Posted by Uri Dromi
If I were a fly on the wall in the Sharm al-Sheikh refuge of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, I would probably hear him saying some harsh words. Surely he must feel bitter over the way he was ousted by his own people. However, if I were able to eavesdrop on him calling President Barack Obama, I would probably hear him saying something harsher, such as, “After serving you for so long as a stable, pro-American pillar in this region, where everybody hates you, you dump me the minute my regime starts shaking?”
Indeed, what is the lesson the United States is now giving to the other Arab, pro-American regimes? In Amman, Riyadh and elsewhere, dictators might now conclude that as long as they are stable and pro-American, Washington will support them while turning a blind eye to the suppressive nature of their regimes. However, the minute they falter, they should expect an envoy from the same Washington to show up and tell them that their time is over, and that they have to yield to the will of the people. But how can they possibly maintaintheir stability, if not by harsher measures of suppression? Is that what Washington really wants?
I was reminded this week of Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state, who had said that “all strategic alliances are conditional.” My interpretation of this is that it was okay for Washington to treat autocratic Mr. Mubarak as a strategic ally as long as he could deliver. Once his standing was questioned, there emerged democracy, human rights, etc.
Mr. Kissinger wrote his PhD dissertation at Harvard about Klemens von Metternich, the 19th century Austrian statesman, and later published it in 1957 under the title A World Restored. Metternich is usually associated with the concept of realpolitik, a non-ideological approach to foreign relations, promoting what is best for the national interest. Indeed, Mr. Kissinger, under Richard Nixon, exercised realpolitik by opening the door to China, despite American aversion to communism. Needless to remind here that in the process, Taiwan, Washington hitherto loyal ally, was dumped without any remorse.
To Mr. Obama’s credit, in his June, 2009, Cairo speech he outlined his vision vis-à-vis the Muslim world, and expressed his belief in a need for democracy in this region in no uncertain terms. “You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion,” he said; “you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”
However, as Mr. Obama himself said, “elections alone do not make true democracy.” If we invoke old Metternich again, he ridiculed the liberal attempts in Europe early in the 19th century, to impose on people without democratic tradition, English institutions of parliamentary government. “A people who can neither read nor write,” he said sarcastically, “whose last word is the dagger – fine material for constitutional principles! … The English constitution is the work of centuries … There is no universal recipe for constitutions.”
Alas, this is the case with Egypt and the rest of the Arab world today. Even if all the despots are removed, and people go to the ballots, and there is a free press, what about the enormous socioeconomic problems – poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, the status of women, to name only a few? If free people can’t support their families and give their children education, then all the demonstrations in Tahrir Square were useless. After the initial joy will come frustration, followed by despair – the fuel of radical Islam.
The United States and Europe now hail democracy in Egypt, urging the rest of the region to follow. But are they also willing to shoulder the awesome task of pulling the Arab Middle East out of its backward situation into the 21st century, with all the huge investments involved? If not, then they are doomed to see the region fall either into the hands of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and their likes, or into the iron grip of the military.
In the meantime, as an Israeli who cherishes the alliance with the United States, I should be feeling safe, living in a country which is both stable and democratic. I wonder, then, why the recent American move toward Egypt made me a bit nervous.
Uri Dromi was spokesman for Israel’s Rabin and Peres governments between 1992 and 1996.
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October 23, 2009 | 1:11 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
This week’s commentary from Uri Dromi:
Analysis: Stay calm, and argue
Now that the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva has endorsed the Goldstone Report by a 25-6 majority, with five countries opposing and 11 abstaining (the UK, France and three other members of the 47-nation body declined to vote), the question is what we do next.
Criticising and undermining the report is natural. That Judge Goldstone put the terrorist who had fired Kassams on innocent civilians — while himself hiding among civilians — on the same footing with the Israeli soldier who was sent to make him stop, is outrageous. This approach, if accepted, will have dangerous repercussions for the ability of nations to fight terror effectively.
As Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz rightly stated: “The report gives de facto legitimacy to terrorist initiatives and ignores the obligation and right of every country to defend itself, as the UN itself had clearly stated.”
It is good to feel deeply in your heart that you are right. Alas, it is not enough. Once upon a time, the story goes, the two leaders of the Mapam leftist movement, Meir Ya’ari and Yaacov Hazan, had a long debate. The following morning, Mr Ya’ari called Mr Hazan (or vice versa) and told him: “I thought about it all night, and I came to the conclusion that I was right.”
Yes, we have reasons to feel we are right, but we also have to convince others that we are right, and that is easier said than done. The first step is to candidly ask ourselves whether, apart from the obvious flaws in the report, it doesn’t raise some points worth noticing.
My friend David Landau, the former editor-in-chief of Ha’aretz, wrote in the New York Times in September that the report did not start a healthy debate in Israel over whether or not there had been an excessive use of force in Gaza, as it had intended. “By accusing Israel — its government, its army, its ethos — of deliberately seeking out civilians, [Goldstone] has achieved the opposite effect.”
Mr Landau is right. Israelis and Israel’s friends now stand together in fury, vowing to tear this report to pieces. Anger, however, is not a good counsellor, and a country like Israel, which faces new challenges every day, must not blind itself to reality. We should dare ask ourselves whether or not we could have achieved the goals in Gaza in a shorter campaign (I think we could), and as much as I hate to see Israeli soldiers risking their lives in Gaza or southern Lebanon, substituting them with firepower doesn’t always work, and sometimes it backfires on us.
