it eventually sinks in
Updated: 6 hours 10 minutes ago
Dr. Paul Ginsberg, the great dean of students at the University of Wisconsin who died last week, once successfully prevented me from going to Israel.
Beloved by many for his intelligence, heart and compassion, he was principled and soulful in the advice he gave. He was also legendary among a small number of Jewish students, of which I was one, for the work he did in the 1940s running guns from Cyprus to Palestine to aid the defense efforts of early Zionists in the building of the state of Israel.
Neither a pacifist nor a colonialist, he was like thousands of idealistic and realistic young people who understood that one of the morally just liberation and restoration movements of the twentieth century was in re-establishing Jewish autonomy and self-governance in the historical homeland of the Jewish people. A committed democrat and social liberal, Dr. Ginsberg shared with me on one occasion that while building a state, fighting a war for independence, and maintaining the security of one's citizens would not be without its own set of normal and at times troubling moral challenges (such is the nature of any government, anywhere, at any moment in history) the inherent justice of the Zionist project could not be denied.
He was a bear of a man as well as a compassionate and unadorned realist. When my father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1983 and I trekked up Bascom Hill after sitting shiva to seek his advice, I announced that I was leaving school and moving to Israel.
"Andy," he said. "Find yourself first. Get a skill. Figure out what you'd do there, then go. Israel has enough people running around finding themselves. If you're going to go, go to help."
I listened. And after a year of mourning and learning and re-gaining focus, I traveled to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for the first time in 1985, worked on my history degree, and formulated plans to become a rabbi. It would be the long game. The Ginsberg Plan.
That fall was a full two years before the First Intifada would break out and Palestinians would seek to throw off the occupation by Israel of territory seized, justifiably, in the 1967 Six Day War. There was as yet no organized rebellion but one could feel the tensions boiling beneath the surface. One could travel freely in the West Bank, be greeted warmly, and yet discern quite clearly a storm on the horizon. Palestinians I met throughout that year indicated as much. But official leadership still embraced terror, settlement expansion continued its inexorable march, and both Israelis and Palestinians remained mired in a frozen non-diplomacy.
The following thirty years would bring two intifadas, horrific waves of murderous terror and brutal crackdowns, three major wars with Hamas and Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, and a maddeningly endless series of dead-end negotiations that have yet to yield a two-state solution that I certainly thought was once within the grasp of reasonable, practical and hopeful people. A sickening number of innocent Jewish and Palestinian lives have been lost; and humility demands the truthful claim that few of us have really done enough to make peace possible.
In some of the popular tellings of the conflict, it appears we were close on a couple occasions--just before the Rabin assassination in 1995 and again at Camp David in 2000. Today, in two-state circles, there is an unmitigated despair over what feels like a dead end, and a kind of dazed disbelief with mutual recriminations over the breakdown in relations between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. It may or may not be the worst moment in America-Israel relations. But it certainly feels as bad as it ever has.
But today, Israel's Independence Day, marking 67 years since the creation of the state, is not about any of that--at least for the next two paragraphs.
Today is about recognizing that as the Jewish people emerged from the turmoil of post-Enlightenment emancipation and embraced its own national narrative, it sought and achieved, justifiably, its own sense of historic self-determination and protection, as is the right of every nation. Within two generations, after two thousand years of exile, a state was created and accepted--democratically and diplomatically, by the family of nations in the body agreed upon to confer such titles--the United Nations.
Today is about recognizing that a nation as improbably small as Israel wields enormous power and influence, a strength that comes from boundless intelligence, creativity, ingenuity and resolve. Jewish people comprise about .2% of the world's population yet our effect, both real and imagined, is immeasurably greater. And so today is also about recognizing that as our Passover Haggadah teaches, "in every generation there are those who rise up to destroy us," there is a mysterious strength at the core of our permanence and enormous pride and wonder at what our people have done in establishing a state.
Yesterday in Israel the nation mourned the more than 23,000 Israelis who have given their lives to defend the state since its founding--some of whom died defending and voting for the policies that sent them to war and some of whom died protesting and voting against the policies that sent them to war. Such is the complex nature of democracy and civic obligation. There are difficult truths and often painful, trying dilemmas wrapped up in all this. The country's direction, the nature of its democracy, the questions of what 48 years of occupation does and doesn't do to an occupying power weigh heavily on Jews in Israel and abroad. We Jews wear our own internal debates on our sleeves and on the editorial pages of every major news source in the world. More ink is spilled for .2% of the world's population than is really merited, let's be honest.
But not a single one of Israel's flaws lessens for me the greatest achievement in the last 500 years of Jewish history--a modern state. The vibrancy of Israel's social, economic, and cultural daily reality is as great as any other nation in the last one hundred years.
On this 67th Day of Independence for the State of Israel, I hold both these realities close--my pride and concern for Israel along with my exasperated hope that a peaceful solution with Palestinians can be found.
