17 September 2014

Door Jam = Democracy

We didn't start out poor but then it became that way, pretty much immediately after Mom and Dad broke up. First there was the expected additional strain of two homes, followed by Dad losing his job, which precipitated what I often refer to as the Great Unraveling. It happens to people and it happened to him. The trip, stumble and fall of his mid-life was, in two years, his father dying, his divorce and the loss of his job. Eight years later he'd be knocked out cold by a heart attack and that was that.

I write these words all these years later in part to remember how quickly one's life actually can fall apart; how what one once expected to be the rhythms of life to set a watch to can become, in the seeming split of an eye, the challenging darkness of the Trial. Some make it past the Judge. Others don't. For some there are those to pick you up; for others, luck runs out. For some, there is a regenerative well of persistence and optimism; for others, a debilitating depression, a rendering of essence to dross.

Whatever the answer, the reality is we were poor but hadn't started out that way. Mom went right to work in the time leading up to the divorce and during the hardest parts, worked two jobs, doing whatever was necessary to make ends meet. One job she had was as scheduler for a local politician named Lynn Adelman, a brilliant lawyer from Milwaukee's East Side. His whole team was smart--a bunch of young Jews interested in policy and reform-minded Democratic politics. They were trying to knock off the golden boy of Milwaukee's über Gentile community, Robert Kasten, a conservative who was seen as very much the voice of the city's business and commercial elite, such as it was. The son of Milwaukee dry-cleaners, Lynn went to Princeton and Columbia Law (where he had defended students in the anti-war protests as a law student) then came back to Milwaukee and did legal aid work before going in to private practice. When he ran against Kasten in 1974, it was the first of three unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Congress. Mom (and I) worked on all three campaigns. He eventually served in the Wisconsin State Senate (where, as a college freshman I worked in his office in Madison) and in 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed him as a federal judge.

Even though we were newly poor, we had three cars. Ours was a temporary condition and we somehow knew it. Dad's car, Mom's car and then, as was the trend in those days, the kids had a car.  I think it was an AMC Gremlin. Might have even had the Levi's jeans interior. You can guess the decade.

The point is, we had a car. And the adults had drivers' licenses. Which were used to drive the candidate to his appointments and campaign stops. One time Mom picked up Lynn for a day of campaigning and he got into the car dressed in a suit and tie but he wasn't wearing socks. So they stopped at the dry cleaners and as the son of the owner, he took the liberties. His campaigns were filled with stories like that.

Or like this:  One summer, when he was running for re-election in a newly re-districted and more decidedly conservative part of southwest Milwaukee, I was campaigning for him door-to-door and encountered a vehemently hostile constituent. The vituperations flew through the screen door.  "Communist.  Socialist.  Jew." That kind of thing. I was shaken and needless to say, this was not a vote Lynn was going to win. Dejected, I walked down this man's driveway and out to the street where I saw Lynn coming up the block. I told him what happened and he said, "Watch this."

And in an instant, he had bounded up the walk, knocked on the door, and then, with the persuasion of a persistent prophet, stuck his foot in the screen door so the man couldn't shut it. "Don't say things about me that aren't true," Lynn said. "Now tell me, really, what do you know about my views? Let's talk!" And for the next several minutes they argued positions--taxes, education, spending on the poor. No names, no accusations. Just two citizens disagreeing.

"Did you change his mind?"  I asked.  "No," he said, "but that doesn't matter.  The process was as important as the outcome."  That's what he told me back at his house where we went for lunch that day.  He made me a sandwich, we talked about my classes at UW, my interest in going to Israel, my ideas for the future.  "I guess a rabbi is kind of like a politician," he said. "Come on," he continued, his mouth full. "Let's go knock on some more doors."

In that district Lynn's constituents were mostly white. And had cars.  So we walked down streets with no sidewalks and up lots of driveways.  Knocking on doors.  Pushing for votes.

But there was another job that Mom had in those years, where she was an office staff member in the Community Development Corporation, which in the 1970s on into today was devoted to enhancing the economic position of low-income communities. The people who came to CDC, most of whom were black, took buses or walked to where they needed to go. Their economic scene was in serious distress; schools were rough; and there certainly wasn't a lot of kids in high school drivers' ed classes.
This means that, like thousands upon thousands of similarly disadvantaged people today, those folks didn't have drivers license which was once a burden if you wanted to drive but certainly wasn't a burden if you wanted to vote.

Until recently.

As the New York Times reminded us on Tuesday morning, electoral chaos is about to occur in Wisconsin, primarily among the more than 300,000 poorer citizens of the state who will not be able to vote because of a conservative appellate court's decision to overturn Judge Lynn Adelman's stay of the Wisconsin Voter ID law, which Judge Adelman argued last April contained several serious violations of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Several commentators appropriately, I believe, have criticized this decision of the appellate court to overturn Judge Adelman's sound reasoning, particularly in light of the fact that Governor Scott Walker and his Republican legislature passed the initial voter ID law precisely to protect an electoral advantage they had hoped to use to govern. Except that Governor Walker has recently begun to trail Democratic candidate and businesswoman Mary Burke (whose family makes the much beloved Wisconsin gem, Trek Bicycles). And what better way to climb back into the lead with less than two months to go in a gubernatorial election than to be aided by a panel of judges to undo the constitutional work of defending the right to vote.

I got half a mind to head out to Wisconsin after the Jewish holidays this Fall and spend the second half of October knocking on doors for Mary Burke. To cover more territory in the limited time available, perhaps I'll take my Trek.

I'm sure I'll meet my share of Republicans, as it should be. Who doesn't like a good argument?

I'll even stick my foot in the door, insist on engaging, and if the power of persuasion doesn't work, we'll agree to disagree.

But what I won't do is suppress someone's right to vote just because they're poor and don't drive.

15 September 2014

Hands Off

I didn't watch the Packers game on Sunday.  As a shareholder and lifelong fan living in New York, it's rare to see my team on TV.  But truth be told, my stomach turned at the gnawing thought of enabling that low grade tolerance for immoral violence that wore away at my conscience as the day hurdled toward the late afternoon kickoff.  I couldn't "just do it."

