Monday, July 28, 2014

Seeking Balance in a Time of Disequilibrium

Last week, in the middle of meetings and conference calls and tense conversations about the suddenly serious situation in Israel, which seems to have uncorked the genie of anti-Semitism from a bottle buried deep before the surface of the Earth, I found myself thinking, inexplicably, of a movie I had seen just last year: 42 -- The Jackie Robinson Story.

What does Jackie Robinson have to do with the world stage right now? Well, more than might be immediately apparent but there was one scene, one piece of dialogue from this fine film that has been repeating in a loop in my mind.

It took place between Branch Rickey, the MLB executive who broke the color barrier by signing Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers and shortstop Pee Wee Reese, played by Lucas Black, prior to their Cleveland game in 1942.  Face to face with hatred, the quote-worthy Rickey (he also famously said, "It is not the honor that you take with you, but the heritage you leave behind” and “Luck is the residue of design”) turned to Reese to state:

“The world’s not so simple now. I guess it never was. We ignored it. Now we can’t.”

Almost overnight, our secure lives have been utterly upended by the bracing realization that the world we deemed simple (that is, safe and sane) is no longer either. With the blink of an eye, we note our prior blindness to warning signs we had ignored.

And like Branch Rickey, we realize that it is too late to go back to our previous state of blissful ignorance.

We have been blissful indeed, those of us lucky enough to have been born Jews in the second half of the 20th Century in North America. We have walked the streets of our big cities and small towns without a shred of fear, without shame, without self-consciousness, draping ourselves in our distinctiveness, proudly Jewish.

We have built edifices to our enduring presence – schools, synagogues, community centers, non-profit organizations and more, many of them bearing overtly Jewish names, others bearing stars of David, Hebrew lettering, markers of our heritage.

New York Stands With Israel -
rally outside the UN on July 28, 2014
We have danced in the streets with Torahs and rallied outside of the United Nations with signs and placards. We have made demands of our elected officials from a particularly Jewish platform. We have felt emboldened and entitled.

In a Europe chastened by the Shoah, we have had permission to rebuild Jewish communities, seeing the seeds of seventy years of replanting now. Around the world, we marvel at the variety of Jewish communities in places both expected and off the beaten track.

And we have stood tall because of the might and strategy and moral grandeur of the IDF. Seeing our “boys” and “girls” in uniform on buses in Israel, we felt a swelling of pride within our breast. We have had iconic generals and presidents and prime ministers. We have legitimate modern day heroes. As a result, we are the lucky inheritors of the blessing of security. We have Israel now. We can plan a Jewish future uninterrupted by the predictable cycle of Golden Age-Persecution-Destruction that has characterized the Diaspora since its very beginning.

We have felt exceptional, we who were the Greatest Generation of North American Jews.

We have even had the happy chutzpah to question the necessity of Tisha B’Av in recent years. Many an Eicha service has featured a communal conversation on how we deal with the lamentation of destruction when our beloved Jerusalem has been returned to us, whole and unthreatened, when we are living the dream of the return to Zion, the miracle of being a free nation in a free land.

Not a century after the flames of the crematoria have died down, we are witnessing the rekindling of an age-old hatred. Sparked by Israel’s defensive campaign against the homicidal/suicidal terrorist organization, Hamas, it is suddenly open season on Jews.

Despite assertions that anti-Zionism is a political learning, hardly synonymous with anti-Semitism, we are seeing abundant proof to the contrary.

I hardly have to repeat the litany of shocking rallies, attacks and incidents of violence – in deeds and words – over the past few weeks. Every day brings with it a new feeling of devastation and betrayal. Swastikas are all the rage now, adorning signs. Salutes to Hitler, Nazi ideology and Jewish genocide have come out of the ground -- reanimated, the undead -- creatures from a science fiction horror film.

Fear and panic have replaced our carefree summer sensibilities. We fear for Israel, we fear for ourselves, dispersed in comfortable communities throughout the world.

For those of us who have considered ourselves liberals, humanitarian, promoters of coexistence, citizens of the world and universalists, the creeping realization that the right has been right all along has entered our consciousness.