I don't begrudge for one moment the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and even respect that right to see the Israeli day of Independence as a Palestinian Nakba. But a permanent Nakba won't bear fruit. And no amount of blogging and tweeting and protesting and boycotting and delegitimating and denouncing will change the fact that throughout the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s 80s and 90s, the official Palestinian position toward Israel was rejection and non-recognition and that has had its consequences. It's hardened Israelis and Jews worldwide who bore their own brunt of that rejection through the blood of terror; it's bred a deep cynicism into children born into occupation and exile in refugee camps who have had their own blood spilled by the more brutal aspects of occupation and the war on terror; and perhaps most ashamedly and deeply, it has created a terrible image of victimhood that will require generations to heal.
Jews and Palestinians know from victimhood. And the enlightened among us ought to know that victimhood bears within it the seeds of self-diminishment and self-destruction. And worse, can lash out at others, drawing them in to an endless cycle of darkness and death. What the Zionists knew about Jewish civilization as told through the lens of the powerless was that if one dared to enact the collective process of transcending victimhood, and stake a claim to one's narrative, then through self-determination, one may write new chapter in the ongoing history of the people.
I'm fifty-two years old and have found myself (I guess.) And I've remained an American citizen who is in Israel, alone and with groups, twice a year.
So to my teacher Paul Ginsberg, now gone, the confession is this: 30 years later I am still here and not there. The most I can contribute to Israel at this stage of my life is my loyal support; my insistence on teaching and speaking and writing publicly that its existence is just; my advocacy for its support to government officials at local, state and national levels; my belief that its claim to righteousness is tied up in a necessary and fearless self-criticism, a burden all democracies must shoulder; and that as a community leader I will always speak of hope and justice and peace.
To you, Israel, on your 67th anniversary: continued success; existence; and peace.
Jews are a family.
Jews are a faith.
Jews are a people, then a nation.
Jews are an idea.
Passover begins at sundown tonight. And as just as the four legged tables around the world are set in the myriad ways we commemorate this week long festival event, other fours conspire to tell the story of family, faith, a people, and the ideas that animate our historical existence.
Four questions. Four children. Four cups. On four legs--family, faith, nation and the very idea of the Jew in the world.
Everyone's talking about us these days, or so it seems. We are at center stage of the Obama administration's negotiations over a nuclear Iran; the Middle East's only true democratic election, held in Israel a couple weeks ago, remains at the eye of the storm of the world's attention and Capitol Hill's most pained and partisan debates; and as Jeffrey Goldberg and others have shown recently, Jews are increasingly questioning their sense of home in a Europe that is ever-changing and struggling mightily with rising anti-Semitism and racism.
The severe lack of ease that many Jews feel is more palpable today than at any time in my lifetime, for sure. And while the exceptional privilege afforded by the American experiment in creating "one from many" makes life for American Jewry an open, flourishing expression of rich opportunity and grace, we would be denying our obligation to Jewish memory to sit at our Seder tables tonight and not talk about that which makes "this night different from all other nights."
Especially when the nation that is negotiating for the right to develop nuclear power, Iran, has religious and political leaders who continue to call for the destruction of the Jewish state; especially when Jewish leaders here and in Israel speak openly of a troubling divide between Disapora and Israeli Jewry, and the rifts over a way forward, if possible, with Palestinians; especially when Jews are under attack in Europe, a region which expelled and murdered millions of its Jews less than a century ago; and especially when, as the most recent Pew study projects, Christians and Muslims will achieve world population parity by 2050, while in America, there will soon be more Muslims than Jews. In fact, Pew predicates the overall number of Jews, Christians and Buddhists shrinking, while "unaffiliateds" and Muslims increase.
I share this last idea not to be alarmist but to merely point out that nothing in life remains the same and the assumptions we make one year about the world we live in turn in a whole host of unpredictable ways. Sometimes we are pleasantly surprised by those changes; and other times, new leaders arise who "know not Joseph."
And so it is with no small amount of irony and hopefully a healthy dose of humility and ultimately hope, that I share with you these four brief mediations for Passover night. About a people that is impossibly small, with an enormous responsibility that it demands of itself for its rightful place in the world.
Jews Are a Family: "My father was a wandering Aramean," the Haggadah teaches us. Whether the rabbis meant for us to think of Abraham, who left Ur and Haran to make his way to Canaan as God had commanded; or they meant his grandson Jacob, who sojourned back to Haran where he lived and worked before returning to the Promised Land with a new name--Israel--we fundamentally trace our roots to someone, from someplace, who went in search of some thing, as commanded by some God who we have long claimed was the One God. We are a family with names, from places where we have lived, with linguistic and culinary traditions that we carry with us, as markers of where we have been, wherever we go. We tell our family story in generational ladders, from youngest to oldest and back again, forever climbing and conjuring, adding new rungs, from those born and those who chose to join us, claiming our name.
