Israel, Politics

Speaking from Heart to Heart, and the Jewish Community’s Faustian Bargain

One of my favourite gemaras from the Talmud (it adorns the “Teaching and Learning” page here on my blog) advocates a fierce commitment to openness to dissent and the ability to learn from a multiplicity of opinions, even those that may diametrically your own:

אף אתה עשה אזניך כאפרכסת וקנה לך לב מבין לשמוע את דברי מטמאים ואת דברי מטהרים את דברי אוסרין ואת דברי מתירין את דברי פוסלין ואת דברי מכשירין.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya taught… make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear both the statements of those who render objects ritually impure and the statements of those who render them pure; the statements of those who prohibit actions and the statements of those who permit them; the statements of those who deem items invalid and the statements of those who deem them valid.

Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 3b

The Talmud’s argument here is that while a person/community may have a sense of what is halakhically permissible – what is, quite literally, “Kosher,” – one must still open oneself to learning from others why their beliefs are different.

I think the Talmud specifically refers to both “ears” and “hearts” here to encompass the entirety of self that one needs to open to others – this isn’t just about being nice and tolerating a different opinion; we have to open all of our learning senses – our intellect and our emotions – to understand why it is that people have different beliefs and opinions.

I’ve been thinking about this philosophy quite a bit lately, particularly as part of my training through Resetting the Table to bring people together for meaningful conversations across charged political differences.

This gemara also came surging to my mind as I read about the lamentable smear campaign that was launched against Rachel Lithgow, former head of The American Jewish Historical Society. You can read about it in her words on Tablet, or in the recent New York Times article covering the incident.

TL;DR version: Jewish organization innocently (without political motivation) allows people associated with Jewish Voice for Peace into its space; chaos ensues; head of said Jewish organization denies any ideological support for JVP; head is still smeared by a defamation campaign (itself, a violation of halakhah); head of organization forced out of job and/or quits.

Lithgow describes her expunging in stark terms:

It is a Faustian bargain for the Jewish community as a whole to trade talent and passion for some mythic notion of ideological purity that we never enjoyed–and which will never placate this new iteration of zealotry anyway.

She’s right. Goethe, himself, noted this in Faust: “A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart,” he wrote. “You’ll never speak from heart to heart, unless it rises up from your heart’s space,” he warned.

If we are only willing to see in the world what we already believe; if we are only willing to inhabit ideologically pure spaces; if we are unwilling to listen, hear, and understand… we will be condemned to a life in isolation.

A life without learning.

A life without meaning beyond what we think we already know.

But the antidote, the alternative, the voice crying out so loudly from our tradition… is so clear, if we would only hear it:

Attune your ear to the voice of the other.

Attune your heart to be more understanding.

When you feel yourself resisting the words of another, wanting to push that person outside of your circle, what would happen if instead, you drew them closer, asking questions and searching for meaning?

There is, nor has there ever been, any sustainable ideological purity in Judaism.

Our people is strong enough to withstand dissent. Indeed, we are made stronger by it.

Canada, Israel, Politics

If you really want to make someone look good, just call everyone else a Nazi

Originally published at The Times of Israel.

Via xkcd
Via xkcd

Sometimes things so apparent don’t seem apparent at first.” This hackneyed statement is what Richard Friedman wants us to believe when it comes to Canadian PM Stephen Harper and his relationship with Israel. What is apparent for Mr. Friedman, is that powerful forces of Hitlerian evil are still out to get the Jews, there is an international antisemitic conspiracy that has targeted Israel, and that Stephen Harper has apparently distinguished himself as a sort of courageous moral truth-teller who can save the Jews.

In an opinion piece here at the Times of Israel, riddled with dark allusions to Nazi Europe and the international quest to eradicate Jews, Friedman wants us to believe that the world is teetering on the edge of a neo-Holocaust, and that only the Canadian Prime Minister can save the Jews, comparing him to Danish King Christian X. Out of this worldview, Friedman has this to say:

What happened in Denmark proved that the Holocaust could have been prevented. If more European leaders had been courageous enough to stand up on behalf of their country’s Jews, it’s likely substantially fewer Jews would have been murdered.”

