Three thoughts on proportionality

July 28, 2014 by

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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.

The Evening Blessings directed towards the Gaza Conflict

July 24, 2014 by

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As I walked down the streets of Jerusalem this delightful, breezy July night, I passed two demonstrations supporting the soldiers of the IDF—one particularly dedicated to the Golani Brigade, which suffered so grievously this week.  Two tangible reminders that the calm of Jerusalem masks the sorrow and the fear, the violence and the uncertainty of this war.  And then I recited Ma’ariv, the evening service with its 23 blessings—through whose timeless words the prayers of a moment manifest.

The evening comes, and we reflect on a trying day, hoping that on another evening, sometime soon, the news will be better.  Blessed are You, Lord, who brings on evenings.

The world “regrets,” “condemns,” “urges,” and “demands,” and airlines cancel their flights.  Israel yearns not to be alone.  Blessed are You, Lord, who loves His people Israel. To Full Post

Radi Detey (“ради детей”) – for the sake of the children

July 22, 2014 by

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Meir Pichhadze (August 16, 1955 in Kutaisi, Georgia - February 4, 2010 in Tel Aviv, Israel)

Radi Detey – that’s the answer you’d get, if you asked a Russian immigrant “Why did you emigrate to Israel?” That first generation of Soviet immigrants that left its country, homeland, and home of its fathers, and moved to Israel (generally with family, grandmother, piano and dog. Actually with me it was a piano and a violin, two grandmothers and a grandfather), did so out of Zionist considerations but mainly “Radi Detey”. For the sake of the children. For the possibility that they might have a future, education, a good life. Life.

For exactly the same reasons there were those who emigrated to Germany, South Africa, Australia, and of course to North America. My father, who ever since he was a student had been a wildly passionate Zionist, left a high-ranking post in the defence industry in order to receive an exit visa from the USSR. For several years he was forced to make do with a job running the National Ballet and Opera theater, God forbid.

For him making Aliya was an old dream and a new adventure. A familiar stance.

My mother, who to this day has always shied away from politics, and is a firm believer that man is born good, was driven by her terrible anxiety for her two children, my sister and me, after Chernobyl.

Emigration in the face of mortal danger is also no great innovation in the history of the Jews.

Our grandparents came with us, because separation was inconceivable.

After my first visit to the USA at age 16, in a somewhat hesitant voice my father asked if I regretted that we had come to Israel of all places (after all I had seen in the US)? I said no. And I meant it. This is my place. This is my home. This is my language. In the deepest sense of the word.

24 years have passed since our Aliyah.

We are no longer counting the wars, the sirens, and the campaigns in Gaza.

But today I am a father. Father to Danielle. A wonderful baby-girl, nearly 3,the joy of my life. Yet this morning began with our big hug, only this time – to the tune of sirens and Iron Dome explosions.

It is her first war; her second week of Operation Protective Edge sirens and explosions.

And this is the first time I find myself asking myself, what should I be doing Radi Detey?

What should I be doing for the sake of my children?

What should I be doing to ensure my daughter has a sane future, education, a good life. Life?

The place of fear, faith, and love in times of war

July 18, 2014 by

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This beautiful and thoughtful piece was written in 2006, during the 2nd Lebanon War. Once again our Israeli Government has decided to put troops on the ground, this time in Gaza once more. Sara Eisen’s words still ring true and current.

 

A society with a healthy dose of fear gives me faith. And a home.

A well-known editor of a widely read Jewish American weekly wrote recently of his deep fear that Israel, with its many hostile and tacit enemies, may be (God forbid, he added) on its way out. The truth is that there is no way to make someone feel better about a qualm like that. It is a logical fear – – although logic, for better and worse, has never been the stuff of Jewish, and especially not Israeli, survival.

The other truth is that scary columns are useful, even when they contain no real operative suggestions, because anxiety often – or hopefully – prompts communal discourse, action, and change. My (quasi-logical) response to him, in Jewish fashion, is a problem, and a Talmudic reinterpretation of Churchill:

Prove: Fear is fine (just not by itself.)

Theorem #1:
Wives and mothers of conscripted Israeli soldiers, and not only the citizens of Gaza and Lebanon, are the people most afraid of Israeli soldiers showing up at their doorsteps.

