Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Out Of Left Field

I would hate to think that people got the wrong idea from this blog a couple of days ago in which I said that while I share several political views as are held by people associated with the Israeli/Zionist right. In short, I emphasized Israel’s right to exist, by standards of history, legal procedures and international recognition. My agreement on those issues notwithstanding, I find it impossible to align myself with the right because of the amount of racism that I see and hear from that camp.

First of all, I have no doubt that most left-wingers I know here in Israel agree with these basic ideas of Israel’s right to exist.

Where most on the left would disagree with me is in how much responsibility Israel should bear for the suffering of the Palestinian people. I wrote the other day that despite some poor decisions and outright mistakes made by the Israeli leadership in dealing with the Palestinians, the bulk of the blame lies on the shoulders of the Palestinian leadership.

I agree that “occupying” another people is wrong, although I do believe that sometimes it is the only alternative available in order to protect our own civilians.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that Israel is currently in the role of “occupier”. The Oslo Accords in 1993 pretty much ended that. With that agreement, the disputed land was divided into 3 areas:

Area A – The primary Arab cities and population centers, where the vast majority of Palestinians live fell completely under military and civil control of the Palestinian Authority. Israelis citizens are not allowed in Area A.

Area B – The areas of most of the smaller Palestinian villages fell under civil control of the Palestinian Authority while Israel maintained a military presence.

Area C – The areas where the Jewish settlements and population centers areas remained under full control of Israel.

So, the only areas without any Palestinian presence at all is where there are no Palestinians living. Every place that has Palestinian civilians was placed under either partial or complete Palestinian control. That makes it very difficult to wring hands over an Israeli “occupation”.

For those who would say that there should be any Jewish presence represents “occupation” in Gaza and the West Bank/Judea and Samaria (the label used is determined by an individual’s political viewpoint), I have trouble accepting that as well. Just as the world would completely reject (and rightfully so) any discussion of removing all Arab presence from Israel “proper”, the idea of removing all Jewish presence from outside of the Green Line should be equally disregarded.

I admire, respect and agree with the values touted by the left for human rights, dignity and respect. But, if Israel’s leaders are forced to choose between the well-being of the Palestinian people and the well-being of Israel’s citizens, then their primary responsibility should be to their own people.

I have friends, a married couple who very much believe in the ideals of Peace Now. One evening about 9 years ago, Sharon and I got together with them for dinner a couple of days after a suicide bomb attack perpetrated by a 17-year old Palestinian girl at a supermarket in Jerusalem killed 2 Israelis. The husband of this couple was very emotional about he wished he could have had the chance to meet this girl before she carried out her attack – to hug her and tell her that she doesn’t need to feel such hatred in her heart. He was truly saddened by her death at the young age of 17.

When I asked him about the two Israelis killed in the attack, he brushed them off – he said that they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that while that is very sad, it’s not as tragic as the poor girl that felt the need to blow herself up in the supermarket.

It is very rare that I am left speechless – but this was one of those times. This beauty of this man’s compassion for this girl who felt death was preferable to life was completely overshadowed by his complete lack of compassion for the innocent civilians murdered by her act.

This is not a blanket statement about the “left wing” as a whole. It was a reflection of this particular individual. But I also know without a doubt that he is not the only person on the left with these views and emotions.

Too many people on the left, in pursuing respect and understanding for the Palestinians, are not able to find that same level of respect and understanding of their fellow Israelis.

Too many people on the left are ready at the drop of a hat to sit and discuss their differences with the Palestinian leadership which has continually stated a desire to push Israel into the sea, yet are unwilling to hear a word or acknowledge any validity of any views of the Israeli right.

Unfortunately, there also exists a very serious problem with how too much of the right relates to the left. I also take serious issue with the many individuals on the right whose response to the views of the left is to accuse them of being “self-hating Jews”, and even worst “traitors”.

News Flash for the Right: The views expressed by the Israeli left are what they believe in their hearts is what is right for Israel. They differ from what you see as being what Israel needs to do, and there will be examples in which history will show that they were mistaken (and history will show the same with many of your views a well) – but we must recognize these views for what they are – the beliefs of Israelis wanting what is best for Israel.

To relate to those views as anything other than what they are is a serious injustice.

Perhaps in order to sit and negotiate with the Palestinians we must first show an ability to do so with ourselves – showing the respect and dignity for our fellow Israelis and the views they hold so vastly different from our own.

We cannot control what other nations and peoples do, nor can “force” them to do the “right” thing. But we should be able to take charge of ourselves.

