Insight from Bob Woodward’s “Fear”

I have been reading Fear: Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward. I’m about half way through it, but I’ve already noticed something that will change the way I choose my words about politics from now on.

As President Trump brings on his cabinet and advisors, he seeks out many military figures who disagreed vehemently with the previous president. Mr. Woodward reports some of their presentations to the president, including their descriptions of what they felt were the mistakes of the previous administration.

To my surprise, their arguments sounded a lot more reasonable to me than they had in the past. I was able to see the logic in their arguments, even when I didn’t agree. This confused me – had I been so poor a listener? I went back a couple of chapters and began reading again.

It finally dawned on me what was different. Mr. Woodward reported the advisors’ points of view in very dispassionate language. There were almost no adjectives or adverbs, and no editorial comments whatsoever. It was just the unadorned chain of logic.

When I heard the same arguments in the past, they had always come in highly charged language.  For example, I’d ask someone for their opinion on Mr. Obama’s Middle East policies, and the answer would begin with “Obama! He hates Israel!” or something similar – something that would immediately set me on the defensive. I didn’t – and don’t – think President Obama “hates Israel.” But when someone arguing against the Iran deal led with a bunch of statements like that, my heart would shut down. It would be very difficult to listen to anything else they said, however logical.

This has caused me to reflect on my own language. If such statements made it impossible for me to hear what someone else was saying, then what about the times I lead with my opinions of President Trump? In fact, until this post, I have had a tendency to avoid the title “President Trump” because I have such revulsion for him. Now, I will use the title – he is the President of the United States – and I will try to editorialize less about his person as I talk about his policies.

It is reasonable to expect a Trump voter to go onto the defensive when I open an argument with my emotional opinions about the man’s character. It’s not that my opinions about policy have changed – not at all! – I loathe most of his policies – but when I adorn my arguments with insulting nicknames and wild speculation about his motives, I close the ears of anyone I might want to persuade.

I am fond of saying that “words create worlds,” pointing to the first chapter of Genesis. Words can also build or burn bridges. Words are how we connect to other human beings. Perhaps one thing we need to do, if we are going to heal this divided country, is to speak less in passionate editorial prose and more in language that actually communicates facts.

I know that there are other problems in our speech in America right now: the whole issue of what is real, what is true, what can be known seems to be up for grabs. That’s a very serious matter, and I doubt there is much I alone can do to shift it. But on this little thing, to quit the namecalling, to quit ascribing motive, that’s something I can do, and I believe it could make a difference in my communication with others.




Tisha B’Av, 2018

Image: The Knesset building, home to Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem. (James Emery, Wikimedia)

This post will be a long one. If you aren’t up for a long read, I’ve raised my main points to bold lettering.

Tisha B’Av is coming, and I am already in mourning.

I have said elsewhere on this blog that I am a Zionist. I still identify as a Zionist, because I believe that the Jewish people need a home of our own, somewhere on earth where we will not be persecuted, driven out, or murdered. The logical place for that is our historical home, the place from which the Romans drove us in 135 CE. Only a few Jews were allowed to remain in the holy Land from 135 forward, and that small community was decimated again and again under Byzantine, Crusader, and Ottoman rule. Others moved in and made it their home. Yet every year since then, Jews prayed daily for a return to our home, and every Passover announced our intention to someday return: “HaShanah haba’ah birushalayim!” – “Next year in Jerusalem!”

When the Zionist Movement came together in the late 19th century, galvanized by the vision of Teodore Herzl, there was talk in Europe that the historic Land of Israel was “an empty land.” That was not true – as some of our leaders, especially Ahad Ha’am (born Asher Ginzberg in Ukraine) tried to warn us, there were people presently living on the Land. As the article on him in the YivoEncyclopedia says:

In “Emet me-erets Yisra’el,” [“Truth from the Land of Israel”] Ahad Ha-Am had made the case that the brutal treatment of Arabs as meted out by some Jews could, if not stopped, ruin the prospects of Zionism and rob it of its moral standing and legitimacy.

We should add the name Ahad Ha-Am to the lists of names of the prophets. This week the Knesset, the parliament of the modern State of Israel, passed a bill that chills me to the bone. Titled “The Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” it is a radical re-visioning of the Modern State of Israel. (For a complete text of the law, click on the link.) It explicitly states:

1.C The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

And makes clear, as it goes on, that what that means is that the status of Jewish citizens of the State is superior to that of non-Jews. Specifically, it reduces the status of the Arabic language, previously one of two official languages of the State of Israel, to that of “special status.”