Ray Rice is a Baltimore Raven and Adrian Peterson is a Minnesota Viking but I knew enough about the game to know that Green Bay has had its own troubles with sexual violence.  In 2000, its star tight end Mark Chmura was accused of assaulting his family's 17 year old babysitter; and frankly, I get a headache trying to figure out this whole "baby mama" thing with Packers cornerback Sam Shields.

Understatement of the Year:  The NFL has a sex and violence problem.

Runner-up for Understatement of the Year:  ISIS is evil.

Back to football.

As a former student athlete whose greatest achievements were sunset by the time I turned 16, I've always fostered a relatively healthy distance from the over-valorized role that athletes play in our society.  Still, the mere physicality, discipline and psychological fortitude required of champions is admirable--and ignites in the mind the epic dimensions of a child's imagination.  Spectacle.  Grand Arc Narratives.  Greatness.

And I've even inculcated fandom in the kids.  Touring campuses last winter on a college tour, we took in a Wisconsin-Michigan basketball game.  Three years ago on a winter road-trip, we took in a Packers-Bears Christmas night game.  Despite their late season collapse, the Brewers Baseball Club continue to receive our devotions, even after Ryan Braun's half-assed apologies for PED use.

So I get loyalty.  You stick with those you love when they're down.  Got it.

But what are our obligations when they cross the line?  When athletes violate--egregiously--the covenant of devotion between themselves and the fans who support their careers?  Violence against women and children is serious enough to merit a one-day blackout, no?  How much does our fawning enable?

Like:  How about one NFL Sunday soon the fans don't show up?  Hit the league hard.  Where it counts--in the wallets of the owners who enable themselves, with a wink and a handshake at contract talks, the rampant violence that has come to define the league for what it is.  Big guys getting paid a lot of dough to inflict punishment on and off the field.

Is painting faces, wearing over-sized jerseys, grilling meat in a parking lot, eating salted corn-products, and consuming artificially sweetened soft-drinks and beer SO IMPORTANT that we can't do without it for one day in order to send a message that we find violence perpetrated by large men against women and children to be morally revolting?


And I'm just talking about the fans.

What definition of teammate necessitates tolerating this?  I'd like to see an athlete brave enough to step forward and say aloud:  "Yo.  This is bullshit.  Keep your hands off women and kids."

That would be heroic.

01 August 2014

Devoured by Hope

"The land that devours its inhabitants."

That's reading it wrong.  

The prooftext is from Torah--Numbers 13-14.  Spies are sent by Moses; they head over to report on the land that the Jewish people are poised to enter after a generation spent wandering post-Exodus, where prior, they were slaves for 400 years in Egypt.  The spies see the land as unconquerable.  They see normal sized men as giants, and themselves as grasshoppers.  "It is a land that devours its inhabitants." They repeat a common complaint:  "You brought us into the desert to die?"

Their report is disregarded, understood as a betrayal of faith.  Of all the tribal leaders, only Joshua and Caleb demonstrate the vision and the fortitude to get the job done.  And they are mightily rewarded. The generation of tribal heads is fated to die in the desert.  Joshua and Caleb are permitted to enter the land.  They choose hope over fear.  Life over being trapped in exile, waiting to die.

This is a metaphor.  Let me explain.

I was in David Ben Gurion's house today.  There is an exhibit there of letters sent back and forth between children and Ben Gurion.  In one such exchange, captured beautifully in a video presentation with the child, now grown, a dialogue is recounted with regard to the notion of the Chosen People--did God choose the Jews or did the Jews choose God?

Ben Gurion was direct.  The people chose God.  Joshua 24 proves it, he said.  On the corner of his desk where he wrote these letters, as well as next to the bed where he slept, Ben Gurion kept a copy of the Hebrew Bible close at hand.  He did not believe God wrote these words but he nevertheless knew them as a student of history, a lover of books, a man with a voracious appetite for learning.  "A man who devoured words."  He thought we should be that way, too.  Zionism was as much a personal as a political liberation.

Look closely.  You can see his Bible, next to his sparse bed, under plexiglass protection.  He lived, worked and slept there (as well as in the Negev, in Sde Boker) from 1931-1973.  It was from this house that David Ben Gurion composed Israel's Declaration of Independence and then traveled across town to declare it in May of 1948.  Both the Ottomans and the British were larger empires than the Jews; and the array of Arab opposition to the Jewish state was equally, well, gigantic.  But he was of a generation who refused to see himself as "but a grasshopper in their eyes."
You may find it hard to dwell in such places when the land indeed appears to be devouring its inhabitants.  When Israel's aggressive offensive against the Hamas tunnels and rockets sheds innocent blood along with the guilty; when Jews attack Jews for proclaiming a hope for peace; when it is not safe to be an Arab walking alone in some areas of Jerusalem, a holy city; when Hamas preaches and teaches a doctrine of extermination of the Jews, denies a Jewish claim to the land, uses innocent children and women and schools as mosques as shields against Israel, knowing that the death of innocents will bring down worldwide condemnation of Jews; when communities in Europe, led by a strange amalgam of enraged Muslim populations, radical leftists and neo-Nazis, wreak havoc, vandalism and violence, at times resulting in the murder of Jews in Brussels, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere.   

You may find yourself not wanting to deal with this at all.  But we are a "choosing people."  The world demands our moral engagement.  

Your Facebook and Twitter are leaden, weighted down with the unresolvable hatred that's boiling over in this land; that Israeli t-shirt you were going to wear stays in the drawer; you remember being glad that Obama ordered the killing of Bin Laden or weeping at the assassination of Rabin but you generally prefer the more Jewish aspects of your understanding of the conflict kept at a distance; it shouldn't ask too much of you.  It's enough already.  Sign on the line.  Make peace.

But the world, alas, doesn't sit still for us.  There is not really an opt-out clause.  It's a complicated, dangerous, unpredictable place.  It requires strenuously difficult, sometimes seemingly contradictory choices.  Interesting, isn't it, that the very nations who attacked Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973, are all lining up to tacitly support Israel in a war--not against the Palestinians in the West Bank but against Hamas in Gaza, whose version of fundamentalist Islam is seen as a messianic, apocalyptic and therefore dangerous force in the world that needs to be defeated.  Further complications:  this morning's paper carries news of an Israeli Army Commander imploring his troops to study Torah and recite prayers while heading in to battle.  War is bad enough, Ben Gurion might have said.  Need it also be holy?

