26 February 2015

Knock It Off

Over one month ago I attempted, in a measured tone, to caution against the rising tensions in the relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama--most immediately in connection to Speaker Boehner's invitation to Bibi to address the U.S. Congress.

In the weeks since, this deeply unfortunate episode in the Israel-US alliance has only worsened.  Each day there are verbal shots fired across divide that have the only effect of exacerbating a deterioration in relations that, in the grand scheme of things, is fundamentally unhelpful.

I'm of the view that both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are to blame for this ongoing feud which lacks discipline, weakens each of them in the broader public eye, and puts at risk an alliance that is critical to the broader war against extremism and totalitarianism in the region.

And as an American Jewish leader, I am simply embarrassed that both my President and the Prime Minister of the nation that is central to my Jewish life and identity can't exercise the restraint necessary to overcome this moment, sublimate their bruised egos, and carry on their disagreement in a more productive way.

As some of the excellent reporting coming from Left, Center and Right sources reveals, anyone following this closely understands that the complexity of these matters and the vast disagreement among American and Israeli leaders and allies of Barack and Bibi are hardly easily summarized in the sound bites we're subjected to on an hourly basis.  

Daily verbal explosions amidst highly sensitive negotiations over Iran's nuclear capability only aid the enemy.  It's that basic.  And frankly, it's mind-boggling that two very smart men don't get that.

So guys:  Knock it off.

Since the speech is set to take place in Congress, I'd recommend that the President issue a statement.

"While I have obviously found the invitation to be a breach of diplomatic protocol--and I have expressed my objection to Speaker Boehner--I will be listening to the Prime Minister from the White House.  My attendance at the House or a meeting with Bibi so close to the Israeli elections would not be appropriate.  But as we all know, international negotiations with Iran are ongoing and Israel is among America's strongest allies in this process.  Despite this recent spasm of public disagreement, we remain united in our goal to prevent a dangerously nuclear Iran."

Someone has to be the grown-up here.  And since the talk is on our turf, hospitality requires graciousness, even in the face of insult.

Get over yourselves, guys.  It's never as much about you as you think it is.

13 February 2015

One Must Hope

Tel Aviv Graffiti.  Two-State Solution Toward the Tardis
I'm back from Israel after a ten day trip with more than 30 members of our Brooklyn community and this affords an opportunity to share a few thoughts about the experience.   Our group ranged in age from mid-twenties to 80 years old, including first-timers and the well-traveled;  Jews and Gentiles; a mix of political opinions.

Our goal was to explore ancient history and contemporary life; Palestinians, Bedouins and Arab Israelis; security; art, culture and food.  Always food.  A man's got to eat.

We didn't seek to learn it all; we knew we'd never see it all; it was designed to begin the journey for some and pique new interests for others.  Our tour provider, Israel Experts, and tour guide, Muki Jankelowitz, were excellent.

The reflections below are mine, not theirs.

1.  "Beyond the headlines," Israel remains a dynamic, complex, rich and open society.  Full stop. One takes for granted, both in the broader region that is falling apart in real time and in the Jewish historical context of a diaspora existence of nearly 2000 years which ultimately in the late 19th century produced Zionism, just what an extraordinary achievement the Jewish state is. Far from perfect--a quality or character flaw that virtually every Israeli will own up to--there remains a kinetic energy to daily life where change is a constant and the very fact of that equation yields a remarkable and admirable productivity.

2.  Israel has problems.  Many of them.  First, there is the constant threat to security and a war around every corner.  1948.  1953.  1967.  1973.  1982.  1987.  2000.  2006.  2008.  2012.  2014.  Terror threats throughout.  And this timeline ignores 1880-1945, one of the darkest eras for world Jewry when one considers dislocation and mass death.  That the Jewish people has succeeded at building a home in the traumatizing, contextual cloud of the past century ought to be unfathomable.  That it has done so without perfection or an as yet realized peace with its neighbors and those with whom it shares a land is, however, understandable.  Israel has problems, to be sure.  One of them is that there are still active enemies who would deny its very existence.  Not realizing that is to live under a dangerous illusion.  Behind the smoke and partisan and political machinations of the Washington-Jerusalem rift we are currently embroiled in, a nuclear Iran IS an existential threat.  (My personal view is that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Ambassador Ron Dermer were wrong to offend the White House at the instigation of Speaker Boehner, who is cravenly trying to wrack up points for Republicans.  To me it has clearly backfired.)  A destabilized Syria, a gravely concerned Jordan, a devoured Iraq--these only add potential harm to the mix.  