The second thing to consider is whether the policy of not co-operating with outside investigation is wise. Alternately, a vigorous independent Israeli investigation could have made Judge Goldstone redundant, or at least marginal. With a mix of soul-searching and, for want of a better word, hasbara, we can roll back the Goldstone Report and brace ourselves for the next round.
Posted on Fri, Oct. 23, 2009
Peres steers countrymen toward future
BY URI DROMI
This week could have been a somber one for Israelis. Certain things which were welcomed elsewhere were greeted with dismay by my fellow countrymen. Both originated in Geneva.
First of all, after talks in Geneva, Iran allegedly agreed to open its uranium enrichment facility, which had been recently ``discovered,’’ to international inspection, and to send most of its enriched uranium abroad to be turned into fuel and other civilian uses. While others were quick to celebrate this ``breakthrough,’’ Israelis took a more-skeptical view, wondering if the naive world has not been once again hoodwinked and bluffed.
The second Geneva product to annoy the Israelis was the Goldstone report on Israeli operations in Gaza earlier this year, which was endorsed by the United Nations Human Rights Council by a vote of 25 to 6. That the report put on the same footing the Palestinian terrorists who fired rockets on innocent civilians and the Israeli soldiers who were sent to stop them didn’t seem to bother too many people. It did trouble the Israelis, however, and not only because of the damage to Israel’s image, but because of a more-serious concern: If this flawed logic is accepted, then democracies will not be able to fight terror effectively anymore. And when terror again hits the soft underbelly of democracies, people will repent and lament. We have seen this happen once and again.
So exactly when we were digesting this bad news, we were treated to a happy surprise: Shimon Peres, the ever young 86-year-old president of Israel, invited us all to a party, and what a great party it was!
In the great conference center in Jerusalem, thousands of people gathered to talk not about the Goldstone report or about Iran’s nuclear tricks, but about the future. Facing Tomorrow is the title of the conference, worthy of its mentor, the sworn optimist Peres.
Indeed, one can only marvel at the energy, ingenuity and hopefulness of this man. In the early nineteen nineties he originated the ``New Middle East,’’ arguing that a prosperous hotel that serves both Arabs and Jews would contribute more to security than a division of tanks. People were quick to ridicule this, and reality itself shattered his dreams. Being a spokesman of his government, I remember him standing in 1996 next to a burned bus in the middle of Jerusalem, his face grey with shock and anger. The Hamas terrorists spread death in the Israeli cities. Peres lost the election, but never lost his vision and optimism.
In the opening session on Tuesday, Tony Blair, former United Kingdom prime minister, spoke about the difference between closed and open societies and predicted that at the end of the day, open societies will prevail. He spoke so beautifully and with such charisma that for a moment I felt sorry he was running for president of the European Union. He should have run for office in Israel. We badly need people like him at the top.
Then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called upon Abu Mazen to reciprocate with a peace move. ``I made my speech,’’ he said, referring to his statement at Bar Ilan University, in which he spoke the unspeakable: a two-state solution. ``Now it’s your turn to make yours.’‘
Then President Obama, in a ’ video conference call, spoke about the special relations between the United States and Israel, based not only on strategic and pragmatic considerations, but mainly on shared values.
The more-interesting things, however, occurred in the plenary sessions, seminars and workshops. Scholars, scientists, CEOs and business people gathered from all over the world to discuss innovative ways to save the environment, cure diseases, produce alternative fuels, teach in different ways and more.
Yes, we still have to overcome huge obstacles like a peace deal with the Palestinians, like Iran, but for few days we were reminded how much everyone could have benefited from peace and how much we Israelis can contribute when our energies are set free. I felt very proud to be an Israeli this week.
Thank you, President Peres!
October 2, 2009 | 1:41 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Uri’s Latest from The Miami Herald:
Posted on Fri, Oct. 02, 2009
A nuclear Iran: The world was warned
BY URI DROMI
Good morning, World, Iran is ready to go nuclear!
A uranium enrichment facility nobody knew of suddenly emerges in the sacred city of Qom, Iran launches missiles that can threaten not only U.S. targets in the Persian gulf, but also Israel and southern Europe, and now the world panics.
Surprised? Not if you’re an Israeli. For years we have been sounding the alarm, only to be told to stop crying wolf. Now we are asked to lie low and let the responsible leaders of the world take care of the situation.
In 1993, when I was the spokesman of the Israeli government, my boss, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, made a dramatic turn in his hitherto coherent perception about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Contrary to his previous declarations, that the PLO was not a credible partner for peace, Rabin unexpectedly gave his blessing—albeit half-heartedly—to the Oslo process.
I was curious to find out what made him change his mind. He was not a man of elaborate explanations. Sometimes you just had to guess from his body language what made him tick. It was in the middle of an interview when a European journalist mentioned Iran in passing, that Rabin banged the table and said in a coarse voice: ``Exactly!’’ The rest came out during a later interview: We have to mend fences with our closer neighbors (the Palestinians and Jordanians), Rabin said, so that we can brace ourselves to tackle the bigger challenge rising over the horizon: Iran.
Taking the cue from Rabin, I started to talk to the representatives of the world media based in Jerusalem about the Iranian nuclear threat. I told them that it was not an Israeli issue only, that a Shiite Iran with nukes would cause havoc in the Sunni Mideast, with serious repercussions for the rest of the world.
The response was usually shoulder shrugging, glazed eyes and insinuations that Israel was trying to lure the United States into attacking Iran for Israel’s interests. In short, the tail was trying to wag the dog.
