Israel, Judaism - Torah, Travel

Parashat Va’etchanan: Enduring and Faring Well in Israel

This is the d’var torah that I delivered this Shabbat at Kol Ami in Thornhill, Ontario.

The great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes the following words in one of his most famous poems, Tourists:

…Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker.

“You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

I must confess that when visiting new places, tourist attractions and cultural sites are not enough for me. I have taken a cue from Amichai’s impassioned charge in his poem. When traveling, I’m not content with the Disney World version of a place. I always feel as though I am missing out on something if I don’t get to peel back the layers of a society and try to understand the people I am seeing all around me. What are their values? What is the dominant public culture? What kind of government is chosen or enforced? How do people relate to each other? 

I’ve often also thought to myself: What would someone visiting Canada think are the guiding principles of our country? Earlier this summer, in what would prove to be an incredibly challenging time spent in Israel, I thought the same question: What would someone visiting Israel right now think are the guiding principles of the country?

As it happens – perhaps unsurprisingly – our own textual tradition has much to say about the guidelines and mores of establishing a functioning society. In the case of our ancestors the Israelites, these rules were remarkably detailed and covered all aspects of daily life. This Shabbat as we read parashat va’etchanan, we again encounter what is the most well known example of these rules – the aseret hadibrot – the Ten Commandments.

Now the idea of a societal legal code was not something new at the time of the Torah’s commandments. Certainly, the peoples of the Ancient Near East were already quite familiar with legal documents, including the idea of protecting such rights as human life, personal property, and familial relations. What was unique about our text – the text that would become the cornerstone of Jewish society and the foundation of much of Western Civilization – is that it framed a legal text in terms of a covenant with God. For us, establishing a moral, legal society is itself an expression of God’s will.

This Shabbat, I want to examine what I think is a unique and often overlooked aspect of our Ten Commandments, and God’s will within it. The fifth commandment reads:

כַּבֵּד אֶת אָבִיךָ וְאֶת אִמֶּךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיכֻן יָמֶיךָ וּלְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

“Honour your father and your mother, as Adonai your God has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, on the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” (D’varim 5:16)

This is the only commandment that specifically includes a justification or added benefit for the performance of the duty – we are to honour our parents, so that we may have a prosperous existence in the Land of Israel.

Now this is peculiar to many – why is this the only mitzvah to have a benefit attached? Aren’t they all fairly important? And why is this the benefit that is included. Why not “Honour your father and your mother so that you may have all your needs met”? or “…so that you may live a safe and healthy life”? Moreover, why is this particular mitzvah the one to receive the benefit? Would it not be more appropriate, perhaps, for this benefit to be included in the commandment more connected to our ritual observance of Shabbat? Or why not attach such a benefit to belief in God’s eternal singularity?

This commandment pushes us to consider: what is relevant about the attached benefit being related to the Land of Israel? This mitzvah beckons us to ask: what is the connection between honouring our parents, and enduring and thriving in the land?

 

I believe that here we find one of the Torah’s most salient examples of what kind of people we are meant to be. In this one commandment, a direct line is drawn between our moral behaviour and our very existence. Our Torah is made up of a very long journey to reach the Promised Land, and here we are told that our time in the Land is dependent upon the performance of one singular mitzvah. Not belief in God; not observance of Shabbat or kashrut; not the Holiness Code’s laws of ritual impurity. Our life in the Land of Israel is indeed predicated upon our fulfillment of this mitzvah – upon our honouring of our parents.

Indeed, in the Mishneh Torah, the commandment to honour one’s human parents is compared to honoring God, and the Talmud teaches that since there are three partners in the creation of a person (God and two parents), honour showed to parents is the same as honour shown to God. (BT Kiddushin 31)

According to the prophet Malachi, God is the very one who makes this analogy!

“A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honour due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 1:6)

But is God really just dangling a carrot in front of our faces with this commandment? Is life in Israel just a form of positive reinforcement to get us to observe mitzvot? I cannot believe this. I believe that we honour our mothers and fathers not in order to receive the reward of the Land of Israel; rather our sustainable existence in the Land of Israel is itself based upon our living a life of honouring. Our existence in Israel is based upon the creation of a just and moral society – one where we give honour to those who gave us life and raised us. As the performance of God’s mitzvot is an attempt to become closer to the Divine holiness, we can only truly thrive in the Land if we are ourselves as holy, as moral, and as just as we possibly may be.

One clue towards this idea is the location of this commandment itself. The first five are often understood as being בין אדם למקום (between a person and God), while the second five are בין אדם לחברו (between one person and another). But this one – the fifth Commandment – can be interpreted as belonging to both groups.

