Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A cease fire!

Just a few words as I am waiting to hear more... 

After fifty days of war, and after another angry wave of bombings from Gaza (and no doubt return bombing), a cease fire seems to have been agreed upon. Maybe this time, it's for real. So what did we get? 

2,000 war dead
A destroyed infrastructure in Gaza.
Traumatized border communities in Israel. 
Probably plenty of tunnels that we can now imagine in much greater detail. 

And maybe a new front in the north, who knows?

Gaza is celebrating, the media say. I can't say the same for Jerusalem. People remarked on the massive bombings earlier in the day when I was shopping, that's about it. 

And why should there be celebrations? As far as I can see, Hamas has won this war hands down. This might sound cynical since, after all, many people died, many more were injured and traumatized but Hamas received recognition, the crossings have been re-opened, sea rights have been extended, and no doubt more will follow. Bibi could have given this to President Abbas, and perhaps strengthened a more moderate faction. Instead, he seems to want to get Israelis used to constant (relative) war fare. 

So now there'll be sheket, quiet on the western front. Till the next war at least. 

Terrorism tourists

A question I would love to see addressed is for example what it means that so many of the suicide attackers and perpetrators of particularly gruesome executions (witness the execution of the American journalist James Foley last week) are western terror tourists. Familiar with the relevant language and culture, they often guard foreign hostages that serve as human shields or pawns for ransom, as Newsweek reported.  But a surprising number of them die in suicide attacks. There is a whole choreography that makes the rounds after their death: a video with a few words of the terrorist, their biography, ending with a boom! I don't want to link to one of these despicable if fascinating videos but if you know German, you can watch a chilling video here on Der Spiegel.

Is it perhaps because they usually have no military background, speak no or poor Arabic and have already given up everything, as Peter Neumann suggested in today's article in Der Spiegel? It seems that "local fighters" are increasingly less likely to blow themselves up but perhaps this is because there are other willing executors? And perhaps the fact that they are westerners, either western-educated like "Djihad John" or converts also gives some satisfaction? 

The UK and Germany in particularly are discussing how to deal with the returnees. Some for sure have been radicalized and now used to violence, might want to commit other acts of terrorism. Many already threaten new bomb attacks. All have been exposed to acts of violence, both as perpetrators and witnesses. Many who are known to have returned are under surveillance, and some have argued that they should be stripped of their citizenship. But surely, this will only lead to many going underground and not seek help for the PTSD that many of them doubtlessly suffer and that so often leads to other acts of violence.   

And in today's news...

Last night, our neighbor banged on the door, screaming and by the time my room mate was at the door, she had already withdrawn in the "safety" of the staircase, terrified of the bombing. Only:  there was no aza'akah (siren), and she had imagined the attack, or panicked.

I was still groggy when I woke up hours later and was greeted by my usual barrage of morning media. In these awful days, it seems so important to "know what's going on" or to read in order to "understand." The latter might be what Germans call a Berufskrankheit, an illness caused by my profession (I am a college professor). Today, there were two particularly well-written pieces.

One is an article by Matti Friedman, a former AP reporter and resident of Israel who talks about the world's strange obsession with Israel. You can find the entire article here. Here only some tidbits, but it's really  an excellent article that deserves to be read on its own:

"When I was a correspondent at the AP, the agency had more than 40 staffers covering Israel and the Palestinian territories. That was significantly more news staff than the AP had in China, Russia, or India, or in all of the 50 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined. It was higher than the total number of news-gathering employees in all the countries where the uprisings of the “Arab Spring” eventually erupted."

And here, one of my favorites that I often quote to my friends back home when they are worried about my trips to Israel: "In all of 2013, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives—that is, roughly the monthly homicide rate in the city of Chicago."

"Palestinians are not taken seriously as agents of their own fate. The West has decided that Palestinians should want a state alongside Israel, so that opinion is attributed to them as fact, though anyone who has spent time with actual Palestinians understands that things are (understandably, in my opinion) more complicated. "

I could quote more (these are just from the first page) but you get the drift. I would add another reason the west is so preoccupied with this conflict as opposed to, say, Kashmir, or the Central Republic of Africa: racism. Here, most participants can be read as "white", and this makes the horrible pictures of dying children and suffering in general more poignant, at least to the decision makers. 