Jews Are a Faith: We believe in the God of Argument. We believe in the God of Questions. We believe in the God of Doubt. It's the only way we can take Her or Him at His or Her word. At Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham demands of God, "Shall the Judge of all the earth not rule with justice?" When Moses is asked to go free his brothers and sisters from slavery, he says, "And who exactly shall I tell them sent me?" implying, defiantly, that their very condition of suffering and slavery may be an expression of God's perceived powerlessness in the face of radical evil. Where was God when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and blood flowed in the streets? Where was God in the Crusades when Jews were killed for the religious crime of their faith? Where was God when the Nazis arose and mechanically, rationally, slaughtered millions? Elijah, who appears in our Seders tonight, is a contra voice in this faith conundrum, offering in his theological vision a God beyond materiality, beyond force, beyond power: after the wind, after the earthquake, after the fire, a still small voice. The still small voice of faith. Of moral conscience. A covenantal echo of justice heard by Abraham, by Moses, by Elijah. And heard, around Seder tables each year, by you and me.
Jews Are a Nation: We have a land, a fact undeniable in terms of history and archaeological evidence, though you wouldn't know it by the kind of vile propaganda that circulates on the internet. We have an ancient language, Hebrew; its cognate cousin, Aramaic; and a number of exilic iterations of Jewishness, most notably Yiddish and Ladino. We have a calendar. And we have a culture: literary, legal, moral, culinary, musical, even sartorial. When combined into one great whole, this constitutes our nation. Added to the fact that our faith tradition oriented us toward Jerusalem for two thousand years of exile and that by the mid-nineteenth century as Europe became blatantly less hospitable toward the Jew, Zionism emerged as the Jews' rightful expression of going home, a right afforded, or so it seemed, to every other nation on earth. The nature and dimension of that Zionist project may very well be debated around Seder tables tonight. However, the immutable right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate deserves to be, ought to be axiomatic. Be respectful of one another when you talk about Israel tonight, brothers and sisters; but deal with it.
Jews Are an Idea: Edgar Bronfman used to love to tell the story about realizing that the Talmudic debate over proper recompense for a neighbors ox that gored wasn't really about oxen and their gory horns but Justice. On Yom Kippur morning, when we're in the spiritual sweet spot of our penitential piety, the prophet Isaiah jolts us into consciousness by mocking our fast if we are not feeding the hungry and loosing the shackles of those in chains. Abraham smashes idols. Henrietta Szold builds hospitals. Radical Jews create labor unions and, mirroring the Sabbath law that Moses received on Mount Sinai, legislate the day of rest. We are an idea made clear by a German Jewish refugee, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, spoke just before the Reverend Dr. King at the March on Washington, declaring, "Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation." (My teacher Naomi Levine helped write that line!) We believe that charity should actually be translated as "justice." And that one should give anonymously. That Moses couldn't see God's face but could hear his name as Kindness and Compassion. And we're an idea that says if you're planting a tree by the side of the road and someone comes to tell you that the Messiah is coming, first finish planting the tree, then go greet. We are an idea in the here and now.
In this springtime season of renewal, with great promise and great dangers afoot in the world for all people, may we find inspiration in the telling of our story; joy in the experience of being together; edification in the lessons passed down from our ancestors; meaning for us in our day; and the strength and inspiration to plant seeds of hope and justice for our families, our neighbors, our people and our world.
As American Jews, we often like our Zionism on the bookshelfJerusalem built up; a city knit together. Psalm 122:3For generations, the classical interpretation of this text is rooted in the idea that there are two Jerusalems, one on Earth and one in Heaven. Bound together, by fate, faith, destiny and history, one waits patiently for the other to be rebuilt.
This is the Jewish eschatological world-view. With the holy city having been destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 AD, God was exiled along with the Jewish people. Through the agency of time and repentance--because, after all, it was "because of our sins that we were exiled from the land"-- along with the assiduous and devoted observance of the commandments, the Jewish people would earn their way back into God's grace and merit the coming of the Messiah, who would herald God and Israel's return to the City of Peace.
But after nearly two thousand years of waiting, some Jews lost patience with the idea of a religious resolution to an ongoing historical crisis. Zionism, one might say, was a "revolution against the rabbis." It was an exhaustively conceived, theoretical case for neither praying nor waiting but kickstarting, as techno-centric millenials might say, a diplomatic and pioneering effort of previously unimaginable proportions, to pick oneself up and go home. Not to wait for redemption but to redeem the land; not to pray one's service but to labor in the practice of creating a social, economic and political infrastructure that would, within a half-century, build up and knit together centuries of Jewish hope with a radically sudden, immediate, irrevocable reality.
The older I get the more I appreciate this undeniable achievement. One hundred years ago, in 1915, the Ottoman Empire still ruled Palestine, not yet having lost the territory to the British, who would go on to win the war and inherit, with considerable and understandable reluctance, the responsibility for determining who could live in the land. By the 1920s it would be clear to all that Jews and Arabs would fight with every breath and fiber of their being for advantage and behave, in turn, in decidedly unheavenly ways to achieve their ends.
Prior to the Second World War and up to our own day, it was always the case that the majority of world Jewry would elect to live more closely to the Heavenly Jerusalem, leaving for dreamers, pioneers and persecuted refugees fleeing pogroms, rampant anti-Semitism, and ultimately, the Holocaust, Earthly Jerusalem. By war's end and the balance of Diaspora power shifting to the United States, American Jews expressed their Zionism primarily through financial support and diplomacy. Like Gad, Reuben and the half-tribe of Menashe that asked Moses for permission to live outside the land and enjoy its economic wealth--while promising to offer support in time of war--American Jews are, for the most part, Zionists of the heart and the wallet.