Our parasha this week asks us to consider – What are the guidelines and mores of establishing a thriving society? This remains a struggle for us today as much as it was for our Israelite ancestors. Every day, the modern State of Israel faces innumerable challenges in its efforts to be a moral, just, and hopefully a holy community. If our State of Israel is meant to be one where our people can long endure, where we can fare well, as we are clearly meant to do… it must be a society that continually strives to attain holiness; it must be a place that creates laws and legal codes in an attempt to bring about a more just and righteous existence. It must be a place where honour is given to each other – not merely out of hope for some divine reward, but because this is the path to creating a long enduring community.

I was considering these ideas yesterday while reading a poignant commentary by Israel’s prolific Rabbi Donniel Hartman. Writing about the ease with which Israelis optimistically tell each other “hakol b’seder” (everything is okay), he had this to say about Israel’s current state of affairs in its war against Hamas:

“Everything is not OK when in striking distance of most of our citizens lies a terrorist organization with a charter which calls for our death and with the means and the desire to terrorize half of Israel whenever they so will it. Everything is not OK when our only avenue for defeating them will entail an unacceptable amount of casualties on both sides.

Everything is not OK when the only way we can fight Hamas is at the expense of innocent non-combatants behind whom they take cover. Everything is not OK when the only deterrent at our disposal is to wreak havoc on their society. Everything is not OK when we are forced to impose a blockade, with its horrific humanitarian and economic costs, simply because we want to limit their access to missiles and explosives that will be aimed at our citizens.

The paradox of Israel is that the only way for us to be a Western society is for us to embrace some measure of instability along with “hakol b’seder.” The only way for us to be a Jewish society is to embrace our values despite the danger. Everything will never be OK. The challenge is what to do when one recognizes this.”

What are we to do? What is Israel to do? In an intriguing twist in the Torah, the earlier reading of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus only includes the line “that you may long endure on the land…” (Shemot 20:12), not yet receiving the idea in Deuteronomy that we “may long endure and fare well on the land.” Apparently there is a difference between mere endurance on one hand, and endurance coupled with faring well on the other.

I think this duality is at the heart of what Rabbi Hartman is writing about. Yes, Israel is blessed with the Iron Dome missile defence system, a powerful army, a strong democracy, and somehow an eternally optimistic people. Despite the dangers of war, we will long endure in the Land.

But can we endure without faring well? At what point do we begin to compromise so much that our endurance comes at the expense of our faring well? The progression of the Torah teaches us that endurance on its own is not good enough; we are meant not only to long endure, but to long endure and fare well.

Rabbi Hartman enjoins us to remember “the only way for [Israel] to be a Jewish society is to embrace our values despite the danger.” I believe for us, in our observance of the violence in Israel and Gaza; in our viewing of local and international media; in our conversations on Facebook and Twitter; it is often far too easy to consider only the danger. Far too often, we are preoccupied only with Israel’s endurance. But hidden just beneath this surface in our parasha this week is the powerful reminder that endurance alone is insufficient. Endurance must be coupled with faring well. Likewise, combating danger on its own is insufficient. We must also be concerned with the perpetual embracing of our values.

The connection between a righteous existence in Israel and honouring ones parents goes one level deeper. What do we mean when we say honour? The Hebrew word כַּבֵּד (ka-bed) comes from the same shoresh (root) as the Hebrew word כַּבֵד (ka-ved), meaning “heavy.” The only difference is a dot in the second letter. Our duty is a heavy one, and we must treat it with the gravity it demands.

Israel – Medinat and Am (State and People) – must remember this. I pray that those making decisions in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv read this week’s parasha and are reminded of the heaviness of this duality. I pray that we, too, do not forget this powerful charge in our relationships with Israel. Yes, we should read and watch the news with a keen eye. We should share commentary and media online. We should dialogue with friends and colleagues. But our goals should not be limited to endurance. This Shabbat, may we now and always direct ourselves towards an existence in which we long endure, and in which we fare well with each other.

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Israel

Talking about Gaza, Held by the Balls and Throat

Writing before the outbreak of the current war with Hamas in Gaza, Israeli author Ari Shavit had the following to say:

I am haunted by the notion that we hold them by the balls and they hold us by the throat. We squeeze and they squeeze back. We are trapped by them and they are trapped by us. And every few years the conflict takes on a new form, ever more gruesome. Every few years, the mode of violence changes The tragedy ends one chapter and begins another, but the tragedy never ends.

My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit (pg. 236)

It seems to me that much of the writing and commentary about the current war between Hamas and Israel seems to follow this pattern as well. One group of people make their statements, while the others respond with an oppositional view. We yell back and forth, squeezing each other in a cycle of fruitless argumentation that is only aggravated by the proliferation of the “Share on Facebook” button. I myself, stand guilty as charged.

