THE VIEW FROM TEL AVIV–2016

Yes, I have been in Israel for two weeks now and no, I have not written this blog yet. Not even once.

Why not? Because I’m not sure what I’m seeing or how to assess it; I’m not sure which of the contradictory comments I’m hearing is true.

But, having promised to keep up the blog, I’m taking time before Shabbat, to sit down and write something. What I will write will be about a country of stark contradictions and a society that no longer has any clear direction.

How did I reach this conclusion? This has not been a year for us to travel within Israel; we have remained, for the most part in Tel Aviv. I have spoken to several intelligent people involved in international trade from within Israel, and with some Americans who recently moved to Israel–not a broad selection. And, as usual, I have kept my antennae up as I go about my business, traveling on public transportation, walking for hours along the streets, shopping in the local stores.

ONE
Sitting beside me on the last leg of our flight to Tel Aviv was a handsome Israeli in his forties who was reading a book about ancient Judaism. He told me he’d been born in Israel, had four young children and was working in his father’s business as an importer of lumber. Israel never cuts its trees; it has no lumber industry. All wood used in Israeli construction must be imported. A very good family business, I remarked.

Yes, he agreed. His father and brother man the operation in Israel and he is the one who travels around the world making deals to buy lumber. From Thailand and Russia and Sweden and Canada. From the American mid-west, especially, of all places, Pennsylvania. (Of course, the state is named for its founder and its trees!)

“You will be shocked by what you discover in Israel now,” said my travel mate. “A lot has changed in the two years since you last were here. Israel is not what it was two years ago.”

“You mean it’s more dangerous? Some of our friends changed their plans to visit this year because of the stabbings and such.”

“No, it’s not that. Israel is…..” He searched for the proper word. “Stalled. Halted. Despondent. Everyone is depressed.”

“But the economy is wonderful, is it not? Building is going on everywhere. Your lumber company must be thriving.”

“My company. I hate going around the world talking to people where everyone hates Israel. I told my father he should start sending my brother out to make the deals. It’s wearing me down.”

“I can understand that,” I said. “But you are one person in a very specific situation. How do your friends and family who remain in Israel feel.”

“Everyone is at everyone else’s throats. In my own family, we still get together every Friday night at my mother’s house. My brother, my sisters, the grandchildren. It’s impossible to speak of anything. My brother-in-law who is a scientist at the Weitzman Institute is very smart, very politically correct. He votes for the Arab party in the Knesset. My mother agrees with him. My father and I are more to the right, but not in favor of the settlements. My sister and her husband want to see the settlements expand. We gather together for a peaceful Shabbat and we can only have one if we don’t talk about what is at the front of everyone’s minds. It’s terrible. It’s tearing families apart.”

“Well,” I say, biting down hard to keep from mentioning my own family, so scattered globally that we never see one another, much less each Shabbat, “I’m sure you each have your separate groups of friends.”

“I don’t know what my friends think and that’s for the same reason. No one wants to talk about these things anymore because no one knows anymore what anyone else thinks. It’s very depressing. You will feel this in the country when you are there. We have all become silent.”

He went back to his book, and I withdrew to consider what he’d said. How would I know this “silence” he’d mentioned? How would I corroborate what he’d just told me?

As we buckled up to prepare for landing, he tucked his book away. “You know,” he said, “if it were not that my whole family is in Israel, I would move away tomorrow. I don’t like raising my children in this country. I don’t like living in it. But what can I do? It’s who I am, an Israeli. It’s where I was born and where my family is and what my language is. It’s where my family’s business is. If I weren’t born in Israel I would have no other reason to be here.”

Those last words stung. A tall, strong Israeli, undoubtedly, he’d been a good soldier and was still a good reservist. Surely he’d been raised to be proud of Israel. Surely he knew, having traveled the world, what a refreshing experience it is to land at Ben Gurion airport: you can smell the freedom and exhilaration in the air, feel it in the rhythms of the buzzing streets. Surely he was proud of the new high rises punctuating the Tel Aviv skyline, the rush of progress everywhere.

“Everything good that is happening in the world,” I said, “is happening in Israel. Advances in medicine, in digital communications, in environmental protections. How can you not be proud?”

“Israel has missed its moment,” he said. “We could have had two states. but the moment has passed and now it will never happen. We missed the boat, let it get away from us. And we missed the boat with Iran as well. We could have destroyed their nuclear facilities and we didn’t. Another missed chance that will not come back. Israelis now are living with that sense of failure, we failed to seize the moment.”

“What do you think will happen with the Palestinians?”

“Who knows?” He looks morbid when he says this. “They are assimilating, some of them. But there will always be the crazies who want their land back. Nothing will make them satisfied, not the higher wages they earn in the settlement towns, not the nice houses they have in Israel or the good medical care. It will always be there making trouble.”

“The Irish still deal with ‘troubles’ but they move forward anyway.”

“The Irish hate Israel the most because they identify with the underdog in what they think is another case of colonialist oppression..”

“I can understand that.”

“So can I,” he says. “I think I really do understand both sides and it’s a stand-off. It’s horrible to live in a perpetual stand-off. We all had hopes that things would move and now we have to live in an eternal stand-off.”

“But your business is good. Your children are healthy. Your family is managing to stay kind…”

“You’ll see,” he said. “Just look and listen and you’ll find out why I wish I could leave.”

I stood up to take down my carry-on bag and we waved good-bye.

TWO
The first things we notice as we walk along the beach and shop in the stores, attend services at our amazing International Synagogue and read the local newspapers are changes we expected to find.

More and more people are speaking French, especially small children; their parents have taken them to a safer place. We never expected the French immigrants to learn Hebrew, and they haven’t. I’m not sure if this is the usual French loyalty to their gorgeous language or if it signals an intent to return to France once things settle down. In the restaurants in the evenings, I see many groups of French women, and I think back to my last visit in Tel Aviv when I spoke with a Belgian couple. He was going back to Belgium to wrap up business; she was staying here and had no intention of returning to Belgium. Her only wish was to convince her children to leave Europe with her grandchildren before it was too late. This influx of French-speaking immigrants was already underway two years ago; it has grown logarithmically as one would have expected.

Also no surprise is the stunning growth in construction. Tel Aviv is always under construction. When it was first built, Israel was in a big hurry to accommodate refugees. Palestinians were employed and everything was done quickly and cheaply. Ever since, the much-touted “White City” has been crumbling. We were unable to rent in our second year the apartment we’d occupied in our first year here because our former building was being gutted and reconstructed. So were at least a tenth of the buildings in Tel Aviv, and it’s been the same every year. Scaffolding everywhere, streets being ripped up, rusted, graffiti-ed facades being resurfaced, rusted plumbing being replaced. The refinished buildings are beautiful: The new surfaces are polished stone that will not erode in the salt air, apartments with central air-conditioning, no more wires and dishes strung haphazardly along the outside walls.

What is new, however, is the scale. Now, with investors clearly convinced that Israel is here to stay, the buildings are skyscrapers, the apartments are closer to American in scale, the merchandise in the furniture stores is beginning to tend more toward the luxury end. Everywhere, there are ads offering apartments for sale starting at over a million dollars—yes, dollars—and these are apartments where you are getting a bargain because you are buying an apartment that won’t be ready for another two years. Real estate speculation is so hot that the government has enacted a law imposing a double tax on real estate that is not owner- occupied for the entire year! (Oh, I wish we would do that on the East End!)

For us, as tourists, the building boom is unpleasant. The streets are horribly noisy at all hours and the beach pavilions, also under reconstruction, are virtually impassable. And, of course, the unsightly piles of detritus, cement drippings, stones, and heavy equipment litter the lovely views we had come to expect in Tel Aviv.

Finally, the other phenomenon that was to be expected is that the sheer numbers of people is, despite the influx of the French, severely reduced. The beach is less crowded than previously even though the weather has been perfect for a day at the beach, the hottest winter Tel Aviv has ever had. The streets at night are not as noisy and bubbling with young nightlife as we remember them. There is never a wait for a table, even at the most popular restaurants. Sadly, two of our favorite restaurants closed just as we were arriving. And the Old City in Jaffa seemed scarily empty: no one in the shops, in the square, in the parks. Aladdin, our favorite Jaffa restaurant whose outdoor terrace overlooks the harbor, was empty as well.
Everyone I speak to agrees that tourism is severely down. (There are no longer any tours to the West Bank or the Arab cities except for a day trip to the desert for lunch with the Bedouin.) The restaurants and gift shops are suffering terribly.

It seems, from the lack of buoyancy at the bars on Thursday nights, that student exchanges are way down as well. Even the mob in the Carmel Market—where you used to have to push and shove like a New Yorker to make any headway—is now quieter and always passable. From this, I conclude that even ordinary Tel Avivians are shopping closer to home and avoiding the market stalls where Palestinian farmers hawk their produce and their bargain wares. Or they are avoiding what they expect to be crowded places. (I am personally quite happy about this; I would not miss the artichokes and strawberries I can buy only at Carmel, and now I have enough energy left at the end to be able to walk home.)

So, the French are coming in droves, especially people with young children and retired people. I would expect Hungarian Jews and other eastern Europeans to follow. Everyone in Tel Aviv is living better as Israel—and their foreign investors—become more self-assured, more certain of its future. If we have to put up with construction noise for now, we will because what is being built now, unlike the buildings they are replacing, is being built to last. And, all this is happening even as tourists and exchange students stay away, a phenomenon the Israelis have seen before and regard as temporary.

THREE
And then we met Sherwin for lunch. Sherwin is a fellow alum of Bronx Science who once posted an ad in the alumni news asking people coming to Israel to contact him. I did. He posts a daily blog about the news in Israel which I read eagerly. His work involves trade promotion between Israel and everywhere else. He helps companies from abroad start factories and offices in Israel, and he facilitates expansion of Israeli companies into….well, you name it. The U.S.,Canada, Brazil. Sherwin especially likes Asia where there is no tradition of anti-Semitism. Eight years ago, we agreed that Israel’s future lay in China and that has proved to be true.

I tested Sherwin’s view of things against the view I heard on the flight over. He, too, is sorry that Israel missed its opportunities. “Those ships have sailed,” he said of Iran and the “solution.” But the economy is the best it’s ever been, one of the best in the world.”

He still admits that one should never buy clothes in Israel; the protective tariffs on Israeli design are prohibitive.

I mention that our apartment rent is very much higher this year. “Yes,” he agrees, prices for real estate are outrageous. Close to what they are in New York.”

I tell him that our real estate broker, a very lovable young man when we first encountered him eight years ago, is now developing rental units of his own in Barcelona, taking advantage of the depressed economy in Spain. Sherwin thinks this is quite common, Israeli capital flowing out of the country because of high prices here.

“What about exchange students? Wasn’t that always a great source of new immigrants settling in Israel?”

“Student exchange,” Sherwin tells us, “is a very vexed matter now. Diaspora Jews are worried about their kids’ safety, but that will pass. What is more troubling is that Israel will not grant student visas to Israelis who want to study abroad. They want to stem the tide of Israeli ingenuity and talent flowing out of the country to places like Silicon Valley.”

I thought about this the last time we were here. My son, Ben, worked in California for an Israeli start-up, bringing them expertise the Israeli newcomers lacked. But as the company grew, I had to think that more and more Israelis would want to join it, leaking talent out of Israel. Now the government is intervening to protect itself.

As it always does, our lunch conversation turned to religion. Sherwin calls himself a “Religious Zionist,” which roughly translates to what Americans call “Modern Orthodox.” He keeps kosher, observes the Sabbath and is active in his shul. He is also actively involved with other synagogues and takes a very active interest in the religious politics of Israel.

I asked for his view of the “Sharansky Compromise” that would give women and non-Orthodox men a newly renovated section NEAR the wall, The Robinson Arch, and let the Orthodox men have exclusive access to what has always been called “The Wall.”

Sherwin clapped his hand to his forehead. The Wall, he practically shouted, is a national historic landmark. “When I first came to Israel, there were men and women at the Wall and no one thought that the least bit strange. Only since the government has become dependent on the Haredi for its coalition have they become emboldened to ask for these outrageous concessions. It’s the same with the state-funded mikvehs. Of course, everyone should be able to use them!”

“Okay, then,” I say. “So we agree on all that. Now, what do you, as a representative of Israel, think of what’s going on in the U.S. primaries? Are you still sure that Israel is safer in the hands of Republicans?”

Again, he slaps his forehead in dismay. “I don’t know what to say. I hate all of it. I’m glad Obama will be gone, but I dread thinking about what will follow. The seeds of all this were sown a long time ago. The Republicans are now hearing said aloud what they have been secretly signaling to voters all along and it really is horrible.

“But it’s not just America. Europe is turning to fascism as well. It’s happening everywhere, back to the nineteen thirties.”

Again we agree. I think it’s happening in the world wherever the “haves” are discovering the “have-nots” coming into their countries, borders not holding, barriers breaking down, people frightened that their “cultures” are under attack.

Sherwin is 77 and looking to sell his business so he can retire at last. He deserves a rest; he has truly contributed to building Israel, although he is too modest to admit that. Like many of our friends in the States, he has children and step-children scattered all over the world; in coming months he will have to fly to California twice for life-cycle events. Like other friends of ours, his children span the spectrum religiously; he and his wife have to keep a fairly frum home to be sure their children will be comfortable visiting them. He, himself, he says, is perhaps personally more Orthodox than he would otherwise be.

Judaism all over the world is in flux with the Haredi making the deepest inroads.
But Sherwin is cheerful. Secular Jews in Israel, he tells us, are now having an average of four children per family. Palestinian women, who are now in the work force in greater numbers than ever before, are having fewer and fewer kids.

I mention that this was one of the first things I noticed when we arrived: On our first visit, I wrote home about the astonishing number of large dogs paraded by Tel Aviv women, and about the vanishingly small number of strollers. This has all reversed sharply. Now there are strollers everywhere, toddlers hanging on to carriages where their siblings are sleeping, women bicycling with double seats behind them filled with children.

I ask Sherwin if he thinks Carolyn Glick is right when she says there is no need for a “solution because of the shift in large families from the Palestinians to the ordinary, non-Haredi, Israelis. Sherwin knows Carolyn and, like others I’ve spoken with, thinks she’s alone with this thought.

Finally, we return to the horrors wrought in Israeli society by the Haredi power-grab. Sherwin thinks it’s the one problem that is deadlocking Israel and creating a deep sense of stalemate. Yes, more of their women are going to work, and yes, more of their men are in the army or national service and that’s helping the economy. But people are still deeply resentful of the special treatment they demand –and receive–everywhere.

I have been re-reading a very long and quite wonderful book, A History of The Jews by Paul Johnson, a historian who relies mostly on ancient documents and archeological discoveries, skillfully relating and comparing them with the Torah accounts. Every crisis in Jewish history from the beginning to the present has seen a ferocious, often bloody, split between the “rigorists” determined to keep the ancient customs in place and the Hellenists bent on bringing Judaism into whatever was the current “modern age.” What is astonishing, Johnson points out, is that in every instance, the rigorists win, usually because they are ready to die for their position, often because they are the original provocateurs. Are we there again?

FOUR
Children are everywhere; dogs, though, are still very much in favor and pampered more than ever. (And, oh, BTW: there has been no reduction in the number of street cats.) There’s a pet supply store or a pet grooming salon on every block in our neighborhood.

Still, the hair salons rule! In our neighborhood, there are at least four hair salons on every block, counting both sides of the street. On one street near us, there are four salons on one side of the block alone. They open at noon and keep going until midnight. They are hangouts where people gather to drink wine and coffee while watching friends getting their hair done. I am not up to see for myself, but I assume many of the wine bars stay open into the morning hours so the hairdressers can party. What can I say? Israelis are a hairy bunch!

Another note, along the same lines, is physical fitness. Once considered the function of schools and the army, keeping everyone slim has now become a huge industry. The little yoga studio that stayed in business along the beach for years has expanded to fill an entire building; along the streets, basement yoga studios are going strong through the night. Pilates is big, too. Never noticed pilates parlors here before. And, like everything the Israelis do, they attack their fitness with a fury. I’d like to say there simply are no twenty year-old girls who wear a size larger than zero but, alas, there are still a few Russian immigrants who have not yet gotten the message. I’m trying to get there by eating huge bowls of lettuce and cucumbers three times a day. Mostly passing up the rugelleh; can’t resist the halvah..

Well, that’s it folks. Israel today, not so much from my own observations but from two people who ought to know. And they do know. They do know. They just totally disagree on almost all the big issues.
Which is just what the man on the plane said I’d find: No sense of unity, general despond, and a sense of resignation to a stalled political situation.

Yes, Sherwin is cheerful about the economy, but, after all, that’s his job! He is not unhappy that Israel is losing what I considered
its charm. Losing its smallness, joining the world, even if they are not welcome there, building big and noisy, creating suburban sprawl and Chinese-style skyscrapers at the same time.

We have enjoyed magnificent weather and the usual cultural richness at the opera, the symphony, the dance center in Neve Tsedek. But somehow, it’s clear that some of the vibrant energy is gone. Certainly not all–there is far more here than you’d find anywhere else but somehow………..my heart does not leap up.

A week from now we will travel to the south of Spain, a country in deep depression. The prices will be wonderful. I’ll let you know what else is.

Shabbat Shalom.

PS Can’t help adding that most of our “nightlife” consists of watching the American political scene play out, ugliness upon ugliness, and listening to European and Chinese commentators’ astonishment at what is unfolding. Is anyone back home aware of how this looks?

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“European Jew:” An Oxymoron

“European Jew:” An Oxymoron?
by Susan Pashman

As I approach the splendid Italianate façade of Florence’s Great Synagogue, I recall the words of an email I received from Enrico Fink, the synagogue’s administrator, in response to my request to attend Yom Kippur services there. “We are a very old synagogue, but not as old as the one in Rome that goes back more than 2000 years.” The Roman synagogue, then, was constructed around the time the Romans were forever changing Judaism by destroying the Temple in Jerusalem. Jews flourished in their own city but were obliterated in Jerusalem!
On a stroll through the front garden, I glance upward at the overwhelming grandeur of the high, narrow dome, visible throughout the city, the center of Florence’s ancient and still lingering Jewish community. At the gates, our bags and bodies are searched as two carabinieri stand by, rifles cocked. This is Europe, where anti-Semitism began and is, again, showing its ugly face. All over the continent, much to everyone’s embarrassment and chagrin, Jews are again under attack for merely being Jews.

Synagogue_Florence_Italy

Toward this “latest outbreak,” there seem to be two predictable, almost banal, responses. Either one is shocked, shocked, to see this hatred surface after so many years of “tolerance,” or one shrugs and confesses that one knew all along that Jew-hatred was always lurking beneath the conscientious European surface. Anti-Semitism, according to this view, came out of nowhere, is inexplicable, and ineradicable.
My own view, unlike those of many fellow pessimists, is not based on a consideration of history. Nor is it derived from a cynical notion of “human nature.” I am a philosopher and, as Aristotle noted, the philosopher’s approach is the very opposite of the historian’s: history looks to the particular facts of human engagements while philosophy regards the universal, the theoretical.
Strangely, it is precisely the irresoluble distinction between these two approaches which, I believe, explains the obstinate persistence of European anti-Semitism. It is Europe’s core enterprise of universalism—a rationalist approach– that has always, and always will, make it impossible for Europe to actually embrace Jews who are, by their very essence, the exact opposite. These ideas have been troubling me for some time. The facts are not in dispute, but the way they are now coming together, leading with inevitable logic to some nasty conclusions, is what I feel I can no longer ignore.
The more I consider Europe and all its glories, the more persuaded I am—contrary to my liberal training and proclivities—is that “European” and “Jew” form a contradiction in terms. The phrase, “European Jew” is, therefore, an oxymoron.
As Rome was allowing a great synagogue to be built, its hope was undoubtedly that Roman Jews would not fail to appreciate the great benefits of inclusion in the Empire. Why should they not? The Roman Empire was the greatest idea of all time, a project of such enormous depth and reach that it would eventually create world peace, the aspiration of the western world ever since.

florence-villa-cora-wedding-6(Interior of the Great Synagogue of Florence)
The Empire was, in its inception, an idea and a place, like Athens, where ideas could have a home. The bookish, intellectualist Jewish scholars should quite reasonably flock there. Jewish merchants should welcome the great networks of roads that facilitated trade on a level hitherto unknown. A world united under a single set of laws and a central administration that treated all citizens equally would enable expanded educational and cultural opportunities and, eventually, the sort of perfect exchange among the peoples of the world that is only now is coming about by the miracle of digital electronics.
This idea of “one world under a single set of laws” began, of course, with Plato to whom, Whitehead once proclaimed, all of western philosophical history is a footnote. The Republic provided a brilliantly creative solution to the ever-vexing problem of how to cement into political solidarity a heap of individuals with diverse selfish interests. The Philosopher King, knower of the one true Truth, knower of what is objectively Right, would tell us the law that holds universally. For all. At all times. Everywhere. In Plato’s perfect society, each citizen, in obeying the law, would be doing what he himself would choose to do if only he had the wisdom to know what that is. (Unfortunately, Plato never provided a reliable guide to discovering the true Philosopher King, and so there have been many pretenders, each packaging his own unique brand of fascism.)
Plato’s reverence for mathematics as the source of absolute truth derived from the Pythagoreans who understood that number was the underlying principle of the natural universe and that putting one’s soul into harmony with nature’s balance ensured a good life. In a less spiritual key, the earliest Atomists understood that even a thoroughly materialistic world of atoms and molecules, was governed by natural laws. This precursor of modern science held that everything—including all of mankind—is exactly the same, equal as a matter of nature. For the Atomists, as for modern science, natural laws govern everything– apples that fall from trees and human behavior, too.
How do we know what the laws of nature are? Do we require the services of a Philosopher King? No. The Atomists, and the Greek and Roman Stoics who followed them, understood that natural law could be grasped by all in possession of human reason. The rule of law is simply the rule of reason. Under natural law, all are created equal and in possession of rights which must be respected by whatever institutions they establish to conduct their affairs of state. That governments should respect individual natural rights is…simply reasonable! To make exceptions for particular peoples is against nature and against reason.
Stoic universalist philosophy traveled throughout the Empire on the horses of the Roman armies and spread even further when the very same universalist ideas were fed into the efficient pipelines of Roman-built infrastructure as Christianity, an accessible,undemanding ideology that promised eternal life. St. Paul’s canny blend of Greco-Roman Stoicism drew again on Plato’s notion that the eternal was the only “reality,” but avoided Plato’s elitism, fashioning Christianity as the most egalitarian, most welcoming, of ideologies, a club anyone can join simply by confessing faith. The rationalist/universalist ideas of equality, the Brotherhood of Man, and natural rights under natural law traveled across the Empire and, thanks to the appeal of mystery and salvation, put down deep roots.
This same universalism blossomed forth again, even as Europe divided itself into distinct nations. Each new state emerged under some form of Christian church, reconfigured as a national church, yet connected to the central authority in Rome. Henry VIII took broke with Rome only to establish another Christian church that would take up the same universalist doctrines. All Europe has thus always been united under Christianity, its nation-states always identified with natural law, natural rights and universality, however grotesquely twisted those ideals became over time. Even tyrants who distorted the rule of reason, claimed backing from the universalist Christian church. One could not identify as German without being Lutheran; all Englishmen were Anglicans, all Dutch belonged to the Reform Church.
Despite their internal disputes and wars, Europeans have, for over 2000 years, identified themselves as a brotherhood under laws they viewed as universally valid, as indubitable as the theorems of geometry. The French Revolution aimed at purging France of corruption, but the revolution was itself a return to a purer universalism, a re-establishment of the original Stoic ideas: equality, liberty and fraternity. If the rise of democracy in Europe restored the old idea of the brotherhood of man under the laws of reason, the American enterprise still holds these same truths to be self-evident.
To what Rome offered secularly, Christianity provided a fitting spiritual companion. Along with the benefits of one currency, one language, one set of tariffs and taxes, one system of roads and aqueducts, there was added one faith, uniting the hearts and souls of people whose bodies were already so perfectly connected by bridges and roads. Truly,a great achievement. Who would not be pleased to follow along?
Well, of course, the Jews. While acknowledging the benefits of Roman civilization, the Jews had to beg out when it came to that matter of unified hearts and souls. Their faith remained bound to “a higher authority,” which forbade them from assenting to a god incarnate. Jews could not forget Moses’ warnings that assimilation to other cultures or religions would bring down upon them the punishments that Yahweh had so mercilessly visited upon their enemies.
The very essence of Jew-ness was to stand apart, not partake, not join in. (I use the neologism, “Jew-ness,” because “Judaism,” understood as a religion in the modern sense, is not appropriate to the historical moment I am discussing here; nor is the word “Jew-ish” appropriate as I am not referring to what has become known as an “ethnicity” or “culture.” Judaism as a religion is a notion devised in the seventeenth century by Reform Jews aiming to assimilate to the Protestantism of Western Europe. This effort at self-disguise, as Leora Batnitzky so convincingly demonstrated, ultimately proved self-destructive.
The Jew in the Roman Empire, and later in Enlightenment Europe, remained the kid who stands apart as teams are being chosen up for the softball game, preferring, noticeably, to not participate in the fun but, instead, to call the plays. The Jew stood off from the game as Socrates stood apart in Athens, the judge, the gadfly, the disapproving critic who would—it was really predictable—be forced to decide between exile and suicide. To those enjoying the game, the eyes of the critic, sitting aloof in the bleachers, eventually appear as furtive eyes. Conspiring, plotting, dark.
European Jews—especially those ambitious Jews in Germany– who were heartened by the arrival of the Enlightenment simply did not understand: the Enlightenment was merely the next iteration of European universalism! When Enlightenment philosophy spoke of natural law, natural rights and the equality of all human beings, it was just reviving the central ideas of the Stoics. Enlightenment liberalism was an announcement, not of “tolerance,” but of the view that no particular identity —qua particular—was real. Particularism would always be the enemy of universalism.

