23 April 2015

Independence Day Confessions of a Diaspora Jew

Dr. Paul Ginsberg, the great dean of students at the University of Wisconsin who died last week, once successfully prevented me from going to Israel.

Beloved by many for his intelligence, heart and compassion, he was principled and soulful in the advice he gave.  He was also legendary among a small number of Jewish students, of which I was one, for the work he did in the 1940s running guns from Cyprus to Palestine to aid the defense efforts of early Zionists in the building of the state of Israel.

Neither a pacifist nor a colonialist, he was like thousands of idealistic and realistic young people who understood that one of the morally just liberation and restoration movements of the twentieth century was in re-establishing Jewish autonomy and self-governance in the historical homeland of the Jewish people.  A committed democrat and social liberal, Dr. Ginsberg shared with me on one occasion that while building a state, fighting a war for independence, and maintaining the security of one's citizens would not be without its own set of normal and at times troubling moral challenges (such is the nature of any government, anywhere, at any moment in history) the inherent justice of the Zionist project could not be denied.

He was a bear of a man as well as a compassionate and unadorned realist.  When my father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1983 and I trekked up Bascom Hill after sitting shiva to seek his advice, I announced that I was leaving school and moving to Israel.

"Andy," he said.  "Find yourself first.  Get a skill.  Figure out what you'd do there, then go.  Israel has enough people running around finding themselves.  If you're going to go, go to help."

I listened.  And after a year of mourning and learning and re-gaining focus, I traveled to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for the first time in 1985, worked on my history degree, and formulated plans to become a rabbi.  It would be the long game.  The Ginsberg Plan.

That fall was a full two years before the First Intifada would break out and Palestinians would seek to throw off the occupation by Israel of territory seized, justifiably, in the 1967 Six Day War.  There was as yet no organized rebellion but one could feel the tensions boiling beneath the surface.  One could travel freely in the West Bank, be greeted warmly, and yet discern quite clearly a storm on the horizon.  Palestinians I met throughout that year indicated as much.  But official leadership still embraced terror, settlement expansion continued its inexorable march, and both Israelis and Palestinians remained mired in a frozen non-diplomacy.

The following thirty years would bring two intifadas, horrific waves of murderous terror and brutal crackdowns, three major wars with Hamas and Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, and a maddeningly endless series of dead-end negotiations that have yet to yield a two-state solution that I certainly thought was once within the grasp of reasonable, practical and hopeful people.  A sickening number of innocent Jewish and Palestinian lives have been lost; and humility demands the truthful claim that few of us have really done enough to make peace possible.

In some of the popular tellings of the conflict, it appears we were close on a couple occasions--just before the Rabin assassination in 1995 and again at Camp David in 2000.  Today, in two-state circles, there is an unmitigated despair over what feels like a dead end, and a kind of dazed disbelief with mutual recriminations over the breakdown in relations between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.  It may or may not be the worst moment in America-Israel relations.  But it certainly feels as bad as it ever has.

But today, Israel's Independence Day, marking 67 years since the creation of the state, is not about any of that--at least for the next two paragraphs.

Today is about recognizing that as the Jewish people emerged from the turmoil of post-Enlightenment emancipation and embraced its own national narrative, it sought and achieved, justifiably, its own sense of historic self-determination and protection, as is the right of every nation. Within two generations, after two thousand years of exile, a state was created and accepted--democratically and diplomatically, by the family of nations in the body agreed upon to confer such titles--the United Nations.

Today is about recognizing that a nation as improbably small as Israel wields enormous power and influence, a strength that comes from boundless intelligence, creativity, ingenuity and resolve. Jewish people comprise about .2% of the world's population yet our effect, both real and imagined, is immeasurably greater.  And so today is also about recognizing that as our Passover Haggadah teaches, "in every generation there are those who rise up to destroy us," there is a mysterious strength at the core of our permanence and enormous pride and wonder at what our people have done in establishing a state.

Yesterday in Israel the nation mourned the more than 23,000 Israelis who have given their lives to defend the state since its founding--some of whom died defending and voting for the policies that sent them to war and some of whom died protesting and voting against the policies that sent them to war.  Such is the complex nature of democracy and civic obligation.  There are difficult truths and often painful, trying dilemmas wrapped up in all this.  The country's direction, the nature of its democracy, the questions of what 48 years of occupation does and doesn't do to an occupying power weigh heavily on Jews in Israel and abroad.  We Jews wear our own internal debates on our sleeves and on the editorial pages of every major news source in the world.  More ink is spilled for .2% of the world's population than is really merited, let's be honest.