As such, it is not my goal at this point to add any new political, military, or ethical commentary on the fighting. After nearly a month of physical violence, I have accumulated so much commentary in my head that I fear we will soon reach a critical mass and most will simply choose to tune out the background noise of the rocket fire, the drone strikes, and the exploding booby-trapped schools.

Rather, I wish to note the emerging pattern of commentary that can be found online, in print, and on television new. It seems to me that those who wade into discussions/commentary/yelling about the war largely (almost exclusively) tend to base their arguments on one of five general paradigms. I outline them below, noting the key features, providing examples, and noting how they risk contributing to the downfall of meaningful engagement and understanding. At close, I’ll offer a suggestion of how we might further advance our conversations.

 

1. The “My-Side vs. Your-Side” perspective

Unsurprisingly, this tends to be the most common approach to talking about Gaza/Israel. See all the media coming out of the IDF’s social media outlets, and all those who gratuitously repost everything on Facebook. Ditto for those lambasting Israel at every opportunity on op-ed pages around the world. Ditto for those lumping all Palestinians in with Hamas. We’ve reached the age where 140 characters isn’t enough, you can now follow a war on Instagram.

Those who write from this paradigm are essentially cheerleaders trying to drown out the noise from the opposing team. Unwilling to hear or understand the viewpoint of others, these people troll through the comment sections of website, spewing out tired talking-points and ad-hominem attacks. They thrive in the echo-chambers of Facebook walls, and contribute no real substance to the conversation.

 

2. The “Must be understood in context of the larger Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” perspective.

See David Grossman’s An Israel Without Illusions and Roger Cohen’s Zionism and its Discontents for two excellent examples of how it is impossible to divorce this current conflict from the wider state of affairs between Israelis and Palestinians.

Those who write from this paradigm attempt to explain the circumstances of this war in Gaza in light of those operations in 2009 and 2012, how the unresolved conflict between Israel and Palestine fuels the current state of affairs, what Israel’s role is in this context, and how in truth these are not separate stories, but one large story.

It seems to me that while those who write from this paradigm are correct to search for a larger unifying narrative, this approach often minimizes the degree of Hamas’s culpability at the expense of crafting a neater, tidier story-arc. This approach tends to place most focus on the longer story of Israel and the Palestinians, with less focus on the more recent arrival of Hamas on the scene.

 

3. The “Must be understood in context of a more regional geo-political perspective” perspective

See David Brooks’ excellent piece, No War is an Island for an example of this concept. Those who write from this paradigm are not merely content with a localized, Israeli-Palestinian context for explaining this war. Instead, they turn to the wider Middle East, with particular attention paid to divisions within the Sunni-Islam world. Comments are frequently made on the states of relationship between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel.

This approach is crucial, as it explores over a century of history which plays a vital role in understanding the various nodes of conflict that have emerged. Yet as with the previous paradigm, it seems to me this perspective risks shifting its focus so wide, that it almost completely misses out on the human cost when it comes to civilian deaths in Gaza and impact on civilian life in Israel. When speaking of international Sunni relationships, it is far too easy to lose sight of the individual lives which are touched and lost in this war.

 

4. The “Moral Equivalency” perspective (which itself has two sub-paradigms):

a. The “All death is immoral, and all parties are equally culpable” perspective:

For those with this viewpoint, the only measure of morality (or immorality, as it were) in war is the rising death toll. Death = bad. From this vantage point, no nuance or context is possible, as the value of human life is reduced to a mathematical equation. The war is simplistically reduced to infographics (I’m looking at you, New York Times), and it becomes conviniently “easy” to make arguments without any wider context. “Israel and Hamas are both causing death, ergo Israel & Hamas are equally bad,” goes this argument, and it is easy to feel as though one has made a morally sound comment on the war. However, this perspective ignores its partner…

b. The “There is no moral equivalency between Hamas and Israel” perspective:

This is also known as the The “Hamas’ intentions are immoral in that they intentionally target civilians, while Israel’s intentions are moral in that they don’t” perspective. Those speaking in this light are right to make a moral distinction between Israel’s and Hamas’s modus operandi, however I find that this viewpoint often becomes a barrier to further conversation. For these interlocutors, it is as if the fact that Hamas is a murderous terrorist organization while Israel is (for now) a (reasonably) liberal democracy exempts Israel from any culpability whatsoever for its actions in war.

This perspective takes a step in the right direction by making a nuanced moral distinction, yet misses the mark by not extending that distinction to the continued actions of Israel and Hamas.

Some of those speaking from this viewpoint also make the poignant argument that many criticizing Israel have been conspicuously morally silent when it comes to other wars in the middle east (cough, cough… Syria). See Chloe Valdary’s punchy piece in Tablet, To the Students for Justice in Palestine, a Letter from an Angry Black Woman, which calls out the smug sententiousness of many who have waded into this conflict.

