Here at Jewschool we have a long, illustrious history, 11 1/2 years of rambunctious, playful, earnest, free-thinking, alternative riffing on contemporary Jewish life. It’s worth taking stock of where we’ve come from, and in that light, the Jewschool editors are now inaugurating a new feature: Jewschool Throwback Thursdays. Every week, one of us will dig up a classic post from the Jewschool vault that we think is still timely and relevant, or that would benefit reconsideration, with some years of growth and maturity.
One of the signature features of Jewschool culture is criticizing things we think are destructive in the Jewish world, airing our dirty laundry out of the belief that it can be cleaned. This becomes especially contentious when it comes to criticism regarding Israel. In recent months, the Jewish world has seen a great deal of mudslinging and controversy over “Open Hillel” battles, un-invitations of speakers deemed too critical of Israel, or not critical enough of advocates of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, etc., and Jewschool has covered this closely. For this kick-of Throwback Thursday, we bring you a classic piece from five years ago by our current Editor-in-Chief articulating, in as clear and forceful a way as I know, why we criticize the Israeli government when we feel it deserves it. The piece drew a blizzard of comments in its time; we hope it stokes conversation again now:
Why I Post the Worst of Israeli News
by Kung Fu Jew, Thursday, February 19, 2009
Shaul Magid, over at Tikkun, argues that the settler movement and Neturai Karta are equally anti-Zionist. What do you think?
There are arguably no two movements in Israel as disparate as the Settler Movement (known as Yesha) and Neturei Karta. Yesha represents the community of Israelis who live in the West Bank. It does not support a two-state solution and remains wed to a Greater Israel ideology that claims all of historic Erez Israel belongs to the Jews. Many, but not all, see Zionism in messianic terms, an idea promulgated by their patriarch Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982) and continued by his disciples to this day. continue reading here then come back and discuss.
I recently enjoyed the opportunity to participate in a two-day conference of Jerusalem activists and found a lot to be hopeful about, and some points of concern.
Jerusalem’s population can be divided and classified along many different axes. A conventional approach of late views the most meaningful socio-political breakdown of Jerusalem’s population as follows: about 1/3, clustered in East Jerusalem, is Arab; about 1/3, clustered mostly in the north (but expanding), is ultra-Orthodox; and about 1/3, mostly clustered in the south and central parts of the city and some northwestern hubs, is everyone else. Over the last 5-7 years or so, this “everyone else” population has seen an interesting process of organization, collaboration, and, in some places, re-jiggering of traditional demarcations of affiliation; for many, secular/religious, for example, has been replaced by pluralist/non-pluralist or other imperfect ways of capturing the shared interests of this population. Dozens of new projects, organizations, and social movements have sprouted, changing the cultural and physical landscape of Jerusalem, and altering the political map, particularly 36-year old, religious feminist, Vice-Mayor Rachel Azaria’s Yerushalmim party and 30-year old, secular, Vice-Mayor Ofer Berkowitz’s Hitorerut party, both of which grew out of social change organizations that still thrive.
Against this backdrop, and with intent to harness and organize this energy for maximal effectiveness toward in an inclusive and attractive future of the city, some local organizers brought together about 70 local activists for the Mata-Maala conference, with the support of the Schusterman Foundation-ROI Community. I was there representing Yeshivat Talpiot, a nascent, Jerusalem egalitarian yeshiva (sort of like a younger cousin of Mechon Hadar), and its affiliate Takum social justice beit midrash. More »
This is the shortened version of the written discussion in which Avigail Shaham details her community, movement, and vision. The full version is up here at allthesedays.org and the Spanish version (translated by Kevin Ary Levin) is up here.
What do you do? Why do you find yourself identifying as a “Shomeret” (member of the movement)? What is the appeal for you?
My name is Avigail, I was born and raised in Jerusalem, surrounded by good and inspiring people. Among many other activities in my childhood and adolescence, I was a member of Hashomer Hatzair youth movement – a 100 year old Socialist and Zionist movement which created some of the most inspiring foundations, structures and culture of cooperative society in Israel. When I graduated high school, I volunteered for a service year in the movement, in which my friends and I worked as educators in centers of the youth movement around the country, and created for other young people the unique experience of the movement – the experience of an autonomous, creative and liberating youth community in which one shapes their character in light of great ideas and through social discussions and mutual contemplation. As we were doing this, we realized we were Shomrim and Shomrot [truly identifying with the movement’s ideals] in character. We realized that the movement’s ideology and culture was a central compass for us in evaluating our actions and behavior and in choosing our role and path in the world. We wanted to continue being Shomrim and Shomrot, and create a path of life which expresses the essence of the movement.