But not a single one of Israel's flaws lessens for me the greatest achievement in the last 500 years of Jewish history--a modern state.  The vibrancy of Israel's social, economic, and cultural daily reality is as great as any other nation in the last one hundred years.

On this 67th Day of Independence for the State of Israel, I hold both these realities close--my pride and concern for Israel along with my exasperated hope that a peaceful solution with Palestinians can be found.  

I don't begrudge for one moment the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and even respect that right to see the Israeli day of Independence as a Palestinian Nakba.  But a permanent Nakba won't bear fruit.  And no amount of blogging and tweeting and protesting and boycotting and delegitimating and denouncing will change the fact that throughout the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s 80s and 90s, the official Palestinian position toward Israel was rejection and non-recognition and that has had its consequences.  It's hardened Israelis and Jews worldwide who bore their own brunt of that rejection through the blood of terror; it's bred a deep cynicism into children born into occupation and exile in refugee camps who have had their own blood spilled by the more brutal aspects of occupation and the war on terror;  and perhaps most ashamedly and deeply, it has created a terrible image of victimhood that will require generations to heal.

Jews and Palestinians know from victimhood.  And the enlightened among us ought to know that victimhood bears within it the seeds of self-diminishment and self-destruction.  And worse, can lash out at others, drawing them in to an endless cycle of darkness and death.  What the Zionists knew about Jewish civilization as told through the lens of the powerless was that if one dared to enact the collective process of transcending victimhood, and stake a claim to one's narrative, then through self-determination, one may write new chapter in the ongoing history of the people.

I'm fifty-two years old and have found myself (I guess.)  And I've remained an American citizen who is in Israel, alone and with groups, twice a year.

So to my teacher Paul Ginsberg, now gone, the confession is this:  30 years later I am still here and not there. The most I can contribute to Israel at this stage of my life is my loyal support; my insistence on teaching and speaking and writing publicly that its existence is just; my advocacy for its support to government officials at local, state and national levels; my belief that its claim to righteousness is tied up in a necessary and fearless self-criticism, a burden all democracies must shoulder; and that as a community leader I will always speak of hope and justice and peace.

To you, Israel, on your 67th anniversary:  continued success; existence; and peace.

03 April 2015

Passover Meditation 2015

Jews are a family.
Jews are a faith.
Jews are a people, then a nation.
Jews are an idea.

Passover begins at sundown tonight. And as just as the four legged tables around the world are set in the myriad ways we commemorate this week long festival event, other fours conspire to tell the story of family, faith, a people, and the ideas that animate our historical existence.

Four questions.  Four children.  Four cups.  On four legs--family, faith, nation and the very idea of the Jew in the world.

Everyone's talking about us these days, or so it seems.  We are at center stage of the Obama administration's negotiations over a nuclear Iran; the Middle East's only true democratic election, held in Israel a couple weeks ago, remains at the eye of the storm of the world's attention and Capitol Hill's most pained and partisan debates; and as Jeffrey Goldberg and others have shown recently, Jews are increasingly questioning their sense of home in a Europe that is ever-changing and struggling mightily with rising anti-Semitism and racism.

The severe lack of ease that many Jews feel is more palpable today than at any time in my lifetime, for sure. And while the exceptional privilege afforded by the American experiment in creating "one from many" makes life for American Jewry an open, flourishing expression of rich opportunity and grace, we would be denying our obligation to Jewish memory to sit at our Seder tables tonight and not talk about that which makes "this night different from all other nights."

Especially when the nation that is negotiating for the right to develop nuclear power, Iran, has religious and political leaders who continue to call for the destruction of the Jewish state; especially when Jewish leaders here and in Israel speak openly of a troubling divide between Disapora and Israeli Jewry, and the rifts over a way forward, if possible, with Palestinians; especially when Jews are under attack in Europe, a region which expelled and murdered millions of its Jews less than a century ago;  and especially when, as the most recent Pew study projects, Christians and Muslims will achieve world population parity by 2050, while in America, there will soon be more Muslims than Jews.  In fact, Pew predicates the overall number of Jews, Christians and Buddhists shrinking, while "unaffiliateds" and Muslims increase.

I share this last idea not to be alarmist but to merely point out that nothing in life remains the same and the assumptions we make one year about the world we live in turn in a whole host of unpredictable ways.  Sometimes we are pleasantly surprised by those changes; and other times, new leaders arise who "know not Joseph."