 

5. The “We must dialogue with each other AND try to ask questions to better understand what is going on” perspective

This includes internal conversations amongst Israelis, Zionists, and/or Jews (these are not all the same!), and Palestinians and Arabs (also not the same!); as well as conversations across religious/ethnic/ideological boundaries. Makom is leading the way on the Israel-centric side of this paradigm, with their question-based curriculum exploring ideas of peoplehood, power, and responsibility.

From an educational perspective, this approach is certainly the most worthy, as it encourages critical thinking and nuance in an attempt to engage people in a deeper and less superficial way. That said, as it is a value-based approach, it risks missing out on the historical context and real-world implications of daily life in Gaza and Israel. In truth, it is often more focused on the opinions and egos of the observers, rather than on the realities of the war itself.

 

There is quasi-sixth perspective –  the one which states: “I am sick and tired of the fighting. Why can’t they just get along with each other?” This is also known as the “crunchy-granola, hippy-dippy” perspective. Sometimes those with more hawkish viewpoints will pejoratively call this perspective “naive.” In any event, those holding this viewpoint are largely apathetic to the realities of the war in Gaza and Israel and don’t really have any meaningful engagement in the conversation. They can and should be invited in, however they aren’t contributing to the “noise” out there, and as such there is not much else to say about them here.

 


 

A solution?

I would argue that any writing or conversation about this war which does not begin with an understanding that the stated objectives of Hamas and Israel are on entirely different moral grounds leaves little room for continued conversation. Any conscionable person must acknowledge that Hamas aims first and foremost to murder innocent Jews and Israelis.

That said, the conversation must not stop there. It is not enough to say that Hamas are terrorists and Israel is a democracy. This may be true, but it does not make a cogent argument. We must continue the conversation.

Without an understanding of how this war does not exist in a historical vacuum and must be understood both in light of the two previous Gaza wars/operations, as well as in light of wider regional conflicts, it is challenging to say anything of critical value. We must not ignore larger narratives that continue to play a very real role in unfolding events.

But we must not extend our perspective so far as to lose sight of the very real human element. The conversation must not be limited to a cold geopolitical analysis.

Humans must not be reduced to numbers and infographics. Conversations should include a deeper understanding of the very-real human tolls both in Gaza and in Israel; tolls which manifest themselves in very different ways.

With a balanced understanding of history and humanity, we can honestly begin to consider moral implications. Any argument absent of the previous components heavily risks coming off as moralizing from a standpoint of unfounded superiority. And while it is easy to argue that Hamas and Israel stand on entirely different moral grounds, any commentary which ignores questions of the moral implications of Israel’s actions is also missing a significant component of the story. In our commentaries and conversations, no party should be permitted to act with impunity.

It is woeful and egregious that very little commentary – certainly of the kind that pervades Facebook and Twitter as of late – honours the complexity of this situation. The current state of conversation serves mostly to push most people away from having any meaningful understanding of the events.

Whether by reducing humans to numbers and statistics, or by reducing questions of morality to terrorism vs. democracy, we are not allowing room for real critical knowledge. We are lying by omission.

Anyone who makes the choice to wade into this situation – either from the pulpit of the New York Times; from the echo chambers of Facebook; or from WordPress, that bastion of democratic writing  – bears responsibility for the outcome of their words.

We must choose our words carefully, allowing room for emotion, but not in the absence of context and history. And we must be careful not to choose one history over another. Too often, we are missing an understanding that the topic of our conversations is that of very real human lives.

Absent a more just and honest framework, all we continue to do is grasp each other by the balls and throat, squeezing back and forth in an endless cycle. In our own way, we are contributing to this never-ending tragedy.

Israel, Living in Jerusalem

This is About as Amateur Anthropology as you can Possibly Get

One of the highlights of this year living in Israel has been the Israel Seminar that takes place all day every Wednesday. In this class, we are engaged in the continual process of peeling back the layers of Israeli society, politics, history, and culture. As part of this class, I was recently sent with a team of fellow students out into the field to interview Israelis about their thoughts on local and national issues of importance.

Early in the morning a couple weeks ago, we boarded the train, taking the same route that the Ottomans used over a century ago to get to Jerusalem. We travelled to Beit Shemesh – a city about 30 km from Jerusalem – which over the past decade has been the focal point of tensions surrounding gender issues, immigrant rights, political corruption, and the relationship between Haredim and secular Jews.

Our goal was simple – speak with a diversity of people, ask them questions about their thoughts on the pressing issues of the day, and get it all on film. As our instructor slyly put it, “this is about as amateur anthropology as you can possibly get.”

You can watch our sheepish attempt at amateur anthropology (in Hebrew) up top. I’m working on getting English subtitles soon.

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.

