We pay a considerable vanity tax and it irritates me. I first realized this when I had to pay $100 extra for bifocals without visible lines on the lens. There are many such indignities that are skin-deep, but among the most irritating of all these vanity taxes is what I pay to dye my hair. Denying the reality of aging costs money. It takes time and time is evermore precious. Ultimately, this act self-subterfuge turns looking in the mirror to a lie, and I harbor intense distaste for liars.
Along with Talmud, Hebrew, Rambam and Halachah, one of the important things I am learning at Pardes is that this “graying” as I age also applies my certainty about my political frameworks. As I grapple with the horrors of Syria and Iraq by the sheer evil ISIS, and the rock-throwing, stabbing and car-crashing in Israel prompted in part by their incitement, I look in the mirror of long-held political beliefs old ideas and realize that none of them fit exactly to reality as I grow older. I have always believed that all wrongs could be righted if everyone had equal rights for a decent public education, full voting rights and equal access to opportunity. Unfortunately, this does not answer every act of rage by a disenfranchised teenaged boy with access to Internet incitement, and possession of guns or knives. Good, ethical and right does not always overcome the very real forces of evil that blow like weeds across our planet. Like Nazism, ISIS presents the kind of evil that cannot be dissuaded ethically; sometimes, unfortunately, war is the only answer. As I plumb the depths of “the matzav” here in the coal mine of the veritable canary, within many of my encounters both in and out of the beit midrash (house of study), I find my old ideas blending with pragmatic new realities to create the same emerging gray as my true hair. There is not enough dye in the world to highlight it or change the color of truth.
Tuesdays at Noon at Pardes
On Tuesdays at noon at Pardes, we encounter the “matzav,” through the eyes of a variety of scholars. This week, four of the resident faculty sat in a panel discussion to share their very diverse ideas about the current eruption of violence. These co-workers sat together at a table and presented a range of ideas that in American parlance might be described as “A-Z, soup to nuts, far right to far left across the political spectrum.” And if I were in America, I would probably prejudge with certainty which “side” I would take, based on my typical black and white framework. Here, what I observed in a very profound way was that with total civility, open ears, devoid of name-calling or even naming, blaming or defaming, every person on the panel said something with which I agreed, and something with which I disagreed. At the end of the day, regardless of their individual focus, they had more in common with each other than their political positions or their chosen places of residence might represent. (Two lived in Jerusalem proper, two in what we might call the West Bank, or the other side of the Green Line).
In a nutshell, the most “liberal” of the four expressed a profound concern that the current government does not offer hope to either side. Lack of hope and frustration with the idea that nothing will change (therefore, what do I have to lose?), contributes to a lack of change in the situation. This person’s greatest heartache is the memory of going door to door as an IDF reservist and the ethical conundrum he faced when confronting frightened Arab families in an effort to root out terrorists without killing civilians. His heartache was the knowledge that his teenaged son will soon have to do the same thing. The ache for his child and lack of change frustrated him as he questioned, “What kind of leadership offers no hope?” We need new leadership.
Another expressed her strong opinion that just as we tell our children how we expect them to behave in public as a reflection of our family values, regardless of what other kids may be doing, she expected the leadership to lead and press action that aligned with our values as Jews. How can we leave the Arabs of East Jerusalem, she asked, without voting rights or the ability to return if they marry someone from the territories or Gaza? I don’t care what they do; I expect us to respond within the framework of our Jewish ethical values.
Another, whose sons had also had to go door to door in Arab villages, shared that her family’s dinnertime conversation always includes the lesson of treating the other with dignity. They should go out of their way not to frighten little children; they should not yell, but speak gently. She has had tea with her Arab neighbors in her own home; unfortunately it is not safe to go to their villages. If they can’t behave lawfully, maybe they should leave or be sent away.
The other person who lived in a West Bank community told stories of his many associations with Arab workers and contractors, and how they respond well to being treated and paid fairly. He strives in all his interactions to behave towards them ethically. All Israelis should behave this way in day to day social and economic associations with our neighbors. He is less concerned with systemizing this than self-protection. As long as there is incitement to hate and violence, our first priority must be to protect ourselves from those who want to kill us.