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Shlomit isn’t able to work – confessions from tough times

July 10, 2014 by

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by Neil Mercer

photo by Neil Mercer

Can’t work. Three weeks now I haven’t been able to work. I mean, I come to work. Sign in on the Jewish Agency computer. Make myself a coffee. Sit down in front of the computer. Participate in team meetings. Politely answer the phone. Read emails, send emails. Talk at the Shlichim Conference, prepare materials for the seminar in New York. But I’m not really here at the computer. My mind is somewhere else, not focused on the emails reaching me, my mind is not here.

Over the last two and a half weeks, from the moment I heard of the kidnapping of the three youths Eyal, Gil-Ad, and Naftali (may the Lord alone avenge their blood) I’ve been existing between murmured verses of the Psalms. “A Song of Ascents. Out of the depths have I called Thee, O LORD. Lord, hearken unto my voice; let Thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” And the cry rises climbing the hills uprooting and hurting. “A Song of Ascents. I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where will come my aid?”

At word of their funeral something shuddered and snapped. I ignored the horrific information about the nature of their deaths, and grasped tightly to all mention of the nobility of their mothers and fathers.

The torture of Mohammed Al-Hadir, and his sinful murder at the hands of some Jewish youths sent something fundamental inside me insane. The fact that young Jews could so abuse a Palestinian youth is something I could not comprehend. And not because we Jews are better or morally higher than those of another nation, but because in our near past we ourselves have been slaughtered thus. And it is incumbent upon the victim to destroy all the weapons of the attacker, not to take them to his heart.

I have an inner voice that tries to tell me that “these are not Jews”, but I know that to turn my eyes away from these murderous youths is to turn away from the evil that is sown around us, and whose end is to increase evil and pain. It is for me to look into the evil, to understand it, and to add to it love.

I am working on this. I gaze with love into the large and wise eyes of the Arab kindergarten teacher of my daughter. Reem. Clouds in Arabic. I ask her how she is, and how the fast is going. We laugh together. We don’t talk about it. But it is there.

And now “Defensive Edge”. And a second siren in Jerusalem. At the first siren my first-born girl of nine months then, was producing her first tooth. We reached this second siren with another girl, and she already has three teeth. The girls slept through the siren. They don’t know how terrified I was that night. Yesterday the kindergarten of my eldest was closed and she came for a fun day at Mom’s work. A fun day of drinking chocolate and drawing with marker pens. Without understanding that the kindergarten was closed because it has no shelter.

Today she is at kindergarten. And I am at work. But I am not here. I check news sites, flicking here and there. Terrified at every notice of sirens in the center of the country where our families live, and mostly craving for the healing of an aching soul.

 

And perhaps a healing is on its way. The upcoming 17th Tammuz, in remembrance of the siege of Jerusalem, will be dedicated this year to co-existence. The Muslims are fasting now. It’s Ramadan. And on this coming Tuesday their fast and our fast will unite. As a mitzvah-observant woman I am exempt from such small fasts up to two years after giving birth. This year, as an Israeli citizen, I feel obligated to this civic fast. Fast to scourge the evil and senseless hatred in me. To teach of senseless love, to look squarely into myself.

And better to fail at senseless love than at senseless hatred.

To be a FREE people in our land? Implications of the kidnappings

June 27, 2014 by

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First appeared in Times of Israel

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Two of my children thought it was very funny, on a trip to the US about ten years ago, to hide inside a clothing rack at the Gap in a large East Coast mall. As Israeli children, who are used to trusting random strangers at the store, it did not even occur to them that this hilarious maneuver meant that for five minutes, I died.

My mind followed them to some remote corner of Shenandoah National Park, where a nondescript white man (someone’s quiet neighbor) – a man who did not care that they were Jewish… or human for that matter – was having them for lunch.  Of course, they were right there under a pile of denim, mischievous in the jeans.

Every parent knows the moment of the missing child: The seconds or hours when your heart plummets into your knees, and your jaw and stomach collide in acrid adrenaline wreckage. The nervous system gets ready to face agony immediately, before its boss has any real information. To Full Post

Mayonnaise with that? Israeli TV drama takes Lenny Bruce further

June 27, 2014 by

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Lenny Bruce would be giggling in his grave. He was the one who so famously explained that mayonnaise is goyish. Who would have predicted how far this observation would extend?

Israel is gripped by many obsessions painful and joyful. At the same time as we pray for the return of the three kidnapped kids, we are also overtaken by World Cup fever. For a country not represented in the greatest football spectacle of all time (yes, it’s football, Ann Coulter!) Israelis are free to support whoever they want – flags abound.

