Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Worrying Polls and the Suicidal Left

The NYTimes posted a piece yesterday (link) showing that according to a recent Palestinian opinion poll, 84% of Palestinians supported the Mercaz Harav attack, 64% support the ongoing bombing of sderot, and 75% believe that the Peace Talks are a waste of time. In the words of NYTimes:

A new poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Paelstinians support the attack this month on a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem that killed eight young men, most of them teenagers, an indication of the alarming level of Israeli-Palestinian tension in recent weeks.

The survey also shows unprecedented support for the shooting of rockets on Israeli towns from the Gaza Strip and for the end of the peace negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

The pollster, Khalil Shikaki, said he was shocked because the survey, taken last week, showed greater support for violence than any other he had conducted over the past 15 years in the Palestinian areas. Never before, he said, had a majority favored an end to negotiations or the shooting of rockets at Israel.

Now, this poll is worrying in the extreme. Why? Because we are negotiating with the Palestinians. But they have no intention of making Peace with us! What is the point? It feels like a simple delusion. See this video (link) by the Hamas MP (We seek Death like They Seek Life!) or the fact that last week Abbas admitted that if the political Process failed, they would be happy to return to armed struggle!!

But there is another aspect of this poll which makes me want to point this poll out in particular. It is because Haaretz today just ignored it. Instead it published a different poll (link):

Study: Israeli Jews becoming increasingly racist toward Arabs

We are rascist? How about them wanting to kill us! Why is HaAretz consistently so down on ourselves, on Israel? We are always awful; the Palestinians, helpless victims. I like reading HaAretz. It is intelligent ... and has a great arts and culture section. But it is frequently so self-hating and so post-Zionist.

This left-wing post-Zionism and always seeing ourselves as wrong, evil, rascist etc. is worrying. It is worrying because many of the so proclaimed "intellectual elite" and media leaders in Israel are precisely these Left Wingers and they routinely delegitimise anyone who holds different political views as if they were barbarian.

Please see this excellent op-ed by Amnon Rubinstein (link), and this (link) depressing article by Daniel Gordis.

They relate to the emptiness of the Left wing secular as well. Just today on the radio I heard a presenter talking about how most secular Israelis only know that Purim is a day one gets dressed up. They don't even know the Purim story! They have never heard the Megilla!

What's to be done?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Our Global Shrinking World

The other day, I took my students on a class trip. As we entered the Israel Supreme Court one of the student's cellphone's rang. It was her Mom calling from the U.S. And I was struck by a certain irony.

On the one hand we have become global. Worldwide travel has expanded as once "exotic" travel locations have become rather ordinary tourist destinations. We can reach other countries and continents at the click of our mouse. We can talk from any place in the universe. One would imagine that this would expand our horizons, widen our vision, give us the opportunity to explore and experience beyond our home upbringing, the community and lifestyle in which we were raised so that we might become truly global.

But in fact, the opposite has frequently become true. Globalisation has allowed people to closet themselves inside a small comfortable compartment and not to encounter anything new, challenging, different, "other". My student in Israel doesn't necessarily talk to Israelis. She walks down Emek Refaim listening to her iPod, talking to her circle of American friends on her cellphone. She barely sees the streets around her. She spends her evenings watching American TV shows that she downloads on the internet. One can keep up with the baseball at home. Why attend an Israeli Basketball game? One can have the music that one likes; Why get to know Israeli music? One can read the NYTimes; Why read Maariv or Yediot? And this is true all the way around the world. A Muslim child in Birmingham will grow up watching Al Jazeera instead of the BBC. People walk through the streets and ignore everyone around as they communicate on their cellphones. I can pick up my email anywhere in the Globe, can take comfort in my favourite websites! I never leave home; my parents are always at the other end of the phone line!

I cannot help but feel that this is horribly regrettable. We are supposed to interact with our surroundings. To integrate, to be challenged, to watch and learn, to experience that which is different as it challenges our assumptions about what is "normal" and "right," as we can connect with people who live around us, recognizing them as people, embracing the landscape - urban, human, natural, national - around us. We are supposed to leave home and express our independence and learn how to fend for ourselves. I have always hated walkmans etc. as they cut me off from the environment around me... I resent the virtual reality that earphones thrust me into. And that is without even stepping beyond my immediate environment. Of course this is far more extreme when we travel. How can someone reside in another country without truly engaging in the most basic cultural building block – a foreign language?

I intend to write a follow up to this email with specific attention to Israel Yeshiva Year-Programs. But this is enough for now.