I had to remind them that in 1981, when Israel attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor, it had been condemned right and left, with the United Nations ruling that Israel should pay compensation to Iraq. Ten years later, in the wake of Desert Storm, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney gave a photograph of the bombed reactor to Maj. Gen. David Ivry, who commanded the Israeli Air Force during the attack, on which he wrote, ``With thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job [you] did on the Iraqi Nuclear Program in 1981 which made our job much easier in Desert Storm.’‘
It’s not that we Israelis are smarter than anybody else, or that we are blessed with a unique talent to foresee the future. It’s just that whenever there has been a threat to the free world we have been there first, on the frontline, on the receiving end. Not willing ever to surrender to the threat, we came up with our original responses.
When the first Israeli airliner was hijacked to Algiers in 1968, we made El Al the world’s safest airline. When Israelis were hijacked while flying Air France, we launched the Entebbe Raid to rescue them.
When Palestinian terrorists blew themselves up in the midst of our cities, we built a security fence that stopped them. Israel bashers condemned us for creating the barrier, which made life difficult for the Palestinians. Yet now, in hindsight, will they admit that life comes before quality of life?
And when our enemies started launching rockets at our cities, while hiding themselves among civilians, we were not intimidated: we went after them, trying to sort the villain from the innocent. We were heavily criticized for the way we did it, we still are: This is a very messy task indeed.
Yet Western soldiers and officers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the people who have sent them to the battlefield, all know perfectly well that we have spearheaded a path for them; that we have shown a way where democracies can walk the thin line between keeping human rights and fighting terror effectively.
One day, when the weight of terror will become unbearable, the rest of the world will maybe understand as well.
July 10, 2009 | 2:25 pm
Posted by David Suissa
Jewish Journal columnist David Suissa is in Israel for 10 days, studying at the esteemed Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. While there, he’s blogging about his trip and what he’s learning.
Day Five: Praying, Singing and Fighting (with our mouths)
I started last Shabbat morning in a friendly, egalitarian, open Orthodox minyan called Kehillat Shira Hadasha, where men and women sing like sweet hummingbirds. At around midnight, I was trying to avoid flying garbage bags and burning roadblocks in Mea Shearim.
This is Jerusalem, the city of altered states.
Shira Hadasha is one of those grand experiments that tries to maintain the halakhic tradition while embracing full women participation. It was started by Rabbi David Hartman’s daughter, Tova, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Her father’s Shalom Hartman Institute is all about respecting the tradition while pushing the boundaries to reflect new realities and the dignity of pluralism.
The shul itself is rather plain looking, located on the second floor of a small building. I had heard about this shul for years from my liberal Orthodox and Conservative friends in LA. This is supposed to be a blueprint for the avant-garde Orthodoxy of the future.
The first thing that struck me when I entered was that the men’s section looked a little smaller than the women’s section. This notion distracted me—was it real or was it an illusion? Like an anal bureaucrat, for the first 15 minutes or so, I paced back and forth to try to eyeball the size of each section. I had this vision of the shul committee measuring each section down to the last millimeter. Awash in my trivial pursuit, I was then distracted by the fact that I couldn’t see the female cantor, or even the full bimah.
Because the mechitza was perfectly egalitarian, it ended right at the center of the bimah. The female cantor was to the left, so I couldn’t see her, but boy could I hear her. (I don’t know a nicer way to put this—her voice didn’t remind me of Barbra’s).
The mechitza itself was a high wooden frame holding a see-through veil. But because I could only see half of the bimah, I felt no connection to the heart and soul of the davening. Seeing half of the bimah might be even more annoying than not seeing it at all. This might be one of those times when compromise hurts both sides. (Maybe they ought to find an halakhic way of making the bimah visible to all.)
A short time later, everything changed: a new chazzan took over, and the place started to rock.
When a synagogue rocks, nothing else matters. I stopped thinking about mechitzas and bimahs and gender equality and denominations and the size of the men and women sections.
I just enjoyed the ride.
The problem was that the great stuff didn’t last. Like in so many other shuls, the moments of soulful singing were few and far between. Too much mumbling-davening and not enough singing.
What a simple thought: the secret to a great shul experience is to just keep the hits coming— like good AM radio. As I strolled around Jerusalem after services, I promised myself that if I ever open a shul, I’ll have a non-stop string of soulful hits, and a five-minute time limit on mumbling-davening.
Great melodies were the last thing on my mind later that Saturday night in Mea Shearim. I wrote about my experience in the Jewish Journal this week (“War and Peace”), which covered the Charedi protests against the opening of a city parking lot adjacent to their neighborhood. What I didn’t write about was what happened after we left the Slonomer shul. By then, the demonstrations had become more erratic and threatening. Because it was after Shabbat, there were fires on the streets. A few garbage bags were thrown my way.
But it wasn’t all crazy and dangerous. A group of Charedim (some from the U.S.) who spoke excellent English engaged my friend (Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller) and I in conversation. I hated the idea that they were creating all this balagan in the name of God, but I liked the fact that they showed enough concern for how we felt that they tried to explain themselves. The ones I spoke with didn’t condone the violence, but they were extremely passionate about their right to protest the opening of the parking lot.
I told them that Jerusalem belongs to ALL Jews, not just Jews who put on tefillin and learn Talmud all day. The parking lot is an example of the city trying to reverse a downward slide in its fortunes—by being more inviting to more people. A more successful and vibrant Jerusalem is good for everybody, I told them.
And I added: It’s not as if a “secular police” is coming into your neighborhood and stopping you from practicing your Judaism. Why don’t you show more gratitude for all the protections and freedoms you get? It wasn’t always this easy for your ancestors to practice their Judaism in Eastern Europe, remember?