The bottom line concern for Israel really is our common denominator.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Wrong To Be Right

I finally understand something about myself. And it only took – oh, I don’t know – 15, 20 years (give or take).

I have long prided myself on not fitting any pre-determined political labels, of being able to see and appreciate many sides of every issue, and of having many friends on both the right and left ends of the political spectrum, most of whom I can (and often do) hold very spirited, yet respectful discussions and disagreements on politics, and our friendships have remained in tact – no matter how misguided and downright wrong my friends may be.

What I have not understood until very recently is why I have been so happy to not fall into any of the labels, and why it is such a source of personal pride that I don’t really associate myself with any particular political view point.

The epiphany finally hit me in a Facebook group that a good friend of mine started up. The group is meant as a platform for fun, and truly has been a lot of fun, but the nature of the group primarily has been attracting Zionists with very right-wing political views.

At the risk of alienating all of my right-wing friends (in the interest of fair play, I’ll alienate the left in my next blog), I have found that for the vast majority of people holding right-wing political views, that this almost automatically goes hand-in-hand with holding racist views against Arabs. I can’t and won’t join them in this.

A couple of months ago, I posted this blog recounting a lesson that I learned at a very young age about racism (against it, not for it). While that particular instance dealt with racism based on skin color, the impression it made on my development was tremendous. The lesson was driven home even deeper when we moved the Washington DC area to North Carolina in the summer before 7th grade, and instead of my Jewish Day School, I was one of the extreme minority of Jews in the public junior high school. Anti-Semitism wasn’t overly rampant or wide-spread in the school, but it was there and it was really the first time I had ever faced it.

Between the lesson from early on in life mentioned above, plus the upbringing I had with my parents plus the experiences of anti-Semitism I was able to internalize a couple of very important realities.

The first of which was to never be ashamed of who or what I am.

The second was to always relate to people as individuals. Period. There is no such thing as universally “Jewish” traits, or Arab traits, Chinese, Italian, Black, Female, whatever.

Putting people together under an “umbrella group trait” is refusing to acknowledge the individual spark, and the individual potential that exists in each and every one of us.

This is what the Nazis did (and what many people still do) to Jews and we see where that has taken us. It is what the Civil Rights movement has been fighting from being done to Blacks. It has been the basis of countless hate crimes against even more countless races, religions and nationalities. It has been the basis of sexism and misogynism which even the more “advanced” countries of the world are still struggling to combat.

Thus, I find myself feeling very uncomfortable much of the time in the Israeli right-wing circles. Because too often, these friends and these circles make what they pass off as “political” statements which are really statements against Arabs – as a people, the Arab people on the whole.

I can understand – to a point – where this comes from. In terms of political solutions to the conflict here, several of my views are not so different from those of my right-wing friends.

I agree that Israel is the Jewish homeland, that we have an historical connection to this land and an inherent right to it. We also have a legal right to the land because the early Zionist settlers in the late-1800’s and early 1900’s either bought tracts of land which were owned by people or paid exorbitant fees to the Ottoman authorities who were controlling the land (there was no “Palestinian” entity at that or any other time).

Beyond all that, Israel received it’s “final” vote of legitimacy when the United Nations passed the Partition Plan in November 1947 (which was rejected by the Arab nations) thus ending the British Mandate and clearing the path for the Declaration of the Jewish State in May 1948.

I also believe that the so-called “occupation” and “apartheid” mistreatment of the poor defenseless Palestinians is a huge PR victory for the Palestinian Authority much more than it is a reality.

This is not to say that Israel has been completely blameless for our handling of the situation, and mistakes have certainly been made by our so-called “leaders”, but the picture that we see and hear painted internationally of the “plight of the Palestinians” really bears a very minimal resemblance reality on the ground.

So, many of my political views really are pretty in sync with those of my friends on the right, but as I said earlier – only to a point, and here is where I will probably disenfranchise many of my right-wing friends.

I have nothing inherently against Palestinians or Arabs. I honestly don’t.

I hold the leadership of the Palestinians responsible for their peoples’ plight. Billions of dollars have been poured into the PA since the Camp David accords were signed in 1993, which have not gone to the Palestinian people for infrastructure, education, technology, jobs, etc. but rather has gone to weapons, ammunition, and the international public relations campaign (not to mention, of course, the millions that have somehow found their way into the private bank accounts of many of the Palestinian leadership).

The Palestinian leadership has purposely (IMHO) kept their own people living in absolute squalor and poverty because otherwise the world would not feel the need to continue pouring money into the Palestinian coffers nor would they need to continue blaming Israel for the disgraceful condition that people are forced to live.