Ominously, Section 7 states:

A. The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.

What precisely this means for the Occupied West Bank is murky.

Finally, the word “democratic” appears nowhere in this bill, which purports to define the “Basic principles” of the State. Given the constant talk to outsiders about it being “the only democracy in the Middle East,” that is at best very odd and to my ears, very ominous. Contrast its language with the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, which states:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; 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. – Declaration of Independence, 1948

My only consolation is that according to HaAretz, often known as “the New York Times of Israel,” the bill was passed after “stormy debate” with a 62-55 vote and 2 abstentions.

I grew up in the Jim Crow South in the United States. I believe this “Nation-State Bill” is a step in the Jim-Crowing of Israel. Arab citizens (20% of the populace) are still legal citizens of the State of Israel, but their language has been downgraded and the voices of the Arab members of Knesset were drowned out in a hail of right-wing jingoism in the Knesset.

I am a Reform Jew. I believe that we outgrew the Temple and its sacrifices long ago, and because of that, I did not mourn the Temple. After 20 plus years of intensive study of Judaism and its traditions, I do believe that residence in the Land of Israel is the only way to fully observe Jewish tradition. Our calendar is set to Israel Time. Our religious laws are rooted in its soil. And there must be a place on earth where Jews are not merely tolerated but welcomed.  For 70 years, the Land and the fact of a Jewish state have been our Temple rebuilt anew.

But nothing, absolutely nothing, gives us license to oppress others in that Land. Just the reverse: our scriptures state unequivocally and repeatedly, that we are to welcome gerim, “strangers” into the Land. Gerim in Biblical parlance refers to non-Jews. (Medieval/Rabbinic Hebrew is a different matter – languages evolve over time.) Granted, first the Arab States and later the Palestinian leadership have done their best to terrorize Jews living in the Land – as I write this, Hamas incites the Palestinians of Gaza to send fire kites and fire falcons to lay siege to the farmlands of southern Israel. Our tradition gives us license to protect ourselves against those would would kill us. It does not give license to a single step beyond what is necessary.

As a person who experienced first hand the bombings of the Second Intifada seventeen years ago, I could defend the decision to build a wall, so that people could not bring in explosives willy-nilly. I could defend the checkpoints that have hurt Palestinians and done God-knows-what to the souls of the Israeli soldiers who work there. I blamed the idealism and naivete of the U.S. Administration at the time for Hamas’ takeover of Gaza after it was returned to the Palestinians; and I felt I could defend the need to defend against attacks from Gaza.

But I cannot defend the Jim-Crowing of the Muslim, Druze, and Christian citizens of the State of Israel. I cannot defend the haredi-fying of the Jewish State, the moves to make one particular expression of Judaism – the ultra-orthodox brand – the sole legitimate form of Judaism. I specifically reject that idea, because in my experience it reflects an outdated understanding of Judaism, one that stifles all but the most sexist, homophobic, and cruel elements of the tradition. Judaism is more than black hats and 16th century Shabbos. Judaism is more than Ashkenazi Judaism, more than Orthodoxy, more than Reform, more than Conservative, more than Sephardic, more than Mizrahi, more than the thousands of converts worldwide. Judaism is all of us and more.

Many of her actions have isolated Israel among the nations, as its enemies are well aware. Even its friends are not really friends, as some of the United States’ most recent moves have served to inflame matters. There is a dark romance between the so-called Christian Zionists and the current Israeli government. On the one hand, a significant number of those so-called Zionists look forward to an end-times scenario that has Israel in flames. On the other hand, the present government of Israel has an arrogant sense that they can accept the Christian support while laughing off their plans.

There is an illusion that Israel can stand against the whole world, as long as it has U.S. support. I believe it is a tragic illusion on a par with the foolishness of the doomed Bar Kokhba Revolt.

I am bereft. The vision of a Jewish democratic state in the Middle East is disappearing under a wave of right wing, haredi influence. Too many of its politicians are corrupt, and it seems that the State no longer even holds the ideal of equality for all its citizens. (If you do not believe that those ideals once guided the state, look at the quote from the Declaration of Independence above. As with the American Declaration of Independence, the ideals did not match the reality, but they were an aspiration.)