We went back and forth. They told me the city had acted in an underhanded way, that they felt cut out of the decision and that they’re afraid of the “slippery slope”—if they don’t protest now, what’s next? I saw real, genuine pain on their faces. The more dangerous argument, I thought, was that they were engaging in “tough love”—Jews who desecrated the Shabbat needed to be shown the errors of their ways.
Why can’t you leave these Jews alone? I replied. Let them do their thing and you do yours. And do you really think these demonstrations will encourage them to be more Shabbat observant?
I then shared my favorite argument for tolerance and pluralism: If you were raised like them, you’d be just like them.
The main guy who was arguing with me did a double take…I think it made an impact, maybe for a second… and then we quickly went back to speaking past each other.
A second scene also caught my eye. As we were leaving the neighborhood, with demonstrators and police cars and the stench of horse dung everywhere, I saw a group of about a dozen Charedim talking to a police officer. The Charedim, with their beards, payos and shtreimels, were a stark contrast to the tall and clean-cut officer. Still, despite the animosity and toxic emotions that had built up all day and night, they were actually having a normal (if heated) conversation.
It didn’t matter to me what they were saying. The point is, they weren’t fighting with their hands or garbage cans, they were fighting with their mouths.
In the Holy Land, you got to take your progress where you can get it.
Day Six: “No Kissing and Embracing”
I never thought that I would one day visit the Temple Mount. For some reason, I assumed it was out of bounds to Jews. But on our excursion day, it was one of the options, so I picked it.
Before going up to the Mount, we toured Jaffa Road and the old city with Major General Miki Levy, the Israel Police Attache to the U.S. and former head of the Jerusalem police. (Someone asked Levy how the police should have handled the Charedi demonstrations from the previous night, and he gave a cryptic answer: “For the police, it’s important to be smart, not right.”)
The highlight of the tour was a visit to the underground “war room” where dozens of TV screens showed live surveillance of the hundreds of alleyways of the old city. Israeli police have installed about 300 hidden cameras throughout the old city to monitor any violent or terrorist behavior.
They showed us some of the violence they had caught on tape, and how it helped them catch the culprits. Some of the footage was repulsive (It seems that no matter how spiritual or intellectual things get in Jerusalem, reality is never too far away.)
We proceeded to the Temple Mount. A mini crisis occurred at the entrance—women could not enter if they were dressed immodestly. After some negotiations between our guide and the Muslim guards, the women who needed more covering bought shawls from a merchant who—how convenient!— was located only a few yards away.
While this was going on, I noticed a sign that listed the rules that everyone must follow when entering this Muslim holy site. This was one of them:
“Intimate behavior such as kissing and embracing are strictly forbidden.”
We continued on our way, towards the third holiest site in Islam, which was built over the holiest site in Judaism, the Second Temple, which was destroyed in 70 A.D. Nothing impressed me more about the visit than the size of the place.
It’s as big as a small town.
I’m not kidding—the space can easily fit all the 40 shuls of Pico-Robertson, including all the big ones, and I’m sure a few more. It goes on forever. I overheard a guide say that 250,000 Muslims have gathered here at one time. What’s crazy is that millions of Jews during Biblical times also gathered here for their own pilgrimage.
It was eery to stand so close to where the Holy of Holies once stood— it was like standing in the middle of the Parsha of the week. I couldn’t help thinking that right now in LA, I’d probably be at the Grove or the Beverly Center.
As we re-entered the Jewish quarter, I noticed another sign for rules and etiquette, just before we passed through the obligatory metal detector and security check. No rules here about kissing or embracing. Just this:
“For your own safety and that of the public, please cooperate and follow the direction given by the personnel at the site.”
Two people, two realities, one land.
July 6, 2009 | 12:59 pm
Posted by David Suissa
Jewish Journal columnist David Suissa is in Israel for 10 days, studying at the esteemed Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. While there, he’s blogging about his trip and what he’s learning.
Thursday: Here Comes the Son
I have no idea where Plato and Socrates engaged in their famous dialogues and ruminations, but if they were around today, I’m guessing they would love the physical space on a hill at The Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
Like most construction around here, the exterior is built of Jerusalem stone. But at Hartman, the creamy stones seem to envelop you. There is no dramatic architectural touch that distracts you from the silence of the stones. Instead, you enter into this large open courtyard, and you feel space, lots of space, almost nothingness.
I entered that space on Thursday morning to begin my one-week study retreat at the Institute. I was joined by Jews from around the world, brought together by a shared desire to expand our Jewish horizons.
Our first class was with Rabbi Donniel Hartman, co-director of the Institute and son of the founder, Rabbi David Hartman.
The class was titled, “Returning to Basics: The ABC’s of Jewish Ethics.”
Hartman Institute classes are not for people with a short attention span. They take an idea and dive deeply into the texts. In this first class, I felt like I was at a baseball game—stretches of slow, scholarly build punctuated by short bursts of intensity, such as:
“Moral failing is not the failure to see good and bad, but failure to see the other face.”
“When Hillel says, ‘What is hateful to you don’t do unto others’, he is telling you that you already know the deepest and most important knowledge you will need to live an ethical life: How you like to be treated.”
“Jewish ethics are not exclusive to Judaism. Beware of anything that claims to be unique.”
“Jewish ethics connect us to universal truths, and the best way for Jews to get there is to understand our own story.”
“Hillel did not say ‘love others as you love yourself’. That’s too complicated. And it’s not true.”
“It’s not evident that Hillel’s statement of ethics should be the ‘whole Torah’. What about God?”
“In religions, God usually comes first. He takes up a lot of space.”
“Most religious traditions will put a primacy on ethics, yet end up undermining it because of God.”
