Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Channukah with a twist

So Chanukah is upon us. Many people call this their favorite Jewish holiday, and even among those who don't call it their "favorite" I have yet to meet a Jew who doesn't really like the holiday a lot (and I have met a lot of Jews in my time…)

So we'll sing the songs, spin the dreidle, eat the oily delicious potato pancakes, light the menorah, and of course tell the story of Chanukah. The story of how the heavily outnumbered and undertrained and under-armed Jews defeated the mighty well-armored, well-trained and huge Greek army driving them out of Jerusalem and reclaiming the Holy Temple. But when it came time to dedicate the Temple (which is where the Hebrew word Chanukah comes from), there was only enough oil to burn for one day. So the Jews lit the small paltry amount of oil and got cracking on making more oil from olives - a process which takes 8 days. And lo and behold - God made a miracle for us and the small amount of oil enough for one day only managed to burn for the entire 8 days until our ancestors were able to bring more oil.

That's the story we know and love and re-tell every year, right?

And I love that story. As an religiously observant Jew, I love feeling that God has occasionally over the course of history brought forth his hand to help further us along a path that we have chosen of our own free will (a topic for another blog at another time).

But I am also a believer in intellectual honesty, and in trying to recognize things for what they really are, as well as for what they are not.

And I think that there is a reasonable chance that the miracle of small jug of oil, containing enough to burn for only one day yet burning for eight – never really happened.

The best (i.e. most accurate) Jewish sources that we have for the story of Chanukah are the books of Maccabees (I and II). The first Book of Maccabees was written within a couple of years of when the actual story took place. The second Book of Maccabees was written about 50 years later. The first mention of the "miracle of the oil" is in the Second Book of Maccabees.

Rather, the earliest mention of the miracle of the oil is in the Babylonian Talmud and was written at least 300 years after the story took place.

Now, logically wouldn't it make sense that those who were closest to the event – saw it, heard about it from first-hand witnesses, would have mentioned something about it in their account of Chanukah a year later?

Personally, I see the real miracle of Chanukah was the victory itself. Read the paragraph that we add to the prayers during Chanukah Al HaNissim - ("For the Miracles") – it never mentions anything about the oil.

And [we thank You] for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds, for the saving acts, and for the wonders which You have wrought for our ancestors in those days, at this time—
In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will. But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah. You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and affected a great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel to this very day. Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.

There is nothing in there about the oil miracle, but there is plenty about the miracle of victory against all odds of the Jews over the Greeks.

So, if (emphasis on the word if), the miracle of the oil was a much later addition that didn't actually happen during the Maccabee's revolt, the question that interests me is why did this miracle "all of the sudden" appear in the later rendition of the story, written by people who were not actually there during the rebellion?

I believe that the Sages of the Talmud – with all of their brilliance, their knowledge, their understandings of the Word of God unparalleled in any other time, also had an agenda.

I don't say that in a negative way – their agenda was to keep Jews Jewish, to keep us connected to the Jewish people, to the Torah and to God. The Talmud is filled with parables, legends and other stories which are not intended to teach us "what really happened" but rather they teach us theological lessons and about our place in the world. And these lessons are every bit as holy and relevant and crucial to who we are as a people as are the other stories of what we believe really did happen.

It is very possible that the leaders of the Jewish community at the time saw how quickly the Jews were assimilating away from Jewish culture. The heroes of the Chanukah story fought against the Hellenization of the Jews, and they went to war to keep the Greeks from imposing their ways and their culture onto the Jewish people.

Yet their own grandsons had Greek names.

The assimilation that the brave warriors fought against so valiantly happened anyway, and very quickly. So the rabbis needed to do something drastic. They needed to use the story of Chanukah, which several centuries before their time to remind the Jews who and what they were in order to fight the growing disillusionment from Torah and from God.

In order to do that, the rabbis needed to excite the minds of the Jews with something that would "sell" the story of Chanukah much better than a miracle of a smaller army beating a bigger army. That wouldn't grab the imaginations and hearts of Jews to keep them within the fold.

Even today – there are many people (myself included) who see the hand of God in Israel's War of Independence. The odds that they fledgling Jewish army faced against the surrounding neighbors bent on our destruction were about the same as the odds that the Maccabees faced against the Greeks. And the victory was no less convincing, and no less miraculous than that of the Maccabees.

