Posted by Danielle Berrin
It sometimes feels hard to grasp the magnitude of a miracle. But we are fortunate to live in a society in which our culture serves as an astute documentarian of human majesty.
It is true of literature, film, music and other arts but it occurred to me that the themes of Hanukkah are especially prevalent right now at the movies. The theaters are filled with reverberations of the miraculous, miracles large and small, tender and hard won, encompassing and discrete.
As in the Hanukkah story, about the triumph of a small rebellion over a mighty army, there can be seen grand miracles that bring sweeping change and alter the course of history (Les Misérables). Historic achievements that free the fettered and elevate the dignity of humankind sometimes depend on the radical courage of one brave soul (Lincoln). Others require an army, and prove that in the service of great miracles, such as bringing evil to justice, complicated, even ugly work is required (Zero Dark Thirty). And it is something of a miracle itself that in the movies, even history can seem small, shrunken, and ephemeral in the scope of cosmic connection (Cloud Atlas), the nature of the universe and the existence of God (Life of Pi).
Where do these reverberative effects begin? With the power of one: a Matthathias, an Abraham Lincoln, a CIA operative who risks his life to rescue others (Argo). Because it is sometimes in the small, private act, the secret contours of the heart that the deepest miracles are felt. There is wonder in the enfoldment of arms (The Sessions), the constant friend (The Twilight Saga), the resilient marriage (This is 40), the enduring love (Amour).
All of these stories are reflections of the religious, the journey from darkness to light, from estrangement to intimacy, hopelessness to faith. Hanukkah, the light-filled holiday takes place during the darkest part of the year. Each night (and indeed at every Jewish holiday), we kindle flames at sundown. It is a reminder that darkness is the beginning of light, just as a dark theater signals the beginning of illumination.
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December 10, 2012 | 3:08 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
What do Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, Scarlett Johansson, Drake and Jack Black have in common?
They'll all (presumably) light up tonight for the third night of Chanukah. Here's some quick, cute proof from NowThis News:
December 7, 2012 | 1:27 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Spirits were barely diminished at the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) annual dinner Thursday night, a week after headliner Stevie Wonder’s provocative and public pullout. More than 1,000 Israel supporters turned out at the Hyatt Regency in Century City for the annual gala hosted by Haim and Cheryl Saban.
The four-and-a-half hour evening steered by “Seinfeld” veteran Jason Alexander included moving, personal presentations by IDF soldiers and raised a reported $14 million from attendees, many of them Israeli-American business and entertainment leaders, including Avi Arad, head of Marvel Entertainment, film producer Avi Lerner, real estate developer Izek Shomof, actress and producer Noa Tishby and Oracle business magnate Larry Ellison.
Businessman and producer David Matalon offered the best line of the evening when, during the live auction-style fundraiser, he pledged $8,000 to the FIDF and, “in honor of Stevie Wonder, another $2,000.”
“I’ll have him call you to tell you he loves you,” Haim Saban quipped from the stage.
Other than that moment of levity, the silence surrounding Wonder’s cancelation continued, although emcee Alexander seized an opportunity to share some unusually candid remarks about the complexities of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. In a lengthy and serious address, he talked about his love for both Israelis and Palestinians and how his work with the organization One Voice has exposed him to both sides of the conflict.
“This conflict continues because of the inability of leaders to break through this impasse and find a way to peace,” he said.
Knowing before whom he stood -- a predominantly Israeli-American and Jewish crowd – Alexander was careful to balance his pro-Palestinian remarks with strong supportive messages about Israel. The most vigorous applause came when he referred to the Jewish state as the most “maligned, underappreciated and hardest challenged nation on the planet,” and expressed admiration for its soldiers.
“I believe that the men and women soldiers that defend [Israel] are among the most honorable and noble soldiers the world has ever seen,” Alexander said, though he added that sometimes, “they have made mistakes.”
He thanked the crowd for the opportunity to share his thoughts.
Story continues after the jump.
Video by Jeff Hensiek
Throughout the night, Israeli soldiers took to the podium to share their stories, many of them heart-wrenching reminders that even with its military might, the IDF has suffered profound losses. Yoni Asraf, an American who enlisted in the IDF, told the crowd how he had lost a limb in a mortar attack during the 2008 incursion into Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead. Despite his loss, he refused to relinquish his post and spent years rehabilitating himself in order to rejoin his unit.