Photo by A. Daniel Roth
Today, almost 12 years later, I live in a communal group [known as a "Kvutza", which means "group" in Hebrew] in Givat Haviva, with many of the people who I started this path with back then. We are educators and social activists, working in various arenas of Israeli society to encourage social justice, cooperation, peace and humanism, and to offer alternatives to the existing social structures and paradigms.
I work as a lawyer, specializing in labor law and working towards workers collective rights as well as equality for women in the workplace. I participate in different initiatives in the movement, such as political action and development of grass-roots unionizing projects, and in the internal processes of shaping the adult “Shomeric” [reflecting the values of the Hashomer Hatzair movement] society.
x-posted to Justice in the City
In a powerful display of moral imagination The fourth century Babylonian Sage Rava (in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud 31a) claims that when a person is ushered into their final judgement before the Heavenly court, the person is asked six questions. 1. Did you conduct your business dealing justly? 2. Did you study Torah regularly? 3. Did you have children? 4. Did you yearn for redemption? 5. Did you engage in learned discussions of matters of wisdom? 6. Did you derive understanding by analogy? Rava then concludes by saying that even if the person answered yes to all these, his fate is decided by whether or not he feared God.
This exercise in imagination is a powerful one. The most interesting thing about this specific example of the exercise is that Rava, one of the greatest of the Babylonian Sages, starts his list with just business dealings. He mentions Torah study as the second question but only gets to the heart of his life’s mission at question five. Even then, all this is overridden, for Rava, by the fear of God.
This piece of wisdom came to mind as I was thinking of the brouhaha stirred up by the Open Hillel movement’s challenge to the Israel guidelines set by Hillel International, and Eric Fingerhut’s strong reaction to Open Hillel . More »
Just in case you’re keeping a scrap book of everything being said about the whole Open Hillel controversy, or you’re just interested in the broader issues about American Jews’ relationship to Israel and the place of dissent in the organized community, check out this smart piece in Tikkun by David Harris-Gershon. (Of course, if you’re like me, you may shake your head wondering how we got to a place where a writer as talented and thoughtful as David actually has to spend so much time on Planet Obvious. It’s embarrassing.)
Avid Jewschoolians may recall my October review of Harris-Gershon’s book, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? A Memoir, which narrates the events surrounding his wife’s injury in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, healing, grief, and emotional breakdown leading to an obsessive pursuit of the apparently remorseful attacker and culminating with meeting his family. Not surprisingly, this book has led Harris-Gershon, a journalist with The Daily Kos and Tikkun, on a speaking circuit in Jewish communities. Recently, Santa Barbara Hillel invited him to speak, then discovered that Harris-Gershon, a two-state advocate, had written sympathetically about economic boycott as legitimate, non-violent protest, and consequently threatened to revoke his invitation and bar his entry into the Hillel building unless he made a public statement clarifying his positions on BDS. This is probably too much build-up already; just read what he has to say about the episode here.
After Swarthmore Hillel’s decision to break from Hillel’s rules regarding conversation about Israel, I sent a letter to Hillel’s President and CEO, Eric Fingerhut by clicking send on a message as part of Open Hillel’s campaign to open Hillel. The response was swift, cordial, perhaps prepackaged , and it suggested I take a look at Hillel’s Israel Guidelines page.
So I did and I came across this wonderfully written paragraph:
Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner. We encourage students’ inquiry as they explore their relationship with Israel. We object to labeling, excluding or harassing any students for their beliefs and expressions thereof. As an indispensible partner to the university, Hillel seeks to facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning.
It sounds as though they want to create some sort of inclusive, pluralistic space for students to discuss matters of interest and concern surrounding Israel. Great.