GreatSynagogueSydInternal(Facing the Ark in The Great Synagogue of Florence)
The central Enlightenment idea was that particularistic differences are, at root, illusory! Just as physical objects merely appear to differ but are, in reality, all formed of the very same atoms and molecules, so human beings are, beneath it all, the same. Just as one set of laws, the laws of nature, apply to all objects everywhere, so, too, correct moral laws bind all humans equally. The objective law is no respecter of subjective difference. The logical consequence of this premise is that any person or community who reject the laws of the “Community of Man” and the faith that binds it are, ipso facto, unnatural or against reason.
I had to wonder, once again, as I entered the glorious Great Synagogue of Florence, why Jews had ever remained in the Roman Empire, why, as Rome turned Christian and then Enlightened, Jews did not grasp what Europe was all about.
Yet, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed a second time, Jews continued to migrate into the arms of those adverse to our very idea of ourselves. Why not head, instead, toward any of the other three points of the compass? To the west lay North Africa; Jews who were smart enough to settle there led peaceful and prosperous lives until the advent of the state of Israel incensed their Muslim governors. Why not head south into sub-Saharan Africa where, centuries later, people would build rewarding trade and cities to rival those in Europe? If Jews could “make the desert bloom,” why not attempt that in lands rich in minerals and gems and verdant with arable land? Why not—and here I really do have to scratch my head—travel toward India and China where people might not feel threatened by Jewish particularism. Other tribes would, of course, defend their own lands but that was matter to be settled in battle (as the Zionists eventually had to do in Palestine centuries later.)
One response I often receive to this question of why the Jews lingered in Europe is that the very glories of Rome drew learned, bookish Jews to Rome perhaps even more strongly than it drew others. But if one must choose between one’s commercial, artistic and educational enterprises and one’s personal identity, what comes first?
Another response to my question is that Rome was all the world there was; the Romans were—or planned soon to be—everywhere. Certainly, to later European Jews, it must have seemed that the universalist Christian culture surrounded them on all sides, huddled them into tiny, filthy places and deprived them of all best land. Today, Jews still uncomprehending enough to insist on living in Europe, are voicing the same feeling: the anti-Semites are everywhere and will never leave us alone! Why, then, do they stay? What has always been true is now truer than ever: there have always been other places for Jews to migrate to, places where universalist values never took root and likely never will.
What Jews, particularly European Jews, have never acknowledged about themselves is that they are not truly a religion. Religion can be practiced privately, apart from the public square, as an affair of the heart. Jew-ism is not an affair of the heart. Reform Jews, aspiring to acceptance as full German citizens, intended to turn Jews into people who could keep matters of conscience to themselves and fit in perfectly in the civic realm. Protestants, in a word. But what makes a Jew a Jew is not a matter of conscience. Anyone willing to engage the vexed arguments about what it means to be a Jew soon enough discovers that the Hebrew situation is not merely an “ism,” but a much broader–and deeper– identity.
If Jews’ identity were solely a matter of private conscience, Jews would not greet and acknowledge one another as they inevitably do. Jews in large, strange places sniff each other out; Jews greet other Jews as long-lost family, relieved to see and touch others who are also Jews. Deprived of a land of their own, Jews clung to one another through great–unendurable—hardships not because of the powers of Torah rituals, but because they felt the bonds of family. When three young boys disappeared in the West Bank, the entire nation of Israel and the Jewish diaspora came together in anxiety, and then grief, as if these boys were family. The international press echoed the Israeli press in noting that the entire nation of Israel acted and felt en masse as a single extended family.
Nor is the identity of a Jew based in a distinct “culture.” There are no cultural practices that are common to all Jews, no practices or rituals that constitute a definition of “Jew.” Jews have thrived in China and India for over a thousand years with cultures that would be entirely foreign to the bagel-eaters–chicken soup and mah-jongg notwithstanding. Yet, for all this, Jews—particularly Reform Jews—while denying any faith or belief that God so much as exists, denying, that is, any religion at all—continue to insist that they are “culturally” Jews. Jews do not form an ethnicity; nor do we constitute an identifiable “culture,” nor are we, so most of us acknowledge, a religion!
What Jews are—what our identity consists of—I am sorry to have to say, is a tribe. Jews root our identity in blood; we are an extended family whose members recognize each other even though we have never seen or heard of one another. Most of us are embarrassed —even disgusted– by our tribe’s radical fringe because, like it or not, they are ours. And because they are ours, we report our feelings to one another but not openly, to non-members of the tribe.
Now, “tribe” is a smelly primitive word, a term that we, educated and cosmopolitan, disdain. Pygmies and Navajos are tribes. But while we are getting some nasty truths out there, let us finally admit that the Reform movement, which abjured the tribal nature of Jews, has been a bust. The recent Pew study proves absolutely that the attempt to re-cast Jew-ness as a Protestant-type affair of the heart has been a disaster! The project that would re-configure the community of Jews into yet another Roman-style unity based upon a concept–a community identified by rational notions of liberal, universalist, morality– just did not work.
And why should it have worked? The community of Jews is bound by something far more concrete, far more virile, and far, far stronger in its solidifying effects than reason. What binds the community of Jews reaches far deeper than intellectual assent to nebulous ideals.
It may be odious, by today’s standards, to own this fact, but there it is in the Book of Genesis, a book of who begat whom, the genealogy of all Jews for all time. Despite the protestations of Reform Jews, it really is not possible for one to “drop” one’s Jewish identity and, alas, it is no more possible to “adopt” the identity of a true Jew. Much as today’s rabbis would love to “expand the tent,” the only way to do so is to encourage greater fertility within the bloodline. If the Pew study teaches anything—and Jews everywhere should, this time, pay attention to what is written on the wall—it is the impossibility of melding the concrete particularity of Jewish identity with the essentially European “non-identity” of universalist natural law!
Let me be clear. By calling the community of Jews “particularist,” I am not referring to the notion of “chosen-ness.” It matters not whether one believes that Yahweh selected a single group of people as recipients of His laws. What matters is that today, in this modern world of natural science and natural law, Jews continue to recognize one another as members of a single tribal group, and that this recognition goes deep into the veins. Yes, we keep our tent open; and yes, we are urged by scripture to treat our neighbors as ourselves.
“As,” or, “as if.” But non- Jews are not “ourselves.” Only ourselves are ourselves. We are taught to be kind and respectful to others much as Europeans are now taught to “tolerate” others. But it’s not the same thing. And you know that!
Centuries of European slander have made Jews afraid to acknowledge what the Torah tells us we are: a tribe unto ourselves. Is there anywhere that we can actually live as a tribal community?
The answer, as every schoolboy knows, is that Jews are free to be Jews in Israel. But we often neglect the reason why Israel is the perfect place for Jews to be the tribe we are. Israel is situated in a region that is, itself, thoroughly tribal! It is not because the Zionists brought to the Middle East the Enlightenment values of Europe, but precisely for the opposite reason, that Israel is a wonderful place to be a Jew. Were the Zionists not so eager to bring European culture to this most tribal of regions, there would surely have been greater peace between the arriving tribe and the indigenous ones.
As tribes are wont to do, the tribes of the Middle East have often vowed to eliminate one another and attempt this regularly. They are fierce, and their ferocity is sometimes fueled by intolerance and hatred. But they also have ways of making peace by breaking bread together, shaking hands, and intermarrying, ways that are so basic and concrete that they elude “peacemaking” westerners.
The Zionists arriving in Palestine encountered numerous tribes most of whom did not acknowledge one another, did not trade with one another, did not allow intermarriage. This situation persists and is why it has been so difficult for the Palestinians—a phony construct of identity—to come together to form a modern nation-state. This, of course, is how Jews behave toward one another when not confronted with a common enemy. When the American forces landed in Kabul, there remained only two Jews in the city, two rug merchants who had not spoken to each other in decades! In the deepest of ways, Jews and other Middle Eastern tribes understand each other—or they did before the near-sighted, lead-footed, “enlightened” Zionists marched in.
King Saud demonstrated perfectly how tribal identity is formed: in order to forge a single tribe out of many warring factions, he inseminated the women of each faction, thus creating a single extended family. In the Middle East, blood is what makes you this person rather than that. This “this-ness” is what has always kept the Jews’ community intact. (Horrible to say, but Hitler was right when he identified Jews by percentage of Jewish blood, an identifier I have strongly resisted until it turned out to be undeniably correct.)
The question is raised almost daily: Does Israel “belong” in the Middle East? The answer is: Of course! Among Middle Eastern tribes, a self-aware Israel at least knows where it stands and what it must do to survive. Better there than in Europe where people consider tribes brutish relics of an uncivilized era, and that particularist identity—any identity—is not only an ignorant notion, but essentially unreal.
A Jewish friend whose family was forced to flee Berlin in tatters during the thirties is pleased, today, to have purchased an apartment there, just around the corner from the apartment her family once owned. She relates that many of her family and their friends who had fled to Israel are now returning to Berlin to escape the “illiberal regime” in Israel. Thirty thousand or so, I have heard.
What did they expect? Did they think they would find Frankfurt-am-Mediterranee? Did they expect that Zionism would take root in the Middle East to sprout a new Enlightenment Europe in the desert? Geography matters. Climate, geology, neighborhood—it all counts. What shocks some Euro-Israelis is the way their homeland is becoming less liberal in its values, the way, to be specific, Israel is placing survival of the tribe over the effete intellectualist doctrine of natural rights.

Berlin-Oranienburger_Straße,_the_New_Synagogue(The once grand Oranienburger synagogue of Berlin is now a shabby museum.)
Many who have returned to Berlin announce that they have “always felt more German than Jewish.” Ah, yes, that! These people really do not get it. The world understands what they apparently do not: tribal identity travels with you; it does not vanish with a mere change of heart, a simple intellectual decision, a move from one place to another. The Israelis heading to Germany and elsewhere in Europe—I understand Poland is a popular destination—are attempting a Michael Jackson-type sleight of hand. No amount of self-loathing can change the identity of a Jew. Life in Israel is a life of self-owning and, no matter how illiberal Israel becomes in its efforts to maintain itself as a state FOR Jews, Israelis will live with that because it allows Jews to be who we must be.
What gives one hope in Israel today is that a self-owning tribe will eventually determine Israeli policy, a policy that will not reflect Enlightenment European values so much as the self-interest of the tribe. And Israeli policy will less and less be what America recognizes as its own brand because Israel is becoming more and more a Middle Eastern—tribal—nation.
So, it was wonderful to learn from my friend, Sherwin Pomerantz, whose forty years of Israeli citizenship have been spent nurturing Israeli commerce abroad, (see his daily blog at Israelstreet.com) that Israel is increasingly looking eastward for both economic and educational connections. Neither the Chinese nor the Indians have a dog in the interminable fight between Christians and Jews; what matters to both China and India is what can be gained from Israeli know-how and markets, and how welcome their students are at Israeli technological institutions. They will invest in, not divest from, Israeli enterprises because the Israeli economy is so rewarding to investors.

60571127The Great Synagogue of Florence, for all its resplendent Sephardic beauty, is in perpetual peril. It should never have been built. I can only hope that the world’s Jews will visit it, admire it, say the Sh’ma there, and remember the foolishness of centuries and centuries of Jews who forgot their tribal roots and attempted to assimilate to Europe’s universalism. Let us learn, at last, from our terrible past: “European Jew” is an oxymoron!
—- — ——-

The author, retired from practice as an attorney at Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York, holds a Doctorate in Philosophy and teaches Philosophical Aesthetics at Boston Architectural College. Her articles have appeared in MomentMag.com and in scholarly philosophical journals. She blogs at Times of Israel and at her website, www.philosopha.net. She is the author of the novel, The Speed of Light, and of numerous stories and essays published in such journals as The Indiana Review, The Texas Review, The Portland Review, Dan River Anthology, Arcadia, Pendulium, Midway Journal and others.

 

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FLORENCE AND I ARE SO TOTALLY DONE

Synagogue_Florence_ItalyFLORENCE AND I: WE ARE SO TOTALLY DONE

There was absolutely no reason to leave Lucca. I can’t imagine there ever would be and can’t imagine how I am going to leave to return home. But there was what seemed an overriding concern that got us onto the bus to Florence: Yom Kippur. We love to experience synagogue services when traveling abroad, see how the tribe does it elsewhere, etc. No synagogues in Lucca, alas.

With a room booked at the Ferucci Hotel (remember that name) for two nights, and instructions on time and place of services at The Great Synagogue of Florence in our pockets, and our very best outfits for both Kol Nidre night and Yom Kippur day, we set out early Friday morning.

For starters, Florence, when we finally saw her a short ride later, looked horrible. Lucca is so absolutely charming at every turn, so sweet and loving and richly antique. And there was our gal, Flo, looking all gussied up in the latest faddish look, stucco condos and ugly stores, almost all of them American or crypto-American. Our taxi, unfortunately, had to pass through the “historic district” on the way to Ferucci. Fuggedabouddit! Not only couldn’t the cars move through those crammed streets, the tourists themselves were utterly stalled. The thousands of Japanese could not get their cameras into the air high enough to shoot Giotto’s masterpiece, the scads of Germans could not extend their ginormous lenses, nobody could move. We felt we would suffocate once the air in the cab was exhausted because surely there was none left to breathe outside!
Friendly lady at hotel desk said the room wasn’t ready yet and we were still innocent enough to say that was okay. We would schlep 20 minutes along the filthy swill of the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio where, we remembered from days of yore—50 years ago or more—there were marvelous buys on leather.

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So we schlepped. Joke’s on us: no leather anywhere on the Ponte. Now it’s all jewelry. Well, nothing you would actually want to wear, even if it were free which it certainly was not. Shlepped back to Ferucci for what was to be a “magical” afternoon. Ah……

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No elevator. Room on third floor atop very steep staircase. No help offered, none in sight. Shlepped bags up. Nice lady who walked up behind us opened the door to the room and gestured us in. Then she quickly turned and left.
WHAT???? Shattered glass littering the floor and bed!!!! WHAT? Nice lady already gone. Tiptoed to phone to call her back . PHONE NOT WORKING!!!

Would not, no way, return downstairs ,so started screaming for nice lady to come up which she did. Showed her the shattered glass. Kristallnacht? No, she explained very nicely. The glass in the frame around the sheet showing the legal room occupancy and tariff had magically jumped out of the frame and shattered all over the floor.

OH.
She swept it all away and promised to return with a new, working, phone.
But she never returned. Had to run downstairs—all of them—to procure taxi to Great Synagogue. Desk lady had the phone at her desk but wasn’t in the mood to bring it up to us.

OH.
Synagogue truly great. Very very old frescoes like Persian rugs all over the high walls and gorgeous high narrow dome. Very Sephardic. I steeled myself for the Sephardic sexism and made my way up yet another two flights of very steep stairs only to find there were no prayerbooks. I should have wondered why but instead I simply asked a woman member for one and she disappeared for twenty minutes and returned with two: Hebrew and Hebrew with Italian translation. Um, the first, please.florence-villa-cora-wedding-6
Tried to see through the thick wrought-iron cage in front of the women’s section. Not possible. I thought the idea was that THEY should not see US, but this was the other way around as well. Oh, well, I will follow along in the prayer book.

GreatSynagogueSydInternal
Too bad. Not possible. Knew the Sephardic pronunciations were different and the melodies too, but what the hell was this cantor saying? No way to make out anything.
(Later, Jack explained why I could make no sense of the first 45 minutes of the service: The cantor was saying a separate prayer for each and every member of the synagogue and for each of their relatives. Twenty or so pages of names and diseases.)
Waited for a familiar word. Kol Nidre? Sh’ma? Kaddish? Nothing. Decided I would just read the service to myself, Inward-like.
Ooops. Not possible. The women’s section has no prayerbooks because Sephardic women in Florence are not expected to read! Once the sun had set, there was not sufficient light in the women’s section to decipher the words in the siddur. What to do, what to do?
I decided to look around and study the other women. What were they up to without any prayer books? Meditating? Praying silently like Hannah?
No, they were comparing manicures, laughing about their children who were playing in the aisles, admiring one another’s scarves and saying a lot in Italian that I didn’t get. Of course.
After three and a quarter hours, I was getting a sore behind. Ten elderly men had taken the Torah from the ark and were standing around the bimah while the cantor droned on. One of the men started to list sideways and was promptly relieved of his burden by a younger scout. Isn’t Kol Kidre the SHORT evening service? Even with Shabbat added in, three and a quarter hours and still no Kaddish?
I walked down the tortuous stairs. Spotted Jack and looked longingly, begging him with my eyes to leave. He was more than happy to oblige. “That was the most boring service I’ve ever endured!” said the Yeshiva boy. Then he explained that the first 45 minutes had been one long Mishebeirach. Gesundhiet!

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Grabbed a vegetarian dinner, the first thing we found open, and called for a cab back to the magical Ferucci.

vegetarian kol nidre meal--ooops

vegetarian kol nidre meal–ooops

Needed some Tylenol and went to the bathroom, unwrapped the wax paper from around one of the tiny plastic cups provided there, and filled it with water. By the time I reached the bed—two steps away—the water was gone! Gone! Where was the water, oh magical Ferucci? Dripped out. How did that happen? (Or, how did he do that?)
Seems a prankish chamber maid had punctured the plastic cup with tiny pinholes all around the base. How cute! Just so magical!
With the second cup, I was able to swallow two Tylenols, much needed by then. As I was settling under the covers there was a loud POP from the bathroom. I looked up in time to see a thick rubberband which I had used to secure my little box of earrings fly high into the air over the sink and then drop down. Into the drain. Deep into the drain. How very, very magical. Oh, Ferucci, you foxy fellow you. Rubber band irretrievable. Gone. Gone. Fascinating!
Next morning—and it did come—I stepped out of bed and plunk onto a large shard of glass. Bleeding foot soiled the blanket, the pillowcase, the sheets. Jewish lady’s revenge for Kristallnacht! Not so magical. Just sloppy.
Big lawsuit, methought. Better, methought, let’s blow this joint before one of our heads pops into the air and lands in the toilet.
Free breakfast. Frabjous day. Breakfast served from seven to ten. Now 9:20. Reached the breakfast room to find not enough hard-cooked eggs left, practically no yogurt or croissants, either. No hot water for tea. Asked the breakfast lady. She said it’s almost ten o’clock; no time to cook more eggs, find more yogurt or croissants.
(Note: When booking.com asked me to rate this hotel, you can imagine what I said. But then they also showed me the comments of others and asked me to agree or disagree. There, to my utter amazement, was a man who had complained months ago about the mean breakfast lady who refused to make more eggs or provide more food because it was already 9:30 so why bother? Some hotels never learn. However, we were the only guests to complain to booking.com of Kristallnacht, a bleeding foot, a prickled plastic cup and a flying rubber band.)
When we checked out, no one observed that we were already paid up for one more night. This must happen a lot. (BTW: the place was very clean and attractive; you would never know….)
Taxi dropped us at the bus station but the buses were unmanned (in every respect) and no driver ever showed up. As we waited in front of the huge MacDonald’s, three Somalis were set up with corrugated stands to sell more sunglasses than anyone could imagine. One yelled something angrily at the second one and then a fight broke out. Yelling and fist-shaking. The third Somali wanted nothing to do with it, only wanted to keep dusting off his sunglasses. A gypsy lady asked for money. Another woman, on her knees between the 2nd and 3rd Somalis, whimpered and begged but everyone ignored her and went into Macdonald’s without giving her anything. Finally, the Somalis folded up their corrugated stands and left so that three more Somalis could set up with thousands of sunglasses. How very Florentine! Such local color!

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Jack remarked for the fortieth time that Florence, once the apple of our eyes, had become a cross between Madison Ave and 42nd Street at Eighth Avenue. People were pushing each other into the roadbed just to be able to move forward. A nice Belgian asked us the way to the center of town. “You don’t want to go there,” we advised. But he wanted to see for himself. Idiot!
Raced across the street to the train station and found one leaving for Lucca in eight minutes. You never saw Jack run so fast.

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Ah, we sighed as we stepped off the train in softly airy, sunlit Lucca. So wonderful to be home at last. Not even 24 hours with that slut, Florence, and we felt we needed a second bath of the day.
So, yes, it is true. Florence and I are so totally over!

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Is “European Jew” an Oxymoron?

In a recent article in Mosaic Magazine, Natan Sharansky frets over the fate of European Jews, citing, in particular, the current exodus of Jews from France to Israel. I have long lauded this move and feel that Jews in other parts of Europe, particularly Belgium and Hungary, should come to their senses and do likewise.
Instead of fretting over the undoubted fate of Jews in the Europe of the future, let’s look at the ancient–and still current –source of this problem: Since the great enterprise of the Roman Empire, into the Christian era, and now in European Union, Europe has been engaged in a great venture in UNIVERSALISM. The great Greek Stoic doctrines of natural rights and natural law take all human beings as equal and see law as applying to all. Man, as the Greeks put it very early on, is the same atoms and molecules everywhere he is found, and all the rest is commentary.
Since its inception, however, Judaism has been PARTICULARIST. The Law of Moses was given particularly: that is, only to Jews. Deuteronomy is clear that Jews must stick to their own, not intermarry or have much to do with others, especially idol worshippers such as Christians indubitably are. But since the beginning, Jews have tried to have it both ways, wanting to participate in the commercial life of Europe while keeping to their own traditions in other respects. Today, Muslims are following down the same sorry path.
Do not misinterpret this. I am not arguing that Jews are not welcoming of others who want to be Jews along with them. Judaism is not exclusionary. However, Jews exclude themselves from the nations in which they have lived, kept to themselves. It is specious to argue that Jews are also universalist because they believe the laws of the Torah apply to all. They do apply to all. But the laws of other–wider–communities do not, Jews believe, always apply to THEM. We answer, shall we say, to a higher authority and did so before the invention of rye bread.
When Europeans liberals–both Gentiles and Jews–argue that Jews do not belong in the Middle East, they have in mind those Jews who want the benefits of universalist thinking that is the core of liberal Europe. I could not agree more: Europeans do not belong in the Middle East, and that includes the Zionists whose enterprise was unabashedly colonialist.
However, Israel is now more and more a Middle Eastern state. Its culture–music, food, intense political partisanship–are all characteristic of the Middle East. And why not? That is where Israel is!
European Jews who went to Israel expecting to find Frankfurt-am-Mediterrannee were deceiving themselves. As the Sephardim become more and more the majority of Israel’s Jews, Israel will be more and more a typical Middle Eastern State. Which is to say it will be a TRIBAL state, which is, of course, what Judaism is.
Those thirty thousand or so Reform Jews who have returned to Germany from Israel, now say they have always felt more German than Jewish. They deserve what they will find in Germany and in Europe generally. All of Europe has been, since the Holy Roman Empire, a Christian region with heads of state who were always aligned with Christianity. To be English is to be Anglican, to be German is to be Lutheran, to be Dutch is to belong to the Reform Church.
Of course, Post-Holocaust Europe would like to deny all this but, as we are discovering, just under the surface, Europe is still, despite its “liberalism” a one-size-fits-all, universalist, and therefore anti-tribal, region.
Does Israel belong in the Middle East? Of course it does. But Israel of the Middle East is not a European state, and those who expect it to act like one are being foolish. Good luck to those liberal Israelis returning to Europe! In the meantime, Netanyahu will act to protect his tribe, heedless of the blushing liberal Jews who are, at heart, precisely what they feel they are: more European than Jewish. Perhaps we should recognize, at long last, that the “European Jew” is an oxymoron.
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THIRD LETTER FROM TEL AVIV, 2014: A NARRATIVE OF SPACES AND PLACES IN THE PROMISED LAND

A “PLACE” FOR ISRAEL

For my fourteenth birthday, my grandmother gave me the present of my dreams, a portable radio. It was a maroon plastic Emerson and it came with its own brown fake suede carrying case. I wanted this radio not so much to carry around but to bury under my pillow at night to immerse myself in late night talk radio. On WEVD, the station my grandfather managed, Symphony Sid played terrific jazz and talked about it. Long John Nebil interviewed “The Amazing Randy,”  and Jean Shepard spun tales of Flick and Bruner back in Indiana.