Yet today, only 62 years later, many people cannot or will not see God's involvement in that victory. It is very easy to attribute a military victory, no matter how unlikely to any of several explanations. So there are many Jews – some of whom are secular and do not believe in God or Divine involvement in worldly matters, and many of whom are religious non- and anti-Zionists who refuse to accept the existence of the State of Israel – who have taken God out of the story of Israel's independence.

I have no trouble believing that this happened with the story of Chanukah as well. Many Jews attributed the victory over the Greeks to something other than Divine Intervention, and without an aspect of holiness being there, the holiday may have become less relevant to much of the Jewish community.

But a miracle like the small vial of oil that burned for eight days instead of only one…that could grab people. That would excite Jews, and keep them excited about being Jewish and keep them interested in God and His role in our lives.

And the past 2,100 years have validated this. We still hold onto the miracle of the oil and we talk about that a lot more than we do about the victory in the war and the expulsion of the Greek army from Jerusalem and from our Holy Temple.

As the holiday is upon us, I wish all of you a very happy and joyous Chanukah, and may we all be able to see the "smaller" yet still significant miracles in this world and in our daily lives without needing the "Big" ones to keep the fires of hearts burning bright.

Happy Chanukah everyone.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hot-line to Heaven

I’ll admit it – I’m a bit confused.

If Israel has been blessed with leaders who fully comprehend the will and the ways of The Holy One (Blessed Be He), then why do we need to pay the salaries of other so-called “leaders” to mis-lead us in fulfilling the Divine Path?

Yes, apparently we have Members of our esteemed Knesset with a Hot-Line to God Himself. Government officials here on Earth with an intimate knowledge of Divine Justice, yet our parliamentarians still feel the need to “debate” issues, as though the pathetically “human” thoughts and ideas which they have to offer really matter with the realm of the World Stage.

I refer to a very enlightening statement made this weekend by MK Ya’akov Katz of the National Union. MK Katz was discussing the current investigation of Police Commander Uri Bar-Lev, who has been accused of sexually harassing a woman who had worked as a police adviser.

According to Mr. Katz (or perhaps I should refer to him as Messiah Katz), Commander Bar-Lev’s current situation is a punishment from God for having been involved in the infamous Disengagement from the Gaza Strip back in 2005.

As further proof that God is meting out justice, Mr. Katz has reminded us of the fates of several other leaders who had been at the forefront of the Gaza withdrawal:
• Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma since suffering two successive strokes in late December 2005 and early January 2006
• Then IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who resigned after the Second War in Lebanon in July-August 2006
• Former President Moshe Katzav, who is currently on trial for several cases of sexual harassment
• Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is currently on trial on charges of corruption

To me, this is absolutely amazing. Earth-shattering, even.

Wow! I really missed the boat on all of these.

I had very naively assumed that Uri Bar-Lev’s and Moshe Katzav’s sexual harassment charges were a result of their inability to keep their pants zipped up, their hands to themselves and a civil and respectful tongue in the mouths.

Likewise, I was under the misguided impression that Ehud Olmert’s current difficulties had stemmed from his greed and dishonesty.

And how was I to know that Ariel Sharon’s health problems were not because he extremely overweight, in terrible physical condition, under enormous pressure as Prime Minister of Israel and nearly 80 years old at the time?

Nope. All of the problems that these men have had is because God is punishing them for a political decision, which they made believing it to be in the best interest of Israel!

Whether or not the decision was in fact in Israel’s best interest is a topic for another time, but what is relevant right here and now is that according to MK Ya’akov Katz, God did not approve of the decision, and He has made his disapproval very clear.

I am a little bit concerned that the intimate understanding of God’s ways demonstrated by MK Katz does seem to go against one or two “minor” details which I have always understood to be cornerstones of Jewish thought.

For example: In the Book of Isaiah (55:8) God tells us (I thought very clearly) that God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts, nor are our ways like His.

To me this means that we are very much mistaken if we think that we can apply human logic and human understanding to anything that God does (and does not do). God has His own thought processes and His own ways and reasons which are completely foreign to us – we can never hope to understand them.