But the next section entitled “Standards of Partnership” seems to disagree with the previous section:
Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups, and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:
First of all they won’t let anyone talk who will “Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders.” Which seems reasonable at first, right? But of course this means that a speaker such as Israel’s Minister of Economy, Naftali Bennett cannot be hosted by Hillel or Hillel’s partners as Minister Bennett does not support Israeli democracy. As well, the continuation of the occupation is quite possibly the policy that puts Israel’s security and borders at the most risk, so this list of banned speakers now must include a plethora of current and past Israeli government officials, ministers, members of Knesset, and a swath of authors, professors and other public voices that support continuation of the occupation.
And of course, anyone who would try to “Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel” need not apply. I (honestly) wonder if Hillel’s version of ‘demonizing’ is meant to give Hillel staff space to put a stop to portrayals of Israel as the root of all evil in the world, or if it just a handy “d” word, so bereft of meaning that it can be applied to any, even much needed, negative talk about Israel. And I wonder if there is such a threat of delegitimization that it needs to be one of the “d’s” on this list. A recent report posits that its not such a big deal in the world today. Either way, I suppose this means that Alan Dershowitz can’t speak at Hillel events anymore since he has gone on record with the truly golden double standard that Israel should disregard international law.
The list continues with the denial of space to anyone who would “Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.” Shouldn’t Hillel stick to censoring people based on the content of their speeches and the aims of their tactics? Has Hillel thought about what it means to ban people for supporting a set of tactics? I mean, some of these are tactics that are supported by the North American Jewish establishment when aimed at others. So it’s not the tactics themselves that bother Hillel, otherwise JFNA CEO, Jerry Silverman would be on the list of banned speakers. It seems that Hillel has set up one standard for discussing sanctions on Israel and another for discussing sanctions on Iran. Perhaps someone should coin a term for when you have one standard for one thing and another for another. I wonder, does this rule include those who support a boycott of Israel’s policies? If so, then Hillel can kiss Peter Beinart goodbye. Does this include Israeli academics? Wouldn’t that be ironic given the hullabaloo over the ASA boycott decision.
The last point bans partnering with those that “Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.” I guess they mean people who shout at speakers and stuff like that, but I can’t help but think of the pattern of disruption that Hillel itself has displayed when dealing with hosting productive dialogue on Israel, the occupation, BDS and other issues that quite obviously are “matters of interest and/or concern” for a great many of us.
If Hillel is serious about these rules they should be sure not invite speakers like Naftali Bennett, Binyamin Netanyahu, Alan Dershowitz and others that hurt Israel with their anti-democratic, pro-occupation, double standards. My guess is that these types of speakers will keep getting invites though. So why not open the space up to other types of speakers who are also not so guided by Hillel’s lines?
A civil atmosphere from an educational community space demands open dialogue. These guidelines are imprecise and leave room for abuse. This list makes it easy to exclude and to label. It ensures that Hillel will be closed off to many who come looking for open ideas, a tradition of debate, and an emphasis on justice, peace and the finest of Jewish thought in the discourse on Israel.
A. Daniel Roth, 2006 Winner of Hillel of Greater Toronto’s Sydney Mendick Memorial Award for Building Pluralism and Diversity, is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. He was born and raised in Toronto and lived in a commune of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in New York City. Daniel is a member of the All That’s Left collective and a learner/organizer with This is Not an Ulpan. You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org and follow him on twitter @adanielroth.
This is a guest post by Avi Goldblatt, an old school Hebrew stuck in a relatively young man’s body. He is a classical liberal (ie Conservative Republican) which makes him about as popular as transfats in a NYC restaurant and as rare in the Jewish community as women’s suffrage in Dar al-Islam. He can be reached here.
In a piece published on ejewishphilanthropy, Joshua Einstein claims that Zionism is “multifaceted, multilayered and multi-streamed” regarding Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Many subscribe to this notion of Zionism as big tent coalition. They are wrong.
While the Zionist movement had many internal trends and streams they were all united by the central notions of aliyah and ending anti-Semitism. Whether it was the top down bourgeois methodology of the Herzlian’s (the Political Zionists), the utopian-socialist world vision of AD Gordan, Ben Gurion, or the utopian-messianism of both Rav Kook’s – all believed anti-Semitism would abate after the creation of the Jewish State.