I worry about American Jewry on this trip more than I ever have.  I worry about their increasing alienation from the notion of a Jewish people, each of us inherently obligated to one another despite our differences; I worry about our understandable abhorrence of the killing of innocents that too quickly shifts to blame, guilt and distance from Israel; I worry about internal Jewish hatred of, about a willful and angry persecutory impulse, even violence, toward Jews who seek peace or express remorse and sadness over the loss of innocent Palestinian life; and I worry about a kind of liberal American Jewish hopelessness toward the Jewish national project, the dystopian other-expression of the very spirit that created this improbable, historically miraculous, wildly creative yet weighted, complex, imperfect nation.  

And finally, I worry (with no small amount of paranoia) of a Hamas operative, reading these words, laughing and rubbing his hands in a diabolically cartoonish gesture:  The Jews, he says, can be worn down.  Eventually, they'll give up and leave.

So I wake myself from this nightmare.

Earlier this week I had lunch in Jaffa with my friend Rabbi Meir Azari.  He's an ingenious entrepreneur of new Jewish life who straddles worlds in Jaffa and Tel Aviv like know other rabbi I know.  After eating and walking around, we went to visit a Jaffa native, an Arab Israeli shop owner who is suffering economically, as are many businesses, because of the war.  Meir, his own family many generations of Jews from the Galilee, knew the man's family in Gaza, in Nazareth, in Jaffa, and he asked after them in Arabic and Hebrew, with the compassion known among neighbors and friends not despite of but because of their differences.  The richness of difference which in baser expressions can cause war, in fact, has the power to redeem.

Sunday night I'll be in Jerusalem with my friend Rebecca Bardach.  She helps run the Yad b'Yad schools and since violence broke out, parents and students of the school--Jerusalem's only bi-lingual, Hebrew and Arabic school--have been walking from the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa to the Old Train Station in Jerusalem as an expression of unity and solidarity.  At breakfast this week, where we sat down moments after hearing the news that her child's kindergarten teacher's son was killed in Gaza, I asked her if the school (comprised of Jewish and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem) is tearing apart because of the war.  "No," she said simply.  "We come into the school committed to the framework.  As people, we know peace is possible.  It's the leadership we need, on both sides, to make peace happen."

Just when you think this land can break you, devour you, there is another who steps in to the breach to again raise the flag of hope.  

This morning we woke to a seventy-two hour truce.  May the hours of peace grow.  May each of us rise from the ashes and destruction of war's evil embrace.  May the righteous among both our people's prevail. 

If we are to be devoured, let us be devoured by hope.


Update:  Not two hours in, the truce is broken and an Israeli soldier, Hadar Goldin, 23, has been taken captive.  With a heavy heart, we dig deeper--for strength and hope and peace.

27 July 2014

No Pit, No Trap

Terror and pit and trap.
Upon you who dwell on earth.
He who flees at the report of terror
Shall fall into the pit
And who climbs out of the pit
Shall be caught in the trap.
--Isaiah 24: 17-18

I was reminded of these dire words of warning a few weeks ago, when encountering Aharon Appelfeld's novel, Suddenly, Love.  In this stunning book, Appelfeld's main character, a survivor and refugee living in Jerusalem, speaks of the return, again and again, to Leyb Rochman's diary of the Minsk ghetto, The Pit and the Trap.  After savoring every word of Appelfeld, like visits late into the day with a beloved teacher, I moved seamlessly (ever the devoted reader of what the teacher assigns) to Rochman, whose description of the most impossible years imaginable in Belarus during the Second World War held me.

My great grandparents escaped Belarus in the late 1890s, fleeing the Czar and seeking economic opportunity in the prairie of Wisconsin.  Over the years I'd always wanted to visit.  Photographs brought over are the only tangible evidence of those whose fate remained unknown in my family: brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents--not well enough or daring enough to make the trip and who, in one way or another, were caught in the trap of the war.

Some may have made it but due to the vagaries of time, diminished family ties and distance, their connections to me remain a mystery.  Their voices, disembodied from the tribal bonds that adhere, call out for reckoning.  I one day hope to turn in full and in earnest to the project of recovering their names.

It was supposed to begin this summer, with a trip to Belarus and a visit to the town, Kopyl, where my great grandparents came from.  All seemed to be moving just fine with my own visa but the Belarus Consul in New York denied a visa to a friend of mine, an immigrant from Minsk when it was the Soviet Union in 1980.  In a classic twist of bureaucratic fate, the Consul demanded my friend's original exit visa.  When he explained that it wasn't in his possession now more than thirty years later, that he was a refugee living under a regime that no longer exists, he was told it would take a year to gain permission.  So with a laugh we postponed.  Two guys from Minsk, trying to get back home.  Thwarted again.  No matter.  It's a good introduction to a story I know I'll eventually write.

In Suddenly, Love, Appelfeld's main character Ernst writes, "He spoke about his failures in an orderly way, more or less saying, 'A person isn't an author just because he has a certain ability to write.  If you're not connected with your parents and grandparents, and through them to the tribe, you're a hack, not an author.'"

I'm grateful that my father saved his mother's pictures.  Scrimped at the edges are the names of the other Siegels who did or did not make it.  Likely many died and are buried in the Jewish cemetery in Kopyl which you can now Google image.  Others, doubtless, shared the horrifying fate authored by the Nazis who killed more than 2400 Jews in February 1943.  Both Appelfeld and Rochman describe such disasters in the most intimate terms, that in their accumulation would total nearly six million dead Jews by the end of the war.  A total annihilation of European Jewish life in the midst of a war that would kill more than 60 million people total.  Dad was a soldier in the U.S. Army in the Second World War at that time.  Nineteen years old, dying to fit in, to be sure.  His process was not bound up in the remembrance of the Tribe but in what we might call the Great Becoming that America offers.  He didn't save too many stories; and that lack, denial of the tribe, if you will, has been the engine that has powered much of my own Jewish life.  It's the classic search for the missing piece of something, in my case, a story, a relative, a gravestone with a name.

