Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Day After

The morning after Yitzhak Rabin was killed, I woke up in my bed in Tel Aviv, three blocks from the site of the assassination, looked at my infant daughter and remembered that the world is still a place of hope and then deliberated whether I wanted the newspaper to tell me that the assassin was Jewish or Arab.
If the assassin were Arab, it could be chalked up to an anomaly in the otherwise peaceful trend that we were experiencing and celebrating the night before. If it were a Jew, I would have to face the grim reality that, as always, Jews have a tradition of zealotry that places La’shem Shamayim, for the sake of heaven, over humanism and peace.
The tradition is that La’shem Shamayim is a good thing. In the Mishna we read, “Every machloket that is for the sake of heaven is destined to survive; every machloket that is not for the sake of heaven is not destined to survive.”
The Mishna goes on to give examples. “What is a machloket for the sake of heaven? Like the machloket of Hillel and Shammai. What is a machloket not for the sake of heaven? Like the machloket of Korach and his congregation. (5:17)”
The obvious questions after reading this are, what does it mean to “survive” and what distinguishes between these two quarrels. About Hillel and Shammai, the Talmud tells us through the Bat Kol, a divine voice, “These and these are the words of the living God. ((Elu va-elu divrei Elohim chayim, BT Eruvin 13b). Thus both sides of the disagreement are equals and assumed good. In the Torah, it is understood that Moses is the good guy and Korach bad. They are not equals and Korach is destroyed. What then is the message in Pirkei Avot (5:17)? This depends on how you understand truth.
After R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus is discredited and removed from the Sanhendrin in the case of Achnai's Oven (bava metsia 59b), we also encounter the idea of La’shem Shamayim. Here, the head of the Sanhedrin, R. Gamliel, is on a boat, which is about to sink, an assumed heavenly punishment for the treatment of Eliezer. Just as he is about to meet his fate, Gamliel claims, “You should know that I didn't act for the sake of my own honor, neither for the sake of the honor of my father's house, but for your honor, so as not to proliferate disputes within the nation (shelo yirbu machlokot b'Yisrael).” In other words, Gamliel says he acted on God’s behalf. The problem with this is that Gamliel assumes he understands God’s truth, and the problem with the tradition is that it is assumed that God favors people who act La’shem Shamayim, on His behalf.
The assassin of my prime minister thinks he acted for a higher purpose, La’Shem Shamayim, but he really should have looked at the continuation of Eruvin 13b because, all things being equal, we follow Hillel’s ways because he was humble. Having a higher purpose is not the answer.

To be humble does not mean to have no opinions. Hillel examined both sides of an argument and was able to present the other side before his own. He found a balance between, “These and these are the words of the living God - Elu va-elu divrei Elohim chayim,” and having a position that was his own. Presenting the other side is not what the assassin did on November 4th, 1995. He removed it in the most zealous and undemocratic way possible. He spit in the eye of all of Israel, and his self righteousness and lawlessness, in so many ways, is worse than Korach since Korach never claimed the mantle of La’Shem Shamayim.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Kvetching at Mediation: A Jewish View with Universal Application

One might ask, why do mediators allow participants to kvetch, Yiddish for complain or vent, during mediation? What good is discussing the past during the reconciliation process when it comes to shaping a resolution for present and future? After all, according to Israel philosopher Avishai Margalit:

[T]here is no backward causality. We cannot affect the past; we cannot undo the past, resurrect the past, or revivify the past. Only descriptions of the past can be altered, improved, or animated. The past itself, unlike its descriptions, cannot be brought back either in form or in essence (Margalit, The Ethics of Memory, 2002, p.66)