Later, a North African-native mother who immigrated to Israel and lost two of her sons in combat for the IDF, delivered an astoundingly resilient message. “I am not broken,” she said. “You cannot break a spirit.”
After her emotional speech, host Cheryl Saban embraced her, while her husband looked on with misty eyes.
“As a mother myself, your story has touched me. Everyone in this room is inspired by you,” Cheryl said.
Haim Saban used his pulpit time to talk about the values of the IDF, portraying an army of ideals, of “courage, compassion, strength and sacrifice.”
Inspiration rapidly gave way to income, as Saban himself solicited donations to the FIDF from the stage. “The time is always ripe to do right,” he said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.
Once millions of dollars in pledges had been collected from the crowd, Grammy-winning musician and producer David Foster orchestrated some light entertainment, with performances by “American Idol” winner Ruben Studdard and a gold-glitter encrusted Chaka Khan, the Grammy winning “Queen of Funk-Soul,” who sang the hit “I’m Every Woman.”
Foster, who has coordinated the musical entertainment for the FIDF dinner for years, said in an interview that although he has never been to Israel, he has learned a thing or two about Jewish culture from all the dinners.
“I’m not Jewish,” Foster told the crowd. “But I have been circumcised, and I do know Barbra Streisand.”
December 6, 2012 | 10:15 pm
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
When Stevie Wonder backed out of a planned appearance at a Dec. 6 gala to benefit the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), the reasons given for his decision were varied.
Many news articles focused on the thousands of signatures on a letter and online petitions urging Wonder not to appear at the event. As has been reported previously on this blog, the FIDF’s initial explanation for Wonder’s cancellation mentioned that some individuals associated with the United Nations had pushed Wonder, who was appointed a U.N. Messenger of Peace in December 2009, to drop out.
But in addition to these efforts, voices from within the African American community in Los Angeles and beyond also put significant pressure on Wonder to abandon his planned appearance.
“The first level, which has been popularized, is the petition campaigns,” said Dedon Kamathi, a producer of Freedom Now, a radio show about “pan-African political and cultural” subjects that airs weekly on KPFK. “I think that the real, within-the-family pressure came from a number of black community organizations.”
Kamathi, who first heard about Wonder’s planned appearance from Cynthia McKinney, a former U.S. Congresswoman from Atlanta, said that leaders within the black community told Wonder’s staff that if he didn’t drop the FIDF benefit appearance, they would picket in front of KJLH, the Los Angeles-based R&B and Gospel radio station owned by Wonder, as well as at Wonder’s annual House Full of Toys benefit concert, set to take place at the Nokia Theater in L.A. later this month.
“They said they would protest at KJLH because we take personal responsibility for people like Bob Marley, people like B.B. King, people like Stevie Wonder, people like Public Enemy,” Kamathi said, standing on the sidewalk outside the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel on Thursday evening, about an hour before the FIDF gala was scheduled to start. “We gave them life, they live in our communities.”
For the approximately 130 protesters who gathered along with Kamathi outside the hotel in Century City on Thursday afternoon, the fact that Wonder would not be playing inside made the moment not just one for protest, but also for celebration.
“We are here to celebrate our brother Stevie Wonder for standing up on a principle, the principle that the Palestinians of today are the South Africans of yesterday,” said Shakeel Syed, a member of the steering committee of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. “He had the courage and principle to defy the oppressors and defend the oppressed.”
Although the protesters were quick to claim Wonder as a fellow activist for their cause -- one man held a sign with Stevie Wonder’s face and the words, “Thank You!” painted on it – in a statement posted on the KJLH Web site, Wonder did not choose sides.
"Given the current and very delicate situation in the Middle East, and with a heart that has always cried out for world unity, I will not be performing at the FIDF Gala on December 6th,” Wonder said in the statement. “I am respectfully withdrawing my participation from this year's event to avoid the appearance of partiality. As a Messenger of Peace, I am and have always been against war, any war, anywhere. In consistently keeping with my spirit of giving, I will make a personal contribution to organizations that support Israeli and Palestinian children with disabilities.”
The protest started at 4:30, an hour and a half before the FIDF dinner was set to begin in the hotel’s ballroom. During a brief press conference, a number of speakers denounced Israel, the IDF, and the FIDF.
“I am here to admit that I was a member of the terrorist organization,” said Miko Peled, an Israeli activist on behalf of Palestinian rights, referring to his time in the IDF. “Yes, they have tanks, commanders and fancy fundraisers and this hotel, but it is no more than a brutal terrorist organization."