This message is further emphasized by the Book of Job.

Very VERY brief summary for those less versed in Scripture…Job, having lost everything dear to him – his children, his health and his wealth, demanded an explanation from God. His 3 friends all tried to comfort him, by explaining that if all this bad fortune had befallen him, it was clear that it was a punishment from God for having dome something wrong (does this sound familiar, MK Katz…?). Job refused to accept their explanation and continued to push for an answer from God.

When God finally answers Job, he asks him (in paraphrase): Where were you when I created the world? How can you possibly understand the Laws of Nature that I put into play, and the reasons anything happens in this world that I created?”

Yet, for all of God’s chastisement of Job for believing that he deserves explanations or can understand the Divine meaning behind them, He chastises Job’s 3 friends even more harshly. God rebukes very harshly for not having spoken properly about God the way that Job did. What does this mean? Job, unlike his friends, did not presume to understand God’s ways and God’s reasons. He wanted to – he felt that he had a right to, but ultimately he internalized what his friends never did – which is that, as mentioned already from Isaiah – God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and our ways are not His.

It would seem that MK Katz has found a way around this bothersome limitation.

God’s thoughts and those of Mr. Katz are one and the same. Mr. Katz is able to point to specific occurrences on Earth, and tell us that God is punishing certain political evil-doers.

I for one would be ready to welcome a bona fide Earth-bound representative of God’s thoughts and ways except for one problem: It seems to be to be borderline heresy.

Other than that, I’m fine with it….

But no – the Books which we have been given as the basis for our relationship with God have specifically told us one thing, while MK Ya’akov Katz is trying to tell us another.

It’s difficult enough when people try to use God as an explanation for the inexplicable, MK Katz is now using Him for things that really are explicable – and relatively easily so.

Perhaps the parliamentarian is not secure enough in believing in the “right” of his political stance that he can only justify it by invoking God?

I would think that arguments – both before disengagement as well as since it happened would have provided enough ammunition.

Friday, November 26, 2010

From the mouths of babes

It's finally happened - out and out racism – and in my very own household.

I was walking yesterday with my very-soon-to-be 9 year old daughter, and she was complaining about the job the cleaning ladies at her school do (or more specifically, don't do). When out of the blue, she referred to "those stupid Arab cleaning women".

In that split second I was transported back to one of the most defining moments of my childhood.

I was about 7 or 8 years old, and a friend from the neighborhood and I were sitting at my kitchen table having a snack while my mother was right there preparing dinner. This friend and I had started with "eeny meeny miney moe, catch a tiger by the toe" and being the silly young tykes that we began substituting other words for "tiger", and getting (in our minds, at least) funnier and more clever with every one. We went through the gamut of different animals that we caught by the toe, then we caught a teacher by the toe, a grandmother by the toe, you get the idea.

At one point, in my complete innocence (and I use that term very sincerely), I said "Eeny meeny miney moe, catch a nigger by the toe". Within a fraction of second, my mother turned around and smacked my face. She looked me in the eye and said "that is a word I will never hear you say again.

I still didn’t understand exactly what was so bad about it (don't worry, today I do know), but from that point onwards, I did fully grasp that there are ways to refer to people and ways not to.

Return to yesterday. No, I didn't smack my daughter in the face, but I did stop in my tracks and look at her. I told very clearly that I don't ever want to hear her say something like that again.

She then said that they were stupid because of how they clean the classroom - not they're Arab.

I told her that in that case, there was no reason to call them "stupid Arab cleaning women", but that "stupid cleaning women" would be enough. I explained to her – in terms that I think (I hope) she was able to grasp that grouping people together and defining them by the fact they are Arabs is wrong, and I will not allow her to refer to people that way.

We also talked about the "stupid" part – I told her that they might be cleaning (and not cleaning) based on what they were instructed to do, so it's very possible that even though she doesn't like (or understand) what they do, it isn't that they're stupid.

I also reminded her that even it turns out that they are stupid, that they were probably born that way, so it's not their fault if they're stupid and she should never make fun of people for something that's not their fault.

Hopefully I covered all of the bases here.