Mr. Einstein is also wrong in asserting that “the miracle of the Zionist endeavor” was “a living and breathing Jewish State after over two thousand years without one…” A Jewish state was never the goal of the Zionist movement. Rather the Jewish national home was a means to an end – it would serve to assimilate the Jew on a national level where the Haskalah (enlightenment) had failed to on an individual level. More »
“We all are sinners, won’t you send us to Bible study faster/Your hypocrite-esque reaction a blasphemy”
–Kendrick Lamar, “Rigamortus”
Get ready for the strangest 45 seconds of your day. #whatthewhat
This happened today on the floor of the Israeli Knesset. MK Dr. Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) completed a speech with an unhinged, unprompted, upbraiding of young men in ultra-Orthodox (Hareidi) dress for coming and observing Parliamentary sessions from the visitors’ gallery instead of learning Torah.
A few key Hebrew phrases:
*Hillul Hashem — a desecration of God’s name, i.e., terrible public behavior by someone clearly recognized as Jewish, that brings disgrace to the Jewish people and their God
*Talmid(ei) Hakham(im) — Torah scholar(s)
*Bittul Torah — “wasting Torah”; it means slacking off when you could be learning Torah; this is the ultimate insult in the yeshiva world, what overbearing rabbis and sanctimonious veteran students accuse younger students of doing when they have a casual conversation.
*Hareidim — Ultra-Orthodox Jews (literally, “quakers”)
Here’s my translation of the clip:
“The last thing I want to say in the 27 seconds that I have [left] is this daily hillul hashem of people dressed like talmidei hakhamim who sit here, up in the gallery, slacking off, without a book, hour after hour, it drives me out of my mind! It shames the dress of a talmid hakham, it shames the value of bittul Torah, and I request of you, either bring books, or go to the beit midrash and learn. Thank you.”
Kari Hochwald is 23 years old and from Jacksonville, Florida. She graduated from the University of Florida in 2012 with a degree in English. She spent the past year volunteering in Israel through Masa’s Israel Teaching Fellows program in Rehovot. After a few months back at home, Kari has decided to return to Israel to live and work in Tel Aviv.
Jewschool: Say some things about your Jewish background and your previous experience(s) in Israel.
Kari Hochwald: My Jewish background is.. Conservaform? I guess? ( My family switched from a Conservative to Reform temple when I was 11). I really only stayed involved up through my Bat Mitzvah and a couple of years of volunteering at the temple. I was very uninvolved in high school and didn’t really find a Jewish outlet until the end of my Junior year in college when I went on a Taglit Birthright trip with the University of Florida Hillel, visiting Israel for the first time. Jacksonville doesn’t have a huge thriving Jewish community so I never had that many Jewish friends, and it’s hard to get involved on the college level when you don’t know many people at Hillel/Chabad (it’s a bit clique-y). Now my Judaism is more Israel centered and I would identify more with the “secular” movement. I was very involved with Hillel during my senior year of college, as a Masa intern and Zionist Gators group founder.
My experience in Israel this year was, of course, amazing, and so different from what you think you are seeing on Birthright. I felt a connection to Israel during that brief ten days, but being able to live there for ten months and attempt to understand the language, culture, controversies, and diverse land were things I could never have experienced otherwise. The highlight was partaking in all of the Jewish holidays in Israel, when no one questioned why I was missing class on Yom Kippur, and Chanukah was the main December event. My Hebrew didn’t improve immensely, but from teaching in a middle school I had a much better understanding of English grammar (ever heard of stative verbs?).
JS: Why Israel Teaching Fellows? More »
So a small group of Palestinians, Israelis, and Germans –all in their 30s–are having drinks in Malmö, Sweden with a bunch of Jews, Muslims, Christians and other people of all ages who don’t identify with any religion.
That is not a joke. It happened a few days ago. I was there.
The group was the ensemble cast of Third Generation: “work in progress,” a brilliant performance piece conceived by Israeli playwright and director Yael Ronen (who was also there) and developed as a joint project of Berlin’s Schaubuhne and the Habimah National Theatre of Israel.
