Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Some thoughts on the conflict...

In nearly every public space, at least in the Western world, the argument rages on regarding Israel and its territories. Many would have you believe that the issue is black and white, pro-Israel or anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian or pro-genocide; you are either with us or against us. However, the truth is not that simple.
Let me first give a bit of background on who I am and the formative experiences that have shaped both my stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (which is a misnomer in and of itself, in that much of the public voice of the Palestinian side is created by non-Palestinian regimes) and my Jewish identity as a whole. Before my first trip to Israel, a semester long stay during my junior year in high school, my parents explained to me that the reason they had sent me to Jewish day school through middle-school and encouraged me to attend and then eventually staff a Jewish summer camp was because once upon a time they had gone to Israel for a two-week trip and returned changed people. Their experience in Israel reaffirmed their ties to the faith and the people from which they had become distanced and even began observing the laws of kashrut in their home, much to the initial distaste of both my brother and I. I spent the next six months falling in love with the land, the people and the history of my ancestors and felt invigorated and validated in all of my Jewish involvement. I decided then to one day make aliyah and join the IDF.
            With the end of high school I left behind my Jewish community and home and the central focus of my Jewish life in high school, the conservative youth group USY. On Library Mall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I experienced anti-Israel protests and so-called academics that publically referred to Israel as “Palestine.” I was a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the national Jewish fraternity, as well as involved with both UW Hillel and UW Chabad, all of whom vocally supported Israel and organized pro-Israel events and rallies regularly. I received bachelor’s degrees in both Hebrew and Jewish Studies in the spring of 2009 and decided to return to Israel.
            Living in Tel Aviv was a completely new and exciting experience. Over the years Israel had morphed from an unknown, to a Zionist ideal, to an academic study and finally it became a real, living and breathing country. I was interning at the Hillel’s Jerusalem office and I started to feel the itch to make aliyah again. At one point I even called my mother to tell her I was staying. This is also when I fell in love with my beautiful fiancée, who is the child of an Israeli herself and carries Israeli citizenship. Alas, the program ended and I returned to the United States, making the decision to apply to rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College.
            Here we are today. I have lived in Jerusalem the last 8 months. I have read Israeli news in Hebrew and English every day, interacted with and befriended Israelis, Arabs, Americans and every other nationality available, as well as Christians, Muslims, Druse and Jews. I have engaged in Israeli culture and followed the happenings of the Israeli government regularly. I ride the bus to school and work out at the Jerusalem International YMCA. It is this background and this education from which I draw to make my opinions. I will never claim to be an expert, but must contend that I am least marginally informed.
            My fiancée and I argue just as much as any other couple and we are likewise quite quick to make up and laugh off our petty disagreements, however there is one subject which always ends in hurt feelings, frustration and anger. I have been called an idealist before, and I will not debate this. I believe a scandalous belief, one which could gain me ostracism from many of the institutions which I love and support (and will continue to love and support regardless of any response), one which demands a double-take and perhaps even a psychiatric evaluation. My assertion is that one can support and love Israel, even call oneself a Zionist, and still be critical of the actions of the State.
            For some, the above may be an obvious statement and for others this may be tantamount to blasphemy, however, the ones I am trying to reach are those misguided and misinformed individuals which call Israel apartheid and claim that Israel is an illegitimate regime. I am a liberal American who believes in truth, freedom and justice and I also believe that it was on these ideals that Israel was created. Israel’s Jewish character is intrinsically tied to its existence and in no way does it challenge its ability to be a legitimate democracy nor does it make it a racist state.
            Both sides of the vehement argument employ harsh rhetoric and questionable propaganda tactics in order to strew misinformation (and in extreme cases lies) among the impressionable, the naïve, the uneducated and the misguided. The truth is buried under the onslaught of shouting and sirens and the rational person would be wise to wash his hands of the matter and take the post-modern stance of apathy.
Yet, American (and all Diaspora) Jews have a long-standing history of connection to and support for the State of Israel and its people based the common bond of that 4000 year old story that we call Judaism. Many American Jews find themselves being distanced from Israel from what they hear on the television and read in the news. Others steel themselves and determine that Israel is fighting for its very existence and must therefore be supported at all costs and in any case.
There is another option.
