For Beginners: Israel in Conflict

July 18, 2014

The situation in the Middle East grows more and more grim as Shabbat approaches. A couple of thoughts, especially for those readers who are beginners in Judaism:

1. Those of you who are feeling upset and disturbed, this is a time to reach out to your teachers and your community. Go to services this Shabbat. Contact your rabbi, or your teacher, and let them know what’s going on with you. Simply be in Jewish space; it will help.

2. One way to feel less helpless is to do something to help innocents who are suffering.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has an an “Israel and Gaza Appeal Fund” to assist those who are suffering in the current conflict. It coordinates and assists both Magen David Adom (The Red Star, in Israel) and the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The International Rescue Committee also works in this area. Every gift of tzedakah, no matter how small, will help sufferers and will also help the giver feel less helpless.

3. If you are just beginning to study about Judaism, let this be a time to learn, not a time to attempt to teach others. Some may approach you and ask you to explain the conflict, knowing that you are interested in Judaism. If you don’t want to engage on the topic, say so. All you need do is say, “The situation in Israel and Gaza breaks my heart. Can we talk about something else?”

4. Another things you can do is study. A popular recent book on the subject is My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit. Another excellent book is Israel is Real, by Rich Cohen. He is not a scholar, and I have some quibbles with details, but it’s readable and honest. Or ask your rabbi for a recommendation!

5. Do not believe everything you see on the Internet.  Again, if something disturbs you, contact your teacher or rabbi. Also, be careful what words and images you spread. Unsubstantiated rumors do not help the situation, no matter whom they allegedly favor.

I wish you a Shabbat of peace and learning, of goodness and grace, of light and love. Shabbat shalom.


Reflections on Israel, July 2014

July 9, 2014

My heart is in the east, and I am at the farthest west.

How can I taste food? How shall it be sweet to me?

How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while

Zion lies beneath the fetters of Edom, and I in Arab chains?

It seems to me a small thing to leave all the good things of Spain,

Seeing how precious in my eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

                                              – Yehuda HaLevi, 12th c.

This 12th century poem is the best way I know to communicate the relationship of Jews to Israel. The poet who wrote it was a Jew who spent much of his life as a refugee from various regimes that were unfriendly to Jews. He was born in Spain, but he was never able to put down roots anywhere. If you asked him, he would tell you that Israel was his home, even though he had never seen it.

He disappeared en route to Israel. We hear the last of him in Cairo, where he could have stayed. He was a celebrity in the Jewish world of his time, a superstar poet and philosopher, but he wanted to go home. He insisted on going, despite the fact that Jerusalem was in the hands of Christian armies who slaughtered every Jew they found. We don’t know if the old man was on a boat that sank at sea, or was taken by pirates, or whether he did indeed reach the holy city and was (as legend has it) trampled to death by a Crusader’s horse.

My heart is in the east right now. I have heard from friends and colleagues who have scrambled to bomb shelters again and again over the past week. I am worried about friends from whom I haven’t heard. It has also stirred my memories of being in Israel during another difficult time, 12 years ago. I moved to Israel to learn Torah, and wound up learning more about bomb shelters and gas masks than I ever wanted to know.

I am angry at the handling of this story by the news media. The rockets and bombs hitting Israel for ten days were not deemed newsworthy. Only when Israel at last began to defend herself again the bombing did anyone take notice, and then it was to talk about “escalation.” What escalation? What other country on earth would be asked to sit quietly and accept bombardment? One million Israelis will sleep in or near bomb shelters tonight.

And yes, I am aware that there have been a terrible number of Palestinian civilian casualties. Their leadership has chosen to shelter their rocket launchers and military facilities in civilian settings, using their own people as human shields. That’s why Israel held off for so long. But I do not apologize for the fact that my people have chosen to keep military targets away from civilians. I do not apologize for the fact that Israel does not use old people and children for human shields. I wish that Hamas would do the same.

Not all the “photos of Gaza” published in social media right now are actually photos of Gaza, or of the current conflict. For more information about that, go to Grasswire.com or follow them at @grasswirefacts.  I am angry at the lies, at the manipulation of public perception.

I cannot imagine where this will end, because I know Israelis, and I know how the Jewish heart feels about the Land. No bombardment, no kidnapping, no murder, no harassment, no threat, no propaganda will change the fact that for thousands of years, Israel has been the home of the Jews, the home of our hearts. I wish that the world would not encourage Hamas in its murderous deception, and its use of innocents for military purposes. I wish that there could be two states, and that we could find some way to agree that Israel can exist, and a Palestinian state can exist.

My heart is in the East, and I am at the limits of the West, praying for peace.


