Intractable Conflict and Forgiveness

I rarely engage in conversations about Israel…that do not either implicitly or explicitly raise the issue of history. One of the ways in which we seem to ground our various ideological commitments is through a commitment to a ‘start date’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For such a young country, there are numerous dates that have attained near-absolute significance to various parties to the conflict.

And yet, whenever I have heard anyone propose a way forward, a way to end the conflict, a prerequisite has always been forgiveness for past wrongs. While this takes great courage, it is also quite clear that it is a necessary first step. However, it is very hard for most of us to truly forgive and let go of all of the pain that the conflict has caused us, internally and in various spheres of moral concern that we inhabit.

With such obstacles, I find it very helpful to start by working through how I would forgive someone that I do not harbour any deep resentment for. That is why a line in the tachanun prayer, a prayer traditionally said twice a day where Jews admit and ask forgiveness for our sins, stood out to me.

When speaking to God, who — on a good day — we do not harbour any resentment towards, or feel any pain from, we come at forgiveness from a healthier place. Further, we know we have done wrong, which is much harder to admit in a conflict that is so raw and has such high stakes. In the context of tachanun, we ask God, near the end of the prayer:

אל תזכר לנו עונות ראשונים, מהר יקדמונו רחמיך, כי דלונו מאד – תהילים עט:ח

“Do not reminds us of our earlier sins — speedily bring forth your compassion — because we are lowly” (Psalm 79:8)

This one verse captures so much about what forgiveness requires. We must admit we are wrong, so wrong that we do not truly merit full restitution. We must simultaneously call on the Other’s deep wells of compassion, pleading that they overrule any inclination to strict justice that our past misdeeds might deserve.

In a conflict that has claimed so many lives, any single one of which is compared to the destruction of the entire world by the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:9), we must take this verse as our motto. We must seek to enter into relationship with the Other(s) in such a way that we can both ask for forgiveness as we do in tachanun — and be ready and willing to grant that forgiveness when it is asked of us.

Continuous Argument Within a Tradition

After the summer’s war in Gaza, so much ink has been spilled wringing our hands over the situation in the Middle East, and the state of utter non-dialogue that pervades the global Jewish community on this topic, that I largely remained silent for lack of anything to contribute to the deluge.  However, as someone who believes that a fix to the latter problem may well be the only way towards a solution to the former, I want to explore the issue from a different perspective.

I just finished reading Alastair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, a dense but really important work of political and moral philosophy.  There are many aspects of modern society which MacIntyre sees as leading directly to our present morally-deadlocked state, where we cannot productively talk about almost any issue of importance with any hope of making progress.  However, there are three areas that receive special attention, and one of them bears directly on the issue of Jewish dialogue about Israel/Palestine.

That is the matter of “tradition” — the concept, for MacIntyre, of interacting in some way with where we came from, even if that interaction largely consists of rebellion.  This ties directly into a second of MacIntyre’s three major characteristics of a virtuous society, that of “practice” — for MacIntyre, a practice (like gardening or chess) can only be properly understood historically.  But to understand a specific practice historically necessitates gaining an understanding of the larger tradition(s) of which it is a part.

I therefore think that MacIntyre would agree that to have any meaningful conversation about Israel/Palestine today, we have to begin by charting a narrative history of what all of the given traditions involved in the conflict have inherited as their histories.

However, that is not all.  While MacIntyre may be helpful in understanding the larger contexts in which such discussions must happen to be productive, what really stood out for me in After Virtue in this context is what he said traditions need in order to continue to exist:

“So when an institution — a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital — is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is.  Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict” (pg. 222, emphasis mine)

I hear this as such a deeply Jewish statement, that I almost expected a footnote citing the Talmud as an example of such a vital tradition.  Judaism has prized, as part of the legacy of our tradition, the notion of such continuous argument.  And yet, it is nowhere to be seen in our generation when speaking about the State of Israel, with the current exception being the Open Hillel movement.

Speaking about his experiences at the recent Open Hillel conference, Peter Beinart echoed MacIntyre when he said:

“The young American Jews at Open Hillel who are flirting with anti-Zionism are not anti-Semites. (Although, of course, some anti-Zionists are). They are merely doing what young people always do: Challenging settled assumptions based on a different life experience. They don’t need the American Jewish establishment’s legitimization; that establishment is illegitimate to them. What they need, in the best Jewish tradition, is to be argued with.”

So it’s not just that, because we pay lip service to the virtue of vital argumentation, we as a Jewish community should figure out how to speak productively about Israel/Palestine. It is simply because if we do not, we will cease to be a vital tradition, at least concerning the modern manifestation of Jewish political power.