I'll summarise. The selfsame technology that facilitates our ability to extend our global reach as we can see further a-field mysteriously allows us to cocoon ourselves inwards in a cosy familiar environment which eclipses challenge and self-expansion. That is very unfortunate indeed.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Agnon, the Nobel Prize, and The Song of the Levites

As I often do, this is yet another post about Israeli life and why I love it here! and today, I would simply like to draw your attention to a simple banknote. Yes! the Fifty Shekel. What is so special about this piece of paper?
Well as you can see, this note has a person on it. That person is the fabulous novelist and writer, S.Y. Agnon. Agnon had a deep religious sense about him, a passionate Zionism, a wicked cynicism and a masterful pen. I don't always understand the allusions in his writing but when I figure it out, I understand how his vision was insightful, penetrating and entertaining. He beautifully fused the "old" of tradition and the "new" of Modern Hebrew, and created wonderful literature.
Well, in truth, it isn't really Agnon that I like on this banknote but the TEXT written in small on the left hand side of the banknote. It is part of Agnon's acceptance speech for his Nobel Prize. The entire speech can be found here (link) but this is the section quoted on the Banknote.
"As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother-Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile. I suspect that the angels in charge of the Shrine of Music, fearful lest I sing in wakefulness what I had sung in dream, made me forget by day what I had sung at night; for if my brethren, the sons of my people, were to hear, they would be unable to bear their grief over the happiness they have lost. To console me for having prevented me from singing with my mouth, they enable me to compose songs in writing."
On occasion, I read this out to a class, and I feel myself becoming emotional. These are deep Jewish-Zionist sentiments. The notion that we were born in the diaspora by some "Historical catastrophe" due to the Exile that our nation is experienced is just incredible. The sense that Agnon talks about his impetus to write as a continuation of the songs of the Leviim in the Mikdash is amazing. All of this on a simple banknote.
Next time you have a spare moment , take out your 50 shekel and read this wonderful speech. It is truly a classic!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Parshat Vayikra: The Power of Preparation

I find the opening Rashi to Sefer Vayikra very special:

1. And He called to Moses. Prior to any communication with Moses... God preceded by calling [to Moses] [קְרִיאָה] is an expression of affection, the [same] expression employed by the ministering angels [when addressing each other], as it says, “And one called (וְקָרָא) to the other…” (Isa. 6:3).
To the prophets of the nations of the world, however, He revealed Himself through expressions denoting coincidence and impurity, as the verse says, “and God happened to [meet] (וַיִּקָּר) Balaam” (Num. 23:4). - [Bemidbar Rabbah 52:5] [The expression וַיִּקָּר has the meaning of a coincidental happening, and also alludes to impurity. [See Deut. 23:11, regarding the expression מִקְרֵה לַיְלָה.]

The notion that Kedusha is created by preparation, by planning and forethought, is a cornerstone of Judaism. Contemporary society romanticises about spontaneity as if immediate, instinctive and impulsive actions are an ultimate test of Truth; a window into one's heart, a person's inner world. Hence "Love at first sight" is a virtue in the eyes of some. In fact "Love at first sight" is a very bad idea and will generally lead to a failed relationship. For the success of a love relationship is based upon many qualities but it is something tht is built painstakingly and slowly, over time.

On Friday night, we recite the phrase:

סוף מעשה במחשבה תחילה -
"The (successful) completion of a process is due to the initial thought and planning"

Before God engages Moshe in conversation, He calls out to him, allowing him to prepare and to enter the correct frame of mind, and only afterwards does He engage Moshe in conversation.

Now this Midrash works at a peshat level here too. after all, Rashi is sensitive to the fact that Parashat Vayikra opens in a very unusual manner.

א) וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר יְדֹוָד אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר:
ב) דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם

Why the double intro here? Why not a simple: ויְדַבֵּר יְדֹוָד אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר?

A global look at peshat explains it beautifully. At the end of the Book of Shemot, we read:

"Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud abode on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle."(Exodus 40:34-36)

Moshe is waiting for God to invite him in. Why is Moses not allowed in initially? Why the wait? and ... at what point does God respond? Very simply, it is in our opening passuk:

"And [He] called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying..." (Leviticus 1:1)

In other words, Moshe has to wait for God! Then, "Vayikra" - God calls him in - "VaYedaber" - he speaks to him. But why the wait? Back to Rashi... There is value in the wait. It prepares Moshe for the great rendezvous with the Almighty. God does not surprise us. He teaches us the lesson that in order to experience His presence, we need to prepare ourselves, to purify our thoughts and minds.

And indeed our tradition prepares for the entire month of Ellul before Rosh Hashanna, we prepare on Friday so that we are ready for Shabbat. What is Pesach without the planning beforehand? To enter the Temple, all manner of purification processes are necessary! If it is to be worthwhile, it needs prior planning and forethought. The Talmud tells us that the pious men of that era would sit and prepare before prayer. They planned, meditated, studied, for a considerable amount of time. Prayer also needs planning in order to make it meaningful. We cannot expect prayer to be deep and moving if we run off the street with a hundred things on our minds and then say the words. Our minds are elsewhere! Proper prayer needs serious planning.