I am 100% certain that this was not something she has ever heard from either my wife or me. Most likely, she picked it up at school from other kids who heard it from their parents who hold certain prejudices, or older siblings or cab drivers, local mini-market owners, or whatever. It doesn't really matter where she got it – as long as she learns at home that it is completely unacceptable.

But the whole sting still had me a bit un-nerved.

I know – we hear things like this all the time, right? In Israel as well as everywhere in the world. I wish I had a shekel for every cab driver that I've had who referred to "Arab drivers" as the bad ones on the road (the sheer number road fatalities we have in this country every year attest to the fact that there is no shortage of really terrible Jewish drivers as well. We hear in Israel and around the world about the dumb Arabs, the terrorist Muslims, stupid blacks, greedy Jews, you name it. Some of these stereotypes are even attempts at "positive" statements. How often have we heard about how "clever" and "intelligent" the Jewish race is? (Open invitation – come spend even a week in Israel and you will see more than enough hard evidence to disprove THAT particular stereotype).

What bothers me is that most people I know will confuse this cover-all hatred of Arabs with a "political" statement.

It isn't. Not in any way, shape or form.

A political statement would be that we should expel all Arabs from Israel. I don't agree with that sentiment (although I know that many people do), but you could make a decent argument for that being a "political" view. It reflects a policy which many people believe would be in Israel's best interest.

I am purposely not going to offer any of my political views in this particular blog (that will come often enough in future blogs that I plan to post), because the actual political background, situation, difficulties and solutions, are not relevant to this particular discussion.

What I will offer is that simply hating all Arabs because they're Arabs – rather than political, is a social view. More correctly, it's an anti-social view. And it's a view that makes us no different and no better than the Nazis, the KKK, and all other racists throughout the world and throughout history.

It's not unreasonable to be very wary of the Islamic extremism that does exist in the world today, and all too often it is the fanatical leaders of these extremists who purport to speak on behalf of all Muslims, thus leading many of us to group them together.

After all, if their own leaders are claiming that all Muslims are "as one" and believe in the same as one another, then why shouldn't we lump them all together that way as well?

The answer is very simple.

Just because the Muslim "leaders" who we see and hear claim to represent the views of all Arabs worldwide, doesn't meant that they really do represent them. (As Abraham Lincoln once said - if you call a tail a leg, then how many legs does a dog have? Four. Calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg).

I have a feeling that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians want essentially the same out of life that I do – to raise a family, watch them grow old, and be healthy, wealthy and wise. Unfortunately, at this point and time, we don't really get to hear those Arabs's views. We only hear the fanatical leaders.

And that fanatical leadership must be dealt in the political, and if it comes to it, possibly even military realm. And we have our political and military leaders in place to do that, and we hope and pray every single day that they will do so with wisdom, with intelligence, with integrity and with courage.

That is their job as the political and military leadership.

Our job is in the social realm, and that is to train ourselves and our children to relate to our fellow human beings. Whether or not we agree with them, or even like them, we need understand that there are ways to see and refer to the Arabs among us, and ways never to.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Forgive but never forget

According to a survey recently conducted here in Israel that I saw in the Jerusalem Post online today, only 23% of Israelis feel that now, 65 years after the Holocaust took place in Europe, that it’s time to forgive the German people and Germany for crimes committed in the Holocaust. 70% say they don't forgive and 7% are undecided.

My first thought when I saw this was – what does the question mean? Are we talking about forgiving the Germany and its citizens of 65 years ago for the crimes committed in the Holocaust, or are we talking about withholding forgiveness from the Germany and the German people of 2010?

Obviously there is a huge difference between the two.

On second thought – or is there?

The question isn’t really about the Germans – or more specifically the Nazis. It’s not even really about the Holocaust itself. The question is really about us - and how do we define ourselves as the Jewish people, as the State of Israel, and as individual human beings.

Nobody is suggesting (I hope!) that we forget the Holocaust – God Forbid! That would be unthinkable!

It is crucial that we always remember the Holocaust – not to dwell on how terrible things were, not to wallow in misery, and certainly not to garner sympathy or to make any connection between what happened 65-80 years ago with today.

No. We need to remember the Holocaust, and to continue teaching it in its entirety to future generations in order to ensure that this can never happen again. Not to us, and not to anybody.