But my favorite program was hosted by a bright Jewish guy, a “South Carolina Israelite” named Barry Farber. “Bear Faah-buh.” He interviewed people each night, arguing with them and putting out a lot of interesting ideas along the way. He had a few favorite subjects to which he returned week after week. At the top of his list was Israel: Yes, the Jews should have a safe place to live, but why did it have to be that particular piece of land, right in the midst of their worst enemies? Barry had a better idea, one that had been proposed before: Uganda.

But the Zionists had turned that down. They wanted only one very specific piece of land; it had to be that very spot. Barry reminded us of all the mineral wealth in Uganda, its fertile farmland, the ease with which the dedicated people who had settled Palestine could have wrested wealth from the soils of Uganda. He was very convincing and I, too, wondered what would have been wrong with going to Uganda. But then he brought out his truly marvelous idea, an idea for locating the new Jewish state in a place where it would be surrounded by real friends, a place where it would be sheltered from enemies for all time, a place that was so empty of people that no tribe or nascent nation could complain of being displaced: WAH-OH-MIN!

Why didn’t the Zionists petition the United States for permission to immigrate to the US on the condition that they would build up the state of Wyoming and live there? In these horrible times, when Israel is beset not only by problems from outside its borders but by serious threats from within– and when it is becoming impossible to continue denying the moral nightmare on which its existence is based–I return to those late nights with Bear Fah-buh and ask myself why the Jews did not turn their efforts to a deal for Wah-Oh-Min.

A “PLACE” FOR PALESTINE

Reading Ari Shavit’s exquisitely rendered, saddening book, “My Promised Land,” I traveled to Jerusalem very early one morning to meet up with three others and a tour guide for a day’s travels through Bethlehem and Nasrallah, two “Palestinian” cities. I’d chosen this Green Olive tour because it promised that our escort would be, himself, a Palestinian, that we would not only see the sites of Palestinian grievance, but hear the voice of the aggrieved. Our guide, Jamal, was a congenial young father of two, a professional, certified tour guide who wanted to present the story from his side of The Wall.

We met up with Jamal at a road stop; he was not permitted into West Jerusalem where the tour group started out. He drove us in his Jeep to the other side of the same Wall I had seen two days earlier on a tour guided by The Hebron Foundation, the wall around Rachel’s tomb. On this Palestinian side, it was a dirty, rubble-strewn area, the watchtower sooty from fires that had been set repeatedly in protest, half-burned tires still piled up beside it. Jamal pointed out a house on this side that overlooked the Tomb. There was an odd sort of fence around its roof and Jamal explained that the owners were not permitted on their own roof “for security reasons.” “Security reasons,” he told us, were responsible for endless restrictions on the Palestinians’ freedom of movement.

The Wall in that area was decorated with framed posters made by Palestinian women and girls in which they told and illustrated short stories of terror and harassment, of being suddenly wakened for warrantless house searches—many many grievances illustrated with touching drawings, some in verse. Other parts of the separation wall were decorated with graffiti, a lot of it famous graffiti by Banksy: the little girl body-searching a policeman, the firebrand reeling back as he hurls —a bunch of flowers!

We return to the Jeep and drive to a Palestinian “refugee camp.” It looks nothing like the refugee camps one sees housing, for example, Syrian refugees, although at one time it looked just like that. When a winter flood damaged all the tents there, the UN demanded that the Israelis provide better housing and so one-story limestone huts were built. But what is there now is a small town of four-story apartment buildings. The Palestinians, who are experienced builders with the rocks and rubble at hand, strengthened the foundations of these buildings so they could support additional stories, and then built up higher and higher. Several generations occupy what was once a single-story little house, one generation on each floor.

Outside each house, Jamal shows us pipes and pumps and explains that water is allocated to the camp by the Israeli government through these pipes and that once every three weeks the water is turned on, allowing each house to pump enough to fill the container on its roof. There is, Jamal tells us, enough for some cooking and a bath, one bath every three weeks. Jamal tells us that soon there will be a terrible uprising in this camp and that the issue here– and elsewhere– will be water. Water is needed for life itself, he explains. Of course, we agree. The settlements all around the camp, the Jewish settlements, receive fresh water allotments every day while the Palestinian refugees receive fresh water once every three weeks. We only want our human rights, he says plaintively.

It’s shocking when you first hear it but it is at this point that I start to wonder about Jamal’s narrative. I have just read an article about the water situation and it goes something like this. The Palestinian Authority receives, as does anyone in the country who does not draw his own water from a well, a bill for the water used each month by their territories. The P.A. has not paid their water bills for several years!  The water authority, as a humanitarian gesture, did not turn off the water as it would have done for any Israeli who failed to pay his bills. Instead they give away a livable ration of water. Then I notice that the joints that connect the water pipes to the pumps at each house are leaking terribly and water is running down the cobblestone streets to the foot of the hill. Why don’t these expert builders seal the joints and thereby save some of their precious water?  The settlements pay their bills on time and receive their water. The water the Palestinian refugees–fourth generation refugees–are spilling from their pumps and allowing to trickle down the hill is water they are getting for free.

Further, the second, third and fourth stories built over the residences Israel originally provided free of charge for the Palestinians are not there legally, they are undocumented and so are the second, third and fourth generations of families living in them. There is no accurate way to know how many people are supposed to be served by the water and so no way to know what would constitute a reasonable ration. It will be very interesting, I decide as we turn to leave, to see how this coming uprising presents itself to the world.

As we head back to the Jeep, Jamal points out that the streets in the camp are unpaved and dirty and there is no place for children to play. A child runs up to hug his legs and he explains that he comes each week and brings the children here little toys and candy and that we can help him by donating at his website. I turn my head and see a grassy, but garbage-strewn area with a rusty fence around it. I wonder why it has not been cleared to serve as a play area for the children; it is perhaps ten times the size of the play area used by the Jewish settlers in Hebron for their children’s play space.

In the near distance, Bethlehem rises white and huge on the hills. The Palestinians there are prospering or, at least, living reasonably well. Their brothers in the camp are free to move out to Bethlehem’s white apartment buildings at any time; they choose to live in the camp, reminding tourists and the general public, including international “observers,” of their terrible plight, the lack of play space for their children and the lack of water for their illegal residents. If the people in this camp cannot afford to pay for their water, why don’t their brothers in the surrounding city help them out?  The camp residents commute each day into Bethlehem and out to Ramallah to work; have they never considered moving out to better digs?

At the edge of the camp there is a limestone wall with an oddly-shaped entranceway, the shape of a keyhole. Over the entrance hangs a huge iron key. Jamal asks us to guess what this is about and the two Wharton students in our group offer that it symbolizes a way out of prison: Leave through this gate to the free or free-er world beyond.

No, it is not that at all. The key represents what every Palestinian in the camp–and many outside it– have in their homes: the keys to the homes from which they were expelled in the Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948. Another on our tour, a woman from the north of England, is visiting her husband who is “observing” for the Quakers. I remark to her that six million people I can think of were also dispossessed of their homes and never got to take their keys. A friend of mine tried to buy back the Berlin apartment from which her parents had to flee; she settled for one in a neighboring building. There are surely Tutsis and Hutus and Sarajevans and Armenians and Navajos and Mohicans and Tibetans who had to leave their houses. They decided to leave the keys for the invaders. They decided to start anew somewhere else, to give up on the place that had been theirs. This key story is part of a narrative of martyrdom, I tell this woman. I can’t forget the six million who no longer have hands in which to hold their keys.

“But that doesn’t make this right,” she says. “That doesn’t justify this.”

She is right. It doesn’t.

I wonder about something my philosophy professor, Raziel Abelson, said when we were discussing “explanation” in the study of history. Does giving an “explanation” of an historical occurrence thereby justify it? Is it true that to explain is to justify? I can explain why the Zionists drove the Palestinians from their homes to create “Palestinian-free” zones that grew ever larger, ever more sweeping. But does the explanation also justify ethnic cleansing which, as Ari Shavit is willing to put it, it certainly was? No, an explanation is not a justification because an explaining fact is not a moral judgment.

“MEANING” IS WHAT MAKES A SPACE A PLACE

The icon of the big iron key hangs over gas stations and from lampposts all along our route and at each point I feel only one thing: manipulation. For however wrong the expulsion of Palestinians was and is, the refusal to move forward is a refusal to grasp that history is full of misfortunes and that the victim of terrible misfortune can either make his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren victims, or he can shield his progeny from the disaster of the past and move them forward. Bethlehem is a promising big city in which the people who continue to dwell, waterless and parkless, in the “camp” could easily find good housing and ample water and in which their children could look to a future as children should have a right to do. But this is why I am on this tour; I volunteered to be manipulated. The rabbi who had settled in Hebron to make a stand for a Jewish presence near a few sacred Jewish sites was doing the exact same thing; he was my tour guide just two days earlier and had pleaded his own case—just as manipulative– from the other side of the Wall.

In fact, as I recalled the rabbi who showed me around Hebron’s Jewish settlement, I realized that he and Jamal were almost the same person. Neither one actually listened to any of the questions put to him because neither one intended to actually deliver answers. Each one had a prepared script and when confronted with a question each would latch onto a key word in the question and deliver the portion of the prepared script that contained that word. Both the Hebron rabbi and the Palestinian guide had a story of victimhood to deliver and would do so unperturbed; for each there were simply no questions either to ask or to answer.

And each had a personal tale of sacrifice he thought qualified him to be the “guide” on his respective tour. Jamal, like the rabbi who was sacrificing better care for his autistic son for a life he considered purposeful was on his own search for meaning. “We are not interested in a two-state solution,” our Palestinian guide said over and over. “We want peace the way things were before the Nakba, peace in which all the farmers lived side by side, each on his own land.” He is spending his days delivering this message because, like the Hebron rabbi, it furnishes his life with its sense of meaning.

I wanted to tell Jamal that if we go back to the way it was before, there would be no state, neither a Jewish one nor a Palestinian one, just a lot of people spreading themselves out into each other’s farms. We tried that.

Before we head to Nasrallah, Jamal warns us that our journey will be a very long one. Use the bathroom now. Many Palestinians , he tells us, must commute to work by traveling between these two cities daily. They could make the trip in twenty minutes by driving along the road that goes through Jerusalem, but cars with Palestinian license plates and Palestinians using public transportation are not permitted along that route. Instead, they must take the long way around Jerusalem on a badly rutted road with only a single lane in each direction. The road is being improved with US aid and, as it nears Nasrallah, it widens and smoothes. Still, there are checkpoints that take forever and points at which the road is just terrible.

As we drive along, Jamal points out the tiny Palestinian villages that are being surrounded, engulfed, it seems, by Israeli settlements. This is a surprise to me, the size of the settlements. There are banks and banks of identical apartment buildings, not the little encampments I had imagined. The settlements are full-sized cities, walled cities; the walls run right up to where the Palestinian homes are so that whatever views the Palestinians had from their homes looking out across the Judean desert landscape are blocked. It’s a powerful lesson, a shocking one.

On the way to Jerusalem to meet the tour, the driver had pointed out Modi’in, a city that was conceived and built as an entirety in recent years. It is an upscale commuter suburb that glistens white in the sun. It has everything a commuter town would want, including proximity to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The thing about Modi’in that we should know, said the driver, is that Modi’in was built to straddle the Green Line, it was designed to sit on both sides of the dividing line, a frontal incursion into the Palestinian side of the land. To encourage people to live on the riskier side of the line, the government subsidized the housing on that side. So while most of Modi’in houses upwardly mobile lawyers and business people, the side across the Green Line is inhabited entirely by the non-working ultra-Orthodox who live there on the dole.

As Jamal drives his Jeep toward Ramallah, we see several Bedouin camps. The Bedouins, Jamal would like us to think, are suffering from harassment and abuse just as the Palestinians in the territories are. We see their wives decked out in lots of gold jewelry along the roads, panhandling, it seems. We see the men and their animals sheltering under tin-roofed shanties as the rain drives down. It is a pitiable sight, everyone agrees.

But then I remember my trip into Jordan and our guide, a French literature graduate student at Aqaba University and, himself, a Bedouin, telling us about Bedouin life. The King of Jordan had built hundreds of houses for the Bedouins as gifts to get them to settle down and send their children to school. The Bedouins accepted the King’s gifts, knocked the windows out of the houses, and used the open buildings to shelter their camels and goats and sheep. The people continued to live outdoors under the stars, beneath canvas tenting open all around to the wind and cool air. So I ask Jamal about this and he says, somewhat abashed, that this is the case in Israel, too. The Bedouins do not want homes. Or water. Or food. Or clothing. Or schools and hospitals for their families. They just want to be left alone to let their animals graze in the desert as they have always done, and the Israelis are not permitting this.

Of course, in those good old days, no one owned the land and no one paid taxes. Bedouins just moved around letting their animals eat whatever was growing out of the desert rubble and along the floors of the wadis. But this is not then, it is now. The Bedouins have grievances but they are not the grievances of the Palestinians. The only thing the two groups seem to have in common is that they are both aggrieved.

Then, in response to a question about how the Beduoin survive economically, Jamal reveals that they are actually quite wealthy. A sheep or a goat is very valuable, very expensive. The cheese and milk and wool the Bedouins sell puts them in fine stead in the market places. They want for nothing. They want only for free land. Like in the old days, the days for which we continue to grieve.

On the other hand, it is true that the Bedouin we see along the road look very dirty and, well, not at all white and European. Their camels spit and they, too, you assume, probably spit as well. They lack Euro manners. They are not who you want for neighbors if you have just migrated from Germany or Austria or Hungary or even Bucharest. Even Jews who look like Bedouins are disrespected in Israel, I recall. Israel was not the promised land for all the Jewish people. The Zionist project was a European dream. White European Jews are the ones the Zionists had in mind when they dreamed of a Jewish state. If you are from Morocco or Tunis or Baghdad or Benghazi– if you are from, heaven forefend, Yemen or Ethiopia– you look too much like a Bedouin and you have traditions that involve tribal patriarchal practices and so you are a primitive, a brute, a neanderthal. It was unthinkable to the founders that such people would come to this land of milk and honey seeking refuge as Jews, just as now it is unthinkable that Israel should grant asylum under international rules to people from sub-Saharan Africa. What Palestinians and Bedouins share, Jamal wants us to know without spelling it out for us, is that they are both victims of Israeli racism. Point taken; he is absolutely correct in this regard. But I would like him to add that Israeli racism is not directed exclusively at non-Jews.

In our wanderings around Tel Aviv, where my husband and I spend most of our time on our annual winter sojourns, we have in the past noted the almost entirely white population. This year, I have been delighted to see how the complexion of Tel Aviv is beginning to change. Dark-skinned people are no longer confined to the marginal housing projects built for them at the outskirts of distant cities and in the desert. There are soldiers and schoolgirls and mothers with strollers all over Tel Aviv who are not white. I can only hope this continues because Israel’s claim to be a Middle Eastern country, not a remote branch of Frankfurt, depends on this.

Along the road to Ramallah, we stop at Yasir Arafat’s Tomb, a beautifully landscaped park with a marble portico; under the roof is a marble coffin with an inscription. Jamal translates the inscription: “….and who was murdered in….”

No, I say. Arafat was not murdered.

Yes, says Jamal, they opened the tomb and tested for poison in his body.

Yes, I agree, and they found no poison. Arafat died of natural causes in a hospital in Paris. That’s been confirmed. Isn’t it highly inflammatory to say–to engrave in marble–that he was murdered?

As we speak, a young family, dressed for “church” enters the sheltered area and begins to pray before the coffin. Respectful children, pious parents. A solemn hush.

Arafat was the best leader the Palestinians ever had, not like Abbas, Jamal tells us. His people need to see that he was a martyr.

But he was not murdered and he was not martyred. He was very sick and died.

But this tomb was carved before they did the testing, says Jamal.

Precisely, I say. So there was absolutely no reason at that time to call him a martyr. And there still isn’t. What are you trying to do here?

Jamal smiles. He is, once again, like the rabbi-settler in Hebron. There is no way to get through to either one and so there is probably no way to negotiate peace in this part of the world. A big conclusion to draw from such a tiny smidgeon of evidence, but still…..

As our Jeep enters Ramallah, squeezing its way through horrid traffic jams and halting every few feet, it is impossible not to notice the thousands of pane-less windows on all the new–and old–buildings rising about us. I asked about this same phenomenon when I traveled in Egypt, so I wondered if the same explanation held true here in Ramallah. The buildings look ghostly, creepy, with dark black holes gaping where curtains should be fluttering and air conditioners should be creaking. I told Jamal that in Egypt people build housing not only for themselves but for future generations so that a family can live together, one generation over the other as was done in the refugee camp. But in the camp, the upper floors were occupied. In Ramallah, as in Egypt, thousands of apartments remain empty, awaiting the marriage of a young son or daughter. We had been told in Egypt that taxes on an “unfinished” apartment were much lower than on a finished one so the owner/builder left the panes out of the windows, allowing the dust and elements to sweep into the apartment, until his son was married and ready to occupy it.

No, Jamal laughs. It is not about taxes; it is just that these apartments aren’t yet finished.

Well, but what remains to be done except put in the windows? The stores on some of the first floors have obviously been there for decades; they look old and worn and lived in. Why aren’t the upper floors finished yet?

Building takes time, says Jamal.

Thousands of unfinished apartments? No, I don’t believe that these are works in progress. They are, like the thousands of houses in Egypt, awaiting the marriages of the sons and daughters, real estate languishing while the kids grow up. Why cannot the brothers and sisters who are living rotten lives in the refugee camps come to Ramallah where they work, where they travel to in commutes that take 90 minutes each way–why can they not occupy these languishing apartments? Why can’t they rent apartments here in all these “unfinished” buildings?

Jamal laughs at me. Don’t I understand that a Palestinian would not want to live in a house with anyone but his own parents? Besides, the refugees have homes. They even have the keys to those homes. Never mind that hotels and luxury condos and factories and schools were long ago built on those very spots. Again, I am speaking to the Hebron rabbi.

After a march through the souk of Ramallah, Jamal treats us to a great Palestinian pastry, Kenefa, a baked cheese dripping with honey and topped with ground nuts. It’s delicious. Then he drops us at a checkpoint because he cannot accompany us through it. I show my passport, board a bus and return to the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem where I find a sherut to Tel Aviv. When I get home, I will learn on the TV that I have passed through the very checkpoint where the women of Ramallah chose to celebrate Women’s Day by casting aside their femininity in favor of a traditional male activity: They have assembled during the day at the checkpoint to hurl stones. I went through that point a bit late and so missed the celebration of Women’s Day.

What was most appalling to me on the day’s tour was the extent of the settlements around Jerusalem, the way the wall separating the Palestinian neighborhoods from the Jewish settlements ran right up against the Palestinian homes, forming what could only seem like a prison to those it enclosed. The wall does not merely “separate,” it isolates, leaving virtually no room for the Palestinian neighborhoods to expand, no breathing space. And the settlements are much larger than I’d imagined; they cut into the land forming a sort of Swiss cheese pattern: No contiguous nation could possibly be drawn in such a situation, not even by the great gerrymanderers who carve up voting districts in American cities and states.

There is much that is soap opera and much that is just plain false in the Palestinian tour guide’s narrative, and there is much energy turned to perpetuating martyrdom that could be turned to better ends. But the ineradicable fact is on the side of the Palestinians: This was their land and they were mercilessly and brutally expelled; these few remaining “refugee” reminders are staying put to make sure we don’t forget.

A “NARRATIVE” IS WHAT GIVES A SPACE ITS MEANING, WHAT MAKES IT A PLACE

The real meaning of the Palestinian refusal to “recognize Israel as a Jewish state” is not about anti-Semitism or about the Palestinians wanting Israel to recognize all religions equally within its border. Those are related issues, but the way the issue is best put is this: The Palestinians have lost their farms and homes, property that was theirs for centuries, in the same family, generations living side by side or on top of one another for uncountable generations. They acknowledge that they cannot get those farms back as they have been turned into luxury condos and industrial parks and universities. What they want is the right to control the narrative!

What the Palestinians will lose by “recognizing Israel as a Jewish state” is the narrative that begins, “This was once our land and it was taken from us by force.” If they are going to move over into land that was not theirs and accept it in exchange for “peace,” they want history to officially note that they did so under protest, that the land that is now called Israel was wrongly taken from them. And it was!!! To ignore the Palestinian narrative is to lie.

The Narrative, say the Palestinians, should read: This was our land and was taken against our wills, and we forgave and gave up our land in exchange for peace and for…..whatever it is they accept in exchange, fill in the blanks.

Israel is on the wrong side of this issue and they should take John Kerry’s advice and drop it. Negotiate borders and jurisdictions and things that are concrete, space that you can put your feet on and build houses on. And let go of The Narrative. Israel must let go of this because the Palestinians really do own it. How can Kerry persuade Netanyahu of this when so many in Israel refuse to acknowledge that the narrative does, in fact, belong to the Palestinians?

THE NARRATIVE OF THE TORAH

The only way Israel can be understood to own The Narrative is if you bring in the testimony of the Old Testament and write into Israel’s official history that this land was “promised by God” to the Jews.

But the Jews came here, if you want to incorporate the Old Testament into the historical document, when other people were already here, and they took the land by force. That is the only narrative the Jews can possibly own. Israel really should let this one go.

What is the Torah, the narrative on which some Jews want to hang their argument? It is a story, some of it myth–origins stories like the ones about Adam and Eve and Noah–and some that purports to be historical narrative, the history of the Jewish people becoming the Jewish people. And in this historical narrative the Jews were always in search of land, they were always the people who had no land but had to fight to take some land that belonged to others. That, in a nutshell, is The Narrative of the Torah.

According to Exodus, the Jews tricked Pharoah into letting them leave Egypt to worship their god in a distant location and, on their way out of Egypt, they took as much silverware from their oppressors as they could carry. In the wilderness, they traded with caravanseries along the Silk Route until, after forty years, they had become a mature–FREE-people, a more unified and grown-up group that could wage war successfully and try to live under a set of simple laws.

Well, of course, they weren’t just waiting in the wilderness to mature like fruit on a tree. They were wandering around making war, conquering this tribe and that, taking their losses, correcting their strategies, learning how to become a fierce warrior tribe. When they finally came to a point at the Jordan where they could see across to the land they had been promised, God warned them not to assimilate, not to be seduced by the temptations of milk and honey and dancing girls and false idols. And then they marched into the promised land and took it by force. And that is the end of The Narrative supplied by the Torah.

