It’s a question that defines the debate over Israel’s policies and the state’s grand strategy: do Israeli human rights organizations monitoring the occupation merely serve as a fig leaf, adding an ethical patina to what is a fundamentally immoral situation?
Four months into his new position as head of B’Tselem, having come from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Hagai El-Ad and I spoke by phone recently about this and other issues. [To read the JI’s interview with El-Ad, click here.]
Given that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was supposed to be “temporary,” El-Ad is well aware that “at some point the term loses its meaning.” So, as he took the helm of B’Tselem last May, the organization issued a position paper provocatively named 47 Years of Temporary Occupation. As El-Ad put it, B’Tselem is shifting its focus from “fighting against human rights violations under occupation to a strategy [emphasizing] that the occupation will forever violate the human rights of Palestinians.” To this end, B’Tselem is now trying to end the occupation – not just help manage it.
It’s a laudable goal. But how achievable is it?
B’Tselem is starting with some concrete steps, however limited. For one, they have recently announced that they will not cooperate with Israel Defence Forces military investigations around Operation Protective Edge. Calling it “theatre of the absurd,” El-Ad believes that the military investigation system is one intended to “always result in impunity.” And this protected military violence is a necessary “lifeline of the occupation.” Hence, the need to squelch it.
As far as the bigger picture goes, El-Ad was cautiously optimistic: probably a necessary blend for anyone in human rights work in the Israel/Palestine morass. He takes comfort from what he sees as B’Tselem’s mission being fundamentally buttressed by the very human rights discourse extant in Israel. That the concept of human rights is a “relevant currency” in Israeli politics gives the organization an important starting point by which to leverage societal consensus. Though without the clout or mandate to engage in electoral lobbying efforts, working to end the occupation must be done very much at arm’s length from the policy sphere. Still, it’s a start.
El-Ad adds that he invites others to see what they can do “in their own communities” to disrupt the idea of the occupation as “business as usual.”
OK, so most of us can agree that the occupation is an undesirable situation, but what about the argument, issued frequently by Israel’s most strident defenders, that the status quo is a security imperative? If Hamas didn’t launch rockets, the thinking goes, the war in Gaza wouldn’t have been necessary. And, if West Bank Palestinians didn’t seek to blow up Israelis, the checkpoints and night raids and (the various) separate roads could be dismantled. And we all know about the apartheid, uh, separation, ahem, security wall.
Trading off between security on one hand, and human rights and ending occupation on the other, is a false dichotomy, El-Ad explained. In Gaza, “we’ve encountered time and again the theory that using more and more force will provide the desired outcome. But that’s not really working.” When it comes to day-to-day military policing in the West Bank to ensure the safety of Israeli citizens, we all know the chicken-egg argument: the internal checkpoints would be unnecessary were there not settlements (illegal under international law) to protect, hence, B’Tselem’s claim, in its 47 Years of Temporary Occupation document, that settlements are “the heart of the matter.”
Now that the fighting in Gaza has died down, B’Tselem is reflecting on its work compiling data on casualties, monitoring international humanitarian law violations – including by Hamas – and collecting first-person testimonies, attempting to put a face to the Palestinians in Gaza. El-Ad is quick to note that the media coverage in Israel tended to be one-sided, with little coverage of the war experience for Gazans. As an antidote, B’Tselem relied heavily on social media and web coverage to get additional information disseminated, despite a hacking attempt that left their website site crippled for a few days.
After talking to El-Ad, I’m left with a strange combination of hope and cynicism. As someone who cares deeply about seeing an end to the occupation, I’m buoyed by the fact that the head of Israel’s most important human rights organization has this broader goal top of mind. At the same time, absent the apparent political will in the top echelons of the Israeli government, I can’t escape the belief that intelligent, passionate and committed Israeli change-makers like El-Ad are too often left clapping with one hand.
Mira Sucharovis an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. A version of this article was originally published on haartez.com.
Engaging in issues pertaining to economic aspects of the Holocaust is never an easy task. However, it is morally incumbent upon us as a society, as a people and as a nation to deal with these issues. In addition to the atrocious genocide that it was, the Holocaust also witnessed the largest and most heinous art thefts in history. Alongside building and operating a massacre machine, the Nazis systematically stole property from the Jews, robbed them of their money, stripped them of their wealth and plundered the cultural treasures that they had collected.
In 2006, following a parliamentary inquiry committee chaired by MK Colette Avital, the Israeli Knesset enacted a law regarding Holocaust victims’ assets that were purchased or deposited in Eretz Israel. Hashava, the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets Ltd., was established first and foremost to locate assets purchased by Holocaust victims in Israel. Once these assets become entrusted to Hashava, Hashava works to locate the rightful heirs, who are for the most part completely unaware that their relatives had left behind private property.