This lesson is a difficult one in our instant, soundbite, take-out, AIM age. And yet, if we DO want to reach Kedusha, a genuine contact with God in a deep place, a sense of His presence, it needs to be preceded by קריאה - by anticipation and preparation. It takes time; it is a slow, gradual process. It is not sponaneity but rather the hard persistent work that precedes our Encounter with God, allowing us to enter into the "Tent of Meeting."

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Mercaz Harav - Everyone knows Someone

I'd like to post two points about Thursday's pigua which is still so much in our minds.

The news of just so many teenagers killed in the Mercaz HaRav pigua has been heartbreaking. Moreover, with two kids killed from the Gush, one in Efrat and another in Neve Daniel, it has been very close to home. Israel is so small, that everyone knows someone involved. The boy killed in Neve Daniel has a sister in my daughter's class. The boy from Kochav Hashachar is the son of the Mohel who performed my son's Brit Mila. On Friday, I attended the Lavaye (funeral) of Avraham David Moses. Only when at the funeral did I realise that I knew both the father and the step-father of this child.

But this email that I received today took this all to a new level. It is from someone that I work with at Nefesh B'Nefesh:

Every morning I take the 35 bus line to work. It's a quick ride and usually takes no more than 12 minutes. The third stop after I get on by the shuk is directly in front of Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav. This morning I found myself a bit anxious, unsure of what I was going to see as we passed by. As I looked around, I saw death notices pasted all over the street and flowers that had been brought lined the entrance to the Yeshiva.

When the bus pulled up to the stop, the driver shut off the engine and stood. With tears in his eyes he told everyone sitting on the bus that one of the boys killed on Thursday night was his nephew. He asked if everyone on the bus would mind if he spoke for a few minutes in memory of his nephew and the other boys that were killed. After seeing head nods all over the bus he began to speak. With a clear and proud voice, he spoke beautifully about his nephew and said that he was a person who was constantly on the lookout for how to help out anyone in need. He was always searching for a way to make things better. He loved learning, and had a passion for working out the intricacies of the Gemara. He was excited to join the army in a few years, and wanted to eventually work in informal education.

As he continued to speak, I noticed that the elderly woman sitting next to me was crying. I looked into my bag, reached for a tissue and passed it to her. She looked at me and told me that she too had lost someone she knew in the attack. Her neighbors child was another one of the boys killed. As she held my hand tightly, she stood up and asked if she too could say a few words in memory of her neighbor. She spoke of a young man filled with a zest for life. Every friday he would visit her with a few flowers for shabbat and a short dvar torah that he had learned that week in Yeshiva. This past shabbat, she had no flowers.

When I got to work, one of my colleagues who lives in Efrat told me that her son was friends with 2 of the boys who had been killed. One of those boys was the stepson of a man who used to teach in Brovenders and comes to my shul in Riverdale every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to be a chazan for one of the minyanim.

We are all affected by what goes on in Israel. Whether you know someone who was killed or know someone who knows someone or even if you don't know anyone at all, you are affected. The 8 boys who were killed will continue to impact us all individually and as a nation. Each one of us has the ability to make a profound impact on our world.

This coming wednesday morning, I will be at Ben Gurion airport at 7 am with Nefesh B'Nefesh welcoming 40 new olim to Israel. We will not deter. We can not give up. We will continue to live our lives and hope and work for change, understanding and peace.

A second point is about the dignity and restraint which everyone has been exhibiting here. At the Levaye there were tears but no anger, no calls for vengeance. Just silence, tears and palpable grief. In fact, more than that. The mother of Avraham David Moses thanked God for "the 16 years we had the privilege of raising him, 16 years of purity of heart and honesty." How can a mother in her grief respond in that way? It is simply incredible.

On the night of the pigua, a few people stood opposite Mercaz Harav calling chants for vengeance and "Death to Arabs." The Rosh Yeshiva went to them and aske dthem to leave. "This is not our way," he told them. "We respond with love of the land, love of Torah, love of Israel. we will rebuild our land, our nation and remain attached to Torah."

How starkly different we are to our enemies. May we always be filled with gentle dignity, love and hope, even when our enemies exploit those "weaknesses" to frighten and hurt us.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Mercaz Harav

Words fail us.
So young.
Such a tragedy.
So many families torn apart, communities in sorrow.
מן המיצר קראתי -ה ענני במרחב -ה

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Shishi Mishpachti - Friday Night Family Dinner

As many of you must know by now, I love expressions of Jewish culture in a secular guise. That is why I love this website (link). It is a new project that tries to encourage families to have ONE meal TOGETHER each week. Well, when they did market research, they discovered that for Israelis the most obvious time was Friday Night dinner. And so they have created a project to raise the profile of the good old-fashioned Friday Night Shabbat Meal!