“Religion should reinforce the good, not determine the good.”
In between these verbal missiles, Hartman took us through a slew of sources, from Levinas and Kant to the Prophets, the Talmud, Maimonides, Nachmanides, Rashi, Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy.
This was not a sermon. It was a class, interrupted by moments of passion—a passion that sought to empower us.
“We are not empty vessels, just waiting to be filled”, the rabbi told us.
“God has placed us at the center of His universe, and He is telling us: ‘I want to be important, but I don’t know how to tell you that I’m not that important.’”
The rabbi warned that “we can be so busy pursuing greatness that we achieve mediocrity.”
Ultimately, our religious practices should “help us squeeze every inch out of our ethical potential. Jewish holidays are speed bumps that reconnect us to that which we already know.”
Hartman was taking a mushy message—do good and be good—and teaching it with an intellectual and emotional edge, one that valued human dignity and the innate Godliness of each individual.
So, after years of hearing so much about the Hartman Institute, I had finally attended my first class. It was a lot to mull over. Luckily, when you leave a Hartman class, you get to walk out onto “Plato’s Courtyard” (my phrase), where there are plenty of opportunities to sit on Jerusalem stones and mull over the teachings with students and teachers.
Maybe they should have everyone wear white robes and sandals. That would really get us in the mood to ponder the big ideas of life and Judaism, and apply them to real life—which is what the Institute aspires to do.
There was a lot more learning in the afternoon, and more debate and dialogue. After a few hectic days of “Israeliness”, my trip to Israel was taking on a more cerebral bent.
An amazing bottle of local Kosher red picked by my friend Yossi Klein Halevy at dinner Thursday night was a welcome way to end my first study day. After dinner, as we walked around late at night, I noticed that there were hundreds of people on the streets, and no one seemed to want to leave.
I couldn’t help thinking: “Forget what’s on the news. They have a lot more fun here than we do in America.”
Friday: Father Speaks
If I had come to Israel just for the two hours I spent on Friday morning listening to Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Institute, it would have been worth the trip.
The class was called “Shabbat as a Transcending Moment”.
It was full of great content, but there was more.
There was him.
The rabbi is now in his 80s, and he looks a little frail when he walks. He wears a contraption around his back to help him stand. We were all in our seats when he walked into the Beit Midrash and took his place at the teaching table.
Immediately, he jumped into the defining human condition:
“The human condition is defined by the multiple communities we live in—social, religious, business, cultural, etc.”
“You define yourself in relation to the community you’re in.”
“In Judaism, to be is to be in relationships.”
“The ideal of not needing people—of being independent—as expressed by Descartes, is not the Jewish ideal.”
“Our fulfillment of being is relationships.”
After a few minutes, the rabbi caught himself and said: “Excuse me, but I just realized that I forgot to say ‘welcome’. Oh boy, what a faux pas.”
That should give you an idea of our two hours with David Hartman—deep philosophy interrupted by offbeat digressions.
One minute he delved into chapter 20 of Exodus to explain that the Shabbat prohibition against “melacha” is a lot deeper that a prohibition against work.
“It’s about not creating a new reality, where you assert yourself as a creator”, he said. “God is saying: ‘Do not usurp my role on Shabbat. You are because I am.’”
And just when you expected him to build on this point, he reminisced about his childhood in Montreal, when he would fail in his Jewish classes.
“Mrs. Hartman, you have two other very smart boys. You can’t win them all”, his teacher would tell his mother.
“It’s not that Jewish studies were boring to me”, he explained. “Boring would mean that I thought there was a possibility that they could be interesting.”
We cracked up. This was his stage, his place, and he could do as he wished. No one minded, either, because you got a sense that he was really enjoying himself. It’s no small feat to have so much fun when you’re in your 80s.
Then he brought us back to the main subject: “The first motif of Shabbat is to celebrate God’s creation. Shabbat reminds us that something other than you made the world possible. That’s why we don’t create on Shabbat.”
The second motif of Shabbat, he explained, is to celebrate “God as liberator”.
“If God has liberated us, it means that everyone is free. Our servants are free. They are like us. Human beings are not objects, tools or private property. They are as free as you are.”
Something in the word “free” must have ignited something in him, because he took off on another of his jazz sessions:
“Judaism is an open marketplace. You are free to think. Tradition is not enough.”
“I am a Jew deeply committed to the tradition, but Judaism has to speak to me, not to my grandfather.”
“If Judaism has to wear payos in order to survive, it’s a nebah Judaism.”
“I love Maimonides. I’ve written books about him. But I reject his political philosophy. His time was not my time. He doesn’t have to be me, and I don’t have to be him.”
“You are members of a faith that was developed and interpreted by human beings, influenced by history and culture. Traditional Judaism can never be read literally.”
“The Talmud takes the biblical passage of killing for desecrating the Shabbat and says: ‘A court that kills one person in 70 years is a murderous court.’”
Now he was on a roll. His improv took him towards the obsession in the religious world for symbols instead of meaning.
“It’s not about the plane flying on Shabbat, it’s about the pilot who’s flying, or the person who’s driving.”
“Why do they go to movies on Shabbat? The real question is: How can you fill their lives with meaning? We worry about symbols, not meaning.”
“I often tell rabbis: Don’t give sermons to people who aren’t there—who are on the golf course or at the beach. Speak to me, to my needs, look at me as a person, feed me, I’m hungry, my soul is dying.”
“Imagine if there were demonstrations on the streets where people would hold up signs that said: “Feed us, our souls are dying.”
From this high note, he brought us down to look at despair.
“How do you deal with the feeling that life stinks? When you’re disappointed by people, and you feel loneliness and bitterness?”
