01 December 2011

"Up with the Bonnet!"

While waiting to cross a Brooklyn avenue this morning after dropping my kid off at school, I noticed a public/private city bus, segregated, carrying Hasidic Jews to work in the city.  Women in the back, men in the front.  On this bus, the separate seating was hidden by ads on the windows, encouraging the purchase of kosher food products.  Segregated buses in the United States--now how do you like that?  Why, the only other place where Jews can be forced to ride separately is in Israel, where, ironically or not, we're meant to be "a free people in our land" as the anthem goes. 

Rosa Parks, an African American heroine who helped anchor the Reverend Martin Luther King's Montgomery Bus Boycott nearly 60 years ago, would find such seating rather amusing, to say the least.  And so would the vast majority of American Jews who identify with what a great gift of freedom the United States represents for all people who decide to call this place home--including millions of Jews, who have settled here for more than 350 years. 

Freedom, as we surely know from the Torah, is never free.  No sooner than a mere couple of months following their Exodus from slavery were the Children of Israel gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, ready to receive the Law--the price one pays in order to enjoy one's freedom.  The lesson here, told for centuries, is that freedom is a privilege with obligations to one's neighbor and even obligations to oneself.  Total freedom is anarchy.  One is not allowed to steal and kill--at least without the Law enforcing covenantally agreed upon consequences.

What has become painfully clear, however, over the past several years, is that under the current Israeli government, Jewish freedom is being called into question. The government is attempting to curtail free speech when that speech is critical of the government; it allows foreign money to support the establishment of settlements in Palestinian territories but attempts to forbid foreign money from supporting Jews who support Palestinian rights; it heavily subsidizing the Haredi yeshiva world, shielding it from fully entering the work-force, while cutting subsidies for student housing and university faculty development for the predominantly secular lower and middle class. 

Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, mocks with impunity the President of the United States and his Jewish advisers and allows one of the world's most famous chauvinists, Avigdor Lieberman, to remain in his cabinet, offering quote after quote of gravely embarrassing and often bigoted statements to stand without any meaningful repercussions. 

Thanks to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, who shares recent videos produced by Lieberman's Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, encouraging Israeli Jews to return to Israel because of Christmas.  Notwithstanding that one of the nicest Christmas Eve's I ever spent was following a bunch of American army troops on leave as they wound their way through the Old City, church hopping (with hundreds of Israeli Jews who took advantage of the free and beautiful choral music all night long) and singing songs, I hardly think that Christmas is keeping Israelis in America.

Israeli political dysfunction is. 

I don't know a single serious person who believes that the parliamentary system works; that the political leadership is getting it right; that thinks (even beyond the wrenching security questions Israel justifiably deals with locally and regionally on an hourly basis--and I'm with you on this Bibi) the country is generally headed in the *right* direction.  And that goes for most of the Israelis that I know that are living in the United States precisely because they see much of the democracy as broken; the university system as eviscerated; the public education system in disarray; and a vocal but paralyzed government overly beholden to Haredim and Settlers. 

Yesterday while walking from the Upper West Side to the Village, I came across dozens of Israelis who were visiting and engaging in the Israeli Olympic sport of Shopping.  And on more than one occasion, enjoying very much the opportunity to mingle with New Yorkers of every race, color, shape and size, posing in front of holiday decorations, bumping into one another in the cross walks, and waiting patiently as the NYPD readied public streets for the arrival of President Obama, who consistently outpolls Bibi Netanyahu in terms favorability among American Jews. 

Fancy that. 

In 2008, President Obama received approximately 78% of the Jewish vote; and while support may have eroded in the last three years generally, no one believes that the number will fall below 70% in the upcoming election.  Unfortunately, for Prime Minister Netanyahu, he doesn't enjoy the same popularity among American Jews, primarily because his reputation for upholding a robust, even disagreeable and critical democracy for his own citizens, is in tatters.  He's greeted respectfully, we embrace him at public events, we continue to support Israel because we believe in, love, the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland.  But we wouldn't vote for him if he were running for Leader of the Jews.

Alas, Bibi and Avigdor continue to offend because they know, to a large degree, the fault lies with them.  Fix what's broken in your own house, brother, before you come blaming us for smiling at a little holiday cheer.

In the words of one you'd undoubtedly call a "self-hating Jew" (just as you did to Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod), I leave you with the immortal words of Philip Roth from Operation Shylock:
"God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin 'Easter Parade' and 'White Christmas.'  The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ--the divinity that's the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity--and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do?  He de-Christs them both!  Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas  into a holiday about snow.  Gone is the gore and the murder of Christ--down with the crucifix and up with the bonnet!"
Bibi:  Have a sense of humor; drop the schmaltzy yet ominous George Winston piano music from Lieberman's scary videos; and fix your troubled democracy.  

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