We all see the "polls" and "surveys" which show how overwhelmingly the Palestinians support suicide attacks, death to Israelis/Jews, the martyrdom for their suicide attackers, etc. But what we don't necessarily see is how brainwashed the average "man in the street" is by their so-called leadership. The average person has very limited (and directed) access to news, and a very skewed view of both the complexity of the history between Jews and Arabs and the current situation.

While these people are kept in poverty, what their leaders do show them of Israel and of Jews is the success and relative wealth which we enjoy and their own complete dependency on Israel for work and for income. The Palestinian leadership has managed to break all of the hopes and dreams of their own people while painting Israel as so completely responsible for their reality that of course the average Palestinian will support whatever it takes to fight back against us. The average person there feels that he has nothing to lose in going for proverbial broke against those responsible for his situation.

So why wouldn't that person support suicide attacks and martyrdom for those who undertake them?

But – and this is a very big but – I refuse to see this as a reflection on all Arabs, or even on all Palestinians. It is a reflection on their own failed leadership. It is the responsibility of the Palestinian leadership to look out for the welfare of the Palestinian people, just as it is the first and foremost responsibility of the Israeli leadership to protect the interests of the Israeli people.

While I can find an agreement with many on the right for the political intricacies of the very complex situation here, I cannot, and will not be party to the demonization of the entire Arab people in doing so.

I don’t need to be. I feel that I can advocate what is right for Israel – both in terms of being in our best interest and in terms of taking the morally right correct course of action, without falling back on the need to paint every Arab as a blood-thirsty hate-filled monster that needs to be destroyed. We don’t need to rely on bullshit to prove out

I don’t know where that middle ground is, but I believe with all my heart that there is one. And I hope and pray that we can find it one day, before it’s too late.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Sequel to Memories from the First Gulf War - Broken Homes, Unbroken Spirits

Last night I posted this "trip down memory lane" - to the night 20 years ago this week when the first Gulf War started.

While at the time we were all scared out of our wits, looking back I'm able to laugh at much of what I personally experienced that week.

About a month or so later, I had a very different experience of the same Gulf War which I beleive has contributed greatly to my personal spiritual development.

Scuds were being lobbed at Israel from Iraq almost daily, and while people continued to be diligent about keeping their gas masks handy at all times and going into the closest sealed room on a moment's notice, the country nevertheless managed to find a calm way to get through this very strange time.

Some residents of the Tel Aviv area had "moved south for the winter" - i.e. gone to Eilat and other southern locations to be as far as possible from where most of the Scuds were landing, but even that was a minority. Most people stayed put - continued going to work, sending their kids to school, even going out to restaurants, etc. - all the while with gas masks at their sides ready for a siren to send them to a shelter or sealed room.

Over the course of a few days sometime in mid-late February, several scud missiles hit a residential area in Ramat Gan (right outside of Tel Aviv), and my unit was brought up to the area from our base in order to help people move their remaining belongings into huge containers on the street for safe-keeping until the apartments could be repaired.

I had a couple of very significant realizations that week.

First, nobody was injured in this particular neighborhood. People had been in these buildings – particularly in many of the "sealed rooms" whose walls/ceilings had fallen in during the attack – yet not a single injury. While Israel was going through daily unprovoked missile attacks, this entire block of buildings was ravaged, with people in it, and nobody was physically hurt. I couldn't help but to see that as a sign from above – a "show of solidarity", as it were.

Second, I was amazed that the majority of these same ravaged apartments sported Israeli flags flying from (what was left of) the balconies. The residents of this working class neighborhood were sending a message loud and clear to Saddam – you threw your worst at us, and here we are – alive, healthy, and proud of who we are.

The residents of theses seriously dmaged homes in Ramat Gan accepted that for political reasons, Israel's hands were tied and we were not in a position to retaliate militarily the Iraqi attacks, and yet they were giving Saddam the virtual finger.

To me, this indefinable unbreakable spirit reasserted in a strange way the presence of God – giving us the hope, the strength and the courage to know exactly who we are and enabling us to celebrate in that.

By coincidence, that same week, Israel had her only significant rainfall of that entire winter. I have no idea if this was another "positive sign" from above or a case of Divine Murphy's Law with our unit sleeping in leaky tents at a nearby army base, but given the backdrop of the rest of the week, I know what I'm inclined to think…

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On the 20th anniversary of the First Gulf War - Memories of an Un-sealed Room

I had completely forgotten the date today until a friend posted this on Facebook this evening.

It was 20 years ago yesterday – January 17, 1991 that the first Gulf War started.