At the end of this passionate and sincere and painfully open panel discussion, I was bewildered by the realization that single every person on the panel said something with which I agreed, and something with which I disagreed. My old black and white frameworks blended to a shade of gray like the hair in my mirror. I realize with deep sadness that this kind of complexity and thoughtful discussion has been lost in the polarized politics of the U.S. The respect and civility of my teachers refreshed me as profoundly just as the lack of any “absolute truth,” frightened me with its many divergent directions and possibilities and impossibilities.
Facing Moses’ Worst Fear
A few weeks ago, Dr. Micah Goodman, a philosopher of Zionism, posed this question: What one word would you use to describe Jewish history in the 20th century? (I might have asked for a phrase, because it cannot be stated in less than two words). In essence, the words he used were: Destruction. Survival. (Decimation. Renewal. Genocide. Genesis. Can anyone out there think of one word that encompasses both? If so, I’d be interested to know it!)
The Jewish people made a quick move from being powerless to powerful, reflecting the fear of our teacher Moses. As he neared death, he became terrified with the certainty that the people would violate the covenant as soon as they crossed over into the land. He feared they would either return to Egypt or become Egypt.
Dr. Goodman related a midrash regarding Jacob as he prepared for his fateful meeting with Esau. He sent spies who returned with the news that Esau would be accompanied by 400 men, and feared that Esau would seek revenge for taking the blessing from him. The midrash describes Jacob’s fear with two words: ירא — the natural biological sense of fear that he might die– and יצר — the ethical fear of dying, or I might add, the idea of having to respond by killing his brother.
“A Jewish warrior carries both fears,” says Dr. Goodman. He continued by describing the Code of Ethics of the Israel Defense Forces. First of all, “chaye adam”…the life of each person is sacred and the security of each soldier is a promise to their mothers. In other words, taking any unnecessary risks would be a breach of ethics on the part of the commanding officers or fellow soldiers. Another he mentioned specifically is “tahor ha’neshek“, or the “purity of arms,” that is, that every soldier is bound to minimize casualties among enemies. Between these two–the security of each soldier and the effort to minimize casualties among enemies, creates a radical tension between the two.
“These are not theoretical principles in today’s Israel, and it is extremely disturbing,” said Dr. Goodman. “For example, what if you have intel that someone in Gaza is building a bomb with the intent to blow up a building in Tel Aviv. The principle of chaye adam, the security of each person, obviously necessitates foiling his plan by any means possible. However, what if he is building a bomb in a house where he is surrounded by others, women and children? How do you prioritize?”
He gave an example from the 2002 Intifada in which these conflicting principles were put to the test. Over 1000 Jews were killed in terrorist attacks such as bus bombings, or the hotel bombing in Netanya during a community Passover seder, acts which left a population of 7 million Israelis terrified. Thus, Operation Defensive Shield was launched. In Jenin, a terrorist hub in a West Bank city very close to populous northern areas, a decision was made to send troop from house to house to root out individuals rather than bomb the town. Forty Palestinians (including 20 terrorists) and 13 Israeli soldiers were killed for the effort. The outcome of living by the ethical principle of “tahor ha’neshek“? The world press generated a mythical massacre of over 500 Palestinians. In the meantime, in Israel, the question was raised about why Israeli soldiers had to die protecting their civilians?
My cousin Alon was among the reservists who had to do the hand-to-hand combat in Jenin. At that time, the father of two young daughters expressed a bitter bewilderment that the world fell for the story of a “massacre.” He had personally witnessed Palestinians “playing dead,” being loaded into ambulances in front of television cameras, in ambulances that drove around the block, where they jumped out and rejoined the line of corpses to be buried.) This type of “battle,” that is, lying to the press, has become an integral part of the “new war,” one in which our values are used against us. Citing Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, “The End of History,” Goodman reflected that with the end of the Cold War, subscribers of western civilization thought we would never again be attacked. But terrorism has changed all that.
Terrorism introduces a new war, one in which our values are used against us. “This ethical asymmetry balances the imbalance of power. Unethical offense and defense creates a challenging situation.”
The complexity of this reality and confusion about the best ways to ethically battle the unethical was the ultimate concern of every member of this week’s panel. Parents worrying that children and grandchildren will continually fight the same wars over and over–balanced against the Jewish ethic that prohibits the construct of a society to perpetrate the kinds of inequality and discrimination faced by Arabs in East Jerusalem, and to a lesser extent by Israeli Arabs; balanced against the daily reality of living peacefully with neighbors who will not disappear or like us on demand, balanced yet more by the sectors of that population bent on murder, mayhem, anarchy and destruction–is enough to turn anyone’s hair gray. The kernels of hope I heard rested strongly in the one common self-expression of every single soul on the panel, each of whom preceded their statements of belief like this: I believe to the core of my being in the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland. I love my country.