This may be historically true, though we can never know. That said, it holds no water as a precedent for a modern foreign policy. In this framework, Canada is supposedly Denmark, Harper is King Christian – the vanguard of the Jews – and the world has regressed to the dark depths of the 1930s. Jews are about to be murdered, and only Canada can save us.

While much can be said about Stephen Harper’s pro-Israel agenda, there is a peculiarity lurking in Mr. Friedman’s recent article. Previously, he has written that Jewish professionals in North America should “refrain from suggesting what Israel should or shouldn’t do,” and instead become what amounts to international Hasbara agents, “helping the media, general public, and… Jewish communities understand the context and rationale behind Israel’s decisions and actions.

Because Friedman isn’t willing to be openly critical of Israel and its policies, he instead turns his focus to the international sphere, praising or critiquing what others have to say about Israel. In his attempts to shelter Israel from any constructive criticism, he builds an association fallacy – essentially a reverse Reductio ad Hiterlum – where he refutes his imaginary opponents’ views by comparing them to views that would be held by Hitler, arguing:

There are powerful forces on the planet who would gladly continue Hitler’s work.”

Can we please talk about the Holocaust with a little more depth and less hyperbole? In the world of internet journalism, there is nothing easier than succumbing to Godwin’s Law when you’re really grasping at straws. Don’t like what someone has to say but can’t come up with any constructive critique? You can always call them a Nazi!

Apparently the opposite also holds true for Friedman. If you really like someone (for example, the Prime Minister of Canada) and want to make them look good, just call everyone else a Nazi. Because Friedman is among those who consider it verboten to say anything negative about Israel in the public sphere, it is much simpler for him to paint a picture of a world where there are evil Nazis out to get us, and lob anyone who disagrees with his view into that group.

But the hazards of doing this are exactly what Dr. Mike Godwin was pleading against when he formulated the law that bears his name. A few years ago, Godwin explained the origin of the now famous principle:

I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.”

Admittedly, Friedman isn’t labeling any one person a Nazi or comparing any specific person to Hitler. But his article is riddled with naive overtones of a battle against the evil forces of the Nazis and the redemptive forces of the Allies. His comparison simply doesn’t honor the complexities of Israel and international relations, nor the memory of the Holocaust as a catastrophic event without comparison. Friedman presents a crudely simplistic understanding of the Holocaust and antisemtism that doesn’t do justice to the reality of Israel’s place in the modern world. Does he really believe that Israel in 2014 – with its advanced army and unprecedented regional strength, not to mention its backing by the USA – can be compared to the state of Eastern European Jews before the Holocaust?

It is certainly true that antisemitism exists today, and in many places significantly so, but this is not 1938 Europe, and any attempts to define the world in this manner are quite simply unrealistic and ignorant. Just this week, Anshell Pfeffer – Haaretz’s military, international and Jewish affairs journalist – lucidly noted that the most pernicious form of antisemitism today does not come from some international cabal, but rather from deep within ourselves:

Anti-Semitism exists today on the furthest margins of Western society, in obscure sinecures, on the Internet, but perhaps most prevalently in our feverish imaginations.”

Pfeffer goes on to argue how antisemitism has transformed in the 21st century from the external injustices of “persecution and open vilification of Jews,” to something of an internal psychosis: “something we define ourselves, something we discover and too often invent where it isn’t at all clear it even exists.”