Oslo, which is to say the framework of "two states for two people" are words barely spoken.   Neither a trained diplomat nor an historian, I can't judge whether or not Oslo is dead.  But it sure seems close. While it is unquestionably true that an expanded and permanent settlement enterprise in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and a decades-in-the-making rightward shift in Israeli society has undermined confidence in the two-state solution (the most recent and clear example being the current Israeli government) so too has the ongoing Palestinian intransigence and the equally unquestionably true damage done by the waves of terror in the 1990s and early 2000s.  There is only so much innocent blood a society will tolerate before it builds its fences.  And the separation barrier/electrical fence/wall has justifiably saved lives.  The daily hardships caused to Palestinians is, in the eyes of most Israelis, the price one pays for refusing to accept Israel's right to exist.  Terror and a refusal to compromise in negotiations has proven to be the Palestinians worst political calculations.  Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian street bear equal responsibility for the current state of affairs.

We did walks around East Jerusalem with Ir Amim and visited the Gaza border, including the Kerem Shalom junction at the Israel-Egypt-Gaza border, where even during the war last summer, Israel continued to send in food and humanitarian aid.  We spent a morning in a deeply impoverished Bedouin development town in the Negev; drove the length of the Gaza Strip with many stops along the way; spent an afternoon in Kiryat Shmona on the Lebanese border and the Gadot lookout in the Golan Heights.  Neither fully exhaustive nor comprehensive and obviously from the Israeli perspective, this selection of sites over a ten day trip was an important part of the conversation.  We tried to frame issues like water supply and borders and terror and agriculture and industry and the mundane issues of trying to live one's life in a normal way--dealing with basic things like education, economic empowerment, and the relative benefits of freedom.

Beyond Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, Bedouins, Druze, and the broader region, we tried, however cursory, to look at issues like income inequality, affordable housing, education, city planning, organized crime, human trafficking, ecology, desalinization, public health, and the upcoming elections.

Eyes Wide Open.

We also dug deep into Jewish history--from the north to the south with Jerusalem in-between; spent an inspiring morning with the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem, whose coexistence and bilingual framework for Israel and Arab families is nothing short of totally hopeful; heard about a new JDC community development and empowerment program for at-risk youth in Kiryat Shmona; got a personal tour of the Jaffa mosque from a Sufi Muslim married to an Israeli Jew; talked strategy in Ben Gurion's house and the Rabin Museum; read poetry in Bialik's house; sampled Galilean wine and ate greasy schnitzel in a strip mall in Akko.  Yes, we went to Yad Vashem and three cemeteries:  Har Herzl, Trumpeldor, and the Kinneret Cemetery.  Even the dead spoke to us.

And of course, a few broke away and ate the roasted cauliflower sandwich at Miznon.

Two years ago we went to Jericho, but didn't this time.  Next time I'd like to include Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron and the Gush block.  You can't do it all every time.

I do these trips because in a world of a radically decreasing attention span and very little appreciation and patience for history, it's important to walk people through the beginning parts of their engagement with a remarkable nation that with all its troubles remains exceptional--if only for its mere existence.  A few op-eds, some Facebook debates or a Twitter feed does not make an opinion. However humbling oneself, in real time (for ten days) to the ongoing grind and complex parameters of a country's triumphs and tribulations, makes for a deeper and richer engagement.

Early each morning I went on beautiful runs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and as I saw the sun rise and the weather teetered from calm to cool, I was reminded, as just a man with his feet on the ground, how lucky we are to be alive.

On one such run I thought of my dear friend Sadek, a Palestinian social worker in the Israeli prison system, he is a lifelong East Jerusalem resident, lover of and builder of peace.  These days, because of a spate of random and racist assaults on Arabs and Druze in and around the country, he walks with a pepper spray for self-protection.  We met over coffee at the Jerusalem Cinemateque, traded family pictures and looked back on our twenty-five year friendship that is always strong, even if our nations are not at peace.  Mount Zion was awash in evening light.  Cars slowly climbed the hills.  His garden in Jericho is lush.  He bought a new apartment in Jerusalem.  He lives his life with dignity and waits, patiently, if painfully, for the "peace of the brave."

Our last day, on the drive down from north to Tel Aviv, we stopped at the Ghetto Fighter's Kibbutz where we learned about an innovative program in Arab-Jewish co-existence rooted in the lessons of the Holocaust.  Our guide that day was a native of Haifa, whose parents came to Israel in 1933 from Wurzberg, Germany.  "That's Yehuda Amichai's hometown!" trying to impress.  "His mother was my my mother's kindergarten teacher," she told me.

And so, inspired by an encounter at the socialist agricultural settlement established by Holocaust survivors that now specializes in historical memory, education and coexistence, I close with the master himself, Yehuda Amichai, whose "Two Songs of Peace" summarizes well, for now, a certain sentiment that pervaded much of the trip.

"And I am now in the middle of my life.
The time when one begins to collect
Facts, and many details,
And exact maps
Of a country we shall never occupy
And of an enemy and lover
Whose borders we shall never cross."

Of course, never say never.  Like the anthem says, one must hope.