As chief executive officer of the company, I am frequently asked about these Holocaust victims who had purchased assets in Israel. Who are they? My answer is as follows. Although it sounds like a cliché today, the common denominator for these individuals was that investing in the Eretz Israel was considered part of a greater vision and dream. The majority of these investors were ardent Zionists responding to the call to purchase real estate and settle the land of Israel by opening bank accounts there, buying stocks and depositing savings. After the war, Israel even saw an influx of cultural treasures such as books and Judaica items, as well as works of art and other objects that had been stolen by the Nazis.
According to estimates by international organizations, close to 600,000 paintings were looted along with hundreds of thousands of other art masterpieces. To our chagrin, while Israel expects European countries – including Germany, Austria and France, as well as countries such as the United States, Russia and Canada – to make a concerted effort to identify stolen cultural items in their national collections, Israel fails to act with this same fervor regarding the assets in her own backyard. The Washington Principles, a set of guidelines that requires museums to research the origins of their pieces in order to identify their original owners prior to the items’ appropriation during the Holocaust, was adopted by 44 countries, including Israel. The principles were adopted, yet the implementation of them has lagged behind.
Artwork, Judaica and books that made their way to Israel after the Holocaust are not just economically and historically valuable cultural assets, they are also a symbol and a testimonial to the people and communities that once were and now no longer exist. They are memorials, albeit anonymously. Unless the museums conduct investigations into the origins of their collections, the owners of these pieces of art will receive no recognition or memorial, since this important provenance research is the only means of identifying the true owners of the artwork and bringing this circle to a close.
Practise what you preach. At the very least, Israel must abide by the standards that it demands from the rest of the world. Israel must assume the same responsibilities as it did for the assets of Zionists who perished in the Holocaust. It is our duty to promote the implementation – via proper legislation – of the obligations held by the museums, libraries and other similar bodies to make an effort toward identifying artwork and objects that were seized by the Nazis and eventually found their way to Israel and into their collections. This applies to artwork that arrived in Israel as a unit, such as the famous JRSO (Jewish Restitution Successor Organization) collection that arrived at Bezalel and was subsequently transferred to the Israel Museum, as well as artwork that trickled into museums during later years by way of donations, gifts or innocent purchases.
These stolen treasures must not remain hidden assets. To this end, Israel must carry on with the important process that it already set in motion, implementing the Washington Principles by way of legislation that would require museums to conduct provenance research about the origins of their pieces. It would be of great respect for the museums in Israel if they allocate resources to locate art and cultural pieces that were stolen during the Holocaust and are currently in their own collections, whether the items are on public display or hidden away in basements.
Dr. Israel Peleg is chief executive officer of Hashava, the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets Ltd. (hashava.info).
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.
Ever hear of Heifer International? No? Until recently, I’d never heard of it either. I was talking to my grandsons, ages 7 and 3, via the webcam perched atop my computer screen. The boys were telling me about their Shabbat observances. They wear kippahs, they have a special dinner with challah and wine, Mommy lights candles and Daddy says brachas. And their job is to put money into the tzedakah boxes, the pushkes, they made at Hebrew school. They held the boxes up to the screen so I could see them.
“What do you do with the money when the boxes are filled?” I asked.
“We give it to people who don’t have as much food or money as we have,” the older boy said.
“How do you do that?” I asked.
“We send it to this place called Heifer International.”
Intrigued, I looked it up. To my surprise, it’s actually a well-known charity started by a Midwestern farmer named Dan West who was ladling out rations of milk to hungry kids during the Spanish Civil War. He realized that simply doling out food does not solve the problem of hunger.
“These children don’t need a cup; they need a cow,” he said.
He formed Heifers for Relief, dedicated to ending hunger by providing livestock and training, as well. The first shipment of 17 heifers left Pennsylvania for Puerto Rico in 1944. Why heifers? Because they are cows who have not yet given birth. These young cows would supply milk and would also be a continuous source of more cows. Families receiving a heifer agreed to donate female offspring to another family, thus continuing the process.
Today, donors to this organization get to choose which animal they would like to donate: a cow, a goat, chickens, rabbits or geese. In concept, this way of using what my grandmother called “pushke money” is far beyond the pushke concept of her time. The website’s online visual association makes the process more real and less abstract for the kids.
The globalization of the 21st century influences our thinking in many ways, including the choices we can make for charitable contributions. We can think not only of local charities or Israel, but also of the victims of earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes and wars around the world. We are aware of the needs of children, refugees, the hungry and the sick in every country. This is as it should be.
However, charity is more than just giving a donation to a faceless organization. It really involves the feelings of the recipients, too.