The Holocaust is a very concise lesson in the depths that mankind has it in itself to sink. Never again can we fool ourselves into thinking that people “simply can’t do {fill in the blank}”. We know that they can do pretty anything, and that they have. What’s worse, we know that others will sit back and allow it to happen.

However, that’s not the only lesson of the Holocaust that can, and should be relevant for us today.

In his book “Faith after the Holocaust” (published, 1973), Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz, z”l discusses the inability of so many people to believe in God in light of the Holocaust. So many people became convinced that the depths to which people sank in their inhumanity disallows any possibility of the existence of a Supreme Being, an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God.

While Rabbi Berkovitz very respectfully understands this logic, he offers an alternative way to see the bigger picture.

For all of the documented stories of man’s un-natural and inexplicable inhumanity to his fellow man, there are also many documented stories (from the Holocaust) of an equally un-natural and inexplicable love for his fellow man, and despite all that was happening, the steadfast refusal of many people to abandon their belief in God.

Rabbi Berkovitz brings examples of people in the death camps who would give what little bit of food they had to somebody else that seemed even more starving than themselves. People who offered hope and encouragement – and love – to others when all around them was hopelessness and death. He argued that there were so many acts of loving-kindness, and of faith, that in the death camps was every bit as unnatural and abnormal as were the acts of depravity and wonton hatred and cruelty.

If the un-natural inhumanity can prove the absence of God, why can't the equally un-natural humanity prove His presence?

For me – this is also the lesson of the Holocaust that we must always keep with us. The knowledge that no matter hopeless and black everything around us may be, people still can find within themselves that spark of humanity. The spark of love. The spark of godliness.

So, no – we can never ever forget the Holocaust – there are too many lessons that are absolutely essential to us as human beings.

But forgiving? Perhaps that's different.

Forgiving doesn't mean saying "it's all behind us and bygones…" Many Nazi war criminals have been captured and brought to justice over the years, and while there aren't many of them left, and those that are there are very old, they should continue to be chased down and brought to justice.

Bringing to justice does not disqualify forgiveness.

They committed crimes and even 65 or 70 years later, they absolutely should have to pay whatever price is appropriate for those crimes.

But forgive them?

I'll let you all in on a little secret. People much wiser than me have said, and I fully agree with them - Forgiveness isn't about those being forgiven. It's not even about whatever it is that they've done – no matter how indescribably horrible it may have been.

Forgiveness is all about those doing the forgiving.

Whether or not I forgive a person will not (should not) effect what they do with their lives. My forgiveness – or lack thereof – will not be a factor in any decisions they make on a day-to-day basis, and I seriously doubt that they will lose any sleep over whether or not I've forgiven them for whatever it is they have done, or that I have perceived that they've done.

The one that will lose sleep over it is me. I'm the one that will still have the anger and the hatred burning inside of me, effecting my judgments, actions and behavior. I'm the one that will be carrying the grudge and living in the painful history. I'm the one whose decisions of that I make on a day-to-day basis will be influenced and effected by the past.

And in doing so, I will be ignoring the present and avoiding the future.

And nobody should have that kind of power of me. Especially not people as inhuman and despicable as the Nazis.

So – can I forgive? It depends.

The German people that were a part of what happened, yes. I can forgive them. Because I refuse to let them be important enough to keep me from looking ahead and from living my life.

Even that's not all Germans, and it's certainly not Germany as a nation – either then or now.

As soon as I start blaming (and conversely, forgiving) a nation as a whole for the actions of its individual citizens, even when it's a majority of the citizens, then I am essentially doing what the Nazis, and anti-Semites throughout history have done to the Jews. I've grouped them together, taking away all individual identity and relating to a nation as "if you've seen one, you've seen them all".

And if we're supposed to remember the lessons of the Holocaust, then we'll understand that that would be the first step towards sinking to the depths.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Of Perceptions and Reality

I saw a piece in the Jerusalem Post online this morning that intrigued me. Apparently, last month the Cambridge University debating society held a debate on the motion that "Israel is a rogue state".

The "star" of the debate was a 19 year-old law student from Toronto name Gabriel Latner. He spoke for about 10 minutes, and in that time he apparently convinced the majority of the 800-or-so people in attendance that Israel is indeed a rogue state.