At the start of the show, Niels Bormann appears alone in front of the curtain; dressed in grey sweatpants, a red t-shirt emblazoned with 3G in large black letters, and a kefiya. He introduces the play with one apology after another: He is sorry that the costumes are not more sophisticated, but the show was developed in the Middle East, not Europe. He is sorry for making that politically incorrect statement. He is especially sorry for the role that Germany played in the murder of so many diverse groups of people. He polls the audience;
“Are there any Jews here?” Many hands go up. He apologizes. More »
This is a guest post by Avi Goldblatt, an old school Hebrew stuck in a relatively young man’s body. He is a classical liberal (ie Conservative Republican) which makes him about as popular as transfats in a NYC restaurant and as rare in the Jewish community as women’s suffrage in Dar al-Islam. He can be reached here.
On October 20th, the American Zionist Movement, the regional affiliate of the World Zionist Organization convened a conference entitled Zionism: From Ideology to Action. The conference agenda featured speakers such as Ambassador Ido Aharoni (the Consul General of Israel in New York), Professor Gil Troy, Yossi Klein Halevi, several WZO/AZM officials, and more.
The conference was billed as “exploring” the “centrality of Israel in jewish life,” “loving and criticizing Israel,” and “telling Israel’s story our way.” Conference sessions are entitled Next Year In Jerusalem, Making Zionism Relevant Today, Zionist Theater, and more. Each of the sessions could be done by any pro-Israel organization (save for Zionist Theater – whatever that is), from the David Project to the Hasbara Fellowship there were a number of cutting edge organizations bringing Israel to the public. To understand the motivation of the somewhat obscure AZM, one need only look at the heading of the first email they sent promoting the event, “I’m Pro-Israel – Why the hell do you call me a Zionist?” More »
Sometimes when I go to Jewish events that I know will include a question and answer session, I make a chart that looks like this:
# of times someone asks a question that is not actually a question ( __ )
# of times speaker is interrupted by someone in the audience ( __ )
# of rants by audience members ( ___ ) *
This chart has come in particularly handy at conferences, but can be applied on a holiday such as Shavuot, if you write. (It also makes an excellent drinking game.)
I spent Shavuot at the JCC in Manhattan, which, if you have not attended a tikkun there before, can be really overwhelming. It’s super crowded, especially in the areas with the cheesecake and water and coffee. The offerings are pretty diverse: yoga, films, art, speakers, and more traditional learning situations with chevrutah. I came because I was in the neighborhood, and also for the 10 pm session with Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson (RKE in this piece, for the sake of brevity here), director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, called “Women of the Wall, Pluralism in Israel, and American Jews.”
RKE began by asking the audience about the values that motivate their activism (“I just don’t want someone to say that my voice can’t be heard,” said one woman,) and also about the values that they felt Israel should embody, which were no surprise in a liberal Jewish crowd: equality, democracy, justice, respect, Judaism, co-existence, pluralism. “I am worried by what I see in the news,” said RKE, before giving a brief history of the actions of Women of the Wall, beginning in 1988, when the group gathered at the Kotel for the first time. In 1993, the group attempted to read Torah for the first time at the Wall, resulting in the arrest and detainment of group members. (The Torah reading happened, outside the jail near Jaffa Gate, while members of the group and allies waited for folks to be released.) ”There was a feeling of being vulnerable, and yet so strong,” said RKE. The events continued to escalate after 1993, and American Jewish support for WOW grew. RKE: “Seeing Jewish women being taken away by Israeli police in a Jewish state? How can it be?” More »
Yesterday, the Open Hillel campaign, a student led initiative to change policies around permitted conversations on Israel on campus, presented their petition ( 801 signatures strong as of this writing) and letter to the Hillel International Board in Washington, D.C.
The grassroots initiative was started by members of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a Hillel-affiliated group, when PJA was prevented from co-sponsoring an event with the Palestine Solidarity Committee in Hillel. Open Hillel urges Hillel International to revise, reconsider, and ultimately remove its Standards for Partnership, which read: “Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, has chapters and affiliates on university campuses across the US and abroad. Hillel International currently publishes “Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities” which declare, “Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
The Open Hillel campaign asks that Hillel ”remove all political litmus tests for co-sponsorships, affiliated groups, and invited speakers.”
