Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The 'Jewish State' and Other Israel Film Festival

Sadly, cabinet members of the three right-wing parties in Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition government voted on Sunday to explicitly promote in the Knesset, the concept of Jewish nationhood over Israel's traditional view of itself as "Jewish and democratic.Ministers from the two centrist partners in the coalition, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party and Tzipi Livni's Hatenua, voted against.  According to a NY Times news article, Lapid wondered what is said with this legislation to the family of the Druze policeman killed resisting last week's terror attack on a Jerusalem synagogue; Livni responded to the bill by posting Israel's Declaration of Independence (with its pledge to defend the rights of all its citizens) on its Facebook page.

Efforts to officially define Israel in terms of its Jewish majority, including a demotion of Arabic from its current status as an official language, are not particularly different than most of its neighbors' self-definition as Arab or Islamic.  Similar to the bill's intent to enshrine Hebrew religious texts as inspiration for legislation (although not exactly the same as enshrining Halacha -- Jewish law), is the practice in majority Muslim countries (like Pakistan, Iraq or Afghanistan) to cite the Koran as a source for legislation.  But how does this help Israel, especially now at this tense time?

It's obvious to me that Israel's interest lies in working to make its 20% Arab minority feel at home in the country they share with Jewish fellow citizens.  The Manhattan JCC's annual Other Israel Film Festival is invaluable for highlighting stories and discussions about Israel's diverse ethnic and religious nature.  Occasionally one may question the festival's good judgment, as I did last week.  But more often than not, its selections enrich our knowledge while providing first-rate entertainment.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Conflicting Property Rights in Hebron & Jerusalem

During our visit in Hebron we encountered a fascinating sign. On one of the walls of the Avraham Avinu neighborhood in the midst of Palestinian Hebron, under a mighty light, we read:
These buildings were constructed on land purchased by the Hebron Jewish community in 1807. This land was stolen by Arabs following the murder of 67 Hebron Jews in 1929. We demand justice, return our property to us!
Our guide, Avner Gvaryahu of Breaking the Silence (Shovrim Shtika), explained that the land had indeed been purchased by the Jewish community in 1807 and abandoned after the Hebron massacre of 1929. However, when we speak of land ownership, we tend to refer to individual and not ethnic ownership. Had I, for example, made a claim to the land of my late neighbor simply because he had been Jewish, my claim would most likely be rejected. My neighbor’s land belongs to his descendants, not to the Jewish collective.

But the land bordering the Avraham Avinu neighborhood has a peculiar status. It is legally owned by Haim Hanegbi, one of the founders of Matzpen, a revolutionary socialist and anti-Zionist organization. Hanegbi inherited the land from his grandfather, Rabbi Haim Bajayo, the Sephardi rabbi of the Jewish community in Hebron. Hanegbi, needless to say, opposes the Jewish settlement in Hebron. He does not want his grandfather’s land back and most certainly does not want to give it to Hebron’s settlers.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Is it an Intifada Yet?

There are (for the purposes of this post, at least) two types of war.  There are wars that start suddenly and unexpectedly, seemingly with little or no warning.  World War I is perhaps the best example of this.  On June 27, 1914, the day before the assassination of  Archduke Ferdinand, Europeans were planning their summer vacations. By early August, in all the major European powers, they were marching to war.

The second type of war is foreshadowed for years before the actual fighting begins, and move towards actual hostilities slowly and agonizingly, with the major contenders marshaling their forces, heightening their rhetoric, and counting their grievances before blood is spilled. World War II, or if you prefer to keep Hitler out of it, the American Civil War are the best examples of this type of war.  Whatever other emotions people had on  September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, or when General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (love that name!) commenced shelling Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, surprise was low on the list.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The View from East Jerusalem

Given the violent and turbulent times that we have been experiencing in Jerusalem, people have asked me what my perspective is as one of the rare Israelis who regularly spends time every week in East Jerusalem. That was my motivation for writing the article that was published last night at The Times of Israel on The View from East Jerusalem.  Your comments are welcome.

Here's how it begins:

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Words of Wisdom in These Dark Times

Originally composed before yesterday's terrorist attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem, the following is adapted from Phyllis Bernstein's D'var Torah delivered at the Nov. 17th meeting of the Israeli Arab committee of her local New Jersey Jewish community federation, which she co-chairs:

This week's portion (Chayei Sarah) is distinctive for its lesson on coexistence and a rational approach to neighbors. Genesis contains a story about Sarah's burial, what it means to perpetuate life on a promised land, and how to deal with the neighbors.

Abraham wanted and needed for his spiritual fulfillment a shared space. A shared space required--and still does to this day-- honorable and equitable shared commerce. That is why Abraham begins and ends his engagement with the Hittites with an insistence on proper buying and selling of property.

There is another important element: Abraham’s self-identification as a stranger and a temporary resident. Rabbis say "love thy neighbor" is one of the most important concepts in Biblical literature and one of the most frequently quoted commandments. Thirty-four times the Bible commands the Jewish people to love the stranger and resident among them. 

This is the most important lesson Judaism offers to the world. It is not a message of unity, or absorption of one into another. It is a message of plurality, and to honor difference across borders. It is a lesson that the world cannot survive without, and it is a message to those living in the Promised Land, and in Jerusalem. 

Understanding Terror Is NOT Justifying It

Yesterday morning a close friend of mine posted on Facebook a report about the terrorist attack in Jerusalem. “When would it end?” She asked. “It would end when we find a solution,” I responded. My friend was enraged. As a liberal American Jew, she finds stories about violations of Palestinian civil rights upsetting, but she thinks that explaining the context of a murder in a synagogue means justifying it. On her Facebook feed, I felt compelled to condemn the terrorist attack, but I hated doing this without being able to say more.