So why accommodate into mediation, an effort at peacemaking, something as unchangeable and subjective as the kvetch? Why encourage parties to tell opposing versions of the past? The answer has to do with the need for venting, since identifying needs is a major function of the mediator’s job. Venting fulfills many needs:  the need to have a voice in the relationship, the need to hear and be heard, and the need to release pent-up emotions. One need that is not often explored, however, is the need to rebuke.
Rabbi Shimon, son of Lakish, a/k/a Reish Lakish, was a bandit turned religious scholar who lived in the Galilee in the third century of the common-era. In his exegeses of the biblical verse “And Abraham reproved Abimelech (Gen 21:25),” Reish Lakish explained, “reproof leads to peace.” Then he made an even bolder statement, “Peace unaccompanied by reproof is not peace (Midrash Genesis Rabbah).”
To understand Reish Lakish, one would first have to understand what he meant by peace. Reish Lakish lived in 3rd century Palestine under Roman (Byzantine) occupation. In this context, peace could have meant Pax, the Latin etymological source for the word, or it could have meant shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, which has a completely different etymology.
Pax is a cessation of violence, a truce, whereas shalom is a return to wholeness or completeness. Pax, unaccompanied by reproof is still a truce, but shalom unaccompanied by reproof is definitely not the peace and harmony of wholeness. This raises the question:  when mediators facilitate discourse between disputants do they seek a truce or shalom?
In my mediation training at the Center for Conflict Resolution in Chicago, we were taught that the relationship is always an agenda item of the mediation, but how the relationship of the disputants will look like after mediation is none of our business. Our interest is the conversation. Mediators often feel like they have to sit on their hands and bite their tongues to stop themselves from making suggestions or directing the parties to the agreement they see as right. “Right”, however, has little to do with mediation. In fact, the dispute, in many cases, is caused by the subjectivity of righteousness and justice. Each side has a narrative that highlights their own righteousness and the other side’s injustice. When disputants choose litigation, they are seeking justice, which is the determination of righteousness according to the law by an outside party.
Many biblical scholars believe that the Holiness Code – found in Leviticus chapter nineteen – was written well before the text that surrounds it. If true, this is a significant theory because it means it does not take its authority from God, but rather is a human commentary on morality.  If viewed as a religious doctrine, it is a form of justice prescribed by a divine external authority. However, the Holiness Code includes a prescription for peace that tries to preempt divine justice. “Do not hate your sibling in your heart. You must certainly rebuke your neighbor (Lev. 19:17).” Interestingly, the verse ends with what might be an addition to the original text, “and not bear sin because of him.” Sin is a violation of divine law, but it is quite possible that the Holiness Code aspired to achieve peace by rebuke without divine justice.
Wisely, we mediators are professionally instructed that this is not our mediation: that the participants know their needs and will have to live with their decisions. We don’t decide whether peace is pax or shalom.

The job of the mediator is humbling, and the mediator understands that real peace is the construct of the disputing parties. The mediator allows venting because people get stuck in their own stories and often can’t see beyond them. When participants in mediation tell their stories, they are not trying to do backward causality. They are sharing their understandings of the past. This kvetching is their chance to be heard and to hear, to give voice and flesh out the substance of the dispute. Most of all, kvetching and rebuke are essential to peace making because “peace unaccompanied by reproof is not peace,” otherwise it is just a truce.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Saving the Entire Universe, One Child at a Time

Our bodies have painfully tasted man’s indifference and inhumanity to his fellow man. We have witnessed in our own flesh the moral evil present in human society. But this should not tempt us to become morally arrogant. Our suffering should not lead us to self-righteous postures, but to an increased sensitivity about all human suffering. (David Hartman, 1982)