In this world that we live in there is a flood of misinformation and lies which are propagated in increasingly easily accessible and public forums such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. There are also, studies and polls and academic articles and books (yes, those things with paper and ink) and encyclopedias and documents which demonstrate that reality is not a black and white scenario. There is a history of internationally recognized documents which alternately promise the land to both Jews and Arabs throughout history. There is the reality of the Shoah (or Holocaust) which proved forever the need of a national home for Jews. There is the reality of the countless displaced persons still living in atrocious circumstances in Palestinian Refugee camps (many of which are kept at the status quo by Terrorist regimes in order to be used as propaganda) for whom there must be found a solution. There is the fact that Israel is a democratic state in which reside second-class citizens. There is, without even remotely exhausting the examples of such, truth.
Israel is an asset to the entire world. Israel is a world leader in disaster response and the IDF recently set up the first field hospital in Japan in response to the recent tragedies. It is a leader in counterterrorism and is sought out regularly by the international community for its expertise in national defense. It is a beacon of the promise of democracy, equality for all and justice to an otherwise backward and bleak Middle East filled with dictatorships and old-world monarchies. It is a leader in multiple industries including the high-tech sector, the field of medicine, aviation and water desalination. It is the only country in the world where the desert recedes instead of encroaches. It is an example of human ingenuity and a testament to the resilience and historical success of the Jewish people.
Israel also is a country in which a religious minority has hegemonic control, some might argue state-sanctioned, over an inordinate proportion of government funds and domestic/civil issues including marriage and Jewish conversion. It is a country in which foreign workers are unfairly taken advantage of and mistreated. It is a country which mistakenly takes the lives of civilians in military incursions into internationally disputed territories. It has erected a wall with the territories it controls and often disallows entrance to Palestinians, even ones with legitimate reasons. None of these things take from Israel its right to exist and to defend itself nor does it make it Zionism racist. It does not make Israel apartheid.
I criticize countries all of the time. Every country in the world is screwed up beyond any semblance of an acceptable situation and the United States is no exception. That it is even a question whether or not gays can openly serve in the military is deplorable. That its own native population has been stripped of all but remnants of its lands and relegated to the periphery is for whatever reason a bygone. It regularly attacks or invades countries with nearly no provocation or reason, the most recent example being Libya. The United is still home to some towns, counties, even states which still practice institutionalized racism.
I have one question. Do any rational people actually call for the legitimization of the United States? Does anyone call on President Obama to return the Navajo or the Ojibwa to the ancestral homelands? Should anyone who criticizes the United States branded a traitor and a terrorist-supporter? Now before you answer, recall that I said rational people.
There must be a place for those who believe in Israel’s Jewish character and wish to see it realize what it was founded to be, a place where freedom lives and from which truth and justice emanate. How can Israel right its wrongs if we Jews of the world cannot call on our brothers and sisters living in the land to demand more and better of their government? To the same token, what would we Jews of the world do should, God forbid, there ever be another Shoah; to where would we run if there was no Israel?
Most Israelis and Palestinians, I am not speaking of the leaders rather the people themselves, would love for there to be an end to conflict and to begin living normalized lives in normalized circumstances.
            Critics of the moderate stance on Israel will  continue to equate criticism of Israel with being “anti-Israel” and in a time when Israel needs friends more than ever, I think this is a dangerous game to be playing. This goes for Israel’s Conversion Bill of recent fame as well. When Israel could be drawing more supporters by liberalizing the definition of who is a Jew, it instead is leaning towards cutting off ties with a large percentage of Diaspora Jewry. As a Jew who has for his entire life been a supporter and lover of Israel, it saddens me to be lumped in with the likes of despicable anti-Semites by the very group of people with whom I identify. Let there be no confusion, Anti-Zionist is a publically acceptable way of saying anti-Semitic.
            So what now? Now I ask to be seen as I am. An American Jew who loves and cares for Israel as the Jewish homeland and his second home. As a citizen of the world who calls for freedom and justice for all peoples. As one who is aware of Israel’s faults but continues to love her and support her; one who hates extremism and denounces all attacks on civilians as unthinkable as completely illegitimate. Please, do not call me an Anti-Zionist and do not challenge my commitment to Israel. Rather recall the words of the founding fathers of the United States who said that protest is the highest form of patriotism. I protest the wrongs in the world, all of them no matter the perpetrator.
            My claim is that I love Israel, but that Israel is not perfect. My claim is that both sides need to educate. My claim is that my connection to the land is as real and unbreakable as is the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state within defensible and realistic borders.
            Say what you will, but I know who I am and what I believe. Do you?