Was it their land? Was it empty space like the upper floors of Palestinian apartment buildings, just waiting for occupants or occupiers? No! There were people there. They settled down as the first Zionist settlers would do millenia later: They squatted on land that had no title because titles had not yet been invented. But just to be sure there was some legitimate claim to at least some of the land, some recorded document to back up their claim and show they had really been there, Abraham purchased a bit of land, in Hebron, in which to bury his first wife and his family. And he paid in silver shekels, insisted on paying over the owner’s objection, and made a big deal about paying because he wanted a record made of the deal.

And lo, a record was made of the deal, which is why the “Tomb of the Ancestors” in Hebron is said to belong to the Jews even though it is controlled by the Palestinians who have been there forever and ever. Ownership without any control is a meaningless, of course. But that is The Narrative. When you want to make a big deal about The Narrative, that is what you might get: Ownership without control. Kerry is trying to tell Bibi to explain to his people that narratives are not the real bagel in this game.

Now, I happen to think that it is sheer folly to try to rely on the Torah for your claim to land, any land. Wingnuts like the Haredi might be expected to do this but even the Haredi are not interested in narratives. They don’t give a damn–er, a darn–about land. Israel can disappear for all they care. Their entire passion, the object of all their devotion, is keeping Judaism alive, the Judaism that they know and practice. All that matters is their style of living and praying and keeping their children so close that they can’t see the rest of the world and be tempted by it. They can do this in Lithuania or in America,as the Lithuanian rebbe keeps reminding everyone . They don’t need this particular piece of land. In some respects, this is a very enlightened view of things.

THE NON-TORAH NARRATIVE: A TALE TOLD BY ARCHEOLOGY

The Torah, as I view it, is a story, a narrative which, if you read it with a cool eye, is a story of war upon war, a story of conquest after conquest, a bloody tale of a group of people forging on toward what was, at the time, one of the dandiest pieces of real estate in the region. Fertile valleys, abundant rivers and lakes, cool forests, and a length of seacoast on the promising Mediterranean. The filet of the neighborhood. What is really striking in this narrative is that, wherever they go, these wandering Jews are the only people in The Narrative who have no land of their own!!! (Of course, there must have been Bedouins grazing their flocks but they aren’t in the Torah narrative. ) All the folks the Jews meet up with and do battle with in The Narrative have lands that are their lands. Each of the other groups–Moabites, Sodomites and whomever– all have a land and gods that live right there in that land—on that very spot– and protect it and its citizens.

 

But not the Jews. They have no land. They are always looking around for a land. That is why they made their god a god that does not occupy space, a god of all spaces and places, and of none. The god of the Jews does not dwell in any one place; He is everywhere and nowhere. (See, e.g., Burning Bush, Pillar of Smoke. But see, most importantly, the Second Commandment which says the God of the Jews is not something physical that can be represented by an idol, not something you can imagine with images drawn from empirical experience.) The God of the Jews is a portable god because the Jews, themselves, have no permanent home.

Yahweh, unlike other gods in the neighborhood at the time, is not a physical object, not something that can sit on a throne in a temple. And this is because the Jews are, almost by definition, homeless. The Jews are homeless and so is their god.

The happy ending in Deuteronomy is that the Jews who are homeless throughout the story finally land in a place where they can make a home. But it is someone else’s land. It belongs to people whose gods occupy space, have places to be, have homes that are theirs.

The fact that the Jews conceived their god as placeless and space-less makes sense because they knew they would be traveling around; they were traveling when they decided on this characteristic of their god. People without a land need a god that doesn’t occupy space, that doesn’t need a particular and specific place. Their concept of the divine is an advance over previous notions; it is a sophisticated metaphysical idea, the idea of something non-physical. The Second Commandment which ascribes spacelessness to the Jewish God, is a commandment that says you will never find Me in any space or place; you can only find me through faith. The Second Commandment invents the modern notion of faith. It does so by leaving its god space-less, place-less, homeless.

And here is where I have to relate The Narrative as it was told one evening on the History Channel when I chanced upon a documentary about recent archeological finds and theories that are being built on them. The digs reveal that the “Israelites” were not a single group of people who “left Egypt.” Rather, says this new narrative, there was a time throughout Mesopotamia, around the time of the Exodus story, when climatic crises produced serious economic crises throughout the entire region. Monarchies all over the region started to lose power and crumble. Things got so chaotic in many areas that the oppressed minorities were able to escape their miserable conditions by fleeing into the desert. They came into the desert from many directions. (This account explains the Twelve Tribes story and certainly explains the emphatic quest for freedom and equality we find in the Jewish narrative.)

The real “find” archeologically, said this History Channel documentary, was a place in the Sinai where, they believe, people escaping from many directions met up and settled together for awhile. They were drawn together by their common cause, and pooled resources. To organize their large group, they drew up a governing set of basic laws.

On this spot, in this now-documented ancient village, there was a local god which was called by its people, Yahweh. Carvings on stones have shown this very name. The TV documentary speculates that the assembled group, as part of their organizing into a single “people,” realized that unification required that they take for themselves a god, and they chose this local god. The documentary goes on to describe the characteristics of the early Yahweh cult that was there when the twelve tribes assembled in the desert–a single god of everything, an invisible god, etc, etc.

 

So, if you like this narrative, you have a large group of people–twelve big tribes with all their entourage–and all the booty they’ve taken along when they ran out on their oppressive local tyrants, who meet up and bargain among themselves, dividing up power and control, and they take a god for themselves, a portable one because they plan to keep moving on–and they make some laws to keep order among themselves, and they make up a couple of origin myths which is what people do when they need to unify into a single entity–think the George Washington cherry tree myth.

They relate to their children that they are all brothers, all descended from a single line of ancestors–Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—so that the twelve tribes are really the families of twelve brothers, all one big family. They tell their children that there is a better land and a better life in the future, a land that will belong to them so that they won’t have to keep moving around in the wilderness forever.

And the kids, being kids, demand to know how their parents know that this land they’re fighting to get to is going to turn out to belong to them. And the parents say, “Well, Virginia, Yahweh promised us that it would be ours.”

The people of Yahweh were, from the start, people who would always have to take their land by force and fight for it and ethnically cleanse it.  It was always part of  The Narrative that Yahweh’s people would have to keep on fighting for land throughout all time because they started out as a little group of runaways in the desert, people who, from the inception, were placeless, who would always be at war about land.

So, whatever your narrative, whether you put the Torah in evidence as testimony that Israel is the land of the Jews, or whether you look to archeological accounts, you come out with the same narrative: The Jews are people who never owned the land–except for what they purchased from others.

Well, you say, way back then, no one owned anything in the sense of provable title.  Of course, this is true. There was always a different way, way back then, of determining who owned the land. The land belonged to whomever worked it. Whoever dug it and planted it and pulled up its stones and built fences around it; whoever was able to defend it, owned it. Owned it for as long as they could hold it free of incursion by others. Might makes right. If you possess it, it is yours. Possession is said to be nine-tenths of property law but, in the absence of other codified law, it is everything. The Land of Israel belonged to whomever was on it and that is why the people of Israel were always at war.

And that is why Ben Gurion wanted to be sure that when the music stopped, the Jews were sitting on as many chairs as they could possibly sit on. And that is why the settlers want to keep pushing their wall closer and closer to where the Palestinians are actually sitting and taking up space, because when the music stops, whoever is in this chair and whoever is in that chair, will have the better claims to those chairs. The problem for Israel today is that we no longer play by that rule. Nowadays, a court may look beyond mere possession. And that’s where The Narrative comes in. And, as I’ve argued, the Palestinians own The Narrative.

Which is why Israel has the bomb.

So Kerry is right. Israel should stop raising a stink about the recognition issue. It is, at base, a Narrative Issue, and that issue belongs to the Palestinians.

OCCUPATION IN THE DIGITAL AGE

Just an aside: I have to wonder– and you should too– about the timing of this fierce battle for space, in a particular, Euclidean/Newtonian space.

We are living in an age, partly created by the Israelis themselves, when millions of people can gather in the exact same “space” at the exact same time. You, and hopefully thousands of other people, are at this very moment “visiting” my “site.” You are meeting up with people on Facebook who are all chatting in the same “room” or space at the same time.

What, exactly, is space these days? Billions of dollars of business takes place in virtual space. Amazon stores its goods in warehouses but conducts all its business in virtual space. A business meeting of forty people can occur in space that no one can locate on a map. The important things in life are, more and more, taking “place” in “places” that no one can put a finger on. We are more and more becoming a spiritual, rather than a physical, people. We exist less and less on an Israeli map, or on an Arab map, or on a paper map. YIKES!

So why all this bloodshed about space? All you really need is a place to sleep, a fridge (for now) and a seat at Starbucks. And surely, there is enough space in the Middle East for everyone to have that.

BUT IT IS ABOUT MEANING, STUPID!

The rabbi tour guide in Hebron and Jamal, the Palestinian guide, each cared little about facts. What they cared for passionately, seemed ready to die for, was a sense of meaning. The quest to own The Narrative is about “meaning.”

Jewish Israel is divided within itself. Not that this is anything recent; the two Jews remaining in Kabul when US forces landed there had not spoken to each other for decades.

The rifts separating the Jewish citizenry run very deep because they are about meaning. What will make your life a meaningful one, what is worth dying for, what explains your willingness to come to and remain in a dangerous and–all progress notwithstanding–very difficult country? Life in the Hebron settlement is raw and dangerous and brutally impoverished. Life in the Palestinian refugee camps is awful. Life in Tel Aviv, although deemed luxurious, is not so pleasant that either my husband or I would consider making this our permanent home. People remain in Israel by choice, and to stick with that choice requires powerful motivation, a commitment based on what makes a life meaningful.

The point is, as Carlo Strenger recently pointed out in an excellent op ed in Ha’aretz, that what gives one Israeli meaning is not what another deems a good reason to live and act. Strenger sees three distinct purposes driving all of Israeli politics now, three directions Israelis have set for themselves, three meanings they have each set their hearts upon. And these purposes are at odds with one another.

One group, the Haredi, live and die to keep alive the brand of Judaism they brought with them from Europe. They care little where they practice their beliefs so long as they are protected in their practice. They believe they alone can keep Judaism alive for future generations because the liberal, secular, Enlightenment Jews have forsaken the cause utterly. They are at war with secularism, liberalism and the values of the Enlightenment on which Zionist Israel was founded.

A second group, remembering the uniting principles of the tribes who met up in the desert–or, at least, remembering the Enlightenment principles on which Zionism was founded–value equality and liberty over everything else. This is the Israeli secular left, the people who are embarrassed by Israeli practices that deprive minority populations of their natural rights, and equally embarrassed by Haredi practices that deny all non-Haredi their rights. They are at war with the Haredi who, by refusing to work, pay taxes and join the army, exempt themselves from equal treatment with their fellow Israelis. These people are prepared, says Strenger, to go to war for their Enlightenment principles of liberty and equality.

The third group, as Strenger sees it, is more difficult to define. These people he calls the Romantics. They are Modern Orthodox or Religious Zionists, people who believe that the entire purpose of their own lives and the lives of Israelis generally must be to ensure that the “land” remains “Jewish.” They are Sabbath-keepers and kosher keepers but not ultra-Orthodox. They hate the ultra-Orthodox for not caring about the land. The connection between the Jews and “their land” is, for the Romantics, their whole raison d’etre. They would go to war to keep the land Jewish.

This is a very nice summary of the Israeli situation as it now stands, and it demonstrates that, with so many peoples’ lives deriving their meaning from such incompatible ends, peace among Israelis themselves is not likely. As one American Israeli told me at a kiddush in Tel Aviv a few years ago, “If it were not for the Palestinian diversion, the Jews would start to kill one another.”

If Kerry can persuade Netanyahu to give up the “recognition” issue which is really a “narrative” issue, then perhaps there can be peace with the Palestinians. And then Israeli Jews can try to figure out how to make peace with one another.

 

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SECOND LETTER FROM TEL AVIV–HOPE AND HORROR IN HEBRON

This is my second posting from our 2014 sojourn in Tel Aviv. If you have not yet read the first posting, scroll to the bottom and find it there.

As mentioned earlier, this year’s trip has been dedicated to the outliers–desert dwellers, Jewish occupiers/residents of conflicted areas, and Palestinians in the West Bank, certainly another conflicted area. I decided to visit these areas because I really don’t know where to come down on the question of putting pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and find a two-state solution. I have, as many of you know, sometimes felt that it would be better to keep one state and compromise a bit on the “democracy” end, letting Israel become, like so many states around it, a “tribal” state where only members of the tribe whose land this is claimed to be can vote. I have taken this view because I don’t think Israel, given its history and circumstances, should make a fuss about being totally democratic: The United States is, at this moment, feverishly engaged in depriving citizens of the right to vote for far less serious flaws than not being members of the tribe who claim the land as solely and exclusively theirs. Germany has made the Turks into second-class citizens, depriving fourth generation, German-born Turkish people limited passport rights, and Germany is considered the model European democracy. Democracy is not all it’s cooked up to be and Israel could solve its “existential ” problem by limiting the voting right to those who agree to serve the country, either in the army or in civil service. This would, as I have often pointed out, solve two problems at once as it would deprive both committed fundamentalists who are Haredi and those who are Muslim of a say in Israeli politics. An excellent outcome. The same result, as I have often said, could be achieved by requiring a tenth grade SECULAR education as a condition of voting. There are excellent moral rationales for both approaches. All this by way of saying that I am not sure a two state solution is the only reasonable course forward for Israel, as Kerry assumes.

That said, I still want to know more about the “territories” before taking a stand on the West Bank, and it was toward that end that I signed us up for a tour of Hebron. We first heard about this tour on ShalomTV, a television station owned by a New Jersey rabbi, Mark Golub, who stars in virtually every program, interviewing guests on all sides of the every issue. He also broadcasts Friday night services from NYC, runs tapes of important diplomatic and political conferences in Israel and in the US, and plays Isreali and Jewish-themed movies. He also, himself, gives Hebrew lessons each day on his channel. One night, he was interviewing a leader of the Hebron Fund organization and we caught the end of the program and it inspired us to seek out their tour. And so, yesterday morning we caught a cab to the Central Tel Aviv bus station, boarded a sherut to Jerusalem, took another cab to the David Citadel Hotel and boarded the tour bus headed for Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and then to Hebron.

The guide, Sarah, a Hebron Fund promoter, was a sweet young woman who had a dedicated message and similarly dedicated vision. The road from Jerusalem to
Bethlehem, she told us, was an ancient one, walked by our blessed ancestors. Now, no Jews can enter Bethlehem, except to worship at the tomb of Rachel. How terrible, as Rachel was a sympathetic sister, mother, wife and woman for all seasons.

There was no mention of the many conflicts that have erupted at this tomb. And no mention of the fact that on tour with any number of other tour groups–Christian, Green Olive, Israeli–anyone can tour the tomb site and anyone can enter Bethlehem and move around freely there.

When we arrived at the tomb site, Sarah simply did not see the barbed wire surrounding it on all sides, the military watch towers guarding it, the wall, wall, wall, erected all around it.

“We are prevented from entering our ancient land,” she told us, “but we do not see this as an obstacle.” We do not see this at all, in fact, if we are Sarah and the people whose vision she is directing. I wanted to know about the wall and talk to her about it because Rachel is acknowledged by the Muslims as their ancestor as well, and I had to wonder why the Jews would think the Muslims would deface her tomb. But trust is in very scarce supply in this region.

As you can see from the photos below, the “tomb” itself is a horror of icy, militarily- patrolled, Nazi-style architecture. Hardly what you would imagine as the tour guide, Sarah, rolled on melifluously about our dear sister and mother, our belooved wife deprived of burial with her husband and sister because she suffered the unreasonable fate of having to be second wife to her own less-loved sister, Leah. Dear sweet Rachel who died in childbirth and could never give her beloved husband as many sons as Leah, this sweet and adored woman, mother, wife, sister, oh! how sweet and feminine. And this, is where we come every day to pray for her.

Oh, dear. Every day? Every day? Yes, this is how we show the Israeli Knesset and the Arabs that this is a holy site to us, not something that can ever be subject to exchange in a peace deal with the Arabs.

A note here about “Arabs:”Never in the course of the day of touring with two different guides were the residents of either Bethlehem or Hebron referred to as Palestinians. Well, of course, there is no Palestine, so there can be no Palestinians. They are Arabs and must go to Arab countries to live. Let us use language to create a different reality.

 

My menotr, Ed Casey, informs me that Bechtel, the company that built the wall between the U.S. and Mexico, has built the walls that keep the Palestinian areas separate from the Jewish areas. Nice company! Good fences make good neighbors. Right.

My mentor, Ed Casey, informs me that Bechtel, the company that built the wall between the U.S. and Mexico, has built the walls that keep the Palestinian areas separate from the Jewish areas. Nice company! Good fences make good neighbors. Right.

Does this place feel like Auschwitz to you?

Entrance to the tomb of Rachel: Sweet mother, sister, wife, our matriarch

The Palestinian city of Bethlehem is right at the edge, indentifiable by Black water catchers on the roofs. The Jews use White water catchers on their buildings all through Israel. Spy versus spy.

The Palestinian city of Bethlehem is right at the edge, indentifiable by Black water catch pots on the roofs. The Jews use White water catchers on their buildings all through Israel. Spy versus spy.

From Rachel’s Tomb, we were happy to board the bus and get out of Bethlehem, heading to Hebron. Hebron, although 97% Palestinian, is open to anyone so you don’t need to be with an approved tour. We were driven up a rocky hill to a tiny cluster of hovels–and one newish small apartment building– at the top. The rocky landscape led Jack to remark that it is no wonder that all punishments in the Torah are by stoning. It’s also why the Palestinians revert to stoning so often. Everywhere you move, there are rocks and more rocks. More about this later.

We are told that there are only 70 Jewish families in Hebron and this is a lot given how the Israeli knesset controlled the population of Jews there. A small contingent was given 48 hours to build as many residences as they could and then they had to stop. Whatever they could build in that time could be occupied by Jews. They got cranes to lift what were essentially shipping containers onto the hilltop and made these into “homes.” One home was occupied by the son of the famous Rav Kook who studied and wrote there. One night, terrorists stabbed him to death. The P.M. came and offered his widow a check as compensation. She tore it up and said the compensation should be the goevernment allowing more Jews to settle in Hebron. The government eventually allowed the construction of a small apartment building that appears to house six or eight families, one unit of which is occupied by the widow. The Jews insisted on building the building themselves, something Jews don’t really know how to do, so the project took forever. They did not trust the Palestinians who are skilled construction workers to go near the site. (Same is true about the rehabilitated Sephardic synagogue, see below.) In erecting the building, the builders uncovered ruins of the original walls of Hebron and a worn staircase which are now exposed to public view and have been dated more than 4000 years ago. So, we are told, Abraham lived and walked here. However, he never carved his initials in the walls so we doubters have to remain doubtful.

The living conditions, which other tour people told us were much improved since their last visit last year, are deplorable. A tiny green astroturf rug sits under a tiny playground set which serves the “nursery school.” The updated shipping containers now have orange-colored paint jobs but look appalling. So why does the rabbi, our guide, live here?

He wants the Knesset to know that Jews are intent on protecting the second most holy city in Israel even if they, the K.M.’s ,are not. He wants more donations from around the world to keep the Jews of Hebron going. He is asked what the Jews of Hebron do for a living. He looks down and smiles and says he will tell us about that later in his spiel.

To change the subject, he points beyond to the very impressively developed and beautifully built city of Hebron and says, “Look what they’ve done! They have built all that!’

I am impressed , but that is not his point.

“They have gotten money from Eastern Europe to build that city. Just look at what they have done!”His face is twisted in dismay.

Again, I am very impressed. And I am happy to see the Palestinians taking their fate into their own hands instead of moping around for generations in refugee camps, breeding hatred. I am happy to know they are now breeding self esteem. I have to believe that you can only bargain and strike compromises with people who are on their feet, not sniveling on their knees or bellies at your feet. I am happy to see Hebron rise up like Tel Aviv and know that the Palestinians who live there are not wondering, as those in Tel Aviv must wonder, “Why couldn’t we think of doing that?” They are doing that, and good for them. They will have a lovely city when they finally get a state. How can the rabbi be so scornful? This is the best hope for peace in the conflicted areas.

Next, we travel up to another tel, a hilltop, to the Tomb of Ruth and other Davidic relatives. It is what we would call in Yiddish, a “shonda.” A scandal or shame. It is the pride of the rabbi that it has been “preserved.” Money was donated to repair and maintain it. I notice a little fireplace in the wall of the tomb and I ask if this was once used for sacrifices. No, says the rabbi, it was recently built by the fund. People light candles there and say prayers. And then they donate money to the Fund. The Hebron Fund. They have an office n Brooklyn, in case you are so impressed with their work that you would like to donate.

On a rubble-strew tel, the tombs of Ruth and others in the Davidic line are preserved and maintained by the Jews, just 70 families who live in Hebron.

On a rubble-strewn tel, the tombs of Ruth and others in the Davidic line are preserved and maintained by the Jews, just 70 families who live in Hebron.

The hills of Hebron, Dirty but impressive nonetheless

View of Hebron from the rubble at Ruth’s Tomb.

At the Tomb of Ruth et al

At the Tomb of Ruth et al

As we stand before Ruth’s tomb the rabbi glances at his watch and then urges us to accompany him in singing a little something He begins to sing the triumphal march, Esai Aynu. On cue, the muezzins all over the city of Hebron begin the call to noontime prayer. The rabbi raises his voice and urges louder singing. He wants to drown out the prayer call. The loudspeaker comes on at the tower nearest to us and calls out insistently. The rabbi raises his voice still louder, but he is going to lose the contest. All of us are going to lose. There are dozens of Islam prayer calls going out from high towers with several loudspeakers on them. Hebron is a Palestinian city. Anyone with eyes could see that and now anyone with ears can hear that.

There was a terrorist attack in Hebron from the hill where the Jews maintained a coffee bar to nourish the troops stationed there to protect them. The dents in the urn are from the terrorist's bullets before he was taken out by a soldier. The coffee served there was Nescafe which, in Hebrew, means Miracle Coffee. It is believed the urn saved the life of the coffee server who was in the building behind it.

There was a terrorist attack in Hebron from the hill where the Jews maintained a coffee bar to nourish the troops stationed there to protect them. The dents in the urn are from the terrorist’s bullets before he was taken out by a soldier. The coffee served there was Nescafe which, in Hebrew, means Miracle Coffee. It is believed the urn saved the life of the coffee server who was in the building behind it. Nes cafe, get it?

 

The resotred sephardic synagogue, mostly a nice facade with a room or two behind it.

The restored sephardic synagogue, mostly a nice facade with a room or two behind it.

Our rabbi guide telling us that the place closed when only nine people showed up for Yom Kippur services and a "mystery" visitor appeared just in time for the Barchu.

Our rabbi guide telling us that the place closed when only nine people showed up for Yom Kippur services and a “mystery” visitor appeared just in time for the Barchu.

Torah scrolls in the restored Sephardic synagogue, just a little room behind a big, impressive facade, where our guide serves as rabbi.

Torah scrolls in the restored Sephardic synagogue, just a little room behind a big, impressive facade, where our guide serves as rabbi.

At the synagogue, the rabbi/guide took questions. He seemed terribly annoyed when I raised my hand to ask one. I don’t think he liked hearing from a woman, especially one who was not being demure. I repeated a question a man had asked earlier: What do you residents of this little settlement do for aliving? I see no farms , no shops, no offices. I see that the shops on the only street that is actually closed to Palestinians are shuttered. What sustains you?

Again he looks down. Again, this is the wrong time to ask. It is the wrong time to ask because the answer is that they are all supported by donations to the Fund. What they mostly “do” for a living is “exist.” They put their bodies in a difficult space and for that others are supposed to support them. They are not even doing missionary work as Christians do who asked alms for their difficult work in difficult terrains. They are occupiers, countermanding the policy of their own Knesset in this case,  and for that they should be paid. They are “guarding” the second most holy city in Israel.

There is a street of shops which we saw on Shalom TV which is the only area in Hebron sealed off and militarily protected from Arabs. Why are these shops all shuttered and closed? Could you not make a living operating them? And where do you and your families shop? And see doctors? And conduct business? Where is your “downtown?” Even in Mizpe Ramon, there was a tiny “downtown.”