Israel, Journalism, Living in Jerusalem

And Though The News Was Rather Sad

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Yesterday, we were learning with Dr. Paul Frosh, Professor of Communications at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. We were discussing Israeli media coverage of Second Intifada terrorism, and the media’s role in constructing a national identity around the conflict. He introduced us to his thesis that Israeli news media has the ability to create “civic and national solidarity through… depictions of catastrophic events (especially terrorist attacks).” In Israel, television news has the ability (either inherently or deliberately) to bring people directly into events, addressing them (us?) in a way that assumes they (we?) are a part of the story from the very beginning. We were asked to question how nationhood in Israel is built and reinforced through coverage of collective trauma.

Interesting concepts for a group of North Americans who have little-to-no connection to collective trauma. I asked myself: “In the intersection between traumatic events and the discourse prompted by news outlets, is there a parallel in Canadian society?” I cannot think of any. Those who accuse Canada of being a boring place may be blissfully right in this respect. Things are pretty quiet in the Great White North.

So I moved to thinking about American society. Of course, the immediate inclination is to hold up news coverage of 9/11 as the obvious American mirror to Israel. But I would actually argue that this is not an exact parallel; it’s more of a simulacrum. While the news coverage of 9/11 depicted trauma on a national scale, it was a singular event. While the event remains a touchstone of supreme importance, after a while the story – at least on a national level – was able to be “wrapped.” Contrast this to Israel, where coverage of intifada terrorism never truly wrapped up; you can hear this in the language of newscasters at the time, who opened their broadcasts with phrases like “This time, it happened…”and “A particularly bad day of attacks.”

So is there a more direct parallel in American society, and if so, what are we to make of it; how can it help us understand the intersection between media and trauma?

I think the closest phenomena you can get to in the United States is mass shootings. While the spate of shootings in recent history are not as common as terror attacks in Israel, they are more frequent than you’d think, with the death toll often higher than in past suicide bombings. In their coverage, many news outlets have used language similar to that of the Israelis, establishing a patchwork connection between attacks. It’s actually gotten to the point where officials are searching for new language just to describe such shootings:

“The growing number of mass killings over the past five years left the country in search of a term that would distinguish mass murder by gun from those using other weapons.”- Huffington Post

And yet, outside of anti-gun advocacy groups, there does not appear to be a narrative on a national scale linking these events together through the media. While dismay is certainly conveyed at another attack, most appear to be treated as tragic, local events (with notable exceptions such as Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook – though I would argue this is due to the unique child-oriented character of each trauma). I’m curious as to why there is no national trauma evoked at the senseless murder of American citizens and subsequent ongoing national conversation. Shouldn’t there be?

Traumatically, mass shootings in America and terrorist attacks in Israel appear different, as the motives behind the attacks are not the same. In America, they are not necessarily directed at a population solely based on their collective identity. But should this negate a collective response on a national scale? Couldn’t American news media adopt a sense of national responsibility and direct itself towards mobilizing responsible civic nationhood?

Ultimately, the question we were presented with by Dr. Frosh – and the one which I believe should be directed towards the leading American national newsrooms – is this: How does a country comes to discuss with itself how to move past trauma? In Israel, this has meant searching for ways to overcome the national trauma of terrorism and move forwards in support of peace negotiations.

In America, this question is different, since the discourse is not yet taking place in a substantial way on a national scale. America needs to ask itself: How do we discuss with ourselves how to respond to a gun-oriented culture that makes mass shootings possible?

As Dr. Frosh argued, the ability for a country to have a national conversation is built upon a great deal of national consciousness. Without the ability to consider or express these concepts, the trauma can’t be dealt with. As a result, America is bleeding-out from thousands of open gun wounds.

Canada, Israel

Stephen Harper’s Canada: Israel’s Cheerleader

Originally published at The Times of Israel.
Photo Credit: Prime Minister of Canada
Photo Credit: Government of Canada

There is an apocryphal story that in the 1980s, when my High School was built, they were offered a million dollar choice by the Board of Education. The school was to receive $1,000,000 earmarked for one of two options: either the school could finance a football team, or they could landscape the entire property for decades to come. The two towering maple trees in the school’s atrium attest to their choice.

As a result, I’ve never really been acquainted with the institution of cheerleading. Lacking a football team at school, we had no cheerleaders. My university’s mascot – the Yeoman – didn’t really lend itself to a popular cadre of cheerleaders (though York’s women’s sports teams were somehow referred to as “yeowomen”). And they are (thankfully) mostly absent from professional hockey.

That said, I’ve recently been introduced to a new type of cheerleader. This is particularly fortuitous given the upcoming Super Bowl. As the lone Canadian at my school in Jerusalem, I have needed to brush up on some NFL particulars. Thanks to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, I’m now up to date on what it means to be a cheerleader.