At the end of his lecture, a student asked Dr. Goodman said what he thought American Jews could do to. To my surprise and delight, he offered an answer I had never heard. “We need your partnership in working to solve our problems,” he responded.
Here, for the first time from among the hundreds of lectures and “briefings,” and situational analyses I have heard, an Israeli influential asked not for money, or weapons, but for our human capabilities. He invited us to join our Israeli brothers and sisters in the challenge of problem-solving in what seems to be an intractable conflict. Not just our fundraising “rah-rah,” (though Israelis love to be loved, no doubt), not just our political influence (though it helped Israel achieve Iron Dome, thus saving thousands of lives). These things help to survive the conflict, but do little to help solve it.
Which returns us back to Moses’ core concern: do we want to return to Egypt or become Egyptians? Or do we want to give our time or treasures to efforts that will help our Israeli brothers and sisters solve problems in ways that are the best expression of our Jewish values?
At the end of these long days at Pardes, I always call Eddie to discuss what I’ve learned that day. We talked for a long time about Dr. Goodman’s thought-provoking words. How might this framework impact how we allocate our charitable resources and time? We’re still talking about it. But of one thing I have certainty: the complete futility of applying our absurd American politics of polarization to Israel within our Jewish organizations. If we are to achieve peace in our times, or help bring it about for our children or grandchildren, we need to hold up this diamond and look at its seventy faces, and work at accepting that there is not enough dye in the world to cover or highlight the reality of all these shades of gray.
In a three way Skype call with my daughters Julia and Molly this past weekend, Julia announced her intention to travel to Oaxaca in December.
“I don’t want you to go to Mexico now,” I said. “It’s too dangerous.”
My irreverent daughters burst out laughing. “Mom!” they said, almost simultaneously. “You’re in Jerusalem …. Right now, you’re in the most dangerous city in the world…. How can you say that?”
Funny, it doesn’t feel all that dangerous, relatively speaking anyway. A cursory online survey of the most dangerous cities in the world for homicide, drug lords, gangs and street crime revealed a whopping nineteen cities in Brazil, ten cities in Mexico, several in Columbia and Venezuela, a few in South Africa and four in the United States (Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans, and St. Louis). As a resident of Texas, I am closer to Ciudad Juarez (Number 1 on at least one list) than I am to Kabul or Bagdad, which is about as close to Jerusalem as dangerous cities get.
Failing to earn the questionable distinction of a most dangerous city, however, doesn’t diminish the significance of what has happened in this latest round of violence.
“Now we have children killing children.”
In case your local newspaper hasn’t fully covered the recent violence in Israel, here’s the unhappy summary: In response to how-to lessons from anonymous ISIS-inspired videos on social media, incitement by Gaza mullahs calling for people to become heroes by stabbing Jews, and silence from Palestinian leaders, Israel has experienced the specter of grisly acts of random violence. The cold-blooded murder by gunshot wounds of parents in front of their four children ages nine and under; stabbing deaths of a fathers and husbands and soldiers; a grandfather hit by a car, then stabbed to death. Rock-throwing and cars crashing with the intention of running drivers off the road. And of course, the old terror trick of attacks on public transportation, including a Jerusalem bus not a half mile from where I attend classes all day. Among the gallery of some thirty or so recovering victims: A few 70-year olds run over at a bus stop. A Dutch-born Christian foster mother in East Jerusalem. A young mother and her 2-year old toddler. (Yes, someone stabbed a two-year old toddler.)
A 13-year boy who is to become a bar mitzvah next month, stabbed by another 13-year old boy as he rode his bicycle. “Now we have children killing children,” noted one friend.
With some pundits declaring a third intifada, Jerusalem closed into itself. Since government cuts had taken away school security guards in many places, parents, teachers and students reduced school days to pressure the government to restore school security to the budget. Empty buses ran down empty streets. Nighttime Jerusalem, usually full of people walking, playing, eating in sidewalk cafes, children riding bicycles and scooters, became a like a ghost town. Restaurant owners saw business go down by more than half. A friend who works at an Old City museum said the tours were beginning to cancel, and people were avoiding the museum. If it wasn’t an intifada, it certainly felt like one. I was here during the second intifada, and a closed and inward Jerusalem is not completely unfamiliar to me.