We Can’t Have It Both Ways

July 7, 2014
Four Boys

Four Boys

My regular readers have probably noticed that I’ve been unusually quiet for the last week. Events in Israel this past week have left me speechless. I wish I could say something useful about what’s been going on there, but between the storm of my own feelings and the swift winds of events, I’ve been silent.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Rabbi Yitz Greenberg‘s comment about Jewish theology after the Holocaust: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” In other words, words are not sufficient to express the disaster of the Shoah, much less to “make sense” of it. It was senseless, mindless evil.

So, too. was the murder of Mohammed Abu Khieder, another burning child. The Israeli police have arrested several Jews for this crime, and the full weight of the law will be brought to bear. But what has given me as much pain are the comments I have been reading and hearing in the wake of the crime.

  • “The murderers do not represent us.”
  • “They are not real Jews.”
  • “They (the Palestinians) are still worse than we are.”

This, from people who scoff when someone says that pizza parlor bombings are not true expressions of Islam. This from people who would be incensed at the suggestion that the Holocaust was not the action of “real Germans.” This, from people who read the news stories about Jews marching in the streets of Jerusalem, of the Holy City, chanting “Death to the Arabs.”

We, who were so noisy about how Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal were “our children,” are now hastily disowning six other young men who chose to act out what other Jews were saying in the street.

It is easier to be connected with blameless victims; we can grieve, and people will feel sorry for us. We can be angry at the Other. But when the criminals are our own, it is much more difficult. It is hard to say, yes, that child is mine.

We can’t have it both ways. If we are going to hold all Palestinians responsible for the murders of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, then we must not be surprised if they hold us all responsible for the terrible death of young Mohammed. On both sides, we have innocents, on both, we have the guilty.

Until we are willing to claim both for both sides, and admit both for both sides, there can be no peace.

 


Why I am a Zionist

May 5, 2014

I am a Zionist.

I wasn’t always sure about that. I am not quite as old as the State of Israel, and during the first part of my life, before I was a Jew, I watched from a distance, detached, as Israel struggled for survival. There was no reason to feel invested: I was not yet a Jew. Some things I thought inspiring, some disturbing.

Then I became a Jew. That meant I could not be neutral on this subject; I am invested. So I studied.

In the year 136 of the common era, the Romans put down the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Judea. The Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to make an example of the Jews, lest any other subject nation get the idea of revolution. The majority of the population of Judea was killed, exiled, or sold into slavery. Torah law and the Hebrew calendar were prohibited. Torah scholars were executed in droves. In an attempt to obliterate the memory of the Jews, the Roman province was renamed Syria Palaestina. Jerusalem was destroyed, and the new Roman city of Aelia Capitolina was built on its ashes. Jews were forbidden even to enter the city except on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of mourning for the lost Temple. 

So the Jews were scattered across the world: some to Europe, some to Asia, some to Africa, a stateless people clinging to a memory of home. Periodically individual Jews and small groups would decide to go home to join the small, stubborn remnant that persisted in the land, the Old Yishuv. Some Diaspora Jews sent their bodies home for burial. Particularly after a disaster, like the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, there would be movements to return in larger numbers.

History took a vicious turn in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even the most enlightened and scientific societies of Europe had an ugly and growing tendency to Jew hatred. In the rest of the world, there was enough of this hatred that doors began slamming. Theodore Herzl, a journalist, read the writing on the wall in the Dreyfus Affair. By the time the Jews of Germany realized what the Nazi regime would bring, there was nowhere for Jews to go, because nowhere in Europe or America or South America or Asia or Australia was their home.

I don’t need to tell you the rest of that story.

Zionism is the belief that there needs to be somewhere on the face of the earth where Jews are in charge of their own destiny. Through the actions of Jews, and through the agreements of the nations of the world, as well as through history, that place has been the small plot of land at the far east end of the Mediterranean, bounded on the north by Mt. Hermon, and at the southeast by Egypt.

There were other people, Muslims and Christians, with homes there when the Jews went home. There were nations with interests in seeing to it that they and the Jews did not live peacefully together. There have been great wrongs done on all sides. But there have also been moments of promise, moments when we could glimpse the possibility of what could be.

I am left, at the end, with the conviction that there needs to be an Israel. I believe that the 7 million Jews living there, many of them born there, have a right to be there. And I believe, as well, that the Palestinian people have a right to live in peace. I believe that as impossible as it seems to find peace, after all the years of war and bitterness, that there is nothing to do but keep trying and keep living.

This week we are observing Yom HaZikaron – the day that we remember the 23,169 who have died defending Israel and in acts of terror. Then, when the sun goes down, we observe Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. This is the week for remember that nothing can be taken for granted, least of all freedom and dignity.