I cannot wash my hands and walk away. The vote was 62-55, hardly an overwhelming majority. Half of the world’s Jews, my cousins, live in the State of Israel. Kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh: All Jews are responsible for one another. I cannot wash my hands and walk away. I have vowed to stand with the Jewish People, come what may.

I have responsibilities that make it impossible for me to make aliyah. I cannot vote in Israel.

I can call and write my local Israeli consulate.

I can support the organizations of the left in Israel, like the Israel Religious Action Center.

I can make my opinions clear to my legislators here in the United States.

I can pray, and I can cry “Eicha?” (“How?”)

This is indeed a dark Tisha B’Av, because the Israel I love is in flames.

Lamentation at Gaza

Image: Beit Hanoun, Gaza, 2015: Children walking among the rubble.  (badwanart, pixabay)

Whose bright idea was it to schedule the ceremonies marking the arrival of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on the day before Nakba Day?

And did it not occur to that someone that the juxtaposition would provoke a strong reaction from the residents of Gaza?

Or perhaps was it utterly obvious that this alignment would provoke a violent reaction, and they scheduled it thus on purpose, to maximize the insult?

The old men have done what old men do: they have set up the young people of Palestine and the young people of Israel to fight and kill one another. Shame on the Palestinian leadership, both the PA and Hamas. Shame on Trump. Shame on Netanyahu. Shame on the Arab governments that chose to let this situation fester for 70 years while they booted hundreds of thousands of Jews out of their lands with nowhere to go but Israel. Shame on the British and the Ottoman sultans before them who manipulated both populations for their own purposes.

The only thing simple about this whole mess is that neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are welcome anywhere else.

Dreaming that the Other will simply disappear or go away is a foolish, destructive dream. Dreaming as some outsiders have dreamed that simply breaking down all barriers will bring peace is a foolish and destructive dream. Dreaming of genocide or apartheid on either side is a criminal dream.

The religious voices at the dedication of the embassy were fundamentalist Christians, both on record for anti-Semitic statements that they have yet to retract, plus a member of a Jewish sect which describes itself as “anti-Zionist.”  There was not a rabbi from a mainstream liberal movement in sight – neither Modern Orthodox, Masorti, nor Reform, even though all three movements maintain a presence in Jerusalem and are Zionist. I am angry about that, but I am heartbroken over the violence and loss of life.

I am a Jew down to the core of my soul. My heart is with Israel, but my heart is broken.

The prophet Zachariah gave us a warning long ago:

 וַיַּעַן וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי, לֵאמֹר, זֶה דְּבַר-יְהוָה, אֶל-זְרֻבָּבֶל לֵאמֹר:  לֹא בְחַיִל, וְלֹא בְכֹחַ–כִּי אִם-בְּרוּחִי, אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת.

Then he answered and spoke to me, saying: “This is the word of the Eternal to Zerubbabel, saying: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit,’ says the God of hosts.”  – Zechariah 4:6

The first century taught us that sometimes it is worse than useless to fight.

The 20th century taught us that sometimes we have to fight if we are going to survive.

I weep for my people because our friends are not our friends and our enemies are surrounded by enemies too.

I do not have answers.


*As Yair Rosenberg points out in his excellent article 13 Inconvenient Truths about what has been Happening in Gaza, the Palestinian demonstrations have been going on since March under the name, “The Great March of Return.” They are much more than a protest against moving the embassy. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the timing seems geared for maximum emotion. As Rosenberg writes: “The Monday demonstration was scheduled months ago to coincide with Nakba Day, an annual occasion of protest; it was later moved up 24 hours to grab some of the media attention devoted to the embassy.” 




The Tannaim, Models for Action

Image: The kever (grave) of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. (PikiWikiIsrael)

I’ve had a lot of trouble writing blog posts lately. Part of it is that I’ve been living on the mitzvah plan, getting through one day at a time doing mitzvot. Individually, I’ve had health challenges and work challenges. And as with many of you, the stresses that come with membership in my various communities have taken a toll.

I am worried by the rise in hate speech and hate crimes. I am worried by the loss of civility that I see all around me. I am worried by the “all or nothing” attitude I hear from most of the voices I hear, the absolute unwillingness to compromise. I worry about Israel. I worry about the United States. I worry that we are entering a period of history when democracy is drowned out by fascism and corruption.

The ancient rabbis we know as Tannaim (rabbis from 10-200 CE) lived in very troubled times. They lived in the Roman province known first as Judea and later as Palestina, through two disastrous attempts to throw off Roman rule. Many of them were hunted men, and we remember ten of them every year on Yom Kippur in the prayer known as Eleh Ezkerah, “These I remember.”