And he proved that this is to Israel's complete credit.

Here is the text of the speech, but I'll summarize it for any of you who prefer not to read it yourselves.

The young man argued that "rogue" does not mean "treating people badly" – whether your own citizens, or others. If behavior like that did qualify a country as "rogue", then Canada the US and Australia would all be rogue countries for their treatment of their indigenous populations, not to mention how England itself would be labeled for her history in Ireland.

But, armed with the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of rogue as “Aberrant, anomalous; misplaced, occurring (esp. in isolation) at an unexpected place or time,” he proceeded to give 5 examples in which Israel actually should indeed be considered a "rogue" country".

First of all, Latner said, just the fact that Israel is a Jewish state, makes it aberrant and anomalous enough from every other country in the world to justify being called "rogue".

Secondly, Israel's treatment of the refugees from Darfur was so anomalous as to make us a "rogue" state – none of our Arab neighbors have done even a fraction for these refugees that Israel has done, which explains why the refugees have risked so much to cross deserts to come to Israel.

The third point to calling Israel "rogue" is our willingness to negotiate with terrorists. As the dictionary also defines rogue as “behaving in a way that is unexpected, or not normal", then I can't argue with him on this one either.

Since part of the definition is "occurring at an unexpected place or time", then Israel's far better record on human rights than any of our neighbors provided Latner with his fourth argument. An example that he offered was Israel's treatment of the Gay community as opposed to the treatment Gays and Lesbians receive in the rest of the Middle East – at best, flogging and jail time at best, and at worst, execution.

The final example of Israel's "rogue-ishness" is our willingness to even discuss and debate such issues as our legitimacy in forums such as this particular debate. This point was accentuated by the presence of a senior Israeli diplomat as one of the speakers at the debate itself.

I have to say – I love this approach to the debate. What he said was – to my mind, at least – very simple, very basic, and very self-evident. And it completely hit the nail on the head.

And he said it in England. To a primarily British audience.

This is the same England whose media over the last several years has built a reputation of being extremely anti-Israel.

This is also the same England where a current Member of Parliament said a few days ago that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is the root cause of worldwide terrorism. (if you're on the fence as to whether an opinion like that is "anti-Israel, or a "political analysis", then consider too that the same politician also referred to the power of the pro-Israel lobby in the US and the UK as a possible cause that the treatment continues. This was not the first time in the past few years that this parliamentarian has mentioned the pro-Israel lobby and its "financial grips" on the world).

But this is also the same England, where a 19-year student can speak in front of a very prestigious debating society and convince the majority of his audience that the world in general and the Middle East in particular are better places for the existence of Israel – doing what Israel does, and being a "rogue" state.

And the truth is (to my mind, at any rate) that it's very hard to predict what the longer-term effect of a presentation such as Gabriel Latner's will accomplish in the long run.

On the one hand, there is a hope for a lot of positive to come out of this. He successfully convinced a lot of listeners at the debate itself that evening, and who can predict how many of the several hundred people there will then go and, using the new arguments that they heard from that evening, convince others also of Israel's right to exist and of our "positive rogue-ishness"?

And who can predict how many hundreds of thousands of others have and will see his speech through various and sundry airwaves that it has reached – newspapers, blogs, YouTube, whatever.

The potential is tremendous.

On the other hand, it probably won't really make a far-reaching difference. Too many peoples' minds are already made up about Israel, that there's no use trying to confuse them with facts.

An example of this really hit me hard at work today.

There is a tour agent somewhere overseas (for obvious reasons I won't say where) with whom my company is in contact that is hoping to bring a group to Israel in a few months. This agent expressed a concern about having the group stay in a city that's too strongly identified as "Israel" – he was worried about the marketing ramifications that would go with that – that Israel's image is such that people would turn away from this trip.

Now, this is an agent who wants to bring tourists to Israel – he supports Israel, understands Israel, and knows that bringing groups to Israel nowadays is a very profitable destination.

He knows that Israel this year has won several awards and recognitions as a top tourist location, and that the number of tourists that have visited Israel this past year is on pace to set an all-time record (through October we had nearly 3 million visitors to Israel, which was more than all of 2009).