The son of an Israeli general, Peled, who lives in San Diego, has written a book about his becoming a pro-Palestinian activist. His own son, Eitan Peled, was at the protest as well, a Palestinian flag draped like a cape over his shoulders.
“I grew up with friends in Palestine before I knew I was supposed to be enemies with them,” the 18-year-old UCLA freshman said.
After a few speeches, the smaller-than-expected crowd waved Palestinian flags and conducted a candle-lit funereal march along the pavement, complete with a tiny flag-draped casket.
An online invitation for the protest on Facebook had garnered more than 1,000 positive RSVPs, and the Los Angeles Police Department had come ready for a crowd of that size. According to the commanding officer on the scene, Commander Dennis Kato, 60 officers had been mobilized from two different bureaus.
At about 5:40, around two dozen of those officers could be seen still standing by their cars at a remote staging location behind the hotel.
“Now that we’ve seen the crowd, we’ve released a number of units already,” Kato said just as the first of the cars of people arriving for the dinner began arriving on Thursday evening, around 5:45 p.m.
While the cars, most of them luxury imported European models, drove past, the protesters shouted slogans -- “Shame on you!” “Stop killing children!” “Israel is a Racist state!” – and waved their flags.
“These groups have been very cooperative, which makes it easier for all involved,” Kato said. “We don’t want to disrupt either side. It’s America, they get a chance to exercise their rights and say what they want to and we’ll let them have that opportunity as long as they abide by rules.”
December 4, 2012 | 3:30 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
An unusual silence has blanketed the circumstances leading up to music icon Stevie Wonder’s canceled performance at the Friends of Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Western Region Gala on Dec. 6 at the Hyatt Regency in Century City.
The 25-time Grammy winner was set to appear for an expected 1,200 FIDF supporters, including dignitaries from the United States and Israel as well as friends in Hollywood, when he suddenly canceled on Nov. 29. A press release issued by the FIDF national office last week reported “representatives of the performer cited a recommendation from the United Nations to withdraw his participation given Wonder’s involvement with the organization.” The release also included a statement from Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon, FIDF’s national director and CEO, that said, “We regret the fact that Stevie Wonder has decided to cancel his performance at an important community event of the FIDF, an American organization supporting the educational, cultural, and wellbeing needs of Israel’s soldiers, their families, and the families of fallen soldiers.
“FIDF is a non-political organization that provides much-needed humanitarian support regardless of religion, political affiliation, or military activity.”
Not mentioned was the fact that an online campaign entreating Wonder to cancel his performance in protest of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians had garnered thousands of signatures. Members of that same coalition are also planning to protest outside the event; as of press time, according to the event’s Facebook page “Protest Dec. 6 at LA Fundraiser Supporting Israel’s War Crimes,” more than 1,000 had said they would show up.
Wonder was appointed a U.N. Messenger of Peace in December 2009 by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. His cancellation came on the same day that the U.N. General Assembly upgraded the Palestinian territories to a non-member observer state through an overwhelming majority vote of 138 to 9, with 41 countries abstaining
The Messenger of Peace role is a largely ceremonial post held by distinguished figures in the fields of art, literature, music and sports who agree to use their celebrity to bring attention to U.N. concerns and causes. Other messengers include author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, actor and activist George Clooney and world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
That FIDF officials did not condemn Wonder, however, may have its root in the fact that FIDF Western Region dinner chairs, media mogul Haim Saban and his wife, Cheryl, also have close ties to the United Nations. In September, President Barack Obama appointed Cheryl to the post of U.S. representative to the U.N. General Assembly.
The Internet campaign calling for a boycott of the FIDF event only targeted Wonder, however. Cheryl Saban’s longstanding support of Israel and the FIDF, along with her husband, distinguishes her from Wonder, who in 1995 performed in Israel and met with Israeli and Palestinian officials, but has not performed there since.
The Web site endtheoccupation.org, an arm of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement — the international group that advocates for the use of economic, political and cultural pressure on Israel “until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights,” according to one of the movement’s major Web sites — featured a letter with more than 4,000 electronic signatories pressing Wonder to abandon his FIDF plans.
“We are a diverse group of people of conscience and social justice organizations around the world, saddened by the announcement that you will be performing and helping to raise money for the Israeli army,” the letter said. It also draws parallels between South African apartheid and Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, and says a performance by Wonder at the FIDF gala would show support for those practices.
