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Three thoughts about fighting

1. Good Guys, Bad tactics?

There was something of a meme that went around, asking the two key questions of Just War theory: Are we fighting the bad guys? and Are we fighting like good guys? I think I’ve realized that the first question is almost irrelevant, and often unhelpful.


It’s irrelevant because while I may be sure that Hamas are the bad guys, so Hamas thinks it is Israel who are the bad guys. It is unhelpful because since we both reckon we’re fighting the bad guys, we both tend to take the second question less seriously. 

Are we fighting like good guys? My answer would be yes and no (and how?). There is no doubt we are certainly going to great lengths to hit military targets and avoid civilians. Anecdotal evidence we have all heard from friends of friends in the Air Force, and reports of texted warnings, “knock on the roof”, and so on confirm how relatively careful we have been, and the disproportionate number of fighting age men in the Gaza death toll suggests we were shooting at combatants. 

But questions do and should remain. For example, what do we choose to define as military targets in the first place? According to the latest IDF meme, some 20 odd targets in Shuja’iya were “Terrorists’ houses” – in plain language, Hamas commanders’ family homes. Do we really accept that the family home of a Hamas commander is a legitimate target – texted warning or not? A naval officer lives on my kibbutz: I’d rather not imagine that his house is now okay to be bombed according to international law. 


We know that Hamas fires at Israeli civilians from within highly populated residential areas, schools, and hospitals, and that for the IDF to fire back is to risk civilian casualties. Does the evil of Hamas – deliberately avoiding the open ground aplenty in the Gaza strip to specifically fire from within urban areas – justify risking these civilian deaths? To get technical on this, do we believe that the military advantage we gain by shooting back at those shooting at us is great enough for us to choose to risk the death of civilians? 

It was two of the Jewish world’s greatest living philosophers, Michael Walzer and Avishai Margalit – the first a committed Zionist the second Israeli –  who wrote this advice in 2009 to the IDF:

Conduct your war in the presence of noncombatants on the other side with the same care as if your citizens were the noncombatants. A guideline like that should not seem strange to people who are guided by the counterfactual line from the Passover Haggadah, “In every generation, a man must regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.” 

They are right. It doesn’t seem strange. It actually sounds morally beautiful.

But it also sounds bloody unworkable. 

Can one ever wage war effectively following this moral enjoinder? Asa Kasher seriously doubts it.

To an extent the Walzer/Margalit instruction sounds a bit like Rabbinic approaches to the death penalty. Yes, the death penalty is valid under certain conditions, said the Sages, but we will ensure that these conditions are so impossible to meet that effectively the death penalty is banned for all eternity. Perhaps the underlying consequence of “treat their civilians as you would your own” is that we just have to find non-military ways of solving our problems.

Now that’s easy…

2. Talking about Rabbinics – The Tricycle and UK Jewish Film Festival

The Tricycle affair reminds me of the difference between Mishna and Gemara. Yes, I did once study these two different aspects of the Talmud back in the day… The Mishnah aimed for clarity of law, a codification of the commandments. The Gemara, written some few hundred years later, offered a far more rambling open commentary on these statements of the Mishnah. The combination of the two mixes law with anecdote, judgment with counter-judgment. In the Talmud one sometimes gets the feeling that no one loses, contradictions live happily with each other, and whatever stands today may be replaced tomorrow. It is, to paraphrase and bastardize Alick Isaacs’ theories, a Jewish vision of Peace. 

The Tricycle forced British Jewry beyond the comforting cushion of ambiguity. No nuances allowed. Either the UK Jewish Film Festival was against Israel, or for Israel. On the one hand, there was something positive about this. An honourable acceptance on the part of most UK Jews that, yes, they do see Israel as central to their identity, no matter what the chattering classes would like. At the same time, this demand – to declare oneself for or against – has both collapsed British Jewry’s own self-defence mechanism that support of Israel cannot be a reason to channel rage at Israel into rage at Jews, and it has erased all space for conversation. 

Demonstrations and press releases and boycotts are not the arena for “yes-butting”. Those troubled Zionists who ask themselves the same questions as in the first section of this blog, must choose between their loyalty to Israel and their loyalty to complexity. This choice is always going to be reductive, non-dialogical, and combative. 

