My friend Getzel Davis, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, delivered a tremendous sermon at the Occupy Wall Street Kol Nidrei here in New York.
All English during the service had to be shouted in short phrases, then shouted back by the crowd. (This is in keeping with the protesters who also use this method because they have no sound permit.) I vote that all sermons should be delivered in this fashion from here on out. I’ve never been among a congregation paying such rapt attention to a sermon.
Anyway, presented here in its entirety is Getzel’s sermon. Just imagine what it sounded like broken into short bits, shouted out in a call and shouted back in a response.
Getzel Davis about an hour before Occupy Kol Nidrei (Photo by David A.M. Wilensky (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0))
Friends – we are here tonight to celebrate the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur has been misunderstood to be a sad day. But really, an early rabbinic texts calls Yom Kippur one of the two happiest days of the year. What makes this day happy? It is the day of forgiveness. This is what Yom Kippor means “The Day of Forgiveness.”
According to our myth, Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf. What is the golden calf? It is the essence of idol worship. It the fallacy that gold is God. How do we become forgiven for worshiping gold?
I believe that G!d is infinitely forgiving. The harder question is how we forgive ourselves. How can we forgive ourselves for failing to live up to our own ideals? How can we forgive ourselves for failing to recognize others’ humanity? How can we forgive ourselves for remaining silent for so long in the face of injustice?
Forgiveness is important because once we can mourn our mistakes then we are no longer ruled by them. We are free to create things anew.
This is what Kol Nidreh is about. It is releasing ourselves from the oaths that we mistakenly took.
When people think about oaths, they usually think of verbal promises. In Judaism though, most of our oaths are “Chazakas” – or oaths taken through repeated action. By doing things again and again, we make internal promises about how we want to live. Other names for these might be habits, preferences, or addictions. These chazakas rule our lives, making things simpler by allowing us to live on autopilot .
The problem with this is that while chazakas are easy, they are often not skillful. It is easier to not make waves. It is easier to not make eye contact with those suffering. It is easier to trust others to run society. It is easier to sit on our butts.
Tonight, you are offered all the internal freedom that you can imagine. How do you want to live the next moments of
your life? Do you want to love more? Do you want to be more joyous? Do you want to speak your truth? What does
your truth say?
Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year because it gives us the radical option of being here now. We don’t work. We don’t eat. We don’t drink. We don’t have sex. We dress in white robes.
We do these things because Yom Kippur is a ritual death. It is the way that we allow our old selves to die.
Tomorrow, when we break our fasts, we step into newness. We step into being the people we want to be and not just the people we have been.
You know friends, it is hard not to worship gold, or power, or any of the other idols that our society shoves down our throats. I believe that this is why the Torah tells us that there is something else created in the image of G!d.
In the first chapter of Genesis the first human was created in the image of G!d If we need something to serve here on earth, we are given humanity. Service to humankind is sacred and a reflection of service of G!d.
(cross posted to Justice in the City) After a few persistent weeks of peaceful non-violent protests, the “Occupy Wall Street” folks or the “99 percenters” as they are beginning to call themselves, are appearing on the radar of the mainstream media. After a few days of lazy journalistic descriptions of the protests and protesters as disorganized and unfocussed some reporters and columnists are beginning to ask what these protesters want. One of the more interesting answers to the question was given in an interview conducted by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post with David Graeber who was one of the initial organizers of the protests. His answer was that the protesters, rather than making specific demands of the existing institutions (which created the income inequalities and precipitated the financial meltdown and yet were still in their offices controlling vast amounts of wealth) were attempting to “create a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature.” This raises the question: What is the society that we want? What would a just society look like? At this moment, it seems to me, there is no more important question to ask. As it happens, this is precisely the question I seek to answer in my book “Justice in the City” — and since that book is not yet out, I will attempt the short form answer here. More »
Jewschool founder Daniel Sieradski is organizing a Kol Nidrei minyan in at Zuccotti Park, home base of the Occupy Wall Street folks, at 7 p.m. this Friday night.
I don’t believe it’s set in stone yet, but Rabbi Arthur Waskow may be delivering a devar and or leading the service. Sieradski is looking for knowledgeable service leaders. If you can help and you’re interested, get in touch with him on Facebook or twitter.