I sat in a cafe in Tel Aviv this morning, digesting my observations of the left-wing peace rally in Rabin Square that I went to see, a gathering of a few thousand people calling for an end to war, while outside the square, under the careful and watchful eye of hundreds of police, several dozen right-wing Israelis chanted racist invective at those seeking a permanent cease-fire.  Arabs and Leftists were "whores" and "sons of whores."  Rightists were "Nazis" and "Fascists."  Inside the square were the red flags of communism and the dual-nationalist flags of Israelis and Palestinians.  Outside the square were Israeli flags worn like tallises or soccer banners, and one had a sense that without a strong police presence, the right was looking to do violence.  Was one of those raging, spitting, invective spewing hoodlums my great-grandfather's great, great grand-nephew?  Had they found their way here while my family found their way there?  And were we now standing on opposite sides of a barricade, making sense of the dilemmas facing our people today?

I watched it all with dread and fascination.  George Mosse used to teach us in Madison that all political rallies have a liturgy, a prescribed set of actions that are meant to evoke the ideals and the values of the movements expressing them.  George did ground-breaking historical work understanding Nazism.  He grew up watching his liberal German world implode and in personal stories as well as his autobiography, he spoke with fascination about watching Nazis come to power.  About seeing the masses get in line, don the uniform, adopt the language, elide their individuality in favor of the nation.

That's not what's going on here.  My left wing friends in Israel knock around those terms "Nazism" and "Fascism" as easily as the right wing hoodlums deploy racist terminology to deride and dehumanize leftists and Palestinians.  It's not Nazism; it's not Fascism; but it's not purely hooliganism, either.  After all, who can stand in Rabin Square and not grasp fully the bitter warning of its very name.

Not more than a few steps from the hatred of 2014, of Jew versus Jew, was the very spot upon which an Orthodox Jew murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for daring to make peace with Palestinians. And the soul searching then among the nations' leading thinkers--writers, rabbis, politicians, nearly each and every citizen--was and remains one of the watershed moments of Israeli democracy.  A dangerous, unimaginable line had been crossed.  A door had been opened.  It seems that much more possible that it could happen again.  And I must say that despite the disgusting use of the terms "Nazism" and "Fascism" along with "Zionist pigs" and "Jewish Nazis" or any other number of terms being deployed by the Left in America and across Europe (revealing the age-old anti-Semitism in these previously "huddled masses yearning to be free" of Jews) something much deeper and more dynamic is going on for Israelis.

The existentialist realities of the 1890s, 1948, and 1967 have again reared their heads.  This time, it seems, is the peculiar reality of Israel's relative economic and military strength, it's dynamic and innovative daily life, combined with its hardened center--neither left nor right--that simply doesn't believe that on one hand recognizes that the Jewish nation cannot and must not occupy the Palestinian nation; but that simultaneously understands that one must not "flee from terror."

Out of the pit and into the trap.

Last night's rally for peace was small because everyone has someone or someone they know whose child is in Gaza or at the Gaza border.  This is no fooling around.  There won't be a massive rally for peace with troops fighting to destroy the tunnels that are built to kill Jews.  On this most of the homefront is united.  The empathic pain for the suffering of innocent Palestinian lives is felt deeply.  It is on everyone's mind.  But--yes, BUT--the obvious culpability of Hamas in its own people's suffering is deeply known.  This is serious business.  And like most serious things, it hardly fits into neat, rhetorical constructs.

There is both the inarguable truth that Hamas unequivocally calls for Israel's elimination.  Total.  And those calls are rooted in the most embittered and delusional historical anti-Semitism that it is nothing less than laughable that the rules of contemporary diplomatic engagement get Hamas a seat at the table.  The pit and the trap, again.   (Of course, there is today no greater fan of classic anti-Semitic demagoguery than that coming from Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, who, with world protestors bat around terms like "Zionist pig" and "Israeli Nazis" with greater frequency than the ball of the paddle in a beachside Israeli game of Matkot.)

And there is also the inarguable truth of a dangerous ugliness, a racist impulse, a violent, unbridled hatred among us Jews as well.  We woke up today to read about two Palestinians again brutally beaten by a gang of Jews.  Merciless, despicable evil perpetrated against purely innocent people.  It would be nothing less than totally inexcusable to not find and prosecute these people to the fullest extent of the law.  Not doing so debases the very arguments in favor of a Jewish democratic state rooted in Jewish historical values and traditions.  When Cain kills Abel at the beginning of Genesis, God says, "Your brother's bloods cry out to me from the land."  The Sages tell us we're to understand that one murder begets many more.  And that when you kill one person, you kill those lives that would have emanated from the one whose life you took.  It is a dangerously interminable termination.  And therefore, evil.

There is also the inarguable truth for much of the population that the occupation of millions of Palestinians must end.  But how?  And when?  And with what guarantees that rockets will not fly from areas even closer to the population centers?  These questions I am hearing from my friends on the left. A fierce commitment to peace to be sure, to ending the occupation; but rooted in a jaded and hard-earned realism--a decade of suicide bombings; decades of rejections of peace; wars of survival in 1948, 1967 and 1973--realism about the existential realities Jews face alongside Palestinians who also seek a normal, free life.

It may well be that the pit and trap of twentieth century Jewry ends when we realize that the only ones who can rescue Jews and Palestinians from the pit and the trap of their own tortured and seemingly endless war with one another are Jews and Palestinians.  That we need not see our own rescue from one pit as requiring that we fall into the trap of the other.

That may very well be.

But who will rescue from the trap of anti-Semitism those spewers of hate in the world's capitals, those profiteers of the oldest racism, who fan the flames of a question that burns with the bitter, rancid wood of their pyrrhic hatred:  When will the Jew go away?

In the palpable loneliness and isolation that is keenly felt here in Israel these days, it is critically important to remember that there are deep friendships (with no shortage of disagreements) that Israel has with many nations, the United States being primary among them.  As an American myself I am eternally grateful for that.