Many years ago, I wrote a children’s story that was published in Young Judean magazine. Two boys, Jason and Marty, liked to go together for ice cream every Sunday until Jason stopped going for lack of money. For a while, Marty treats him, but Jason feels uncomfortable with this on a permanent basis. When Jason stops going for ice cream, Marty’s grandfather refers Marty to Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity in an effort to get Marty to figure out a solution. Marty does. He gets Jason a job walking a dog so that Jason can buy ice cream with his own money, thus allowing him to maintain his dignity.
Here is the Ladder of Charity conceived by Maimonides. The levels are ranked in order of preference, from the lowest to the highest.
1. Giving sadly and begrudgingly.
2. Giving less than is fitting but with good cheer.
3. Giving only after having been asked.
4. Giving before being asked.
5. Giving to a recipient whose identity the giver does not know.
6. Giving so that the recipient of the tzedakah does not know the identity of the giver.
7. Giving so that neither the giver nor the recipient knows the identity of the other.
8. In place of giving money, taking the sort of action that will help people to no longer be poor.
An example of level eight would be helping a poor person find a job, or lending money to finance an education for someone in poverty. For example, friends of mine wanted to help a married child who was in financial trouble. They gave the couple a car instead of cash, thus enabling them to have access to jobs in their rural area that did not have public transportation.
There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” It is interesting to note how close in concept this proverb is to level eight of Maimonides’ ladder. You can see that the highest level of charity helps a person become independent and self-reliant, and human dignity is also taken into full account.
We might all do well to assess what we do with our pushke money and other donations. My little grandsons are already learning that there are those less fortunate than themselves. I am proud of my son and daughter-in-law for teaching this to their children at so young an age. I have faith that these boys will grow up to be caring citizens of the world.
Toby Rosenstrauchis an award-winning columnist and a resident of Florida. Her first novel, Knifepoint, was recently published.
Last month marked my 15th wedding anniversary. Every year has felt significant, but 15 has a somewhat mystical overlay. The Hebrew equivalent for 15 would normally contain two of the four letters of the tetragram spelling God’s name (yud and heh), so there is a different customary formulation: “tet vav” or tu, for short. Sprinkle in some multilingual word play, tu being “you” in French, and “to” in English connoting a mutual connection, and 15 is rife with meaning.
This anniversary has also prompted me to consider what goes into a lasting marriage. I began my mental search by polling those of my Facebook friends who’ve surpassed the 15-year mark. Trust. Communication. Acceptance. Humor. Generosity. Patience. Commitment. Common values. Mutual respect for one another’s journey through life. One friend offered the idea of love, as measured by actually enjoying listening to what the other person has to say. Curiously, no one mentioned sex.
There is an inherent catch here, of course. How can we know which of these many laudable qualities are signs of a healthy marriage, and which are prescriptions? In other words, can a troubled marriage be saved by adopting these practices, or do these practices simply flow, automatically, from a solid union?
Some friends did offer some potential advice. Date nights, even if it involves watching a movie on the sofa with take-out after the kids are in bed, one friend said. Another emphasized how important it is not to “keep score.” Where sometimes partners fall into the trap of believing that “reciprocity has to be quantitatively balanced over a short period of time,” she said, it’s better to think of the “partnership as rooted in generosity and mutual caring.” She added that it’s important for the couple to shed external expectations, whether they come from televised images, societal norms or embedded ideals with which one was raised. That imaginary third party’s judgmental voice can intrude on a couple’s relationship in unhealthy ways. At a dinner party I attended, one woman emphasized kindness. Her husband said it’s important to park one’s ego.
And what do the experts say?
A recent article in The Atlantic by Emily Esfahani Smith profiled a team of researchers who study lasting partnerships. Noting how partners engage in moment-to-moment “bids” for attention, the research team – led by John Gottman – stressed that how the partner responds to these bids is key to the marriage’s success. As Smith describes it, “People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t – those who turned away – would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper.”
This “turn toward” philosophy can also fall into the causality trap. Is “turning toward” a function of a healthy marriage, or a prescription for one? The answer is probably both. But that doesn’t mean that a virtual cycle can’t be consciously created. Over the past several weeks, I’ve been practising “turn toward” and discussing it with whoever will listen, my husband included. My husband and I are now in the habit of “turning toward” more than we sometimes have been in the past.
We even joke about it as we’re doing it, a subtle way of reinforcing the mental links between intention and action.
As for our anniversary, we did something we never get to do anymore: catch a film after work. We saw Boyhood, the tour de force of Richard Linklater, who spent 12 years filming using the same actors. Over the course of two and a half hours, we witnessed the on-screen children developing into adults, and parents struggling to find their way. On the subject of marriage, the film was more bitter than sweet, but we enjoyed it, admiring the director’s fortitude and creativity, and privately reflecting. When we returned home, we discussed the film over a glass of wine, and concluded the evening by “turning toward” one another as one shared with the other some newly discovered National Public Radio podcasts, episodes devoted to love, loss and longing.
