With September upon us and the Gaza war behind us, university students may be facing Israel-on-campus discourse this semester with some extra trepidation. I often hear Jewish parents wondering about how we can best prepare our kids to “face” Israel opponents on campus. As a past active Jewish undergraduate student myself and now as a professor who specializes in the topic of Israel/Palestine, here are some of my thoughts about the best way to approach the topic of Israel on campus.
Critical thinking above all else. In today’s political climate, no one is served by advancing talking points rather than asking tough questions and truly listening. Jewish students should not have to see themselves as ambassadors of the Jewish state. Israel has its own cadre of hasbarah professionals. As a place to create intelligent and productive global citizens, the role of university is to help students absorb information and apply conceptual reasoning in a critically engaged way. Jewish students should not have to leave their critical faculties at the door on the subject of Israel, nor should they have to consider the classroom environment – with its natural predilection for analyzing multiple sides of a problem – as hermetically sealed from the rest of the campus, where more informal discussion and occasional activism takes place.
Put aside the labels. Students would be forgiven for believing that they must adopt a label like “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestine” either before arriving on campus or while there. But, as I consistently try to show my students, those terms mean little. To some, being pro-Israel means supporting the settler enterprise. To others, it means spurring Israel to make peace with the Palestinian Authority. Similarly, being pro-Palestine may mean supporting Hamas’ war effort, just as it might mean supporting Mahmoud Abbas’ attempt to reach a peace agreement with the Israeli government. By assuming a monolithic stance, students mentally close out possibilities. Students who care about the region must take time to consider what is best for the individuals and nations living there.
Focus on the “why” questions. While the out-of-classroom campus climate can unfortunately tend towards the “blame game,” where activists point fingers at one side or another, students would be best served by focusing on the “why” questions. Analyzing why each set of political actors takes the actions they do is ultimately the best thing students can do to deepen their understanding of the region and perhaps to ultimately be in a position to help bring about desired outcomes. Importantly, addressing the “why” questions is not the same as providing moral justifications. “Why does Hamas shoot rockets?” could be addressed by an array of possible answers, all of which should be put on the table and evaluated using the best knowledge we have, before making gut assumptions. Focusing on these explanatory questions can also help to further dialogue with people whose instinctual political allegiances may be different.
Practice empathy. Moving from the “why” questions to the “what should be” questions is best done through a position of empathy. Understanding the narratives, experiences, and emotional and material reality of each “side” is essential to prescribing political outcomes that will stick. Just as demanding that Israel give up its Jewish identity is going to be a non-starter, so too is not recognizing that no people is going to accept living under occupation in perpetuity.
Start early. Finally, it’s all good and fine to hope that our community’s Jewish students are primed for Israel engagement on campus, but the kind of critical engagement that enables students to deploy all their intellectual and cultural tools must start early. Our community needs to ensure that spoken Hebrew instruction in our day and supplementary schools is a priority, thus paving the way for our students to engage with Israel and Israelis in a more intimate and nuanced way whether via social media or, ideally, in person. Similarly, our elementary and high schools should ensure that wide-ranging discussion on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is encouraged, and that groupthink is avoided. An informed and critically engaged citizen will be one who can contribute most potently – and that is ultimately good for Jewish continuity, to boot.
Mira Sucharovis an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. This article was originally published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.
Gazan civilians on the roof of a building that had been used for terror activity. (photo from idfblog.com)
As Palestinians begin to discuss the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip after seven weeks of fighting with Israel, Israeli, Palestinian and international officials warn of the risk of another round of fighting unless there is a diplomatic agreement between the two sides as well as an agreement to rebuild Gaza.
Hamas senior official Musa Abu Marzook said that indirect talks with Israel would resume in Cairo later this month. He hinted that Hamas would be prepared to negotiate directly with Israel, saying that there is no obstacle in Muslim religious law to negotiations with Israel.
Israel, for its part, says that Hamas is a terrorist organization, and it will not negotiate either directly with Hamas or with any government that includes Hamas. This could complicate efforts for a new unity government of technocrats from Hamas and Fatah.
European Union Ambassador Lars Faaborg-Andersen warned last week that without a long-term political solution that would see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in charge of Gaza, violence could start anew. Israel and Hamas agreed to an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire on Aug. 26, and were expected to restart negotiations on long-term issues within a month. These expected talks come amid growing tensions between Abbas’ Fatah movement and Hamas, which is far more popular in Gaza now than it was before the war.
The issues on the table for the Cairo talks include an airport or sea port for Gaza, which Israel is expected to oppose, rebuilding Gaza, which is estimated to cost $7.8 billion, and demilitarizing the Strip, which Hamas has opposed. Cairo is also expected to host an international donors conference in October.