This week we pray for the strength of spirit to do those things which need to be done. We pray for leaders on both sides who can see past their own self-interests. And most of all, we pray for hearts that can transcend cynicism and despair to lead us all the rest of the way home.

 

This article was slightly amended for clarification. See comments for details. Thank you to my readers for helping me express myself clearly!

 

 


What are “the Yoms?”

April 29, 2014

Declaration of State of Israel 1948

David ben Gurion reads the Declaration of the State of Israel, 1948


Every spring, after Passover, the Jewish calendar marks four days to commemorate events in modern Jewish history:

Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day  usually on 27 Nisan (click on the link for more info on Yom HaShoah)

Yom HaZikaron – Israeli Memorial Day usually on 5 Iyar (yom ha-ZEEK-a-rohn)

Yom HaAtzma’oot – Israeli Independence Day the day immediately after Yom HaZikaron, usually 6 Iyar (yom ha-atz-ma-OOT)

Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day, marking the day in 1967 when the city was reunited, on 28 Iyar (yom Yair-oo-shah-LIE- eem)

Israeli Memorial Day and Israeli Independence Day are always paired. In Israel’s short history (less than 70 years, at this writing) the price of independence has been the deaths of too many of its citizens. Unlike Memorial Day in the United States, which is seen as many as “the first day of summer vacation,” Yom HaZikaron is a true day of mourning in Israel, because nearly every citizen spends the day remembering one or more loved ones who have died in defense of their country.

The mourning of Memorial Day turns to exuberance at sundown, when Yom HaAtzma’oot, Independence Day begins. Israelis and Jews worldwide celebrate the birth of the Jewish State with speeches, picnics, fireworks, and general celebration.

Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, also marks a dramatic moment in modern Jewish history. Under the 1947 UN Partition Plan, Jerusalem was to be a “international city” for ten years, after which the citizens of Jerusalem would vote to decide whether they would be part of Israel, or part of a new Arab state. While Jewish leaders agreed to this plan, Arab leaders rejected it. Immediately after the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, armies from all its Arab neighbors invaded. By the end of the War of Independence, Jerusalem was a divided city, the western portion in Israeli control and the eastern portion and the “Old City” under occupation by the Jordanian Armed Forces. No Jews were allowed to remain in the Jordanian-controlled areas, the synagogues were demolished and the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was plundered.

Such was the situation in Jerusalem until 1967, when increasing hostility between Israel and its Arab neighbors boiled over into the Six-Day War. Israel sent word to King Hussein of Jordan that it would not attack Jerusalem or the West Bank  unless provoked. With encouragement from Egypt, the King ordered the Jordanian army to shell civilian locations in Israel; Israel responded by opening a new front against Jordan on June 6. The next day, Israel succeeded in capturing the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, bringing the holy site back under Jewish control for the first time since 70 CE. Yom Yerushalayim marks the reunification of the city.

The four “Yoms” (Days) recall the dramatic course of Jewish history in the 20th century.

Image: Rudi Weissenstein, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

What is Yom HaShoah?

April 26, 2014

5392791672_2ca61682c4_z

Yom HaShoah (Yohm Hah-show-AH or Yohm Hah-SHOW-ah) is Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was established in Israel as Yom HaZikaron LaShoah v’LaGevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.

Yom = Day
Zikaron = Remembrance
Shoah = Catastrophe (refers now to the atrocities against the Jewish People in WWII.)
Gevurah = Heroism.

It began in 1953 as Israel’s day for remembrance of the 6,000,000 Jewish men, women and children who were murdered in the 1940’s in Europe, established by Israeli law as a Memorial Day. Increasingly it has been adopted as a day for remembrance by Jews the U.S. as well. It is a memorial for our dead and for the heroes among them.

The originators proposed the date for the 14th of Nisan, which was the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, to underline the fact that there was also Gevurah (heroism) involved, to counter the myth that Jews were passive victims.  However, that is also the day immediately before Passover, so that was impractical. Instead, it was set for the 27th of Nisan, except when that day falls immediately adjacent to Shabbat, in which case it is moved by one day, forward or back as appropriate.

Like all Jewish days, it begins at sundown and ends at sundown. In Israel, it is marked with solemn assemblies and flags at half mast. TV and radio stations play classical music and documentaries. At noon, everything stops in the country: people even stop their cars on the street, and get out of them, to stand for a moment of silence.

In the United States, Yom HaShoah is marked with community memorial ceremonies and educational programs. If survivors of the Holocaust are available as speakers, they tell their stories. With the passage of time, that is more and more rare.