He didn’t discount modern methods like therapy— he’s ok with whatever works, he said. (Although he did add that “what I learned in 20 years of analysis is that I can’t change my mother.”)
But as an alternative to modern methods, he came back to Shabbat, and introduced its third motif: The eternal covenant that God has made with the Jewish people.
Shabbat is “another living structure” that represents “our ongoing relationship with God.”
Shabbat helps us cope with despair and bitterness by giving us another “reality of meaning to enter.”
“I am not defined only by my week.”
He recalled how his father—who struggled as a linen salesman to eke out a living—was often depressed during the week. But when Shabbat arrived and he came to the Friday night table, “he wasn’t Shalom the peddler, he was Shalom Hartman!”
“You need alternate structures to understand who you are”, the rabbi said.
“On Shabbat, you talk a different language.”
And just like a day earlier when his son spoke of ethics, the ideal of personal freedom was never too far away.
“On Shabbat you free yourself. Whatever you can do to create this world of meaning is wonderful. Taste it and find your way. Let the tradition be a guide, not an imposition of authority.”
“Shabbat is not just about what you don’t do. It’s about what you become, by a new frame of reference.”
So these were the three motifs that made Shabbat a transcending moment: I am God your Creator, I am God your liberator, and I am your God forever.
But here was the kicker: by creating and liberating us, and being there forever, God gives us the strength to do our own creating and liberating.
It was as if the rabbi was saying to each of us: We are both Jewish, we both love our tradition, but I am not you and you are not me.
Being created in God’s image means that you are not an empty vessel. You are filled with Godliness.
Your tradition should guide you, but it should not suffocate you.
July 3, 2009 | 3:19 pm
Posted by David Suissa
Jewish Journal columnist David Suissa is in Israel for 10 days, studying at the esteemed Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. While there, he’s blogging about his trip and what he’s learning.
“Free in Israel.”
That is the theme of a campaign to promote Israel that I will be presenting today to Danny Ayalon, Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel and former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Since I’ve hardly slept in two days, I’m hoping I’ll find a thermos of Turkish coffee somewhere to get me through the day.
Before heading off to the Knesset, where I will meet Ayalon and MK Danny Danon (a distant cousin who arranged the visit), I have a decision to make: Opening night at Hartman or funeral in Zichron Yacov?
It never occurred to me that I could miss the beginning of my Hartman program. But I’d never imagine that my trip would coincide with the funeral of Moshe Sevak, a friend from my old days in Venice Beach, when a group of us hung out at Young Israel of Santa Monica. In our little corner of the world, Moshe was our beloved bohemian who had the keys to our tiny shul, an unending flow of good stories and the best herring in town for the Shabbat kiddush.
Moshe passed away the night before I left LA, after a long illness, and a few of us chipped in to fly his body to Israel, where he wanted to be buried.
As I approached the Knesset fortress for my appointment, ex-pats from LA who knew Moshe were calling me to arrange travel from Jerusalem to Zichron Yacov, where our friends Tzvi and Daphna Small lived, and where Moshe would be buried.
With the thought of Moshe’s funeral crowding my mind, I went through the labyrinth of security checks at the Knesset. After they screened me, I had to walk about the length of a football field to the actual entrance.
With my security badge now on me, I was pretty much free to roam the Knesset halls. I think I wanted to get lost on purpose, just to soak up the place. My roaming paid off when I bumped into Shaul Mofaz, the #2 man in Kadima and former head of the IDF. I knew he was close to my friend Parviz Nazarian in LA, so that bought me about 5 minutes of good schmoozing. The shmoozing ended, though, when I asked him about the rumors of him trying to join the ruling coalition.
With the help of Danon, I got into the balcony of the Knesset chamber—that symbol of Zionist leadership that Jews waited 19 centuries to see. When I was there, speakers were saying goodbye to Haim Ramon, who was retiring after a long career in Israeli politics.
Two things in particular caught my eye: An Arab MK (who kept picking his nose) was sitting right next to an MK from Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party not known for its love of Arabs.
And two, it’s totally cool in the Israeli Knesset to not listen to the main speaker when he or she is speaking. While MK Amir Peretz was bellowing words of praise for the departing Ramon, two bearded members of Shas were caught up in a passionate and noisy debate about…something. Even the Prime Minister, who sat at the head of a large oval table right in front of the speakers’ podium, was doing some occasional schmoozing with aides.
I wish I could have stayed, but I had to meet Ayalon. As I was receiving text messages with details of Moshe’s funeral and travel arrangements, I quickly walked over with Danon to the cafeteria, where we were all scheduled to meet.
I explained to Ayalon that I wasn’t doing this in any official capacity but as a private supporter of Israel. In other words, I was there to raise enthusiasm, not money.
The idea of the campaign was to gather testimonials from the multicultural kaleidoscope of Israeli society (Darfurians, Taiwanese, Philipinos, muslims, Buddhists, artists, gays, Christians, women, etc.) and feature their “freedom in Israel” in ads and a website.
Headlines would read: “I’m from Darfur and I’m Free in Israel”, “I’m Gay and I’m Free in Israel”, and so on.
Ayalon loved the idea (maybe it’s because I didn’t ask for money) and he mentioned that he’d be interested in coming out to LA in the Fall to help launch it.
Since I hadn’t had any Turkish coffee for at least two hours, his reaction was like a welcome shot of caffeine.
A couple of hours later, a cab driver named Eliahu was singing Kurdish Shabbat songs for a group of us as we headed up north to our friend Moshe Sevak’s funeral.