In the short term, the Palestinian Authority has appealed for more than $550 million in emergency aid for Gaza. Tens of thousands of Palestinians are still homeless after the fighting.
Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa said, “Reconstruction is the ultimate goal, but our government won’t accept a return to the status quo. We are getting to a limit that can no more be accepted. Never again, never again.”
Israeli officials said they would support the PA having control over a demilitarized Gaza Strip.
The two-state solution was one of the most talked about issues in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Not everyone is talking about a two-state solution these days, however. As a regular reader of Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, I was interested to read her most recent book, The Israeli Solution (Crown Forum, 2014), in which she introduces her vision of a one-state plan, and challenges the assumptions two-staters make about the demographic threats that are supposed to be inherent in a one-state future. Glick also considers what might be the international response to such a plan, as well as the risks and benefits to all the players.
In her preface, Glick makes it clear that “the time has come for American policy makers to reconsider their devotion to the two-state formula and consider an alternative policy that makes sense both for the United States and for the Middle East.”
She presents a history of Israel, then provides a look at both Yasser Arafat and current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as reviews the history of Hamas. She states her incredulity that Western leaders acknowledge Hamas as a terrorist organization but fail to see that Hamas is the same as Arafat, Abbas and others who support terrorism and advance the cause of Israel’s destruction.
Glick also discusses the origins of the often-confused term Palestina, which the Romans incorporated to wipe out the Jewish identity of the land of Israel because it connected the identity of the land to the ancient Philistines.
She analyzes Israel’s national rights to Judea and Samaria and the term “West Bank,” coined by the Jordanians, “who instigated their occupation of the areas in order to ground their claim to sovereignty on an intuited but nonexistent political link between the west bank of the Jordan River and the east bank of the river which was Jordan.”
Many people toss around the term “demographic threat” based on misinformation about the Arab population, contends Glick. She writes that “the real demographic threat that Israel faces is not that the Palestinians will become the majority west of the Jordan River. The real demographic threat is that if a Palestinian state is created, vast numbers of Palestinians will flee to Israel … and a sufficient number will emigrate to Judea and Samaria from surrounding Arab countries to overwhelm Israel.”
In conclusion, she makes her points very clear that “the Palestinian conflict with Israel is a function of the larger Arab and Islamic world’s refusal to accept that Israel has a right to exist.” The Arab states exploit their politics and foreign policies as a means to coerce the Americans into taking actions to appease them, she argues.
“The United States has a paramount national security interest in ensuring the military strength and social cohesion of the Jewish state,” writes Glick. Israel is America’s only remaining ally in the Middle East, and in her comparison of the Obama and Bush administrations’ policy speeches, Glick finds them “substantially indistinguishable.”
An extensive bibliography and notes closes the book.
Sybil Kaplanis a foreign correspondent, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She has compiled nine kosher cookbooks. She leads weekly walks in English in the Jewish produce market, Machaneh Yehudah, and writes the restaurant features for Janglo, the oldest, largest website in Israel for English-speakers.
The Catholic Church did not initiate diplomatic relations with the state of Israel until 1993 and, according to the Italian writer Giulio Meotti, things haven’t been all rainbows since then either.
The creation of a thriving Jewish state creates a theological conundrum for the Catholic Church, Meotti writes in The Vatican Against Israel: J’Accuse (Mantua Books, 2013), because it is a refutation of the theological view that Judaism should wither and die in the shadow of a successor religion, Christianity. The theological imperative of Jewish disappearance is now accompanied, he writes, by a geopolitical imperative that Israel should vanish.
“Replacement theology stated that Christians had inherited the covenant and replaced the Jews as the Chosen People. The concept of replacement geography similarly replaces the historical connection of one people to the land with a connection between another people and the land,” Meotti writes. “The existence of a restored Israel in the land of the Bible, proof that the Jewish people is not annihilated, assimilated and withering away, is the living refutation of the Christian myth about the Jewish end in the historical process.”
The necessity of rejecting Zionism and, in its time, Israel, bested even the liberalizing influence of the Second Vatican Council, the near-revolutionary reconsideration that took place within Catholicism in the early 1960s. This period, which saw the Church recognize Judaism and Christianity as familial theologies and renounce the millennia-old deicide charge against the Jews, nevertheless has a stream that abhors Zionism. Meotti writes that two conflicting Vatican tendencies developed at that time and still dominate: “theological dialogue with Judaism, and political support for the Arabs.” (The gushing lamentation offered by the Vatican on the death of Yasser Arafat is particularly striking.)
Meotti contends that this process has involved the Catholic Church differentiating between “good” and “docile” Jews of the Diaspora and the “bad” and “arrogant” Jews of Israel.