The answers are terrible. To my ears, anyway. The shops are closed because they belong to Arabs who abandoned them. But they were invited back by the Jews who wanted to have a place to shop. But the Arabs went on to greener pastures and the Knesset now forbids the Jews from operating the shops, again, because, the rabbi says, the Knesset will probably give in to “Obama and Kerry” and force the Jews to give Hebron back in tis entirety to the people who lived there for millenia. They don’t want to have to destroy Jewish businesses. Oh.

So, where do you shop, etc?

We travel many miles to Kiryat Arba and other places. One of us is a doctor with a lucrative practice an hour and a half from here so he goes there every day. A few of us work for the Fund–and pay ourselves from it, presumably– and two of us are accountants who work at home. He is trying not to tell us about how they are mostly sustained by donations because that is for the end of the tour when he will make his pitch. But everyone wants to know, can’t help wondering.

The rabbi tells us he has an autistic son. Severely handicapped. He took the boy to see many rabbis…..Rabbis? This is a man educated and raised in New York, moved to Hebron from Staten Island. He takes his suffering son to rabbis? I wonder to myself if he is serving his God better by rabbi-ing in Hebron to seventy families, or if he would be doing God’s work better by being a caring father to a child who has only him to look to for care. Clearly, this is not about being a father; it is not about having a sick son. It is about “meaning.” This man is sorely in need of “meaning.” He can only give his life “meaning” by living in a dump on a hill in a blossoming Palestinian town that will undoubtedly revert to full Palestinian control very very soon.

The game of spreading your body out as far as it will reach in the hope that, when the music stops, you will be the one sitting on the chair and so will “win” control of the chair, is about to end. The whole game is getting very intense. You have to sit on as many chairs as you possibly can. This is the “meaning” of life. Not your pained and suffering child. I don’t get it, but then, my “meanings” lie elsewhere.

As we head down the hill toward lunch we see lots of little Palestinian children coming home from school. The rabbi remarks that a big problem here is that the school day is too short. The kids get bored and amuse themselves by throwing rocks. I ask him why the school day is so short. I think he will say they are short of funds. But what he says is awful:

“Why is it short? Well, they study rock-throwing for one hour and bomb-making for one hour and then they read Koran for one hour. After fourth grade, they learn math for one hour. There is nothing else for them to learn.”

Thank you, rabbi. That is enlightening for sure.

At lunch, we are handed donation cards. I give the minimum. I think this project is doomed and the money is better spent elsewhere. But then, of course, I have a problem with tombs. I’d rather support life, and I don’t think the life of the Jewish people in Israel is about bones, however ancient they may be.

I don’t think faith of any sort should depend on material objects because…that is what FAITH is. The enitre point of the second commandment, as I read it, is that faith is a decision you make to lead your life in a particular way REGARDLESS OF THE LACK OF EVIDENCE. That is why no graven images could possibly suffice to depict God. If you need to see the bones of the ancestors to believe the story of Abraham or the story of Rachel, or–more important–to find a way to integrate those narratives into your life–you are not moved by faith but by scientific evidence…and that is not religious faith!! So the significance of the tombs does not reach me as this tour wants it to.

I ask another question of the rabbi while all the visitors are listening and he sneers and suggests that I must be a leftist. I say I took this tour because Rabbi Golub on Shalom TV urged us to. He says he doesn’t know any such person but that person is obviously a leftist. He knows all the rabbis who have access to the Hebron Fund and he never heard of Rabbi Golub.

The question I asked is this: Why, when in the thirties and forties , so much Palestinian territory was being cleared for the Jewish state to become a continuous strip of land, was not Hebron, which you rightly say is the second holiest city of Israel, not cleared as well?

I have been reading Ari Shavit who calls this activity of “clearing out” Arab populations, ethnic cleansing and expulsion but I am not using these inflammatory words. The historical fact–Shavit has thousands of documents to substantiate this–is that there was a quiet program of cleansing carried out through intimidation and massacres in the Galilee, the areas around Rehovot–most scandalously in Lydda where thousands were marched in a column out of the city after a massacre of others in a mosque. This horrific activity was decided upon because the Zionists knew there could never be a state with Jews scattered in random villages and cities around Israel; they needed a continuous Jewish stretch of land and eradicated Arabs, no matter how friendly, wherever they were in the way.

But I do not raise any of this. I ask simply why Israel did not give more attention to this very sacred place before the Palestinians went in search of foreign money to build a great city there. After all, it is not far-flung from the centers of Israel; it is near theancient road linking Bethlehem to Jerusalem. It was the first town settled by the Jews on arriving in the promised land. It was the place where Abraham insisted on buying for four hundred silver shekels actual land to bury his family. The first Jewish-held land. Why didn’t the government long ago–or the Zionist settlers even earlier–see the value of this land to the Jewish state and “clear” it of Arabs?

The rabbi’s answer speaks volumes to someone who is listening with my ears:

He says: This is very difficult land. It is difficult to farm here or raise cattle here. It is hard to build on. It was a malaria nest for decades. No one who came to Israel really wanted to live here.

Oh, boy!! This is what I have been waiting to hear, because I have been asking a pesky question all year and this is part of the whole picture that is forming for me.

The rabbi could have said what someone from the Hartman Institute recently said when asked an embarrassing question in a panel discussion aired on Shalom TV: He could have said something blushingly true: “Israel is a country that was thrown together in a big hurry and many mistakes were made.” That would have explained the neglect of Hebron.

Or, he could have said what I knew he wouldn’t say, that  bones are not really significant to the present-day overwhelming concerns of Israel. The Galilee was needed as the breadbasket of the new state, and Lydda was strategically located near the new airport. But Hebron, with its tombs and bones, was not a living value. But he couldn’t say that about what was giving his own life so much “meaning.”

Here’s what I would say: Rabbi, I am so happy to hear you say that Israelis abandoned Hebron because they could not live here. Palestinians, as anyone can see, have no trouble living here. It is hot as blazes and rocky and tough terrain, but Middle Eastern peoples who are lithe and small-boned and dark-skinned thrive in these places. The Jews drained the swamps in the north to get rid of malaria there so they could turn the land into farms. Malaria is just a single problem and the Jews knew how to solve it. The Jews who came to Zionist Israel and those who came to the State, did not care to settle in Hebron because they were not, and still are not, Middle Eastern People who know how to thrive in this climate and on this terrain. They are large-boned, fair-skinned Europeans. This is not their climate and not their terrain. For Middle Eastern people, Hebron is a place like almost all their other places, and they live and thrive here happily as anyone looking out onto the city on the hills can easily see.

There is a very old notion that land belongs to the one who inhabits and works it. And that is just why the rabbi and his 70 families are trying to survive in Hebron. But they really can’t do that very well. They can’t farm or herd goats as the Palestinians do; hell, they can’t even build their own houses out of the rocks there as the natives do. This is because they don’t really belong there; they are Europeans–and Staten Islanders–not Middle Eastern peoples.

Nobody wants to talk about this. The rabbi laughs at himself when he says how hard it was for the Jews to rehabilitate the synagogue, forgoing Arab help. Jews don’t do this very well, he says. Why is this such a terrible subject to broach?

If the Jews are no longer a Middle Eastern people–big boned Aryans with fair skins and blonde hair–then their “Return”  to their “homeland” is a sham. The idea that the Jews are THE PEOPLE to whom this land was promised–and the people for whom Abraham bought it for four hundred silver shekels– is clearly falsified by the fact that they can’t really inhabit Hebron. To live in this climate on this terrain, to make this land give you sustenance–and not have to depend on donations from abroad–you have to be built a certain way, you have to be the product of this terrain and climate. And the Jews in Israel, too many of them, are still Europeans.

There is hope that, with the admixture of Yemeni Jews and Ethiopian Jews and others from sub-Saharan Africa, Israel will eventually revert to being a true Middle Eastern country. My friend, the business facilitator, Sherwin Pomerantz, whose blog I have urged my readers to read, recently attended a conference that included Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Turkey and some other countries on the North African rim. The conference is a first step to forming a Middle Eastern Common Market on the model of the EU. HOORAY! Israel, by attending, signals its character as Middle Eastern, rather than European. HOORAY!!! Reality bites.

Sherwin has also been involved in facilitating trade with China, another great idea. Europe was always a bad idea and I, for one, have never understood what Jews were doing there in the first place. I mean, the Romans come south and burn down your Temple and destroy your friends and neighbors and so you, get this, head north into an Empire entirely controlled by….Romans! Huh? Why not go west where there were few Romans and no Muslims, yet? Why not head east to China which had no dog in this fight at all? Why not go south, into the wilderness from whence you came and thence, south, into the lands of Uganda where your Jewish state would have had gems and minerals? OOOOPS,you mean go where the black people were living? Well, yes, Jews were dark-skinned people themselves back then, remember?

How long have the Jews been white European racists? Why did they go to Europe and turn white? If this question makes you uncomfortable it is because it never occurred to you that the people who left Jerusalem and Israel around it were NOT white people. They looked like Iraqis. They looked like Iranians. Small-boned, curly-haired and dark-skinned. Why head into the eye of the storm, the Empire of your enemies, the land that would soon become filled with Jew-hating Christians?And, once you were there, why didn’t you see where you were and continue moving on? It has been suggested that the Jews stayed in Europe for the money to be made there. I hope they enjoyed their riches. China was very wealthy then, too. Lots to be made in trade. And no religious conflict there. Just ask the Jews who have been living there for 1200 years. So Sherwin, like many smart Israelis , applauds the coming end to Israel’s identification with and reliance on Europe–and America, too. Christian America is not more a friend to Israel than Christian Europe, let’s get real.

On to the tomb of all tombs, the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It has been held for millenia by “Arabs,” and is adorned with two muezzin towers.

 

The Arabs held this place for a millenium or more and made it their own with a mosque and casbah; Jews are permitted to use the courtyard as a place of prayer on a very restricted basis. There is no way to actually view the tombs.

The Arabs held this place for a millenium or more and made it their own with a mosque and casbah; Jews are permitted to use the courtyard as a place of prayer on a very restricted basis. There is no way to actually view the tombs.

The muezzin's tower rising about the canopied area in which the Jews hold services.

The muezzin’s tower rising above the canopied area in which the Jews hold services.

 

Red and White “stripes” as in the Red Mosque in Cordoba.

A bris held under the canopy in the courtyeard of teh Tomb Of The Patriarchs, the only space open to Jews. at this site.

A bris held under the canopy in the courtyeard of the Tomb Of The Patriarchs, the only space open to Jews. at this site.

Vestiges of the Arab mosque which ahs been here for millenia. Jews are allowed into a small area under highly restricttive rules.

Vestiges of the Arab mosque which has been here for millenia. Jews are allowed into a small area under highly restricttive rules.

View from the PAtriarch's Tomb of beautifully developed city of Hebron. OUr guide bemoaned this development of Hebron under Palestinian control.

View from the Patriarch’s Tomb of the beautifully developed city of Hebron. Our guide bemoaned this development of Hebron under Palestinian control.

AS we await the bus back to Jerusalem, I find myself with two our tour members, a woman who is a retired teacher from Seattle, a non-observant Jew whom I assisted in photographing the bris. Neither of us cared about stepping into the “men’s section” during the service; I considered her  a soulmate for that. The other is a youngish man from New York. I make my comment about the musical chairs situation as we wonder if anyone lives in the casbah attached to the mosque/Tomb. The young man says the music would have ended long ago if Israel had the “right” P.M. So he doesn’t like Bibi. Why not.

This P.M. is an idiot tool of Obama and Kerry, evildoers both of them.

Oh.

Yes, says the Seattle schoolteacher who was until this moment my instant friend. I cannot speak, so, for once, I just tune in.

Obama has in five short years changed the whole country. You can’t believe it’s the same place, she says. It’s totally ruined.

I hadn’t noticed much change so I am even more interested in what he has done to Seattle.

He’s got people smolomg legal pot, she says. (Really? Obama did that? What do you know?)

OH, says the young man. In New York he is allowing the public schools to close three more days each year to mark the Arab holidays. (Really? Obama controls the NYC Board of Education? Even Bloomberg could not wrest control of that. And so evil-O must also control the NYState Board of REgents, who must sign off on school calendars around the state.)

You know, I want to say, that the pulbic schools close for ten days for Christmas and another ten for Easter, two Christian holidays. Why not shorten those, keeping just Good Friday and the Easter weekend for Easter? That would more than make up for Idl Fitr and Ramadan. And we could close for Chinese New Year then, too.

But the young man is working himself up into a lather. He says he recently lost his job and his health insurance with it.

Oh my, says the teacher, could you not qualify for Obamacare?

Yes, I did. I now have insurance.

I am wondering where the Islamic plot lies in this part of the story.

I have health care, yes.

But you had to give up your own doctor? she says, hopefully.

NO, I have my old doctor.

Good, she says.

But the problem is that he will soon be out of business. I mean, how can he stay in practice–how can any doctor stay in practice–when I only had to pay him five dollars? Soon there will be no medical care anywhere in the US. Soon we will all have to come to Israel.

NOw I can finally speak. I tell him that I have two Israeli doctors who came to NY to practice because the system in Israel only lets them spend six minutes with a patient.

You see? he cries. It is the end of all health care.

Well, yes, anyone can see that. The object of the evil Obama was to rid the world of health care. I wonder if he would have preferred to have no insurance when he lost his job, or to have to pay the doctor his full fee so the doc could continue to stay in practice. I am lost, lost lost.

When our bus lets us out in Tel Aviv, we are in the Yemeni sector; the dark-skinned Jews are hocking hteir wares in the streets and the boys are playing a pick-up game of basketball inthe park and I find I can hardly wait for them to spread their Middle Eastern genes around a lend credence to the Jews’ belief that this is really “our” land. Because, after all, I do love Israel.

Now, if you have not yet finished reading Ari Shavit’s book, note that you have three weeks left to do so. If you do not read this book the wicked witch will cast a spell on you and you will become an Arab, a person who will fit right into the world that Obama-cum-Kerry are preparing for you!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spinoza has a street named for him just down the block. So, you see, he was not excommunicated, after all.

Spinoza has a street named for him just down the block. So, you see, he was not excommunicated, after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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BACK IN TEL AVIV–2014 First Letter

This gallery contains 18 photos.

Well, it’s good to back at the blog from Tel Aviv after missing a year in one of my favorite cities. You can read along to find out what has changed in Tel Aviv since my last visit in 2012, or you … Continue reading

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Israel’s Public Space-A Matter of Jewish Identity, Sojourn 3, Letter 4

The Old Questions Return

I began this year’s letters with reflections on public space—in the ElAl plane on the way to Israel. It is this subject that has occupied me as I’ve continued to read some absorbing articles in Azure—which I discovered thanks to Leon Morris, and in Jewish Ideas Daily, a FREE online daily journal which I highly recommend and which also came to me via Rabbi Leon. Thank you Rabbi Leon Morris.

As you may recall, I was very disturbed by the Haredi overtaking what I consider public space on our flight to Israel.  As it turned out, this was not a temporary concern: It led to a lot of “deep thought” about the nature of public space. I am not unaware that, to the Orthodox of any religion, the necessity of saying one’s prayers or performing other rituals, supercedes any claim of public-ness. I understand, as well, that as a post-modern nation, Israel is particularly sensitive to minority cultural demands. And then, of course, I understand my own annoyance (small word for it) with what feels to me like an invasion of what I expect to be an ethnically and religiously neutral space.

Articles in Jewish Ideas Daily and Azure were very provocative, as almost anything is when you are internally wrestling with a disturbing question. I was troubled by several questions and I didn’t realize how they all were conjoined conceptually. Here’s what I’ve worked out so far. I hope readers will respond with critiques and help me see the connections and distinctions better than I have to this point.

How Did Israel Get This Way?

Everyone knows the Haredi are spreading out. Their numbers are expanding faster than anyone else’s in Israel; even the Pals aren’t reproducing as quickly. They are also a mighty force–considering their numbers–in the Parliament. As many in Parliament would point out, it doesn’t need to be this way. Netanyahu needs the Orthodox to keep a coalition together only if  he disregards others—say Kadima—with whom he might align instead.

We are, I think, all familiar with the recent outrages that growing Orthodox power has led to: A distinguished female surgeon being prevented from stepping up to receive her prestigious award from a professional organization because Orthodox people in the audience had to be spared the atrocity of having to look at a woman; a brutal physical attack on a woman posting posters for an event in Beit Shemesh; an attack on a woman soldier who refused to go to the back of a bus; and, of course, the notorious attack on an eight year-old girl whose long dress and long sleeves were not deemed modest enough by some loony Haredi men.

We are also aware that the government provides free housing, roads, transportation, and private schools to an entire population that refuses to work and pay their fair share of taxes, and that refuses to do military service which is, theoretically, required of all Israeli citizens. (Thank Ha Shem the Supreme Court , headed by a woman, has ruled that the military exemption for Torah studiers is unconstitutional; it will be interesting to see how the Haredi get around this, but they will, I assure you.) How can this continue, especially under troubled economic conditions when tax dollars are scarce? And how did it all happen to begin with?

Sherwin Pomerantz, my source in Jerusalem , tells me that most Israelis were just not paying attention. The Haredi were in separate communities, not forefront in any secular Jew’s mind.

Well, of course, this was Israel’s first mistake: How do you form a new country with government supported segregation of minorities? How does a new democracy expect to mature when it subsidizes separate housing for a major part of its population and subsidizes—to the point of full support—separate schools for students who read only Torah and never learn the core subjects that make up a liberal education? What justifies, the maintenance and support of two totally separate populations in a single, tiny, struggling state? (And we are not even discussing the Palestinian Israeli citizens who are also excused from military service and receive substantial welfare benefits because their women refuse to work. They, too, school many of their children in schools that do not produce citizens who can function in a liberal democracy.) How did this happen? Sherwin says the Israelis were asleep at the wheel, that they were not conscious of what was happening until things got really out of hand.

No. Not in such a tiny, politically charged, country. You don’t fail to see things. You perhaps refuse to recognize these things. Why?

My own theory is guilt. Israel’s secular Jews (the majority), I believe, looked the other way when the Haredi were building their steam. Netanyahu, himself secular, surely saw what was happening and looked the other way.

My view is that secular Jews in Israel understand that the claim of Israel to be a “Jewish State” is in doubt if there are no real, practicing Jews here. The Haredi are their alibi. The Haredi are the proxy Jews, the ones who stand in for everyone else, supporting the claim that this is really a nation of Jews. With a population made up of Ethiopians, Sephardim from the Maghreb, Asians, Indians, Anglos (in great numbers), as well as a huge population of mashed up Russian emigres, it is difficult to make a case that bloodline is what constitutes Israel as a Jewish State. So, let us just say that this is the place that welcomes and supports fundamentalist Orthodox Jews as nowhere else in the world does. This is their homeland; that is “what Israel is for.” That is what will justify its special status in the world! That is the argument, I think, that explains why the Orthodox, even when they get violent, are not arrested for behavior that would put anyone else in jail. They are the holy men, the priests of Israel. They get a pass that you or I would not.

Israel can be very happy with this state of affairs. It cuts the old troubling baby in half in Solomonesque fashion. Is Israel a nation among nations, or is it a theocracy? Well, giving the Haredi a pass allows Israel to say that it is two mints in one: It is a secular democracy—for the most part, but it allows to flourish within itself a theocracy, a nation within a nation of people governed not by the laws that apply to all citizens qua citizens , but a nation ruled solely by a religious text, by God. So Israel is both. Now the most difficult question confronting it goes away.

NOT SO FAST!

 

The Post-Modern View of Public Space

A recent article in one of the Jewish weeklies extolled the loveliness of spaces in Israel—in Jerusalem and elsewhere—where public space is being overgrown by “markers of cultural minorities.” (You can tell right off, by the language employed to discuss the subject, that this is a post-modern analysis, drenched in political correctness. But let us not tarry.) On every corner, along every street, the writer gleefully relates, we can see people fencing off parts of the public thoroughfare to make it their own, setting up markers of their particular (another politically-charged word) cultural preferences. What a lovely patchwork quilt, what a lovely rainbow of cultures, what a lovely post-modern world! Hooray for tolerance! Hooray for the minority right to be heard, to express, to lay claim! No longer shall the minority be the victim of the majority as in the old days and ways of democracy.

Yes, this hodgepodge way of cutting up public spaces into ethnically diverse patches or sectors is kind of pretty if you like visual chaos. And I have to agree that “planning” of public space in the West has gone too far in imposing sterile meaninglessness on too many of us. The “modernist” city is, as the post-modern complainers, say, a neuterer; the “master discourse” strips away all flavor.

But post-modern critics go on to argue that this neutral space– what the “masters” consider neutral–is nothing more than a highly-charged, politically-flavored space that reflects the values of the capitalist, techno-centered, rationalist, secular, ruling classes. There can be no truly “neutral” space; everything embeds some values or other. And because of the way power works, the master narrative is always what gets embedded. We are all so overwhelmed with the master atmospherics, that we don’t even notice how these values pervade our lives and determine our choices, choices that are no way as free as we imagine.

A space that is conditioned by a master narrative, the post-modern critique goes, deprives cultural minorities of their rights to express themselves in a space of their own. The clean, rationalist geometries of modernity are not really value-neutral, they import the aggressively competitive values of a Western, male-dominated, hi-tech culture. (I am always amused at how glibly p-m critics characterize Western culture as “male-dominated” when Arab and Asian cultures keep women enslaved and illiterate, while American universities graduate more women than men. But let us not tarry.)

The post-modern argument is, then, that planned public space oppresses minorities by taking all public space for the majority. The writer I’ve referred to rejoiced that, in Israel, she is seeing signs everywhere of minority cultures fencing in pieces of that space and making it their own, taking  it for themselves simply by imposing their cultural markers on it, sometimes segregating it from other space with actual fences such as stone ledges, shrubbery, curbs, etc. Is this really something to rejoice over?

If the trend continues, Israeli cities could end up not as colorful patchworks, but as clusters of fenced-in communities, pressed tightly against one another, each regarding the others with contempt and distrust, each proclaiming itself as distinct from others, and so, each proclaiming the other as, well, other. How does this serve the ends of a new nation?

Yet, by subsidizing separate, segregated communities for separate religious sects—by helping to keep them separate—Israel is discarding its original founding ideal of a “gathering in” of Jews from everywhere, a nation of all the diasporized peoples, melded into one Jewish state. The bowing and kowtowing to particularism, other-ness, and all the other mighty gods of  the post-modern ethic, is building a nation divided against itself, a possibility that has always threatened the Jews who tend, by nature, to be disputatious and more individualistic than is good for nation-building.

One question is: Does the maintenance of a “neutral” public space actually deprive minorities of their rights? Does the imposition of a master discourse oppress in the way new critics say it does, or does it actually foster the building of an Israeli identity, crafting it from diverse ethnicities that have now been “gathered in?” Is the development of an Israeli “master discourse” something Israel should shy away from or embrace?

My answer to this question is that a neutral public space dos not tread on any rights whatever so long as there is respect for private space as well. Public squares that reflect no one’s values—or the master values, if you prefer—are not oppressive so long as the society that maintains them also allows for private spaces–gardens, religious institutions, private schools and community centers, in which the values and ethnic markers of particular inhabitants can be given full play.

In America, I can hang a huge portrait of Hitler on my living room wall if I so choose. No one can make me take it down, no matter how offensive the surrounding community may find it. It is in my private space. But when a colleague of mine, years ago, hung such a portrait in the shared office of the philosophy department where I had my desk, I complained to the university president and the offending object was promptly removed. Shared space is public and must remain acceptable to all; private space is for whatever you will. The point to note is that both are possible in a single country. No one gets trod upon by the maintenance of public space so long as private space is fully within the control of private individuals and protected by the community as such.

Israel has a vital interest in maintaining its public space. As a country that is still struggling to find its identity in the world, the public sphere is where its identity is both shaped and announced to others. The public space is where the notion of the “other” as opposed to the Israeli, becomes defined.

