuss all violations of these moral and ethical imperatives on the same spectrum. It does no good to stigmatize every comparison to the Shoah, just as it does harm to hyperbolize the comparisons, as was recently the case in ultra-orthodox demonstrations in Israel where demonstrators dressed their children as concentration camp prisoners.

One small tangent; my teacher Rabbi David Wolpe has suggested, quite overtly, that the Cambodian genocide was the worst of the twentieth century because the world new it was humanly possible and did nothing to prevent it.

Rabbi Schwartz suggests two basic reasons for Jewish care for Arab rights in Israel, their humanity and Israeli democracy. As Humans, Israeli Arabs, just like the Sudanese refugees or Taiwanese foreign workers in Israel are made in the image of God, according to Jewish tradition. For this reason alone, their basic rights and dignity should be upheld. But dignity is a broad term that is rarely unpacked in any semblance of a serious definition. Rabbi Schwartz speaks of the injustice of the fact that 20 percent of Israel’s population accounts for 1 percent of its gross domestic product. He also speaks of inequality in municipal and educational services and in employment opportunities. I know some of my readers will stop here and say that the Israeli Arabs don’t serve in the military, thus they don’t share in the burden of the state’s maintenance. In fact, more Arabs now serve in the IDF than ever. More importantly, ultra-orthodox and secular Jews who avoid the draft are not punished with the same lack of services found in the Arab sector.

When Rabbi Schwartz addresses the issue of democracy, he also provides several examples. He states that our independence, as written in Ben Gurion’s Proclamation, calls for equal rights of all residents.  

[I]t will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Ironically, this declaration of independence does not call for a democratic state, and I wonder if this has anything to do with the possible oxymoron of calling Israel a Jewish democracy. Interestingly, one of the greatest assertions of democracy of all times, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which includes the famous, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” also does not mention democracy.

Now to Gandhi’s quote, in my very round about way. Avishai Margolit, the Israeli philosopher, in explaining the difference between morals and ethics, says that ethics guide thick relations between human’s whose lives are interconnected, even Palestinians and Israelis. This is why we have an ethics of war. But Morals guide our behavior when the stakes are significantly lower. Morals, according to Margolit, guide our behavior, specifically, because the stakes are low or non-existent. We are morally compelled because without morals, we would not help strangers.

Why does Gandhi say, “Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs... It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany.” because Gandhi believes in the power of morals to arouse the ire of regular human beings to pursue justice and dignity for one another, even when the stakes are low. Gandhi’s appeal is moral in the same way as Dr. Martin Luther King’s claim, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We have morals because ignoring injustice is corrupting. Gandhi doesn’t want Jews to die. He wants their death to be meaningful. He believes that since they will be dying anyway, they might as well make it a sign for generations to come.

This understanding of Gandhi reminds me of the dispute between Ben Padat and Rabbi Akiva regarding a flask of water that can save one of two people’s lives. Rabbi Akiva believes that one should surely drink the water to save his own life because a life has no value if it ends. Ben Padat believes differently. He is concerned with what his life will mean if he chooses his own life over his friend’s. Ben Padat is concerned with the kind of person he will be if he gets to live at the expense of his friend. In a sense, Gandhi is like Ben Padat. His argument is that if you have to die anyways, you might as well make your life a sign of how terrible humans can treat one another. He doesn’t suggest that Jews fight their oppressors because he doesn’t believe in becoming like them. This is a difficult decision for any human. In my worst nightmares, I am forced to live with myself after having to be unfaithful to my ideals. It would be nice if I could live this standard in real life, but it is very difficult. Life is about compromise, but Ben Padat and Gandhi believe that death doesn’t have to be.