In his autobiography, Once Upon a Country, A Palestinian Life, Al Quds University President, Sari Nusseibeh, tells a story about a time when he asked his mother what her father would have done if European Jews came and said that they want to return to the shared homeland to avoid the imminent catastrophe awaiting them in Europe. Her
response was that her father would welcome his Abrahamic cousins.
“Welcoming”, however, connotes an element of passivity that would have been insufficient in light of the tragedy that European Jews were facing. In hindsight, we all like to think that we would have done much more, but the episode of the St. Louis, the German ocean liner that tried to bring 937 refugees to safety in Cuba in 1939, suggests otherwise. These refugees were returned to Europe where over a quarter of them met their death in concentration camps. Apparently, even when fully aware of horrors being perpetrated against brothers (or cousins), we are unable to leave our comfort zones and meet the challenges our morality demands of us.
I can’t speak to other people’s morality; who am I to judge? but my own sense of decency is beckoning me to take action and I need help. I must save two families that have been deported from Israel to South Sudan. These are the families of my 13 year old son’s school friends from the two years I was on a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
I recognize that the notion of deportation is highly charged; thus, allow me an opportunity to explain why I feel that the country of immigrants and refugees that I love, which I opted to become a citizen of during high school, has fallen short on its moral and legal obligations.
Poogi and Deng, my son’s friends from his public school in northern Tel Aviv, had their parents visited by Israeli officials who said that, now that they have a state of their own, Israel can help them return home. Sounds nice, but the officials didn’t like Poogi’s mother, Theresa’s response. She said, I’m paraphrasing, “Thank you, but we are saving money of our own and waiting to see if the country will be safe for our return. We have six children and five of them are still in school. My husband is a leader in our community church here. We can’t just take our kids out of school and abandon our community.”
Poogi, Deng and Itamar celebrating Purim
The official didn’t like this and asked how she was saving money. Then he reminded her that she has refugee status but not a work permit. In Israel, instead of allowing refugees to work and give back to the country that is helping them, they import indentured servants, under the guise of “foreign labor,” who must pay for their right to work in Israel for a limited time and cease to be humans while they live there. An example of this is having children. If a “foreign worker” has a child and raises that child in Israel with Hebrew as their mother tongue with all the risks and rewards of living in the promised land, then that child is at risk of being separated from his or her parents and deported back to the parents native land, alone, where they have never visited, don’t speak the language and don’t know the culture.
The Israeli officials told Theresa, that they would forgive her violation of Israeli law and give the family one thousand dollars per adult family member if they would accept the offer and return to South Sudan. And, of course, sign a document that says they are not being deported. Grace accepted and her family moved back to the civil war raging in her native country after 6 years in our promised land.
I am not decided about the existence of God, but I believe in angels because I learned that Poogi and some of his siblings are now safe living in a boarding school in Uganda, paid for by the parents of one of the children’s classmates in North Tel Aviv. Wow! This is the Israel I love. In fact, I remember taking my son and the boys, his Sudanese friends, to the beach in Tel Aviv and some other angels approached the boys. One woman wanted to buy them ice cream. An older man hugged Poogi and Deng and said, “Welcome to our country. We thank you for giving us this opportunity to give back after having been refugees ourselves.” Oh, for the love of angels.
Sudanese children raised in Israel now at the Trinity School in Kampala, Uganda
I found out about Poogi’s and Deng’s current situation when I went to their apartments in South Tel Aviv and discovered that they had left the country. A friend turned me on to Come True, an Israeli NGO that helps get the Sudanese children to safety in Uganda and raises the funds to pay their tuition. One of the volunteers put me in touch with Theresa in South Sudan. She has nothing but puts her last penny into a Zain cell phone so she can be in touch with her children in Uganada. In Juba, the family’s home was broken into and completely looted. Not only did they lose all of their possessions, but also the apartment is uninhabitable and unsafe. Theresa used to work in a hotel before the fighting broke out. Now the only visitors are oil industry magnates who come to drain this fledgling country of its only natural resources. The slow flow of tourism led to Theresa’s dismissal from work. No job, no home, just a homeland. The creation of her country, like the birth of a child, was so full of hope. What has gone wrong?
Deng’s family, maybe more pragmatic, thought they chose safety over hope. They fled South Sudan for Cairo. Now they live in poverty and suffer extreme racial and religious persecution. Both families are Christian.
During the catastrophe that occurred in Europe throughout the Second World War, few people took action to prevent the atrocities. Those who did help were either vested in the lives of the victims or simply humane. The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit describes this as the distinction between morals and ethics. Margalit says that ethics are supposed to guide thick relations, those we have with people who are engaged in our lives, either as friend or foe. Ethics guide these relations because we have stakes in them. The rules of war, for instance, are ethical because they regulate the behavior of enemies who are deeply engaged with one another. Ethics also guide our obligations to family, friends and fellow citizens. Without ethics society would not flow fluidly. Morals, on the other hand, are for perfect strangers. If we are not vested in the lives of others, do we have any impetus to help them? Why should we act when the stakes are low? What might compel us to feed the poor of distant lands if not a moral imperative?