Israeli friends and family tell me that this time, it feels “different.” Why? Most of the Jerusalem stabbers are not Palestinians of the West Bank or Gaza; they are Israeli Arabs who reside in East Jerusalem. These aren’t Hamas fighters firing rockets at ambiguous, unseen targets. These are neighbors, or the children of neighbors, who harbor a rage so intense that they are capable of making hand to body physical contact required to stab someone to death.
Iron Dome may be smart enough to save cities from mass casualties from rocket fire, but it can’t anticipate a random face in an ordinary crowd with the rage and the will to stab a random Jew.
My American Numbness
If I were watching this spectacle from my comfy home in Austin, I would be worried and appalled. Oddly enough, I didn’t know what I felt until I heard one of my American classmates say she, “felt numb.” That was it! It wasn’t fear, it wasn’t denial…it was…nothing. Numb, except for the irritation for interrupting my daily routine — especially because I rely on public transportation. What’s with the persistent drone of helicopters circling overhead? They’re drowning out the endearing neighborhood sounds of children laughing and playing and bawling when a siblings hurts them, parents barking orders, babies crying, horns honking, the serious daveners at the little Na-Nach synagogue across the street. I thought, screw it! From my comfortable distance in Austin, I’ve always admired the plucky Israeli ability to survive terror attacks by getting on with life. Haven’t we always heard that to stop living in the face of terror hands the perpetrators a victory?
Perhaps stupidly, I decided I would not be scared to do what I want to do, day or night, despite the empty streets. Then one night, looking to the left and right and behind my shoulder, I felt a twinge. How did I get to be so good at night walking? My old Houston days, or nights in New York City in the crime-plagued late 1970s? The 1980s dusk walks on Austin’s Town Lake after a plague of rapes? All those focus groups with victims and perpetrators of violence against women in the 1990s? Urban Americans know violence, we see it all the time on television and the news.
For just a little moment, I tucked away away Jerusalem’s troubled history, with its multi-layered religious cultural context. If I thought of it like any other city experiencing a violent crime wave perpetrated by misguided young people, it didn’t seem so dangerous. The numerical odds would be in my favor. Seven people killed out of over 800,00 in the greater Jerusalem area; what’s that compared to 10 in one day in Roseburg, Oregon, population approximately 22,000? Skip the political, social, emotional motivations for a moment: what makes this singular crime wave any worse or different than the one created by an epidemic of misguided (mostly) young men? Incited by the Internet, fed by mental illness, poverty, joblessness, hopelessness and frustration–guns, knives, what’s the difference? Whether in a community college classroom or a bus stop, movie theater or house of worship, it seems the perpetrators have a lot in more common with each other than their random victims.
At the end of my little moment, I am present; in Jerusalem it can’t be that simple. With its sirens, helicopters, checkpoints and young soldiers guarding buses, mall entrances and busy street corners. After week or so at Hadassah Hospital, the bar mitzvah thankfully woke up from his coma; just down the hall on that very same day, his 13-year old stabber, injured in his attempted to getaway, was released and promptly arrested. He retracted his original confession in which he said his 17-year old cousin, shot dead by an armed bystander, had invited him to tag along, stab some Jews. He pleads not guilty, he’s just a kid. Can there by any doubt that two sets of Jerusalem parents returned that day to their separate Jerusalem neighborhoods, relieved their children are alive, aggrieved at their fate, and undoubtedly wondering, as we all are, when and how this can ever end.
I met a nice couple today from Marin County who spend extended periods of time every year in Israel. Like us, they come for long enough to pretend they live here; they attend different kinds of synagogues to experience new ways, network with various people and have friends and family here. Israel is a home away from home. There are many like us not only from the U.S., but from England, Australia, South Africa, and Canada; in Israel we are called “Anglos” because we speak English (though not in any other context would I ever describe myself as “Anglo”). I asked them how they felt about what was happening, and every answer they offered quoted an Israeli or American-Israeli friend or relative. While they didn’t describe the same numbness I have felt, like me, they take social and emotional cues about “how to express feelings about the matzav”, or “situation” as it is called here. By and large, my new friends agree with me that the overwhelming aura here is one of a deep, sighing (but not yet groaning) sadness.