It seems a terrible thought. Everything we had scoffed at previously appears downright prophetic. All those rabid talking heads on particular networks suddenly appear to us like friends we desperately need.

For those of us who occupy the middle path, we try on the mantle of that new way of thinking and it hurts our heads and hearts.

So we resist that rightward swing, knowing that while the diagnosis might be correct – yes, Israel and the Jews are being isolated by the world, alone, singled out, held to a double standard, vilified, targeted -- the prescription offered by that worldview does not fit. The world simply cannot be as polarized as those on the right portray it. Proactive action is required. An alarm must be sounded. Partners must be found. Collaborations between people of conscience must be forged.

The religious heart seeks change, repentance growth. The religious heart is open, not closed. When your heart hardens, you become a Pharaoh.

Protecting ourselves from extremist hatred, we cannot capitulate to an extremism of another sort.

"Good deeds are such that are equal-balanced, maintaining the mean between equally bad extremes," states Maimonides in his treatise, Concerning the Cure of the Disease of the Soul.

Never in my lifetime has the approach of Tisha B’Av felt more appropriate, more necessary. Never before have I envisioned the devastation depicted in the Book of Lamentations as vividly for we have just entered history. We feel fear for the very first time in our happy, heedless lives; we see that we are not that different from previous generations of Jews, after all.

Yet never before have we needed balance more. Let us resist the extremism of people who feel threatened; let us believe in coexistence, collaboration and bridge building, but not in an ignorant and simple way.  Let us talk. Let us tell our stories and our truth. Let us learn from history. Let us defend ourselves but also, let us hope and dream.

As we approach the Nine Days that culminate in the traditional day of mourning for our shattered Temple in Jerusalem so many centuries ago, may we recall the necessity of understanding the complexity of the world, the folly of extremism and the eternal, enduring power of the Jewish People.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Teen Spirit

Today was inspiring. That’s because I visited with hundreds of Conservative young people gathered in Jerusalem as part of Ramah Seminar and USY Israel Pilgrimage. I’ve done this for the last few summers, but being with the teens today, imbibing their remarkable energy and high spirits, was truly infectious.

Our USY groups are among the roughly 40 trips for young people now in Israel.  As I said today on my conference call with kehilla leaders and USY parents, the safety of our students is our highest priority. We are in contact every day with Israeli security agencies, going over itineraries and re-arranging schedules to make sure our teens are safe. Our staff is well-trained and our kids have been briefed repeatedly on how to respond if there is a siren.

USY Israel Pilgrimage staff
And I can say unequivocally that our teens are safe and that they’re behaving in a way we can all be proud of. They’ve shown amazing maturity, and they are clearly having an incredible time. Our goals for these trips are to strengthen our students’ Jewish identity, enrich their knowledge of Judaism and Jewish history, and promote their social development. All of these goals continue to be met.  And though we would never have planned it this way, our kids are also gaining first-hand insight into the political reality of modern Israel.

I’ve been asked recently: when would you send them home? And the answer is, if the security situation deteriorated to a point where our teens were spending more time indoors watching movies than out having a meaningful experience, then yes, it would be time to come home. So far, we are not even close to that.

USCJ Family Israel Experience participants
at De Karina Chocolate Factory
And it’s not only our kids who are here. Across Israel, Conservative Jews – rabbis, families, congregations – are traveling, studying, and having fun. USCJ’s own family trip recently ended after a remarkable tour, and our Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem is filled with summer students of all ages, including a large new contingent of Jews from France.

Iron Dome is doing its job. Hard as it can be to envision from far away, life in Israel goes on; the abnormal sense of normalcy continues.

Because USCJ sits on the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, which organized this mission, we have had tremendous access to military and government officials. We’ve heard them speak about the moral dilemma they face in fighting an enemy which hides its weapons and fighters in homes, schools, and mosques. They struggle with the imperative to defend themselves while trying to avoid civilian casualties. They know that when they warn civilians in Gaza about an imminent airstrike they are also giving Hamas commanders a chance to flee.  They know this, but they are willing to pay that price if they can prevent civilian deaths.