Israel began on the right– very powerfully right–foot by constructing for itself an Israeli language. It rejected the separate, certain-to-be divisive multiplicity of languages its emigrants would bring with them. It “imposed,” if you will, a new, difficult language with what was, to many, a new alphabet, on everyone seeking citizenship in the new land. It assiduously set about educating all its new citizens in this new language. That was a great start toward forming a new culture that was distinctively Israeli. The state arm charged with preserving Modern Hebrew as the official state language continues to be vigilant in safeguarding the use of Hebrew in all public institutions. (See Ha-aretz, February 29, 2012)

Over time, Israel has managed to define an Israeli cuisine—still a work in progress, but progressing rapidly—an Israeli style of painting and sculpture (see the Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art,) an Israeli cinema. It has inspired more than 70 Israeli folk dances that are performed weekly at sites all over the country by ordinary citizens utilizing public spaces. It has a powerful sense of itself as a hi-tech, medically advanced, smart new culture in a competitive world.

Public space as an arena for expression of these new cultural norms is an absolute necessity to advancing Israel’s emerging identity. This is why Israel, more than more established nations, must preserve and widen its culturally public spaces, not allow them to be hijacked by particularist minorities. In a modern democracy, you would think, that should be more than obvious: It should be a conceptual slam-dunk.

The problem is that Israel is not, like America, a country coming of age in a “modern” world. Before Israel could find its mature footing, we found ourselves in the era of post-modernism, an era that doesn’t regard democracy as the fairest way to proceed because the majority will always end up, in their view, “oppressing” the minority. The post-modern critique rejects democracy in favor of something they regard as more just: A heterogeneity that gives equal voice to all, regardless of number or power. Assimilation—the aim of Israel’s founders is, according to this view, an immoral goal. Israel should not aim to make composite Israelis of its people; rather, it should aim to remain a hodgepodge of distinct, often opposing, cultures.

The cultural problem for Israel is then, as post-modernism views it, neither the fundamentalist Orthodox nor the Palestinians, both cultural  “others.” The problem for Israel is– modernity itself! In this post-modern world, the universalist ideals that lay at the core of modern thought are repulsively regressive. The idea that we can all live as one, (See Ze’ev Maghen’s “John Lennon and the Jews”,) is itself an offensive notion. We have to live apart from one another, with fences constituted by cultural markers, each of us proudly proclaiming difference.

The ideal, of course, is that we will all learn to love the differences that divide us. Good luck! Without some common ground—nurtured in common spaces—tolerance stands no chance. Human nature simply isn’t that forgiving. (E.g., I will never learn to enjoy having Orthodox Jews take over an ElAl plane to create of it their private prayer space; and I will never forgive those same people for treating a World Heritage Site, the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, as their private synagogue.)

But how does a new, integrated, nation emerge in a world directed by the post-modern vision? In America, there was so much land that newly arriving groups found space for themselves among like-minded others and put a lot of no-man’s-land between themselves and others. Over generations they melded: Children traveled to other regions and settled among the “others;” educational and employment opportunities compelled people to leave their first homes, the dustbowl forced people to pick up and move and mingle with others. People intermarried…and John Lennon’s world started to take shape.

This took time, of course, but never was there a national policy standing in opposition to the melding of cultures! A distinct American culture emerged because, far from standing in the way of this, American public policy promoted open societies within its larger society. Laws were put in place prohibiting discrimination in housing and employment. Israel might argue that it, too, prohibits discrimination, but what Israel practices as official public policy is segregated housing for the Orthodox, for Palestinians, for secularist Jews. It makes no attempt to compel secular and Orthodox to live and work together. The argument given in support of this is that, unlike the situation in America, this is one to which both parties consent: The secular do not want to live among the Orhtodox any more than the Orthodox want to live among them. This approach to the discussion masks the deeper, more obstinate, problem. The deep problem, as I’ve said, is… modernity itself. Zionism, which dreamed the Israeli nation, was a thoroughly modern idea.

Modernity and Jewish Identity

Modernity, based as it is on the ideal of universalism–the rationalist principle that all humans are equal in a fundamental way and thus share a common set of inalienable rights—implicitly demands a concept of the self as private. The inner self is where free will is sourced; it is the self which, despite empirical appearances to the contrary, is equal in respect and power to every other self.

The individual whose rights are held in common with all others lives among those others in a public space, but he retains a private space, a conscience, in which he thinks as he wishes to think, imagines what he wishes to imagine, believes what he chooses to believe. This sense of the inward, private, individual is as much a part of the modernist, universalist ideal as anything else.

Possibly, the sense of privacy of self is the defining characteristic of the modern. In the history of art, for example, a turn toward the  expression of inner feelings and perceptions—the subjective turn—characterizes the modern moment. Similarly, Descartes’ reliance on introspection as a reliable source of philosophic truth is, again, the starting point of modern philosophic method, another “subjective turn.”

And in religion, Martin Luther’s notion of private conscience is what defined modern religion. A turn away from public ritual and overt action to emphasize faith and conscience, is the mark of the Reformation, a concept of man’s relation to God that arose at the very time man, in all his other spiritual modes, was turning inward.

Each person, Luther held, is responsible for the state of his own private soul. Apart from his community, apart from his church, apart from his nation, each person had his personal relationship with his conscience and with his God. Inward man stands alone. His salvation is something he must sort out with God–his own God–God as he, himself, finds Him to be. There is no church that can mediate this salvation. There is no community which, above any other, can make salvation possible. And this is the paradign of all modern understanding of religion: Man is responsible for himself and so must find his way on his own. Faith is an inner, private matter.

And here is the key to the problem of Israel: Faith, as it is understood in a modern world, is something we can take care of in the privacy of our own private spaces. Churches can co-exist among churches that preach entirely different cosmolgies. People of different faiths can walk the same streets, share school buildings and teachers. With the notion of the private, the secular becomes possible as the neutral ground where universal values prevail.

The notion of the private creates the modern schism that makes it possible to separate the public, shared, values of the public entity, the state, from the privately held values of the individual. Thus, the individual lives in two worlds: his own private one and one he shares with others. He is thus subject to two sets of laws: The moral law (see, e.g. Kant) and the public civic law. One, a law of conscience, the other a law of overt behavior toward others.

Now, why is all this a problem for Israel? For those who still adhere to Zionist thinking, it’s not a problem at all. To the Zionist, Judaism is a religion like Protestantism. It involves a belief system, a theology, a set of shared rituals—all of which can be kept in the private sphere, all of which can be held as a matter of private, individual conscience. The founders of Israel, Zionists, were modern-day men who assumed that the values of the Enlightenment—what post-modern thinkers call “universalist” values—would prevail and form the basis of the new Jewish state. They never imagined that old-line, pre-modern Orthodoxy would enjoy a ressurgence

 

Jewish Identity As Pre-Modern

I have been waging what amounts to a private philosophical war with someone who I should know knows better than I, with Leora Batnitzky, professor of Jewish Studies at Princeton. Batnitzky argues—and not everyone agrees, I can assure you—that Judaism was not a religion until Moses Mendelsohn re-conceived it as such in order to line it up happily alongside, say, European Protestantism.

I have been saying this is utterly ridiculous. Surely, I said, the entire Torah is nothing but the story of Man’s Struggle With God. And if God is in the picture, then you have a religion, no? And so the Torah is a religious text and the Jews have been a religion since the Law was first handed down. How could Judaism be anything but? Harrumph!

I was wrong. I stand corrected. Batnitzky may very well be right—and probably is—when she says that the term “Judaism” is of very recent vintage. The Jews and Judaism are two different things. Even more important, they are two different categories. The Jews were/are a people, a nation. Judaism is an attempt to make of that a religion. Why do I say this, at last?

Regardless of the historical facts relating to Mendelsohn, et al, Batnitzy’s analysis is significant for sorting out the problem of modernity as it applies to Israel and Jewish identity. When God handed down the Ten Commandments, the argument goes, He created a nation. He chose these people as His; they and their descendants, of course, had no choice in the matter. So, according to Orthodoxy, if you sprang from the loins of a woman linked in a matriarchal chain to one of those original recipients of the law, you are a Jew. Can’t help but be. More significantly, from a moral point of view, you have no say in whether you must obey the laws of Torah or not. God made that decision for you.

This is, of course, very primitive and that is why I have objected so strenuously to it. As more modern people—there’s that word again—we’d like to say we have free will, that we can choose for ourselves what laws we will obey. As modern folks we sense we have inner selves and we’d like to think that our private inner space is where, say, our faith or lack of faith is stored. As modern people, we see very little of value in laws that are imposed from without, in laws that do not take account of our intrinsic value as rational, respect-worthy beings whose respectability hinges precisely on the free will that this primitive view denies us. But that is not Torah!

Batnitzky points out, rightly, that the Torah is not a religious document so much as it is a political one. It is a set of laws whereby a nation is constituted. The constituting act is God’s covenant with a particular group of people. What results is a covenanted community. That is something we tend to lose sight of (unless like Sandy Balsam and me you were in a political theory class taught by Professor Roelofs at N.Y.U. in the sixties.)

A covenanted community is one way of defining each individual’s relationship to his community and its law. It describes a particular way of binding the individual actor to the law governing his actions.

Consider: In Plato’s Republic, the law is determined by “he who knows.” The Philosopher King is the ruler and giver of law because he knows better than anyone else what is best for the social entity as a whole and, thus, for everyone in it. Why must I obey the law? Because it is, by definition, what I would choose for myself if only I were wise enough to know what is best for me. What Roelofs called the “constituted community” is a nation under law, which law constitutes the nation by expressing, in Rousseau-ian terms, the General Will. The great good luck of having a Philosopher King around is that he, by definition, can intuit the General Will, what all of us would choose if we only had the intellect to intuit what it is. The constituted community is founded on a myth, the myth of the Philosopher King who, as a practical matter, is an impossibility. The constituted community is, then, an ideal.

A second way of binding people to a set of laws, and thus making them into a nation, is by way of contract. The “contractual community” is based on the view that I must obey the law because I have agreed to do so. You and I and everyone around here has met around the campfire and agreed that some law is better than none at all. Lacking a Philosopher King, the argument goes, we put someone in charge and we all agree to obey his laws. Why? Because otherwise we will live lawlessly. Our lives will be “nasty, brutish and short.” So, we get ourselves a tyrant who brings us peace. For this we agree to his/her rule. The so-called social contract was not, of course, something any of us actually signed on to. It is, like the Philosopher King, a myth. It is the binding myth of this type of society, its explanation for why its people must obey the law.

Contrast both of these ways of conceiving the social bond with the way the individual is bound to the law in a covenanted community. In the Torah, we discover another myth, if you will, the myth of God speaking to Moses on Sinai. The state, in this case, is created in the moment of God’s choosing His people. The giving of the law is what creates the community; the law and the community are, in fact, one and the same. The giving of Torah is what makes Jews a people.

In the case of the covenanted community, the only answer to the question, “Why should I obey the law?” is that God told me I must. This is a huge difference from the other two types of community in that what binds an individual to the law lies wholly outside himself. It is not private; it does not include a self; it does not begin to imagine the possibility of a private individual self! For this reason, I will call it primitive as opposed to the constituted and the contractual communities, both of which suppose a schism between the public citizen self and the private individual self. It is possible in each of those other two types of community for the private interests of an individual to run counter to what is required by civil law. Obedience to the law as demanded by civil peace, requires that the individual set aside his private interests for something he values more: the public good. The covenanted community, as an idea, imagines no such internal schism as a possibility.

Consider: I obey the law set down by the Philosopher King because it is what I—a person with private appetites that may not want to obey the law—would chose to do if I knew what was in my own best interest. Note how central to all this I—the private self—am. I’m induced to obey the law because it is what I know is best for me.

I obey the law of the contractually established tyrant for similar reasons: I prefer peace to a state of each against each, the state of nature that I must live in if I don’t agree to the social contract. Therefore, I obey the law because as a rational creature I realize that, once the total situation is assessed,  it’s good, or, at least, better, for me than any alternative.

But in a covenanted community, I obey the law because God commands me to. I am not a rational creature here, I have no personal individual dignity that is being respected or looked after by the law I’m required to obey. I do not get to make the rational calculations I make in the other two types of community. I do not get to assess what’s really in my own best—private—interests. I have no free will in the sense that the Enlightenment conceived it. The law is what makes me what I am, a Jew. Without it, I am nobody.

Now it’s the nobody that is highly significant here. Without the covenanted community created in the giving of the law, I am nobody. The law, be it noted, is not directed at my inner—read that “private”—thoughts. It is not about faith in the internal, conscience-driven way of thinking about it. The law directs behavior. Outward, empirically observable behavior, the kind of thing your neighbors know about and are affected by.  In the other types of community, based as they are on a separation between the inner and outer selves, without the community that gives the law, I am still a private self, an inward somebody, a person with conscience, a person with natural rights that demand respect of an community that wants my allegiance.

What does this have to do with the question of Israeli identity in the contemporary world community?

Batnitzky’s response is that to the Jew—the primitive Jew–all life is public life. There is no distinction between public and private; there is no schism in the self and so no conflict between the demands of the community and the private interest of individuals. Well, of course not, because there are no individuals. None that matter.  What matters is how we behave in the community. What you think or believe is not at issue. It’s what you do that matters.

Therefore—are you ready?—being Jewish is by definition a public act. All space is, therefore, public space. One does not leave the public square and go into a place where values are different, more individual, than they are out in the open. One’s private life is public, one’s public life is thoroughly integrated with the community, its norms, its laws, its protocols. Jews, Batnitzky would say, exist only within a Jewish community.

Jews require other Jews around them. Not to head off feelings of isolation nd loneliness, but simply per se, the Jew requires a community. After the destruction of the Temple, Jews dispersed, but always in tightly-sealed communities. Perhaps this is what engendered distrust and ultimately hatred in Enlightenment, Protestant, secularist communities.

Jewish intellectuals in Europe welcomed the Enlightenment, believing that its doctrines of natural human rights and universal dignity would relieve or even vanquish anti-Semitism. But their fellow Jews—particularly in Eastern Europe—refused to acknowledge Enlightenment values. They understood their Jewishness not as an inward-directed religion like Protestantism, not what Mendelsohn and others cooked up as Judaism. They understood themselves, Batnitzky would say, as a nation, not a religion in the Protestant sense.

Another way to put this–and one that seems less offensive to today’s Jews than saying that Jewishness is not a religion–is to say that Jewishness lacked the sort of interiority that Luther—and then everyone else—deemed the defining hallmark of religion or religious belief. Indeed, Jewish-ness notoriously lacks a belief system, a credo such as distinguishes the Catholic faith, and a defined faith doctrine and cosmology such as marks Protestantism. Batnitzky seems to have this right when she interprets the Torah as a set of laws that constitute a nation, created a “people,” and did not, until the Enlightenment, consider itself a religion. For, how could it when “religion” as it would come to be understood, did not yet exist? The rabbis, we can now see, pored over Torah as judges pore over the law in modern courts, to determine the meanings of precedent decisions. They did not concoct rationalist doctrine or dogma as Catholics like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas aimed to do.

This is a matter over which much ink will be spilt. The take-away which I think helps to make sense of much that has been troubling me—and you, if you’ve been following this—is that Jews cannot be Jews in the Torah sense outside of a Jewish community. Without the interiority, or personal individual self at the center of faith, Jewishness does not stray from the Jewish people. You cannot live as a hermit and practice your Jewishness.

Yes, yes, I know. Jews who were ascetics did just that; there were all sorts of exceptions and weird sects from which you can prove just about anything. But in the broader picture, Jews clung to their community because it was the source of personal identity. Today, the Orthodox still do exactly that and, Batnitzky would argue, for exactly the same reasons.

 

The Problem of Israel’s Public Space Today

Where does that take us on the issue of public versus private space, and urban planning in contmeporary Israel? The Orthodox Jew cannot live in a “neutral” public space because he does not distinguish between his public and his private persona. The public is the personal; the personal is the public. The community and the individual are one; they define one another reciprocally. Neutral public space is every bit as hostile as, say, Muslim public space to an Orthodox Jew.

But, what of the rest of us? How ever do we manage to walk about unoffended in public space? Well, we are modern, like it or not. We have learned to perform that personal schism, that internal separation of inner and outer self that modernity taught us and demanded of us. We take ourselves about with a sense of interiority, a private set of thoughts and beliefs that we share with others or do not share, depending on what we choose to do. When we step outside our private space, our homes, say, we close the door behind us. No one needs to know what’s hanging on my living room wall. Or what’s on my mind. Jews who became conversos could do so because of their modernity; they could keep their deep beliefs apart from their overt actions and words. This sort of schism, this splitting of the soul, is not a possibility for Orthodox practitioners. Orthodox life is, in this sense, totalitarian.

Rationalist, universalist, Zionist Jews—those in America, for example—wonder what the problem is with Israel: Why don’t they just make everyone live and work together? Isn’t that what a liberal democracy does? Isn’t that how the contract works? I tolerate and respect you, and you tolerate and respect me. Our government guarantees us freedoms of religion and worship, of belief and speech, and so on. That means that in my private space, I can do and say as I please. Only when I encounter you am I restricted in what I can do. And I still can believe what I like, so long as I don’t act on it in ways harmful to you. Why can’t Israel do the same and get on with it?

Can Israel do as America does and still be a Jewish state?

The answer, shockingly to some, is no. Not if we mean what Batnitzky means by “Jewish.” A Jewish state is not contractually or constitutionally based, it is a covenanted community. It is –big important difference—not rights based. It is obedience based. You obey the law not because other people’s rights are thereby protected; you obey the law because you must.

A covenanted community is, necessarily, theocracy, a nation under God’s law. It is a tightly-knit community brought together under the myth of chosen-ness. A practicing Jew, in Batnitzky’s sense, cannot live in an open society. The Jew needs more than tolerance of his Jewishness, he needs God’s law ruling the single unified totality of his life.

Judaism-The Modern Invention

Now, let’s see what happens when we change the conversation to Judaism, a concept only recently minted in the Enlightenment. Judaism is a religion, so the reasoning goes. It is interior-based, a matter of faith, a set of beliefs one carries inside himself and for which he takes moral responsibility. Judaism’s faith is not the result of one having been chosen by God or imposed by anything outside oneself. It is what one chooses for oneself, the result of a rational decision, a moral choice. Whoa! Unsurprisingly, it is a lot like Protestantism, that most modern of world religions.

If Judaism is a religion one chooses, then it is, like Protestantism, one among many possible faiths. In an open society, everyone is free to practice his faith, to have his beliefs, to keep his own conscience as he sees fit. We are a bunch of people, then, each of us existentially alone, finding our own ways through the cosmos, taking God as we conceive of Him. A tolerant, constitutional society, unlike the convenanted community of the Torah, protects all faiths, all the faithful, and those of little or no faith at all. It protects the individual rights of all!

Why, you may wonder, should this be a problem for a state which, like Israel, is not only modern, but post-modern? Why can’t the Israeli constitution which, after all, is modeled on both the American and English constitutions, guarantee a right to freedom of worship and freedom of speech and just be done with it?

As  Evelyn Gordon and Hadassah Levy argue in an editorial defense of their article in Azure, Summer, 2011, that would make Israel just like New York City!

Well, and what’s wrong with that? New York is a place where Jews are free to practice their religion. There is a strong Jewish community—in fact, many different and often warring communities—where all the cultural markers of Jewish life are out there in public spaces, taking up and flavoring a world happily shared with others. What’s objectionable about Israel being as comfortable for Jews as New York City is?

What Gordon and Levy find unacceptable in the New York City model is that this would not justify a Jewish state! A Jewish State, they argue, is more than a place that is tolerant and accepting of Jews, more than a place where Jews share with all others, the inalienable rights of  humankind universally. A Jewish State, they say, has Jewish-flavored public space. That is, there is no place in a Jewish State for the sort of neutral public space that arises out of modernist, universalist-rationalist social thought. If Jews want to live in a place that honors them, respects and protects them and their human rights, they can live in New York.

But if the existence of Israel is something special, it must be something no other place is or can be: It must be a Jewish State, not simply a place that respects and protects the practice of Judaism, the religion.

According to this thinking, then, Israel is only justified as a theocracy!!!

 

Now this is why I was in such intellectual pain for the past three years. I was trying to sort out questions of Jewish identity, Israeli identity, the justification for Israel, and the distinction between Jewishness and Judaism. I was looking for the belief system of an Enlightenment religion, one that can be held as a mere part of a person’s identity, not one’s total self, a part that can be taken out on holidays or Sabbaths and then put away when one enters the public, secular sphere.

But all along, I thought the notion of the “secular Jew” was an absurdity. I was right. I just didn’t want to go where this kind of thinking was leading. I didn’t want to conclude that Israel’s existence is only logically justified as a theocracy. But there it is. I’ve ironed things out with the help of many scholars whose work I’ve been pondering for the past three years, and there it is: Either Israel is there de facto, a brute existence, not necessarily morally justified, or it is justified as a theocracy. No wonder Netanyahu is having such a tough time treading the fine line: Both sides are fraught with horrors.

For myself, I have perhaps too much of an interior; in fact, I tend to live inside myself far too much. And, given my natural distrust of other humans, I’m not likely ever to define myself with reference to any sort of community. I am in search of Judaism, not Jew-dom.

Now, can someone please tell me what the belief system is for that?

THE NEED FOR JUSTIFICATION, AGAIN

Sandy asks, once again, why I feel I must justify the existence of the State of Israel. Haven’t we been through all this too many times before.

 

And besides, Sandy says, Does anyone feel the need to justify the existence of France? Of China?

Okay, there are many answers to this question which is, no surprise, really many  questions.

Sandy’s answer to the question is that Israel is the absolutely necessary refuge for a minority the world has seen fit to persecute for millennia. The Jews have, nonetheless, not only survived but contributed positively to the world’s culture and advancement way out of proportion to their numbers. Hence, the world owes this to the Jews. First, as a debt of gratitude, and apology for past horrors. And second to prevent the extermination of Jews in the future.

The answer given by those who are not Jews and not particularly sympathetic—but who must be answered anyway if this is to remain a logical confrontation—is that there are many other persecuted minority ethnic groups for whom the world has not seen fit to provide a separate nation. The Roma, to name one. Why the Jews?

Sandy’s answer to that, if I read him correctly, is the superior contribution and accomplishment of the Jews. That, of course, is an exceptionalist argument with all the politically incorrect reverberations that follow such arguments. Who is to say what “superior” means? Aren’t all humans qua humans equally worthy? Isn’t this just another Western European bit of repressionist, colonialist nonsense?

But there is another part of the question and that is, even if the Jews deserve a nation of their own, land of their own—why THIS particular piece of land, located as it is among their enemies who are, in this particular era, the most aggrieved and bellicose people in the world today, the Muslims?

One answer is to point to the Torah as the source of world law, which, of course, it isn’t. The fact that the Torah quotes God as giving this very land to the Jews to be their own, has no force, either legal or moral, on the rest of the world, only on the Jews who , therefore, keep on insisting on it as both historical fact and moral reason.

But really, why this piece of land? As my old pal, Barry Farber, never stopped pointing out, F.D.R. considered giving the Jews Alaska. Don’t laugh. It has gold, oil, fish, furs—lot so much work to pull a lot of treasure from the land. And many Jews—from the Pale of Russia, for example—were already used to the cold. Farber offered Wyoming as a suggestion. In fact, the British, who eventually “gave” the Jews Palestine, considered first giving them Uganda, also a far richer land than what they eventually donated.

It was European Jews, working hard behind the scenes for decades, who get the Balfour Declaration signed which eventually resulted in Partition in 1948. Well of course, they WOULD want Palestine, but does that mean it was right—i.e. justified—to “give it to them?

Let us start by remembering that other countries, nations like France and China, evolved historically. Through no end of wars and conquests and bartering brides for land, these nations developed over time with the winner taking all he could lay his hands on. Israel was created by fiat. Fiat, an artificial man-made creation. Such artificial creation needs justification. That is the answer in short.

Everyone knows the British did not own Palestine; they were not even in possession of it if you want to lean on that legalistic distinction. They held it under an international mandate. It was, so to speak, in their custody to take care of until things unrelated to Palestine could be settled. So it simply wans’t theirs to give.

If someone barges into your house and takes control of it while you are helpless to throw them out, and then you “give” the house to your children to live in as their birthright, is it now theirs? NO! This is not my analogy, this is the analogy that stands on the other side of the Israeli’s position and it certainly calls, if for nothing else, then for a JUSTIFICATION for why Israel is on this particular piece of land.

NOW, we reach the most difficult question of all: Even if we concede that the Jews must have a land of their own, and even if we concede that that land must be what was promised in the Torah, we have to now ask who are the Jews to whom this land belongs?