But the greatest obsession in abeyance until next season is our Zaguri obsession. 26 episodes of this family comic drama about a dysfunctional Moroccan family in Beersheva took the country by storm. And it also reappropriated mayonnaise for a brand new audience. To Full Post

Hillel Director counts the “wounded”, after BDS “battle”

June 1, 2014 by

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First appeared on www.jewschool.com
Rabbi Oren J. Hayon is the Greenstein Family Executive Director at the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life at the University of Washington.

In his biography of Pyrrhus of Epirus, Plutarch recounts the details of the ancient Greek general’s costly victory against Rome at Asculum in 279 BCE. According to Plutarch’s account, shortly after the battle, Pyrrhus considered the devastating losses to his Macedonian troops and made the dark but prescient reflection: “If we were to be victorious in one more battle against the Romans, it would utterly destroy us.” [Life of Pyrrhus, 21:9]

The story of that long-ago battle comes to remind us that some victories produce a sense of exhilaration so intoxicating that they prevent us from realizing that we are actually marching unwittingly toward defeat. I write these lines in the immediate aftermath of a period in the life of our organization which looks unmistakably like a time of triumph. Nevertheless, as I write, I am keenly aware of how we have been diminished by the events of this year. I find myself surprised and concerned about how much we have lost, and about how much more we stand to lose in the future.  To Full Post

Simplifying the discourse on complexity in Israel Education

May 21, 2014 by

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First appeared in ejewishphilanthropy.com The opening article on this topic was written by Alex Sinclair, former Makom Director of Research, and a response came swiftly from Barry Chazan. Here is our attempt to steer a way through the issues…

 

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A foreign correspondent friend once confided to us about reporting from Israel. “Do you want to know why there are so many more foreign correspondents stationed in Israel than in most other places in the world? It’s nothing to do with antisemitism or double standards. It’s just because Israel is so incredibly fascinating and complex!”

Since Makom – the Israel Education lab of the Jewish Agency for Israel – is labelled by Alex Sinclair as practicing a form of Israel education that applies “attractive complexity”, and as such we are the “good guys” according to Barry Chazan’s pertinent critique, it will come as no surprise that we agree Israel is fascinating. We also agree with Chazan that Israel – as subject matter – did not “invent” complexity. Every subject worthy of study is likely to be complex. But not every subject of study is likely to arouse complex feelings in the learner to the extent they do when modern Israel is taught to Jews around the world.

In this sense, there are really only two sides to addressing complexity – and pretty much all of us in the field address them both, in different ways.

There is the complexity of the subject-matter itself – “Israel is endlessly complicated!” And then there is the complexity of the learners’ response to the challenges Israel presents to them. In this latter sense, complexity is sometimes used as a euphemism for “discomfort” – “My emotional and intellectual response to what I have learned about Israel is, for want of a better word, complex…”

It is this second aspect of complexity – the way in which the subject of Israel meets the learner in their particular environment – that demands special attention.

Let’s take the example of the Kotel, when looking at this second aspect of complexity. There is probably little discomfort (“emotional complexity”) for the Orthodox learner to contemplate the Kotel from his home in Paris. In contrast, the Reform learner from San Francisco may well feel a great deal of discomfort (“complexity”) when contemplating the Kotel and its prayer arrangements. Here we can see that this “complexity of emotional response” arises when something jars in the encounter between an aspect of Israel, and the learner, the teacher, and their environment.

When this is the case, there are two key issues for the Israel educator. First, we must pay careful attention to what is going on in the learners’ world.

Just as it would be dumb to insist that the young woman from San Francisco must learn about the Kotel in exactly the same way as the boy from Paris, so it would be silly to suggest that the Parisian must address Women of the Wall in his first encounter with the Kotel. (In our opinion, both would be enriched by learning of both perspectives, but the structure of the learning, the “way in” would need to be different for each.)

Second, (how soon) do we wish to resolve discomfort?

a. Some will say that discomfort is a healthy state for growth.

These educators will constantly try to lead the learner to a “higher level of confusion” (Yonatan Ariel). Hence they will challenge the San Franciscan to think about freedom of worship for those Jews who wish to pray on the Temple Mount, or to apply thinking about social justice to the fact that the Kotel Plaza exists only due to the demolition of the Palestinian Mughrabi quarter in 1967. The Parisian would be asked to juxtapose his belief in the unifying nature of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the value of Jewish unity, with the conflict and strife within the Jewish People at the Kotel.