I was in the IDF at the time, in the second month of the first phase of my Basic Training (I was a tank driver in the Armored Corps – whose basic training is broken down into three phases, approximately 2-3 months each). Our company had been brought from our training base in the south to various Arab villages in the central part of Israel, I was with 5 other trainees and a drill sergeant (all of whom were 18-19 years old, except for the sergeant who was 20, while I was an Old Fart of 26) in a small village right near the large Arab city of Ramallah. We were based in an old house which the IDF had taken over years earlier as a base of operations.

For the most part our job was to go on occasional foot patrols through the village (usually 3 of us plus the sergeant) and taking turns sitting on the roof of the house where we were based, watching for any trouble and listening for instructions over the Short-Wave radio.

We got to the village a couple of days before the war started, and fell into the routine pretty quickly. On the afternoon of January 16, the word came down from Army Command – in order to wear gas masks and to be able to seal them completely against our faces, civilians were strongly urged to shave off their beards and any soldiers with beards were ordered to do so.

Of course I wore a full beard at the time. Not necessarily for religious reasons (although I was one of the few religiously observant guys in my unit), but more because not having to shave daily saved me a few much-needed minutes every morning (army rules state that a soldier with a beard is allowed to keep it, otherwise a soldier must be clean-shaven every morning).

This was 1991 – electric razors weren’t as wide-spread as they are now, and while religiously observant Jews did use them (it is a violation of Jewish law to use a hand razor on our face) none of the guys with me in this little village had an electric razor. One of the guys was newly religious, but he was still using a hand razor (many newly observant Jews take on various laws and practices gradually rather than all at once) and besides, he had so little peach fuzz growing that he probably only shaved once a week or so.

Here I was – with no electric razor, a respectably full (not long, but full beard), an order from the IDF that the beard had to go, and a pending war with Iraq in which we had no idea whether or not they were going to be lobbing chemical warheads at us and whether I would need the gas mask or not (and no idea if the mask would make a difference anyway).

The sergeant made things very clear to me. He said “I’m going on patrol with “x”, “y” and “z” (the names of the soldiers have been changed to hide the fact that I cannot for the life of me remember who they were). When I get back in 3 hours – that beard is gone. I don’t care how”.

Not a lot of grey area in that command.

There were 2 of us left there with “free” time - another immigrant (nice guy from Canada) and me. 3 guys (x, y and z – remember them?) had gone out to patrol the village, and one guy was on guard duty up on the roof (it wasn’t nearly as romantic or as peaceful as James Taylor makes it sound).

So my Canadian friend, Jonathan and I needed to find a solution to my beard, and fast. The only thing we found is what they call in Hebrew a “Japanese knife (sakin yapani). You know the kind – it is a thin, retractable blade in a plastic casing, and is often used for cutting the tape on boxes, or cutting the boxes themselves.(see picture)

Almost every soldier in the IDF keeps one handy at all times, and I suppose in retrospect it’s a good thing. But at the time I had my doubts.

It took us over 2 hours and about 6 blades of the Japanese knife to get the beard off.

Imagine a giant scale, with the sign underneath reading “Things to be scared shit-less of”. Now put on one side of the scale the pending war with Iraq, scud missiles, the possibility of chemical warfare, and us being 7 young, minimally experienced soldiers in smack-dab in the middle of a Palestinian village, the majority of whose residents were hostile to us.

On the other side of the scale – and outweighing the first side, would be spending more than two hours with a very young, very well-meaning-but-nervous army buddy shaving my face with that damn Japanese knife.

Other the time I was pulled over by a Good Old Boy Southern cop in Andersonville, SC (a very funny story for another blog) this was probably the scariest couple of hours of my life.

But it worked. And I was now clean shaven. Lucky me – I could put on my gas mask!

And we got to put them on that very night.

The siren alerting us to a Scud attack came at about 1:30 in the morning. I had been on guard duty on the roof, but I was ordered to come inside with everyone else.

Pretty much every home in Israel had a “sealed room” for people to go to during every missile attack. We didn’t know if the attacks would involve chemical warfare, but it was good to have one room in every home to protect us from the possibility.

This house where we were based near Ramallah not only was without a sealed room, the entire house was basically open to the elements. It had a huge main living room, with windows that were empty (yes, it was always cold as hell in that house). All of the bedrooms and the kitchen had windows with some sort of plexiglas in them to keep the worst of the weather out, but they were far from air tight.

So, the siren goes off at about 1:30, and because Murphy is alive and well and basically stalks me personally, that night the generator which we used every night for the handful of lights in the house wasn’t working.