That’s why I’m so sad about the Tricycle’s cowardly decision. And I so loved performing there…

3. Jon Stewart and Family

Shmuel Rosner has written the cat-among-the-pigeons piece that was always coming. I’m a real fan of his writing. He’s smart, he’s unexcitable, he’s always extremely well-informed on matters of the Jewish world, and he’s much harsher than I tend to admit to being. Rosner rejects what he sees as a “threat” from liberal Jews in the States to withdraw their support of Israel. His analogy is that of a family: Families can argue, can attempt to correct each other, but if their care for each other is conditional on consensus, then such care is of no value and neither are their arguments.

It is a powerful statement, and a very counter-cultural one. The idea that a commitment to any collective is built on heredity and not shared values, goes against much of what young Westerners assume. That isn’t to say that going against current norms is a bad thing – until the invention of Israel and the United States I’d always thought that Judaism was the essence of counter-culturalism – but we need to know what we are up against.

We are up against Jon Stewart. 

And Jon Stewart, inadvertently I believe, threw a spanner into the “families argue but never abandon” analogy. He likened Israel to a drug addict. Israel is, according to his comic logic, addicted to throwing bombs at Gaza. Thus it is illogical for the US to urge restraint and ceasefire from Israel, if at the same time it continues to supply Israel with arms. Quite apart from being absolutely terrifying – the thought of an Israel lacking military superiority in this region of well-armed crazies fills me with dread – this vision challenges the family analogy. 

There is, it seems to me, only one time a family will throw their child out of the house, refuse him any of the succour he swears he requires, and deliberately push him into pain and possible danger. When he is a drug addict…

Heart-warming conclusion

I guess the decider will come a few months or years from now. At some point there is going to be another war with Hezbollah. We know they have been busily tunneling under our Northern border and building up arsenals (thanks UN, for ensuring their disarmament…) to fire at us. Lebanon is not under Israeli occupation. There is no “open prison” there, nor do we have anyone in Israel who wants to build a settlement there. Nothing to muddy the waters, so to speak. 

So when Hezbollah march into their own civilian-populated areas and start firing their missiles at Israel from houses and hospitals (God forbid, though S/He rarely does) – what are we going to do? Or more to the point, what are Jon Stewart, liberal Jews around the world, and wishy-washy Israelis like myself, going to do?


Three thoughts about Proportionality

Disproportionate attention

There is the feeling that the media and public response to the Gaza war is disproportionate to their response to every other conflict in the world. As thousands are slaughtered in Syria, all rage is directed to Gaza.

Part of me is surprised at the surprise. There is an antisemitism at the heart of Europe. There is an antisemitism at the heart of the Islamic world. Big whup. These facts don’t dispel for me the deep agony I feel when a defender of Israel wishes us to be compared to a murderous dictator such as Assad. Even if the comparison is relatively favourable. That is not the kind of company we should be keeping.

It must not be a rhetorical question

This video of Israeli philosopher and consultant to the IDF Moshe Halbertal lays out all the key questions. Halbertal points out that “proportionality” is not about the death of combatants. It is about the death of civilians. As he puts it from 17:10 onwards: “Is the expected collateral killing proportional to the military advantage to be gained?”

So it’s a really good question. It accepts that civilians might die in urban warfare. And it asks how many civilians is it “worth” killing in order to win the military advantage? It is the correct moral and philosophical question to be asked.

Halbertal’s question must not be solely rhetorical. I believe we Israelis have been remiss at going ahead and trying to find an answer. 

Are we really okay with the rationale: “We fired on the hospital/school because they fired at us from there: It is their fault that we fired back.”? Well it certainly paints Hamas black, but it doesn’t answer Halbertal’s question.

What military advantage did we gain by firing back? Was that advantage worth the risk that we might slaughter some kids along the way?

It seems we are too easily appeased by Hamas’ guilt to assess our own. It tortures me.

Desired disproportionality

If we want Palestinians to appreciate that violence against us does not pay, I believe we must also work behaviouristically to show that non-violence does pay.