---Thanks to Ari Ballaban and Sheera for all of their help

A comic inspired by today's Jew in the Contemporary World presentations

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The next morning

I have found myself making subtle changes. This morning, I took a cab to school instead of the bus. When I got out of the cab, instead of my usual, “have a wonderful day,” I found myself saying, “be safe.” It is a funny thing, the terrorists are trying to shake the resolve of the Israelis, but they are sabras, their resolve to carry on is strong. The ones who are heading for the hills, perhaps myself included are the Americans, the ones who aren’t used to the tension in a greater sense. I by no means encourage all zarim to leave, rather, I want to express solidarity with those who choose to and on the other hand to express my pride and respect for those who choose to persevere.

Why am I holding back tears? I am truly not frightened, at least not for myself. Instead, I am saddened; saddened that the status quo has been altered. My fiancée cannot stop crying; hers are tears of fear. I find myself frustrated with her fear, which is not fair to her at all. I apologize to her for not being adequately equipped to offer her words of comfort. Reason and rationality do not inform her fear. It is instead informed by the shattering of a world and a life that we have built here for ourselves over the course of the last nearly nine months. How do I tell her that everything will be alright? I know that the likelihood of being struck by lightning to being in a car crash (especially in Israel) is far greater than to be involved in some way with a piguah, or terrorist attack.

Is it my connection to God that is finally resurfacing? In the past, I felt uncomfortable even using an upper case “g” in order to write God. Or is it my connection to people that is strengthening? I’m feeling more tied to prayer already as well. I always used to think that I’d be one of those who would be stoic and stand firm when the violence inevitably started, but that’s an easy thought to have when enjoying a period of relative calm in Israel, or when viewing the violence from the safety of the Midwest. I see now I am not the pillar of concrete I imagined myself to be, rather a man of flesh and blood, of emotion and feeling. This was a startling realization, yet in a way it is liberating; like finally shrugging off the uniform of a foreign army. Let me be me and react the way that is natural for me. Let me remove my mask and see the world with my own eyes and heart.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I used to think that blogging was just for those self-righteous enough to believe that what they had to say was important enough for others to read. After having finally started to blog, I realize finally that blogging is for the blogger, not for the reader; it is indeed a form of journaling and self-reflection rather than a forum for the egocentric. Consider this my formal apology to all the bloggers out there.

Welcome to My Blog- 3/23/2011

So here I am, finally setting up a blog after almost nine months of being in Israel. I was finally compelled to set this all up after the pigua (terrorist attack) in Jerusalem today. With all of my time spent in Israel added up, its just over two years and this was the first time that a terrorist attack happened while I was here. To say, the least, I am a little bit shaken up. I've always felt that writing was by far the way in which I expressed myself the best, but I suppose it took some sort of catalyst, in this case a tragic one, to finally influence me to start sharing my thoughts to a wider audience. I sit here writing in my quiet neighborhood of Katamon, only a short walk away from where the attack was made. It surprised me how tranquil the city seemed after the first attack in nearly a decade. Sheera, my fiancee, and I just returned home from dinner where we enjoyed a meal at one of our favorite restaurants and a meeting with the director of my program, Yoshi.