The Website includes recipes; the text of Kiddush, an explanation of all the traditional friday night customs from Gefilte Fish to Shalom Aleichem, and also Zemirot. It is on the one hand clearly secular - there is a list of Israeli celebrities who are supporting and backing this project - and on the other hand, totally traditional. Lots of Fun! Check it out.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Ashkelon, Sderot and the Gaza Problem.

Over 200 rockets in the past 4 days. Ashkelon under fire.
We are all distressed, upset, frustrated, and yes - feeling helpless.

Well, sounds like the Government haven't got a clue. They are threatening a ground assault, and it all sounds worryingly familiar from last summer. Yes... we can send the troops in, but do we have a clear objective? Do we have an exit strategy? How do we declare to ourselves and the world that we have defeated the enemy? are they 100% sure they can stop the Kassaams?

I would like to make a few points on this topic.

1. Entering Gaza is futile. I believe that Hamas have built Hizbolla style bunkers and we are in for some nasty surprises. Moreover, what do we do when we are in there? We are simply targets. We cannot check every home, every street, every inch of every orchard.

And if we do go in and the rocket fire continues, we are weakened and humiliated. If we go in and even 1 Kassam is fired, then we are in BIG BIG trouble. We must be 1000% sure that we can stop it or else we shouldn't step a foot in there.

I think that entering Gaza in full force will kill alot of Israelis and will at most, cause a pause in the rocket fire. It will not stop it.

2. The Palestinians have nothing to lose.
They are already dirt poor. They have corrupt government. All they have is their hatred of Israel seated in an arab sense of pride and vengeance, mixed with Islamist belief. However much we hit them, they will see their fighters as heroes. They will not stop trying to weaken and annihilate Israel.

Sometimes, a person figures out that threats are empty. They lose a sense of fear. I once knew of a kid who became delinquent. How? He kept on getting into trouble with school. Soon he figured out... what can they REALLy do to me? Most? - send me home... my parents will yell. He developed a thick skin to that and then there was nothing they could threaten him with. Get expelled? so what?! So he began stealing. Got caught by the police. He was under age. again, very quickly he learned: what is the worst they can do? They cannot jail him. They cannot beat him? So he learned that arrest isn't soooo bad. etc.

Gaza is similar. They are quickly learning that what is Israel REALLY going to do? a bomb here? A house search there? Lack of food? So? - We can still survive!

3. This is a serious threat to Israel's existence.
Don't mistake this. Hamas want us gone. Forever. This is just another attempt to chip away at Israel.
No society can live with cities under rocket fire.

4. One cannot run Israel under threat without Zionism.
One ingredient in our national fibre has to be that we are struggling and we all need to pitch in and fight. Our post-zionist politicians who are more interested in money and standard-of-living are a big problem in this situation.
And more than this. Israel has to be more than surviving the next Kassaam. We have to have a country to build, a national objective, a vision. Israeli society is suffering because no-one talks the language of Zionism, of dreams, of hope, of what we want to build a society for, of our vision of the Jewish future here in eretz Yisrael of the society that we can be and must be if this is to be worthwhile. Zionism cannot be simply about survival or else we are going to wither and collapse.
Without a positive objective, it is too exhausting, too draining.

So what is the solution?

I don't know... but I Do know that entering Gaza is a mistake (unless they have some new trick up their sleeves); that statements like "we'll show them" that Barak and Olmert have been saying are just empty ridiculous words.

We need to show the Arabs that they lose by doing this.
We need to show them that they cannot break us.

In this environment:

5. The Modern Sensationalist Press is a liability
What I mean by this is that today's press loves human interest stories, hysteria and victims. They pump up misery to pump up ratings. To this end they sow seeds of panic and desperation, fear and weakness into Israeli society. we need precisely the opposite. We need courage and a resolute; "we shall overcome". we need to move away from quick fixes into long term solutions.

A big part of this is the national psychology. People have to realise that this is not America. We are in for a long and bitter struggle here. Anything less than that is fantasy.

Maybe we have to set up one new sttlement for every 10 Kassaams. maybe we declare that for every rocket, we push back the Gaza Fence 10 yards. Maybe we have to say that we are resolute and invest in creating huge bombproof shopping malls and recreation "domes" in sderot and Ashkelon so that people can enjoy themseleves and that the rockets will not rock us. Maybe we need to negotiate with Egypt and the intl. community to move the entire population of Gaza away from our border so that they cannot harm us? To a place which has an economic and civilian infrastructure. (Now that might seriously worry Hamas!) Maybe the World Bank and EU can begin investigating why the Billions they invested in Gaza didn't result in new housing and tourism projects and Industrial Parks etc. Maybe they can convince the Gazans to devote their meagre funds and energies to better causes.

We need new thinking. We need fresh paradigms of thought.
If you have any positive suggestions add them here.
I am tired of the old solutions. They don't work.