The other article is this one here: "As violence rises, Muslim moderates must do more" by Asif Zaidi. 
It was originally published on the Pakistani blog Let Us Build Pakistan, where a version of this post originally appeared here where it was published on July 14.  I found it on 972.mag  Zaidi has written other insightful articles on selective Muslim outrage regarding violence and identity politics here

This is a welcome article that, while not letting Israel or the west off the hook, talks about the lack of a LOUD moderate Muslim voice and the reasons behind it. 

Why is there no voice that cries out against Muslim extremist violence perpetrated on other Muslims? We in the west often conveniently forget this, but let's face it, by a large margins the victims of Islamic extremism are Muslims: Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan... 

I am always struck by the argument that one or more terrorists  were not "real Muslims". Many Jews made similar arguments after the 1994 Goldstein massacre. Baruch Goldstein was an American-born physician who gunned down 29 people and wounding 125 others who were praying in the mosque in Hebron, on the holiday of Purim. Even years later I remember being shocked by the reverence with which his grave was being treated. To say that "he wasn't a real Jew" is disregarding that he was the product of a good and very expensive yeshiva education, a Yeshiva University graduate even. The same is true here: To say that, say IS are not "true Muslims" is discharging responsibility, especially for western Muslims living in safety from the repercussions that, say, criticizing ISIS or might bring if you were living in Mosul. I would be thrilled if I could see kernels of such introspection in my Muslim students in the US who for the most part are, not surprisingly perhaps, rather defensive. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Just another balmy summer evening in Jerusalem

In Jerusalem, this summer is, as many call it, קצת משונה, just a teeny bit different. Living here, it is relatively easy to ignore the war and the horrors taking place just a few hours away from us--as long as you don't read or listen to the news, don't have the "red alert" app, don't talk to the neighbors, and don't go to the Old City (more about that another time). Unless, that is, the air raid alarm happens to go off. Since I am here, it has gone off only three times. Once early in the morning, in Gush Etzion (far away from me), once while I was soaped up under the shower (not so much fun), and once tonight, also far away. I immediately received a text from my husband in New York, who is glued to the news: "Siren in Jerusalem!"

On Friday, as we were on the beach when a siren came, I saw the Iron Dome for the first time with my own eyes. Here's a video:

Pretty surreal, eh?

The Iron Dome really introduces Disney into the whole equation. It is easy to dismiss the rockets as toys. Now, they aren't exactly inter-continental missiles, but if they fall until on you, it won't be good. But mostly, the Iron Dome makes us complacent. Israelis seem less willing to force Bibi to move towards a political solution, and the missiles and rockets raining on southern Israelis are ignored. Your problem if you chose to live in Nahal Oz (a community right by Gaza)! And so, a lot of people ignore the news, and ignore the horrors lived out in Gaza, and in the southern communities, and across Europe and elsewhere where anti-semitic attacks are seen as a legitimate reaction to the war. That is a pity because it also allows Bibi to avoid real negotiations, is good for the military and the industries supported by the military, but it is not good for Israelis and Palestinians who are living here. Apparently, we are all supposed to get used to the war.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

my creek

I cross a small creek when I go to shul on Shabbat. This week, a group of volunteers were on their bi-annual mission to clean it. When I thanked them, one of the ladies asked whether I worked in one of the shops nearby. I told her I was on my way to synagogue, she smiled  and said: "I figured, enjoy." Vus? Either she's clairvoyant, or she knows me from somewhere--the synagogue is still another solid twenty-five minutes away.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Akko - and the wisdom of taking a day off

[Hmmm... this is a post from 2010 that popped up now...]