Another letter, posted on the Web site change.org, which listed 4,570 signatories on the day of Wonder’s cancellation, made a more direct address: “We call on Stevie Wonder, as a conscientious American advocate for human rights and dignity not to support the Israeli Defense Force by performing at their gala fundraiser ... The IDF is an institution which promotes, enables, and protects Israel’s Apartheid regime.”
Moments after Wonder made his announcement, endtheoccupation.org wrote that they were celebrating a “victory.”
The targeting of high-profile celebrities who express plans to perform in or on behalf of the State of Israel is not uncommon. In response to such efforts, a group of music industry executives established the nonprofit Creative Community for Peace (CCFP) to privately and publicly counter artist boycotts of Israel. The group’s co-founder, former Universal Music Group CEO David Renzer, now president of music ventures at Saban Capital Group, has, in the past, spoken out against such intimidation but declined to comment for this article.
However, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel was quick to point fingers at the BDS movement, referring to a press release issued by the consulate that specifically condemns the BDS movement as a “front for a campaign aimed at delegitimizing the very existence of the State of Israel.”
“BDS is not about peace,” Siegel said during a phone interview on Dec. 3. “It’s about vilifying Israel.”
Asked if he thought the FIDF’s U.N. explanation might be intended to deflect attention from an effective boycott by Wonder of one of the largest Israel fundraisers in the country, Siegel said, “I don’t know. We weren’t involved in the whole FIDF thing. But the BDS effort is very significant; we know that.”
When asked how or why he had made the connection between Wonder’s cancellation and BDS when the FIDF was offering a different account, Siegel said, “I didn’t mean to make any connection like that. What we’re talking about is BDS in general; there are attempts to enact a cultural boycott, which we think is counterproductive. That’s a general statement. It doesn’t relate to Stevie Wonder.”
A coalition of self-described L.A. “peace activists” had promised, however, to stage a large demonstration outside the Hyatt, where they planned to enact a mock funeral procession with a “child’s casket” on the night of the gala. The protest also was to include participants donning placards with the names and ages of civilians killed during Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza last month.
In a press release, the coalition of two dozen groups and a half-dozen individuals claims credit for Wonder’s cancellation is due to “thousands of activists around the world using social media, e-mail and phone calls.”
A collection of speakers from both secular and religious organizations say they will appear, including Israeli-American activist Miko Peled, son of an Israeli general and author of “The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine.”
As of press time on Dec. 4, the Western Region FIDF had not announced plans for a prominent musical replacement, though, as in past years, Grammy winner David Foster & Friends will perform, and “Seinfeld” veteran Jason Alexander will reprise his role as emcee. The absence of a major headliner stands out because the gala is known for bringing in rarified, glamorous musical acts. Past years have featured musical legends such as Barbra Streisand and the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.
But Haim Saban, known for dazzling surprises, insisted on Dec. 3 that the gala will go on with its usual splendor, undeterred.
“Life is good,” he wrote in an e-mail, “and we’ll have the best gala YET.”
November 29, 2012 | 8:30 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
One of the things I admire about Haim Saban is that he's fearless.
Saban is not afraid of anybody. In fact, he is that rare person who is so singularly powerful, he has the luxury of saying whatever he darn well pleases about whoever he darn well likes (or doesn't like, like Mitt Romney, for example).
So why wouldn't he comment when I emailed him about Stevie Wonder's cancellation on L.A.'s annual Friends of the Israel Defense Forces dinner, which Saban and his wife, Cheryl, will host next week? Why would he not even say, 'I'm really disappointed'?
According to a press release issued by the FIDF national office earlier today, “Representatives of the performer cited a recommendation from the United Nations to withdraw his participation given Wonder’s involvement with the organization."
Wonder is a U.N. Messenger of Peace, a ceremonial post held by "distinguished individuals, carefully selected from the fields of art, literature, music and sports, who have agreed to help focus worldwide attention on the work of the United Nations," according to a description on the U.N. Website. Author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel is a Messenger of Peace, along with celebrities George Clooney, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton and Michael Douglas. "Messengers of Peace," the Website notes, "through their public appearances, contacts with the international media and humanitarian work, help expand understanding of how the ideals and objectives of the Organization demand everyone’s attention." Will the other messengers speak out on Israel's behalf and encourage Wonder to change his mind? It seems peace ought to be apolitical. But we'll see.