This will be a service, not to mention a Kol Nidrei, of once-in-a-lifetime coolness. Let me know if you’re coming so I can make sure we say get the chance to wish each other a Gemar Chatimah Tovah.
Growing up in Israel, I joined a lot of organizations: Youth Against Racism, Hashomer Hatza’ir, Reut Sadaka, and maybe one or two groups even further to the left. I attended Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam and Meretz Youth weekend seminars, a kind of experience I’ve never seen in the US, not even when I was a college student. At these seminars, high school students would listen to Members of Knesset, well known professors and journalists, professional youth educators and others as they dissected Israel’s social issues.
During this entire formative period, regardless of where you stood in the left wing spectrum, certain things were true:
Our side was in favor of dialogue with the Palestinians, while right wing Israelis were racists who denied the Palestinians essential humanity, let along their human and national rights.
Our side addressed a combination of moral elements and enlightened self-interest. The occupation might be wrong, but it is also suicidal.
Our side drew inspiration from Western values that flowed from the enlightenment. Rationality, skepticism, a slight fear of the mob, an emphasis on individual identity over collective identity.
Our side was focused on liberating Israelis (Jews and Arabs alike) from the burden of having to represent anything else other than who we were. In other words, even the hard core Zionists were often in favor of ‘post Zionist’ measures like removing religion from identity cards, affirming the validity of the Palestinian narrative, and de-mythologizing the founding of Israel.
I was part of the lucky minority of Israel Jews that interacted with Israeli Arabs and Palestinians from the Occupied Territories on a regular basis. They represented a fairly diverse range of opinions and backgrounds, though less from among the poor and seriously religious, a bit more from the upper and middle classes, the Christians, and those from larger cities and villages. At a certain point, my identity as an Israeli changed into one that wholeheartedly embraced the reality of Israel: one fifth Palestinian, one fifth Russian, inclusive of countless racial, ethnic and religious minorities, with a tragic mix of conflicting impulses. Together, we were Israeli, and deserved to be truly equal for all our sakes. More »
This report, the result of direct conversations with Hyatt workers across the U.S., details a broader practice by Hyatt that we find contrary to the religious traditions we uphold.
There is no real shocker here. However, the broader problem, the war on the working class, is wonderfully and bitterly laid out here by J.J. Goldberg at the Forward.
If you don’t think that its a war, you’re not paying attention.
L, my companion for the evening, wonders if we can say we actually saw Wallace Shawn, who appears to be sitting three rows ahead of us. It’s definitely him, right? We strain our ears for his trademark voice, but the din proves too much for us discern properly.
This is not really important, of course, a celebrity sighting at the screening of “This is My Land, Hebron,” at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. It is, however, a reminder to myself to be observant of the audience, which I have come in worried about. The theatre is full, and this is both joyous and disconcerting. Who are these people? Did someone make a phone to right wingers to come and start a ruckus? Is someone going to say something anti Semitic? Some people walk onto the stage and sit down. The audience applauds. I sweat.
The three people, introduced by the moderator, are Dotan Greenvald, a former solider/ activist withBreaking the Silence, and the directors, Giulia Amati and Stephen Nathanson. The moderator asks if anyone would like to say anything before the film starts. Greenberg says that serving in Hebron has changed his views and how he’s active in the society he lives in.
“This is My Land” is a documentary composed primarily of footage and interviews from Hebron, one of the first of which is of a home covered with a wire cage. The owner of the house, a Palestinian woman in hijab, tells the camera that the wire is necessary to keep the stones thrown by Jewish settlers from hitting the people who live there, but that they’ve adapted by throwing smaller stones.
The film interviews some of the Jewish settlers (there are 450? 600? 800?), and settler leadership who live in Hebron among 150,000 Palestinians. The settlers claim that Hebron is the place in which the matriarchs and patriachs were born, making it “the heart of the Jewish people.”
A Jewish settler, a woman with covered hair and glasses, walks up to the wire where the Palestinian woman is standing. “Sharmuta (whore),” she shouts, and then, softly, “Sharmuuuttaaa.” It’s chilling and relentless, and the two women scream at each other, while the camera records. After this scene, every time a settler comes on the screen for the next hour and a half, the audience gets twitchy and tense and starts to whisper.
Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, spent 14 months in Hebron during his army service (he was actually Dotan Greenvald’s commander.) “One day, you’re looking in the mirror, and you see horns on your head. You think, it’s not me, doing this things, but it is you.” Now, in addition to giving testimonies and traveling with the organization, he gives tours of Hebron.
While escorting a group down Shuhada Street-the principal street for Palestinian residents and businesses and at one time, a prominent market place, now closed to Palestinian traffic- Shaul says to his group, “You’ll only get one perspective today, and I’m sorry for that.” Standing near by, shaking his head, is David Wilder, Hebron settler spokesperson. According to Shaul, Wilder won’t talk to “traitors.” “In any other country,” says Wilder, later in the film, “(Shaul) would be charged with treason and hung.”
There’s footage of a young Palestinian man who’s shackled for 14 hours, allegedly for protecting his sister from IDF forces invading his home. He tells the camera that he’s been beaten on his back. Settler children yell at and knock down internationals from the Christian Peacekeepers. “That’s what you get for defending Arabs,” one girl says. In another scene, Palestinians picking olives while settlers look on, and then eventually face off with soldiers, who tell them that the Palestinians are allowed to pick from their own groves. There is screaming and swearing and accusations. At some points, I’m so uncomfortable that I try to re read my notes in the dark theatre, which is of course, impossible.
“I’m deeply ashamed,” says Levy. “It’s on my behalf, all Israelis are paying the price. The idea is to drive the Palestinians out, create impossible circumstances. We’ve become a country who only cares about ourselves, and maybe not even that…this is proof that the Palestinians are some of the most tolerant and non violent people in the world. Anyone else would have exploded.”
When the film is over, the audience is restless. Nathanson, Amati and Greenvald return to the stage. Amati talks about how hard it was to obtain the settler’s point of view, and without it, making the film would have been useless. And now, the questions. One woman asks why so much of the focus of the film was on Shuhada Street, instead of on the rest of the city. Greenvald: ”If you went to Manhattan, and Broadway was closed and only white people could walk on it, wouldn’t that be a story?” She’s not satisfied by his answer and has to be shushed into sitting down.
Every time someone gets called on, I hold my breath anticipating the question. ”Why did you only focus on settler violence against Arabs?” asks an audience member. “In Hebron,” says Greenvald, “Palestinians know the recourse. You don’t see Arab on Jewish violence because everyone is aware of the consequences-curfews, collective punishment. The soldiers are there to protect settlers, and they know the consequences of looking like if they side with Palestinians. That’s why the consequences for Jewish kids throwing stones are different from those of Palestinian ones.” Amati adds that while filming, they never witnessed any Palestinian violence against settlers.
Greenvald is also asked to comment on his experience with Breaking the Silence in Israel. “Settlers in Hebron are very extreme,” he says, “Not like most Israelis. Most Israelis don’t respond like they do.” The film has not yet been distributed in Israel, but there are plans to do so.
When the q/a is over, and everyone is leaving, I hear a woman’s voice behind me. She’s been making comments to her friends the entire time (“Yeah, that will go well,” re-distributing the film in Israel) and sighing gustily after each of the right wing-y questions. “”Those people,” she says, disgustedly, gathering her things, “Why don’t they go back to Brooklyn where they came from?”
I read a lot of nonfiction, and more than a few memoirs. But my pleasure-reading tends towards showbiz tell-alls (next up: Tina Fey and Betty White) and pop-history (think Sarah Vowell). So when I was asked to review Susan Rosenberg’s An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country, I knew I’d be wandering out of my comfort zone.
Jewschool readers may know Rosenberg from her work as director of communications at American Jewish World Service. Those with longer memories may recall the 1990 documentary Through the Wire, which detailed a fight that Rosenberg and her fellow prisoners at the Female High Security prison in Lexington, Kentucky fought and won against the government protesting the cruel and unusual treatment they received. Rosenberg’s book connects the dots, detailing her transformation from radical activist on the FBI’s most-wanted list to non-profit Jewish professional.
In some ways, this book is hard to read. First, we are asked to sympathize with Rosenberg, a leftist radical advocating violent resistance to the US Government. She came of age in the 1970, when, she tells us, so much of the world was engaged in violent upheaval, it felt like the only way to stop the government’s racist, colonialist, misogynistic and anti-gay policies was through violence. She got involved with the Black Liberation Army and landed on the most-wanted list by being implicated in the Brink’s Robbery of 1981. While I can understand the enormity of the abuses she and her compatriots struggled against, it was hard for me to feel much sympathy for someone advocating for violent means to a political end.