In short, this agent has absolutely no reason to not support Israel.

But obviously he knows his market and his clientele and responds to their sensitivities. And his clients' sensitivities say that he needs to "downplay" the Israel of a "Trip to Israel". They want to come to Israel, they just would rather not advertise to their neighbors too much where it is that they're going.

There are several ironies at play here, most of which I won't go into, but the one that stands out most blatantly in my mind is this: the group that this agent is bringing is coming for one of Israel's Gay Pride parades and events.

So, here we have a group, coming to the only country in the Middle East with open Gay Pride activities (as opposed to our neighbors who are more known for open Gay condemnation, imprisonment and execution), and they are worried about the "ramifications" of people knowing where they are visiting????

Are you kidding me???

One part of me can understand their concern. Israel does look bad when being seen from the world media. And we sure as hell have brought a fair share of this horrible image onto ourselves with some of the mistakes that we (partucularly our leaders) have made. So I can appreciate the reticence and the hesitation of this particular group in terms of Israel.

But another part of me - the harder, more cynical part - would love to let the group stay at a hotel in (the Arab city) of Bethlehem with a huge sign on the hotel saying who this group is. They might not be so well accepted by the local townspeople as they would be in Israel, but at least they could tell all of their friends back home how they stayed in "Palestine"...

But the biggest part of me simply continues to hope and pray that more debates will continue to take place like the one at Cambridge University last month, and with speakers like Gabriel Latner, who seem to get it advocating what I would think is a very logical and reasonable perspective on what Israel is and what it isn't.

And I hope that the more hearts and minds of reasonable people around the world will continue to open up, to allow more visitors to come and see this amazing country that we have here. And that the more people come to see this gorgeous country, the even more their hearts and minds will continue to open up.

Then perhaps Gabriel Latner will become the standard, the "norm" and no longer the rarity that stands out and gives us all a glimmer of hope.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Finally! A label that I can live with!

I have spent the last several years fighting any and all attempts to “label” me – primarily the attempts that I make myself.

I mean – of course there are some descriptions that fit, no matter how much I try to remain “unlabelable” (not a real word? Too bad – deal with it – it is now!).

Yes, I am Jewish.

Yes, I am an American-born Israeli citizen.

Yes, I am a religiously observant person (whatever the hell that means) who believes in God.

Yes, I am even a Zionist (although there are as many different understandings as to what that word means as there are Zionists).

And of course, I’m a father, a husband, a member of my community, etc...

There are also descriptions about me that fit which aren’t “labels” per se – I work in the tourism industry, I’m a music lover music (primarily although not exclusively blues and classic rock), I’m a sports fan, I love to laugh and I can find humor in almost anything (emphasis on the “almost”).

All of these fit, they even “define” me, to a point, but they don’t necessarily “label” me (I’m not yet sure what the difference is between “defining” and “labeling” or if there even is a difference. Hopefully as I write this blog it will become clearer to me).

And the truth of the matter is that I pride myself in my lack of “labels”. I love that people can’t quite pin down if I am “right-wing” or “left-wing”, or “centrist”. I love that I don’t really fit any of the classic “movements” in Judaism – I am not your typical “Orthodox” Jew, yet while my personal beliefs are closer to the what is generally considered as “Orthodox” than any of the other options, I also understand and respect the other movements, and several of my beliefs are in line with them as well.

This was especially problematic during the 11 years that I lived in Jerusalem, and played a very significant role in the fact that we moved to the bedroom community of Modi’in (midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv) 7 and a half years ago.

Jerusalem – for all of her history, for all of her beauty, for all of her political importance today – is for me, without a doubt, also the city with the highest level of tension that I have ever seen or experienced. And I don’t mean between Jews and Arabs (although, of course that is also a source of major tension in the city).

The real tension that I always felt was both political and religious. And it was primarily among the Jewish residents of the city.

It seems to me that there exists a natural tendency among people to label in order to know how to relate to one another. While I believe that this is true in general, it seems to be even more so among Israelis, and within Israel, even more extreme in Jerusalem. It’s as though if people don’t know how to label you, then they don’t know how to relate to you.

God Forbid they should relate to you as an individual! No sir – if you don’t fit into one of the pre-determined sets of people, then you are an outsider.