Not all Jews observe 27 Nisan as Holocaust Remembrance Day. Some Orthodox and Hasidic groups include Holocaust remembrance in the Tisha B’Av memorial of the disasters to the Jewish People.

Upcoming Dates of Observance in the Gregorian calendar:

2014 April 27

2015 April 16

2016 May 5

2017 April 24

2018 April 12

Image: Abel Francés Quesada, some rights reserved.


My Promised Land – A Question

March 8, 2014

shavitThis week I’ve been reading a book  much more slowly than usual. I’ve been distracted by some conversations about the book that have me running back to reread sections. The book is Avi Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

Ari Shavit is a columnist who serves on the editorial board of Haaretz, the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times. The man can write; sections of the book are almost poetry. He uses anecdotes from his family history as a framework to look at the State of Israel.

I began reading the book on the recommendation of my rabbi. He said that the writing was excellent and that it was a book that would “make everyone talk.” He’s right on both counts.

You can Google the reviews, if you want. What fascinates me is that Shavit seems to have found a “sweet spot” in which he’s bothering everyone. One reviewer will say that he leaves out too much Palestinian wrongdoing; another will say that he’s leaving out too much Israeli wrongdoing.  Often they cite the same chapter, Chapter 5, “Lydda.” Again and again, informal commenters and reviewers seem to insist that he left something out. The problem is almost always what he failed to say, some element that for the reviewer is essential.

It leaves me to wonder how big a book would need to be to satisfy everyone, to truly address the bitterness on both sides. I wonder what would happen if we were to assemble such a book: a book that both the most passionate Palestinian and the most passionate Zionist could read and say, “Yes, everything is there.” No reasons, no excuses, this book would list the bitter facts, lay them all out so that everything is acknowledged.

Would it help, or would it make things worse?  I do not know.


Tu B’Shevat for Beginners

January 7, 2014

There’s a wonderful Jewish holiday coming soon – 15 Sh’vat, also known as Tu B’Shevat.  It’s coming at sundown on January 15, 2014.

It’s not a huge big deal, unless you choose to make a big deal of it. However, if you are around a synagogue, you may hear about it. If you know Jews who are very concerned with the earth and its care, you may hear about it.

All Jewish holidays have changed through history. This one may have changed the most, because it has gone from being an accounting device (really! see below) to being Jewish Earth Day. What hasn’t changed is its other name: The New Year of the Trees.

Here are the basic facts for Tu B’Shevat:

1. THE NAME.  “Tu B’Shevat” means “15th of Shevat.” Tu is a way of pronouncing the letters that make up the number 15 in Hebrew. (For more about Hebrew numbers, check out this article in Wikipedia.) Shevat is the month in the Jewish calendar that includes the deep winter in Israel, generally January and a bit of February.

2. ORIGINAL MEANING. Tu B’Shevat is often referred to as the “New Year for Trees.” But didn’t we already celebrate a New Year at Rosh HaShanah?  And a secular New Year on January 1? This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting of plants in the Land of Israel. Originally, it was a calendar date at which farmers began counting the year for trees, so that they’d know when trees were old enough to reap the fruit according to Jewish Law (Leviticus 19:23-25), and the point from which tithes could be calculated.  At this time of year, the trees are either dormant or just beginning to blossom.

3. MYSTICAL MEANINGS. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some traveled east to the land of Israel. Most settled in and around the town of Safed, in the northern Galilee, which became a center for Jewish mysticism (kabbalah.)  These mystics began to mark the holiday with a seder (ritual meal eaten in a particular order) somewhat like the Passover seder. At a Tu B’Shevat seder, four cups of wine are drunk and seven different kinds of fruit.  The seder was a celebration of rededication to the Land of Israel and an appreciation of its trees.

4. ZIONIST MEANINGS. With the return to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews revived the observance of Tu B’Shevat as a rededication to the land and a celebration of the relationship between Jews and this particular plot of earth. Many Jews worldwide observed the custom of planting trees in Israel, to replace trees that had been stripped from the land during the Roman and Ottoman periods.

5. JEWISH EARTH DAY.  In the late 20th century, as concern for the environment has grown, Tu B’Shevat has taken on more meaning as a day for Jews to express their concern for ecological issues.  The Tu B’Shevat seder has been revived as not only a celebration of the Land of Israel and its trees, but as a celebration of the holiness of the earth and its creatures.