The book is a litany of indictments. The Church had relations with the PLO before it had relations with Israel. Top Church leaders have repeatedly accused Israel of behaving like Nazis. They routinely use crucifixion motifs in the Israeli-Palestinian context, with Jews playing the Romans and Palestinians, of course, playing the beatific victim. Israel, said one archbishop, was imposing “the sufferings of the passion of Jesus on the Arab Christians.” Another, at the time of the Palestinians’ seizure of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, declared: “Our Palestinian people in Bethlehem died like a crucified martyr.” Arafat himself jumped on the bandwagon, declaring: “Jesus Christ was the first Palestinian fedayeen who carried his sword along the road on which today the Palestinians carry their cross.”
The first translation into Arabic of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was courtesy of the Catholic Church. One archbishop was convicted of using his immunity to smuggle explosives to Palestinian terrorists and served just four years of his 12-year term after intervention by the Pope and a promise to make no more trouble. (He turned up again in 2010 on the fatal “Freedom Flotilla” that sought to bring aid to Hamas terrorists and has goaded Palestinian Christians to violence, insisting it is the only thing that will move Israelis.) Today, Catholic-affiliated nongovernmental organizations are among the leaders in the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
The Vatican’s relationship to the Holocaust is particularly dissolute. Pope John Paul II, in 1979, spoke at Auschwitz, noting that “six million Poles lost their lives during the Second World War, one-fifth of the nation,” failing to note that these were almost all Jews. Instead, he called Auschwitz “the Golgotha of the contemporary world,” Golgotha being the place in Jerusalem where Jesus is said to have been crucified.
More perversely, after visiting Mauthausen, the Pope said that the Jews “enriched the world by their suffering,” He seemed to be echoing the thoughts of John Cardinal O’Connor, then archbishop of New York, who a year earlier had visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, and asserted that “the Holocaust is an enormous gift that Judaism has given to the world.”
John Paul also infuriated Jews, among others, by conferring a papal knighthood on Kurt Waldheim, the former Austrian president, United Nations secretary-general and Nazi war criminal.
When Jews objected to a proposal to build a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, the mother superior of the order asked: “Why do the Jews want special treatment in Auschwitz only for themselves? Do they still consider themselves the Chosen People?”
The “J’Accuse” part, which channels the moral outrage of Emile Zola, is fair enough, but this book is only partly about the Vatican. Meotti dredges up equally egregious affronts perpetrated by countless other Christian denominations.
The book is a searing indictment of the Catholic Church, but it is also deeply flawed. At the least, the title is deceptive. The “J’Accuse” part, which channels the moral outrage of Emile Zola, is fair enough, but this book is only partly about the Vatican. Meotti dredges up equally egregious affronts perpetrated by countless other Christian denominations. By no means is Meotti’s condemnation limited to the Vatican, and it is difficult to discern why the title should suggest it is.
Meotti frequently puts uncited statements in quotations. For example, during the 1967 war, when Israel faced annihilation from the Arab states, Meotti claims the Vatican gave the order: “Cheer for the other side.” The quote marks suggest someone literally said this, but whom? On another occasion, he attributes, in quotes, the statement “Jerusalem must be Judenrein.” But who is alleged to have said it? One can also frequently sense comments being stretched out of context to fit the thesis.
Too many times to count, Meotti declares one Christian assertion or another “a blood libel.” The term’s over-usage diminishes whatever power the accusation carries. And nowhere is his over-usage more disturbing than in his casual, often flippant invocation of Nazism.
He writes, “Like Hitlerism, Palestinianism is not a national identity, but a criminal ideological construct…. Worse, the Netanya Passover bombing that killed 30 is a “mini Holocaust.” And, “The dark irony is that the Europeans who are supporting the Palestinians’ ‘right of return’ are living in homes stolen from Jews they helped to gas.”
Meotti’s book has the potential to make an important case against Christian antisemitism and anti-Zionism. While it doesn’t fail completely – the evidence being compendious – the charge to the jury is so overwrought that one feels resentful at being manipulated. The facts would speak for themselves if the author would step back a bit.
Prof. Shlomo Hasson of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem speaks with audience member Marvin Weintraub after his presentation on Israel’s geopolitical situation. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
While Prof. Shlomo Hasson of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem offered some hope that Israel will one day live in peace, he did not offer many reasons to be optimistic about the future of the Middle East.
Speaking to more than 150 people at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on Sept. 4, Hasson put the current geopolitical situation of Israel into context, and discussed four possible futures for the Middle East in general, and for Israel in particular. These scenarios were derived at HU’s Shasha Centre for Strategic Studies, which Hasson heads.
Hasson, who is also a professor in HU’s department of geography, School of Public Policy, and the Leon Safdie Chair at the Institute of Urban and Regional Studies, began by sharing his belief, as a strategist, that, “In every crisis, there is also embedded an opportunity.”