Yet if the learner is in a constant state of confusion, how can we ensure they will not lose interest, energy, conviction? Some of us find such internal discomfort stimulating, but it can give others a headache…

b. Some will say that discomfort is the educator’s enemy, and we must avoid it at all costs.

Some suggest this because their students live in a hostile environment where they hear more than enough “negatives” about Israel. Their students need affirmations of Israel’s place in their Jewish identity that they may internalize with ease, so as to “balance the playing field” that is biased against Israel, or to offer the balm of comfort to students under attack. Others avoid discomfort for fear it will “turn off” the learner. They aim to teach only that which the learner can digest without going through any cognitive dissonance. They wish to ensure the students see their own Jewish identity reflected back to themselves in the Jewish State, and so expose them only to those aspects of Israel that chime in with the students’ value system.

Yet what happens when in the first case the learner finds a grain or two of truth in Israel’s detractors’ accusations? Or when in the second case the learner (inevitably) finds that Israel is not the USA, nor is it France? What tools and experiences can we educators provide to empower the learner to deal with their complex feelings (response) when they find Israel is more complex (subject matter) than they had thought?

c. Still others will argue that the best way to resolve the discomfort of learning about an Israel whose complexity makes it difficult to digest, is activism. If the subject matter – Israel – is unattractive to us, we must work to change it!

But at what price? If learners’ response to any piece of information that troubles them is to insist on changing that information to suit their desires, when will the learners ever question themselves? Shouldn’t educators help them to question their own assumptions when examining different approaches to the good life?

 

In building this field of Israel Education it is the mission of us all to find wise and flexible answers to these questions. We would suggest that our next few tasks might include:

  1. Creating and modeling more thoughtful and sophisticated ways for celebrating and affirming Israel. Not all celebration need be superficial, and not all critique should be miserable!
  2. Developing clearer models for how informed critique can lead to activism in a thoughtful way that includes like-minded Israelis. In this way we might move from “battering” to “bettering” – to the benefit of both the learners and Israel itself.
  3. Working hard to embrace all different approaches to Israel Education, even if they would seem to go against one’s own philosophy. If a commitment to complexity in Israel education is to mean anything, it must also welcome complexity in the many forms it may take!

 

Yonatan Ariel and Robbie Gringras are, respectively, the Executive Director and Creative Director of Makom, the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

 

Shavuot and Gleanings of Social Justice

May 20, 2014 by

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Soon the festival of Shavuot will be upon us. The Harvest Festival, in which we read the Book of Ruth. On Shavuot we gather that which we have sown, and reap that which we have labored on throughout the year. And so I chose this moment to think with you about the Book of Ruth and poverty through the photography of Adi Nes.

(Untitled) Ruth and Naomi Gleaning, 2006 – Adi Nes

Israeli artist Adi Nes created a series of staged photographs that make the connection between Biblical characters and modern-day society, two of which involve Naomi and Ruth. In this photo, called “(Untitled) Ruth and Naomi Gleaning”, Nes refers to the period of poverty facing Ruth and her mother-in-law in Yehuda, when they are forced to glean the left-overs of food from the field. These leftovers are deliberately put there by Boaz, owner of the field. This is in accordance with the socialistic law of gleaning, the forgotten and the edges, which asserts that the owner of a field must leave behind the sheaves that have been missed in the harvest, for the needy.

In the photograph there are two women, one young and one older (judging by their arms), picking up discarded onions from the ground of what might have been earlier on in the day a bustling vegetable market. Apart from a plastic bag that can be seen – this is a scene that could have taken place at any time in any place. I would suggest that in this way Nes hints that poverty exists in every society, in every period, everywhere.

According to the Book of Ruth, two things save these two women: socialistic mitzvoth made law, and Boaz taking personal responsibility. Although according to Levirate marriage customs Boaz should not be with Ruth, marries her out of a sense of obligation as a close relative of her deceased husband. Ruth’s marriage, and the birth of heirs to his more respected family, saves Naomi and Ruth from a life of poverty and itinerancy.

In contrast to the easier image from the Book of Ruth, of young Ruth gleaning in the pastoral fields, the photograph of Adi Nes presents us with two poor women, young and old, gleaning amongst the discarded refuse of a market. The contrast between these two images emphasizes the attitude to poverty today. Nes calls us to look at the differences, and to take responsibility for the poor among us – both publically and personally.

I wish for us all that this year we may plant good seeds of social change, that we might reap at next Shavuot. (Though of course that won’t be possible as next year is a Shmitta year, but we’ll talk about that next time… :-))

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