How do Israelis deal with it? They leave the country for vacations or to visit friends and relatives in other countries to take a break from the stress and the news. Some move to other countries. Most heavily sigh and go on with their lives. They watch TV, and the news; popular Israeli talk television hosts give tips to parents on how to talk to children. After a few days of calm, people return to normal life albeit with more caution and suspicion. A few of my ever-hopeful friends march in solidarity rallies with Arab neighbors to show that they won’t bend to hate. Mostly, there seems to be tacit agreement that, “Even if the Arabs hate us, we must keep trying, even though many continue to believe they will eventually drive Jews ‘back to where we came from.'”
“I’m not going back to Poland, that’s for sure,” says one.
“I have nowhere else to go,” says another.
“We have always been here, why should we go anywhere?” says my own family.
“Why do they hate us so much?”
“I can’t believe that my friend so and so really believes that we are occupiers like the British or the Ottomans. She really believes that one day, we too will give up and go away. I just don’t get it.”
Among most of my friends and fellow-students, there is deep antipathy to the ultra-Orthodox and that directional tilt in Netanyahyu’s government. I have heard bitter criticism about bad public policy regarding settlement in the West Bank from some of the most patriotic Israelis. Israelis complain with good reason about the unreasonably high cost of housing in desirable areas, the lack of government funding for interior Israel infrastructure in the north, budget cuts for school security, and gross errors in handling “the matzav. ” Has destruction of the homes of families of terrorists worked in the past? When they put up concrete blockades in East Jerusalem to create checkpoints, they effectively shut off ordinary Israeli Arabs from going to work and school within any reasonable timeframe. Suddenly, the “undivided capital of Israel” became divided, and many people screamed loud enough about it that the strategy was abandoned.
A Lamed on the Car Roof
In the past few days as a tentative calm has returned, the student drivers are back on the streets. Learner cars all tote a big ל on the car roof for the Hebrew word for “Learner,” making them hard to miss. I noticed that one thing that both Israeli and Arab and probably most student drivers have in common is how they clutch the wheel tightly with both hands and keep their eyes intently on the the road. When I saw the students today, I thought that it’s too bad their leaders aren’t as cautious as they are. They are neighbors, after all.
I think of my neighbors in Austin, and the importance of those relationships in the day-to-day pleasantness of our lives. Our relationships with our neighbors are of primary importance because we share a yard, a roof, a pool, a road. To have healthy relationships with neighbors (or anyone for that matter), we have to listen to each other’s story even if it conflicts with our own. Equally, we have to acknowledge that there will be conflicting but equally valid points of view, and that everyone’s point of view will be, by definition, self-serving. The practice of self-restraint, listening, sharing, and empathy … these are lifelong quests in all close relationships.
Compromise can’t be harder than violence, can it? No doubt compromise can be uncomfortable, but can it be more uncomfortable than mourning dead relatives, or hospitalizations for knife and gunshot wounds, or the wounds to so many souls living with continuous strife?
As a 40-year veteran in the Israeli world of social justice, Levi Lauer said in a lecture this week, “Doing nothing is no answer. Saying ‘I don’t know what to do,’ is no answer. Saying Hashem will answer is foolish. It is not feasible to believe that 4 million people will like you or disappear at your will. We have to synthesize emunah (faith) with human action and communal discipline. It may be uncomfortable, but we have to engage with our discomfort if we are to have collective salvation.”
What kind of action do you think will help? What will hurt? What can we do? Let me know your thoughts.
Last November, Tablet Magazine published an article I wrote about President’s Lyndon Johnson’s dedication of the new synagogue building for Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin. Today, in honor of President’s Day, Tablet reposted the article, this time including the audio file of his speech. Whatever your thoughts about LBJ’s politics or personality, this was an incredible speech that offered a window into where he would lead us.
President Johnson’s participation in the life of my synagogue remains a source of pride in our history. I have had the privilege of interviewing many congregants who participated in the planning, cooking, speaking and arranging, and for them it was a defining moment as American Jews. We had a President who loved us, who listened to us and honored us with his presence. The move itself represented a move “Uptown” from downtown both physically and spiritually. After all, not even Cyrus the Great, who released the exiled Jews from Babylonia to return to the Land, loaned us his convertible to carry our sacred Torah scrolls.