Mira Sucharov is 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.
Some of the violence in the Middle East has inflamed tensions closer to home. Online, there is a recent interview conducted by the University of British Columbia with its resident expert Prof. Robert Daum, who offered his thoughts on navigating these frictions. Daum is a faculty associate with the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice, a faculty member of Green College, project lead in UBC Transcultural Leaders, a Reconciliation ambassador for Reconciliation Canada and a dialogue associate at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue.
UBC: How do conflicts afar, like the Israel-Gaza situation, spark local tensions?
RD: Sadly, some conflicts push people into rigid positions rooted in insufficiently rigorous, self-critical and nuanced analysis. Simplistic narratives about historical and contemporary events resulting in loss of life raise tensions. Inadequate media coverage heightens tensions, and people tend to gather in narrowly circumscribed assemblies of like-minded thinkers. Conflicts such as these are teachable moments, but learning and teaching require an attitude of openness to authentic inquiry on the part of everyone.
Imagine what we can do in addressing any number of complex conflicts and challenges if we can cultivate a culture of evidence-based, authentic inquiry and dialogue. I have seen this approach in action in my work with UBC’s Transcultural Leaders 2014 Conversation Series, SFU’s Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation Canada.
UBC: Have you been surprised by the tensions arising locally and across Canada?
RD: No. In the context of genuine human suffering, we encounter hateful slogans, racist images, one-sided narratives, vicious social media comments and self-righteous oversimplifications. This does not honor the dead. Inflammatory rhetoric gets most of the headlines. Research shows that anxiety and clear thinking tend not to be compatible. Our discourse has to be as levelheaded, sober and reasonable as possible. People need to feel that they can learn in an environment of safety, civility and mutual respect. I consider myself to be a principled pragmatist. It is precisely when we feel angriest about world events that we need to take a deep breath. Imagine if the Supreme Court had to reach decisions under fire. If we cannot learn how to share narrative space – that is, how to reconcile competing, deeply held, national narratives, in a way that does not require the annihilation or complete negation of the other’s position – then how can we expect geographical space to be shared at one of the most fraught intersections of regional and global politics?
I have participated in forums on antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, the Indian residential schools and many other issues. Two years ago, I co-sponsored with the Vancity Office of Community Engagement a three-hour public forum downtown on Islamophobia, featuring a critical media analyst, three Muslim speakers from very diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and three equally diverse non-Muslim speakers, including myself. A mixed audience of more than 250 listened to stories of prejudice experienced and prejudice confronted. It was a thoughtful, nuanced and multi-layered conversation over the course of three hours. And we were just getting started.
UBC: What are some healthy ways in which people can deal with tensions that may arise between themselves and others?
RD: Seek to engage in a dialogue, rather than a debate. Ask genuine questions: “What did you mean by that? What are you trying to say? Have you considered different perspectives on this? Have you tried to understand why others hold positions different than yours? On what can we agree? Is there another way to understand the phenomenon, whereby our positions might be reconciled, even partially?” Try building on ideas and making connections between ideas. Don’t reduce multi-faceted conflicts to a single variable such as religion or oil, for example.
Politics, history and ethics are not reducible to simple equations. Complex questions can rarely be reduced to the logic of black and white, right and wrong. I may see the world very differently than you, but that does not necessarily make you (or me) wrong. Of course, moral assessment matters, and I believe that some behaviors, like the intentional murder of civilian non-combatants as prohibited in the Geneva Conventions, are abhorrent. But, as any first-year law student knows, such an assertion is the beginning, not the end of the inquiry. If such matters were simple enough to be reduced to trial by megaphone, we would not need faculties of law or courts, let alone courses in ethics, history, politics, religion, gender, media or much else.
I’m home when my phone buzzes with a text from my son. Playing for the school basketball team in a city an hour away, his five words carry disappointment, sadness. “I’m just a benchwarmer, mom.”
I’m not one of those parents who cheers on sports games from the sidelines. Perhaps I’m still scarred from high school athletics, when my best friend and I were consistently the last members picked for any team during PE classes, a painful memory to this day. It sounds callous but, for me, sports has never held even a glimmer of interest, not even when my own children are playing.
But something changed when I learned my son had spent most of that game on the bench, watching instead of playing. What upset me was the injustice of his exclusion. He’d attended practices dutifully and loved being part of the team – until that game. “I’m not a bad player,” he insisted. “I don’t know why they didn’t give me a turn.”