We have opinions but we don't really live them down there, on the ground. We remain lofty and distant, even heavenly in our ideals and aspirations for the Jewish homeland.
Our generosity is admirable. Even inspiring. And when it is rooted in the pluralistic and democratic values that we cherish so deeply as American Jews, we are even proud of the ways in which our influence shapes a more civil, diverse and expressive Israeli democracy.
We fought to free Soviet Jews, creating an aliyah of more than a million Russian Jews to Israel; in the hundreds of millions of dollars we philanthropically support a social service infrastructure that engages all of Israel's citizens--Jewish and Arab; through the ballot we vote for candidates to public office based on their records of support for or against Israel. We have business relations; arts and cultural exchanges; Israelis working in our summer camps and Hebrew schools. We gain especially warm feelings from the Israelis who cut our hair, fix our cars, sell us soap, and serve us hummus right here at home that tastes just like the hummus in Tel Aviv. Even Birthright, a program that has taken nearly a half million Jews to Israel on a free ten-day trip since its inception a bit more than a decade ago, is not a mass aliyah movement. It's meant to be--and finds its greatest success--in being a Jewish educational shot in the arm. Frankly, I love it.
What we don't do, with the exception of a relatively small measure of Orthodox Jews who vote with their feet by becoming Israeli citizens, is become Israeli ourselves. In the nearly120 years since the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, we prefer our Zionism to remain here and not there. We lead with our mouths, even our hearts, but not our feet. The books on our shelves, the magnets on our refrigerators, the chocolates we eat at Hanukah time, enlighten and sweeten the distance between here and there. The blogs and letters to the editor we compose; the votes we cast for Gentiles who serve us in the hallowed halls of power; the t-shirts and slogans and stickers and demonstrations on campuses and town squares betray a darker, more shameful reality: We know what's best; but far be it from us to live it.
This is the lens through which I view last week's election in Israel. I was neither surprised by Bibi's cravenly racist campaign rhetoric (there's more than enough of that in American history) nor the trenchant partisan uses and abuses of Israel as a campaign cudgel between Republicans and Democrats gearing up for the 2016 presidential campaign.
But put it raw political terms. If Likud won the election in a landslide of 200,000 votes, triggering yet again a crisis for a certain segment of the liberal American Jewish elite (of which, I guess, I'm a reluctant member) imagine a different scenario of 10,000 liberal American Jews making aliyah each year, for twenty years, and causing, in turn, their own revolution inside Israeli electoral life.
Impossible? A pipe dream? Why?
Since the early Reagan era in the United States the Republican strategy has been to win state houses across the country, redraw districts, and ensure power and influence for generations. The long game, well-organized and executed with precision, wins. An opportunist like Scott Walker is able be part of a political movement to dismantle the New Deal and the Great Society because he stands on the shoulders of more than three decades of a strategy to put him in place to do it.
Does liberal Zionism have the strength, resolve and patience to deploy a similar strategy?
I read about last week's election in Israel and when I look up from the screen, I go look in the mirror. The resolution to challenges in Israel begin with me. And you.
Who are we as Jews? And what are we really willing to do about it?
Over one month ago I attempted, in a measured tone, to caution against the rising tensions in the relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama--most immediately in connection to Speaker Boehner's invitation to Bibi to address the U.S. Congress.
In the weeks since, this deeply unfortunate episode in the Israel-US alliance has only worsened. Each day there are verbal shots fired across divide that have the only effect of exacerbating a deterioration in relations that, in the grand scheme of things, is fundamentally unhelpful.
I'm of the view that both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are to blame for this ongoing feud which lacks discipline, weakens each of them in the broader public eye, and puts at risk an alliance that is critical to the broader war against extremism and totalitarianism in the region.
And as an American Jewish leader, I am simply embarrassed that both my President and the Prime Minister of the nation that is central to my Jewish life and identity can't exercise the restraint necessary to overcome this moment, sublimate their bruised egos, and carry on their disagreement in a more productive way.
As some of the excellent reporting coming from Left, Center and Right sources reveals, anyone following this closely understands that the complexity of these matters and the vast disagreement among American and Israeli leaders and allies of Barack and Bibi are hardly easily summarized in the sound bites we're subjected to on an hourly basis.
Daily verbal explosions amidst highly sensitive negotiations over Iran's nuclear capability only aid the enemy. It's that basic. And frankly, it's mind-boggling that two very smart men don't get that.
So guys: Knock it off.
Since the speech is set to take place in Congress, I'd recommend that the President issue a statement.
"While I have obviously found the invitation to be a breach of diplomatic protocol--and I have expressed my objection to Speaker Boehner--I will be listening to the Prime Minister from the White House. My attendance at the House or a meeting with Bibi so close to the Israeli elections would not be appropriate. But as we all know, international negotiations with Iran are ongoing and Israel is among America's strongest allies in this process. Despite this recent spasm of public disagreement, we remain united in our goal to prevent a dangerously nuclear Iran."
