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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Middle East, NOT Middle Earth

I have a confession to make. In my last post, I apologized for a month long silence and blamed it on a time crunch. In truth, I have been experiencing a time crunch as my blissful year in Israel comes to an end, and I try to drain out every last drop of תענוג, spiritual pleasure, that I possibly can. But -- I was also avoiding my blog for another reason.

The post before last, I wrote a tribute to the state of Israel in honor of Israel's Independence Day. I had planned that tribute to be the first in a series of comments about Israeli politics and society, and I've been avoiding making those posts. Writing about Israel is likely to be career suicide for a rabbi; if she is critical of Israel, the hawks will have her head, and if she is supportive of Israel, the doves will skewer her heart. But even aside from concerns of how I will be received, I felt in all honesty קטנתי -- I am too small. The situation here so complex, what can I say that is not an oversimplification?

And yet, I have made worthwhile observations, and so, with a deep breath, I will share a few notes. Consider my post today to be the second in a series of seven about the political situation in Israel. To give you a sense of where I am going, here is a list of all the titles:
1. Celebrating Israel
2. This is the Middle East, not Middle Earth!
3. Sayid
4. The Security Wall
5. Ethnic Struggle 
6. Borders
7. The Future

This is the Middle East, not Middle Earth

I am frustrated by the way conversations about Israel seem to flatten everything down to a battle between good and evil.

The BBC is possibly the worst main-stream offender on the anti-Israel side. Several organizations, for example Just Journalism, have been tracking their biased reporting. I am not a regular follower, but I recently came across one relatively tame example: take a look at this short article about Daniel Viflic, a 16 year old boy who was killed this year by a rocket fired from Gaza into Israel. The article concludes:

It was the most serious violence since Israel's conflict with Hamas in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009.

About 1,400 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, and 13 Israelis, including 10 soldiers, were killed.

I was shocked to learn that a single death had led to a conflict of such large scale, killing 1400 people, and that somehow I had missed the entire event! (It took me a few moments to realize that in recalling all those deaths, the article was reminding us of Operation Cast Lead of 2008-09, not the response to Daniel Viflic's death.)

Notice how the BBC typically refer to "Israel's conflict with Hamas", NOT the conflict between Israel and Hamas -- ignoring the fact that Operation Cast Lead, as brutal as it was, was a response to a daily onslaught of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel that has been traumatizing the residents of southern Israel, Jewish and Bedouin alike. Political science professor Jonathon Rynhold of Bar Ilan University refers to the BBC news coverage as reflecting a post-colonial mentality. He contrasts his own views: "I see this as a conflict with two sides."

So why does the BBC see this as Israel's conflict? Many Jews consider their one-sided views to be antisemitic. I actually think the BBC is racist in the opposite direction. My chevrutah Shaiya Rothberg -- whose views are usually quite left -- once pointed out to me that groups who see Israel as solely responsible for the conflicts in this region must think that certain types of people (third world? Muslim?) cannot be held responsible for their own actions.

But on the other side, I am equally frustrated by the all-too common Israeli view of Arabs as monolithic (they are all violent Jew-haters), or of Jews as the only humans in the region who really matter. Earlier this year, a private group paid to place larger-than-life pictures of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt"l, on the sides of city buses. Next to the Rebbe's welcoming half-smile were the words מדינה פליסטנית אסון ליהודים. (Translation: A Palestinian State is a disaster for the Jews.) Imagine how Jerusalem's Arab citizens, or, worse, her Palestinian visitors, must have felt boarding those buses! If that is hard to appreciate, try imagining the reaction if there were to be adds on California buses announcing: "Spanish in our schools is a disaster for true Americans."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Love That is Not Dependent On a Thing

Sorry for my month-long silence!  The end of the academic year brought a time crunch.  My post today is a comment I wrote for the Fuchsberg Center's eNewsletter about this week's Torah reading.  If you were at Shevach around this time last year, you may remember I led a Torah discussion about Rabbi Mordecai Finley's concept of higher love and lower love.  One is characterized by the question "What can I do for you?", the other by the question "What can you do for me?"  Here is another view of those two types of love. 

A few months ago, my five-year-old daughter misbehaved and I took away one of her baby-dolls.  That night as I tucked her into bed, she said to me:
"Mommy, usually I love you, but today I don't love you."
"You don't love me? Why not?"
"Because you took my baby away.”
I was amazed by her statement.  Here it was, in the raw, what our sages referred to as Ahava HaTluyah B’davar,’"Love that is dependent on something": a type of love appropriate from a kindergartener, but plenty common among adults as well.  Such love, if it does not mature into Ahava She’eyno Tluyah B’davar, "Love that is not dependent on anything", remains fickle – a love that comes and goes and easily flips to hatred.
Our parsha this week -- B'halotechah -- starts out with hopeful expectations of love.  Hashem gives orders regarding the menorah in the Tabernacle, and Aharon prepares the menorah exactly to Hashem's liking.  Israel and God are preparing a home together.  But before the parshah ends, the Israelites are complaining about the food, then God hurls meat from the skies and kills people off while the meat is still between their teeth.
The food complaints seem as absurd as any family brawl when viewed from the outside.  "We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free," the people moan (Num. 11:5).  Rashi asks the obvious question, "If (the Egyptians) didn't give them straw (for making their bricks), could it be that they gave them free fish?"  The explanation, says Rashi, is that the food in Egypt was "free from mitsvot."   God's desert menu may have been delicious; mannah that tasted like honey, or oil pastries, or like any taste you can imagine.  But the mannah was a gift with strings attached, and it's so easy to resent those strings.
Even Moshe gets fed up with the Israelites and turns to Hashem in desperation.  "Did I conceive this entire nation, did I give birth to him?  How can you say to me 'Carry him in your bosom as a nurse carries a suckling infant?'" (Num. 11:12)  But were the Israelites really a nation of infants?  Had they not stood  at Mt. Sinai, like a bride at the Chupah?  I cannot accept that Hashem chose a child-bride!  And yet the adults of this nation behave like a bunch of children; whining about water and food, breaking the rules the first chance they get, viewing themselves as grasshoppers next to the giant adults who now occupy their land. 
The Israelites seem like my five-year old daughter, who loves me because of the things she gets from me.  But then consider the reality of the people in the desert, helplessly dependent for the basic necessities of life.  The desert experience was infantilizing. 
An intimate relationship demands interdependency.  But when the dependency is too great, insecurities can diminish both the love and the person.  What if I can't live up to his expectations?  What if he stops giving me what I need?  Why doesn't he give me more?
Any of us who search for God in our lives is not far from the desert.  If we view Hashem in the way generations before us did -- as the Master of the Universe who holds each soul in His hand -- then our dependency is overwhelmingly great.  But if, as is more common these days, we are overwhelmed by unanswered prayers, by our awareness of the cruelties of this world -- then we run to the opposite coast, banishing any sense of dependency on God, and any possibility of loving God, from our hearts.  We must work to experience towards God a mature love: a love based on appreciation and joy, Ahava She’eyno Tluyah B’davar, a love that is not dependent on a thing.   

What is true of our relationship with God is true of the all the adult relationships in our lives.  Grown children must work to transition their feelings for their parents from dependency to mutuality.  Lovers and dear friends must invest in each other, to feel the other's happiness, to feel the pleasure of giving as deeply as we feel the pleasure of receiving.