If we are, as I am beginning to fear, responding disproportionately to Hamas violence, I believe we should be equally disproportionate in resopnding to all Palestinian non-violence. Any Palestinian who denounces violence, even in a mealy-mouthed way, should be ridiculously disproportionately rewarded. Abu Mazen, and his former Prime Minister and non-violent State-builder, Salam Fayyad, should have been treated as kings by our government. Every bona fide business established by the PA should receive outrageously generous subsidies from the Israeli government. Sweets should be thrown at every Palestinian kid who smiles at an Israeli.

At the same time I think we should be disproportionately generous to our amazingly non-violent Palestinian Israeli citizens. Forget trying to bring the education budget for Arab schools up to parity – it should be twice the size as the budget for Jewish schools. Don’t fight for Arab Israelis to have the same house-buying subsidies as Jews – fight for them to have even bigger subsidies.

If we are okay with severely punishing Palestinians for the violence of their leaders, we should also be willing to seriously reward them for the opposite.

From Comedy to Tragedy

Can’t remember who it was who once said that comedy is just tragedy speeded up.

Here’s an example. A true story that told quickly is really funny. Only on slower telling it’s tragic.

About 500 Israelis are demonstrating at HaBima Square in Tel Aviv on Saturday night. They are protesting the war in Gaza. They are against the bombing and killing of Gazan civilians. “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies,” they chant.

Some 50 Israelis gather around them. These Israelis don’t like the leftist sentiment of the demonstrators. They start shouting “Death to the Arabs,” and other such nice things. Accusing the leftists of being cappuccino-supping café-frequenting Arab-loving traitors, they begin to get heated. From aggressive language to violence, these folks start to attack the lefties.

Someone calls the police. The police separate the two groups, and stand between them.

Then. Of course. Comic timing. Hamas shoot a rocket at Tel Aviv. The siren goes off, as up in the skies above HaBima square the Iron Dome defender zooms around and takes out the Hamas rocket.

Who responds to the siren? Who runs for cover?

The police, of course.

Suddenly, now the fireworks are over, there is no one to separate between the leftist demonstrators and their violent opponents. The right-wingers attack, and the leftists run. They run and take cover.


In a coffee shop.

It’s hilarious. If you tell it quick enough.

But if you slow things down, and move your point of view from Gaza to Israel these past few weeks, there is something deeply disturbing going on. There is violence in the air and on the streets here. Why use capital letters and horrific curses in social media if you can do it physically instead?

Our democracy, that which we’re fighting for, is in danger from ourselves. The minority of thugs who shouted down Naftali Bennet during his speech at the Haaretz Peace Conference and pushed him around afterwards are no less worrying (though less populous) than the thugs who shout down and fight down anyone who doesn’t agree with the government’s choices.

I hope we don’t take our eye off the ball, so busy are we searching the skies for attack and defence. Shouting in Israel is only healthy if it stays as hot air, and does not turn into fists.

On the immigration/refugee thing

It’s been a while since I uploaded some of my rants to myself.

Apologies for the timing of this blog that is, while not out of date, currently out of fashion.

Three more comments on the Immigration saga

1. Stop using the holocaust

Please. For God’s sake. Stop using the Holocaust. Everyone. Right-wing and left-wing. Enough of the Holocaust being used to justify whatever opinion you want it to justify. The very idea that Justification and Holocaust can be part of the same sentence gives me the chills. No, the Holocaust doesn’t permit us to ignore the suffering of others. No, the Holocaust doesn’t require us to be hippies who love the world. Let’s try not to give Hitler a posthumous rhetorical victory. Let’s try to explain ourselves without him.

2. Enough of the quotations already

All that ‘we were once refugees’ stuff, and all that biblical ‘love the stranger because you once were’ stuff. Please either give it up or be consistent. If we the Jewish People are uniquely required to care for the stranger due to our teachings and our experience, then our texts and experience also uniquely require us to look after ourselves. Being morally special doesn’t mean that you must apply that special sensitivity to everyone but yourself. Donniel Hartman’s play on the continuity of Jewish values vs the Jewish value of continuity is great in this respect.