Please note: I am not arguing and would never argue, that Israel is should be held to a higher standard of moral behavior because it is the land of “Jews.”  What I think complicates the question almost fatally is the refusal of anyone in Israel to attempt to say what a Jew is. It is then, of course, impossible to say what a Jewish State is.

The present struggle among secular Jews, religious Zionists and Haredi makes it impossible to ignore how deeply this question roils Israel. It is a war, now, and it promises to continue indefinitely into the future. The absence of a Constitution in Israel might be, in part, to blame, and yet, the reason there is no Constitution is precisely this problem, so there’s a circle.

The issue among these factions is the one I treated of in the essay I posted on my blog: Is Israel officially he home of Judaism, a modern day religion, inward and capable of flourishing in a secular nation? Or is Israel the nation founded by the Torah and subject only to the law of the Torah, hence a theocracy of Orthodox Jews who refuse secularism and the tolerance and democratic principles it entails?

Whereas Jews in America used to be concerned that Palestinians would soon outnumber Jews in Israel and force Israel to decide between democracy and extinction, there is now far more concern in Israel, at least, about the threat from the militant and rapidly reproducing Haredi.

This fact makes it more urgent han ever for Israel to define itself and to know for its own sake what it is about, i.e. what JUSTIFIES the existence of Israel. For, as has been pointed out both by others and by me in the essay, if Israel is just another New York City, it has very little claim on the world of nations. Yet, if it chooses to be a theocracy, it will lose a serious claim as well. The most-modern idea of a cluster of co-existing cultures is probably the most promising future for Israel, probably the only one possible.

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SABBATH IN TEL AVIV, et al

VICTORY IN EGYPT

Before I tell you about our day at the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv, I thought I’d share the one tidbit we may have received vis-à-vis Egypt that was not broadcast in the US. We heard this on France 24, by far the best news channel we get. They were bravely down in the streets interviewing protesters while CNN, BBC and Fox were broadcasting the same red-lit circle with white tent blobs that was said to be Tahrir from up high up in the news building. (That red circle, tan around the circumference, with whitish blobs in it struck me as pizza and gave me the munchies.)

On France 24, there was an interview with sandmonkey, the premier blogger and tweeter of the protest, hailed as one of the promoters, though he modestly said it was not the internet but the people themselves who did it. Of course, he then went on to express his thanks to Mark Zuckerberg for making Egypt’s liberation possible. At the end of the interview, he was asked if there was anything he wanted to say to the viewers of France 24 and he said, “If anyone still thinks this is the Muslim Brotherhood down here, I invite you to come down to the streets in Tahrir. We are all celebrating by getting very drunk, and we are drinking right here in the street!” I’m sure Bibi Netanyahu slept better for having this info; I certainly did.

SABBATH AT THE GREAT SYNAGOGUE

 There are probably reasons for my being a synagogue junkie that I don’t own up to. What I do like to tell myself I’m doing is expanding my sense of what Jews do in the rituals of prayer; I’m comparing what goes on in synagogues all over the world and noting how, unlike Catholics, for example, the religious practice changes shape with changing cultures.

In Nice three years ago, we visited the Main Synagogue which was Orthodox and was the only one of about eight in the city that was actually noted in the tourist guides. We had to find the others with a lot of detective work. This grand old  schul was hidden behind an ordinary-looking door and we were patted down and searched before being allowed in. Nice, of course, is a port on the Mediterranean and the precautions were probably warranted. The place was packed and the Rabbi and Cantor were a pair or holy rollers. The women sat upstairs. I was shocked to find that, despite a large number of women in attendance, there was neither a set of prayer books nor a set of Torah books available. What was offered was a messy table full of random, tattered old books, looking as though they’d been bequeathed after vigorous use; the result was that no woman was looking at the same page as any other and so we could not consult one another to get onto the right page. 

 At the crowded Kiddush following the service, we met an American couple and were invited back to their apartment for lunch; like us they were renting an apartment for the month. It was a rich, warm experience, good for a synagogue junkie.

A week later we tracked down a well-hidden Masoretic synagogue. These people seemed even more frightened than the Orthodox to make the place or time of their services public. We finally located them down a dirt path behind a yoga school in a very lovely modern building, invisible from the street. Jack was called on for an aliya and we were welcomed to the Kiddush which was quite elaborate; we made friends with a Russian doctor who had taught for several years at Stony Brook University and promised she’d look us up when she returned to Long Island. Another junkie high.

Our favorite synagogue experience, however, was in Berlin. We visited the great Oranienburger Synagogue and were saddened to learn that it is no more than a museum, only part of the building having been restored after it was destroyed. A careful internet search, however, turned up a  Masoretic schul, also somewhat hidden from the street and somewhat disguised as something else. The congregation was surprisingly large and very friendly. We had a sit-down Kiddush to celebrate the 90th birthday of a Holocaust survivor who had been one of the famous counterfeiters, the people who, working in the camps as engravers, had foiled Hitler’s plot to inflate British and American currencies by dumping millions of forged bills on the market. Everyone welcomed us heartily and we were seated in the place of honor across from the birthday man.  

So, you see, synagogue junkie-ism has its privileges. I tell myself about all this compare-and-contrast stuff but I suspect there are other reasons for junketing around synagogues. One of them occurred to me this morning. As a visitor to a new synagogue you do not have to grind your teeth when Mr. You-know-who, that jerk, walks in, and you don’t have to look down when your political enemy on the committee for xyz steps up to the bimah, that idiot. There’s no politics, the bane of synagogue membership. There are no neighborhood people, no unsettled scores. And even if you can’t follow the service–which, for the most part, I can’t–you have the music and ….the architecture! Pure aesthetics, pure pleasure. This is a big reason I’m a synagogue junkie.

Last year in Tel Aviv, we visited the Gordon Street synagogue on what turned out to be Tu B’shvat, Jewish Arbor Day, and also the day my Bat Mitzvah portion, the Shirah, was  the Torah portion. I was so excited to be re-connecting to my portion in Israel. Until, that is, we got to the schul. I was the only woman and I had to keep re-counting the men in the seats below because it did not seem that there were even ten, the number required to make a minyan, the number required for opening and reading the Torah. Just in time, a tenth man appeared and I heard my Torah portion chanted, well, er, raced through hastily, but it was….in Israel. It was deeply saddening and also a bit shocking to find that on this lovely holiday, when many fruits and nuts are supposed to be shared at the Kiddush and special prayers said in gratitude for the gift of trees, there were just a few grouchy old men at the Sabbath service. They grudgingly offered us some wine in plastic cups and a few peanuts, and then all went home. I was heartbroken.

Dauntless, I insisted on visiting the Great Synagogue on Allenby Street a few days ago after our visit to the nearby Carmel market. Our arms loaded down with strawberries, olives and cheese, we walked in to see the beautiful dome set with stained glass windows, each one portraying a European synagogue that was destroyed in the Holocaust. It was a serenely beautiful place. Very large and bright and seemingly well-kept. I felt certain that here, at least, a congregation would show up on Shabbat.

On Friday we met our new friend, Bob Greene, and his girlfriend for lunch. Bob is in his late eighties and lives in East Hampton. We met him through a mutual friend when I learned that he was planning to sojourn during the winter months in Tel Aviv. Bob is a jazz pianist and an expert on Jelly Roll Morton. When we met for lunch he’d already networked his way into playing at a Tel Aviv jazz club with a Dixie Band. He told us he’d had to take a bath when he got home to wash away the memories of the worst Dixie Land music he’d ever joined in playing. But he and Diane are having a great time in Tel Aviv. We lunched at Bob’s favorite place, right on his corner. He knew all the waitresses and they understandably adored him.

After lunch, we went again to the Carmel outdoor market, just down the street from Bob’s place. Diane had told me that by 3:30 on Friday, the merchants are throwing away their merchandise and everything is very cheap. But I was too shy to bargain and bought strawberries for what was asked. We were there, however, to buy a yarmulkah for Jack so we could attend services this morning at the Great Synagogue. On our first visit, we’d noticed that there was no box of yarmulkas available as you walk in which is usually the case in American synagogues—in fact, in any other synagogue we’d ever been in. We came away with a pretty crocheted skull cap.

This morning, I was expecting something wonderful as we entered the very impressive and beautiful sanctuary.

The Ark in The Great Synagogue

Oh, no! Nobody there. And the service had been going on for several hours. The cantor was immediately evident: the usual huge-chested basso profundo type. Beside him, a short and very old man, quiet and gentle as he went about arranging this and that. I took him to be the rabbi but I was mistaken. There was also a director who called up the members to bless the Torah as parts were chanted. These three men occupied the bimah throughout the service. Others milled about. Others. Well, had we not arrived , there would have been just ten men including the rabbi and cantor. Jack made eleven, and his presence was much remarked upon. He was invited for an aliya and had to beg the cantor to find him a tallis for the job.

Looking down from above—again—I had the impression that the main Torah reader, a pallid, stringy youth, and the Haftarah reader—a heartier young man—had both been imported for the purpose. They were decades younger than anyone else there. (The rabbi, a tiny, scrawny man in Chasidic dress with a huge cloud of grey curls that flowed continuously from his temples to halfway down his chest, stood among the rest of the congregants, swaying and jumping and bowing with such ferocious energy that I soon understood why he would never put on any weight.) I decided that the two young readers were volunteers from some Jewish youth organization that provides people to make up a minyan so the various synagogues in Tel Aviv can hold Sabbath services. Two or three other men were also clearly there in that same capacity; they sat through most of the service, reading newpapers and tourist brochures. (The synagogue is open for services only on Saturday mornings; the rest of the week it is open for tours.)

I met Jack in the lobby as soon as the service was over and we tried to leave quickly. We were both terribly sad. But the cantor called us back to join in the kiddush. This was a tiny table set with a few pieces of cake, some potato chips, and exactly ten little pieces of lox. A man handed me a cup of wine and gestured to an even smaller table back in the shadows of the entranceway. The “women’s table.” The one other woman who had sat with me upstairs held out the dish with three pieces of cake on it. So not only are we too gorgeous and seductive for the men to look upon us without being distracted from their prayers, we are also a threat to their digestions!

The midrash (Torah study) session which we are accustomed to having after the kiddush was held right there at the table, the Cantor reading a section and asking questions of the men as they chewed on their lox. It was over in five minutes.

POST-SYNAGOGUE BLUES

 Jack and I could barely speak for all the grief we felt. Here in the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv, shills were being sent in to make up the requirement of ten men! Which of course brought me back to all of last year’s reflections on what the State of Israel is for.

A safe place for Jews, Jack says over cappuccino on Allenby Street.

But if these Jews don’t practice Judaism, what is the world knocking itself out for?

We are persecuted everywhere else we go.

Yes, I say, but so are the Roma. The world doesn’t allocate a safe haven for Roma!

Jack waves me away. This is not a discussion he wants to have. Again. But Sandy Balsam has answered this question several times. Jews, he says, are an international treasure. We have contributed disproportionately to the world’s music, art, literature, philosophy and science. Israel leads the world in technological patents per person (however you calculate that weird number.) This, Sandy argues, is why the world must keep Israel in existence.

Well, this is, at base, racial exceptionalism and Sandy is comfortablewith that. I’m not. I”m more okay with exceptionalism than I am with the racial aspect. I have a problem with Judaism being perceived and owned as racial.

I am perhaps too hard on myself but I don’t think I should ride in to the world’s extraordinary protection of Israel on the coattails of Einstein, Bernstein and Rubenstein et al. They deserve to be provided a safe haven where they can create and think, etc in peace and safety. But what have I done? And these chubby ladies with too much makeup and long red fingernails talking noisily over their cappuccinos at the next table, what have they done?

I think that if I am not Bernstein etc  I have to do something affirmative to earn this extraordinary status. If I want the world to protect a Jewish state, the least I can do is be Jewish!

Here Jack rejoins the conversation and says –for the umpteenth time–that I am Jewish without doing anything, that I was born Jewish and there’s no way out for me. And that is why we need Israel. Because whether I see myself as Jewish or not, whether I practice my Judaism or not, others will march me off to the…yada yada, yada…..

So the argument is really that any endangered group must be protected, that the world owes any group that is threatened with extermination a safe and secure place because human life makes a moral claim on everyone.

So, if the Roma were threatened with extinction the world would be morally bound to create a state with full nation status to protect them? I doubt that.  And this reasoning brings us back to something I mentioned in last year’s letters: Barry Farber’s suggestion that, if protection was all that Israel was about, a bequest of the relatively empty state of Wah-oh-min would have provided Jews more safety than this current table prepared in the presence of our enemies.

NO! This will not sit with me. I don’t get to swim in the blue Ha Yam, and surf and splash around on Shabbat, in a land sustained, protected and supported by the entire western world like no other place on Earth because I happened to be my mother’s daughter. Israel makes a moral claim on others. And when I talk about the moral obligation created by that support, I am not referring merely to the notion that Israel must be morally fastidious in the way it conducts itself with its enemies, even to the point of self-endangerment.

I am saying that to warrant a Jewish state, the people of Israel must be affirmatively Jewish. There are three paths to this Jewishness, as I see it, three ways to interpret Jewish Identity.

One can BELIEVE in a Jewish theology: Moses received the Ten Commandments from God himself and in this moment the Jewish people became the chosen of God , etc etc. OR one can PRACTICE Jewish ritual and tradition—keep kosher, keep the Sabbath—and adhere to this practice without first reaching questions of theological belief. (This , I believ, makes the most sense in a time when religious belief is no longer intellectually tenable. I know from experience that one can “learn by doing,” that one can reach an intellectually and morally acceptable position through dedicated practice.) FINALLY, one can locate one’s Jewish Identity in BLOODLINE.

When Jack says that I was “born Jewish” and that “there is nothing I can do about it,” I AM APPALLED. First of all, I was not raised a Jew. My family were Socialist atheists of a particularly strident variety. So, as a matter of historical fact, I have had to shape for myself, by my own choice, whatever Jewish identity I have.

But I would not have it any other way. To say one is Jewish the way one is red-headed is to strip all moral significance from one’s Judaism. If one’s religion is not a choice, it cannot be a commitment. It has nothing to do with human freedom and so lacks all moral significance. And if your Jewishness lacks any moral significance, it has no moral claim on other people, for why should anyone owe you anything for a fact over which you have no control. As a born-Jew you are owed no more than what you are owed as a human being. And perhaps that is what Israel is for.

But there are other problems with the racialist notion of Judaism. A woman I know who was born in Germany before the Second War and raised there during the War, worries that she will be misunderstood in America. She takes great delight in explaining to anyone who will stand still long enough to listen that she is, “one-eighth Jewish blood.” When I heard her gleefully proclaiming this redemptive fact to a rabbi one evening, I intervened and whiskedher away. “Judaism is not something that can be fractionalized,” I told her. “To a rabbi, you sound like Hitler, like the Gestapo going around and noting the fractions in a person’s bloodline. Fractions are cold, Aryan mechanisms for determining who shall live and who shall die. Come, have some wine and forget about the fractions of your blood. This is a synagogue, home to Judaism.” And this is why I insist on “Judaism, a system of belief and practice, somthing that cannot be had in halves or quarters or eighths. Something that is a matter of free, and so, moral, commitment.

The Not-So-Great Synagogue a block away from the Great, shuttered, crumbling and marked with graffiti.

   The shop next door to the Not-So-Great. Allenby Street reminds me of 14th Street. Tchotchkadik, my father would say.

 WE are finishing up our capuccino, and I remind Jack of the woman we met over a year ago at a synagogue potluck Friday night dinner. She asked if I was a member of the congregation.

No, I said, I’m waiting to see what happens when the new rabbi arrives.

What are you waiting for?

I am hoping he will stir people to come to Sabbath services. Torah services. The ones we have on Saturdays. As of now, there’s no service on Saturdays. I’m waiting for that.

Why do you think that’s so important.

Oh, well, umn, because it’s in the ten commandments, you know. Even before you are commanded not to commit adultery or murder, you are commanded to keep the Sabbath.

And you take that seriously?

Well, I think it’s pretty central. I mean, it’s right up there with monotheism and the taboo on graven images. Don’t you take those things seriously?

Not at all. It’s some ancient junk.

Do you worship many gods? Idols and graven images?

No one keeps the Sabbath.

Do you murder, steal, commit adultery?

That’s a code of ethics for everyone, so I accept that.

But, then, what do you suppose makes you Jewish?

She thinks for a few moments.

I was born Jewish. I’m a descendant of Jews. My ancestors were Jews who were driven out of Egypt. (This isn’t also “junk?” Oh, well, we are free to choose our myths.) It’s in my blood. That is what makes me Jewish.

Oh, golly! Here, before me, is the real deal. A Jew by BLOOD.

Well, I say, that’s ok for you because you have dark hair and eyes, and olive-toned skin, so it’s plausible that you can, in fact, trace your lineage back to King David. But I, as you can see, have my mother’s pale blue eyes and fair complexion. And the pale hair she took from both her parents. And my father’s father had the same pale hair and eyes, which is why, even though blue eyes are genetically recessive, my siblings and I and all my cousins and both my children are fair-skinned and blue-eyed. We, unfortunately, spring from European converts to Judaism; we are not in the line of King David.

She is shocked, shocked. Jews did not convert people, she insists.

Well, I say, staring into her face, these are not blue contact lenses! In fact millions of Aryans converted to Judaism during the diaspora whether Jews implored them to or not. And I am not of your nobler bloodline., so I have to practice my Judaism, and that is why I want to observe the Sabbath, starting with a Torah service on Saturday mornings, and that is why, fair-haired creature that I am, I am not yet a member of your congregation. But I am hopeful, and that is why I am here to dine with you. (If, that is, you will allow me to break bread with you even though I’m not in the bloodline.)

This bloodline stuff is morally odious. Jews who continue to think this way after Hitler’s blood-tracings are conspiring with the enemy. What bloodline is is TRIBAL. To pin Judaism to a bloodline is to take the anti-Semites’ view that Jews are a secret cult that stick to themselves and serve themselves and conspire among themselves and no one else can get into their inner circles because it’s a cult of blood.

Think, I urge these people, of just who the other TRIBES of today’s world are: The Hutus and the Tutsis, the Navajo and the Sioux, the wild men in white robes tearing on horseback through the desert. (But even the old Arab tribes eventually united under Saud in the start of what is a continuing de-tribalization process.) Do you really want to be one of them? A Bantu? A Mohawk? A Shinnecock? You cannot ask to be taken seriously in the modern west as a tribe. Is the Nation of Israel akin to the Navajo Nation? Is The Land of Israel, then, a reservation for the protection of an adorable little oddity of antiquity, the Jewish tribe? Is Israel, like the American Indian reservations, a guilt-offering from the wider world which also serves as a place to isolate people they really don’t want to deal with? Because that what goes down with tribes, you should know.

Well, Sandy Balsam would probably be ok with this and say that it is a good thing to  protect the Jews in Israel in the same way and for the same reasons that America protects–and isolates– its native populations. But we all do hope, don’t we, that the Indian tribes use their reservations to keep their ancient cultures alive. If all they do is run casinos on them, we taxpayers feel we are being had. So if Israel is a tribal reservation, the people who live on the res should practice their tribal ways there, exercise the right to speak and practice their, oh, yes, religion.

Jack points out, rightly, that diaspora Jews feel more pressure to keep the old culture alive than do Jews in Israel who apparently think that being here is enough. Well, think of those Mashantucket Pequots and their casino, say I. Is Israel merely a place you can get a good bagel?

To see Israel of a cultural, rather than a religious, artifact entails the sort of absurdity I heard awhile back on Yom Kippur when a new member at a synagogue stood up to say how grateful she was to have found other Jews in her community to make her feel at home. Now she has new friends to meet with once a week for Mah Jongg! So, then, is this what we are to pass along to our children and our children’s children, this game of painted tiles? Play Mah Jongg, eat noodles, ando count on an abacus! If there is nothing specifically Jewish that you are required to DO to call yourself Jewish, this is where we end up. And I’M NOT GOING THERE!

So (we are still back on Allenby Street having coffee) I am wondering how a city like Tel Aviv sees itself as a Jewish city in a Jewish state if volunteers have to be dragged in from elsewhere to make up the requirement of ten men to hold a Sabbath service when Sabbath observance–along with a single, invisible God– is the very minimum required to be a Jew. That’s where I am on this, no matter how many times I argue it through with Jack. I can never settle for the amoral answer to the question of Jewish Identity and say my religion travels in my blood.

And I fail to understand why merely being in Israel is enough of a Jewish practice. Anyone can be in Israel. And this behavior involves one in a logical circle: If the justification of Israel is that it is a place for Jews to feel safe, and then feeling safe in Israel is enough to make you a Jew….well, you see how this comes out. Jews in Israel, like Jews everywhere need to make an affirmative, conscious–read that  moral–commitment, or the whole house caves in.

HA YAM

So now we go dancing! Of course, DANCING!  This is how Tel Aviv does shabbos. There are more than seventy folk dances, some for couples, some for singles, some in lines, some in circles, some fast, some slow, all of them very, very SEXY. It is a mitzvah, btw, to make love on the Sabbath and I have to suppose that this is what they’re warming up for.

I have wanted to learn these dances since last year. I am amazed that everyone knows them. You hear two or three notes of a song and they begin the complicated stepping and weaving that makes up the dance for that particular song. Where do you learn this? Finally, I get up the courage to ask the men who are playing the music on tapes and cd’s. One of them writes on a piece of paper. Rokdim. com. I have been to that site. It is a list of all the dances, all the songs, the names of the persons who made up each dance and the date on which it was entered on the list. The dates go back to the early seventies. Is this one of those secret Jewish societies? How do I learn to do the dances, not just learn their names?

I pester the man at the Ministry of Tourism. He has gotten to know me through our emails. After saying he is a government official and not responsible for private matters like dance classes or dance clubs, I get tough with him and tell him he is not being helpful to a tourist. So he does a little research and tells me there are classes held on the beach, in front of the Renaissance Hotel, one hour before the dancing starts on Saturdays. Thank you, I say. Now you are being helpful to tourists.

We missed the dance class today because of the agonized discussion over cappuccino on Allenby Street, but we will try again next week. I am determined that Jack will not leave TLV without dancing with me once on the beach. We will have to learn at least one sexy dance.

The beach at the end of Bob Greene’s street, a surfing spot and not as corwded as the beach where the dancing takes place or the beach near the port which was mobbed on Shabbat.

The beach promenade is as we remembered it from last year, thronged with people, and the flea market along the port is teeming as well. So it was true, then, that the terribly thin turnout last week was due to fear of getting wet. Ok, they are chickens at heart, these Israelis who give guns to young girls. 

 And once, again, the huge dogs are out in force, most of them owned by women as I noted last year. (Men tend to go in for the tiny, cuddly dogs, cockapoos and such. But, as previously noted, this is a country that reads backwards, too.) Great Danes, a Samoyed or two, many German shepherds….but the pet of choice is…THE GOLDEN LAB!

I am very sensitive on this subject. As an owner of a Black Lab, (long deceased, but still MY dog) I can’t help keeping track in a guesstimate sort of way of the number of Yellow and Golden Labs versus the number of Black Labs. And I have to say there is a decided preference among Israelis–an overwhelming preference– for ARYANS!!! (An aside: The Times reported last week that the most popular/populous dog on Long Island is the Black Labrador. Yay!)

Which brings me to the cab driver and, finally, a bit of on-the-street chatter from Tel Aviv:

We needed to take a cab to schul this morning to get there in time. When we gave the driver the address, he said, “What is it? You have a Bar Mitzvah there?”

No, I said.  We just want to be there.

The man shrugged. He knew he had aliens in his car. (We should have seen it as the sign it was that only crazy people go to schul, even to the GREAT SYNAGOGUE.)

A long silence. Many red lights, many stops as we proceed along Ben Yehuda Street to Allenby.

And then, suddenly, from out of nowhere, “There are too many Black people in Israel!”

Huh? I look around quickly and see a single thin Black boy, his shoulders hunched, his hands crammed into the pockets of his jeans, walking along the empty shabbos street.

How many? I ask.

Way too many. It’s terrible. A terrible thing for Israel.

Ethiopians?

No, from Niger. They walk across the desert into Egypt, and then they walk across more desert to come here. It’s terrible. They sneak across the border. It’s illegal!