It's also a little ironic that Wonder canceled on Saban -- but really, Israel -- on the same day the U.N. voted to upgrade Palestine (by which is meant the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza) to a non-member observer state in an overwhelming vote: 138 to 9, with 41 countries abstaining.
But it is, perhaps, even more ironic, that the intrepid Saban, who told The New Yorker's Connie Bruck in 2010, “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel” will not utter a single word about Wonder's cancellation, ostensibly related to Wonder's role with the U.N., a mere two months after President Obama nominated Saban's wife, Cheryl, to the U.N. General Assembly.
If it really is the U.N. that's getting in the way of Wonder performing next week, one would assume Cheryl Saban, another U.N. representative, might also be compromised for chairing the dinner?
But I suspect Wonder is really capitulating to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and using the U.N. as his excuse. And Saban may be hesistant to protest since his wife is now U.N.-attached. Knowing the Sabans, they likely see the U.N. post as a way of helping Israel from the inside, a position not worth risking.
Meanwhile, former Universal Music Group executive David Renzer, who created the nonprofit Creative Community for Peace (CCFP), an organization that seeks to counter artist boycotts of Israel, and who has previously spoken out against campaigns that pressure artists to boycott Israel, is now working for Saban.
November 29, 2012 | 5:10 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Earlier this week, I asked political commentator and comedian Bill Maher, host of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher" to weigh in on the outcome of the 2012 election and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Below is the uncut, uncensored interview in which he talks about America's number one political priority, the negative edification of the Bible and what his (Jewish) mother taught him about anti-Semitism.
Hollywood Jew: What was your big takeaway from the election this year?
Bill Maher: It’s the year Obama won. I was for that, so you know, I’m very happy about it. I’m more relieved than I even thought I would be.
HJ: Any lessons from a historic campaign that cost nearly $1.5 billion?
BM: After the election, Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook page that Romney lost because early money in the swing states defined him, and that’s the whole reason I made my contribution to the Obama PAC. That’s what the Democratic strategists thought, and it kinda worked, because those numbers really never budged throughout the whole campaign. The media went through hoops covering all the ups and downs but people just basically made up their minds pretty early.
HJ: What do you think will be the single most important issue facing the American people in the next decade?
BM: The environment. Because if we don’t fix that, there are no other issues.
HJ: What are your favored sources for news and commentary? Or what book or writer influenced you the most? I know it wasn’t the Bible.
BM: (laughs) Well, it could be -- in a negative sense. Actually I took a bible course in college. It’s funny, making the movie “Religulous,” what I found out is that people who are religious have no idea about their own religion. They are completely clueless; they do not know what’s in the Bible. You could quote them something and say it was from the Bible and they would nod their head. I think if they read the bible, especially the Old Testament, I think they would be appalled. If you just told them it was something else, if you just said, ‘Read this story,’ you know, about this God – let’s call him Spor -- and how he’s wiping these people out and ethnically cleaning them for no apparent reason, how he does things on a whim and how he’s jealous; They’d go, ‘This is terrible.’
HJ: It’s no secret you’re not a great admirer of religion. But I’ve seen your live stand-up show and it seemed to me the religion you poke fun of the least is Judaism. Why is that?
BM: We do poke fun of it quite a bit in “Religulous” but I mean it’s certainly not as dangerous as Islam and Christianity. Those are warlike religions. The Muslim world was conquered in a century. Mohammad died in 632; by 732, they were at the gates of France, they were in the Pyrenees. Jesus Christ, I mean, you don’t do that by handing out pamphlets and singing ‘Cumbaya.’ They conquered by the sword.
HJ: So, in your opinion, Judaism is not as bad because it’s not as violent?
BM: There’s a lot to be made fun of in any religion, and that includes Buddhism, by the way. A lot of my Hollywood friends think ‘Oh, Buddhism is a philosophy, it’s not a religion.’ It’s a religion because it includes crazy whack shit that doesn’t exist, that somebody made up, like reincarnation. OK. But I mean, Judaism, we had a lot of fun when we did “Religulous” [because] we went to the institute where they invent devices that allow people on the Sabbath who cannot use electricity to take an elevator or ride in a wheelchair.
HJ: The Shabbes Elevator
BM. The Shabbes Elevator. Stuff like that is just insane and it’s funny but it doesn’t really threaten anybody’s life. I did a joke in my act about, ‘I’d like to see Joe Lieberman as President because he doesn’t use electricity on Friday night and so if there’s a nuclear attack, he gets a Shabbes goy to launch our nuclear missiles.’