3. What about the other refugees?

Why does everyone seem to be approaching this issue as if it were completely disconnected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Since when has Israel been a refuge for those that the UN defines as refugees? According UNRWA’s creative definition of refugee, there are over 4 million Palestinian refugees hoping to gain entry to Israel. What about them? As we correctly congratulated ourselves on our humanity for saving some Sudanese refugees from the murderous Egyptian military on our southern border, we shrugged away the Palestinian refugees we shot as they tried to cross our northern border with Syria last year.


At another time one might explore the bizarre way in which the UN defines and treats Palestinian refugees, and the limitations international law offers on absorbing refugees, but for the meantime I just wanted to protest against the high-falutin’ high-horsed generalisations. Sometimes I believe that moral theory operates at too low a resolution to be useful in high-resolution complexities.



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What I planned to say at J Street conference

Cross-posted with Makom

I was invited to be on a panel about Israel education at this year’s J Street conference. Sadly I couldn’t be there, but here is what I had been planning to say…

My wonderful daughter had her Bat Mitzvah recently. She sang beautifully from the Torah, built an amazing model of her “Personal Tabernacle” inspired by the portion, and took part in a lovely service she had helped to shape. I am overjoyed that my daughter’s experience of Judaism has been of a wise and deep tradition, fantastic stories, warm Friday nights, and inclusivity for both genders.

It wasn’t until we went with her to an exhibition on Jewish Feminist art at Ein Harod Museum that we came across a different aspect of Judaism. We walked around an exhibition created by furious female artists. Laws of niddah, modesty, and exclusion were beautifully screamed at, ridiculed, and mourned through video, photography, installation, sculpture and embroidery. From the wedding dress decorated with the hair shorn from the bride, to the photo of the disembodied hand holding a JNF box thrust through the curtain of the women’s section, there was some strong and strikingly painful work there. Yet although my daughter must be the most Jewishly knowledgeable of all her friends, I needed to explain every single reference to her.

She had had literally no idea of how aspects of Jewish tradition can be cruel to or disdainful of women.

This is because we had never taught her about them, and she’d never come across them until this exhibition. We knew instinctively that if we had exposed her to the anti-feminist narrative of Judaism at an early age she would have emerged knowledgeable about yet emotionally distant from Judaism. We didn’t want that for our kid.

I’m left reflecting on these ideological choices when addressing the topic of our panel: “How do we talk to our children about Israel?” Because you see the thing is that my wife and I have absolutely no regrets at constructing “rose-tinted spectacles” for our child’s experience of Judaism. Our choice to induct our daughter into Judaism was not related to the moral rights or wrongs of the entirety of the tradition. We wanted for Judaism to be a part of who she is.

I believe we need to take the same choices with our young children with regards Israel. Prior to and irrespective of our attitudes to Israeli policies and politics, we need to make an ideological choice. Is Israel important to a Jew, or not?

My belief is that the only reason there are so many Jews at J-Street conference, and at work for J-Street throughout the country, is because they believe Israel is important to them as Jews.

We are all busy people, we all have limited free time on our hands, and – let’s face it – quantitatively strategically and even morally there are far more important and horrific things going on throughout the world for us to get worked up about. We get worked up about Israel because it is important to us. Just as much as we wish no wrong to be done to Palestinians, and just as much as we wish no wrong to be done to Israelis, we also wish that Israel behave justly because Israel is part of us.

But as you yourselves at J Street can attest, growing up with a deep connection to Israel does not have to lead one to love everything about Israel. The fact that my kid was not just surprised but also horrified by much of what she learned at the Jewish Feminist exhibition shows that one can be brought up to identify with a tradition, a people, a place, and still continue to develop a moral stance that might be at odds with elements of that tradition.

Bringing up our children to “love Israel” should not mean we are brainwashing them or serving evil reactionary interests. Sometimes I fear that too much superficial education has given love and commitment a bad name. A knee-jerk rejection of “teaching to love Israel” is – I would suggest – mainly a response to the extent to which such a concept has been shorn of its depth. Love is crucial, but it’s not simple.