Zichron Yacov is a pretty city on a hill, twenty minutes from Haifa and the ocean. About a dozen “friends of Moshe” had gathered from the U.S. and different parts of Israel. I hadn’t seen some of them in over a decade. As the hours passed and we reminisced about Moshe, sometimes laughing despite ourselves, the whole scene took on the feel of a Big Chill reunion.
But it was the funeral that blew me away.
Tzvi had arranged for a local rabbi to bring about 40 young orphan boys, most of them Sephardic, to chant tehillim as we carried the casket to its burial place. The cemetery itself was small and cozy, right in the heart of town. The 40 boys, all dressed in black pants and white shirts, followed the casket and chanted in unison.
I was with the casket, and I turned around briefly to look at the scene: the 40 chanting boys, the rabbis, the friends of Moshe, all marching along a narrow path behind the casket, with the sun quietly setting.
An old man who looked like he could have been at Sinai led the actual burial. Off to the corner, Michelle Katz, who made aliyah from LA many years ago with her young children and her well-known musician husband, prayed and cried quietly. (An hour earlier, we were cracking up about a Moshe story.)
The rabbi who had brought the young orphan boys took a look at my face, and probably saw a combination of sadness and exhaustion. In broken English, he said a few words to comfort me, something about the importance of the mitzvah of burial.
As we all headed back to Tzvi and Daphna’s house to say our goodbyes, the Knesset and the Hartman Institute were far from my mind. Until, that is, Daphna served me a thick Turkish coffee, and our Kurdish driver, Eliahu, sang a few more songs as we drove back into the Jerusalem night.
July 2, 2009 | 5:41 pm
Posted by David Suissa
Israel hits me in so many ways. The first and obvious way is the noise.
After the “Screaming Babies” flight, it was the airport noise. I got my luggage and wanted to get to Jerusalem with the least amount of hassle. Passengers seemed to be going every which way. Before I could figure out where to go, I met a Syrian-Jewish-Israeli “cab” driver who I quickly figured out was roaming the exits hoping to find a sucker American tourist who wouldn’t mind paying a higher fare.
I decided to be that happy sucker.
Ami, the driver, is a freelance operator who tries to make a buck with his own car, which, incidentally, was parked in the airport garage. But hey, I’m sure he fought in a couple of wars for the motherland, so I’ll give him some of my sucker money.
Plus, I knew that these kind of drivers love going the extra mile.
This came in handy about 30 minutes later, when we were negotiating the winding streets of the Rehavia neighborhood towards my hotel.
To our right, we saw an Asian-looking woman running on the sidewalk screaming hysterically.
Two other women, who looked Israeli, were tending to a frail-looking older woman who was crouching against a short wall. Traffic was slow, so Ami and I had a good view of the scene.
“I think she dead”, he said.
It was hot and muggy. My mind flashed back to those horrible news reports a few summers ago from France when so many old people perished in a heat wave.
Ami’s premonition didn’t stop him from driving his car right up on the sidewalk, grabbing a bottle of water from his trunk and running towards the old woman, with me running just behind him.
He gave the bottle to one of the Israeli women, who raised the limp face of the old woman and tried to put water in her mouth. It didn’t help. Meanwhile, the Asian woman (she was a Phillipino caretaker—there are many of them in Israel) was in hysterics, screaming for the ambulance that hadn’t yet arrived and trying to revive the old woman whom she had obviously become very close to.
The way she was screaming, it could have been her mother.
Ami, however, didn’t like the screaming. He kept telling the woman to calm down, but she would have none of it.
A few minutes later, we heard the siren of an ambulance. But strangely, even though the siren sound felt very close, I couldn’t see an ambulance.
The sound was coming from a little motorcycle!
Because the traffic in Jerusalem can get very dense, and many of the roads are ancient and narrow, I learned that emergency paramedics from Magen David Adom often fly by in motorcycles to get there quicker.
The paramedic stopped his bike and removed his helmet with the cool flair of James Bond and rushed with his equipment to the old woman. By now, a little circle of onlookers had gathered, with the Philipino caretaker still in hysterics, the Israeli women still trying to get the old woman to drink, Ami still trying to calm the caretaker down, and me, observing the whole scene, feeling guilty about thinking other thoughts than the welfare of the old woman (Should I take a picture of the scene with my i-phone? Should I interview the Philipino woman? Will I blog this?).
It must be that all the noise—the screaming siren, the wailing caretaker, the human commotion—plus the tight squeeze of the blood pressure belt administered by the paramedic, had an awakening effect on the old woman.
We all watched as her face slowly rose and her eyes opened.
As she started looking around at the commotion she caused, the main ambulance arrived, and a paramedic brought out a stretcher. The sight of the stretcher really excited the old woman.
“I want to go home!” she said in Hebrew.
I think Ami also wanted to go, because he started nudging me with a little “yala”, the Israeli way of saying “let’s get outta here.”
The old woman, stretcher or no stretcher, was now in good hands. The Philipino caretaker had calmed down, the Israeli women started to walk away (one of them with a limp), and Ami and I made our way to the Inbal hotel (which is close to the Hartman Institute, where I begin my studies on Thursday.)
But more noise awaited me.
Late at night, as I tried to catch up on some sleep, I heard live music from my hotel window. A rasta singer with five musicians were belting out hip hop, rock and jazz fusion tunes (including a rock version of “These are a few of my favorite things” from “The Sound of Music”), in an outdoor theater with maybe a hundred or so people in the audience.
I was exhausted, but the music and the scene were too good to pass up, so I went out into the night, figuring that I could sleep when I get back to LA.