What Can Even Be Said?

Your heart breaks if you think about it.

If you move beyond the numbers of people dead, of innocents dead, of children dead; if you move beyond the rhetoric thousands of miles away, that dominates the airwaves and the newsfeeds, that seems almost as tragic for the health of our community; if you move beyond the endless demonization of the Other, of their lives, hopes and fears, of their religion and their narratives, of Our religion and our narratives — you are just left with pain.

And the thing is, I don’t feel like I have any answers any more.  I used to think I did.  When I read the op-eds, when I talk with friends and family, I know which rhetoric speaks to me and which repels me.  Now I think I know why.

It is because, deep down, I am the kind of person that would rather be killed than kill.

That is why I am drawn to seek peace, to attempt to see everyone’s humanity, and to suspect power.  But I know now, after interminable weeks of suffering, personally and vicariously, that this does not mean that I have any answers.  All I know is that I would not want to be making any decisions on the ground.    I know the solution that I, as one individual, yearn for and would see realized במהרה בימינו.  But I do not know anything about how to get there, about the right way to get there, if there is one.

Your heart breaks if you think about it.

Inequality for All? [Huffington Post]

This post was co-authored with Deborah Galaski and originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

Inequality in America is staggering. Everyone knows that, but somehow, it seems easy to ignore. We create rationales for why we are not making as much money as we should, and for why the richest make so much more than the rest of us. Furthermore, we tend to socialize with people from similar economic backgrounds as us. So even though we know on some level that the income gap exists, we don’t see it.

In his recent film Inequality for All, Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary under President Clinton, explains what has led to the current state of affairs. He demonstrates that a healthy economy relies on a robust middle class. Imagine 100 people, each making $50,000 per year. Most of that money will be spent in the consumer market (Reich notes that 70 percent of GDP comes from consumer spending). Reich refers to this as a “virtuous cycle.” From the corporate perspective, consumption is important to profits. When people buy more goods, companies employ more workers in order to meet the increased demand. From the societal perspective, this increase in spending also leads to higher government revenue through taxes. As a result, the government is able to invest in social programs, specifically education. Such an investment has an economic pay-off, as a more educated workforce is more able to compete on the global market.

Now imagine one person making the same total amount as the 100 people mentioned above — $5 million. Even if she buys fancy cars and eats out at the nicest restaurants, she won’t spend nearly as much as those 100 people would have spent. As a result, most of her wealth will end up being invested around the globe, and not spent on goods and services in the U.S. From both a corporate and a societal perspective, this is undesirable. This, argues Reich, is what led to both the Great Depression and the recent economic crisis.

Reich persuasively argues that this distribution of wealth also has negative political side effects. He is not alone in his assessment, either. Two researchers at Princeton University just came out with a study classifying the U.S. not as a democracy, but as an oligarchy. By definition, a democracy requires all citizens to be able to participate in elections equally, whereas an oligarchy assumes that power is concentrated in the hands of the few. While all U.S. citizens retain the power to vote, elections are now won and lost based on the influence of individuals and special-interest groups with incredible financial power. Where does that leave our democracy?

It did not take a PhD in economics to make us see that the system is not working, and, after watching the film, we wanted to take action. At first, it seemed like the film’s website (www.inequalityforall.com) would provide us with an answer, but the suggestions provided there largely consisted of more facts and figures or of online petitions to sign. Frankly, signing another petition did not seem like a sufficient response.

One effort on the website did catch our attention: a nation-wide campaign focused on faith communities taking place this Thursday, May 1. As Jewish professionals, our local Jewish community seemed like the natural place to begin organizing around these issues. However, we were surprised to find that few American Jewish organizations have made economic justice a focal point of their programs. Those who have, by and large, do not tend to focus on the national scale of this economic problem.

Inequality for All
challenged us to take a closer look at our values not only as Jews, but also as members of the American community. If we believe that economic justice is a Jewish value, what does that mean for how we address income inequality in the U.S.? The American Jewish community has displayed an incredible capacity to organize around issues that matter to us, whether they are political or religious, local or national. The United States, as a nation, also has a strong history of achieving social change through the efforts of local communities banding together under a common ideal. What part of that history will faith communities write in the current struggle for economic justice?

Jewish Intermarriage and Israel [Huffington Post]

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post, here.

Just as, when reading Gemara, the commentaries often provide insights that simply were not visible in the text itself, so too in discussions about modern life. Certain texts are taken as canonical in some sense or other, and much ink (virtual and otherwise) is spent commenting on the true meaning of that text. No text in 2013 fit this description for the Jewish world more than the Pew Center’s Portrait of American Jews. While that is hardly news at this stage, four months after its publication, I have recently come across a surprising and noteworthy piece of commentary, which deserves much further thought.