Picture 7 young soldiers (I count myself as young at the time) sitting around a table for about 4 hours, wearing gas masks, using Shabbat candles for the little bit of light that we have and focused on a transistor radio listening to the announcements and updates given throughout the night in Hebrew, English, Arabic, Russian and Amharic. Not knowing exactly what was happening in the rest of the country, and knowing that if the local residents decided that this was the time to attack the house where we were sitting, there wasn’t a thing that we could do about it.

Today – 20 years later, I can look back at that day and that night and even laugh at the absurdity of it all. It’s easy now – the residents of the village did not attack us at all. None of the warheads thrown at Israel that night or in the subsequent 2 months of the war contained any ABC (Atomic, Biological, and Chemical) weapons, and Israel suffered an amazingly small number of casualties throughout the war.

Even more incredible was that I personally survived the facial attack of a Japanese knife, with no real scrapes or scratches to show for it. And in some small way, as a young, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, idealistic American immigrant, I played a part, however small it may have been, in the defense of my then-newly-adopted home.

Tomorrow I hope to post a continuation blog on what I experienced later in that war.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rhetorically Speaking

Recently, the world was (I hope) shocked and terrified when a very sick, very twisted, very disturbed young man opened fire on a street corner in Tucson, Arizona killing 6 people and seriously wounding another 14, including his apparent target, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

No sooner was the shooting over, than ammunition was fired from both the right and the left, Republicans and Democrats over responsibility for the tragedy.

Many people put it squarely on the shoulders of former Republican Vice Presidential candidate (and future Presidential hopeful) Sarah Palin.

A few months ago, her political action committee SarahPac, “targeted” several congressional districts whose representatives had voted in favor of President Obama’s Health Care Bill. The graphic used in the ad was that of a “crosshairs” placed over each of the districts in question. Since Congresswoman Giffords’ district was one of those “targeted” by the campaign, within minutes of the shooting last Saturday, the accusations began flying fast and furious blaming Palin’s ad for the tragedy.

Of course, never mind the fact that while many folks were drawing the direct connections between the "Crosshairs" ad campaign and the shooting, the police who had the shooter in custody were repeating that they had not determined a motive for what was done. In short, there was no evidence that he was acting as a result of being influenced by the campaign at all, or if he was just a random nutcase who went “postal”.

Over the past week, it has come out that the suspect, Jared Loughner, has had a history of alcohol and drug abuse, mental instability, and has expressed admiration for Hitler’s famous anti-Semitic book, Mein Kampf. He attended a campaign event for Congresswoman Giffords in 2007, and asked her a question, and was very unsatisfied with her answer. There are signs that even then he was planning, or at the very least imagining/fantasizing killing her.

So it seems to be a real stretch to put this one on Sarah Palin.

Don’t get me wrong – I personally find Sarah Palin to be one of the biggest jokes, yet most terrifying personalities to appear on the American political scene in a very long time. The entire 2008 Presidential campaign was highlighted by her repeated shows of ignorance and cluelessness.

But that’s a far cry from pinning the responsibility of last weekend’s tragedy on her.

That being said, I believe there is a lot to think about in terms of the atmosphere rhetoric such as SarahPac helps create. More importantly, there is a lot that she herself can be doing to tone the rhetoric down, and to try be a constructive player in the field of bringing political discourse back into the realm of acceptable, even positive behavior.

I was here in Israel in 1995 – when Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated. Then, as last week in Tucson, the responsibility for the shooting was completely on the head of a very sick, twisted individual who committed a horrendous disgusting act. But to pretend that he acted completely in a vacuum would be less than honest.

The atmosphere here in 1994-95 was one of violent rhetoric – complete with posters and flyers depicting Rabin wearing a kheffiyah (Arab headdress) and some of Rabin seen through the crosshairs of a rifle.

Rabin himself contributed greatly to the atmosphere at the time with his own rhetoric, and his complete unwillingness (or perhaps even inability) to recognize the validity of any views other than his own. His complete disregard and disrespect for anyone and everyone – even within his own party – who dared to disagree with him was an absolute low-point in the history of the Israeli government.

This is not meant in any way whatsoever to “blame the victim” – Yigal Amir made a conscious decision to take the life of the Prime Minister and he bears full responsibility for his actions.

But it is meant to emphasize that Israeli society had deteriorated to the point where a murder such as this one was not only possible, it was almost inevitable.

Both sides of the Israeli political forum were so convinced that their views and of their cause were absolutely and completely “right”, and equally convinced in the invalidity of the other side, that there was no semblance of respect or even debate in the world of Israeli politics at the time.