Perhaps Pfeffer’s argument is also somewhat naive and simplistic in areas, ignoring cases where antisemitism represents a true danger. But he is spot on in his assertion that when it comes to Israel, any notion of the “scourge of antisemitism” is no longer about something others are doing to us that we have no control over. Jews today have the ability to define our own lives – both in Israel and abroad. Any suggestion that there is an international threat to Jewish existence is not only shameful in its simplicity, but also in its implications for the discourse surrounding Israel and Jewish life. Pfeffer notes:

Our fear of anti-Semitism has begun to mirror the hatred itself in its irrationality and in the ways it hinders any serious debate.”

At this point, it should be noted that none of this critique of Friedman’s paradigm has even addressed whether Stephen Harper and Canada are deserving of his praiseful comparison to King Christian and Denmark. So just a few words in this respect:

Friedman argues that Harper is deserving of praise due “to the simple fact that supporting Israel… is right and just” simple fact, indeed. Friedman doesn’t define what he means by support. Is it just being a cheerleader on the international stage? Is it towing the line of whatever the Knesset has to say? It it being an international hasbara agent?

We are left assuming that this praise is based on Harper’s “understanding of Israel’s unique security dilemmas,” yet Friedman offers as flimsy proof only the news coverage in Canada of his visit to the region, which was supposedly reflective of “the depth of [his] emotional commitment and support.” This completely misses the hearty and open debate that took place in the Canadian media on the implications of Harper’s one-sided vision of what it means to be pro-Israel. (See here and here and here and here and here for just a smattering of what it means to have a little more nuance when it comes to speaking about Israel).

Unfortunately, Friedman also seems to have missed what the Israeli news had to say about Harper. Wouldn’t that be a much more significant indicator of Harper’s supposed “kingly” strength? While much of the media here got caught up in the pomp and circumstance of the PM’s visit, as anyone truly familiar with the place Canada plays in international politics these days can tell you, there was little to say about the substance of Harper’s visit, precisely because there was virtually none to speak of.

As I’ve previously noted, The sad reality of Harper’s visit was reflected most accurately in a steely oped from Ha’aretz, noting the ultimate insignificance of Canada’s role:

With all due respect to the Prime Minister of Canada, his relevance in the international community, his influence on what goes on in the Middle East and his ability to help Israel in matters of life and death are inversely related to the size of his country.”

Setting aside his seemingly ignorant grasp of the reality of Stephen Harper’s and Canada’s role in international affairs vis a vis Israel, Friedman should consider the implications of his Holocaust-oriented paradigm of Judaism and Israel. As the Executive Director of a Jewish Federation, he should know better than to reduce Jewish life and discourse on Israel to such simplistic understandings. As someone responsible for encouraging vitality in Jewish life, Friedman should be presenting an aspirational view of Judaism and Israel, rather than the dark, gloomy, and backwards-looking fear mongering he speaks of. Such a person would be much more worthy of the kingly appellation that he wishes to bestow.

Canada, Politics

It’s a cold day in hell; Brian Mulroney is here

Illustration by Anthony Jenkins | The Globe and Mail | 5.2009

“Popularity is meaningless unless you use it to do big and good things for your country and for the people of Canada.”

Wise words.

They’re from Brian Mulroney, speaking about Stephen Harper in an interview with Steve Paikin.

Yes, that Brian Mulroney.

Sure, the guy has a notoriously sleazy political record. But there’s something refreshing about a Tory who is willing to call out Stephen Harper and advance the notion that the government can be a force for greatness.

The Toronto Star’s article on Mulroney today also features off-the-record statements from Conservative staffers who lament that the Tories have few substantive accomplishments to show for their past half-decade in power.

And that’s the direction Canada appears to be heading in… great power wasted. To be sure, Tim Harper (no relation to Stephen) notes that “there is no overarching national debate over defining issues.”

I’m not wishing that Canadian politics become something akin to the political climate in the USA – with its assassinated politicians, gun-toting rallyers, and bombastic showboating – but I do feel a little jealous when confronted with the American desire to engage in national debates over issues of great substance.

That’s something we could learn from our fellow continental citizens.