In Israel, treating Arab Israelis with the dignity they deserve as fellow citizens is not nearly as difficult as people make it out to be. The mistreatment is about racism and misrepresented as self defense or “me first.” Many Israeli Jews try to apply the teaching of Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me.” But this approach is dishonest. The best way for Jews in Israel to be for themselves is to be for their weakest minorities. The absence of this form of democratic vigilance is what has led to the huge decay in Israeli democracy from the misogynistic behavior of the ultra-orthodox to the anti-immigrant and refugee fervor that has swept much of the nation. In the words of the great German pastor, Martin Niemöller,

First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak out because I was Protestant.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If we Israelis and Jews don’t start understanding King’s decree that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, [must] not perish from the earth” we will simply lose our value as a unique nation with the mission of being a vehicle for God’s blessing. This would be worse than any existential threat that would force us to steal the flask and drink the water without concern for what we might become.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Ruminations on BDS, despite the risk of marginalization by my people.

Even the mention of BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) can get a guy in trouble in my community. Cecilie Surasky, a leader in the group Jewish Voice for Peace was bumped from a national Jewish Heroes competition for her belief that this was the best way to get Israel to reach a final status agreement with the Palestinians. Cecilie was polling very strong at the time she was censured. Clearly someone with power didn’t appreciate the heroisms of Cecillie’s work. I wonder if the same would have happened if she were a very righteous Jews for Jesus or a halacha abiding haredi who makes his wife sit in the back of the public bus and spits on what he deems immodestly dressed young girls.
My teacher, Donniel Hartman, wrote an interesting dissertation that was turned into the book The Boundaries of Judaism, in which he explores the making of borders in Jewish society. The meta point of the book is that Jews have always negotiated these borders and even tolerated many deviant behaviors within their realm. The rabbi where I work, Harold Schulweis, even suggested that these boundaries include Jews who believe in Jesus. I suppose that I am less generous that some. I would certainly protect a Jew for Jesus if he were attacked by neo-Nazis for being a Jew, but I don’t know that I would love to bring him into my religious community. The same applies even stronger to settlers who attack Israeli soldiers or members of the Israeli Knesset that give away state secrets to assist settlers in their vigilantism. I suppose I would defend them from anti-Semites, but I certainly do not want to build a society with them.
I have some friends in Israel who will not do their reserve duty in the occupied territories because they do not want to defend the settlers or support the occupation. In general, I have more respect for those among them who spend their time in military prison, because they want to uphold the system but not participate personally, than those who find a way out of the service to strictly meet their personal needs. Faced with the possibility that my son will have to defend settlers, I am not so sure I want him drafted into the IDF, which is a possibility.
On the other hand, I firmly believe in democracy. As Churchill said so bluntly, “It is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” So what does it mean to be a democratic Jew and an Israeli? And how does this tie to BDS?
I have zigzagged between Israel and America my whole life. My birthday is February second, which is ideal for a person who lives in my two worlds. In American, where the month comes before the day, I write 02/02, and in Israel, where the date starts with the specific day, I also write 02/02. In this I am fortunate. I am also fortunate to have an alternative when I am not comfortable participating in my country’s decisions. Being American is easier for me than being Israeli because I didn’t choose it. My parents brought me into the world here. If this country enters an unjust war or elects a president I disagree with, it doesn’t feel like a reflection on me. When Israel makes choices I have great difficulty with, I feel uncomfortable with my decision to become a citizen.

Regarding BDS, Boycott, Divest and Sanctions, this is an outsider movement. Even if Jews support it, the effort is to use external power against Israel to force it to end the occupation. The good thing is that this is a non-violent effort, although it is not completely resistant to scrutiny. Attacking companies that benefit from the occupation, like the contractors that build in the West Bank or the financial institutions that bankroll them is one thing. What about companies that grow food in this disputed land and hire Palestinian labor. Isn’t there some violence in attacking a person’s source of income. I am not a pacifist. Sometimes violence is an appropriate response. I disagree with Ghandi, who said Jews should have quietly submitted to Nazi genocide. I also don’t think that BDS is a smart tactic.

BDS supporters generalize about their target. Ben Gurion University is run by a sympathizer for BDS, yet his institution is the target of the boycott. Bar Ilan University is generally not a friend to leftist causes. Its most famous student was the assassin who killed our prime minister at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, which was followed by the university putting his face on the cover of their annual report. The difference between me and those who believe in BDS is that I believe in my cause and my ability to change things for the better without resulting to force. I believe in honest, open intelligent discourse and the capacity of my fellow human beings to pursue the just and merciful path.