The main issues, he explained, are Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state and its security within recognized (legitimate) borders, the conflict with Hamas and the regional upheaval. The question is which map(s) and policy(ies) can best deal with all these issues (demography, democracy, legitimacy and geography) and what are the driving forces (internal, regional and global) shaping this map.
The dilemma is not new, said Hasson. “We have always asked ourselves, ‘How can we sustain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and legitimate borders?’” What is new, however, is the context.
According to Hasson, the new aspects of Israel’s dilemma include that the United States doesn’t have a comprehensive Middle East strategy; the cold war in the region (states fighting each other indirectly using proxies, such as extremist groups); the region’s instability (failed states, non-state actors); the increase in criticism of Israel (even by allies) and antisemitism; and the indeterminate results of Operation Protective Edge.
About the war with Hamas over the summer, Hasson divided the results into achievements and failures. Achievements included the devastation Israel inflicted on Hamas, the tunnels it destroyed and the top commanders it killed, the effectiveness of the Iron Dome, the isolation of Hamas, the resilience within Israel and Israelis’ support of the war. On the negative side, he said, Israel did not manage to defeat Hamas; the Israeli government exhibited reactive policy, a lack of creativity and an absence of strategy during the conflict; there were rifts with the United States; the recognition of Hamas as a political actor; and, within Israel, there was bitterness and political division. Hasson questioned whether the war had achieved greater security or served as deterrence.
Hasson went through four predominant opinions on Israel’s possible future, ranging from the Greater Land of Israel to no Jewish state. One of the reasons that progress in achieving agreement is hard, he said, is because people approach it with their own “inevitability assumptions” about such things as to where Israel’s borders should lie: for example, the 1967 borders are inevitable because they stem from moral/progress imperatives, or the Greater Land of Israel borders are inevitable because of a divine promise.
Israel’s decisions and border preferences are not the only ones that will influence its future. Other forces are at work: the super powers (United States, China, Russia, European Union), regional powers (Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia/Egypt), developments in the Arab world, relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as developments within the PA.
Hasson highlighted the importance of the Sunni versus Shi’a conflict, explaining some of the possible regional outcomes: national-religious states, democracy, the prevalence of moderate autocrats or the rise of extremists. He said that Israel cannot only focus on its relations with the Palestinians, but must take a broader view, including in its strategizing the Arab world, non-state actors, regional rivalries, and global competition over resources and positions.
He described four scenarios and hypothesized their likelihood.
“Pax Americana,” in which the United States returns to the region as a major actor, the Arab nations engage in democratization and Israel returns to the 1967 borders was one of them. Hasson said, “If you ask me, what are the chances, or the probabilities, of this scenario, I would say … very slim. So, when people talk about the ’67 borders, I share their expectation and I have the highest respect for the people who believe in a two-state solution … unfortunately, the leading driving forces are not taking us in this direction….”
Hasson described both the regional hegemony of Sunnite moderate parties (“a moderate Hamas” may prevail in this scenario) and “clash of civilizations” (between Islamic and non-Islamic forces, but also within Islam, where the extremists will take over) as having a moderate chance of occurring, and the potential for anarchy (with even the superpowers fighting each other) as high.
The Middle East will be unstable for a long time and a two-state solution cannot come to fruition, at least in the short term, he concluded. While a bi-national state might be possible, it is not desirable from Israel’s perspective, he said, and there is a need for another approach.
Hasson recommended that Israel recognize a Palestinian state without recognizing its borders, continue to engage in negotiations with the Palestinians and work toward international legitimacy. If negotiations fail, he said Israel has “to consider the possibility of unilateral withdrawal to defensible borders because we shouldn’t give the Palestinians a veto right over Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state…. So, Israel must ensure its security and international legitimacy but also its demography.”
Hasson, referring to the Shasha Centre scenarios he outlined, predicted that Israel in 2020 will have defensible borders, and that the future will involve unilateral acts by the Palestinians (turning to the United Nations, for example) and Israel (more settlement building, for example) – “there will be mutual adaptation and, from time to time, we will have a cycle of violence in the Middle East. But, currently, we don’t see any prospect of getting to the ’67 borders.”
Dina Wachtel, executive director of the local Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, welcomed the audience, and CFHU board member Dr. Sam Bugis introduced Hasson.
Over the 11 days of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, which ended Aug. 25, two directors withdrew their films from the program because the festival included an advertisement from Yad b’Yad, a Vancouver-based group that supports the Jewish LGBTQ community. The advertisement depicted an Israeli flag alongside a pride flag and wished VQFF mazal tov on its 26th anniversary.
“We formed a few months ago and decided to put ads out in the community to let people know we exist,” said Jonathan Lerner, chair of Yad b’Yad. “Our intention was to celebrate pride and congratulate the film festival on 26 years, and we used the two flags to show our solidarity with the community. The ad was not intended to be political.”