Now Israel must decide what comes next. The leaders we spoke with, including Ami Dror, the country’s former National Security Advisor, said there are only a few options; each of course comes with a price. Allow a cease-fire to end the attacks, but then Israel could face the prospect of a barrage of Hamas rockets every few years. Perhaps Iron Dome works well enough that this is acceptable. Or go into Gaza in a limited way, and take out more rockets and bases, along with the offensive tunnels built to let Hamas operatives get into Israel and cause trouble. Or finally, re-take Gaza, end the rocket attacks, but face a high cost militarily, economically, and diplomatically. (As I send this, I just heard the news that Israel has entered Gaza.)

Israeli leaders will make that decision themselves. What can we do? Donate to the Stop the Sirens campaign, which is helping support Israelis in the line of fire. Take a moment to thank your political leaders in the U.S. for funding Iron Dome. If you’re Canadian, thank Prime Minister Harper for speaking out about Israel’s right to defend itself. Israelis told us repeated how grateful they are to both the U.S. and Canada for their support.

They are grateful to us, as well, for coming here and standing with them, letting them know they’re not alone.

Oseh shalom bi-m’romav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yisrael – v’al kol yoshvei tevel – v’imru amen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Fast Day

Today is the 17th of Tammuz.  It's what is called a minor fast in our tradition.  Minor because like Ramadan it is a day fast and not a full 25 hour fast like Yom Kippur or Tisha B'av.  According to tradition, it was on the 17th of Tammuz that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army, leading to the destruction of the First Temple and first exile of the Jewish people.

This year, along with the 45 teens on our Eastern European Israel Pilgrimage, I saw the Ishtar Gate at the Pergomon Museum in Berlin. This is the gate the exiles were marched through so many years ago.  And now, I sit in Jerusalem, on the deck of my hotel, on a beautiful day, on a solidarity mission to Israel as it is under fire from its modern day enemy.

With regard to this fast I tend to follow the ruling of the Geonim, the middle age decisors of Halakhah, that when Israel is at peace, one may choose not to fast. For them "at peace" meant Israel reestablished and the coming of Mashiah. For me, it means Israel reestablished and not in a shooting war. So this year, as during the Second Lebanon War, I fast.

The day began with a little bit of hope. The Egyptians offered a cease fire. Israel accepted it. Hamas did not and continued to fire on Israel. The government waited six hours for quiet before returning fire around 3 pm. 

At 7pm I got my first experience of what a typical Israeli goes through in this war. On our bus to Tel Aviv the siren sounded. We found shelter under a bridge, bent over and covered the back of our heads with our hands and waited. The sound of the Iron Dome deploying (the same one we visited yesterday) was audible. Its interception of the rocket was a loud boom. Then we waited two full minutes to allow any debris to settle. And went on our way. It was a fast experience.

It was a surreal experience. My mind knew what it meant. My spirit is still trying to figure it out. Thank God for the Iron Dome. Had the missile been able to hit a target, many would have been killed or injured.  

Ten minutes after the sirens, at the beach
And then, as yesterday, Israelis went about their business. Back to the beach, back to work, back to the playground, back to the abnormal normalcy of Israel under fire.

Today our group met with a number of policy experts and politicians.

President-elect Ruby Rivlin thanked us for coming and shared with us a glimpse of his vision of the presidency as someone who enables the critical dialogue of Israeli and Jewish society to occur.

President Peres greeted us at the president's residence and was his typical optimistic self. I was moved by his reflections on why he remains an optimist.  He reminisced about the early days of the State when Israel had so little: no water, no weapons, no friends, no agriculture, less than 700,000 people. How Ben Gurion invited him to work with him in the Hagannah in 1947 and they had no desk for him. So he sat at the desk of the chief of staff and found a letter from someone who was invited to be the chief of staff but, understanding Israel's situation, declined. Why? Because at that time Israel had only six million cartridges of bullets. In war at that time one would use one million a day. This person didn't want to be the chief of staff of the Hagannah for only six days!  Of course, Peres was so modest and didn't mention that it was his job to procure weapons and weapon systems for the fledgling army and state.  (And he did that, founding Israel's military industries.)