In the days and weeks ahead, all friendships will be tested and it will be critically important for each of us to be true.  To what we know, to what we believe, and to what we realistically think can be.

Perhaps slowly then, ever so slowly, we may lift ourselves from the pit of terror, from the trap of hatred, and join forces to unite against those evil doers among us and at our borders who seem to always find new ways to do us wrong.  People of every faith.  Of every nation.  Men and women.  Gay and straight.  People.  Seeking goodness, justice and peace.

24 July 2014

And Rain

sky.  7/24/14.  tel aviv
That's not a pair of clouds on a beautiful summer morning.  Those are the obliterated remnants of the Iron Dome's skyward confrontation with Hamas rockets, meeting with intentional serendipity above Tel Aviv.  Hello.  How do you do?  Die.

I was having breakfast with two friends in a restaurant across from Tel Aviv City Hall, Rabin Square and the memorial site commemorating and mourning his assassination a Jewish rightist in 1995.  Five loud booms.  The building shook.  The moment passed, the cell networks briefly jammed with people checking in (a text from my daughter, 20 kilometers away, "I heard that, Dad.  You okay?")  Nearly twenty years ago the Prime Minister was killed by a fellow Israeli in order to prevent Rabin from making peace with Palestinians.  Such were the tragic and heroic risks that that leader was willing to take--a narrative sometimes lost these days in the debased rhetorical discourse about the Israeli and Palestinian future.  People decry the lack of true leadership; the endless expressions of hate; the delusional utopias of a world without Jews or a world without Palestinians; and then there's the perpetual misunderstanding by many of Israel's critics about how hardened the center of the country became after a decade of terror in the 1900s and 2000s.

There are those who might read this and say, "You see, Rabin was right.  Had we made peace then we'd be well on our way to forging a lasting coexistence today."  And there are others, often the louder voice in the public square these days, who say, "You see, Rabin was wrong.  Delusional leftists.  The death of Jews is all the Palestinians will ever seek."

There is a range of views that are easily discerned:  a fatalistic hopelessness; mourning over loss of innocent life, both Jewish and Palestinian; a deep, burning cynicism; a lack of faith in leadership.  There is also steely resolve, faith in the broader arcs of history, unified admiration for soldiers willing to crawl into holes to root out terror.  (I learned last night that a young man I taught some summers ago lost an eye in battle this week.  I hope to visit him and other injured soldiers on Friday.  The nation, as is often said, forges ahead.)

A range of views and everything in between.  It's never been more important to listen than it is now.

Last night in a store on Ibn Gevirol, piqued by European and American airline's refusal to fly to Israel, I bought wine from the Negev.  "Israeli wines, eh?" said the owner.  "I'm patriotic, what can I say?" was my reply.  We had been talking about the F.A.A.'s decision to cancel flights to and from Israel; about proportionality of bombing between Gaza and Israel; about the general mood of the country.  "Thanks for coming to Israel during this time," he said, turning serious for a moment.  Another shopper, listening in to our somber exchange, chimed in:  "All the best and fuck the rest."

So it goes.

Before the F.A.A. ban, now lifted, mine was among the last planes into Israel for 36 hours.  I went through passport control with a few dozen Israelis, religiously observant American Jews, and several dozen Vietnamese on tour.  My pal Noah picked me up, we drove into Tel Aviv, dropped bags at his place, and went out for breakfast with his family.  Half-way through the sirens sounded and into the cafe stairwell we went.  "Normalization is over," my friend said.

The notion that one can "pretend" that the conflict is "over there" while Israelis live there normal lives "over here" has been pierced yet again by war, by rockets, by a feeling of isolation from the rest of the world.  Even though there are obvious and necessary military responses to the current engagement--destroying rocket batteries and tunnels, hunting down terrorists--there is unquestionably the broader truth:  while there are military responses there are ultimately only political solutions.

Buying groceries last night we walked past the Bereaved Families group in one public park.  Their signs read, זה לא יגמר עד שנדבר or "This Won't End Until We Talk."  A small group sat in a circle.  A bereaved mother held a microphone and talked about talking, turning over again the grieving soul's hardened earth, cultivating new life.

There's an eery quiet to the city, the tourism industry and economy hurt by the diminished travel here due to war and the vulnerability of so many population centers to rocket attacks.

An eery quiet, perhaps but the public debate is fierce and intense--far more diverse than what we tolerate in the Jewish community in the United States--though what is on the mind of many whom I have encountered here is the increased debasement of public discourse, the shaming and occasional physical attacks on left-wing activists and peaceniks, and the fearful splintering of the society by deeply held racist views.  Without question, the Left here feels under attack.  Terms like "fascism," "totalitarianism," and "racism" are used more than I've ever heard in my thirty years of annual visits and though obviously troubling, everyone is talking about it, bearing their own witness to the soundness (or lack thereof) of their historical claims.  On my morning run Wednesday, I heard it being spoken about on the radio, among mothers on a park bench, among pensioners having their morning coffee and smoke, and around the breakfast table, over headlines, with my friends.

Israeli government officials like Naftali Bennett taunts the Left by saying it will never rule Israel again. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman calls for a boycott of Arab Israeli citizens' businesses.  Right wing hoodlums attack those calling for peace and the police don't intervene, as happened last week in Tel Aviv.  The extremist Rabbi of Kiryat Arba, Dov Lior, in a bastardized reading of sacred texts, says that Jewish law permits the extermination of the enemy.  We're often our own worst enemy.

Never missing an opportunity to give ourselves a black eye, there is running parallel to such mendacity the stunning eagerness of others to blame Jews exclusively and Jews everywhere for this current war.  As Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out, more people died in Syria this past weekend than have died in this current conflict in Israel thus far, but it didn't bear getting mentioned by the paper of record.  Riots against Jews in Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere get ignored by the very same governments and activists that decry Israeli actions as akin to Nazis.  Two hundred thousand dead in the Syrian civil war; ISIS cutting off heads and hands in their new, orderly public squares; mass rape and executions in Nigeria; but Google terms like "Holocaust" and "worse than Nazis" and see where it gets you.  Italian philosophers, the Turkish Prime Minister, Israel's critics on list serves.  The crude flags of rhetoric wave with cheap historic understanding of what Fascism, Nazism and Genocide really look like.  And like over-fed gluttons of hate at an All-You-Can-Eat Holocaust Buffett, today's anti-Semites are quite sated, aren't they, taking bites from the moldy bread of this twisted reasoning?