Patty Berne, director of the film Sins Invalid, was the first to withdraw from VQFF, on Aug. 14, stating she was “angered and disappointed” that VQFF accepted the ad. The ad, she said, “attempts to portray the state of Israel as a friend to LGBTQ communities, particularly in the current moment as the people of Palestine are living through hell and dying in staggering numbers daily.”
Can Candan, director and producer of My Child, withdrew his documentary a few days later because, he said in an open letter to VQFF organizers, the festival had not taken a “public and vocal stand against the Israeli government’s unacceptable policies.” He cited an obligation to join the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign “as filmmakers and human rights activists with conscience.”
The filmmakers’ withdrawal from the festival was disappointing, said Drew Dennis, VQFF executive director. “We had many conversations encouraging them to keep their films in the festival, so I was saddened that they withdrew, but we want to respect them for the decision they made for themselves.”
Dennis said neither of the two withdrawn films contained any content relevant to the Middle East and insisted that VQFF had no political stance. “We heard from a number of filmmakers who were voicing concerns about the ad, but the festival is a place where we bring people together and allow a diversity of viewpoints. Our mandate is pretty simple: to bring communities together and provide a platform for safe, open dialogue around those films.”
Mik Turje, another director who raised concerns but did not withdraw his film, also issued a statement, as did Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group, a student-run centre. Their statements claimed that ads like Yad b’Yad’s attempt to “pinkwash” Israel’s image by focusing on the state’s gay rights rather than on its treatment of the Palestinians. Turje said although the VQFF has made it clear it has no position on the issue, “I believe that choosing neutrality in a situation of oppression is a form of complicity. The project of pinkwashing dehumanizes Palestinians in our name, it frames Israel as a liberal democracy in our name, and it fuels Islamophobia and racism in our name.”
After concerns about the ad were raised back in July, VQFF decided to donate Yad b’Yad’s $630 in ad revenue to Just Vision, an organization whose stated goal is to use film and multimedia to help foster “peace and an end to the occupation by rendering Palestinian and Israeli nonviolence leaders more visible, valued and effective in their efforts.” Dennis said there’s “concern, compassion for what’s happening in the region right now, but it’s not part of our mandate to look at this, so we chose to make the donation in an effort to contribute in a more productive way.”
That didn’t sit well with Lerner and members of Yad b’Yad. “By treating our ad revenue differently from every other group and ad, they essentially bowed to the pressure, succumbed to the bullies,” he said. “The gay community knows full well what it feels like to be alienated and excluded, but that’s what the VQFF is promoting by treating our ad revenue differently. They’ve made us feel unwelcome because of our religion and our nation of origin.” Lerner said Yad b’Yad was not given a choice about where its ad money would be donated. “I don’t know much about Just Vision, but we don’t support our money being donated. It’s not what we paid for,” he said.
Dennis said the VQFF board would be meeting in the fall to review its policies and practices, and that the controversy over this year’s film festival had raised the fact that “something as complex as this issue is not served by our policy. There wasn’t a large organizational decision around advertisements,” Dennis said. “We focus much more on the films than on the ads, but there’s an opportunity for us to look at that in the fall.”
Lerner told the Independent that VQFF has asked for public input on the issue be sent to [email protected].
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
It turns out Fidel Castro is still alive and making as much sense as ever. In an article in Cuban state media a few days ago, the former president ranted against the United States, Israel and NATO, the latter of which he equated with the Nazi SS. Even stranger, Castro believes that U.S. Senator John McCain and Israel’s intelligence agency the Mossad, created ISIS, the nihilistic terror entity sweeping Iraq and Syria.
Back on planet Earth, more serious commentators are wringing their hands over the state of U.S.-Israel relations. While it may not be exactly the Cuban missile crisis, relations between the United States and Israel are arguably at their lowest ebb ever. Part of this, of course, is a mere clash of personalities between their countries’ respective leaders. That’s old news and everybody by now accepts the fact that Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama are not what constitute “great friends,” whatever that oft-used term means in the context of world leaders.
The Times of Israel is reporting that, during Operation Protective Edge, the United States put together a deal with Turkish and Qatari representatives in Paris that was intended to be a draft agenda for ceasefire talks in Cairo. When Netanyahu saw the document, he rejected it out of hand, seeing it as a putting the interests of Hamas ahead of those of Israel.
The United States, further according to the Times of Israel, was unwilling to put pressure on Qatar, an ally, perversely, of both the United States and Hamas, to “squeeze Hamas politically and financially.”
The United States is said to have come away from the experience shocked at Israel’s undiplomatic response, while Israel walked away distrustful of American intentions, says the Times.
Enmity will only grow with Israel’s latest announcement of more West Bank settlements.