More from the letter (written and signed by Jewish student leaders from universities across the country):
“Pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and no Jewish individual or group should be excluded from the community simply because of political views. The prohibition against anyone who “delegitimizes” or “applies a double standard” to Israel is used to silence students who are critical of Israeli policies or express views with which the Hillel leadership disagrees. These policies deny all students the opportunity to learn about a range of views and form well-supported and defensible opinions about Israel. We all lose out when important perspectives within our community are stifled.”
The campaign is currently awaiting a response from Hillel International and will continue to expand if Hillel International is resistant to the requests of the petition and letter,
guest post by Eli Ungar-Sargon
For almost two decades, my relationship with the Western Wall, or Kotel as it’s known in Hebrew, has been deeply fraught. Having been raised in a religious Zionist family, I was taught as a child to revere “these stones that have the hearts of men” as sacred. But one year, when I was 15 years old, I had an experience at the Wall that changed all that.
It was the holiday of Shavuot and the custom in my hometown of Jerusalem, was for people to stay up all night studying Torah and then walk to the Kotel to pray at dawn. Having participated in an early prayer, I was on my way out of the plaza when I spotted a few dozen non-Orthodox men and women gathered in the parking lot. Before they were able to get very far into their egalitarian service, the group was surrounded by a jeering mob of ultra-Orthodox thugs who yelled insults and threw garbage and dirty diapers at them. I remember standing with the non-Orthodox group in solidarity until the police arrived and forced us to leave.
Today, I am no longer a religious Zionist. For the past four years I’ve been working on a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has upended the way I think about Israel, Zionism, and my own Jewish identity. Indeed, I now know that the Western Wall plaza is actually the site of a disturbing crime. A mere two days after capturing the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli military approached the residents of the Moroccan quarter, which ended just meters from the Western Wall, and asked them to leave. When they refused, their houses were demolished and they were expelled. More than one hundred Palestinian families were made homeless that day and at least one woman was killed during the demolitions. They were not the first Palestinians to be treated by the State of Israel in this manner and they would not be the last.
In a way, the internal Jewish dispute over who gets to pray at the Kotel is analogous to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The logical and just solution is for everyone to be able to share the space equally. But one group claims exclusive rights and uses the violence of the state as a vehicle to maintain its privilege there. The difficulties in achieving a just solution are not practical so much as they are psychological and emotional. Moreover, the problem is not the presence of Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshippers in the same space. The problem is the inequitable orientation of the police toward the two groups.
I’m hopeful that the latest proposal by Natan Sharansky to solve the problem of non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel will work. After all, most Israelis do recognize that Jews of different stripes have an equal right to pray at the Western Wall. And what a small step it would be to go from that to seeing the other half of the population living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, along with their brothers and sisters in exile, as having an equal right to share the land. Perhaps it’s time to shift our focus from “the stones with hearts of men,” to “the men with hearts of stone.”
Eli Ungar-Sargon is a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He is currently raising finishing funds through Kickstarter for his second feature-length documentary, A People Without a Land.
This is a guest post by Eliana Fishman, who lives, works, and prays in Washington DC. (See the response by Raphael Magarik here.)
What is the American Jewish story, and how do we tell it?
The question of whether or not to say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut has become a symbol of the division between religious Zionists and religious anti-Zionists. Religious Zionists, in particular followers of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, recite Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut with a blessing, while religious anti-Zionists do not say Hallel at all. On Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgical choice represents political orientation. This binary leaves American Jewish congregations in a bind. Is Yom Ha’atzmaut a day when American Jews can pray together? How can a community committed to a multitude of opinions around Zionism also share liturgy?
I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Not because I am an anti-Zionist (I’m not), not because I have lefty politics (I do), and not because I’m not a daily davener (I am). I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut because I am an American Jew. Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut is not about Zionism, and it’s not about joy over the establishment of a Jewish state. Hallel is about narrative.
One of the earliest references to Hallel’s recitation is in Masechet Pesachim 117a. The Talmud explains that Hallel is not about simple joy, but about the narrative of redemption. A baraita specifies six cases where the entirety of the Jewish people (or what Chazal considered to be adequate representation of the entirety of the Jewish people) faced life-threatening adversity (e.g. at the Red Sea, when Joshua faced the Canaanites, when Deborah and Barak faced Sisera, etc). In each situation God redeems the entirety of the Jewish people, and a prophet established Hallel. The seventh instance that the baraita brings is either a summary, or a distinct case. The unnamed chachamim state that in each and every era that the Jewish people experience danger, Israel’s prophets establish the recitation of Hallel, and, when the people are redeemed, Israel says Hallel because of their redemption.