You'd think that I didn't need to take a day off--after all, I have Shabbat, right? Well, yesterday, I did just that. After a quiet day in Ra'anana and an evening in TA, I went to Akko on Sunday with a friend who was here for a family wedding. We left late, drove up leisurely, and by the early afternoon, were walking around the Old City, watching families and kids do the same. Here are some boys jumping off the city wall, cooling off:

Akko is a city in some distress. Many stores in the Old City are closed, and the whole place could do with a serious face-lift. Reports about lousy municipal services abound.  Yet, I was again enchanted by the crusader architecture, and annoyed that the guides want to tell me everything about every stone (here! a refectory! a dungeon! a tunnel!) but nothing about the motivation of people who gave up everything to live here, on this fleck of land, 3000 miles from home. Or about the people living there today. But that might be asking for too much.

We also went to the Bahai Gardens in Akko, where the Baba had spent his last years. Incredible flowers there, planted on a narrow stripe of perhaps 60 meters in an otherwise arid landscape. Surreal for sure, but beautiful.

At night, enjoying a warm October night on my balcony in Jerusalem, Levanah purring in my lap, I was strangely content, although I had not written a line in two days. Clearly, I need to do that more often. It is easy to get sucked into the business of everyday life, into teaching, grading, meetings, prepping, and reading, and to let time just pass by. While I only teach 2 classes per semester, my 100-120 students do feel like a lot and it seems difficult to make the time. After all, I have no good excuse not to work, right? No partner, no children, no family... And so, I am planning to visit the Herodion, perhaps Massada, Mar Saba, and a bunch of the churches in the Old City in my remaining two months in the Holy Land. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Big Books...

These days, I spend Wednesday evenings in a "Big Books" class I teach at a local synagogue where we read and talk about some seminal/slash conservative texts of rabbinic Judaism, from the Bible to Heschel. Our texts were:

- The Jewish Study Bible: featuring The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation. Edited by Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, Michael Fishbane.
Rabbinic Stories (Classics of Western Spirituality) by Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Shaye J.D. Cohen, Paulist Press, 2002

- Lonely Man of Faith by Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Image Publisher, 2006
-The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel and Susannah Heschel
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005

Last night, a number of my friends crashed our little class and put the rabbis to the test, or better, turned them into gladiators, and us into the crowd that got to decide their fate. Mostly they gave them the thumbs up.

Over the years, I've fallen in love with those guys, and the longer I teach in the Deep South, the more I appreciate their ideas. I like their pluckiness, and, as a teacher in an intensely anti-intellectual climate, I even came to like their unabashedly elitist nature. So fine, they would have been horrified to see our motley crowd of men and women of all ages from 25-85, observant/secular/Shoa surviving Jews from Argentina, Poland, NYC, Puerto Rico, Germany, and oh, yes, a few local southerners, plus converts, actual, potential and those in the making, and Christians, including a priest candidate who usually endures me in a weekly Greek NT reading group. But one of the beauties of living when and where we do is that we get to pick and choose. We can reshape tradition, and we can (and should) learn, as the Jenglish speakers say, or, more precisely: study. Or at least that's what I hoped to convey.

Judging from my (College) students' I could imagine what people knew about the Oral Torah. Just as a taste:

"Being Jewish and growing up in a conservative Jewish synagogue I had never heard of the oral torah. I just thought that the Talmud was like a real big prayer book that was written differently."

" In analyzing this text in class--the Harlot--I learned that many texts can be seen as deeper than face value. I know the phrase "don't judge a book by its cover," but apparently you can't judge it by the words in it, either."

We have our work cut out! Last night, we looked at a number of seminal texts such as the Oven of Akhnai, one of my favorites. It's an audacious text in which the rabbis basically tell God to stuff it because they had received authority at Sinai--it also continues (though I haven't found that text online) to criticize the rabbis sharply for humiliating and rejecting a great sage. My students usually are shocked by the rabbi's refusal to listen to God ("But it's God speaking! How could they not listen?"), but they often come to enjoy the rabbi's wit and creativity. Yesterday was no exception, and we spoke about the rabbis and their role today. Not surprisingly, many would like to forget the rabbis and "return" to a Biblical Judaism that is more in line with American ideas of religiosity and conformity. But all loved the idea of writing our own midrash, with our lives, and thoughts.