HJ: I know you’ve been to Israel and that you’re part Jewish. What’s your view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How optimistic are you that they’ll find a two-state solution?
BM: I’m optimistic that it’ll get worked out in the same way I’m optimistic that Marijuana will be legal all across the country; perhaps not in my lifetime, but at some point. But I’ve never hid the fact that I don’t think it’s a conflict where both sides are equally guilty. I’m more on the side of the Israelis; that’s why Benjamin Netanyahu did my show a few years ago, before he was Prime Minister.
HJ: Why are you more on the side of Israelis?
BM: Take this conflict; here, everyone in the newspapers, the pundits, they talk about it like it’s very complicated. It’s not that complicated: Stop firing rockets into Israel and perhaps they won’t annihilate you. I mean, it’s so crazy when you look at these images on TV. Ok, they just had a little war. It lasted a week like most Israeli wars do; the Israelis lost a handful of people, shot down most of the rockets, and the neighborhoods in Gaza are devastated. They’re rubble. They lost over 1,000 people and yet somehow Palestinians are celebrating in the streets? I don’t get this celebrating when you just totally got your ass kicked.
HJ: The Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out that many in the media tend to point out the disproportionate casualty count between Israelis and Palestinians, and he wisely wondered if there is a moral difference between attempted murder and successful murder.
BM: It’s obvious that Israelis, in all of their battles with the Palestinians, show restraint. Because they have nuclear weapons. And if the situation was reversed, I don’t doubt for a second that Palestinians would fire them immediately. They’d use the maximum of what they have available and the Israelis don’t.
HJ: There was a big debate this week in the Jewish world that arose from a dispute between two rabbis about whether Judaism should be more universal and humane or more tribal and self interested. But it is widely felt that the Israeli army conducts itself with deep concern for the humanity of the people they are fighting.
BM: Let’s not forget the other side of this issue, which is, the Palestinians do have gripes, and most Israelis do not agree with the Netanyahu government on the settlement issue. [Israelis] want a two state solution. I don’t think anybody’s ever gonna be happy or the conflict will ever end before that happens and as many writers have pointed out, Israel faces the problem of becoming a minority Jewish state within their own country if they allow this to keep going. There has to be some solution. In a lot of ways, what we see in Israel is their government has been taken over by the equivalent of what would be the Tea Party in this country. If you talk to most people in Tel Aviv, I don’t think they’re for what the government is doing, but when it comes to self-defense -- Obama himself said the other day: There’s just not another country in the world that would allow missiles to be rained down on them without fighting back. What I find so ironic is that after World War II, everybody said, ‘I don’t understand the Jews. How could they have just gone to their slaughter like that?’ OK, and then when they fight back: ‘I don’t understand the Jews. Why can’t they just go to their slaughter?’ It’s like, ‘You know what? We did that once. It’s not gonna happen again. You’re just gonna have to get used to the fact that Jews now defend themselves -- and by the way, defend themselves better. I mean, this is a country, after all, that is surrounded by far greater numbers than their own [and] they are like two generations ahead in the military technology they have.
HJ: Considering the reality of an unstable Middle East, an Iranian nuclear threat, a stalled peace process and a civil war in Syria, what’s the best thing Israel can do to engender moral support from the international community?
BM: I think they’re over worrying about international goodwill. I hope they are, because it’s great to have but it doesn’t really feed the bulldog, you know? As my Jewish mother used to say, whenever there was a problem in the world, she would go, ‘Oh I know they’re gonna get around to blaming the Jews.’ [Laughs] And it’s kinda true. I mean, you know, it’s like somebody who’s always worrying whether everyone’s gonna like them -- Obama kinda had that problem in his first term -- but at a certain point you learn: You know what? A lot of people are not gonna like you no matter what you do, so just do what you’re gonna do. Just be yourself. And do what you think is right. And if they condemn you or hate you, that’s really kinda their problem.
November 29, 2012 | 1:33 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Who knew that this year’s most exciting Thanksgiving week sporting event would be a rabbinic version of “Celebrity Deathmatch”?
The Gordis-Brous feud had all the grit and coarseness of the now-defunct claymation MTV show in which two celebrities nastily sparred in a wrestling ring (and it usually ended badly), but alas, none of the wit that made the show such a guilty pleasure. This time it was not a fight to the death, of course, but a war of words about the very nature of Jewish conscience.