We need our children to be knowledgeable and wise enough to be able to question what they have received, and at the same time we need them connected enough to care. Their commitment will be inherited from that of their parents – hence the necessity for us as parents and future parents to make that first ideological decision that Israel is important to us and to our children.

What would an education look like that seeks to establish a commitment that is strong and passionate but not blind or paralyzed? How might we cultivate the roots of critical loyalty in our young?

We at Makom would advocate for two approaches. We would take care to give pre-teens what we might call the “philosophical training” for them to embrace complexity, and we would give them a framework of “spiraling questions”.

Embracing Complexity

Rather than simplifying issues for a little kid to grasp, we should encourage them to grapple with the complexities of simple situations. For example, at the age of five, issues of “Hugging and Wrestling with Israel” are tough! But questions such as “has your best friend ever done something you thought was the wrong thing to do?” fit right in to their lives. Follow up questions can go further: Did you tell your friend they had done wrong? Did you tell them in private or in public? Are you still friends despite the wrong-doing? Rather offering a simplistic explanation of Israel’s Separation Barrier, we might ask where there are fences in our children’s lives? (House? School?) What are the advantages and disadvantages of fences? Do good fences make good neighbors or deepen divides? Who decides where to put a fence, and why? (Our “Car Pool Conversations” about Israel are freely downloadable here)

These are the kinds of conversations that can help our kids develop a familiarity with complex moral issues, and build a suitable vocabulary to begin to address them when they arise. In this way our children learn that complexity and “messiness” (Israeli characteristics if ever there were!) can be fascinating and not frightening.

Spiraling questions

At Makom we would suggest that the moral and political issues of Israel emerge from four key values expressed in the Hatikvah anthem: To Be A Free (Jewish) People In Our Land.  What does it mean and what does it take to survive (To Be)? What does it mean and what does it take to be free? What does it mean and what does it take to be connected to the Jewish People? And what does it mean and what does it take to be In Our Land?

These four questions underlie every headline we ever read about Israel, and they are four questions that we can ask and explore at every age. As little kids our questions about being Jewish and connected to other Jews will yield different answers from those we may reach today. Likewise the expansion of our understanding of freedom – its limitations and responsibilities – will grow with the years. But the more we empower our children to engage with these four “pillars of Zionism”, the more we enable them to connect to, critique, and affirm Israel at every stage of their lives.

All the above opinions have been developed and inspired by my work with Makom, and consultations with Dr Jen Glaser who first introduced me to the teachings of Vygotsky.

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Our Countries Are Burning

First appeared in

I don’t normally like Israeli songs that are written and performed in English. I’m a great fan of Tamar Eisenman’s artistry, and of Asaf Avidan’s surreality, but what can I tell you – I’m an old-school Zionist. I’m big on our developing and Israeli-Jewish culture in Hebrew. You don’t need to – even I call me old-fashioned. I kind of think that if we can’t even create our own renewal of Jewish culture here in the Holy Land, then really what are we doing here?

But just now a great song came out by an Israeli woman who writes and performs in English. This one made it past my usual barriers.  It’s one of those rare Israeli songs that while escaping the particularity of Hebrew, doesn’t feel the need to escape Israel and her issues.

The chorus is a powerful mix of rocked-up folk with a Cranberries-crack, and evokes the powerful image of the Carmel Forest up in smoke:

My country’s burning

Smoke is rising

You can see it rise from miles away

Driving by the flames I pray

For rain

I pray for sanctuary

The singer songwriter comes from my neck of the woods, and we could indeed see the smoke rising from miles away. It was an awful sight.

Along with the tears shed for the destruction and the deaths of so many brave people, there was a lingering frustration following the Carmel fire. An excruciating video went around, showing Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovitch in the Knesset warning that in pushing Israel’s firefighters towards privatization by drying up their public funding, the Finance Ministry was almost asking for a disaster to occur. It occurred.