Harper’s recent visit to Israel has been something of an anomaly to me. With US Secretary of State John Kerry conducting monthly shuttle diplomacy here, the US-brokered nuclear talks in Iran, and a daily focus on America’s lack of involvement in the situations in Syria and Egypt, it has been a largely American-centric year here in foreign affairs news.

Then all of a sudden, and with great fanfare, the streets of Jerusalem were draped with Canadian flags, welcome signs were rolled out at the hotels, and an entourage of 220 Canadians arrived in Jerusalem accompanying  Prime Minister Harper on his first official visit to the country. (For those interested in the intricacies of foreign relations, Google has informed me that 220 Canadians works out to approximately 198.79 Americans.)

But Harper’s speech before the Knesset, along with the messaging of his entire trip was largely nothing new. It lacked nuance, gave scant attention to Israeli-Palestinian relations, did nothing to advance Canada’s role as an international peace broker, and left little room for growth in this international relationship. Harper wanted Israel and the entire world to know how much Canada loves Israel, how we’re the best of friends, and how nothing can tear us asunder.

Yes, it was nice to hear about the deeply ingrained mutual respect our countries have for each other. Yes, it was wonderful to hear Israel spoken of in such a positive light from a foreign dignitary. Yes, it was exciting to hear my home and native land spoken of so highly from abroad. The Israeli press ate up the entire week-long spectacle, with Harper repeatedly gracing the front-pages of Israeli dailies. People were fawning over Canada. As the token Canadian amongst my circles, I suddenly became the expert on all-things Canada.

But something was missing. Depth. Nuance. Relevance.

I found Harper to be  mostly superficial in his description of the substance of Canada’s relationship with Israel. Couched in language of “light vs. dark,” “fire and water” and “good vs. evil,” Harper presented a rather simplistic understanding of Israel and the Middle East. It lacked the complexity, depth, and nuance that one would expect from a supposed international leader when it comes to supporting Israel. Jeffery Simpson, at the Globe and Mail, observed this about Harper’s worldview when it comes to Israel and the Middle East:

[It] leaves no room for nuance, balance or understanding of complexity, just a dualistic clash between good and evil, progress and darkness, stability and danger. Of course, this is not how other Western countries behave in the Middle East, including those who strongly support Israel. But it is now Canada’s way.

That said, there is room for someone who has this paradigm. There is a place for this type of player on the international stage. We need look no further than the upcoming Super Bowl for the model of this figure par excellence: The Cheerleader.

The entire worldview of the cheerleader is limited to two and only two potential outcomes: a win or a loss. What cheerleaders want most of all – more than dialogue, more than depth, more than nuance, more than constructive discussion, more than engaging international activism – is for their side to win. Yes, there is a role for the cheerleader, but it is not one of great substance.

Photo Credit: Government of Canada
Photo Credit: Government of Canada

Harper’s Mideast is a football game, with Canada newly enshrined as Israel’s cheerleader, jumping around wildly on the sidelines. Yes, there is certainly a role for the cheerleader, but it is confined to the sidelines.

Harper offered no substantial commentary on the main issues confronting Israeli society today that Canada might play a role in. Little of consequence was said about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the African refugee crisis in Israel, matters of religious pluralism, or environmental crises facing the country.

The sad reality facing Harper was not missed here in Israel. Ha’aretz noted this, with a steely grasp of the ultimate reality 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.

Harper’s love for Israel may come from the depths of his gut. It may be a very real and true part of his identity and what he wants Canada to reflect. But in viewing Israel and the Middle East as a football match, with a zero-sum outcome of a win vs. a loss, Harper has overestimated Canada’s role. We are not the Quarter Back. We are no longer the internationally respected honest brokers of peace. Instead, Canada is dancing wildly from the sidelines, cheering and screaming, yet somehow inexplicably feeling as though we’re contributing to the outcome of the game.

Stephen Harper seems to have forgotten that cheerleaders don’t get to win the Super Bowl.

Judaism - Torah

Parashat Vayishlach: Searching for the Vanished Jacob

This is the sermon that I delivered this Shabbat at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem. It was my first of the year, and my first official d’var torah at Rabbinical School.

“Don’t you see how many of us there are, and there’s only two of you‽”

Thirteen years ago, late in the afternoon of a cool autumn day, I was waiting at a bus stop with a friend. A large group of teenagers approached us, asking if they could borrow some money. All that was in my pocket was an empty wallet and bus tickets. I said I didn’t have any cash. “Don’t you see how many of us there are, and there’s only two of you‽” Within seconds, my friend was on the ground, being kicked and beaten, and I was running for help from nearby strangers.

In the aftermath, there were some who thought it unbelievable that I ran, instead of staying to defend my friend. At times, I had my own guilt about the situation. But I was reassured that my reaction was the normal, human response to the situation, and very well could have saved us from more harm.