From the crazy flight to the clandestine driver to the sidewalk drama to the late night music, it’s been a noisy start to my trip.
But in the morning, as I walked towards the elevator with only the thought of Turkish coffee on my mind, another scene hit me.
This scene made no noise whatsoever.
It was the sight of mezuzahs, one after another, posted on every door.
In America, I always take special note of mezuzahs (“Hey, another Jew, cool!”).
Here in the Holy Land, mezuzahs are everywhere, and they scream Jewish and Israel—along with everybody else.
June 30, 2009 | 3:15 pm
Posted by David Suissa
I’m off to Jerusalem for 10 days to study at the Hartman Institute, and I’ve been asked to “blog my trip.” So, in theory, if you check out this “Postcards from Jerusalem” blog every day for the next 10 days, you should be getting a continuous flow of interesting insights from my trip to the Holy Land.
The problem is that I’m not a blogger. This “continuous flow” thing is new to me. I’ve been writing a weekly column for almost three years, and I’m hooked on the “weekly clock”—a slow buildup of an idea culminating in a carefully crafted 900 words. Bloggers are the mad men of journalism. They don’t craft, they draft. Although I’m not a blogger, I love reading them. I love savoring their spontaneous servings of mental popcorn that keep popping out of their restless minds.
Well, now it’s my turn to blog, and as you can tell from this long-winded opening, I have a long way to go before I become Brad Greenberg (my favorite). So bear with me and let’s get through this together.
Would you believe it? I haven’t landed yet, and I’m itching to blog! Why is that? It’s because I’m stuck in the flight from hell and I need to unload.
Here’s the scene. Young couple—very young couple—with two screaming babies are sitting in the row just in front of me, about ten feet to my right. Sitting to my left is a tough-looking Sephardic Israeli guy who looks like he smokes non-filter Camels and owns a delivery truck in Ashdod.
Now here’s the main story line: Tough Sephardic guy would like to sleep. As tough Sephardic guy settles in with his two pillows (I gave him mine) and his blankie, the two screaming babies are showing no signs of wanting to experiment with another form of expression.
Meanwhile, the very young father and mother of the two screaming babies are showing no genetic connection whatsoever to their offspring. How do I know that? They’re calm. They’re spooky calm. They see passengers wanting to tear their hair out and all they can muster is an occasional baby-rocking gesture.
But back to the main story line—tough Sephardic guy trying to sleep. Have you ever heard those animal grunts on the Discovery channel? I don’t know if TSG was doing it on purpose, but every time Screaming Babies would hit some sort of screaming crescendo, TSG would belt out a Discovery Channel grunt. It was like a combination grunt and moan, similar perhaps to that of the Llama species.
TSG, in his clumsy way, was giving us all a heads-up: “Screaming babies better stop screaming.”
As the screaming continued, the tension increased. An enormous question hung in the air that unified all the passengers in the vicinity of Screaming Babies:
Will it ever stop?
By now, we were almost into a full “Law and Order” episode of screaming, and my concerns were shifting. TSG was starting to move his body when he groaned, and, worse, real words were coming out of his mouth, mostly simple phrases like “what is this?” and “hey”.
The reason my concerns were shifting should be obvious: I didn’t want TSG to sleepwalk towards Spooky Calm Father and re-enact a scene from “Scarface.”
Wild scenarios ran through my mind. TSG lunges towards perp while I heroically get in the way and save the life of self-absorbed young father who doesn’t deserve my heroism. But before I got too carried away, TSG decided to wake up.
And like all good Hollywood thrillers, this one had a surprise ending.
TSG and I sparked up a conversation about…take a guess. We compared notes. How many kids do we have…what did we do when we travelled with them when they were babies… these young parents are real losers to let their kids scream like that… they should at least walk these rugrats up and down the aisle or cuddle with them or distract them or change their diapers or give them some ice cream or a pacifier… or anything!
Well, it turns out that during my commiserating with TSG, I heated up more than he did. It could be because I recalled the countless flights I took with my own kids and all the things I did to prevent these crying fits. Or it could be that while TSG was trying to sleep, I had a clear view of Spooky Calm Father actually doing crossword puzzles while his bambinos were in meltdown mode.
So guess what happened? The other TSG— that’s right, yours truly—decided to get up and confront Spooky Calm Father while he was concentrating on finding the right words for his puzzle.
I mumbled something like, “Hey man, we’re dying out here. Can’t you do something?”
Now try to visualize an earnest human rights lawyer with eyeglasses who knows the Geneva Convention by heart. That was Spooky Father. It was like he was expecting me. Before I could finish my sentence, he spoke about his rights, his kids’ rights, his wife’s rights, his family’s rights (OK, I’m exaggerating—you get the picture, this guy knew his rights).
I was about to counter with my own shtick on passengers’ rights, but then I saw a Do-You-Want-US Marshalls-At-The-Gate look on one of the flight attendants, and I swiftly returned to my seat to commiserate with TSG #1.
Apparently, my bold intervention impressed TSG #1. He got more talkative. We started sharing more personal stories, and then…just like that, when we least expected it… the Messiah showed up.
On this trip from hell, the Messiah was anyone who could stop these babies from screaming. And guess who revealed himself? None other than Spooky Calm Father himself, who decided to put his crossword puzzle down and take one of the screaming babies for a walk, which ended up killing two birds with one stone by calming down both babies.
The crying was over, but I wondered: Is all this drama an omen of my coming week at Hartman? We will see.
For now, shocked by the calm and still wound tight from the ordeal, I turned to TSG #1 and told him I had to work on my computer.
It was time for me to vent and blog—if you can call this blogging.
See you in Jerusalem.