Peres is an optimist because 66 years later Israel has eight million people, a strong economy, a strong military, friends like the U.S. and most importantly, a strong people. As he is fond of reminding us, it is the people who innovate and make the land, not the other way around.  It is always a privilege to be in his presence. More so today, as he is one week away from ending his term.

We also met with the chair of the Knesset's security committee, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Minister Naftali Bennet, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner of the IDF Spokepersons Bureau and former National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (left) and  me with Lt. Col. Peter Lerner

From Lt. Col. Lerner we learned the extent to which the IDF goes to protect and reduce civilian casualties. It's a three-pronged approach.  

First the IDF calls the residents and drops leaflets for those who live in the vicinity of a target, telling them that they should leave.

Then they "knock on the building" by deploying a lightweight device on the roof.

Then they choose the type of ordnance needed to destroy their target, and only their target, and deploy it.  

As a result, the IDF knows that the enemy will likely also get the message and leave the vicinity, as well. They are prepared to take that risk and destroy his operational capacity by destroying the facility. They do this, because they value every human life.

Lerner shared with us video of how the chosen ordnance destroys its target and we were able to see what happens when there is a secondary explosion, much larger than Israel's action. The secondary explosion is caused by Hamas munitions in the target area. It's this explosion which causes more damage and is responsible for the majority of civilian deaths.  

By storing munitions in homes, schools, mosques, and hospitals, and because they continue to attack Israel, Hamas is clearly responsible for Palestinian losses.

The challenge the IDF has in all of this is that the reporters only see the aftermath and destruction. And with news cycles being what they are today, the story is skewed. Though thus far, Lerner feels the press has been fairly balanced in its reporting. That could change, and probably will as the operation continues and enemy losses mount.

But with more than 1,000 rockets fired on Israel what alternatives does it have? And the numbers game is a perversion of morality. Read a piece on this concept by my colleague Rabbi Eric Yoffe, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Finally, Yaakov Amidror, who only 4 months ago was the National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister, gave a sobering analysis of the choices Israel has. Basically there are only two.

It can have a limited engagement to destroy current stockpiles and create a period of calm that might last two, three, maybe even five years, knowing it will have to fight this fight again.

Or it can re-conquer Gaza and stop the rockets for good.

Both come at a price. The only relevant decision is which price is the wise one? Which price is Israel willing to pay for quiet?

I am reminded of the wisdom of Golda Meir who said: “There will be peace when the Palestinians learn to love their children more than they hate ours.” And “I can forgive the Palestinians for killing us. I can't forgive them for causing us to kill them.”

The view from my hotel balcony
And yet, life goes on. An abnormal normalcy. Right now it's quiet. I'm sitting on the balcony of my hotel overlooking the New Train Station in Jerusalem.  It's a beautiful day. The beginning of day three.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Mixed Messages