There were religious leaders on the right calling for rabbinical rulings which would justify killing Rabin in the name of “saving Jewish lives and the Jewish State”, there were leaders on the left (including Prime Minister Rabin himself) who continually added fuel to the fire with name calling, as well as the complete invalidation of the views of the right as well as those who held those views.

The result was such a division in Israeli society, such a polarization, that as horrifying as the Rabin assassination was, I didn’t find it at all surprising.

This still happens here today. People on either side of the political spectrum are so sure that they have the only valid understanding of the political intricacies here, that they refuse to even acknowledge the possibility that other views have validity. There is almost no healthy and respectful discourse here, and I fear that it is only a matter of time before we see a repeat of the national tragedy which altered the course of Israeli history in 1995.

I see the same thing happening in America, and all of what’s been flying both in the period leading up to last week’s shooting as well is reminding very much of Israel in the time before and after the Rabin assassination.

The tone – on both sides of the spectrum seem the same. The imagery being used is very much the same. The closed attitudes to opposing views is downright frightening.

Of course, Sarah Palin didn’t help matters at all this week when she referred to the associations of the shooting to her ad campaign as a “blood libel”.

I would love to give Mrs. Palin the benefit of the doubt that she doesn’t really understand what a blood libel is doesn’t know the historical context of the expression - she has certainly shown us time and again that her ignorance knows no bounds. But whether in ignorance or by design, rhetoric of that nature serves only to bring the level of vitriol and paranoia to new lows. And even if we accept that last week’s shooting was not connected to the atmosphere of anger and hatred that now exists, the next tragedy may very well be a direct result of it.

Now is the time for the rhetoric to stop – on both ends of the spectrum.

And I don’t mean only the politicians, TV and Radio pundits and anyone with a microphone.

I mean everybody. I see the rhetoric on Facebook, hear it in the streets. Even worse than creating the atmosphere in which murder for political views can happen, this atmosphere allows others to accept, even justify those murders.

And that needs to stop long before it’s too late.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

What's Love Got To Do With It? (OR - Delving further into my own heresy)

Not long ago, I posted this blog about what is traditionally considered the major miracle of Chanukah, and I offered a possible, non-traditional explanation regarding both the miracle and the holiday.

I had also posted the same piece a few years ago (not as a blog) and apparently angered many people with it. At the time, it led to me being called everything from ignorant to heretic and many other things that I won’t repeat here. While angering and/or offending people was not my purpose or intention, I also didn’t shy away from the possibility of it when I recently re-posted the piece as a blog.

A big part of the problem, it seems to me, is that there are essentially two primary schools of thought within the traditional religiously observant Jewish world.

The first approach is to see CHaZaL (the rabbinical sages of the Talmud) as above any reproach, incapable of any imperfection, and essentially teaching the direct word of God Himself. There are many religious Jews, for whom if CHaZaL said (i.e. wrote) something, then our only responsibility is to learn, accept and revere their words as the Ultimate Truth, even today, 1500-2000 years after they said it.

The second approach is that CHaZaL were great scholars – even the greatest that ever were, yet they were also human, fallible, and influenced/limited by the knowledge and resources of the period in which they lived.

The difference in these approaches is significant, particularly when someone does as I did with the Chanukah blog – and offer ideas that are either not in line with those of CHaZaL, or, God Forbid, even contradictory.

All this is offered as an introduction, because I would like to share another article which I had posted a while back (also not as a blog), which inspired even more anger and more vitriolic hatred than the Chanukah piece did.

The Biblical book of Shir HaShirim ("Song of Songs") is a fascinating dialogue between a man and woman. It is generally understood in Jewish tradition to be an allegory of the relationship between God and the People of Israel. The Man in the book represents God, the woman represents Israel, and the message of the book is all about God's undying love for Israel.

I would like to offer an alternative (and therefore, for many people, a heretical and threatening) interpretation of the allegory.

I make no claims at being a Biblical expert, and I certainly do not purport to having a better or deeper understanding of the text than CHaZaL, but I nevertheless believe that this reading of the book can be seen as true to the text and hopefully presents a message of value for us even today.

If you take a close look at what each of the characters in Shir HaShirim is saying, there is a striking difference in their tones. The woman speaks of her heart, love and emotions for the man. It is all about her unconditional love. The man, on the other hand focuses solely on the woman's physical beauty, and what he hopes to get from her.

In a nutshell, the gist of the dialogue is:

WOMAN: "I love him with my heart my soul and my everything, I want to spend my life doing nothing but loving him"
MAN: "She's a babe. I'd do her…"

At one point the man even compares the woman’s breasts to a vine and says that he hopes to “partake” of that vine (7:7-10).