And so it is with no small amount of irony and hopefully a healthy dose of humility and ultimately hope, that I share with you these four brief mediations for Passover night.  About a people that is impossibly small, with an enormous responsibility that it demands of itself for its rightful place in the world.

Jews Are a Family:  "My father was a wandering Aramean," the Haggadah teaches us.  Whether the rabbis meant for us to think of Abraham, who left Ur and Haran to make his way to Canaan as God had commanded; or they meant his grandson Jacob, who sojourned back to Haran where he lived and worked before returning to the Promised Land with a new name--Israel--we fundamentally trace our roots to someone, from someplace, who went in search of some thing, as commanded by some God who we have long claimed was the One God.  We are a family with names, from places where we have lived, with linguistic and culinary traditions that we carry with us, as markers of where we have been, wherever we go.  We tell our family story in generational ladders, from youngest to oldest and back again, forever climbing and conjuring, adding new rungs, from those born and those who chose to join us, claiming our name.

Jews Are a Faith:  We believe in the God of Argument.  We believe in the God of Questions.  We believe in the God of Doubt.  It's the only way we can take Her or Him at His or Her word.  At Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham demands of God, "Shall the Judge of all the earth not rule with justice?"  When Moses is asked to go free his brothers and sisters from slavery, he says, "And who exactly shall I tell them sent me?" implying, defiantly, that their very condition of suffering and slavery may be an expression of God's perceived powerlessness in the face of radical evil.  Where was God when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and blood flowed in the streets?  Where was God in the Crusades when Jews were killed for the religious crime of their faith?  Where was God when the Nazis arose and mechanically, rationally, slaughtered millions?  Elijah, who appears in our Seders tonight, is a contra voice in this faith conundrum, offering in his theological vision a God beyond materiality, beyond force, beyond power:  after the wind, after the earthquake, after the fire, a still small voice.  The still small voice of faith.  Of moral conscience.  A covenantal echo of justice heard by Abraham, by Moses, by Elijah.  And heard, around Seder tables each year, by you and me.

Jews Are a Nation:  We have a land, a fact undeniable in terms of history and archaeological evidence, though you wouldn't know it by the kind of vile propaganda that circulates on the internet. We have an ancient language, Hebrew; its cognate cousin, Aramaic; and a number of exilic iterations of Jewishness, most notably Yiddish and Ladino.  We have a calendar.  And we have a culture:  literary, legal, moral, culinary, musical, even sartorial.  When combined into one great whole, this constitutes our nation. Added to the fact that our faith tradition oriented us toward Jerusalem for two thousand years of exile and that by the mid-nineteenth century as Europe became blatantly less hospitable toward the Jew, Zionism emerged as the Jews' rightful expression of going home, a right afforded, or so it seemed, to every other nation on earth.  The nature and dimension of that Zionist project may very well be debated around Seder tables tonight.  However, the immutable right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate deserves to be, ought to be axiomatic.  Be respectful of one another when you talk about Israel tonight, brothers and sisters; but deal with it.

Jews Are an Idea:  Edgar Bronfman used to love to tell the story about realizing that the Talmudic debate over proper recompense for a neighbors ox that gored wasn't really about oxen and their gory horns but Justice.  On Yom Kippur morning, when we're in the spiritual sweet spot of our penitential piety, the prophet Isaiah jolts us into consciousness by mocking our fast if we are not feeding the hungry and loosing the shackles of those in chains.  Abraham smashes idols.  Henrietta Szold builds hospitals.  Radical Jews create labor unions and, mirroring the Sabbath law that Moses received on Mount Sinai, legislate the day of rest.  We are an idea made clear by a German Jewish refugee, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, spoke just before the Reverend Dr. King at the March on Washington, declaring, "Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation."  (My teacher Naomi Levine helped write that line!)  We believe that charity should actually be translated as "justice."  And that one should give anonymously. That Moses couldn't see God's face but could hear his name as Kindness and Compassion.  And we're an idea that says if you're planting a tree by the side of the road and someone comes to tell you that the Messiah is coming, first finish planting the tree, then go greet. We are an idea in the here and now.

In this springtime season of renewal, with great promise and great dangers afoot in the world for all people, may we find inspiration in the telling of our story; joy in the experience of being together; edification in the lessons passed down from our ancestors; meaning for us in our day; and the strength and inspiration to plant seeds of hope and justice for our families, our neighbors, our people and our world.

Hag Sameach~