It wasn’t until listening to the song by Ella Vs Mountain that I saw the connection between the Carmel Fire and the Israel’s summer protests for Social Justice. If ever we had required non-partisan confirmation that the State was not doing its job properly, the devastation of such a a beloved part of the country mostly due to poor preparation and chronic underfunding gave it to us. Maybe this was the fire that Ella recognizes burning under the protest movement.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

But the video clip of the song does more than talk Israel. It cuts together images of popular protests throughout the world, so that the fire falls back into symbolism and the protests that gripped Israel become part of a global wave. Though the youtube cuts mostly show images from Israel (there are even a few rioting Haredim in there) they are also taken from the US, China, and throughout the Middle East. On the youtube page they even give links for all the clips they used.

The message of the video is clear: the local is global. Israelis in the streets were marching with the world, as part of the world, in order to address an issue for the world. It’s a bold – and mostly true – statement. It’s a no-brainer to suggest that the general aims (and some methods) of the Occupy movement share a great deal with the Social Justice tent encampments of Israel, although I reckon Occupy could learn something from the Israelis about inclusivity. One can also see how the call for a more representative application of state power shares much with the protests in the Arab world. Though in Israel the protests were met with far less violence (and far less success?).

The video led me to think about what is going on in Tunisia, pretty much the only place in the Arab world where protesters were not beaten or shot at. The New York Times now points to a more complex issue that the Tunisians are dealing with: The tensions between religion and democracy.

Ring a bell?

A TV director chose to air a film that upset religious Muslims, and he’s since been beaten up and taken to court for libeling religion and possibly harming “public order or good morals”.

“Certain Islamist factions want to turn identity into their Trojan horse,” Mr. Messaoudi said. “They use the pretext of protecting their identity as a way to crush what we have achieved as a Tunisian society. They want to crush the pillars of civil society.”

In describing a Tunisian issue, he uses almost exactly the kind of words one hears in Israel today with regards the fundamental religious encroachment on public life. The article refers to Turkey by way of comparison, but so much of what it describes could as easily be applied to Israel. Check this out:

secular elites long considered themselves a majority and were treated as such by the state. In both, those elites now recognize themselves as minorities and are often mobilized more by the threat than the reality of religious intolerance.


Not only that, but it seems that in Tunisia at least, the founding democratic government is keen to avoid making any bold decisions. Compromises will be made, rulings will be postponed, just as they have been in Israel for decades. The spokesperson from the ruling party’s political bureau admitted that

the line between freedom of expression and religious sensitivity would not be drawn soon. “The struggle is philosophical,” he said, “and it will go on and on and on.”

And in a strange way I’m left hopeful. In a bizarrely Zionist way I’m proud that here in Israel we’re no longer dealing with the esoteric. The tensions between religion and state are now no longer just a Jewish meshuggas – they’re international (dare we say “universal”) issues that we’re trying to tackle. Likewise the social justice protests were nothing if not local – after all, no one bailed out failing banks in Israel. But we shared a shout, we called a call in common with the rest of the world.

In that way it made sense for Ella to sing her song of protest in English and not in Hebrew. Sometimes Israel isn’t a separate case – it’s part of the whole.

A tale of noise and humiliation

It’s strange how the most trivial thing brought me closest to violence.

I’m sitting on the train. The carriage is quiet. Four kids get on and sit across the aisle from me. They’re about 15 or 16. Well-equipped with their various mobile devices, they all loudly and boisterously turn to their respective video games. None of them have earphones. One guy in particular is playing his beeping video game with the volume on full.

After putting in my noise-cancelling earphones and unsuccessfully trying to ignore him, I give in. I ask him, fairly nicely, to turn down the volume.

At first he doesn’t respond. Then after I repeat my request he tells me to wait until he finishes the game. He is a little irritated that I distracted him.

Blood rising to my cheeks I ask him again, less nicely.

His giggling mates guffaw as the kid tells me that I ought to be more patient.

I want to kill him.

Even more frustrating is the ticket inspector who is sitting only a few seats away. He does nothing. In the end – oh the shame! – I respond in kind. I unplug my earphones from my computer and turn my own volume up. Only then does the inspector get up and tell us both to turn the volume down.

I breathe again.

