RHR-NA opening plenary: Zionism, Israel, & Human Rights

Hashem yishmor on my poor hand… If I’d have known the Velveteen Rabbi was sending up a transcript, I could have saved 20 sheets of paper and an ache my wrist hasn’t felt since high school!
Go and read it. Then come back to muse with me in the comments below.

8 thoughts on “RHR-NA opening plenary: Zionism, Israel, & Human Rights

  1. The first thing I must say: Avram Burg is intense! Plus, when he speaks he sounds like Arnold Schwarzneggar — what’s not to love?
    While Profs. Darjani and Hyman spoke well about how to build dialog & coexistence across religious boundaries and about the history of Zionism, most of what they said I’d heard before. It was nice rehashing, but it was rehashing nonetheless. Uncontroversial, reassuring. We can all get along on the one hand, old Zionist writers and the differing American and Israeli experiences on the other. But Burg wanted to rile people up, to shatter idols and provoke new ideas.

  2. All the speakers discussed Zionism as a phenomenon of the past. Zionism was the political project to re-establish Jewish self-determination in a Jewish national home. It ended in 1948 through its own success.
    What does it mean to be a Zionist 60 years after the Zionist dream was fulfilled? Burg used two metaphors: the construction scaffold and the holiday of Simchat Torah. Zionism is the scaffold and the independent Jewish society was the house it was used to build. But now that Israel is prosperous and here, why keep going back to the scaffolding like returning to Genesis over and over again?
    Hyman described how in her upcoming book, she exclusively refers to “Zionism” pre-1948. Everything after is a different animal: support for Israel’s existence? Support for left- or right-wing policies of the state? A desire to revitalize the culture, negotiate with enemies, fight wars, spur a religious renaissance? Encourage human rights, build settlements? None are by definition “Zionist projects”, though all may be inspired by the success of The Zionist project.
    For the first time in my life I’m wondering if I’m not a Zionist. Which is odd, because none of my values have changed. But maybe the label is a little anachronistic.

  3. Darjani and Burg both described a realignment of group identity. Darjani used quote after quote after reference to bring the point home that respect for human dignity and value is central to Judaism – and that the other Abrahamic religions share the same value. He said, “I would like to propose that we focus on using our religious values, whether in Judaism, Islam or Christianity, to spread the culture of peace, democracy, and moderation. We need to focus on the high value of saving human lives, on developing a better understanding of each other, and of putting into practice important concepts such as liberty, equality, and justice for all. And toward advancing among all people a culture of forgiveness, conciliation, and coexistence. One cannot go on with business as usual, ignoring what is happening around him. We have a collective responsibility, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims, to advance the culture of coexistence.”
    In the big picture,he said, all three religions have much in common, and what they have in common is a concern for preserving the image of God in all people. It is only in the small picture, according to Darjani where we concentrate on details of practice, culture, or doctrine, that it becomes possible to cast each other as enemies unworthy of human treatment, in the way extremists on both sides have done.
    Burg expressed the same idea with a riff on Sam Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”: The real clash is not between Islam and The West, but between the proponents of democracy & pluralism wherever there are in the world, versus the proponents of theocracy wherever they are in the world.
    While I agree that all of us who wish to live in peace are and should be each others allies, and that the provocative dilemma presented by Burg (“The Dalai Lama and Meir Kahane are drowning ina river. You can only save one. Which do you pick?”) brings up an important question, I’m not so sure that the answer is to identify with fellow pluralists more than with anti-pluralists with whom I share blood, language, history, and a myriad other connections.
    Some out there re-define “Israelite” as “anyone who wrestles with God”. Others out substitute “anyone who fights for the oppressed stranger”. I can’t go that far. I think that our kinship with the less progressive and extreme elements of our own historical communities is what motivates us to change them. Because improving society means improving it for everyone and finding a way to include members of our society who don’t currently see the universal value in democracy, human rights, etc. Otherwise I guess we could just defect from the rest of our historical kin and run this movement like a war to conquer them, instead of a project to transform life for all.

  4. Two last ideas that resonated:
    Hyman told a story of her friend Leibel Fine. After the Six Day War, a mechanic in a garage he’d taken his car to exclaimed, “You really pasted them! You were terrific!” and Fine found himself saying “Thank you”. What’s it mean that American Jews can identify so strongly with Israel that we end up answering in its name?
    Burg pulled out the story of Korach vs Moses. On the surface, Korach’s complaint “The entire people is holy! Why should you be in charge?” seems like a modern democratic complaint. We sympathize because we believe everyone should have a voice, and they should. But Korach’s “holiness” is the self-righteousness of assumed privilege. The holiness of God & Moses is not an inborn reward for being Jewish but a command the Torah demands we live up to: “Be holy for your God is holy…. love the stranger… protect the vulnerable… pursue justice…”

  5. Thanks for the shoutout! (So nu, you’re at the conference too? Come and find me and say hello; I’m wearing a red velvet shirt and rainbow kippah today.)
    I agree that Burg is interested in shattering idols, which I find quite interesting and engaging. It was also intriguing to me, seeing who brought Torah texts to bear on the conversations (and which ones they chose.) Hearing Darjani quote Torah and Talmud, and then hearing Burg cite the story of Moshe and Korach, made me very happy indeed.

  6. Unfortunately I was only around for that first night plenary session, so I won’t be able to say hi today.
    I was wondering actually why Prof. Darjani was quoting the Torah and Talmud so much – a lot more than the other speakers did.

  7. I wonder whether quoting Torah and Talmud was his way of implicitly asserting that he belonged at the conference / belongs in the conversation? During the study session the next day (where he talked about wasatia etc) he mentioned that he’d gotten some flack for quoting so many Jewish texts, and that it bummed him out because he’s always been steeped in these texts and ideas and he was frustrated that other folks felt the quotations were inappropriate. I don’t know who actually groused to him, though, or whether or not it was widespread…

  8. Weird…. I thought it was interesting and wondered what made him quote so much more than the others, but I never would have gone up to him to criticize him or tell him not to do it… some people are just inapprporiate. Remember that guy who tried to make some kind of statement with his question about citizenship the first night? I just don’t see the point.

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