July 14, 2014 / 16 Tammuz 5774  

Mixed Messages: Israel is Under Attack. And Yes, Life Goes On   
Dear Friends,  
Arriving in Israel, the scene was somewhat surreal.     
On the one hand, Ben Gurion seemed almost normal. Almost, in that there were fewer people arriving than one would have expected during the peak of summer. El Al told us there have been 100 cancellations over the last three days. That explains the empty middle seat.     
And normal, in that there was not a rush of tourist or others leaving the country. The flow of passengers seemed about average.   
Everywhere I looked, in every meeting we had with Israeli officials, these were some of the mixed messages we saw and heard:  
  • Hamas rockets threaten more than 50% of Israel's citizens. Each and every one is a war crime in that they are aimed indiscriminately at civilians. Almost 1,000 rockets have been fired into Israel thus far. Each one seeks to send Israelis to bomb shelters; to disrupt daily life; to stoke fear in the Israelis and to cause as much damage and death as possible.     
    USY President Aaron Pluemer, and me, at the Iron Dome
  • Yet, driving down the beach in Tel Aviv one sees it packed with surfers, sun bathers, and more. Iron Dome is a miracle and plays a huge role in this. Thanks to U.S. financial support, Iron Dome is saving lives. Deployed to protect the major population centers this impressive defensive system has been more than 90% effective in shooting down rockets headed to Ashdod, Ashkelon, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa. When a missile does get through, thanks to the Home Front Command’s preparation and the discipline of Israelis in following directions to shelter, there has thus far been no loss of life, minimal injuries, and minimal property damage.   
  • We've heard a very strong and clear message to thank the US for this.  
  • Iron Dome has given Israel the time necessary to make good decisions.   
  • And, Iron Dome has indirectly saved Palestinian lives in that Israel is able to respond strategically from the air, and not with more force, because of the lack of Israeli casualties.   
  • The mayors of Sderot and Ashkelon spoke to us about how one of the aims of the missiles, as stated in Hamas' charter is the destruction of Israel. They do not desire two states, they desire one – Palestine.  All of it. So the rockets are fired to cause Israelis to flee. What's Israel's response?  To build. The building projects planned in both of these cities is impressive. Sderot's population is growing, as are its higher educational programs and industry. And in Ashkelon, plans are underway for a beautiful new beach resort hotel. For them, this is not bravado. It's life. Give up Sderot and you give up Ashkelon. Give up Ashkelon and you give up Tel Aviv. I was reminded of the children's book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
  • At the same time, we learned about the preparation and work of social service personnel and emergency responders. In Ashkelon they created something they call GEARS –

  • Dinner at Netzach Yisrael with, from left, Ashkelon's head of social services; USY president Aaron Pluemer; Netzach Yisrael's Rabbi Gustavo Surazski; me; community members Terri and Marty Davis; Rabbinical Assembly executive vice president Rabbi Julie Schonfeld; MERCAZ Olami past president Rabbi Vernon Kurtz
     Geographical Emergency Analysis and Response System. What it does is map the typology of who lives where. For example, if a missile were to land in an Ethiopian neighborhood, emergency responders know they will need to send someone who speaks Amharic and understands the specific needs of that community during the crisis. The system tracks where there are concentrations of children, elderly, people with disabilities, and cultural nuances. We heard stories, too, of families unwilling to leave shelters or their homes, of post-traumatic stress disorder and what happens when the first responders themselves are directly affected. Just yesterday a missile landed in the front yard of the social services department, shook the building, burst windows, and shook the workers.     
  • The head of the social services department in the city, by the way, is a member of our Masorti kehilla in Ashkelon, Netzach Yisrael, as were many other people involved in the city. We were joined for dinner by the rabbi, president of the kehilla and others. It was heartening to learn about how much our Masorti kehilla contributes to the well-being of the citizens of Ashkelon.     
You, too, can participate in providing for Israelis at this time of need. United Synagogue has joined with URJ and JFNA in the #stopthesirens campaign. Give generously to your local federation or online and help all of Israel, including our Masorti Movement in Israel. Yesterday, JFNA allocated more than $4 million in emergency aid. Our Masorti Noam Camp was one of those recipients and received the necessary funding to totally relocate the camp and its 700 campers to the north. Thank you.   

From the moment I arrived this morning with Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly, and Aaron Pluemer, USY International President, until midnight, the one unified message we heard was “thank you.” Thank you for coming on short notice and for showing your support and thank you for your solidarity. It means a lot and does not go unnoticed.  There was also unanimity on a thank you to the US government for the support of the Iron Dome system.  (Another action item: write your representative or senator and the administration to say thank you.)   

Israeli Ambassador Dan Shapiro with Aaron Pluemer

We met with U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro, two former IAF generals, one former British commander, and the mayors of Sderot and Ashkelon, and we had a late dinner with people from around Ashkelon. It was a full day, but inspiring. Inspiring, because we saw that not only did Hamas not break the spirit of Israeli society, but instead provided it with an opportunity to demonstrate the resilience and spirit of Israeli society.   

Yes, Israel is under missile attack. And yes, life goes on as normal.   

More tomorrow.