But that changed the moment of Rosenberg’s capture, when she received a 58-year sentence for stockpiling weapons — the longest sentence ever given for a possession offence. Labeled a terrorist in the courts, Rosenberg was plunged into a prison nightmare so hellish, it challenges everything we want to believe about our land of the free, home of the brave. This too, makes the book hard to read, because the ugly underbelly of our justice system and the struggles of the women inside it are overwhelming.
At times, particularly in the first half of the book, I found myself wondering what Rosenberg was leaving out. Surely she must have provoked her captors to elicit some of the cruelty she encountered. But there is no justification for the torture she documents — and make no mistake, it is torture. Even more horrifying is Rosenberg’s admission that her status as a political prisoner, and a member of the white middle class, brought privileges even within the prison system that she credits with her survival.
As the book progresses, and Rosenberg herself matures and begins to not only examine the system but also her own beliefs, it becomes easier to root for her. Woven throughout her experience is a growing connection to her Jewish heritage. Although not religious, she finds strength in connection to her people and her heritage, and ultimately finds allies including a Chabad rabbi who makes prison rounds and Rabbi Matalon of B’nai Jeshurun in New York City. She writes of sharing a Passover seder in prison, one of her first moments of contact with the “general population” after months of segregation, and of teaching about the Holocaust in prison education classes to young women of color who had never encountered the subject. Even as she chafes at the rise of a more fundamentalist streak in prisoners of other faiths, Rosenberg manages to find grounding in a secular attachment to Judaism.
This book isn’t for everyone. I can’t imagine a reader who isn’t at least somewhat predisposed to liberal politics having any sympathy Rosenberg, especially because such readers are unlikely to make it far enough into the book to confront the abuses of the prison system. Those who are triggered by depictions of abuse and misogyny are also likely to have a difficult time with the book.
But it’s worth pushing through the discomfort, for there is real wisdom in these pages. And the network of individuals who coalesce around Rosenberg, and her own eventual emergence into nonviolent social activism and human rights work add a glimmer of hope to the otherwise bleak picture presented.
Coming of age in Israel, I encountered quite a few reminders of how strange politics can be. In the mid-80s, I went with members of the scouts (Tzofim) to protest Meir Kahane outside a venue in Petah Tikva. An elderly man came to argue with us. He didn’t yell and wore a forgiving smile. And a kippa. He said that Arabs are dogs, they only look human. Looking back, I can finally appreciate how bizarre he was. Only… he was one of the more normal Kahane supporters. And he didn’t try and assault anyone (that I saw). Not like the other guys spitting and throwing punches at us.
A few short years later, Kahane came to my little hometown. I only found out because the bus passed the town square he was using. A couple hundred folks had gathered – more than I’d ever seen assembled (outside of the soccer games). I got off the bus, put away my schoolbag, put on my keffiyah, and marched over there to protest. By myself. While I didn’t have a sign, I did have bright yellow stickers reading ‘say no to racism’. I held one up and stood not four meters away from him.
Again, looking back, I have to say that was stupid. Even if thugs hadn’t followed me in a car and given me a stomping outside my apartment building in front of all the neighbors.
Later still, when I was a soldier, I was forced to attend a lecture by the commander of our corps. Which is to say, he was above the head of our training base and in charge of all sorts of things related to our specialty, though he would never again lead troops into battle. In this lecture, he gave a military-political survey of the situation with Lebanon and the Occupied Territories. When he opened up the Q and A, I said: “Officer sir, since the conflict with the Palestinian people can only have a political solution, not a military one, aren’t you deceiving us by talking about ‘winning’?”
Boy was he mad. I never got punished though. Just ostracized.
These incidents surely paint a picture of the young man as a foolish dissident. But grant me that I had heart – lots of heart. Whatever my politics, however wrong headed my political analysis or ideology, it was sincere and flowed from a sense that my reference group, my peers in Israeli society, included both Palestinian and Jewish comrades. Whenever some right winger or patriot made a bloviating reference to ‘we’ meaning Israeli Jews, I always thought to myself – yes, ‘you’, because my ‘we’ is made up of Arabs AND Jews. Of all Israelis, exactly in the way that in America, ‘we’ includes whites AND blacks.