Professor Steven M. Cohen, an eminent Jewish sociologist, spoke about the report on a panel at Pardes this winter. He spoke eloquently, and reiterated — in a way only those who know the facts can — that intermarriage must be taken seriously in the non-Orthodox world, regardless of what one thinks of its inherent merits or demerits. As befits an expert in any field, he spoke with the confidence that comes with knowing his subject intimately, having studied the American Jewish community for over forty years.

One claim he made, however, surprised me. Professor Cohen spoke of the declining Jewish engagement of Jews born to one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent, citing in particular their attachment — or, more accurately, their lack of attachment — to Israel. He then argued that there was no doubt in his mind that, were more Jewish children being raised in more Jewishly connected homes (and here we can set aside the debate about whether those homes would have to be homes with two Jewish parents), that attachment to Israel among Millennial Jews would be stronger.

The Pew Report bears out the claim that younger Jews are less inclined to cite attachment to Israel as a central aspect of their Jewish identity, and there is no doubt that Professor Cohen was raised to be the Jew he is at a time when attachment to Israel was even more prevalent than it is now, even for his generation. To claim, however, that the decline in my generation’s attachment to Israel is principally due to our being a generation of less connected Jews is to cling too strongly to the ideology that the modern State of Israel is and always will be a bona fide marker of a Jew’s commitment to his or her religion.

As a committed Jew myself, born to two Jews, and planning to become a rabbi, this claim bespeaks a greater trend in the unendingly depressing state of discourse about Israel among world Jewry. As much as anything else, this must serve as a wake-up call. We need to begin training ourselves (and others) to listen to each other when we speak about Israel.

In this case, we (younger, committed Jews) need to get the message across that there are other reasons why we — not only ‘cultural Jews’ or ‘Jews of no religion’ — are seen to have lessened (or abandoned) our attachment to Israel. Prime among them is that we do not define engagement with Israel purely as support for Israel. We know that critiquing Israel is a necessary, if sometimes difficult, part of forming and maintaining a robust relationship with a country that speaks in our name. Thus, when we see Israel acting — politically and religiously — in ways that we do not believe serve Israel’s or Judaism’s best interests, we feel inclined to speak out. Simply decreasing the rate of intermarriage among the next generation of Jews will not fix this problem. Talking about Israel, and the ideals that we hope it to embody, might.

Conversely, I find that my generation of non-Orthodox Jews is too dismissive of the worry underlying much of what Professor Cohen (and many others) said in reaction to the Pew Report. The research demonstrates that children of intermarriage tend to be less committed and less strongly identified Jews. Intermarriage, therefore, does pose a threat to Jewish continuity. As uncomfortable as my generation often is with Jewish particularism, we need to find ways to preserve those traditions and practices which drew us to Judaism in the first place and create Jewish spaces for the next generation to explore the tradition as we have.

I was not in the room when Professor Cohen spoke, so I did not have the opportunity to bravely stand up and complicate the picture he was painting. It is incumbent upon all of us, though, to do just that within our own communities. Judaism has always thrived on vibrant, passionate debate. If nothing else, we owe it to that tradition to take off our kid-gloves and treat the conversation about Israel with the seriousness that it deserves.

Jewish Heterogeneity on Israel

Sometimes it feels like the Middle East conflict is ever-present.  Just as I return home to Vancouver to spend time with family and friends over the Jewish High Holidays, the public transportation company in the city of my birth releases a divisive series of ads (above) about Israel and Palestine.  This is hardly news in itself, but because this is the Jewish community that I still feel most connected to, I wanted to understand what the ads, commissioned by the Palestine Awareness Coalition, depicted.

As you can see, both on the PAC’s website and on the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ breakdown of the ads, the visual ads show a map of Israel/Palestine where the land allotted to the Palestinians has continued to shrink over the past 66 years.  This is obviously critical of the State of Israel, and a nuanced debate is desperately needed in the mainstream Jewish community on this issue.  However, what I was struck by first, before I could even assess the ads themselves, was how a major Vancouver newspaper covered the ads.

The Vancouver Sun published an article by Farid Rohani arguing that the ads should be taken down because they discriminate against Jews, leaving us feeling like an unsafe minority as we commute around our city.  The thrust of his argument is that TransLink violated its own policies of avoiding the publication of divisive ads, which is hard to argue with.  However, while the ads should not have been displayed on public buses, they point to a real need to have a discussion that too many parties to the Middle East conflict seem committed to stifling.