Someone has to be the grown-up here. And since the talk is on our turf, hospitality requires graciousness, even in the face of insult.
Get over yourselves, guys. It's never as much about you as you think it is.
Tel Aviv Graffiti. Two-State Solution Toward the TardisI'm back from Israel after a ten day trip with more than 30 members of our Brooklyn community and this affords an opportunity to share a few thoughts about the experience. Our group ranged in age from mid-twenties to 80 years old, including first-timers and the well-traveled; Jews and Gentiles; a mix of political opinions.
Our goal was to explore ancient history and contemporary life; Palestinians, Bedouins and Arab Israelis; security; art, culture and food. Always food. A man's got to eat.
We didn't seek to learn it all; we knew we'd never see it all; it was designed to begin the journey for some and pique new interests for others. Our tour provider, Israel Experts, and tour guide, Muki Jankelowitz, were excellent.
The reflections below are mine, not theirs.
1. "Beyond the headlines," Israel remains a dynamic, complex, rich and open society. Full stop. One takes for granted, both in the broader region that is falling apart in real time and in the Jewish historical context of a diaspora existence of nearly 2000 years which ultimately in the late 19th century produced Zionism, just what an extraordinary achievement the Jewish state is. Far from perfect--a quality or character flaw that virtually every Israeli will own up to--there remains a kinetic energy to daily life where change is a constant and the very fact of that equation yields a remarkable and admirable productivity.
2. Israel has problems. Many of them. First, there is the constant threat to security and a war around every corner. 1948. 1953. 1967. 1973. 1982. 1987. 2000. 2006. 2008. 2012. 2014. Terror threats throughout. And this timeline ignores 1880-1945, one of the darkest eras for world Jewry when one considers dislocation and mass death. That the Jewish people has succeeded at building a home in the traumatizing, contextual cloud of the past century ought to be unfathomable. That it has done so without perfection or an as yet realized peace with its neighbors and those with whom it shares a land is, however, understandable. Israel has problems, to be sure. One of them is that there are still active enemies who would deny its very existence. Not realizing that is to live under a dangerous illusion. Behind the smoke and partisan and political machinations of the Washington-Jerusalem rift we are currently embroiled in, a nuclear Iran IS an existential threat. (My personal view is that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Ambassador Ron Dermer were wrong to offend the White House at the instigation of Speaker Boehner, who is cravenly trying to wrack up points for Republicans. To me it has clearly backfired.) A destabilized Syria, a gravely concerned Jordan, a devoured Iraq--these only add potential harm to the mix.
Oslo, which is to say the framework of "two states for two people" are words barely spoken. Neither a trained diplomat nor an historian, I can't judge whether or not Oslo is dead. But it sure seems close. While it is unquestionably true that an expanded and permanent settlement enterprise in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and a decades-in-the-making rightward shift in Israeli society has undermined confidence in the two-state solution (the most recent and clear example being the current Israeli government) so too has the ongoing Palestinian intransigence and the equally unquestionably true damage done by the waves of terror in the 1990s and early 2000s. There is only so much innocent blood a society will tolerate before it builds its fences. And the separation barrier/electrical fence/wall has justifiably saved lives. The daily hardships caused to Palestinians is, in the eyes of most Israelis, the price one pays for refusing to accept Israel's right to exist. Terror and a refusal to compromise in negotiations has proven to be the Palestinians worst political calculations. Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian street bear equal responsibility for the current state of affairs.
We did walks around East Jerusalem with Ir Amim and visited the Gaza border, including the Kerem Shalom junction at the Israel-Egypt-Gaza border, where even during the war last summer, Israel continued to send in food and humanitarian aid. We spent a morning in a deeply impoverished Bedouin development town in the Negev; drove the length of the Gaza Strip with many stops along the way; spent an afternoon in Kiryat Shmona on the Lebanese border and the Gadot lookout in the Golan Heights. Neither fully exhaustive nor comprehensive and obviously from the Israeli perspective, this selection of sites over a ten day trip was an important part of the conversation. We tried to frame issues like water supply and borders and terror and agriculture and industry and the mundane issues of trying to live one's life in a normal way--dealing with basic things like education, economic empowerment, and the relative benefits of freedom.
Beyond Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, Bedouins, Druze, and the broader region, we tried, however cursory, to look at issues like income inequality, affordable housing, education, city planning, organized crime, human trafficking, ecology, desalinization, public health, and the upcoming elections.
Eyes Wide Open.
We also dug deep into Jewish history--from the north to the south with Jerusalem in-between; spent an inspiring morning with the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem, whose coexistence and bilingual framework for Israel and Arab families is nothing short of totally hopeful; heard about a new JDC community development and empowerment program for at-risk youth in Kiryat Shmona; got a personal tour of the Jaffa mosque from a Sufi Muslim married to an Israeli Jew; talked strategy in Ben Gurion's house and the Rabin Museum; read poetry in Bialik's house; sampled Galilean wine and ate greasy schnitzel in a strip mall in Akko. Yes, we went to Yad Vashem and three cemeteries: Har Herzl, Trumpeldor, and the Kinneret Cemetery. Even the dead spoke to us.