They say it doesn't rain in Israel but this summer it does.  It rains rockets on civilian populations.  It rains justified destruction on rockets and launchers (even where they are amorally and strategically hidden) and as we have seen, tragically--TRAGICALLY--on innocent lives in Gaza.  It rains sadness and grief and anger at the funerals of guiltless children and women and men who have committed no crime but being in the way of hatred and stubbornness and yes, even justified self-defense.  It rains steely pride for soldiers who die in battle, to protect their homes and their families.  It rains truth and lies, words and image.  And image and image and image.

The preponderance of the image will come to be one of the defining characteristics of this nasty war.  The Facebook and Twitter advantage.  Your people and mine.  In fear and in death.  And the sick, unavoidable truth that deep in the bowels of the algorithm machinery of these communications networks is the idolatrous god of advertising revenue, clicking away, profitably, yet again, at the commerce of death.  But like that other tool, Snapchat, the images of this war--some real, some photo-shopped--will recede into the delete bin, another reminder that even with the most up-to-the-minute technology, certain problems will only be resolved by people making up their minds to solve them.

Listen, I'm not fooling myself for a minute.  A few puffs of smoke above my head courtesy of the Iron Dome is a great advantage.  The horrifying suffering of human life in Gaza must end.  But it will only end when each side faces its most grim realities.  Here in Tel Aviv, I see that taking place.  I see Israelis talking and arguing and struggling mightily with what the right way forward ought to be.  I'm grateful to see some occasional reporting about Palestinians' internal debates as well.

And the world should make no mistake about the sense of resolve.  I can't speak for Palestinian resolve and I shouldn't.  But what I see here--even among those who disagree on the political way forward, is an intense unity for the work the soldiers are doing to address the Gaza tunnels.  As has been revealed by the exposure of the Gaza tunnels, to news of potentially massive terror attacks that seem to have been clearly planned by Hamas and are now being confronted head on by soldiers and reserves who have sacrificed their own lives through service in an atmosphere of intense international criticism, some valid, most unwarranted and even hypocritical.  The nation, as is often said, forges ahead.

And I write this only a few steps from the ground upon which Yitzhak Rabin gave his life for peace, killed by a fellow Jew who felt his actions were traitorous, an assassin who based his ideas on the corrupt teachings of rabbis who said such a murder was not only permissible but necessary.

A decade of terror.  A hardening of positions.  "All the best and fuck the rest."  A dangerous fatalism that will bring nothing but more suffering.

Tuesday night I went to Rabin Square to observe an artists' demonstration for peace.  Frankly, it wasn't very impressive.  But afterward, as people milled about and as the police slowly receded, there were two large circles of Israelis talking to each other.  In each was an older person, carefully and assiduously arguing points of history.  Dates and events, like petals drifting downward, floated in the evening sky.  The 19th century, the Zionist Congress, World War One, the British Mandate, Sykes-Picot, Peel Commission, Partition, 48, Nakba, 67, Occupation, Lebanon, Oslo, Rabin, Camp David, and now this.

The young rightists were agitated.  The older citizens were teaching.  There was dialogue and fierce debate.  And the only images were words; or if you closed your ears, of people talking, about politics and history, war and peace, and life and death.

In Zofia Romanowiczowa's exquisitely disturbing novel Passage Through the Red Sea, the author struggles mightily with the ways in which the narratives of the past, like idols or hardened pillars of salt, can blind and overwhelm us, preventing us from discerning life's irreducible truths.  Romanowiczowa, a Polish Catholic who resisted the Nazis in the Radom Ghetto and then was arrested and imprisoned in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, wrote of the strange paradox that "death, the fear of which subjects us to each other, at the same time frees us from each other."

I read that line in a library in Tel Aviv, moments after time in a bomb shelter, phone buzzing with updates from the war a few kilometers away.

And so how can I not wonder--how can any of us not wonder--how much more death there needs to be in order to free us, at the very least, from the death we hope for or bring to each other?  How much more death do we need in order to eradicate the very death we know or imagine the other seeks?  We subject each other to death out of fear.  When will we have experienced enough to free us from each other's fear of and subjugation to death?

"This won't end until we talk."

And compromise.

And choose life.

Outside my window here in the Tel Aviv Public Library, a full and hearty ficus tree bakes beneath the late afternoon sun and gently breathes in the sea's tidal shifts.  Above that tree there ought only to be a pair of clouds in the sky, gathering slowly, conspiratorially even, for days and weeks and months until the rainy season begins.  Clouds from Gaza and clouds from Tel Aviv.  One by one, drop by drop becoming many, overcoming the scars of hatred, war and death, to make rain.

Isn't this what every parent hopes for when they bring a child into the world?

What did Yehuda Amichai say?

"That's not a scar you feel under my shirt, that's a letter of recommendation, folded up tight, from my father.  'All the same he's a good boy and full of love.' "

Not a scar but recommended love.

And rain.

17 July 2014

This Word Screams Out for Life

A few months after Dad died, I trudged up Bascom Hill in Madison, on my way to making up classes that I missed when I left school to grieve.  The entire year before had been shot academically--late teen crisis and depression, Dad's sudden death, and a paralyzing avalanche of questions about life's ultimate meaning.

I began to construct the scaffolding of personal narrative in George Mosse's history lectures, in after class bullshit sessions with his teaching assistant and now my dear friend Michael Berkowitz, in private Torah lessons with my Hillel director Irv Saposnik (of blessed memory filled with laughter) and a new group of friends who took Jewish civilization's questions of ultimate meaning seriously.  Not that my childhood friends who had all migrated to Madison from Milwaukee didn't; but there was a texture to the conversation, an immersion into ritual, a willingness to, as George put it, "confront history," that made this new group compelling in its own unique way.

