Saturday, August 21, 2010

Body Versus Soul

Last week, I returned from Israel and have some thoughts about what I saw and the direction in which the country is going.  It was a trip of great contrasts.  I traveled with 17 ministers and rabbis on a JCRC study tour.  (If you want to learn more about the trip you can read its blog at We toured the Christian holy sites, examine the political and historical aspects of the country and talked a lot about the competing narratives that impede the development of the state of Israel.  Not that it's not developing but imagine what state would be like if it were able to achieve peace with its neighbors.

This post is dedicated to my friend Ari Alexenberg who left JCRC on Friday.  Ari worked since 2008 as the director of the Israel Action Center.  We often discussed trends in the Jewish community as well as Israel.  Last week as he was wrapping up our time together we talked about the root causes of the internal conflict within the Jewish community between our right and left wings.  He described this as a conflict between body and soul – the right being so concerned with our physical security, "the body", that it is willing to sacrifice the ethics of the "soul".  On other hand, the left is so concerned about ethical dilemmas that it overlooks the fact that one cannot have an ethical state when security is constantly at risk.  This of course, is a simplistic view of this complex internal conflict.  If you talk with people on our right or on our left they would argue that one must emphasize one of these concerns or otherwise you wind up with nothing.
While in Israel 2 weeks ago, I had a lot of opportunity to think about this.  We talked with people who represent these 2 approaches – albeit not from the extreme sides of the equation.  What I heard, for the most part, was a basic understanding of the trade-offs that are being made.

I believe that Israel will never have peace until it solves this very important existential conflict within its own community.  That having been said, I believe that there always will be – and should be – tension between these viewpoints.  Without it, I believe the intellectual and moral dilemmas that are being faced will not be adequately addressed.

However something else is of great concern these days.  Throughout the trip, one of our rabbis continually raised the issue of the recognition of Conservative and Reform Judaism in Israel.  While, in my view, it probably wasn't the best time to raise this issue – given that we were on a trip with non-Jewish clergy – it was on my mind as well as we listened to Israelis, read the press and absorbed what was going around us.  In the time period close to when we were there a woman was arrested at the Western Wall for carrying a Torah.  In addition, I heard several stories about people who are having difficulty marrying in Israel because of issues of personal status including being questioned about their parents and grandparents wedding ceremonies.  Some were even asked for the marriage contract of their parents and grandparents and were told that without them they would not be permitted to be married by Israel's chief rabbinate. 

However last night really took the cake.  I had a wonderful dinner with some close friends who were celebrating their wedding anniversary.  Around the Shabbat table we sang a great deal.  And for those of you who know me personally, you know that this is one of my great joys in life – singing the Shabbat songs on a Friday night on a Saturday afternoon.  I believe that it is one of the reasons that I've stay connected to Jewish life for all of these years.  Clearly, I have many questions about ritual and adherence to Jewish law.  However my connection to the music and the ancient songs touches me in a way that I can't really describe.  I guess it is about as close as I get to a spiritual experience – as hard as it is for me to admit that.

During dinner I discovered that the twentysomething son of my friends' guests attended the same yeshiva in.  Israel that I did.  Even though he attended 20 years later than I did, I felt a kinship with the young man. As alumni of the same institution we knew many of the same songs and I listened to him saying and in some ways heard my own voice.  After dinner we had a chance to talk and I found out that his experience in the school was not as good as mine had been.  While I've heard that it moved significantly to the right after I left, I never imagined that I would hear what I heard.  Apparently, during the time that he was there some of the students found a box of prayer books from the conservative movement at the Western Wall.  They took them and asked their Rabbi if it was permissible to dispose of the books since they included the name of God.  To my horror he told them that it would be permissible to burn the books, and they did.

Something in me died at that moment.  Having just visited Yad Vashem and seeing the video of Nazis burning Jewish books I couldn't help but be disgusted and shocked and deeply saddened.  The Rabbi that made this ruling was someone that I had almost a transcendent respect for – even all these years later.  In my view he was a pious man.  During my 2 years at the school I spent many hours sitting in the front row absorbing his teaching, hours at his table in extracurricular study and was even invited to his Passover Seder.  Ironically, I chose not to attend that Seder because at that time, unbeknownst to my teachers, I was dating a conservative girl and chose to go to the Seder with her and a number of her friends.

I was very happy to hear that this young man left the school a short time after this incident happened.  Having been raised correctly – in my humble view – he could not abide being in a place where people so brazenly used their religion in an immoral way, devoid of open-mindedness, and appreciation for what's right and, even if they felt that it was somehow justifiable to act in this way, willing the ignore our tragic history.