And of course, a few broke away and ate the roasted cauliflower sandwich at Miznon.
Two years ago we went to Jericho, but didn't this time. Next time I'd like to include Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron and the Gush block. You can't do it all every time.
I do these trips because in a world of a radically decreasing attention span and very little appreciation and patience for history, it's important to walk people through the beginning parts of their engagement with a remarkable nation that with all its troubles remains exceptional--if only for its mere existence. A few op-eds, some Facebook debates or a Twitter feed does not make an opinion. However humbling oneself, in real time (for ten days) to the ongoing grind and complex parameters of a country's triumphs and tribulations, makes for a deeper and richer engagement.
Early each morning I went on beautiful runs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and as I saw the sun rise and the weather teetered from calm to cool, I was reminded, as just a man with his feet on the ground, how lucky we are to be alive.
On one such run I thought of my dear friend Sadek, a Palestinian social worker in the Israeli prison system, he is a lifelong East Jerusalem resident, lover of and builder of peace. These days, because of a spate of random and racist assaults on Arabs and Druze in and around the country, he walks with a pepper spray for self-protection. We met over coffee at the Jerusalem Cinemateque, traded family pictures and looked back on our twenty-five year friendship that is always strong, even if our nations are not at peace. Mount Zion was awash in evening light. Cars slowly climbed the hills. His garden in Jericho is lush. He bought a new apartment in Jerusalem. He lives his life with dignity and waits, patiently, if painfully, for the "peace of the brave."
Our last day, on the drive down from north to Tel Aviv, we stopped at the Ghetto Fighter's Kibbutz where we learned about an innovative program in Arab-Jewish co-existence rooted in the lessons of the Holocaust. Our guide that day was a native of Haifa, whose parents came to Israel in 1933 from Wurzberg, Germany. "That's Yehuda Amichai's hometown!" trying to impress. "His mother was my my mother's kindergarten teacher," she told me.
And so, inspired by an encounter at the socialist agricultural settlement established by Holocaust survivors that now specializes in historical memory, education and coexistence, I close with the master himself, Yehuda Amichai, whose "Two Songs of Peace" summarizes well, for now, a certain sentiment that pervaded much of the trip.
"And I am now in the middle of my life.
The time when one begins to collect
Facts, and many details,
And exact maps
Of a country we shall never occupy
And of an enemy and lover
Whose borders we shall never cross."
Of course, never say never. Like the anthem says, one must hope.
Two things disturb me about House Speaker John Boehner's decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress: that he didn't clear the invitation with the White House and that Bibi accepted it.
It should be no surprise to anyone anymore that Mr. Boehner pulled a stunt like this as Washington sinks lower and lower into the great sandbox fights of our most petulantly partisan and child-like civic selves. Since 2008, Republican strategy has been quite clear in its decisions to block the President's path whenever possible and to execute a scorched earth political plan often rooted in mockery, denigration, and on more than one occasion, racism.
And while it is no secret that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have a terrible relationship, fraught with tension and disagreement not only about Iran but about Israeli settlement policy, the Israeli Prime Minister's decision to take the American political bait in the midst of his own election campaign in Israel where numbers show he may actually lose, is a cynical move and frankly, embarrassing.
Imagine if you will the maturity of a nation's leader having the self-discipline to simply say, "Many of you are aware of the differences between President Obama and myself on various matters but it would be inappropriate of me to accept an invitation to speak to Congress without being invited to do so by the President of the United States. Our nations are the deepest of friends and united in our fight against terror and extremism. And though we have our differences, I intend, as I often do, to share them directly with the President and not insert myself into divisive partisan politics. After all, Israel has no shortage of the politics of division itself! I have many friends in the Republican and Democratic parties whose unwavering support for Israel is deeply appreciated by myself and my nation and I would never want to unnecessarily disturb that relationship for temporary political gain."
Alas, that is not the case.
The challenges we are confronting today are enormous and dangerous. Disagreements among allies is not unusual or new--certainly to the America-Israel relationship. Regarding Iran, turmoil and instability in the Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and beyond; the rise of Muslim terror threats in Europe coinciding with Far Right extremism there as well, and the ongoing lack of resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--there is both room for disagreement while remaining united over the general direction of the alliance.
That Mr. Boehner and Mr. Netanyahu would openly ally themselves against the President strikes me as a dangerous precedent and signals both to our other trusted allies and more significant, our enemies, that this division and weakness can only further be exploited by those who would seek to do us maximal damage.
The first time I ever got behind the wheel of a car on the highway was on my way to my grandma's funeral. Grandma had died, six years after her beloved Charlie, the heroic grandfather doctor of my youth, a man (if not known or conjured by John McPhee as one of his "heirs of general practice") true and good. Grandma had despaired after Grandpa died. At his cold, snow covered grave on a February afternoon in 1973, she threw her body to the ground only to be pulled back by her sons, her heirs, and then, haltingly set about to remove herself from the world until she figured out that an assiduously waged campaign of low-grade depression could drain of her of the essentialness, the immediacy, of the will to live.