Life not only had purpose but it possessed, was inherently suffused with, Jewish purpose.  "A Jew is an outside with a critical mind," George famously taught us in that first lecture.  And from that moment forward, my own intrinsic criticality, inherited no doubt from my father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so on--the proverbial and quite literal chain of tradition--achieved lift-off.   It was validating.

"You're so cynical," someone once said to me in high school.  "Lighten up."  I didn't quite see that as possible and in fact took great offense at the charge, it being somehow an existential threat to my very being, such as I pretentiously understood it during those striving late teen years, drinking pressed coffee, reading the New Yorker, and desperately trying to see Kurosawa, Bergman, and Godard--expressions which Milwaukee's East Side fostered generously, along with an ample supply of beer.

But cynicism was a tool, or so I had been taught; and that Jewish civilization had actually figured out how to harness it, through argument, debate, plowing deeper into textual and historical reality, for the purposes of maintaining a covenantal relationship not only between God and the Jewish people but among Jews themselves--this was revelatory.  I was desperate for me.

What should have been my junior year was still, credit-wise, my sophomore year; and it was therefore agonizing to watch friends pack themselves up for various junior year study abroad programs--France, England, Spain, India, Italy and of course, Israel.  Oh, man, I was shattered at not being able to go.  I dreamed about it.  Talked about it.  Yearned for it, even.  And one day, when I could no longer take it, I went to see the Dean of Students, Paul Ginsberg.  A giant.  A bear of a man.  Psychologist.  Zionist.  Had even smuggled guns from Cypress in the pre-state years.  Heroic state builder.   He'd get me there.  Immediately.

My sense of anticipation for the blessing I was about to receive was nothing other than the overflowing self-importance of youth.  It was going to be like a noir novel.  I'd get my assignment, maybe even in a dossier, and head over on the next plane to join the chain of tradition's heroic pantheon.

An office on a campus hilltop.  Shelves overflowing with books.  The slow, calming hiss of a radiator on a cold day.  A bearded man, fiercely secular and wise.  His hand a mitt--an Eddie Matthews mitt, a Henry Aaron mitt--engulfed my own.

"Sit down," he suggested.  And I told him my story.  He listened.  The narrative arc of my youth, the tragically realized transformation of facing a parent's death, of the Sinai-like moment of receiving the tablets of critical thinking, of a son redeeming the narrative of a father, the journey from slavery to freedom.  It was a wonderful story.

"Israel doesn't need another dreamer, Andy," he said.  "It needs practicality.  It needs you to be productive.  There are enough dreamers there."  It was a year before I'd learn to inculcate those words with these words, written by Ginsberg's contemporary, the poet Yehuda Amichai:  "The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams, like the air over industrial cities.  It's hard to breathe."


That was thirty years ago.

It's a lifetime.  And much more than a lifetime when compared to the lives of children cut short in this latest, agonizing, repulsive war that chokes us all with grief, anger, sadness and pain. "It's hard to breathe."

I've heard my teachers' voices echo in my soul these past weeks, wondering what to do from here, in the West, while my heart remains, as it always has, in the East.  The persistence of hatred and war after all these years combined with a broader extremism on the march has the potential to confuse, to blind, to leave us grasping for the allure of dangerous totalities.  A land without Jews.  A land without Arabs.  Texts with my own child from a safe room in West Jerusalem.  Facebook messages from friends in East Jerusalem.  Macabre updates from safe rooms in Tel Aviv.  And the war of images and opinions, of deconstructed news biases from Gaza to Ashkelon, of the seemingly hopeless search for objectivity in a land where bombs are dropping, terror is looming, consensus is elusive--this war of images is taking place in the context of a region torn apart--not, mind you, by the sheer weight of good people everywhere merely wanting to survive but by bad people doing bad things and drawing good people into the line of fire; and good people being forced to do bad things in order to prevent more bad things from happening.

Relativistic nonsense you say?  Not in the least.  In fact, I remain a proud Zionist.  Fortified as ever, resilient with hope, faithful in my belief that the Jewish people need and deserve, like any other nation, a state of our own.  And, because of this, I recognize the necessity and legitimacy of Palestinians' right to self-determination and to a state of their own.  I both abhor the killing and admire deeply, enduringly, the quiet heroism of Israelis and Palestinians who are weathering, yet again, a seemingly intolerable descent into violence and madness.

During the course of the past few weeks, I have read more arguments over the rightness of each cause and the irredeemable sins of each side to convince me, yet again, that there is no path forward other than compromise.  The Jewish people will not get all they want in the historic land of Israel; and the Palestinian people will not get all they want in the historic land of the Palestinian people.  That essential truth has never changed, in my opinion, over the course of the past one hundred years.

Try as the most extreme elements on either side might, maximalist views lead in one direction:  to the grave.  And we'll just keep bloodying ourselves, defending ourselves, justifying our actions to ourselves, until there is compromise and peace.  Until we learn that in our own sometimes deluded efforts to carry out the will of our God who loves us like no other, or the will of a Godless God of hatred and death, we will simply be dealing with the continual collateral damage of our own self-destruction.  We will pay the price until we understand, fundamentally, that we are responsible for one another.  Period.  Anything other than that is a world whose very foundation we are apt to destroy.

What did Amichai say about the diameter of a bomb?  "And I won't even mention the crying of orphans that reaches up to the throne of God and beyond, making a circle with no end and no God."

There is no other way.  No other way than hope, paired with the practical decisions that derive from the belief and the knowledge that we all deserve better, not through the miraculous totalities of dreamers but the hardscrabble facts of builders.

As a Jew and as a human this word screams out for life:  Hope.

10 July 2014

On Practical Considerations

there's enough Mediterranean Sea for everyone
I'm no longer on the Left or the Right.
I'm not Orthodox or Reform.
I'm an American Jew.  It's as simple as that.
And that's the place I write this from.

Just a week ago, the Jewish world was recoiling in horror at hearing the news of the deaths of three young Israeli men, Eyal, Gil-ad and Naftali--brutally murdered, shot in the head, dragged and buried under rocks in a field.  They had been missing for 18 days.  The parents of the young men prayed and asked for hope.  But it wasn't to be.  Soon others (but not the parents) called for revenge.  Tensions rose.  Many feared the worst.