To me, this embodies the ultimate desecration of the soul for the body. Or, as my Christian friends might say, the substitution of the letter of the law for the spirit of the law.  These people apparently believe that adherence to ideological purity is so important that it justifies the denigration of others and the most horrific of actions.  To me, burning a book is pretty much tantamount to burning a person.  I believe that there is some aphorism or quote from a famous person that says something to that effect.

Sometimes when I'm in Israel I struggle about whether or not to wear my kippah.  I don't want to be lumped in with these folks.  I don't want people to think of me as intolerant, or boorish, or extremist.  But yet, this is where I come from.

I'm not sure where to go with this at this point. But as I approach the high holidays with my own sense of introspection I can't help but hope that some of these people – particularly the Rabbi – thought about their actions in advance of the holidays that year and knew somewhere in their hearts that what they had done was terribly wrong - a desecration of God's name.

Because of stories like this, the arrest of the woman at the wall, the refusal of Israel's rabbinic establishment to recognize liberal branches of Judaism, and this terrifying anecdote about horrible and amoral actions, I return to my search for the sensible center. 

On Tisha b'Av – the Jewish day of national mourning – we read a poem that begins: "for these things I cry out" – these are the things I cry out about.  I hope someone is listening.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Heading off to the Holy Land

This morning I will begin my journey as the staff lead on JCRC's annual Summer Study tour of Israel.  This year we are bringing Christian clergy - 14 ministers and priests with three local rabbis and myself.  Though I have led many trips before -- back when we called them missions -- I haven't done a clergy trip and I haven't worked with rabbis as my chairs.

This will be a fun and interesting experience and I invite you to join me as I process it...

More later as we head off!

Wish me luck!


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rethinking Germany

Let me state for the record that I'm not a soccer fan.  However, as the parent of a soon-to-be 17-year-old.  I've drawn into watching the World Cup.  Recently, during the England versus Germany soccer game.  I was asked who I was rooting my surprise, my answer was Germany.

Now, I've been responsible for Holocaust education and advocacy for many years during my professional career.I am proud of the advocacy that I have done for Holocaust survivors to receive their claims from German government, as well as the relationships that I have built with them.

So what am I doing rooting for Germany?

Recently, I had the opportunity to have lunch with the German ambassador to Israel.  It was a small group, only 6 of us in total.  We began talking about Europe and its deteriorating relationship with Israel.  This lunch took place during the time of the Gaza flotilla incident.  For many of us at the Jewish community, we were very concerned about how the media and how European countries were piling on Israel.  While all of us were upset about the loss of life, it seemed that Europe had turned a deaf ear to Israel's security concerns and its need to keep weapons and other materials out of the hands of Hamas.

I asked the ambassador why he thought the Europeans were so eager to jump on Israel at this very delicate time.  He noted that this incident was particularly problematic from the European mindset. It highlighted the role of Turkey -- a country that the EU is not anxious to admit to its ranks.  

He noted that Germany continues to play an important role behind the scenes as Israel's only supporter among the of the European countries.  While I have some skepticism about the degree to which this is true, he waxed eloquently about debates in the European Parliament with Germany taking Israel's side.  Whatever the level of support, I believe that he was describing an important phenomenon.

It seems to me that in Europe, only Germany understands the need for a Jewish state.  In contrast to the rest of Europe, (and many people in the United States) Germans regard Jews as a people.  The Holocaust was carried out against a people, not a religious group.  Ironically, Hitler's appeal to race taught the Germans an important lesson.  They have committed to remembering that what their country did under the Nazi regime in some ways, made a Jewish state necessary.  That the Jews are a people apart, no different than the Japanese, Italians or Germans themselves.  A people with national as well as individual rights.

I reject the idea that the Holocaust was responsible for the creation of the State of Israel.  I have pointed out to friends and others that the Zionist movement existed before the Holocaust and there was significant Jewish immigration to mandatory Palestine before the Second World War.  I also point out that Israel is the Jewish people's ancestral homeland and that the Jewish people have yearned to return to Zion for 3000 years.

But, my argument seems to fall flat with many people.  They have a very hard time understanding why there should be a "Jewish state" when there are no longer any Christian states.   I am not sure that that's really true -- but people really do see it that way.  And pointing out that there are 23 Muslim states seems not to move anyone either.