The sentence of the Sun article that struck me — a concerned Jew from Vancouver wishing to understand this latest iteration of Israel-related news — the most was when Rohani stated: “[w]ithout giving undeserved profile to the warped message of the ads, I can say that I certainly understand why members of the local Jewish community are upset.”  I was definitely looking for opinion pieces about the appropriateness of the ads, but I also wanted to be able to judge for myself how appropriate they were.  The sense that Rohani knew what was best for his readers was seemingly reinforced when he stated: “[w]hile I’m neither Jewish nor Israeli, I have no interest in seeing the Middle East conflict imported into my morning commute.”  To me, this underlying message of objectivity is meant to tell the reader that this author does not have a stake in the issue, and therefore his opinion ought to be trusted.

I find offensive the claim that, as a non-Jewish, non-Israeli, the author has some objective perch on which to stand regarding the Middle East conflict.  Even more offensive is the notion that everyone will understand that the ads are too “warped” to even have a discussion about them.  No doubt, those that agreed with Rohani before reading the article do not need to see the ads.  But by not including the ads in the article, in an age where any image publicly available is only a click away, the author seems to be saying that there is no reason to try to reach a conclusion about the merit of the argument that PAC is making.

I hope that events like these stimulate discussion, not render us mute.  How we speak about a country speaking for us, as Jews, matters too much to not develop an international discussion among the world’s Jews, rather than leaving it to politicians and other mainstream leaders.  We need to cultivate a space in each and every Jewish community where one can share one’s narrative as it relates to the State of Israel and Palestine without fear of ridicule or scorn, but with the hope that respect and concern will be shared.

Sports and Politics

It’s no secret that I love hockey.  As a fan of a team yet to capture an elusive championship, I can confidently say that some of the happiest moments of my life as a fan of the best game on earth have come during the Olympics, specifically 2002 in Salt Lake City and 2010 in my hometown of Vancouver.  Along with almost every other Canadian alive today, I have been looking forward to watching Team Canada defend it’s gold medal in men’s (and women’s) hockey in 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  The problem is — it turns out that Russia has some particularly regressive policies towards the LGBT community, a crime severe enough for many to call for severely pressuring Russia, or Russia being disqualified even as it hosts the upcoming Winter Olympics.

The same thing happened in the lead-up to the Games in Vancouver, with protests drawing attention to the abuses that First Nations’ faced in the area, as well as the massive wealth-inequality that gives rise to the Downtown Eastside.  I was quite torn then, but largely sublimated those feelings and enjoyed the Olympics while they happened.  I am not denying that the Olympics are a brand worth billions of dollars that goes around the world throwing the most lavish of parties to celebrate sport.  While the athletes are treated like celebrities, with the exception of hockey, they are amateurs and have to spend most of the four-year period in between Games raising money so that they can train and compete at the highest level.  As the linked article from 2009 attests, corporations are the major entities profiting from the Games.  I do think, however, that sport is a very meaningful, and healthful, pursuit, one that it is perfectly reasonable to celebrate internationally.

What to do about the fact that Russia does have repressive anti-LGBT laws?  As Dave Zirin articulately puts in at The Nation, we would ideally hold our celebrations of sport in places without egregious human rights violations, except that that would leave us with this:

“if the only countries allowed in the Olympics had sparkling records on human rights, we’d be watching polar bears race penguins on an ice drift in Antarctica.”

Which is to say that none of our countries are anywhere near perfect — wherever the Olympics are held, now or in the future, there will be social issues that need to be addressed urgently.  So urgently, in fact, that one might wonder why the city or country in question is spending billions of dollars on hosting a party instead of using that money to combat the injustices happening every day to those less fortunate in those locations.

Looking for a quick fix to the systemically unequal way that this issue plays out in our world is a fantasy.  I think there are a couple of productive ways to look at the situation, though.  First, if nothing else, the Olympics draw the international community’s attention enough that a sustained campaign centering around the most pressing issues a Host City faces can effect real change, in ways that few other events could for cities around the world.  Second, this reality could be used to channel us all to address the local issues that we too often hide from, as they are the issues which we have a voice that legally deserves to be heard.

Sports are political, and, as with any institution where billions of dollars are changing hands, there are bound to be groups of people whose needs are systematically not being heard.  That does not discount the glory of sport, and the appropriateness of celebrating the Games, and aspiring to be fit, playful, and team-oriented.  It should, however, dampen our celebrations so long as they are not coupled with concerted efforts to battle the injustices under discussion.

Image courtesy of blogs.rj.org