Canada, Politics

Whichever candidate says 9/11 the most wins

Remember that episode of Family Guy where Lois runs for mayor? Remember how all she had say was “9/11” to get elected? I kind of felt like I was in the middle of that episode tonight.

Yeah, I went to the Thornhill candidates’ debate tonight. To my American friends who are unfamiliar with the Canadian electoral system, here’s a primer, courtesy of our friends at Wikipedia. The debate was, for the most part, enlightening in its boredom.

I’ll have a more detailed commentary on the debate tomorrow. For now, I’ll just share two things that I’m left thinking this evening:

1. If all community debates are similar to the one I attended, it’s no wonder voter turnout is so low. For the most part (with some notable exceptions), all the candidates did was egotistically tout their qualifications, attack each other, and spit out sound-bites (including Peter Kent using 9/11 as an ominous harbinger of the dangers lapping at Canada’s shores). To her credit, Karen Mock acknowledged that this was a reality of shorter debates and directed people to her and her party’s website for more details.

2. In Thornhill, if you don’t want to see the Conservatives’ Peter Kent elected, I now believe that there’s only one party to vote for, and that is the Liberal Party. I know (painfully) that many point to this as a sign of the unfortunate state of representative democracy in this country. It is sad. It is unfortunate. But the NDP and Green candidates just aren’t up to par. Only the Liberals are in a position to defeat the Conservatives in Thornhill, and this remains true on the Federal level as well.

More to come, tomorrow.

Canada, Journalism, Politics

In which I discover that the RCMP may be spying on me… and other interesting blog-related stats

A few interesting things I’ve noticed about my blog today:

1. Oh hey, I wrote my 200th post on this blog the other day and totally forgot about it! If you include my old blog (I used to write at Blogger… it was kind of like living in the projects), I’ve written 290 posts since November 27, 2004. That’s about 45 per year. Not bad, but I wish I had written more and written better.

2. With my recent posts about the Canadian Election (see sidebar for a complete list), my hits from Google have gone way up. Most people have been searching for information on Stephen Harper, particularly related to the Facebook Creeping fiasco. I pretty much tag Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff equally, so the fact that people aren’t arriving here by searching for Iggy makes me think a few things:

a) People don’t know anything substantial about Harper’s and the Tories’ (nonexistent) platform and are desperately searching for something. So desperately, that they’ll settle on whatever drek I have to offer.

b) People genuinely like Stephen Harper and are enthusiastically trying to collect as much as possible that’s been written about him. So enthusiastically, that they’ll settle on whatever drek I have to offer.

c) The RCMP is spying on me. No joke – this is a very real possibility.

In any event, that’s where we stand right now with this blog thing.
-J

Israel, Politics

My friend, my friend she lights the fuse

Israel, my troubled friend, it seems you never miss the opportunity to tug at my heart in opposite directions. This week, you simultaneously shoot yourself in one foot, while strapping on an attractive new Naot sandal on the other.

So you’re going to construct 1,000 new homes in East Jerusalem? I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. It’s certainly in keeping with the way you’ve been acting lately.

Though even when you punch me in the gut like that, with your other hand you lift me up and caress my tear-streamed cheek. Yesterday it was announced that a group of prominent Israelis, including former chiefs of the IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet, are presenting a new straightforward peace plan, based in part on the Arab Peace Initiative. It seems this group of Israelis also intends to rile up support among the Israeli populous and push the government to act upon the plan.

At the end of the day, as complex and confounding as the Israeli/Palestinian situation may be, it can also be remarkably simple, at least for those who want Israel to exist as a respected Jewish Democracy. Watch the creatively produced video above for some insight along those lines.

The new Israeli peace plan could fail. It probably will. But hope is always better than despair. Sentiments too corny? Fair enough. For the emotionally detached, just watch the video above and root your opinion in the fast-approaching demographic reality.

Canada, Politics

“The middle of the road is only good for horse shit”

That’s funny. And often true. And it makes for a great headline.