I’ll give you (what I think is) a good example.

Religiously, I personally don’t agree with a lot of what either Conservative and Reform Judaism believes, and am not comfortable praying in a synagogue where the practice has been shaped by those beliefs.

I understand the beliefs, and I respect them. I just don’t agree with them.

For me, the solution is very simple. I prefer not to pray in a Conservative or Reform synagogue.

I love the fact that these synagogues exist, because I know how many people do agree with the ideology and principles and are comfortable praying in these venues. I would love to see a thousand of these synagogues in Israel (they are still extremely rare) and I would love to see them all filled to overflow.

I simply prefer not to pray in them myself.

Pretty basic, no? Straight-forward, logical, reasonable, respectful and respectable.

Or so one would think.

In Jerusalem – much more so than any other place I know, I found myself caught in the proverbial middle with this approach.

Many of my “Orthodox” friends were very wary of me, because I supported the “heretical” and downright "wrong" existence of non-Orthodox Judaism.

At the same time, many of my Conservative and Reform friends were wary of me, because I didn’t want to pray with them in their synagogue.

In a word - OY!!!!!

And as bad as the religious tension can (and often does) become, politically it’s worse. Much, much worse.

Everybody knows without a doubt that their understanding of the Jewish-Arab/Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the absolutely correct understanding, and of course, by extension, their solution to the conflict is the only "right" solution. The only soltion with any chance to ultimately bring peace.

If you don’t agree with their solution, then you are clearly part of the problem. You are the personification and the embodiment of the obstacle to peace.

(By the way - I have found what I see as this arrogance and certainty of "getting it" to be as wide spread among right-wingers as it is among left-wingers)

But poor l’il ol’ Asher – I don’t really fall into any particular political camp.

For one thing, I see far too many people who will label themselves first, and then use that label to define their “political” views. You’ve probably met some of these folks. They’re the ones who tell you that “Well, I’m left-wing / right-wing, so that means that I believe {fill in the blank} about the peace process, and {fill in the blank} about the settlements, {fill in the blank} about …” and on and on...

Seriously – would it be oh-so-terrible, if these people looked at each individual issue on its own merits and came to a conclusion based on the factors specific to that issue?

Here I am, not really fitting any of the labels, and even, in a lot of ways, I seem to break a lot of stereotypes that exist (and are all too often validated) for the labels that people “like” me supposedly fit – American-born, religiously observant, etc.

So I’ve finally found a label that I can live with, and that I think is a pretty fitting one for me. Of course, I had to go outside of the standard labels to find this label, but – a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, ya know…?

From this point on, I label myself a Monotype.

According to Dictionary.com, a monotype is a) the only print made from a metal or glass plate….(blah blah blah) – it doesn’t really matter at the moment; b) the method of producing such a print (also doesn’t really matter right now).

But there is third definition which does matter.

A Monotype is (in biology) “the only type of its group, as a single species constituting a genus”.

I like that. A lot. And I truly hope that this definition fits me as well (as long as I refrain from my natural desire to add a “i” to the word genus when I define myself).

Even before I found the biology-related meaning of the word on Dictionary.com, I sort of came up with it independently on my own this morning. Since I’ve decided that I see myself as bucking the standard stereotypes, then I must be the opposite of a stereotype – and the opposite would be a Monotype. And that’s me. The only me there is.

To quote the brilliant lads from Monty Python – “Yes! We’re all individuals! (I’m not…)

I have my set of views – political, religious, social, etc. And I am confident and strong in these views, believing that they really do work for me.

The obvious ramification of the emphasis on “for me” is that I make no assumptions that my views, my ideas, my opinions, approaches and world/life philosophies are right for anybody else. They are mine. You are welcome to agree with them and share them –you are also welcome to disagree with them and reject them.

But they do represent my personal approach to life.

I hope to use this new blog – Musings of a Monotype to explore how I am able to apply this personal approach to life – in all of its aspects – religious, political, social, whatever – to my reality. To see if I am able to stay consistent within my own world-view in raising my children, relating to my family and friends, and living my day-to-day life in what is arguably the craziest country in the world.

I have no idea where this journey will take me, but you are more than welcome to join me in finding out.