How odd then, to find myself dismissed as a ‘Zionist’ here and there in the Palestinian solidarity movement. Not like so many people actually know me or anything. But… there was that JATO woman at the UFPJ gathering, the trainer at the Student PSC conference, the outright verbal assualts on the activist listserve, and a picture comes to mind.
The Palestinian solidarity movement, especially as it has coalesced around the strategy of BDS, has two faces. One face is warm, friendly and intelligent. It says that BDS is a tactic not a preferred political solution. It doesn’t require B, D and S, and it can be directed at the occupation or at Israel in general – no coercion. It makes Gush Shalom feel right at home.
The other face is quite clear that the one state solution is preferred and the two state solution is dead – and good riddance. Anyone in support of an Israeli identity is a Zionist. Anyone seeking compromise with Zionists is a Zionist. Anti- or non-Zionists who refrain from calling for an end to Israel are ‘soft-Zionists.’ Israelis are ‘butchers’ who commit ‘massacres’, their peace camp isn’t really for peace except for a handful, the Palestinian Authority is not only corrupt, it is ‘only corrupt’, lacking in any other attributes or identity. It’s everything awful about the 90s campus culture wars/identity politics madness, with the eager pleasure in despising whatever isn’t politically correct.
Everything I used to hate and fear about the Israeli right wing: the extremist language, the eagerness to demonize the other, the closing of ranks around a narrow set of ideas, the very harshness of the voice and tone. It’s the flattening of every nuance into a slogan or holy truth. It’s the utter impossibility of dialogue with people who feel differently.
I used to be part of that first group. Some days, I still am. But… I keep running into that second group and it turns my stomach. Sometimes it’s the same person displaying one face or the other, depending the audience. It’s as if all the experiences I have growing up in Israel and ‘putting myself out there’ as a refusenik, participant in militant demonstrations, getting arrested, working inside of majority Palestinian political organizations – count for nothing. Because I’m insisting on the slogans of my youth (Arab/Jewish unity, two states for two peoples, down with the occupation, negotiations yes/war no) somehow I’m excluded from the cool kids lunch table at the Palestinian solidarity middle school. Back in Israel, that’s who I sat with. Now they sneer at me.
But I can’t sit with the Zionist kids anymore! Not after all that stuff I said about not being a Zionist…. sniff.
I guess I’ll go sit by myself. And I am NOT a Zionist! I’m just another Israeli yored in New York waiting for the occupation to be over. So I can go home.
I had never heard of Tawfik Toubi before today, but it seems he was a remarkable man:
A Christian Arab, Toubi was elected to Israel’s first parliament in 1949. He was a founder of Maki, the Israeli communist party and its offshoot Rakah. He was later the Secretary General of Hadash, the Jewish/Arab socialist party.
He was elected to Knesset 12 times and served as an MK continuously from 1949 to 1990.
He was born in Palestine in 1922 and died yesterday, age 89.
I don’t write about Israeli internal politics much, but reading Haaretz’s obit today, I was struck by the unbelievable determination an Arab must have–Christian or not–to remain in Israel’s often revolving-door parliament for 40 straight years.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said on Saturday that Toubi was a “valued and impressive parliamentarian” that “left his mark on the Israeli parliament,” adding that he was a member of a confronting movement but “nevertheless insisted on respecting the rules of the game and knew how to apply them to himself in practice.”
Like his politics or not, the struggle for Jewish-Arab cooperation in Israel is one good soul lighter today.
I was fortunate enough to get interviews (on video!) with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative and Mona Eltahawy, both incredible thinkers and speakers. The internet at my hostel (and at the conference) is incredibly slow, so I’ll post them once I’m back at home.
More generally, though, the conference this year has a different feel than the last. The moments of complete inspiration are a bit fewer, but there’s much more of a sense of cohesiveness between sessions. J Street has really matured as an organization, and I think a lot of the credit for this goes to the work of the locals, who provide a reference to the real conditions that activists face in attempting to advance the Israel-Palestine discussion on the ground. This isn’t to enforce the view of all Washington politicians as part of a bubble, totally disconnected from the outside world, just to say that a connection to those who are actually the constituents is an invaluable asset for an organization that values its supporters’ views.
Now more than ever, I feel that J Street values mine.