More often than not, the status quo sucks, I believe.

It’s been a busy few days on the election-front, so on that note and in lieu of addressing some of the specific campaign promises being made by the parties, I want to stop and do some big-picture wondering.

I’m wondering right now as to what qualifies for middle of the road in Canada these days?

It’s a clichéd truism that governments campaign to the left and right of their party lines, but govern from the centre. To be sure, whatever governing Stephen Harper’s been doing these past few years, it has definitely at times felt to me like we’ve been dragged waist-deep through a pile of horse dung. Or is that Grade-A Canadian moose dung?

If the past five years have been reflective of Canadian centrism, then I want nothing of it.

What can we assume “Middle of the Road Canada” to be? Is there even such a thing? If there is, is it a good thing? Is it something like Middle-America? Turns out the exact middle of Canada is somewhere near Arviat, Nunavut, and my guess is that not a lot of electoral attention is being focused there. So is there an “average” Canadian that the parties are trying to appeal to?

I don’t think so. Sure, polling data suggests certain tactics, phrases, and campaign styles that resonate with the electorate, but that doesn’t mean there’s a singular typical voter.

I don’t think there’s a true “Middle of the Road Canada,” or a “Middle of the Road Canadian.” But there is a status quo and there are those that perpetuate it. I recently lamented that there’s been a dearth of inspiring Canadians as of late. I still think this is so. But we are still the country that gave the world insulin, the telephone, duct tape, walkie-talkies, Standard Time, and Superman, dammit! These things didn’t come about from embracing the status-quo or moseying on down the middle of the road (covered in shit, no less!).

The only “Middle of the Road Canada” that exists, I believe, is one where little gets done, boringness is a virtue, and apathy reigns supreme. Sound familiar? The “Middle of the Road Canadian,” then, is that apathetic voter (or non-voter, as it very well may be) that keeps this status quo churning. Little surprise, then, that the Conservatives are appealing exactly to this sentiment: Harper’s primary fear-based campaign tactic is indeed one of the necessity to “stay the course”.

I’m tired of staying the course. Staying the course means we get to keep on trudging through a pile of steaming horse shit. Staying the course means it’s less likely we’ll come up with the next insulin, the next duct tape, or the next Superman. Props do go to Jim Balsillie for proving the exception when it comes to the next telephone. But it’s a boring phone, and is still number five…

So right now, I’m interesting in finding which political party is doing its best to keep us out of the shit-covered middle of the road:

Harper’s Tories (sans platform) are running a locked-down, uninspiring campaign that has not yet presented any bold new ideas for Canada or Canadians.

Ignatieff’s Liberals, in their platform launched today (more on that, soon), have indeed presented some bold new ideas and governing policies.

And Layton’s NDP (no platform from them yet) are maintaining their own internal status quo.

It’s only a week and a half into the election and I haven’t cast my vote yet. I haven’t yet evaluated the parties on fully equal ground, since it’s only the Libs who have put out a platform (which says something in and of itself).

But if you’re planning your trip down the not so metaphorical Trans-Canada Highway, it’s often beneficial to take a look at a map before you leave. And right now, the Conservatives’ map is just going to get Canadians dragged through a whole load of horse shit again. The NDP’s map – as spiffy and Web 2.0 as it may be – has a tendency to malfunction, and I don’t particularly want to get lost in Biggar, Saskatchewan.

Right now – at this point in the campaign – if you’re judging by how much shit you want to avoid on your journey – which seems as good a reason as any to pass judgement – it’s the Liberals that have the best roadmap for Canada.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. These guys do. And so do these. And hey, even these guys kind of do (but probably not for long).

As an aside, a wise musician friend of mine once laid some wisdom on me with a charge to remember that “what you think is the status quo is always changing.”

So I will not be so myopic as to mark my ballot yet. Lord knows the Grits have been covered in their share of horse shit over the years. But at this point, it is getting easier to see where my big “X” might go.