Lately I feel close to those rabbis: Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, and the others. They lived at a time when history swirled around them. They did work that has lasted for centuries: they midwifed Rabbinic Judaism into being. They assembled the Mishnah.  They made some terrible mistakes, too: Rabbi Akiva encouraged Shimon ben Kosevah to lead a revolt against Rome, renaming him “Shimon bar Kokhba,” Simon, son of the Star. The revolt ended in 135 CE with the Land in ruins and the Jews in exile.

Living in the middle of tumultuous times, they did not allow those times to paralyze them. Instead, they took action: Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai seized an opportunity to negotiate a place for a rabbinic school as Jerusalem was burning. Rabbi Akiva gave Shimon ben Kosevah his support, because he thought Shimon could lead a successful revolt. Rabban Gamaliel traveled to Rome to plead for his people with the Emperor Domition in 95 CE. Judah haNasi recognized a moment at which precious Torah knowledge might be lost forever, and broke with tradition to write down the first part of the Oral Torah, the Mishnah.

I look at what those rabbis did, under conditions of great stress and danger, and I am challenged to step up in my own time. I write postcards to my elected officials. I joined a study group on prison reform in California. I have committed to start a book group to study racism. I have amended my own coursework to better address the divisions in the Jewish world, and prepare my students to do better in their own generation. I try to keep my mind and calendar open for opportunities to do good, whether it is a little mitzvah no one will ever see or a public action, like showing up for a demonstration.

Tough times call for action. I know that you have your own worry lists. I am aware that your lives are full of challenges. Still, I implore you not to be paralyzed by the times. Find ways to make this world better, not worse. That action will take different forms for different people; we all have different strengths and abilities. But now, more than ever, it is important that we recall that we are God’s hands in this world. As Rabbi Tarfon (another tanna) taught us:

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. …You do not have to finish the task, but you are not free to give up. If you have studied much Torah much reward will be given you, for your employer is faithful, and he will pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come.  – Avot 2.20-21

If you are willing to share, I would love to hear what actions you are taking right now to make your part of the world better. It does not have to be earth-shaking; better that it is something small that can inspire me and others to continue to do our best, too.

I hope you will share your stories in the comments!

Guest Post: Dear Israel

The following post is by musician Beth Hamon. She writes with great heart and simplicity about some very complex matters. I asked for her permission to share it here with you, my readers. For more about Beth and her music, you can check out her website. – Rabbi Adar

Dear Israel,

You and I don’t really get each other very much, I admit it.
I don’t get why people tell me I should want to move there.
You don’t get why Portland is my Jerusalem. 
I don’t get how you can be simultaneously so loving towards certain Members Of the Tribe and so awful towards, well, a whole lot of everyone else (see: women, people of color, Palestinians).
You don’t get why I think it’s possible to be dynamically and fully Jewish wherever you are — and with whomever you love.

And yet, when I hear your name I still stop for the tiniest moment and listen.
I notice.
I ponder.
I wonder about what it means to be connected to a place so far away, and to Jews whose temperament is so different from mine. (You’re not the first to tell me I’m too nice or too polite.)

Look, I’m super-broke and probably always will be; so it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever be able to go and meet you in person.
So let’s agree to try and understand each other and respect each other a whole lot more from afar.
Can we work on that, you and me?
I’m willing to keep wrestling.
Are you?
Happy 70th birthday. May you have many more in good health.
I hope and pray that someday soon you’ll know real, lasting peace.
Thanks for being here — Beth

Good Books about Modern Israel

Image: A modern Israeli highway runs beside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. (Public Domain)

Some general histories of Modern Israel:

Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Daniel Gordis

Israel is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Nation and Its History by Rich Cohen

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert

My People: The Story of the Jews by Abba Eban

Some books about particular parts of Israeli history:

Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation by Yossi Klein Halevi

Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World by Seth M. Seigel

O, Jerusalem! by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins

Primary Sources:

The Jewish State by Theodore Herzl

Memoirs by David Ben Gurion

The Jews in their Land by David Ben Gurion

Abba Eban, an Autobiography by Abba Eban

So, regular readers, what books have I neglected to mention that would help a beginner understand Israel? What histories do you like? What books give the reader the flavor of contemporary Israel? What memoirs and primary sources are particularly good?

I look forward to your additions in the comments!