So, my German friend pointed out something critical about the future of Israel and the Jewish people in general.  In Europe, the idea of a Jewish state has not taken root.  Israel as a Jewish state is something still foreign to the enlightened peoples of Europe.

This is a very important matter as Europe approaches a multilateral foreign policy approach.  At this time, Germany is able to have its own foreign policy as is France and the other European Union partners.  At some point, however, the EU will establish a one foreign-policy system and at that point Israel may be in very serious trouble.

It's ironic that Germany, of all the nations of the world, recognizes the basic rights of the Jewish people to live in its ancestral home.

And, while I'm not running to buy a Volkswagen or BMW anytime soon, I'm rooting for Germany in the World Cup.

You have to stick up for your friends, after all.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Transitions (Politics Free for a Change!)

This has been a week of real transitions for me.  Almost simultaneously I have been rocketed into the world of the "sandwich generation."  Several months ago, Liz, David and I planned a "college tour" in which three of us would set out for the great unknown (beyond 495 even!) and introduce the IBOM (as he is fondly called - International Boy of Mystery) to the next phase of his education.  We were to see Vassar, Bard (Oy!), NYU, Union and Skidmore (which I still refer to as Swarthmore - but no matter).

And as if the circle rounded itself, my dad had a terrible fall that broke two vertebrae.  In the end, we got off pretty easy.  There was no paralysis and no damage to the spinal cord and brain.  But my dad's dementia has really increased -- not unusual in these kinds of situations and hopefully somewhat reversible.

So, I am sandwiched.  Strangely, I feel pretty good about it.  Seeing David see a few schools (I bailed from the tour early to head to SoCal where my parents retired many years ago) was amazing.  While I got into the game a bit late with the boy, I felt a strong sense of parenthood, pride and, dare I say it, accomplishment.  While for a long time I have struggled with finding my place in his upbringing, things are getting clearer now.  As the adult male figure who sees David the most - although these days he is pretty scarce with homework, friends and school sports taking much of his attention -- I have watched him grow into a mature young man with a strong sense of himself - even though he doesn't always know it.  I see him hang onto his childhood, particularly in new situation, clinging to his mom (and me!) as we walk down the street on the way to schools, finding his way to a new place in the world.  And yet, once in the environment, he asks excellent questions and forms opinions with the best of them.

Together with his dad John, I think I have done a pretty good of raising him to question, even though many of the questions make me uncomfortable.  But that's all in the job description,

And so I head to California with some dread.  Liz tells me that I have done a good job so far, managing the doctors, nurses, my mother and all of our expectations.  I arrive in California in a new role.  Still a son who loves his father, I now become a key factor in his physical and psychological wellbeing.  Scary stuff.  At least we now have the resources for me to fly out there, rent a car and make key purchases without a second thought about the financial implications.  There was a long time when that would not have been the case and would have thrown me for quite a loop.

One of the most interesting things happening now is how my job is factoring in here.  For decades my job was the most important thing to me.  And we all saw where that got me -- for better or worse.  Anyone reading this blog knows how passionate I can get about what I do professionally.  But since Liz and I decided to create a life together - complete with "instant family" - things have shifted, and rightly so.  And while I have had the luxury to separate myself from issues with parents and siblings for such a long time, I now face them with a whole different set of skills and expertise.

Wish me luck.

Monday, March 15, 2010

"The US-Israel Relationship is in Tatters" and Other Hyperbole

So, it appears that the US Israel relationship is in tatters.  Harsh words are being spoken between administration officials and the pressis  placing Israel under pressure, making American Jews either very nervous or very angry. (And some, actually relieved).

There certainly is a lot of bluster going around.  The Prime Minister is expressing remorse to the Obama administration, apologizing on one hand, but maintaining that the policy of building in Jerusalem will continue.

What are we to make of this "crisis in US Israel relations?"

This latest kerfuffle indicates that things are different these days, both in Washington and Jerusalem.  While this would appear obvious, many of us in the center maintained for a long time,  that with Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod in Obama's inner circle that the relationship between United States and Israel would continue the way that it always had.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  But not for the reasons that everybody thinks.

The White House is a very busy place these days.  Congress appears to be out of control, Democrats are running scared, they continue to fight 2 wars, and, by the way, there are no jobs and the economy, while improving slowly, is at best in a "hidden" recovery.

So why is the administration focusing so much attention on negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians?  Traditionally, US presidents don't pay attention to"peace process" until the 6th year of their term.  This is because the situation is extraordinarily complicated, and after midterm elections in the 2nd term presidents generally feel that they can do complicated things. 