The indignation of having been left out hung around the house like a damp cloud for a few days. I felt hurt on his behalf, compelled to try and make things right. So, I did what most writer-parents would do – I penned a letter to the principal. It wasn’t fair, I declared. I was under the impression that in team sports everyone gets a turn. How could the coach exclude certain players and justify that exclusion by the team’s victory? Wasn’t the victory hollow when only the best players had performed?
We don’t guarantee that every player will get to play, the principal responded. Sure, they can get a place on the team, but it’s the coach’s decision about who plays the games – and we play to win.
A friend explained it in a gentler way to me a few days later. In elementary school, the games are all about playing fair, giving everyone a turn and learning to be a good sport. Not so in high school, where the emphasis shifts to winning. “The weaker players sit on the bench so the team can have its best shot at victory,” she said. “That’s just the way it is, regardless which sport we’re talking about.”
I was astonished, but enlightened, too. As parents, we want desperately to defend our kids from insult, bruised egos and perceived injustice. Their hurt becomes our hurt, and we feel compelled, angered even, to speak out on their behalf.
But sitting on the bench might offer some important life lessons. The humility to admit you’re not the strongest player. The insight that you need to work harder to be chosen for the next game. The understanding that, as unifying as the word “team” appears to be, it’s composed of members who are not equally competent: you either shine, or are outshone.
It’s going to be the same scenario at every job interview a few years down the line. The strongest candidates will be selected while the rest will warm the bench on the sidelines until they improve their game.
So, maybe warming a bench a few times is a crucial part of the game, in that it deftly illustrates the distance between where you are and where you want to be. It’s what you do with that knowledge that makes all the difference, on the basketball court and off.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Gaza, July 28, 2014: An Israel Defence Forces soldier examines a newly revealed tunnel in the Gaza strip. (photo by IDF via Ashernet)
It’s been awhile since I’ve written. There’s a story I’ve been meaning to share but, unfortunately, circumstances have led me to write a different story entirely, about “the matzav.”
“The matzav” means, literally, “the situation,” but it’s used to refer euphemistically to a current bad security situation in Israel. You say it in a half whisper, the way our parents used to say, “cancer.”
“How’s business going now, with – the matzav?”
“We’re going up north for a few days because of – the matzav.”
“My mother-in-law has been with us for two weeks, thanks to – the matzav.”
It’s definitely not an easy time to be in Israel, though now, more than ever, there is no place I would rather be.
I didn’t grow up in a particularly Zionist household. Most of what I know about Judaism and Israel I learned in college. People used to say to me that being in Israel is like being with family, and making aliyah is like coming home. My family never shoved in front of me to get on buses or overcharged me for souvenirs, so I guess I just couldn’t relate.
I got a little taste of the family thing when I was visiting Israel 12 years ago on a mission during the Second Intifada, when tourism was at an all-time low. I went to the falafel stand in the Old City by the Cardo with my 10-month-old son. There were no other tourists to be found. The owner, who was usually just interested in taking orders and keeping the line moving, insisted on holding the baby while I ate. This was like my family – not always warm and fuzzy, but there for you in hard times.
These are hard times. There’s been a constant barrage of rockets in southern Israel for weeks, keeping the population within 15 seconds of a bomb shelter. As I wrote these words, four people were killed by a rocket fired from a playground in Gaza. This morning, a man on the radio was saying that he’s terrified to shower or even go to the bathroom for fear a siren will go off.
Another woman was asleep and didn’t hear a siren. She only heard the rocket hit her house. She is being treated in the hospital for wounds to the head, legs and knees, but no treatment will cure the fear you can hear in her voice, unable to speak in full sentences.
On the other side of the border, the suffering in indescribable and the media images haunting. I feel torn apart by my pain for the Palestinian losses on the one hand and the need for us to defend ourselves on the other. Then there’s the sadness for the soldiers who are trained to minimize civilian casualties, but who find themselves hurting innocent civilians, behind whom the cowardly terrorists hide.
Our “adopted” lone soldier Danna tells us stories of what her friends see who are serving in Gaza – hospitals and UN schools hiding weapons and terrorists; gunmen literally hiding behind families; terrorists shooting with a gun in one hand and a baby in the other.
As Golda Meir said to Anwar Sadat just before the peace talks with Egypt, “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.”
Before the war started, I got a call one Friday afternoon.
“Hi, Emily. We’re thinking of cancelling the partnership minyan this week, but I just want to check with you, because I know you worked hard on your speech.”
“Oh, well, sure … but why?”
“We just thought it would be better for the whole community to pray together tonight because of, you know – the matzav.” (Pause) “Did you not here what happened?”
That’s how I heard about the three kidnapped soldiers.
You would think all three of them were from our kibbutz, the way people spoke of them and cried and prayed for them and organized around helping their families. The whole country was suddenly one big family. One big, sad family.