Image from Flickr Commons, no known copyright

Tu B’Shevat for Beginners

January 20, 2013
Tu B'Shevat Tree Planting

Tu B’Shevat Tree Planting (Photo credit: Hillels of Georgia)

In a few days we will celebrate Tu B’Shevat (in 2013, it begins the evening of January 25).  Here are the basics:

1. THE NAME.  “Tu B’Shevat” means “15th of Shevat.” Tu is a way of pronouncing the letters that make up the number 15 in Hebrew. (For more about Hebrew numbers, check out this article in Wikipedia.) Shevat is the month in the Jewish calendar that includes the deep winter in Israel, generally January and a bit of February.

2. ORIGINAL MEANING. Tu B’Shevat is often referred to as the “New Year for Trees.” But didn’t we already celebrate a New Year at Rosh HaShanah?  This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting in the Land of Israel. Originally, it was a calendar date at which farmers began counting the year for trees, so that they’d know when trees were old enough to reap the fruit according to Jewish Law (Leviticus 19:23-25), and the point from which tithes could be calculated.  At this time of year, the trees are either dormant or just beginning to blossom.

3. MYSTICAL MEANINGS. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some traveled east to the land of Israel. Most settled in and around the town of Safed, in the northern Galilee, which became a center for Jewish mysticism (kabbalah.)  These mystics began to mark the holiday with a seder (ritual meal eaten in a particular order) somewhat like the Passover seder. At a Tu B’Shevat seder, four cups of wine are drunk and seven different kinds of fruit.  The seder was a celebration of rededication to the Land of Israel and an appreciation of its trees.

4. ZIONIST MEANINGS. With the return to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews revived the observance of Tu B’Shevat as a rededication to the land and a celebration of the relationship between Jews and this particular plot of earth. Many Jews worldwide observed the custom of planting trees in Israel, to replace trees that had been stripped from the land during the Ottoman period.

5. JEWISH EARTH DAY.  In the late 20th century, as concern for the environment has grown, Tu B’Shevat has taken on more meaning as a day for Jews to express their concern for ecological issues.  The Tu B’Shevat seder has been revived as not only a celebration of the Land of Israel and its trees, but as a celebration of the holiness of the earth and its creatures.


Can We Talk?

November 18, 2012
Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza

Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza (Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces)

I walked out of a movie this afternoon (Lincoln, it’s good), flipped my phone back on, and was greeted with a personal message on Twitter:

“All nations regret that they cannot exterminate 15m jews 40 times for killing 600m their nationals in all wars and revolts”

I had to read it a couple of times before I could understand what it said. I run across anti-Semitism all the time on the web, but it is not often addressed personally to me. When I investigated further, I realized it wasn’t personal, not really: the person sending it had sent the same message to dozens of Jews or Jewish-sounding people on Twitter. I reported him and blocked the account. Yuck.

It’s been a rough week. I lived in Israel for a year, ten years ago, and I formed an attachment to the country and its people that will never leave me. I was there at a hard time – the 2nd Intifada – and that cemented my respect for Israelis. They live through times that most of us cannot imagine, and the vast majority of them carry on their lives with grace. I listen to Israeli radio, and was aware of the rockets raining down on Sderot and other communities in the south, and noticed that no one in the media outside of Israel seemed to give a hoot. The BBC never mentioned it, CNN never mentioned it, and it was not mentioned on Al Jazeera, either. Were I not “tuned in” to Israeli sources, I wouldn’t have known about it, because no one else cared to report it.

Then, ten days ago, the Israelis finally retaliated. Had France been shelling Britain for months, we’d have seen some fireworks from the Brits before now. Had Mexico been shelling Texas — well, it’s Texas. Of course they’d shoot back. But when the Israelis finally shoot back they’re the bad guys?

For more about Pillar of Defense, better thought out and with great links, take a look at Rebecca Einstein Schorr’s A Few Thoughts About Operation Pillar of Defense.

For ten days now, I’ve been watching Jews argue over this and my heart is breaking. I listen to Jews call one another names, fail to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and read things into each others words. If one says he’s praying for peace, there are half a dozen folks ready to have his head because he wasn’t enthusiastic enough about war. If she speaks up for Israel’s right to defend herself, a different half dozen are ready and waiting to descend with words of flame.  And all I want to do is scream, “STOP IT!”

My fellow Jews: we do not need to be enemies against one another. There are plenty of people in the world that hate us, like the creep who sent me that tweet. He has read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other lies, and he’s ready to exterminate us all. He doesn’t care whether we belong to AIPAC or J Street. He doesn’t care if we love Israel or deplore its existence. He just hates Jews.

If you want to talk about your position, I will listen. I may not agree, but that is not a condition of my listening. If you want to talk about your position, will you listen to me as well? Can we talk about our fears? Can we talk about our hopes?

I love the Jewish People. I really, really, really like Jews. And this is breaking my heart.


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