But the Obama administration is all about taking on complicated things.  Healthcare, jobs,education reform, and changing the way that prisoners are dealt with at Guantanamo Bay have all been high priorities for the president.  It seems that after the Bush years, the administration felt that there was so much to do and no time to waste.

So fulfilling a campaign promise, the president sent George Mitchell to the Middle East and expected some progress. 

What he found was 2 leaders with very tenuous domestic positions, both unable to move a process forward.  For a year Israel indicated it was willing to enter direct negotiations with the Palestinians.  The Palestinians on the other hand, wanted to dely those negotiations until receiving concessions from the Israeli side -- a price to come to the table.  When the Israelis called their bluff, the Palestinians folded.

So what are we to make of Eli Yishai, the new hero of the Israeli right?  Some claim that his pronouncement about building new homes in Jerusalem (East Jerusalem, Sheikh Jarrah, Ramat Shlomo) was designed to provoke the US administration.  Others claim that the Israelis would never do such a thing and that the Netanyahu government is out of control.  (This argument is also being played out regarding the assassination in Dubai -- why would the Israelis get caught even though none of them were actually apprehended?  Etc. etc.)

In truth, it doesn't really matter whether Israel intended to offend the United States or not. What matters is that the impression going forward is that despite their protestations the gulf between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government is widening.  This may be.  We need to remind ourselves that the US Israel relationship goes beyond any particular prime minister or president. What appears to have changed is the calculus among US leaders that Israel now poses a strategic liability for America's needs in the Middle East with regard to its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  No amount of partisan posturing will counter State Department and Defense Department's analysis if they conclude that progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort is a prerequisite for reducing threats to American soldiers and the war effort in the Middle East.  And, they may be right.

What really worries me is the "linkage" between progress with the Palestinians and dealing with the question of Iran. I have heard from friends on the left that, at some level,  those issues are connected.  I think it's an obscene connection, but it's very hard for many people to separate out defending Israel from nuclear attack and seeing Israel as a recalcitrant party in the peace process.

Let's hope that our community organizations resist the urge to spin out of control.  The world is not coming to an end, Israel has weathered these kinds of crises before, and perhaps this will be a wake-up call to the Israeli people that they do need to make a choice.  They can continue to support governments, both left and right, that perpetuate the status quo or, as they did in 2005, they can embrace change.  No one knows what that change is or how it should go.  But Israel can no longer have it both ways.  They need to decide what the best possible course of action is, deal with the political consequences and begin to move forward.

Ironically, this is what the Obama administration is doing regarding healthcare.  Like it or not, they are taking a risk.  Whatever they do, they will be ridiculed by a large part of the American people.  From the right, whether they pass the House bill are not, they will be considered to be abject failures -- either "ramming a bill down the American people's throats", or failing to achieve their legislative goals with a large majority in both houses.  From the left, while many will applaud the passage of the health care bill,  there are still many who will be disappointed that it does not embrace the reforms that many wanted.  Particularly on the issue of abortion.

And so the Netanyahu and Obama governments have something in common.  For both it is time to take a serious domestic risk for the betterment of the country.  Obama has already chosen his path, and, for better or worse, he will be remembered for it.   Netanyahu also needs to make a choice -- or history will make it for him.  Whatever he chooses, many Israelis will ridicule him.  But, a true leader needs to step up in the face of ridicule.

I've left the issue of the Palestinians and their leadership side.  To say that Abu Mazen is weak is an understatement.  Unilateral action, as we saw with Gaza, is risky.  But, for Israel, unilateral action that are seen as further concessions without a price is foolish.  The problem is that now, Israel has to make concessions to the Americans and that is a huge game changer.

And so, Israel now needs to negotiate with the United States.  And we have Eli Yishai to thank.

Finally, I want to say a word about another potential fallout from this terrible incident.  While I was initially skeptical, I have come to embrace the rebuilding of the Hurva synagogue in the old city.  When I lived there so many years ago, the memorial to the synagogue, the 51 foot arch above the Ramban synagogue, stood as a record of what had been in that place.  When I heard that it was being rebuilt, I was concerned that the memory of the destruction of the Jewish quarter by the Jordanians would be forgotten.  However, I now believe that it is more important to build a synagogue for the future and move beyond that terrible past.  If that synagogue is held hostage to Palestinian demands, that would truly be an outrage of historic and biblical proportions. We cannot let that happen.


About Me

Brookline, MA, United States
Thought provoking discussion or musings of a kid from the other side of the tracks...