At school, the teachers held special meetings with their pupils to help them digest the news and share their feelings. They had a meeting in the evening to help parents with how to talk to their kids. All this despite the fact that the three boys were from a different part of the country and not at all connected to our school or our region, except that here everyone is connected. At these times, we’re all cousins, brothers, sons.
The news a few weeks later – that the boys were killed – hit hard. I was out for the day to Beit Shean with my son Abaye to get braces on his teeth. Abaye is very sensitive to “the matzav” and I try to keep him away from the news most of the time so we can share things with him in our own way, but there was no escape. The news was on in the dentist’s office, and staff and patients were openly crying. Afterwards, we went for ice cream and the ice cream shop was playing the tape over and over again. Everyone’s eyes were glued to the screen.
“You’re an ice cream shop!” I wanted to yell at them, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The whole country was in mourning.
Then the rockets started in the south. Everyone’s hearts turned to the families under fire. Our kibbutz Google group filled up with suggestions of where you could bring food and supplies, requests to run programs, and even invitations to drive down south into the fire to help entertain kids in bomb shelters. There were so many projects being run out of so many places that volunteers had to quickly set up a committee to manage them all.
Our area happens to be one of the safest parts of the country. We haven’t heard any sirens. We haven’t even unlocked our bomb shelters. So, everyone is opening their homes.
Several families have come to our kibbutz for a break, and our youth group organized a camp for a week with peers from a kibbutz in the south. I heard on the radio about a resort nearby that has opened its doors to another kibbutz (200 people!), feeding and housing them and running programs for the kids. And these are just a few tiny examples. Every community is doing something.
Then there are the troops fighting in Gaza.
Soldiers were sent to the border to defend our country from rocket attacks. Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to stave off a ground incursion, but the rockets kept falling and, it seems, there was work that could only be done on the ground.
When the army finally went in, they discovered a complex underground tunnel network that Hamas had built to infiltrate Israel. It seems they were planning a massive operation for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah – hundreds of terrorists were scheduled to appear from nowhere in kibbutzim and villages across the south, dressed in Israeli uniforms, for a mega terrorist attack. It’s chilling to think about what they might have done.
Several of the fatalities of this war, including the three kidnapped boys, have resulted from terrorists coming through these tunnels. They lead from private homes in Gaza right into Israeli neighborhoods, one ending directly beneath the dining hall of a kibbutz. It was reported that children on the kibbutz had been complaining they could hear someone digging under them, but adults hadn’t taken them seriously, because how could that possibly be?
So, now we are at war in Gaza until we get rid of the tunnels, of which 30 have been discovered so far, and many destroyed. Meanwhile, the number of fallen and wounded soldiers continues to rise, as well as, of course, the massive toll on both terrorist and innocent Gazans.
But I wanted to tell you about the efforts to support our troops.
Being the army of the Jewish people, the aid started with, of course, food. Fresh meals, cakes and treats – you name them. A renowned chef opened shop to provide gourmet cuisine for the soldiers.
At one point, we got the message that it’s enough food, and now could we please send personal hygiene products (soaps, deodorants, etc.) and “fresh towels with the scent of home”? In addition, children sent so many letters of love and support that the soldiers use them to wallpaper their tanks and living spaces. At the camp for Adin, my nine-year-old son, they changed the program this week so that every day was a different activity to support the soldiers – making gifts, preparing food and raising money.
And, of course, it’s difficult for soldiers to communicate with their families, so the radio has taken to running extra programs in which they can send personal messages.
“Hi Mom, Dad and, of course, my girlfriend Tal. I’m here to protect you and I’m fine, so you can sleep without worrying. I love you.”
And I’m sure Mom, Dad, Tal and half the country are crying with me.
Among the first losses of the war, we heard about the falling of two lone soldiers – people like our “adopted” daughter, who moved to Israel voluntarily to protect our country, who are here with no family. It made me sad to think these people would be buried alone, but what could anyone do? Their whole family is overseas.
A photo of one of these fallen boys, Sean Carmeli from Texas, appeared on the news in a Maccabee-Haifa soccer T-shirt. They were his favorite team. The team apparently shared my concern and made an appeal for people to attend his funeral. Twenty thousand people showed up!
You could call it a social media ploy, but I don’t think so. The next day, there was a funeral for the other lone soldier, Max Steinberg from California. I was afraid his funeral would pale in comparison to Sean’s, seeing as he wasn’t a major sports fan. But my fear was baseless. Thirty thousand people were in attendance. Those who were interviewed about why they came simply said that he made the ultimate sacrifice for them when he didn’t need to, and it was the least they could do.
Max’s family had never been to Israel before. I thought about my own mother, who did not want us to make aliyah, and who would never forgive me if, God forbid, anything happened to any of my kids. Max’s parents and siblings were overwhelmed by the turnout.