But even that salt in the wound should be eclipsed by news that the blood-soaked regime of Bashar al-Assad has lost control of the part of what is left of the Syrian nation that abuts Israel at the Golan Heights. While no one is quite sure of the exact makeup of Assad’s opposition, it is the black flag of al-Qaeda that is flying over the checkpoint adjacent to Israel’s border with (erstwhile) Syria.
With explosive events also taking place daily in Ukraine, Iraq and so many other places in the world, American leadership sometimes seems to be the only hope for people under threat. Even the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are getting nervous as they watch the expansionist fantasies of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The American people have given a great deal of their financial and human resources to overseas conflicts in the past decade and it is understandable that they might be hesitant to reengage in the Middle East or to engage in Europe. America is exhausted.
Of course, what is taking place in the world today are precisely the types of things that the United Nations was envisioned to prevent or ameliorate. The tragedy of that organization is that it is now held captive by leaders who are more sympathetic to the objectives of ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah and Putin than they are to the democratic states of the United States, Israel, Canada and western Europe.
The people and leaders of western Europe are also hesitant to get involved in Middle Eastern affairs, perhaps reasonably, given the potential they might have for trouble far closer to home if the Russian bear is not put back in its cage. Putin might have alleviated some international concern had he indicated that eastern Ukraine was the extent of his territorial ambitions, but he has done nothing of the sort.
For Obama’s part, it often seems as though he wishes Israel and Palestine would just disappear. Certainly, every president before him going back decades has tried and failed to resolve the problem and he is probably fully aware that he is not going to solve it either. With everything else happening in the world, this conflict may seem more like a nuisance than a crisis.
As much as Obama’s disengagement from this issue rankles many people, here’s a different take. For weeks, months, even years, people like us have been calling for the world to devote more of its attention to catastrophes that exponentially exceed the comparatively minor conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Say what you will about Obama, but that seems to be exactly what he’s doing.
The Israeli-American Council (IAC) has partnered with the Taglit Birthright Israel program to launch a special Hebrew track called IAC Shelanu. The new program offers a 10-day trip to Israel designed specifically for Israeli American young adults, ages 18-26. IAC Shelanu, in partnership with Taglit Birthright Israel and Israel Experience, will be conducted in Hebrew, aiming to engage this group of young leaders and create future Jewish-Israeli community influencers. Registration opens Sept. 9 for the December 2014 program.
According to a recent study commissioned by IAC and conducted by Israeli polling company Midgam, about 17 percent of second-generation Israeli Americans are married to non-Jews and Hebrew fluency drops from 53 percent to 19 percent for those living in the United States more than 10 years.
IAC Shelanu aims to provide an Israel experience that will help these young Israeli Americans and other Hebrew speakers connect on a deeper level with their Jewish-Israeli identity and expand their knowledge of and acquaintance with the state of Israel, its history and culture.
IAC Shelanu provides a unique experience for its participants, including a recruitment process by IAC that focuses on identifying, selecting and encouraging potential leaders. IAC Shelanu will then follow up with participants upon their return to ensure an enduring impact on their lives and further involvement in pro-Israel advocacy. Participants will be encouraged to participate in an IAC Shelanu alumni program, which will develop their connections to one another and to Israel while fortifying them with the network and skills needed to be ambassadors for Israel.
Based in Los Angeles with offices nationwide, IAC serves an estimated 750,000 Israelis in the United States today with a large variety of programs and events for all ages, and supports a wide range of other community nonprofit organizations. For more information about IAC, visit israeliamerican.org. For more information about IAC Shelanu, visit freejourneytoisrael.org/iacbirthrightisrael.
Crystal Wills in rehearsal for The Way They Walked Through the World. The work includes the use of more than 300 pairs of army boots. (photo by Christie Wood)
The female experience of war. This part of the description of choreographer Caitlin Griffin’s The Way They Walked Through the World – a contemporary dance piece set to première at the Scotiabank Dance Centre’s open house on Sept. 13 – particularly intrigues me.
Despite the number of conflicts taking place around the world, images of women are few and far between, except for the odd photo, in which the subject(s) is either screaming out in anguish or quietly wiping tears in mourning. Other images come to mind with more thought, but not many, and words also have fallen short in helping me understand my feelings about the violence in general, but my concern and sadness over the situation in Israel specifically. Perhaps a dance performance, its physicality, its abstract nature, will allow me to process some of the emotions that have, to this point, eluded identification, expression.