In 1932, Walter Bradford Cannon, an American Physiologist, coined the term “fight or flight response,” to describe the physiological reaction that occurs in response to perceived harmful events or threats to survival. This is our body’s way of protecting us when it senses danger. We give ourselves over to something more powerful than our consciousness to hopefully emerge safely.

This Shabbat, we read: “לו וַיֵּצֶר ,מְאֹד יַעֲקֹב וַיִּירָא – Jacob was greatly frightened and anxious”[1] and “לְבַדּו יַעֲקֹב וַיִּוָּתֵר – And Jacob was alone.”[2]

Confronted with an approaching force of 400 men sent by Esau who had vowed to kill him,[3] what does Jacob do? He splits his camp in two to protect his family,[4] sends envoys to Esau,[5] and prays to God for protection.[6] He doesn’t flee, nor does he prepare to fight. Perhaps, Jacob isn’t the wisest person.

We can forgive Jacob for not being familiar with the body’s Autonomic Nervous System, but how are we to understand his reaction to his fear and loneliness? This isn’t just a frightening situation that confronts Jacob; it is a dilemma of existential proportions. And there is a significant difference between fear and existential dread. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches:

A [moral] dilemma is not simply a conflict. There are many moral conflicts. [But] these questions have answers. There is a right course of action and a wrong one… A dilemma, however, is a situation in which there is no right answer… A moral system which leaves room for the existence of dilemmas is one that does not attempt to eliminate the complexities of the moral life… Judaism recognises the existence of dilemmas… we may be faced with situations in which there is an ineliminable cause for distress.[7]

Certainly, there are moral complexities confronting Jacob. He is faced with a potentially violent standoff against Esau, yet he wants to reconcile and make peace with his brother. Rashi teaches that the Torah says Jacob was both frightened and anxious to evoke the dread that Jacob must be feeling: frightened that he might be killed, and anxious that he might have to kill others.[8] Rabbi Jacob bar Idi, an Amoraic sage, elucidates this dilemma, noting that in his stunning vision of the ladder, Jacob was promised by God that his offspring would be as numerous as the dust of the earth and the sand in the sea,[9] but now he faces potential death and the destruction of that promise.[10]

How does Jacob reconcile this existential dilemma?

We read that as part of Jacob’s peace overtures, he sends messengers to Esau with messages of reconciliation. But the Torah’s word for messengers – מלאכים – may also be read as “angels”. The Rambam suggests that as angels are non-corporeal beings, they can be understood more broadly to refer to other non-corporeal phenomena, such as human intelligence and intellect.[11] The very name of this parasha, וישלח (and he dispatched / and he sent out), conveys the idea that when assessing and dealing with a potentially life-altering challenge, we must dispatch our own “non-corporeal” beings – such as intelligence and intellect.

Defying an instinctual fight or flight reaction, Jacob hatches an ingenious plan. Hopeful that peace will be reached, he is also pragmatic and protects his family – and through them, the realization of God’s promise. Jacob’s actions are a model of how to avoid reactionary extremism, and use our intellect to overcome existential dilemmas.

We know that Jacob’s life is one of great struggle. Many look up to him as a leader and father, but he is a complex man who spends much of his life searching for things seemingly out of his grasp. To be sure, struggle is something that is baked into Jacob’s essence from his time in Rebecca’s womb. He physically struggles with his brother even before they are born. He struggles for a birthright. For his father’s love. For a wife. With an angel of God. He struggles for his distant son. Jacob is not a comfortable man.

Rabbi Levi Lauer, Director of the Israeli human rights organization, Atzum, teaches us that in fact, “Comfort is not a Jewish value.”[12] While too much fear, struggle, and discomfort may be debilitating, these can also be forces of good when they keep us safe, when they expand our horizons, and when they open the doors to new journeys, as in Jacob’s story.

Jacob’s story is not the first in the Tanakh of a volatile, discomforting conflict between brothers. Nor is it the last. But his is one which offers a compelling vision of how to reconcile an existential dilemma of two competing truths. When the lines between good and evil are not black and white, Jacob forges a pragmatic, centrist path that avoids both idealistic naiveté as well as a hard-line, extremist reaction. His is a solution that results in life renewed.

We should know that this centrist approach has deep roots in Jewish spirituality. The kabbalistic teaching of tikkun olam is not merely a social-justice, “feel good” philosophy. It is an expansive cosmology, which teaches that at the beginning of creation, the world was in a spiritual state of chaos, called Tohu. This state of existence was full of Divine light and energy, but lacked balance and order, and ultimately collapsed in on itself in a cosmic shattering. But this collapse was part of a Divine order so that our universe could be rebuilt through humanity’s fixing of this shattering – through tikkun.