A few days later, and  I’m in even more of a state. I’ve just read that the Railway Authority has refused a request for announcements to be made in Arabic as well as Hebrew. Arabic is one of Israel’s official languages. It is spoken by a significant proportion of Israel’s citizens, and the train stops at several cities with a large Arab population – Lod, Ramle, Acco, Haifa.

But no announcements are made in Arabic. They are made in Hebrew and, quite often, in English.

Here’s the kicker. What is the reason Israel’s Rail Authority will not make announcements in Arabic?

Because it would make the announcements too long, and, wait for it – “it would make the train ride noisy.”


Were I only concerned with my decibellian comfort, I’d laugh bitter tears. But these days I’m reading a lot of Avishai Margalit. He is the wise man who suggested we let go of lofty aspirations to a Just Society, and aim for the more modest goal of creating a Decent Society. A decent society, according to Margalit’s famous encapsulation, is a society that refrains from humiliating its citizens.

This decision, this deliberate decision not to make announcements in Arabic is humiliating. It humiliates Arab citizens of Israel. It’s especially humiliating because it’s so trivial. It’s not about changing the words of Hatikvah, it’s not about the Nakba, and it’s certainly not about the Occupation. A compromise would have cost nothing. Instead, it’s another little humiliation for Arab Israelis.

What does one do with such feelings of humiliation?

I know that when that kid refused to mute his stupid game, my fury and fantasy of violence emerged from a feeling of helplessness and the inexplicable humiliation of having my humanity disrespected. I was humiliated. In particular by the way in which the ‘system’, ie the representative of Israel’s Rail Authority, was so loath to intervene.

It was almost as if he didn’t care about the noise.

A song for our troubled times

“Point a finger at someone and you’re pointing three fingers at yourself.”

Yeah I know, it’s one of those annoying aphorisms that appear on Facebook with some cute photoshopped image. But as in many annoying Facebook aphorisms, it has something to it.

I’ve been thinking about this physiological morality tale over the past few weeks. Like an evil wind, uproar against one Israeli ‘tribe’ or another has been whipping from headline to headline, stirring up anger then moving on to the next issue, leaving pointing fingers in its wake.

I keep returning to the Prayer of the Secular. It’s a song by Kobi Oz that, to my mind, manages to point a finger at everyone, and yet finds a space for self-critique and harmony. (For a less polemic interpretation of the song, feel free to pop over here, where you’ll also find a full written translation and explanatory footnotes.)

The song begins with the prayer, but swiftly moves into a full-blooded yet empathetic critique of the secular life-style. We take pills if we feel bad, we blame our parents for all our faults, and our values are for sale in a mall. We take no cosmic responsibilities, and (my extension of course) we’re no great advocates for women’s rights ourselves…

Oz imagines himself standing praying his secular prayer in a Jewish minyan. Next to him is a sweaty, slavish, over-reproducing Haredi man. All the (well-sourced) stereotypes spill out in three lines of verse. Yet before we have time to take a breath, the National Religious get it in the neck. They are accused of being vainglorious, valuing land over people, stuck in the past and pulling all of us into war.

Then just as the progressive Jew begins to giggle, the song cuts Reform Jews to the quick, with a suggestion that their Judaism may not be an alteration but instead a totally different religion. My translation, “A reform Jew with a brand new cover or a different book”, is less inflammatory than the Hebrew (what can I do? Child of my time, I was thinking of that great line from ABC…). The Hebrew reworks a phrase asking if Reform Judaism is a make-over, or a different woman entirely?

In line with our current issues in Israel, Kobi’s minyan includes and excludes the women, “rustling and whispering” behind the mechitza, contributing the “sensuous sound, the feminine voice of the non-counted”

What this song succeeds in doing where most of us in Israel have failed, is in both sharing out the blame and praying for peace. The accusations in the song – against the secular, the haredi, the modern orthodox and reform – do not cancel each other out. The fact that one is fatally flawed does not mean that the other is not. They all stand, together, in the same minyan, praying for fertile rain.

Coming Home

First appeared in

Look, let’s be straight. I think that living in Israel is a good thing. I also, continuing to taste its fruits to this day, think that making aliya is a good thing.

I think that the Absorption Ministry is completely within its rights to try to encourage people to come to live in Israel – particularly those people who were born in Israel – and if Jeffrey Goldberg thinks that’s being mean to American Jews, then so be it.