I have known Griffin for several years. I don’t know her well, but well enough to know that she is a very talented dancer and teacher – and a mensch. When she told me that she was applying to a program at Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, I was thrilled. When she came back from five months in Israel with a new work in progress, one inspired by her time there, I knew I would want to see it once it was ready to be shared publicly. Fortunately, while I missed an earlier version that was performed at the Firehall Arts Centre’s BC Buds showcase in May, a good friend attended. She was impressed, not only with the performance, but with Griffin; so much so that she connected me to Griffin, not knowing that I already knew her. When I asked Griffin to send me some information on The Way They Walked, she included the following:
“The preliminary movement vocabulary [for the work] was created there [in Israel], as a personal answer to the questions I began to ask myself after seeing armed conflict in a new immediate perspective. I was inspired by the maturity of the young Israelis preparing to serve, and by the strength of Israeli mothers whose realities included the conscription of their children. I was struck by the intense beauty of life framed by conflict.”
It was only weeks later that Israel and Hamas went to war.
“The current conflict has definitely hit close to home for me, as I still have several friends living in Israel who send updates regularly,” shared Griffin in a recent interview with the Independent. “The changes that have happened within the work aren’t at all to do with the content … or message of the work, but a general change in tone – almost a sadness, a level of more raw exposure. I think the work has lost a bit of its naivety.”
The Way They Walked has been an ongoing project since Griffin was in Israel in the first part of 2013.
“Some of the solos that are featured in the show in its current form were created from single images that came to me while living on the kibbutz,” she said, referring to Kibbutz Ga’aton, where KCDC’s International Dance Village is located. “Most of the imagery in the work was born in the studios after long days of rehearsals, while processing the overwhelming stimuli of my new surroundings. It has taken many months to explore those images and find out what was so intriguing to me about them. It’s been a process of uncovering what happens before and after these images in the dance, and how to frame them to resonate with an audience.”
Griffin, who is not Jewish, discovered KCDC online, and applied to its Dance Journey (Masa) program, which, explains the website, offers dancers 18-35 years old from around the world the “opportunity for professional development while dancing side by side with KCDC dancers [and] learning from one of the leading dance companies in the world.”
“I learned about the long-term immersive environment available to young performers and decided it was something that fit what I was looking for creatively and personally,” she explained. “I began writing grants and researching ways to make it a possibility. It took just over a year to gather the necessary resources, and to heal a broken foot I had sustained in the meantime. In 2012, I was awarded a professional development grant to attend the program from the British Columbia Arts Council. I successfully wrapped up a crowd-funding campaign that brought over 65 individuals and in-kind corporate sponsors together and, a few short months later, I was on a plane to Tel Aviv.
“I attended the program from February 2013 to June 2013, along with 24 other young artists from across the globe. The experience of living in the Galilee Dance Village, surrounded by other equally passionate and determined artists has changed everything for me. The friends I made continue to support me personally and professionally. In fact, much of the rehearsal footage from The Way They Walked has made its way to these friends – in Mexico, in Italy, in the U.S., who have all informed the direction of this work and inspired pieces of it along the way.”
Performing in The Way They Walked are Delphine Leroux, Crystal Wills and Heather Dotto. Griffin first worked closely with them in 2011, when MOVE: the company performed in the 13th International Festival of Dance and Music in Bangkok, in celebration of 50 years of Thai-Canadian relations.
Leroux, Wills and Dotto “have been absolutely integral” to The Way They Walked, said Griffin. “These are some of the most supportive and lovely artists I have had the pleasure of sharing a studio with. To date, my professional choreographic experience has been exclusively creating on myself, which is an entirely different process than directing three dancers of world-class calibre. Each of them has contributed not only their artistic expertise to the process, but has shared ideas about the work that have informed its direction. They have breathed life into something that at one time was an idea and some simple movements and pictures in my head.”
The Way They Walked has undergone several phases of development so far.
“We are currently working under Restless Production’s Project CPR5, which is a choreographic research opportunity run by Claire French, providing rehearsal space and guidance to emerging choreographers,” said Griffin, describing French as “an invaluable mentor during this process, and it is with her whom we have been working the most closely.”
In addition to the show at the Firehall, the group also had rehearsals in May and June through the Dance Centre’s 12 Minutes Max program.
Griffin said the piece will continue to evolve, as long as she feels there’s something to say with it. “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to showcase the work at this phase and will be welcoming audience feedback from the Dance Centre open house event in September to take on into the next, yet-to-be-determined developmental phase,” she said. “My hopes are that audience members can find something to relate to, coming from inside the work. Whether it’s reacting directly to a dancer’s actions, an image we create, a sound, a relationship between the dancers. To give people a chance to escape even for a moment into an atmosphere that we created would be a big success.”
Griffin, who was born in Toronto, grew up in Oakville, Ont. Dancing since the age of 4, she said she “realized it was a career option around 13 years of age.” Her family was “extraordinarily supportive … instilling in me the ideals of equality, family, hard work and creativity.”
“I have given some consideration to returning to a more traditional academic path, but honestly have never been fulfilled in the same way with any of my brief explorations into other fields. My passionate curiosity lies within the processes of performing, creating and teaching dance.”