This weekend, several of us from Jewschool will join over 2,000 other people in DC for the 2011 J Street conference. The reasons for my continued involvement with and support for J Street are complex. On the one hand, I harbor deep moral reservations concerning the idea of religious or ethnic states. Yet I find the idea of a binational state completely unworkable, in that I don’t think it would materially improve Palestinians’ lives (I tend to think it would worsen them).
So what’s a Jew to do? I realized early on in my activism that J Street was a unique organization. Unique not only in its policy positions, but in its belief of how those positions should be articulated, advanced, and discussed. J Street’s dual function – advancing a liberal view of Israel that treats Palestinians as partners in nation-building rather than obstacles to Jewish self-determination while simultaneously establishing a robust space where Israel-Palestine activism can stem from real, respectful discussion – is often criticized as a weakness, but I view it as a strength. Having spent the last few years getting more and more deeply involved with J Street, and, as a consequence, surrounding myself more and more with like-minded Jews, it’s easy for me to forget the guttural fear and hatred that J Street still inspires in some of its foes. That fear, itself a symptom of close-mindedness, is what convinces me that J Street is doing something right. It’s what keeps me passionate about my activism. And it’s what keeps me excited about the vast amount of work that still remains to be done.
Working with J Street has caused me to question how the traditional pro-Israel narrative is presented, and to reflect on how this narrative permeates so many aspects of Jewish cultural and religious life. This weekend, I’m looking forward to fresh inspiration from people who’ve dedicated their careers and lives to democratizing that narrative and opening it to criticism, revision, and ownership by those of us who for too long were defined out of its constituency.
If you’ll be at the conference, let us know! We’d love to see you there.
Here is the cover image of the May 1932 issue of Der Hammer דער האמער, illustrated by Jewish artist William Gropper Der Hammer, an interwar socialist daily with strong communist leanings, fashioned itself as the magazine of the Jewish Worker. It’s here as a reminder to all those in current struggles for justice and peace, and also to honor the upcoming anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and to honor the struggle of Chinese workers contracted to Apple Computers for a safe and healthy working environment free from chemicals that cause neurological damage.
As any of us who are at all politically involved can attest to, it’s pretty damn hard to stay optimistic about world politics. We’re surrounded by immense amounts of pain and suffering, and the governmental structures that supposedly exist to improve those conditions usually move far too slowly, often doing too little too late. I observe this dynamic everywhere I look – on Israel-Palestine, US domestic issues, foreign policy, and global financial problems. Particularly for progressives, who by definition are interested in “progress” – that is, substantive change in the way the world works – it’s incredibly frustrating to have to abide by the glacial pace of most policy discussions. More »
In yesterday’s NYT, Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist and voice of conscience, stated very clearly the current divide in American politics.
One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.
Unfortunately, this is a very old debate, and its not only between Democrats and Republicans. This is the argument of the Sodomites who, according to the prophet Ezekiel, hoarded their resources and refused to allow outsiders in. The Rabbis saw Sodom as the epitome of small minded, harmful greed—greed that eventually leads to its own destruction.
Since the New Deal was passed, when America seemed to recognize its responsibility to its needy citizens as part of its political obligations, the forces of ownership and greed have been pushing back. The politics of Sodom have been gaining ground. Todays “radical” policies, as Krugman points out, are policies that Republicans proposed three decades ago. It is time then, it seems to me, for a primer on the politics of Sodom.
In Pirkei Avot the rabbis said (5:10):
There are four [character] types:
One who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours”…this is the character of Sodom.
“What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine,” this is an ignorant person.
“What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours,” this is a righteous person
“What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine,” this is an evil person.
Why is the one who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” a Sodomite? The Bible supplies the answer. The prophet Ezekiel (16:49) describes Sodom as follows: “Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” Sodom was punished for hoarding rather than distributing her resources. For the Sages, the apparently legal justification that ownership is the ultimate basis for the distribution of resources was insidious. That is, according to the Rabbis, there is more to collective life than asserting that what is mine is mine.
A few weeks ago, I went to a JStreet event with John Ging, the head of the United Nation’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the Gaza Strip since 2006 . He told us about some young Palestinian girls who came into his office concerned about the security situation and the threat to the UN and the work it was trying to do. “You must be brave,” they said. My cynical heart beat quickly in my ears.