I understand, I say. They come here to look for work.

It’s  terrible. Way too many of them. the government has to do something.

Really? Do they turn to crime because they can’t find jobs?

They bring everything bad with them. Crime and everything filthy.

Well, I say, now that Egypt will get better soon, perhaps they will want to stay in Egypt.

Egypt is also terrible, he says.

Has the situation in Egypt affected tourism here in Tel Aviv?

No, not much. I don’t think it makes any difference. We are going to have to do something to stop all those Black people, though. There are too many of them here.

Are you worried about what’s happening now in Egypt?

Not so much. We have to wait and see what happens.

That’s it, folks. You’ve been asking how the Israeli on the street feels about the situation in Egypt. The taxi driver is worried. But not so worried as he is about the situation in Niger.

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A Tel Aviv Sabbath, et al

VICTORY IN EGYPT

Before I tell you about our day at the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv, I thought I’d share the one tidbit we may have received vis-à-vis Egypt that was not broadcast in the US. We heard this on France 24, by far the best news channel we get. They were bravely down in the streets interviewing protesters while CNN, BBC and Fox were broadcasting the same red-lit circle with white tent blobs that was said to be Tahrir from up high up in the news building. (That red circle, tan around the circumference, with whitish blobs in it struck me as pizza and gave me the munchies.)

On France 24, there was an interview with sandmonkey, the premier blogger and tweeter of the protest, hailed as one of the promoters, though he modestly said it was not the internet but the people themselves who did it. Of course, he then went on to express his thanks to Mark Zuckerberg for making Egypt’s liberation possible. At the end of the interview, he was asked if there was anything he wanted to say to the viewers of France 24 and he said, “If anyone still thinks this is the Muslim Brotherhood down here, I invite you to come down to the streets in Tahrir. We are all celebrating by getting very drunk, and we are drinking right here in the street!” I’m sure Bibi Netanyahu slept better for having this info; I certainly did.

SABBATH AT THE GREAT SYNAGOGUE

 There are probably reasons for my being a synagogue junkie that I don’t own up to. What I do like to tell myself I’m doing is expanding my sense of what Jews do in the rituals of prayer; I’m comparing what goes on in synagogues all over the world and noting how, unlike Catholics, for example, the religious practice changes shape with changing cultures.

In Nice three years ago, we visited the Main Synagogue which was Orthodox and was the only one of about eight in the city that was actually noted in the tourist guides. We had to find the others with a lot of detective work. This grand old  schul was hidden behind an ordinary-looking door and we were patted down and searched before being allowed in. Nice, of course, is a port on the Mediterranean and the precautions were probably warranted. The place was packed and the Rabbi and Cantor were a pair or holy rollers. The women sat upstairs. I was shocked to find that, despite a large number of women in attendance, there was neither a set of prayer books nor a set of Torah books available. What was offered was a messy table full of random, tattered old books, looking as though they’d been bequeathed after vigorous use; the result was that no woman was looking at the same page as any other and so we could not consult one another to get onto the right page. 

 At the crowded Kiddush following the service, we met an American couple and were invited back to their apartment for lunch; like us they were renting an apartment for the month. It was a rich, warm experience, good for a synagogue junkie.

A week later we tracked down a well-hidden Masoretic synagogue. These people seemed even more frightened than the Orthodox to make the place or time of their services public. We finally located them down a dirt path behind a yoga school in a very lovely modern building, invisible from the street. Jack was called on for an aliya and we were welcomed to the Kiddush which was quite elaborate; we made friends with a Russian doctor who had taught for several years at Stony Brook University and promised she’d look us up when she returned to Long Island. Another junkie high.

Our favorite synagogue experience, however, was in Berlin. We visited the great Oranienburger Synagogue and were saddened to learn that it is no more than a museum, only part of the building having been restored after it was destroyed. A careful internet search, however, turned up a  Masoretic schul, also somewhat hidden from the street and somewhat disguised as something else. The congregation was surprisingly large and very friendly. We had a sit-down Kiddush to celebrate the 90th birthday of a Holocaust survivor who had been one of the famous counterfeiters, the people who, working in the camps as engravers, had foiled Hitler’s plot to inflate British and American currencies by dumping millions of forged bills on the market. Everyone welcomed us heartily and we were seated in the place of honor across from the birthday man.  

So, you see, synagogue junkie-ism has its privileges. I tell myself about all this compare-and-contrast stuff but I suspect there are other reasons for junketing around synagogues. One of them occurred to me this morning. As a visitor to a new synagogue you do not have to grind your teeth when Mr. You-know-who, that jerk, walks in, and you don’t have to look down when your political enemy on the committee for xyz steps up to the bimah, that idiot. There’s no politics, the bane of synagogue membership. There are no neighborhood people, no unsettled scores. And even if you can’t follow the service–which, for the most part, I can’t–you have the music and ….the architecture! Pure aesthetics, pure pleasure. This is a big reason I’m a synagogue junkie.

Last year in Tel Aviv, we visited the Gordon Street synagogue on what turned out to be Tu B’shvat, Jewish Arbor Day, and also the day my Bat Mitzvah portion, the Shirah, was  the Torah portion. I was so excited to be re-connecting to my portion in Israel. Until, that is, we got to the schul. I was the only woman and I had to keep re-counting the men in the seats below because it did not seem that there were even ten, the number required to make a minyan, the number required for opening and reading the Torah. Just in time, a tenth man appeared and I heard my Torah portion chanted, well, er, raced through hastily, but it was….in Israel. It was deeply saddening and also a bit shocking to find that on this lovely holiday, when many fruits and nuts are supposed to be shared at the Kiddush and special prayers said in gratitude for the gift of trees, there were just a few grouchy old men at the Sabbath service. They grudgingly offered us some wine in plastic cups and a few peanuts, and then all went home. I was heartbroken.

Dauntless, I insisted on visiting the Great Synagogue on Allenby Street a few days ago after our visit to the nearby Carmel market. Our arms loaded down with strawberries, olives and cheese, we walked in to see the beautiful dome set with stained glass windows, each one portraying a European synagogue that was destroyed in the Holocaust. It was a serenely beautiful place. Very large and bright and seemingly well-kept. I felt certain that here, at least, a congregation would show up on Shabbat.

On Friday we met our new friend, Bob Greene, and his girlfriend for lunch. Bob is in his late eighties and lives in East Hampton. We met him through a mutual friend when I learned that he was planning to sojourn during the winter months in Tel Aviv. Bob is a jazz pianist and an expert on Jelly Roll Morton. When we met for lunch he’d already networked his way into playing at a Tel Aviv jazz club with a Dixie Band. He told us he’d had to take a bath when he got home to wash away the memories of the worst Dixie Land music he’d ever joined in playing. But he and Diane are having a great time in Tel Aviv. We lunched at Bob’s favorite place, right on his corner. He knew all the waitresses and they understandably adored him.

After lunch, we went again to the Carmel outdoor market, just down the street from Bob’s place. Diane had told me that by 3:30 on Friday, the merchants are throwing away their merchandise and everything is very cheap. But I was too shy to bargain and bought strawberries for what was asked. We were there, however, to buy a yarmulkah for Jack so we could attend services this morning at the Great Synagogue. On our first visit, we’d noticed that there was no box of yarmulkas available as you walk in which is usually the case in American synagogues—in fact, in any other synagogue we’d ever been in. We came away with a pretty crocheted skull cap.

This morning, I was expecting something wonderful as we entered the very impressive and beautiful sanctuary.

The Ark in The Great Synagogue

Oh, no! Nobody there. And the service had been going on for several hours. The cantor was immediately evident: the usual huge-chested basso profundo type. Beside him, a short and very old man, quiet and gentle as he went about arranging this and that. I took him to be the rabbi but I was mistaken. There was also a director who called up the members to bless the Torah as parts were chanted. These three men occupied the bimah throughout the service. Others milled about. Others. Well, had we not arrived , there would have been just ten men including the rabbi and cantor. Jack made eleven, and his presence was much remarked upon. He was invited for an aliya and had to beg the cantor to find him a tallis for the job.

Looking down from above—again—I had the impression that the main Torah reader, a pallid, stringy youth, and the Haftarah reader—a heartier young man—had both been imported for the purpose. They were decades younger than anyone else there. (The rabbi, a tiny, scrawny man in Chasidic dress with a huge cloud of grey curls that flowed continuously from his temples to halfway down his chest, stood among the rest of the congregants, swaying and jumping and bowing with such ferocious energy that I soon understood why he would never put on any weight.) I decided that the two young readers were volunteers from some Jewish youth organization that provides people to make up a minyan so the various synagogues in Tel Aviv can hold Sabbath services. Two or three other men were also clearly there in that same capacity; they sat through most of the service, reading newpapers and tourist brochures. (The synagogue is open for services only on Saturday mornings; the rest of the week it is open for tours.)

I met Jack in the lobby as soon as the service was over and we tried to leave quickly. We were both terribly sad. But the cantor called us back to join in the kiddush. This was a tiny table set with a few pieces of cake, some potato chips, and exactly ten little pieces of lox. A man handed me a cup of wine and gestured to an even smaller table back in the shadows of the entranceway. The “women’s table.” The one other woman who had sat with me upstairs held out the dish with three pieces of cake on it. So not only are we too gorgeous and seductive for the men to look upon us without being distracted from their prayers, we are also a threat to their digestions!

The midrash (Torah study) session which we are accustomed to having after the kiddush was held right there at the table, the Cantor reading a section and asking questions of the men as they chewed on their lox. It was over in five minutes.

POST-SYNAGOGUE BLUES

 Jack and I could barely speak for all the grief we felt. Here in the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv, shills were being sent in to make up the requirement of ten men! Which of course brought me back to all of last year’s reflections on what the State of Israel is for.

A safe place for Jews, Jack says over cappuccino on Allenby Street.

But if these Jews don’t practice Judaism, what is the world knocking itself out for?

We are persecuted everywhere else we go.

Yes, I say, but so are the Roma. The world doesn’t allocate a safe haven for Roma!

Jack waves me away. This is not a discussion he wants to have. Again. But Sandy Balsam has answered this question several times. Jews, he says, are an international treasure. We have contributed disproportionately to the world’s music, art, literature, philosophy and science. Israel leads the world in technological patents per person (however you calculate that weird number.) This, Sandy argues, is why the world must keep Israel in existence.

Well, this is, at base, racial exceptionalism and Sandy is comfortablewith that. I’m not. I”m more okay with exceptionalism than I am with the racial aspect. I have a problem with Judaism being perceived and owned as racial.

I am perhaps too hard on myself but I don’t think I should ride in to the world’s extraordinary protection of Israel on the coattails of Einstein, Bernstein and Rubenstein et al. They deserve to be provided a safe haven where they can create and think, etc in peace and safety. But what have I done? And these chubby ladies with too much makeup and long red fingernails talking noisily over their cappuccinos at the next table, what have they done?

I think that if I am not Bernstein etc  I have to do something affirmative to earn this extraordinary status. If I want the world to protect a Jewish state, the least I can do is be Jewish!

Here Jack rejoins the conversation and says –for the umpteenth time–that I am Jewish without doing anything, that I was born Jewish and there’s no way out for me. And that is why we need Israel. Because whether I see myself as Jewish or not, whether I practice my Judaism or not, others will march me off to the…yada yada, yada…..

So the argument is really that any endangered group must be protected, that the world owes any group that is threatened with extermination a safe and secure place because human life makes a moral claim on everyone.

So, if the Roma were threatened with extinction the world would be morally bound to create a state with full nation status to protect them? I doubt that.  And this reasoning brings us back to something I mentioned in last year’s letters: Barry Farber’s suggestion that, if protection was all that Israel was about, a bequest of the relatively empty state of Wah-oh-min would have provided Jews more safety than this current table prepared in the presence of our enemies.

NO! This will not sit with me. I don’t get to swim in the blue Ha Yam, and surf and splash around on Shabbat, in a land sustained, protected and supported by the entire western world like no other place on Earth because I happened to be my mother’s daughter. Israel makes a moral claim on others. And when I talk about the moral obligation created by that support, I am not referring merely to the notion that Israel must be morally fastidious in the way it conducts itself with its enemies, even to the point of self-endangerment.

I am saying that to warrant a Jewish state, the people of Israel must be affirmatively Jewish. There are three paths to this Jewishness, as I see it, three ways to interpret Jewish Identity.

One can BELIEVE in a Jewish theology: Moses received the Ten Commandments from God himself and in this moment the Jewish people became the chosen of God , etc etc. OR one can PRACTICE Jewish ritual and tradition—keep kosher, keep the Sabbath—and adhere to this practice without first reaching questions of theological belief. (This , I believ, makes the most sense in a time when religious belief is no longer intellectually tenable. I know from experience that one can “learn by doing,” that one can reach an intellectually and morally acceptable position through dedicated practice.) FINALLY, one can locate one’s Jewish Identity in BLOODLINE.

When Jack says that I was “born Jewish” and that “there is nothing I can do about it,” I AM APPALLED. First of all, I was not raised a Jew. My family were Socialist atheists of a particularly strident variety. So, as a matter of historical fact, I have had to shape for myself, by my own choice, whatever Jewish identity I have.

But I would not have it any other way. To say one is Jewish the way one is red-headed is to strip all moral significance from one’s Judaism. If one’s religion is not a choice, it cannot be a commitment. It has nothing to do with human freedom and so lacks all moral significance. And if your Jewishness lacks any moral significance, it has no moral claim on other people, for why should anyone owe you anything for a fact over which you have no control. As a born-Jew you are owed no more than what you are owed as a human being. And perhaps that is what Israel is for.

But there are other problems with the racialist notion of Judaism. A woman I know who was born in Germany before the Second War and raised there during the War, worries that she will be misunderstood in America. She takes great delight in explaining to anyone who will stand still long enough to listen that she is, “one-eighth Jewish blood.” When I heard her gleefully proclaiming this redemptive fact to a rabbi one evening, I intervened and whiskedher away. “Judaism is not something that can be fractionalized,” I told her. “To a rabbi, you sound like Hitler, like the Gestapo going around and noting the fractions in a person’s bloodline. Fractions are cold, Aryan mechanisms for determining who shall live and who shall die. Come, have some wine and forget about the fractions of your blood. This is a synagogue, home to Judaism.” And this is why I insist on “Judaism, a system of belief and practice, somthing that cannot be had in halves or quarters or eighths. Something that is a matter of free, and so, moral, commitment.

The Not-So-Great Synagogue a block away from the Great, shuttered, crumbling and marked with graffiti.

   The shop next door to the Not-So-Great. Allenby Street reminds me of 14th Street. Tchotchkadik, my father would say.

 WE are finishing up our capuccino, and I remind Jack of the woman we met over a year ago at a synagogue potluck Friday night dinner. She asked if I was a member of the congregation.

No, I said, I’m waiting to see what happens when the new rabbi arrives.

What are you waiting for?

I am hoping he will stir people to come to Sabbath services. Torah services. The ones we have on Saturdays. As of now, there’s no service on Saturdays. I’m waiting for that.

Why do you think that’s so important.

Oh, well, umn, because it’s in the ten commandments, you know. Even before you are commanded not to commit adultery or murder, you are commanded to keep the Sabbath.

And you take that seriously?

Well, I think it’s pretty central. I mean, it’s right up there with monotheism and the taboo on graven images. Don’t you take those things seriously?

Not at all. It’s some ancient junk.

Do you worship many gods? Idols and graven images?

No one keeps the Sabbath.

Do you murder, steal, commit adultery?

That’s a code of ethics for everyone, so I accept that.

But, then, what do you suppose makes you Jewish?

She thinks for a few moments.

I was born Jewish. I’m a descendant of Jews. My ancestors were Jews who were driven out of Egypt. (This isn’t also “junk?” Oh, well, we are free to choose our myths.) It’s in my blood. That is what makes me Jewish.

Oh, golly! Here, before me, is the real deal. A Jew by BLOOD.

Well, I say, that’s ok for you because you have dark hair and eyes, and olive-toned skin, so it’s plausible that you can, in fact, trace your lineage back to King David. But I, as you can see, have my mother’s pale blue eyes and fair complexion. And the pale hair she took from both her parents. And my father’s father had the same pale hair and eyes, which is why, even though blue eyes are genetically recessive, my siblings and I and all my cousins and both my children are fair-skinned and blue-eyed. We, unfortunately, spring from European converts to Judaism; we are not in the line of King David.

She is shocked, shocked. Jews did not convert people, she insists.

Well, I say, staring into her face, these are not blue contact lenses! In fact millions of Aryans converted to Judaism during the diaspora whether Jews implored them to or not. And I am not of your nobler bloodline., so I have to practice my Judaism, and that is why I want to observe the Sabbath, starting with a Torah service on Saturday mornings, and that is why, fair-haired creature that I am, I am not yet a member of your congregation. But I am hopeful, and that is why I am here to dine with you. (If, that is, you will allow me to break bread with you even though I’m not in the bloodline.)

This bloodline stuff is morally odious. Jews who continue to think this way after Hitler’s blood-tracings are conspiring with the enemy. What bloodline is is TRIBAL. To pin Judaism to a bloodline is to take the anti-Semites’ view that Jews are a secret cult that stick to themselves and serve themselves and conspire among themselves and no one else can get into their inner circles because it’s a cult of blood.

Think, I urge these people, of just who the other TRIBES of today’s world are: The Hutus and the Tutsis, the Navajo and the Sioux, the wild men in white robes tearing on horseback through the desert. (But even the old Arab tribes eventually united under Saud in the start of what is a continuing de-tribalization process.) Do you really want to be one of them? A Bantu? A Mohawk? A Shinnecock? You cannot ask to be taken seriously in the modern west as a tribe. Is the Nation of Israel akin to the Navajo Nation? Is The Land of Israel, then, a reservation for the protection of an adorable little oddity of antiquity, the Jewish tribe? Is Israel, like the American Indian reservations, a guilt-offering from the wider world which also serves as a place to isolate people they really don’t want to deal with? Because that what goes down with tribes, you should know.

Well, Sandy Balsam would probably be ok with this and say that it is a good thing to  protect the Jews in Israel in the same way and for the same reasons that America protects–and isolates– its native populations. But we all do hope, don’t we, that the Indian tribes use their reservations to keep their ancient cultures alive. If all they do is run casinos on them, we taxpayers feel we are being had. So if Israel is a tribal reservation, the people who live on the res should practice their tribal ways there, exercise the right to speak and practice their, oh, yes, religion.

Jack points out, rightly, that diaspora Jews feel more pressure to keep the old culture alive than do Jews in Israel who apparently think that being here is enough. Well, think of those Mashantucket Pequots and their casino, say I. Is Israel merely a place you can get a good bagel?

To see Israel of a cultural, rather than a religious, artifact entails the sort of absurdity I heard awhile back on Yom Kippur when a new member at a synagogue stood up to say how grateful she was to have found other Jews in her community to make her feel at home. Now she has new friends to meet with once a week for Mah Jongg! So, then, is this what we are to pass along to our children and our children’s children, this game of painted tiles? Play Mah Jongg, eat noodles, ando count on an abacus! If there is nothing specifically Jewish that you are required to DO to call yourself Jewish, this is where we end up. And I’M NOT GOING THERE!

So (we are still back on Allenby Street having coffee) I am wondering how a city like Tel Aviv sees itself as a Jewish city in a Jewish state if volunteers have to be dragged in from elsewhere to make up the requirement of ten men to hold a Sabbath service when Sabbath observance–along with a single, invisible God– is the very minimum required to be a Jew. That’s where I am on this, no matter how many times I argue it through with Jack. I can never settle for the amoral answer to the question of Jewish Identity and say my religion travels in my blood.

And I fail to understand why merely being in Israel is enough of a Jewish practice. Anyone can be in Israel. And this behavior involves one in a logical circle: If the justification of Israel is that it is a place for Jews to feel safe, and then feeling safe in Israel is enough to make you a Jew….well, you see how this comes out. Jews in Israel, like Jews everywhere need to make an affirmative, conscious–read that  moral–commitment, or the whole house caves in.

HA YAM

So now we go dancing! Of course, DANCING!  This is how Tel Aviv does shabbos. There are more than seventy folk dances, some for couples, some for singles, some in lines, some in circles, some fast, some slow, all of them very, very SEXY. It is a mitzvah, btw, to make love on the Sabbath and I have to suppose that this is what they’re warming up for.

I have wanted to learn these dances since last year. I am amazed that everyone knows them. You hear two or three notes of a song and they begin the complicated stepping and weaving that makes up the dance for that particular song. Where do you learn this? Finally, I get up the courage to ask the men who are playing the music on tapes and cd’s. One of them writes on a piece of paper. Rokdim. com. I have been to that site. It is a list of all the dances, all the songs, the names of the persons who made up each dance and the date on which it was entered on the list. The dates go back to the early seventies. Is this one of those secret Jewish societies? How do I learn to do the dances, not just learn their names?

I pester the man at the Ministry of Tourism. He has gotten to know me through our emails. After saying he is a government official and not responsible for private matters like dance classes or dance clubs, I get tough with him and tell him he is not being helpful to a tourist. So he does a little research and tells me there are classes held on the beach, in front of the Renaissance Hotel, one hour before the dancing starts on Saturdays. Thank you, I say. Now you are being helpful to tourists.

We missed the dance class today because of the agonized discussion over cappuccino on Allenby Street, but we will try again next week. I am determined that Jack will not leave TLV without dancing with me once on the beach. We will have to learn at least one sexy dance.

The beach at the end of Bob Greene's street, a surfing spot and not as corwded as the beach where the dancing takes place or the beach near the port which was mobbed on Shabbat.

The beach promenade is as we remembered it from last year, thronged with people, and the flea market along the port is teeming as well. So it was true, then, that the terribly thin turnout last week was due to fear of getting wet. Ok, they are chickens at heart, these Israelis who give guns to young girls.

 And once, again, the huge dogs are out in force, most of them owned by women as I noted last year. (Men tend to go in for the tiny, cuddly dogs, cockapoos and such. But, as previously noted, this is a country that reads backwards, too.) Great Danes, a Samoyed or two, many German shepherds….but the pet of choice is…THE GOLDEN LAB!

I am very sensitive on this subject. As an owner of a Black Lab, (long deceased, but still MY dog) I can’t help keeping track in a guesstimate sort of way of the number of Yellow and Golden Labs versus the number of Black Labs. And I have to say there is a decided preference among Israelis–an overwhelming preference– for ARYANS!!! (An aside: The Times reported last week that the most popular/populous dog on Long Island is the Black Labrador. Yay!)

Which brings me to the cab driver and, finally, a bit of on-the-street chatter from Tel Aviv:

We needed to take a cab to schul this morning to get there in time. When we gave the driver the address, he said, “What is it? You have a Bar Mitzvah there?”

No, I said.  We just want to be there.

The man shrugged. He knew he had aliens in his car. (We should have seen it as the sign it was that only crazy people go to schul, even to the GREAT SYNAGOGUE.)

A long silence. Many red lights, many stops as we proceed along Ben Yehuda Street to Allenby.

And then, suddenly, from out of nowhere, “There are too many Black people in Israel!”

Huh? I look around quickly and see a single thin Black boy, his shoulders hunched, his hands crammed into the pockets of his jeans, walking along the empty shabbos street.

How many? I ask.

Way too many. It’s terrible. A terrible thing for Israel.

Ethiopians?

No, from Niger. They walk across the desert into Egypt, and then they walk across more desert to come here. It’s terrible. They sneak across the border. It’s illegal!

I understand, I say. They come here to look for work.

It’s  terrible. Way too many of them. the government has to do something.

Really? Do they turn to crime because they can’t find jobs?

They bring everything bad with them. Crime and everything filthy.

Well, I say, now that Egypt will get better soon, perhaps they will want to stay in Egypt.

Egypt is also terrible, he says.

Has the situation in Egypt affected tourism here in Tel Aviv?

No, not much. I don’t think it makes any difference. We are going to have to do something to stop all those Black people, though. There are too many of them here.

Are you worried about what’s happening now in Egypt?

Not so much. We have to wait and see what happens.

That’s it, folks. You’ve been asking how the Israeli on the street feels about the situation in Egypt. The taxi driver is worried. But not so worried as he is about the situation in Niger.

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