In each of these cases Hallel is recited first for extreme danger, and then for redemption. There is never any sense of “redemption is about to occur”, or “redemption is continuous”. Additionally, according to this baraita, Hallel is only recited when the entirety of the Jewish people are redeemed.
Did the establishment of the State of Israel redeem the entire Jewish people, or did it redeem only Jews in the land of Israel? Were American Jews redeemed on May 14, 1948? In order to answer that question we have to explore what redemption may or may not have occurred with the establishment of the State of Israel. I have three possible responses to that question—the Holocaust answer, the Arab army answer, and the continual answer.
This is an interview with Emily Unger, a Harvard senior majoring in biology, and the former chair of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance, the student group organizing a protest
against Hillel’s ban on partnerships with groups back boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
Jewschool: Give us some background about your experience with this issue at Harvard.
Emily Unger: I’ve been involved in the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) since the beginning of my first year at college, and this entire time, we’ve prided ourselves on working together with both Harvard Students for Israel and the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) and co-sponsoring events with both groups. Last semester, we planned to co-sponsor an event with PSC called “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation”, which brought two speakers, an Israeli Jew and an American Jew, to talk about their experiences doing non-violent activism against the occupation of the Palestinian Territories (protesting home demolitions in the West Bank, etc.) and how this related to their Jewish identity. We wanted to hold the event in the Hillel building, since it was a Jewish event and we thought it would appeal to Jewish students.
Sandy Fox is a graduate student in History and Israel Studies at NYU, studying the history of Israeli education and youth culture. Her work includes research on the history and politics of Israeli and Palestinian Sesame Street programs. Sandy is a Brooklyn resident and a camp counselor for life.
This is our Gchat conversation about staffing Birthright.
Me: So, Sandy Fox, you and I have both staffed Birthright trips. What do you have to say about propaganda?
Sandy: Plenty of that, but much less than I expected?
Me: There’s the “make aliyah” thing. Is that what you were thinking of?
Sandy: A lot more “Jewish peoplehood” propaganda rather than Israeli hasbara (advocacy) political propaganda. I didn’t feel that our guide was pushing a political agenda regarding Zionism or the occupation or any of that. If anything, he was an earthy crunchy type, in the best way possible.
Me: That’s been my experience as well. Is that bad, do you think? Jewish peoplehood as propaganda?
Sandy: I don’t actually think that the whole Jewish peoplehood agenda – which also includes inviting people to explore their Jewish identity – is a bad thing. In fact, I found that most of my participants came on the trip looking for a connection to Judaism that they felt they lacked. We had a particularly emotional experience during Friday night tefillot overlooking the Kotel. I was the staff member in charge, and I basically got a bunch of participants to agree to help me lead. But it wasn’t going to be traditional tefillot in any way, because most of them had no knowledge of liturgy. What I asked of them was to bring something – a poem, a story, whatever they wanted – to share with the group, maybe a reflection on a Shabbat experience they’ve had, or something about the week, or if it was their first Shabbat ever, to talk about that. I think about 6 participants got up and talked, and it was incredibly powerful. They all told such personal stories of searching for connections to Judaism, trials and loss and it seemed like practically everyone cried.
I can’t call that propaganda. All I did was sit them in a circle and say, hey, talk to the group about whatever you want. It could have ended up being very superficial, but people wanted to share, and talk, and cry. Maybe something is in the food?
Me: It’s definitely in the food.
Sandy: The schnitzel is laced with cocaine?
Me: I think we’ve uncovered the secret.
Sandy: The other aspect of Taglit is that it’s not like we can make a blanket statement about it. There are all these buses and trip providers that operate differently. Even the dynamic of each staff is so varied. So I can say, hey Chanel, on my trip, everything was so cool and open, and people asked the tough questions and cried. But on other trips I’m quite sure there is serious propaganda, in the hasbara sense of the word.
Me: Do you think your group was expecting hasbara?