You can’t get all uppity about Israelis saying that it’s good for Israelis to live in Israel, even if that implies they should leave America. It’s not “archaic” to suggest that aliya is good for the future of the Jewish people: It’s what we call debatable. That’s not the same thing, and it borders on cowardice to suggest it is.

Having said that… the two commercials that have many of my friends in America fulminating and my friends in Israel cringing are indeed problematic even for a Zionist such as myself.

I’m going to do what I’m not convinced the ad-firm really deserves. I’m going to try to analyze these commercials seriously.

The Grandparents video has a lit chanukiah in the background of the Israeli elderly skypers, and when they ask their Hebrew-speaking grand-daughter what festival it is, she cries Christmas! The concerned-yet-sympathetic voice-over points out: “They will always remain Israeli. Their children will not…”

Of course there are a few category confusions here. The kid has a good strong Israeli accent: her Hebrew is fine. What would seem to be in question is her connection to Jewish religion and culture, which is not necessarily exactly the same thing as her Israeliness. She will, after all, despite her identification with the goyim, still be expected to serve in Israel’s army when she reaches the right age, and will be allowed to enter Israel only on her Israeli passport.

Were we into philosophizing a little, we might ask if this girl with her perfect Hebrew, familiarity with all the Israeli music her parents play in the house, and call-up card to the IDF, is not Israeli? I’m not for a minute suggesting that an Israeli culture lacking a basic awareness of Chanukah is a rich or healthy culture for Israel, but it certainly exists.

But much of the critique I’ve so far seen of the advert goes further. The advert is somehow seen as proof that “it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America”. So of course anecdotally the commercial is thoroughly unfair, but statistically it is spot on. Of all Jews in America, Israeli ex-pats have the greatest trouble identifying with their local Jewish communities. Several Federations are making huge efforts to reach out to Israelis in their midst precisely because they have recognized there is a problem. In particular secular Israelis find it very hard to parlay their secular Israeli identity into the strictly Protestant-Jewish-religious terms of the American community (see the debate explored by James Hyman and Yonatan Ariel).

And now for the second video. A young Israeli is going through Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) on her own. Her partner doesn’t understand what she’s going through. She is alone in her grief and far away from home. Jeffrey Goldberg is convinced her boyfriend is Jewish because he speaks through his nose and has a goatey beard. (Less said about what lies behind that set of assumptions the better…) The friendly pitying voice-over: “They will always remain Israeli. Their partners won’t always understand what that means.”

So let’s parse this one, too. First off, the scene lasts all of 20 seconds. It may well be (if their relationship is worth anything) that the next few hours in Dafna’s apartment is spent with Dafna talking to her partner about what Yom HaZikaron is and what it means to her. It may well be that by the end of the conversation he will understand far more what it means to be Israeli. (And if he doesn’t he’s welcome to check out our online activity on the subject called The Price…)

If he listens carefully, and if Dafna is able to express herself well enough, he will understand that of all the days in the calendar that fill Dafna with ambivalence about Israel, it is Yom HaZikaron. It is a day full of pain, loss, and unspoken anger – especially for many of those people who have chosen to leave Israel. While it is the day most likely to lead Dafna to miss the company of other Israelis, it is very unlikely that this is what she most misses about Israel.

She misses the friends, she misses the energy, she misses the openness, she misses what her American friends mistake for rudeness but she experiences as honoring honesty. She misses the tiyulim, the views, the weather, the dynamism and the fear and excitement that literally anything may happen at any time. Without necessarily admitting it, she also misses feeling connected to something important, even crucial. She misses the thickness of existence in Israel, where everything is symbolic of something else, where the new is old and the old is new, where her in-born connection to the Jewish People can be expressed far beyond the synagogue. She misses the language, the music, the culture. She misses home.

It’s not wrong to try to encourage these people to come back to Israel, nor is it wrong to suggest their lives might be richer were they to do so. What is sad is that we’re so rarely allowed to discuss this latter assertion in any intelligent way, and these two commercials certainly don’t make it any easier.