His mother Evie told the mourners, “We now know why Max fell in love with Israel. It was all because of its people. He was embraced with open arms and treated like family,” she said, “and, for that, we are eternally grateful.”
When his sister began, “We come from a very small family,” I held my breath expecting to hear her anger or sadness at having lost her brother. Instead, she continued, “But that seemed to quickly change after meeting people in Israel, who made it feel like one big family.”
This morning, I was out walking in the forest around the kibbutz when a new song came on the radio by Ariel Horowitz, son of one of Israel’s greatest singers, Naomi Shemer. The song is about the lone soldier Sean Carmeli. The writer had attended the funeral and was deeply moved. The chorus goes something like this:
20,000 people and you’re at the front. 20,00 people are behind you, Sean. Marching in silence with flowers, Two sisters and 20,000 brothers.
Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli and Sgt. Max Steinberg, and all our fallen soldiers will never be forgotten, because we don’t forget family.
Emily Singeris a teacher, social worker and freelance writer. Singer and her husband, Ross, were rebbetzin and rabbi of Vancouver’s Shaarey Tefilah congregation until 2004. The Singers spent two years in Jerusalem and then moved to Baltimore, Md., where Ross was rabbi at Congregation Beth Tfiloh and Emily taught Judaic studies at Beth Tfiloh High School, until they moved to Israel in 2010. They have four children, and live on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa.
I was 15 during the summer of 1962 when a visiting Lubavitcher rabbi named Zalman Schachter came to Camp Ramah. He sang his soft and expressive melody for the first blessing of the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals), which I remember to this day. It was the first time this yeshivah boy had experienced a different way of giving thanks for the gift of nourishing food, one that focused on the Source of the food. In a sense, I became his chassid that summer, although I didn’t know it at the time.
Six years later, while visiting a friend in Boston, we attended Shabbat services at Havurat Shalom and I moved closer to knowing that I was his chassid when I heard him sing “Eyl Adon,” the Shabbat poem in praise of the many realms of light, to the Yiddish folksong “Donna Donna.” And, four years after that, searching for a spiritual practice that affirmed the first 25 years of my life, and immersion in Jewish practice and study, I wrote him from the B.C. Interior and asked to learn with him, consciously becoming his chassid.
Reb Zalman always said that a chassid must have a rebbe and one becomes a rebbe only when one has a chassid. When he asked me if I would accept semichah (ordination) from him, we created new possibilities for others with what has become the movement for the spiritual renewal of Judaism and a current ordination program of 80 students. He offered me a semichah that I could accept and, as he put it, I gave him permission to begin a lineage which is both new and old.
On July, 3, 2014, I was teaching at our Semichah Week summer gathering at a retreat centre outside of Portland, when one of our students opened the door to my classroom. After waiting politely for a break in the conversation, he said that he had the sad duty of informing us that our beloved rebbe had peacefully passed into the next world that morning. Supported by my students and dear friends, together we affirmed Reb Zalman’s death with the traditional words, “Baruch Dayan HaEmet (Blessed be the True Judge).”
Memories and images passed before me, arising from the years of learning and friendship that we had shared. In the summer of 1971, my life partner, Hanna Tiferet, and I immigrated to British Columbia and settled in the Kootenays. It was a year of living in harmony with the earth and seeking spiritual meaning. Our first son, Noah, was born the following summer, after our house burned down. I had written Zalman for spiritual guidance. He was living in Winnipeg at the time and teaching at the University of Manitoba. He invited me to come to Winnipeg. After Hanna and Noah were settled, I hitchhiked 1,500 miles there and back to officially meet and begin my studies with my rebbe.
In 1976-77, Hanna and I lived in Philadelphia with Reb Zalman, learning how the rebbe “tied his shoelaces.” Mordecai and Hana Wosk visited him that year and they encouraged me to apply for both the University of British Columbia Hillel director position and to become Congregation Beth Tikvah’s first rabbi. This provided the opportunity for us to bring this new-old form of Judaism to a place we loved in a country where I, as the son of a Toronto-born Jewish pioneer, felt at home.
Inspired by the havurah movement and Reb Zalman’s mystical teachings, we slowly gathered people to form the Hillel Minyan, which became “The Minyan,” then Havurat Sim Shalom, which is now Or Shalom. I served the Vancouver Jewish community for 10 years and then went back to the United States to work as the rabbi at Dartmouth College. After another 10 years, we settled in Boston, where I became the director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal and, eventually, a teacher in the rabbinic program. Reb Zalman’s teachings became my life’s work and I worked closely with him to translate and transcribe his thought in several books and manuals, including Credo of a Modern Kabbalist, The Kabbalah of Tikkun Olam, Renewal Is Judaism Now, and Integral Halachah.