Last week, when Rabbi Daniel Gordis published a scathing takedown of Rabbi Sharon Brous and her call for equitable empathy during the Gaza conflict, a divisive and inelegant battle began over the moral constitution of the Jewish character: Are we only for ourselves? Are we for others? Is it treasonous to sympathize with your enemy’s children?
For his opening battle hymn, Gordis chose words from Cynthia Ozick: Universalism is the particularism of the Jews. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but as a conundrum: Caring for the welfare of all people as much as one’s own makes loyalty impossible, he wrote. Which side are you on when two sides go to war?
“Taking a side doesn’t require a complete collapse of empathy for the consequences of one’s actions upon other people,” literary critic and editor Leon Wieseltier told me when I called him for his take. “What Gordis is really asking for is not loyalty; it is a kind of ethical callousness — to limit the ethical to the tribal. He says that empathy for the suffering is a form of treason unless the suffering are Jews. No Jew can accept that,” Wieseltier said. “No thoughtful Jew.”
Dealing in moral absolutes is a dangerous game; there is no perfect universalism or perfect particularism any more than there is a perfect rabbi. To be wholeheartedly for one or the other leaves no room for, obviously, the other. And what sort of world does that portend?
Historically, had Israelis been less humane, would they have demonstrated such repeated willingness for peace? And had Palestinians been less tribal, might they have been more willing to compromise and share? Life is almost never black and white. And who would want to live in a world with only two colors?
Yet borrowing a pitiful play from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or at least its leaders, Gordis and Brous seem to be arguing past one another. She says, “Have empathy,” and he says, “Choose sides”? What accounts for their stunning inability to speak the same language?
In this tale of two rabbis in two cities, place plays an indispensable part. Their quarrel is not just a quarrel of ideas, but of divergent worldviews, at least in part a function of their environment.
Brous lives in Los Angeles, a city that, despite its share of troubles and inequities, offers an image of worldly peace. Her closest neighbor is Hollywood, not Hamas. And every Shabbat, she has the incomparable blessing of having her husband and three young children, her sister, her parents and even her in-laws sitting safely in services where she can see and hear them.
Gordis lives in a different setting. He inhabits an unpredictable and inconstant universe that stores the promise of peace but all too frequently erodes into a battlefield. His two children serve in the Israeli army, which means he often has no idea where they spend Shabbat, or whether or when he’ll spend another Shabbat with them.
“My sympathies here go more to Gordis, for the simple reason that he has skin in the game,” Atlantic magazine journalist Jeffrey Goldberg e-mailed. “It is easy to feel sympathy for Gaza in West L.A., where the groups that rule Gaza aren’t trying to kill you.”
From the comfort and remove of Los Angeles, Brous can devote her rabbinate to dreams of a world perfected, whereas Gordis, from his imperiled encampment in the Middle East, dreams only of preserving the world that he’s in.
So instead of deriding Gordis for shutting down democracy, Brous might realize that even with his demagoguery, they’re having a talmudic-style dispute on the most democratic terrain in the world: the Internet. And rather than launch a terrifically unfair accusation of treason out of primal fear, Gordis should realize he is not as friendless and alone as he thinks: Was there any significant American - Jewish opposition to the operation in Gaza last week? Did American Jews accuse Israel of war crimes? Did they even debate Israel’s just cause?
Perhaps the lesson of this rabbinic dispute is that Brous could be slightly more tribal and Gordis just slightly more human and both could show significantly more sangfroid.
“Brous could do more to educate her followers on the facts of the Gaza controversy, rather than simply on the emotions they should be feeling,” Goldberg suggested. “She could spend a bit more time explaining the ideology of Hamas to her followers, and what it means for their own future.”
And, from Wieseltier: “If Gordis worries about excessive universalism, he should look at the ethical code of the [Israeli] army; they’ve been amazing at trying to guarantee that particularism is not all that drives their soldiers.” And, he added, “When Gordis accuses Hamas of crimes against humanity, he is not appealing to a Jewish principle, he is appealing to a universal principle.”
Turns out, Ozick is right. Judaism is not so tribal as we think, but biblically anchored by a moral philosophy that affirms the inherent dignity of every human being. In the Talmud it says, “Whoever destroys a life, it is as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
The verse does not say Jewish life, just life. And that, in particular, is what makes the universe more Jewish.
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