She died quietly, with others of her generation already gone, with the many mysteries of her life and how it unfolded, from there, in Russia (then still unlocked from the shackles of fascism and communism and anti-Semitism and dislocation and war and migration and settlement and citizenship and the acquisition of an identity necessary yet not quite chosen) to Milwaukee: hospitable--yet foreign in its banal, benign blandness.
Not for me, of course. I loved my childhood. An American boy, I was infatuated with my busty Jewish bubbe; enamored of my dashing, virulent, healing grandpa; enlivened by sport; and aroused by the redolence of our suburban yard, teeming with the arboreal urgency of possibility and renewal.
Grandpa's death both devastated and shaped me. It's when I first saw my father cry. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Bernstein, upon my return to class after his funeral, read his Jewish Chronicle obituary aloud to the class in order to demonstrate Grandpa's mythic greatness and model to my fellow students that we support one another in times of need. The pedagogy of Jewish death and mourning, brought to bear into the public school classroom. We had arrived. Our customs as a people were on the way to being Ever-Present. Grandma, having thrown herself down to that ice cold, cold ground stayed with me like a song, part Yiddish folk tale, party Johnny Cash. She wailed and mourned.
In the six years between their deaths, Mom and Dad got divorced; Dad lost his job; Mom re-married; Dad, too late, expressed regret; and I had found out about books, girls, basketball, politics, weed and Richard Pryor. A lot goes on, I guess.
As it was, we drove divided to the cemetery on the south side and because I needed some road work behind the wheel. I drove Dad's 74 red Chevy Impala convertible (top down, heater blasting) to the Second Home Cemetery which required for this novice in mourning on ramps, off ramps, signaling, merging and, a gesture I would never quite learn to moderate to this very day, acceleration. It seemed like just a moment before I was in the back of that car on a warm summer night, eating custard on the way home from a ballgame, stars flying by overhead like a warp-speed observatory show, luxuriating in the tender innocence of the father-son dyad. A flash-forward to the cold, cracked concrete, salt-covered highway barriers and ugly orange collision cones, signifying fallibility, boundaries and danger.
Death, the ineffable expression of finality, our guide.
But Goddamnit if I didn't want to drive that car. And Dad gave me the keys as much to teach me as a relinquishment of the throne. Unspoken: Not a usurpation but a betrothal. A marriage to the story of our people, he seemed to say, which has eluded me in my quest to escape the mad, red-hot hatred of anti-Semitism, I give to you. I couldn't tell the story, son, he seemed to say, passive, in silence beside me. But you can.
So I did.
And so I have. Merged into family. Identity. History. When I played point guard in grade school and high school, Dad would sit in the stands and shout at me, "Drive, son, drive!"
Ah, it's all metaphor, isn't it? The ancestors; the parents; the keys to the car or the castle.
And who are we but those who ask, who dare to question, who take the risk of peeling back the layers to understand.
There is of course, a danger to the inquiry. "You peel back an onion too far, son," my dad said, "And you're left with nothing."
So you have to eat. To sustain yourself. I get that.
At Benji's in Milwaukee it was corned beef; hopple-popple; chocolate phosphates. I'd sit there with Dad in the early divorce years, the Bucks game on the tv screen above the counter, Benji's goyim slicing meat in the ways of our people, Dad kibbutzing his cousins who were also there, consuming the peculiar culinary identity of our European forbearers.
Today in New York, in the comfort-countered home base of Russ and Daughters, it's mostly fish and eggs. But as equally sustaining as the food is, there is another element: the reification of Jewish migratory narrative; the celebration of hospitality; the humorous, self-reflective, honoring of the past in the present; and the very act of being, the paradox of the permanence of change.
My lunchmate was talking about the Holocaust and DP camps; about Yiddish and German and English; about Lodz and Munich and New York and Israel. And I was talking about Israel and New York, and White and Black, Rich and Poor, and Justice. And underneath the table, my foot was on fire, pedal to the metal, going full speed ahead toward understanding.
Like even in mourning, you can drive to a funeral in a convertible: wind in your face; brisk and cold; and then, in an instant, you can do what you've never done before which is to merge into life.
Merge into life.
I imagine if I had a chance to talk to Edgar this week, he'd be very practical about everything. And brutally honest.
He'd see and say that political constructs aren't necessarily either/or but both/and in the events playing out in the world. From New York to Paris to Jerusalem.
He'd say that the NYPD have a right to be pissed about being targeted by angry citizens but that certain racist and rogue cops and overly excessive stop and frisk policies need to be curtailed. He'd say that for the sake of the city, Mayor deBlasio and the NYPD need to stop fighting NOW, sit down, and make peace. (After all, given the horrific events in Paris of the past few days--the abhorrent attack on Charlie Hebdo followed by the horrifying anti-Semitic outrage on Paris Jews--a unity between City Hall and the One Police Plaza is absolutely essential for the safety of New York.)