Moments later (or so it seemed) a group of Jewish youth fell upon Muhammed Abu Khedeir, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem.  He was kidnapped and burned alive, a horrific death, condemned by Jewish leaders in Israel and throughout the world.  Within days the perpetrators were arrested.  Rabbis and philosophers and politicians dug deep within their Jewish souls, taking responsibility for and desperately trying to understand how such brutality could occur in the name of Israel, Judaism and Zionism.    Riots broke out in Palestinian areas. More deaths.  The Jerusalem police beat a teenaged Palestinian-American.  The officers were punished.  Jews visited the Muslim funeral tent of Muhammed Abu Khedeir's family.  Calls for revenge mingled with calls for peace on Facebook and Twitter.  Flaccid, rehearsed calls for restraint were issued by governments from around the world.

And then the rockets started falling from Gaza.  We know how this ends.

It's not a fair fight.  Hamas terrorizes Israeli civilian populations.  Israel strikes back, strong, against rocket batteries that are placed among civilian populations, knowing that children, women, non-combatant men will die.  Those deaths, like human ante at a tired game of poker, will be chips in the media, on Twitter and Facebook, on the international stage of the United Nations.

Zionism is racism.   Zionism is genocidal.  Zionism is colonialism.
Palestinians are savages.  Palestinians are inhuman.  Palestinians don't want peace.

In my life, I know all those above six statements to be false.  Annoyingly, repetitively, debilitatingly and idiotically false.  "Game of Thrones" has a more compelling plot line at this point than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I'm a Zionist because I know it to be true that Jews are a nation with a history, a land and a language all our own.  As a Zionist I also believe that Palestinians, as they have come to define themselves, have a history, a land and a language all their own.

I actually believe that this can be worked out.

I don't think kidnapping teenagers and killing them or launching rockets helps anyone.  It just makes things worse.

So it's mid-July. And the conversation should be about soccer.  But all the world is watching Hamas launch rockets and the Israeli Army bomb Gaza, killing the guilty along with the innocent, as rockets fall in the south and the center of Israel, terrorizing a civilian population including, this summer, my own kid.  (WhatsApp question of the day:  "Dad.  Are there benefits to a ground invasion?")

And when this latest rounds ends, with many more dead than there were at the beginning (some who deserved to die and some who didn't) the people, who live under their leaders, will demand to know what the next steps will be.

I'm a practical man.  So here's my demand:

I want to hear from Palestinian leaders that the Jewish people have the right to live in a state of their own in peace.  I want to hear from Israelis leaders that the Palestinian people have the right to live in a state of their own in peace.

The partisan blows will be tempting.  Cynics will say:  Settlement expansion.  Right of Return.  Refugees.  Jerusalem.  It will all fall apart all over again.

Seems to me, for the better part of the past twenty years, we've got answers to those questions.  They're bound up in agreements.  Stored away.  "Light is sown for the righteous."  Release the light already.

Stop the killing.

So why all the killing?  Hate is a powerful tool, isn't it?  Tens of thousands of Facebook posts calling for revenge against Arabs.  Celebrations in the streets over Jewish dead teenagers' bodies.  On the other hand, thousands express moral outrage in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  Hundreds visit Muhammed Abu Khadeir's family's mourning tent.  The killing doesn't have to be, does it?  Our morality can overcome our baser instincts, can it not?

My sense is that, besides our more savage, uncontrolled urges toward death, killing continues because the people grant the consent to those who govern them to kill in their name.  It's either that or the mark of pure despotism.  But history dictates that either can be changed.  But one does have to take a risk. Yitzhak Rabin, tragically, wasn't the first patriot to risk his life for peace.   Anwar Sadat was killed too. Closer to home, Abraham Lincoln.  Martin Luther King.  This is the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer in America.  African Americans are more equal today than one hundred years ago because people risked their lives.  It's a terrible dilemma.  There are no guarantees. But history calls for at the least, the risk of sacrifice.

I'm a double patriot.  A proud American and a proud Zionist.  Less than a week ago I sat with friends and family and read the American Declaration of Independence, an annual ritual that reifies, each year, the values embedded in America's imperfect and ever-evolving democracy.

One section interests me greatly each year and this year, in anticipation of what I knew would inevitably transpire in Israel, I paid special attention to these words:

"That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.  Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.  But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

The Israeli government is remarkably contentious.  It's to be expected amongst Jews, no?  I've spent the better part of the last thirty years of my career in Jewish life.  The way we organize ourselves is often no walk in the park.  For instance, even as bombs are falling in the homeland and a military operation is underway in Gaza, news outlets carry speculative reports of the Israeli governments rising and falling, coalitions forming and re-forming--perhaps this time, the theory goes, creating a government that can truly bring peace.  Not for "light and transient causes," mind you.  Rather, peace.

But "mankind are more disposed to suffer."  This I direct to my Palestinian friends and their allies.  To wit:  where is the suffering getting you?  The wave of suicide bombs in the Second Intifada got you behind a security barrier, tighter controls over your movements, and increased Jewish settlements. Bombs from Gaza get you mass death and an economic stranglehold in the form of blockade.

And under Hamas, in the form of messianic religious extremism and a totally blatant rejection of the validity of Jews', Jewishness and Judaism's national expression of Zionism, you are left with nothing.

The "long train of abuses and usurpations" are not just the Occupation you have come to singularly detest.  But in your detestation you are showing your own remarkable capacity for self-abuse.  Hiding bombs among children.  Shame on you.

It is your right to bring such shame upon yourself, that's for sure.  But it is your duty "to throw off such Government" whose actions may very well be contributing to the abuse you so disdain.  You want peace?  Overthrow your own very leaders who are preventing you from accepting reality:  the Jewish people have an equal claim to live in the land.  We are here to stay.

It's an easy transaction.  Stop the terror.  Accept the Jewish state.  You'd be surprised--as the Egyptians and Jordanians have come to learn--that when you exercise that duty, together, we can "provide new Guards" for future security.