“I had considered alternate careers and educational opportunities,” she admitted. “After graduating from high school with outstanding academic excellence, I deferred my acceptances from the science programs at Queen’s University and a scholarship from Guelph University to pursue my continued dance training with the Goh Ballet Academy in Vancouver. I have given some consideration to returning to a more traditional academic path, but honestly have never been fulfilled in the same way with any of my brief explorations into other fields. My passionate curiosity lies within the processes of performing, creating and teaching dance.”
Griffin was among the performers at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympic Games. In rehearsal, she said, “Witnessing k.d. lang’s ‘Hallelujah’ to a near empty stadium in the days leading up to the event was hauntingly beautiful, and is one of my most treasured memories.” Another is teaching a ballet class to her peers in the Masa program, “with several of the KCDC company members in attendance. This is a teaching highlight for sure, though I have many highlights from my teaching career that are simply moments of understanding lighting the faces of my students. When I can teach someone that dance and well-being can go hand in hand, that’s a highlight.”
As to the future? Following the performance at the Dance Centre open house, Griffin said, “I will be headed to Montreal to dance with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal’s annual production of Casse-Nosisette. In December, I will be accompanying Team Canada West to Poland for the International Dance Organization’s World Dance Championships. I’m not sure what’s in store after this, but I’m excited to find out!”
The Way They Walked Through the World premières as part of the Restless Productions CPR5 showcase at the Scotiabank Dance Centre’s open house on Sept.13, at 4 p.m., in conjunction with other performances. Updates on the work can be found at facebook.com/caitlingriffincpr5.
In British Columbia, this summer has been among the finest in living memory. Yet, for Jewish British Columbians and for all those watching events around the world right now, the summer has brought a very dark cloud.
It has not only been the terrible violence between Israel and Gaza, but violence elsewhere in the Middle East that is claiming exponentially more lives and causing horrific hardship and inhumanity.
The advance of the so-called Islamic caliphate from Iraq into parts of Syria opens the potential for additional Western military involvement in the region. The horrors that are taking place under the extremist ISIS dictatorship are almost beyond human imagination. In Syria, meanwhile, the death toll from the now two-year-old civil war has reached 190,000.
Despite all this, global attention remains focused on Israel. At the United Nations, Israel is singled out for condemnation, while Hamas is given a pass. Marches in the streets around the world declare Israel a pariah. Violence against Jews and attacks on Jewish institutions worldwide are legitimately striking fear that a generation or more of Diaspora Jews have never experienced.
There really is no silver lining. But, if there were, perhaps it would be that several fictions have been debunked.
Time was, even Zionists accepted the position that “anti-Zionism does not equal antisemitism.” This has been almost a required disclaimer at the beginning of any conversation on the subject for at least the last 15 years. This needs to be revised, however, to recognize that anti-Zionism at least sometimes equals antisemitism. As we have seen in recent weeks, there are those in the anti-Zionist movement who are motivated by anti-Jewish animus, and then there are those who refuse to condemn them. When it comes down to it, the moral difference between the two groups is minimal.
There is also the position that, by definition, anti-Zionism should legitimately be considered a form of antisemitism. After all, Zionism is simply the national representation of the Jewish people. If one is opposed to that, especially while supporting self-determination for every other national identity in the world, it must stem from some intellectual or emotional process that views Jews differently from other people.
There are certainly reasons why a conflict in a place that is holy to several religions should draw an outsized interest from people around the world. Yet, when the global reaction is so extraordinarily imbalanced, something is clearly beyond reason.
We know what motivates at least a significant part of the anti-Israel movement. More words have been spilled on this subject in the past two months than perhaps ever in human history, given the ability of everybody to broadcast their positions via social media. We have been able to see in greater detail the narrative subscribed to by many of Israel’s critics, from well-known commentators to elected officials to ordinary Facebook friends. Overwhelmingly, it is a simple one: Israel is just plain evil and, because its legitimacy and right to exist are explicitly or implicitly denied, its right to defend itself is likewise repudiated.
These are not words that generally come out of the mouths of anti-Israel activists, because they are not palatable to those who would otherwise consider themselves progressive, well-intentioned people. But push has come to shove and, all over the internet and in face-to-face conversations – yes, those still take place sometimes – we have been able to learn more about what a lot of “ordinary” people think about Israel. It has been painful. The conversations have been difficult. Many of us have lost friends.
But it is always better to know than to proceed in ignorance. We have a new understanding of what we are up against. We also have discovered many new friends, and new ways of engaging with those who don’t share our views.
Others in our community have no doubt had similar experiences. Many of us have felt challenged to present our positions with clear heads and hearts, and we invite all readers to contribute to the discussion by sharing their suggestions for continuing this dialogue constructively.