He'd say that one of the reasons he served as he did as President of the World Jewish Congress had to do with the undeniable reality that in many parts of the world today, Jews are still in danger. And he'd be fearless in using his considerable power, wealth, incisive wit and pragmatic sensibility to speak out, persuade, and do whatever was in his strength to save Jewish lives. And in the same conversation, he'd say that it actually is possible to find the expansion of Jihadi movements beyond dangerous, necessary to confront; but that didn't mean that one couldn't also be critical of Israeli governments and settlement policy. That the debate about what was right and wrong in the world didn't mean that if you opposed the spread of violent and radical Islam, it meant by necessity that the movement for a greater Israel was correct. You could believe both/and.
But as I stood above his grave on the one year anniversary of his death this week; as a steady snow lightened the weight of the granite stone that bore his name; as I remembered back to burying my friend last year beneath a heavy December rain while a flock of Canada geese flew mercifully overhead, I remembered with pain and sadness that his voice--his moral voice, his playful voice, his fearless voice--could only be as discernible as his very name below, obscured by the light film of frozen condensation, near, approximate, but no longer plainly known.
The evils bastards who try to kill free expression and murder innocent Jews shopping for Shabbat in Paris is categorically evil. Period. And one can justifiably say that the attempt by Jihadists to draw Israel in to their orbit, to triangulate the world against the Jews because, according to their twisted logic, the Jihadists wouldn't be so angry if Israel didn't exist as the exemplar and perpetrator-extraordinaire of Western colonialist values, is the worst kind of reasoning imaginable. Transparent in its pure, unadulterated hatred of the Jew, it can and ought to be rejected. Categorically and with confidence.
And of course, no sooner would one do that than some other partisan, would draw a similar inference and we'd be back at the barricades again, alas, fighting the battle for what is true and just.
We are weary, God. Let us rest.
"God?" I'd hear my friend Edgar say. "By God you mean who exactly?" And he'd be right. There is just too much God wrapped up in all this and it presses against the limits of, if not reason, than what any sane person can tolerate. Jihadists crying out their understanding of God's name spray machine gun fire into newsrooms and onto sidewalks and inside grocery stores where others, seeking to observe their God's Sabbath, buy food to bless and eat. And while being held hostage, others offer prayers in God's name that the hostages should remain safe but no sooner are those prayers uttered than other prayers are necessitated because the first set of prayers didn't work, the murders occurred, and now God's name is called upon to offer comfort. Comfort for the families of Jihadists whose sons lost their way; comfort for the families of innocent writers and innocent Jews who prayers didn't protect.
Perhaps we are not the only ones who are weary, God. Perhaps you are, too.
Our Torah teaches us this week the following: "And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them."
This part of the Torah has always confounded me. It seems to imply that here in Exodus, at the beginning of the narrative of an enslaved people, that only after some of the most intense expressions of human suffering did God hear, remember and then--take cognizance? He didn't immediately throw plagues, or thunder, or cause an earthquake. He didn't even kick anybody's ass. He took cognizance. The passivity inherent in this construct upsets me greatly. It seems to make us God's plaything, an object of reflection until a plan can be put into place to actually save us.
I find that the commentators come up short here. God's taking note of the suffering at this juncture seems to be the activating of an earlier promise to redeem Israel. But it is still Moses' lesson to learn, in the next chapter, that the God of Existence ("I am that I am") is the closest approximation to God's power that Moses will get in order to convince Moses that Israel's redemption relies as much upon Moses as it does on God.
Or, as Edgar used to like to say, "I don't know about God; but I like the term "Godliness."
It will be up to Moses to answer the call; to "go down, way down, in Egypt land;" it will have to be Moses as an agent of freedom; justice; righteousness; compassion--to be, by necessity, the animating and the closest approximation to the manifestations of God's will that we can conjure through the fog of suffering and strife and terror and war.
Cassuto argued that the notion of God "taking note" is exactly similar to God taking note before Sodom and Gomorroh. Thinking aloud in Genesis 18:21, God says of Abraham that he can be counted upon to "do righteousness and justice." And he does, doesn't he? After all, it's Abraham who speaks up, bargains, and makes sure that the innocent don't die in God's path of rageful, Divine destruction.
In other words, pray with all your might but it's still up to us.
I demand that the Mayor and the Police here in New York City make peace--NOW!--before we make ourselves vulnerable to more attacks from those maniacs who would exploit division for an opportunity to do violence.
I am grateful for the Paris police in hunting down the bastards who killed innocent people but they need to do a much better job fighting terror and anti-Semitism in France. This shouldn't have happened! And tonight Paris Jews didn't worship in the Grand Synagogue for Shabbat for the first time since World War Two?! This is outrageous. Truly.
I want reasonable and peace-loving Israelis and Palestinians who know in their hearts that peace is the only way to live together to be strengthened in all that they do.
And in the spirit of my friend, my mentor, my teacher Edgar, on this one year of anniversary of missing your voice, I pray: for the strength to endure; to question my own assumptions and grow; to speak the truth as I see it; and to not only remember the covenant, not only take note of it, but to use all my heart and soul and strength to build a world of justice and peace.