Rabbi Yanki Tauber teaches that “the Kabbalists see Jacob and Esau as the embodiment of this cosmic twinship.[13] Esau is the chaotic energy of Tohu, while Jacob represents the opportunity for tikkun. The challenge is to bring together these twins and the forces they represent. As Rabbi Tauber argues:

The struggle to achieve this synergy is the life-history of the biblical twins, and the essence of human history as a whole. Esau and Jacob emerge from the same womb (where they were already fighting), and the rest of their lives is defined by the effort to bring them back together.

The quest to unite Esau’s Tohu and Jacob’s tikkun continues today. On a daily basis, we are confronted with realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To be sure, this is a struggle based on an almost familial relationship. Israel – like Jacob – is faced with two competing truths. One the one hand, we long to heed the Psalmist’s call: “ורדפהו שלום בּקש” – seek peace and pursue it,[14] yet at the same time, Israel cannot be naïve about the threatening realities of life in this neighbourhood.

Can we turn to Jacob, the primordial political centrist, for some wisdom? Yossi Klein Halevi makes the case for such a paradigm. In a recent article, he writes:

I am looking for the vanished Israel. To be an Israeli is not like being a centrist in any other political context. There is nothing wishy-washy about being an Israeli centrist. An Israeli centrist embraces two strong, diametrically opposed conclusions about the Palestinian problem. One is that a Palestinian state is an existential need for Israel, and the other is that a Palestinian state is an existential threat for Israel. That’s what it means to be an Israeli centrist… I see the emergence of a political center as an expression of Israeli maturity.”[15]

Klein Halevi’s moral charge is made all the more powerful when we read it keeping in mind Jacob’s other name. Klein Halevi isn’t just looking for the vanished Israel; he’s looking for the vanished Jacob, searching for a solution to a moral dilemma that stretches back thousands of years into the womb of our history as two peoples. Just as Jacob matured through his pragmatic, centrist approach to reconciling with Esau, Israel must mature through a similar paradigm.

There is a Chassidic teaching that Jacob’s name change to Israel marked this point of maturation from a childhood of struggle and strife to a more harmonious realization of his relationship with God. But this is also a mystery: even after he is named Israel, Jacob continues to be Jacob. The Torah continues to use his old name throughout the rest of his life.[16]

Leonard Fine, the preeminent MIT, Harvard and Brandeis professor, and profound Reform thinker, questions this peculiarity in the text: “How is it that Jacob, who is twice told that his name has been changed to ‘Israel,’ continues to be remembered in our liturgy by his former name?[17]

It is a simple truth, yet often forgotten: when we pray the Amidah, we refer to “Elohei Ya’akov,” not “Elohei Yisrael.” I believe this seeming inconsistency recognizes the profound truth that Jacob continues to struggle and wrestle, even after he is transformed into Israel.

This remains true for us in our day, as well. As residents of Jerusalem, we don’t have to search far for cases where it appears that Israel has forgotten itself and is acting like the old Jacob. But can we look inward as well, and see the same struggle in ourselves? Certainly, Jacob did. HUC Professor Norman Cohen suggests that Jacob “was conscious of all the different forces in his life with which he struggled: God, Esau, the side of himself that haunted him like a shadow,” and that these forces manifest together as the being with whom he wrestled.[18]

So let us learn from Jacob – from Israel – someone with whom we can identify. Someone whom, as Rabbi Sacks notes: “…we understand. We can feel his fear, understand his pain…[19]

We are all Jacob, struggling to find the holy space between the chaos of Tohu and the reconciliation of tikkun. When Jacob himself first finds that place, the Torah says “the sun shone on him.”[20] Rashi teaches poetically that this refers to the process of healing that was beginning to take place. So may we continue to search for the vanished Jacob, for his healing, and for the holy space between Tohu and tikkun.


[1] Gen. 32:8
[2] Gen. 32:25
[3] Gen. 32:7
[4] Gen. 32:8-9
[5] Gen. 32:14-22
[6] Gen. 32-12
[7] www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-vayishlach-fear-or-distress
[8] Based on Gen. R. 76:2
[9] Gen. 28: 14-15, 32:13
[10] BT Berakhot: 41
[11] Maimonides, Moses: Guide to the Perplexed (2:10)
[12] As quoted by Rabbi Avi Orlow: http://www.saidtomyself.com/2012/11/30/achilles-heel
[13] http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/35866/jewish/The-Cosmic-Twins
[14] Ps. 34:15
[15] http://www.haaretz.com/culture/.premium-1.553443
[16] http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/246640/jewish/Double-Identity
[17] http://www.reformjudaism.org/welcome-questions
[18] Cohen, Norman J.: Voices from Genesis. Vermont: Jewish Lights, 1998. Pp 125.
[19] www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5772-vayishlach-the-jewish-journey
[20] Gen. 32:32