I do not need to condemn a murder of religious Jews in Jerusalem. I lived there in the height of terror in the 1990s, when buses exploded and people were killed in restaurants. I remember what I was doing in March 1996, when a terrorist blew himself up at the entrance of Dizingoff Center, some 200 feet from my apartment building. Two hours later the phones were still down, forensic teams were collecting human remains from the tree in front of my house. When I went upstairs to the roof to watch, a policeman yelled at me. It was dangerous. I could neither leave my own apartment, nor talk to anyone. I remember my father's eyes, when he knocked on the door. He walked through backyards, so no one could see him. He needed to make sure I was alive. I know what it means to live under terror, and this is precisely why I want it to end. But it will not end until we understand the causes and resolve them; and understanding does not mean justifying.

My friend’s refusal to contextualize terror echoes perfectly what Netanyahu’s spokespeople have been saying since the 1990s: “This has nothing to do with our actions,” “they hate us,” “they want to throw us out of here,” and most importantly, “Palestinian terror is a direct continuation of European antisemitism.” Noam Sheizaf wrote this in 972 magazine:

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Other Israel Film Festival: Screening 'On the Left'

Part I of a four-part Israeli television series, "ON THE LEFT (the story of the Israeli Left 1948-2012)", was showcased Nov. 9 and 11, at the Other Israel Film Festival in New York.  Each of the many films and TV programs featured were co-sponsored by one or more progressive Jewish group. And this one was ours this year.  PPI's representative chose this film on the basis of viewing a limited excerpt.

It's described in the festival's brochure as a documentary on the history of the Israeli left.  Instead, it's a far-left polemic against the idea that there ever was an Israeli left; as I recall, its title in the opening credits even appears with a question mark: "An Israeli Left?"  Rather than raising serious issues for careful scrutiny, it's an unrelenting attack on Israel's left-wing legacy and the notion that there's any justice to Israel's creation and existence.

It's too bad there wasn't a panel afterwards, including one or more people who could reasonably critique the film. Rather than introducing an independent voice, both presentations concluded with appearances by Anat Saragusti, the film's researcher.  In the Q & A at the downtown venue, she responded politely to my friend's concern that the film had a predetermined ideological agenda, claiming that they simply went where the facts led them.

Fellow blogger, Hillel Schenker, provided this perspective from his home in Tel Aviv:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Thoughts on Seeing Klinghoffer Opera, at Last

Over the weekend, I attended the last performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Met. I tried as best I could, despite reading about 20 reviews of the production, to view it without preconceptions. I must say that I came away astonished that anyone could see the opera as Anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli, or in any way condoning Palestinian terrorism.  The opera provides the strongest possible condemnation of  terrorism, and the terrorists who killed Klinghoffer are depicted as monsters, with their rationalizations for the crimes the rationalizations and self-delusions of monsters.  

If anyone should be upset by the opera, it should be Palestinians, who are depicted in the opera solely as terrorists and their abettors.  I found myself thinking that the opera could be really effective as hasbara [propaganda] for the Israeli government.  If the Achille Lauro hijacking took place today, rather than 30 years ago, I think that more effective anti-terrorist actions by Israel or the Navy SEALS would have probably prevented Klinghoffer’s death, and hurrah for that.  

Did I see an entirely different opera from that of the critics? I don’t think so.  The opening “Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians” certainly is an effective invocation of the pain of the Nakba.   But it is in no way exculpatory of the actions of the terrorists.  The simple truth is that for Palestinians, for all Palestinians, the events of 1948 are utterly foundational for their understanding of their political reality— for moderates, for radicals, and for terrorists. A legitimate grievance  does not justify all  actions taken in retribution, and many of the most evil villains of opera and the stage have legitimate complaints.   Except for those who want to wish away the negative consequences  of 1948, and place all the blame for the expulsion of Palestinians on the Palestinians themselves, I don’t see how else to tell the story.

The Israeli-Palestinian War of Numbers

Israel and the Palestinians are waging a demographic war. We know that. Every discussion of a two-state versus a one-state solution includes a demographic component. This framing always reminds me of high school math problems: “There are X number of Palestinians and Y number of Jew here-or-there; the Palestinians reproduce at a rate of fill-in-the-gap and and the Jews in some-other-rate (usually significantly smaller). In how many years will there be the same number of Jews and Palestinians on this land?”

But before the Symposium I knew only of one continuous battle in this war, the fight over reproduction. I had heard the Bedouins were using polygamy to increase their reproductive rates. Recently Yair Shamir, the minister of agriculture, began publicly discussing policies aimed at reducing Bedouin birthrates. Haaretz journalist B. Michael has called it genocide. MK Merav Michaeli of the Labor party created havoc when she argued that by not subsidizing contraception, but generously subsidizing fertility treatments, including the right to freeze eggs and use them until the age of 54, Israel is giving women a clear message: “The state of Israel will spend a lot of money so you will be a mother, at any age and any price. You will pay for preventing pregnancies on your own. Therefore, women do not truly control their own reproduction.”

But I never realized this was only one aspect of the demographic war. On the second day of the Symposium I had a glimpse of the other battle in the war of demographics. Aluf Benn, the editor in chief of Haaretz, mentioned a Rosh Hashana article Haaretz had published about the most popular newborn names in Israel in the previous year. Ilan Lior, Haaretz journalist, noticed that there were no Arabic names on the list. He inquired and discovered that indeed the most popular name for a baby boy in Israel was Muhamad, but the registrar thought this inappropriate and censored it. Why stick with the facts when they are inconvenient?