Optimism for me is like math: I need to be tutored in it. I have trouble believing that things can get better, in spite of the fact that I also have to believe that it can in order to get up in the morning, often literally. I just keep wondering, how do we make it better? What are the answers? Is it to punch through the wall from the inside, or build a new structure entirely? (Both, perhaps?) How much longer and harder will it take?
Tonight I had a conversation with someone who is amazing and exhausted, like too many smart, dynamic activists I know. Some of us know the potential we hold to make change, and I think that those are the people who are in the most trouble. Potential is perhaps the most excruciating burden to have, it can make us fearful and exhilarated and so tired. It depends on energy and patience and the willingness of others to move and be moved, things we cannot control. It’s also terrifying because it requires confrontation with our priorities and limitations, and ultimately, with our mortality. We are one of a kind, whether we know it or not, and no one can do things quite like we can.
This last part is something I’ve struggled with for a long time, and continue to. Leadership saturation is really powerful, and dangerous. It happened in 2008 with Barack Obama, when people pinned all their hopes for change on him. His campaign slogan invited that hope, but when change proved slower and harder than people would like, there came a backlash. It happens to any activist when they have to admit they’ve had enough, they’re burnt out, they’re not taking care of themselves. Who will do it? Who will take on their role? The answer, I’ve been forced to admit, is no one, at least not the way I would. This doesn’t mean I have to be the one who always does it, but it does mean I have to have some faith, in spite of the petulant child/control freak inside me.
It seems cynicism is our favorite pill these days, used whenever we get an allergic reaction to the latest “shtut” (ridiculous step or statement) made by our leaders and officials. How else should we react to a call for separate public buses, insisting that women sit in the back? To a legislative attempt to allow communities to discriminate against any newcomers, with the exception of “one non-Jew needed to turn on the light in my refrigerator if it goes off on Shabbat”, as elegantly put by MK David Rotem? To a racist smear-campaign against African asylum-seekers and migrant workers “who are swamping Israel and spreading deceases like HIV”, as the Interior Minister lied to the public?
Our leaders and the press are competing with each other now: Who will speak louder against “disloyal traitors”? Who will do a better job at silencing and pushing aside legitimate criticism? And who will simply stand idle while our country is losing its mind?
Xenophobia and incitement are not the sole actions of the zealous. They are part of an overall scheme by cynical leaders to solve serious problems that should be publicly debated by simply pointing a figure and saying “Look at her! She’s to blame!” This way no one looks at them and holds them accountable. Therefore any time the average “man on the street” is caught on TV cameras speaking out against Africans, voicing racial slurs against Arabs, and explaining that the whole world is against Israel because they are Antisemitic – then the politicians can be satisfied that they have done what they sought out to do. “Am Yisrael” is exactly where they wanted them to be. More »
This is a guest post by Drew Cohen, J Street U’s staff co-organizer in Jerusalem, and in his final year of the Pardes Educators Program.
“Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and those that return to her in righteousness.” — Isaiah, 1:27
Three years ago I moved to Jerusalem. I grew up as an involved member of the Reform movement in Connecticut, spent my college and post-college years working in Jewish education in greater Boston, and married another Jewish educator with a deep commitment to Israel. I moved, in part, so that when asked what I thought about Israel, I would have an educated response. I moved to engage my Judaism more deeply. I moved to live in the place where our prophets, my religious role models, preached the Divine call for justice. And I moved because, as a Jewish educator, I realized that I could only encourage my students to develop a relationship to Israel if I myself was deeply connected to the land and its peoples.
Over the last three years I have come to feel a commitment to and responsibility for this place I could not have imagined. While that commitment has grown as a result of various factors, among them is the relationships I have built with Israelis and Palestinians working to create a more democratic future for their respective peoples, a future where a Jewish, democratic Israel can exist in peace and security, and where both Jews and Palestinians can determine their own destiny.
I now work with J Street U to engage American students studying in Israel with the diversity and vitality of the community of activists, politicians, jurists and journalists that I have come to find so inspiring. Unfortunately, these voices are too often absent from the conversation back home – a situation that serves neither the interests of the American Jewish community or of Israel itself. The many men and women working in Israel to ensure the nation lives up to the values enshrined in its declaration of independence — a nation of “freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel” – provide one of the most powerful resources available for those of us committed to an ongoing relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. More »