My friend Ed asked me to come hear a Palestinian author speak about his book on BDS. I was a bit nervous about the stigma that the community would try to put on me for going, but, instructed by my Jewish values, I went. The Talmud tells us why we normally follow in Hillel’s ways when Shammai’s were also “the words of a living God.” The Bat Kol, the heavenly voice said that we follow Hillel because of his modesty and because he represents the other sides argument before his own. I needed to hear the BDS argument from the Palestinian writer and from Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice for Peace before I could continue to contend that BDS is ultimately not a good method for achieving a lasting peace.

The day before the lunch, I reflected on my participation in the divestment movement in South Africa. Clearly, black South Africans were calling for support of the boycott. The main difference was that my support had no ethical stakes in the matter. The Israeli philosopher, Avishai Margalit, defines the difference between ethics and morals by the type of engagement. He says that ethics are guided by thick relations while morals are guided by thin relations. Whatever happened in South Africa was going to stay in South Africa. My relationship to Apartheid was thin, which made it a moral issue for me. This is like Martin Luther King’s claim in the Letter for the Alabama Jail that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But my relationship to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is thick. We need ethics to guide the interaction between our two nations. Ethics is an internal discussion between the parties to the conflict and within the individual parties. BDS is an appeal to go outside to accomplish change. Sometimes it is necessary, but not until all efforts to come to internal agreement have been exhausted. This is why I remain in Peace Now, a movement that aggressively tries to facilitate internal Israeli and Jewish discussion by researching and exposing violations of standards we set for ourselves.
The new candidate/party for the Israeli Knesset, Yair Lapid, writes about two Israel’s. In my Israel and his, we strive for a country that tries to manifest the goals articulates in Israel’s most beautiful political proclamation, its Declaration of Independence. “It will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel…”

The most troubling thing I heard at the luncheon, however, was not from the Palestinian author. It was from Cecilie Surasky, who told me about the terrible violence in the territories and Israel against Palestinians. Mind you, there should be no place for institutionalized, cultural or personal violence against any human being, but the way Ms. Surasky reported it to me, she was being relativistic. Israeli violence, in her mind, is unbearable and the top priority for Jews to say no. I agree that violence perpetrated by my people is what I need to stop first. It is also the violence I have most control over. But there was something very unsettling about a Jew being more critical of Israeli Jewish violence which is relatively less than the violence perpetrated in Syria by a leader against his own people or the violence in Sudan.

I think it is great that Cecilie Surasky and Jewish Voice for Peace stands up to the occupation. I think it is very sad that they and their Palestinian counterparts in BDS have given up on discourse, and I am very worried about the introduction of relativism into the argument. I could have (and now I am) explained that the Palestinian speaker got his MA at my alma mater, Tel Aviv University, which is a very enlightened institution. And that there are many of these points of Light in Israel and they need to be nourished, not starved through academic boycotts. I didn’t want to go there, but Cecilie Surasky’s relativism opens this ugly pandora’s box.

During the writing of my dissertation, I went to Ramallah many times; an illegal act for Israeli Jews. When I would come back, my friends would ask me why my Palestinian friends don’t speak up against Hamas or speak out against attacks on civilians. I have never had a good answer for this. Both Cecilie and the Palestinian author said that I was blaming the victim. I am not so sure. If Jewish Voice for Peace is so ready to take responsibility to end Jewish and Israeli behavior in the territories why not expect that of everyone. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I’m glad I went to lunch and didn’t fear the wrath of my community for legitimizing fringe forms of Jewish dissent, but after listening and acquiring the knowledge to present the other side, I am still not sold. BDS is not a good Jewish response to the occupation. It may be valid, and I would never censure Jewish Voice for Peace, but this is not a strategy that believes in the good of humans or the power of reason to overcome injustice.