I certainly feel a though the quiet Israel has enjoyed for many years is reaching an end. With the attack in Jerusalem following Grad missile attacks in Beer Sheva and several other incidents, it is with a heavy heart that I share these words. This year living in Israel has without a doubt changed me in many ways, many of which I am sure will not be clear until years later. I think of all the development that I have experienced this year and in the past and wonder what the future will bring.

Once upon a time, I was an ardent Zionist who felt that my place was here among my people, living in the Jewish homeland and condemning anyone who had anything critical to say about Israel. These days, I am a little bit more skeptical to say the least. This being said, over the years I have become much more liberal and of course must speak out against violence of any kind. I am a libertarian at heart; I believe my money (or the lack thereof) is mine and everyone should be free to live their life as they see fit insofar as it does not impede on the freedom of any other individual. How do I reconcile my distaste for the current state of affairs of the Israeli state with my belief that Israel should continue to be the uncontested homeland of the Jewish people and a democratic state at the same time?

I knew that Sheera was safe, but I still feared for her well being. Today was the first time that I experienced not being able to contact a loved one (or anyone for that matter) as the cellcom lines were down with everyone in Jerusalem (and probably all of Israel) trying to call one another to confirm the safety of everyone that they know in the area. We have been blessed for the peace, albeit a strained peace, that we have enjoyed here for the past seven years, with the obvious exception of a few isolated incidents here and there.

For quite some time I have been an agnostic. Being a Jew, I feel it is hard to say that I am an atheist, though I do not believe in a god that intercedes with daily life. I believe instead that there is some force that binds all living things together; some sort of benevolent source, whatever that means, that brings order to the chaos that we call life. Today's events do not shake my belief in such a force, rather it confirms that the ones who influence existence on our planet are humans. No omnipotent or omniscient god that exists in the minds of rational humans could allow for such a tragedy to occur in a country that, at its heart, believes in the rights of all peoples to pursue life and liberty.

Is Israel infallible? Not in any way, shape or form. Do its citizens and residents deserve death? Never, and to say otherwise is to negate the very principles for which it and indeed all democracies of the earth stand. We live in a time that is ripe for the explosion of hatred and animosity. However, we lovers of freedom and truth must combat this reality and make what changes we can to alter the course of history. What does this mean? How can we as individuals influence the existence in which we live? With hope, with love and with concern for our neighbors.

The vast majority of peoples, Arab, Jew and otherwise, in this land dream of a day when they can live in peace and security and pursue a life of meaning and substance. Unfortunately, there are those who believe that only violence can solve the issues that exist between peoples from vastly different backgrounds. For the most part, Jews are (at least in the last several centuries) a product of Western culture. Indeed, we are the ones who informed Judeo-Christian values as we know them and gave the gift of morality to the world. Please, do not feel obligated to take my word for it, instead, feel free to examine the plethora of academics who concur. This is in fact the very truth that has resulted in my own distance from the State of Israel. The destruction of life, either permanently or in regards to quality, lies so far from Judaism's soul that I could not endorse a so-called Jewish state that regularly was responsible for the deaths of innocents. Israel continues to occupy lands that, according to international law and reason, are not hers and without question do not belong to her. This, in contrast, can not be an excuse for attacks on civilians nor civilian space.

Do I believe that a normalization can reached in this region? I must. Do I desire to live in this land? No. Am I so naive to believe that the United States is a perfect land with no problems in regard to equality? Not by a long-shot. Instead, I dream of a day when all peoples in all lands can be free to lives that they choose for themselves. It shouldn't matter whether one is a Jew or a gentile, an Arab or a westerner, we all deserve to live a life of peace, security and above all freedom.