Her love is a pure and unconditional love, while his is based on what she can and will do for him.

At the end of Chapter 2, the man runs off – the narrator compares him to a gazelle. The woman goes looking for him in Chapter 3 but does not find him, and she wanders the streets helplessly looking for him. At the very end of the book, again he leaves her, but this time she does not go after him. Rather, she says (in the final verse of the book) "run away – be like a gazelle, like a fawn" – the exact same words used to describe him when he ran away in Chapter 2. And she lets him go.

What strikes me the most about the allegory is that there are 3 times in the book that the woman says (not to the man, but to the reader), “I have made you swear, daughters of Jerusalem….not to awaken or to stir up love until it comes looking for you" (2:7, 3:5, 8:4).

Essentially she is warning other women not to make the same mistake that she made – putting her love "out there" when it was not returned to her.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert on women's emotions, or on how they express being in love, but this verse does not strike me as something a woman head over heels in love would say.

So – what might it all mean?

What if Shir HaShirim is an allegory, but not of love, rather of unrequited love, and of emotional disappointment, even failure? It's possible to see the man in the book as representing Israel and the woman representing God.

The woman (God) is expressing an undying and unconditional love for the man – which God has certainly done with Israel for millenia through His covenants with us. We, the Jewish people, on the other hand, have shown a love for God when it has suited our needs – when we have something to gain from it. When we've grown tired of it, we have run off searching for the fruits elsewhere (i.e. the man running away at the end of Chapter 2) and in the past there were times when God came looking for us trying to bring us back to Him (the woman searching through the town in Chapter 3).

Finally, we did it too much – and if the woman really does represent God in the allegory, then God is essentially telling us that He is not going to chase after us anymore. He's "been there and done that" and now He's letting us go. When we are ready to come back to Him, He is there waiting for us – with the unconditional love and acceptance that He has always offered us, but He will only put His love "on the line" for us when our love comes searching for Him.

I find this message (if in fact it is a correct reading of the text) to be especially appropriate as traditionally, Shir HaShirim is read in the synagogue every year on the Shabbat of Pesach (Passover). Pesach is the epitome of God's undying and unlimited love for His people. He reached out to a nation that had been disconnected from Him for 200+ years and therefore didn't really know Him, and He delivered us from Egypt, from slavery, and put us on the road to being an autonomous people in our own land. And all He asked in return was our loyalty to Him and to return His love – unconditionally.

And somehow, we keep managing to blow it.

So every year – when we are remembering the depth of God's love for us we read Shir HaShirim to remind us that God's love is still waiting for us, is still burning strong for us, and is simply waiting for us to find our way clear to return it to Him.

I truly believe that it is possible that this was the message that the author of Shir HaShirim had in mind, and what the great rabbis who included the book as part of the TaNaCH understood to be the true lesson of Shir HaShirim.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Becoming an Israeli

I have an anniversary this week.

Not my wedding anniversary – that’s in May. But a different one, also very special, and this year in particular is even more special.

It was 23 years ago this week Рon January 4, 1988, that I officially became an Israeli. My plane landed at about 4:30am in the pouring rain, and as clich̩ as it is, I knelt down and kissed the (very wet) ground when I got off the plane.

What makes this anniversary even more special than usual this year is that I recently celebrated my 46th birthday, so 23 years of living in Israel marks the point where I have now officially lived half of my life here.

The truth is that I made Aliyah (literally “going up” – the Hebrew term used for immigrating to Israel) in a very foolish manner – and years later when I worked as an the coordinator of an Aliyah information center in Jerusalem, I would always advise against people against doing the same.

While I do believe that Israel is the Jewish homeland and a good place for Jews to Live (hence my decision to make Aliyah) I am also a firm believer that life in Israel isn’t right for every Jew. Life here is not easy – on any of several different levels, and even with all the ideology and the best of intentions, not everybody that wants to live in Israel is really cut out for it.

That being said, I don’t think that Aliyah is a decision that should be jumped into until a person truly understands what they are getting themselves into. This means more than a week long synagogue or family trip, more than a 10-day Birthright trip. Even some of the longer programs are no longer as good a measuring stick as they once were.

To really have an idea of what it takes to make it on a day-to-day basis in Israel, one needs to experience it – not on a tour bus, not in hotels or youth hostels, not through the eyes of even the best Israeli tour guides who will show you the positive (and very real) side of Israel. To really experience Israeli life and Israeli culture, a person needs to deal with the lines (or lack thereof) in riding public transportation, shopping at the local supermarkets and mini-markets scattered throughout the neighborhoods, to deal with rent, landlords, salary, and so on and so forth.