For most people reading this, South Sudan is a moral concern. We ought to care because we are human, and fellow humans are suffering, but caring about the South Sudanese will not change the quality of our lives. For me, this has always been an ethical issue. I have been culpable since the beginning. My country, Israel, sells arms to China, which end up in the hands of the Janjuweed. These Arab marauders created killing fields in Darfur and other parts of Sudan, leading to the steady flow of immigrants. Refugees made their exodus by foot through Egypt, like my people before them, with hopes of a sanctuary in a promised land. My country flew them back to a civil war. Not only is this unethical, it is also a violation of the Geneva Convention.
I understand that if Israel keeps its borders permeable, more refugees will come. Yes, we are geographically small and dedicate a lot of our national budget to defense, but I love the comment that the man on the beach gave to the boys. “We thank you for giving us this opportunity to give back after having been refugees ourselves.”
In most conflicts, the parties see the world as a zero sum game. One side must lose for the other side to win. Everything is always limited by our lack of creativity and the opacity of those forces that have something to loss. In a transparent Israel, rational, good people would give jobs to refugees before importing foreign laborers to do the same work. Opacity hides the money that goes to “man power” companies and politicians who allow this system to continue without obvious benefits.
If Israel would take a leading role in addressing the refugee crisis, she could find partners in the global community. Instead, Israel exports the arms that are used against these refugees. How many average Israelis understand the horrible consequences of some of their countries leading oligarchs’ despicable business practices?
Many people will find it distasteful to read me question the country’s policies. They will say it is washing dirty laundry in public. Some readers will feel terrible about what this country, which holds so many promises and hopes for our people, is doing. They may be pushed away or talk about it with disdain among friends. What I am searching for is people who will take action and try to help save these families or at least their sons.
Both Poogi’s and Deng’s mothers have said to me that they would rather be separated from their son’s and know that they are safe than to be together and in harm's way. I am willing to take these boys into my house and raise them beside my own children, but I need help. Both the Talmud and the Koran share the verse, “To save one life is akin to saving the entire universe.” I want to save at least two. Please think about how you can help; immigration lawyer friends, politician associates, NGO’s and, of course, money. We can start by paying for the families’ cell phones. We can pay for continued tuition for the children in Uganda. We can send money for food and clothing. And we can make this a public issue so that we don’t allow ourselves, via our country, to be shamed by these inhumane and unethical policies. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Poogi Galuak is an eleven year old boy who became a refugee in the first year of his life. His mother, Theresa, was also a refugee who left her native Unity, now part of South Sudan, when she was eight to live in Khartoum where she met her husband Galuak. Both Theresa and Galuak are from the Dinka tribe and are practicing Christians. Galuak is a minister in the church.
When Poogi was one year old, his parents took him and three older siblings to Cairo, Egypt to flee the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005). The family lived and worked in Cairo from 2003 to 2007 but fled to Israel, by foot, after repeated attacks and other human rights violations. By this time, they had added one more son to the family.
In 2007, Galuak led his family into Israel. Upon arrival, they were taken to South Tel Aviv by the military and left to rebuild their lives. Poogi was five years old when he arrived in Israel, having already fled his home twice.
Tel Aviv, Poogi’s new hometown, had a progressive approach to refugee absorption and tried a variety of ways to educate the children. Many people are familiar with the Bialik-Rogozin School because the movie about it, Strangers No More, won an Oscar. At the Bialik-Rogozin School, children of foreign workers and refugees study together in Hebrew with a student body from all over the world. Poogi’s parents were not sure if this was the best idea for their children. They wanted the loving environment and good education, but they were concerned with their children’s acculturation into Israeli society. Instead of sending the children to Bialik-Rogozin, they chose the other option Tel Aviv provided for them. Inspired by the outcomes of the American Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, the city tried bussing kids to good schools in the north. Poogi and his two sisters ended up in the Aran School next to the Sde Dov Airport.
At Aran, Poogi contended with some racism, but ultimately thrived. He was admitted into the Israel Baseball League and made many friends. His family remained in Tel Aviv until 2012 when they were forced to return to the fledgling country of South Sudan. This was the third time in his short life that he was forced to leave his home. After a brief quiet and period of hope, civil strife became civil war and Poogi was moved again. This time he was placed in a boarding school, Trinity Primary School, in Kampala, Uganda. To his good fortune, a family of one of his Israeli classmates is paying his tuition. All of Poogi’s five siblings are now in the school, but the parents remain in Juba, South Sudan. Recently, Theresa lost her job cleaning in a hotel and the family apartment was broken into and looted. They lost everything including the roof over their heads.
I just spoke to Theresa. She and her husband want to leave South Sudan. In their best case, the united family would take up residence in the United States, but Theresa has told me that she will be happy to save as many of her children as possible. Poogi is my son’s friend from the Aran School in Tel Aviv, and I hope we can start saving the Galuak family by saving him first.