Reb Zalman revealed to us a Judaism that is open and inclusive. He said that, once we were witness to the profound image of the earth from outer space, we could begin to comprehend the oneness of all life beyond the limitations of national borders. How could we then separate the fate of the Jewish people from that of all people, or the fate of humanity from the condition of all of life on this planet? He taught about deep ecumenism and showed us how to relate to Christians, Muslims, Hindus and First Nations people, embracing and respecting the holiness in each tradition. His mission was to maintain the integrity of Klal Yisrael while also embracing the shared truth in all the spiritual and ethical paths present in our world. Inspired by him, we opened spiritual leadership to women, created services that others could help lead as they developed their skills, designed tallitot that were colorful and beautiful, included gays and lesbians and then all the wonderful and various expressions of identity in our growing communities.
Reb Zalman, together with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, had a spiritual assignment to redeem the Jewish people after the Holocaust. These two shlichim (messengers) from Chabad revitalized Judaism and sparked the renewal of spirituality in every facet of Jewish life.
When I received and accepted semichah from Reb Zalman in 1974 in the Winnipeg home of Rabbi Neal and Carol Rose, I was the first and only member of this new lineage. Now, there are more than 100 ordained as a Renewal rabbi, chazzan or rabbinic pastor, and students keep arriving, though we don’t advertise or recruit. Meditation, retreats, ecstatic prayer, new music, poetry, art and movement are now available options everywhere that Jews gather to pray. So much of this results from the vision, intelligence and spiritual depth of this one man, whose life we celebrate and whose presence on this earth plane we will miss so deeply.
With gratitude for the blessing of his presence in my own life these past 52 years, I say my own Kaddish for my rebbe and spiritual father, Meshullam Zalman Chiyya ben Chayah Gittel v’Shlomo haKohen, z”l. May his memory be a blessing and awaken in us the deep desire to live in peace and harmony with all of creation.
I was caught completely off-guard by the question: “Don’t you sometimes long to run away from all this war and violence and madness and terrorism? You could always go back to Australia.”
This was when, like every other Israeli, and probably Jews around the world, I was listening to the news every hour, hoping that the three kidnapped boys would have been found, safe and unharmed. At that time, there was no news yet.
I looked at my friend, a tourist from my birthplace. I didn’t know how to answer her. Once I would have known. I would simply have said “yes,” and my eyes would have filled with tears of nostalgia for the comfortable lifestyle, the ordinariness of everyday living, of only bothering to listen to the news if I wanted a sporting result or the weather forecast; all the security – emotional, financial, physical – that I’d left behind when I made aliyah.
She was looking at me strangely and, I suppose, a lot of time must have passed since she asked me the question. To me, the answer had become extraordinarily complex. A simple “yes” or “no” would not suffice.
We were sitting on a park bench in Beit Hakerem, in Jerusalem, where I live. It was Sunday afternoon, and I’d looked at the scene before us hundreds of times without truly registering it. A little boy was walking his dog on a leash. A pretty girl was jogging, music from an electronic device giving her the beat and rhythm. A grandfather wheeled a baby carriage. A young couple sat near us sharing a falafel and looking into each other’s eyes. Nothing special. Nothing dramatic.
All the drama had been played out in the weeks and months and years before her visit. Down south in Gaza. Up north in Lebanon. Rockets from Syria. Weeks of needing to hear the news every hour. Years of watching funerals on TV of beautiful young soldiers and ordinary people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Making phone calls to ensure that grandsons in the army, involved in searching for the missing boys in Hebron, were safe.
How could you “run away” from all the things that had shaped your life for decades? Of course, you could leave, but you’d take all that caring and commitment with you. It would feel like an amputation, and you’d never be a whole person again.
Over the years, I’ve been back to Australia for holidays, but they were never successful visits for long. For a few days, I’d bask in the warmth of seeing family and friends, enjoying their attention and the luxury of their lives. But then, someone would make a thoughtless remark about Israel, and I would bristle at their lack of understanding and feel that I had to defend the country. I’d long to be back home in Jerusalem, where I could talk about, even criticize, the government and corrupt politicians, the lack of good manners and the insane Israeli drivers, because I’d be talking to people on the same wavelength. It was different, very different.
The familiar scene in the park suddenly became very dear to me. I didn’t know any of these people, but I loved them. They were my family. I hoped the young lovers would marry; that the grandfather would live to see the baby’s bar or bat mitzvah; that the little boy with the dog would never have to fight in a war.
Finally, I had my answer. “No, I don’t long to run away. It’s not easy, but we understand what all the sacrifice is about. And it’s home,” I added as an afterthought. And, after all, home is where the heart is.
Dvora Waysmanis the author of 13 books. She has lived in Jerusalem for 43 years.