To really have an idea of what you're getting yourself into before you make Aliyah, you should live here for some extended period of time – a summer, a semester, a year, or whatever.

Of course, I never did that. I spent three weeks here in the summer of 1986, staying in youth hostels, sleeping on the beach in Eilat, and crashing in the dorms of friends that were on the one-year program from my youth movement in the States. In short - not real life – not by a long shot.

But my Aliyah was a very theoretical one – and one that by all rights should have failed within a couple of years. I moved to Israel with a very stereotypical starry-eyed vision of living in the Jewish State which turned out to be barely recognizable from the reality of living here. But for whatever reason, or combination of reasons that I cannot comprehend, the reality worked for me – and it still does.

Perhaps the strangest part of it is this: all of the ideology, the optimism and the burning-in-my–heart Zionism that I had when I stepped off of that plane on the cold rainy morning 23 years ago – I still feel today – in its entirety.

Who knows? Perhaps this is simply a sign that I have absolutely no clue what the hell is going on around me and that I have now spent officially half of my life living in a stat of ignorant bliss.

Or maybe it means that in spite of all of the problems and difficulties involved in living here – and believe me, I know those problems and difficulties first-hand, that this is still the life for me. This is where I feel as though I a in my "element". While there are many people and many aspects of America that I do miss dearly, whenever I am in the States, even in Chapel Hill, NC where I grew up and where my family has now been for 35 years, I don't feel as "at home" as I do almost anywhere in Israel.

It doesn't make sense logically, but then, it doesn't really need to. It simply is, and I have come to understand and embrace it as my reality.

In my first year of marriage, my wife Sharon threw a surprise party for me (the only one I have ever had) commemorating the 10th anniversary of my Aliyah. She invited a handful of friends with whom we had gotten to be very close, some of whom I had been close with before we were married and others we got to know after. And while it was not by design, as it turned out, except for Sharon (who made Aliyah a month after we were married) I was the "newest" immigrant at the party. It was almost like a "welcome to the club" party for people in Israel 10 years and more, and there was something very special and very re-affirming about that. It was seeing the examples around me of people who had been where I was at the moment, and had continued.

Even more beautiful is that now, looking back, most of the people at the party that night are still in Israel today – so my 23 years of living here isn't so out-of-the-ordinary or unheard of. It is possible to buck the odds, and truly finally find one's way here – despite, or perhaps even because of the difficulties, the hardships, and the oh-so-incredibly-ridiculous things going on around us.

As Theodore Herzl is quoted as saying "If you wish it, it is no dream".

Or maybe it is a dream, but a dream which one can live.

So here's to yet another year of living in my dream.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Striking out

I’m a bit confused.

I always understood that the point of a general strike was to send a message to the authorities that their behavior or policies are not acceptable.

For example, in theory, when the government bodies are not providing proper salary benefits or working conditions to municipality workers, the workers go on strike. As a result, the general public suffers major inconvenience and hardship, they complain to those in power for causing the workers to strike and that pressure is meant to, hopefully forcing the authorities to correct their policies and end the strike.

At least, that’s the theory.

Tomorrow, many municipalities across Israel, including my town of Modi’in, are planning a general strike - ostensibly to show solidarity with the general public and to protest the high cost of water set by the Israeli Government, the Water Corporation and the Water Authority.

Now, call me crazy, but the idea of municipalities protesting the hardships placed upon the citizens by the national government by adding the hardships of no city services seems more than a little bit screwed up to me.

To their credit, the municipalities in both Jerusalem and Haifa are not participating in the strike. As the official statement form the Jerusalem mayor’s office said “… one cannot strike the capital city, where residents suffer daily from disruptions, stoppages and various incidents…The mayor is interested in minimizing the suffering of the citizens."

For all the good or bad that Jerusalemites can say about Mayor Nir Barkat, this particular statement makes a lot more sense than that of the Modi’in municipality, which basically tooted the horn of our Mayor Bibas as “one of the leaders of the struggle on the topic of the water”.

No mention about how this municipal strike is supposed to help bring down the cost of water, and of course no mention either about the additional inconvenience this strike will cause us, his constituents, the people whose interests he claims to be fighting for by depriving us of the municipal services tomorrow.

Bad enough that our water prices are rising, but on top of that we have to suffer a general strike from the municipality? What am I missing here?

So, maybe it’s just my own twisted sense of logic, but I can’t help but to see tomorrow’s strike as a waste of city resources that will accomplish nothing more than allowing us to suffer the same pain in the ass that most of the country gets to deal with tomorrow.