Posted by Aryeh Cohen
In the wake of the Lebanon War (which started 31 years ago this week) there was a tectonic shift in the political discourse in Israel. One of the aftershocks of this movement of the political plates created a fissure in the Religious Zionist community which opened a space for a religio-political discourse that privileged people over land, and opened the possibility of a territorial compromise for peace between Israel and Palestine. Ultimately, though the community of left of center religious zionists who privilege peace over territory survives, they won a few battles but are losing the war.
Two months before the start of the June 1982 Lebanon War, the Israeli army completed its withdrawal from Sinai. This withdrawal was accompanied by a paroxysm of religious and political activism, gnashing of teeth, tearing of clothes, mourning and wearing of sackcloth and ashes (sometimes literally). Under the banner of "There will be no retreat," the messianic Zionists of Gush Emunim tied their political triumph to a path to salvation which they and their spiritual leaders saw as dependent on expanding the territory of the Kingdom of Israel. In the wake of the withdrawal from Sinai, while most of Israel celebrated a new era of peace with Egypt, this community was in a state of shock and disbelief, not comprehending how the actual course of history had impacted their vision of that course.
It was with this baggage that religious Zionists went to war in Lebanon.
Ten percent of the casualties in the first week of fighting were soldiers who were in units of the Hesder—the "arrangement" in which boys studied Torah in a Yeshivah interspersed with army service. (The bulk of the Yeshivah students served in tank units which were hard hit in the first days of the conflict.) The Hesder yeshivot were the crème de la crème of the Religious Zionist movement. These were the students who had been schooled from birth, more or less, on the ideals of the Torah of Israel, the Land of Israel, and the people Israel. The three were inseparable. They were adherents of the philosophy of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine and a mystic Zionist, who had taught that the land of Israel was an essential part of the people of Israel. They imbibed the philosophy of Kook’s son Zvi Yehudah who taught that as the land of Israel grew so too did the presence of God.
These students were the shock troops who answered the call to build settlements in Sebastiya, and reclaim the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, and rebuild Jewish Hebron.
The war did not go as planned. The war was considered an elective war by many, if not most Israelis, and there were intelligence screw-ups, and “friendly-fire” incidents. Finally there was the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps (for which the IDF and Ariel Sharon in particular were held to have indirect responsibility).
With this as the background, you may start to understand the enormity of the shift when at the founding assembly of a new organization called Netivot Shalom (“ways of peace”), the organizers and all the speakers were graduates of the religious Zionist youth movement, or the Hesder Yeshivas—or the leaders of those Yeshivas. The room was packed with the very people whom one would assume would have been demonstrating support for the war and more settlements. Here were heads of yeshiva who were calling for reflection, and a change of course. Rabbi Amital, who himself was one of the founders of Gush Emunim (the “bloc of the faithful”) which was the avant garde of the settlement movement, declared that the avant garde had moved so far ahead that they could no longer see the people or vice versa and it was time to rethink.
A new conceptual vocabulary rose, drawn from the same textual tradition, but this time privileging the texts which lauded the greatness of peace over land. Study groups formed which analysed classical texts dealing with peace and compromise. Rabbis and academics and prominent members of the religious community openly argued for territorial compromise as a religious imperative. A new religious political party was formed whose platform challenged the hegemony of the settler movement over the National Religious Party (NRP). The party, Meimad, failed massively in its electoral bid—not winning even one seat in the Knesset.
Although the victories were never complete, perhaps not even really victories, from that time there has been a persistent voice for peace and territorial compromise and human rights (in various shades) coming from the religious camp. The tragedy is that thirty one years later (after one assasination, two intifadas, a unilateral withdrawal, a major expansion of settlement activity, a couple of wars and incursions, massive numbers of casualites) we are at the same place in the conversation. Is it true that “Great is Peace” or more true that “The Land of Israel is an integral part of the people of Israel? Will we see more books arguing that non-Jews in Israel are not equal to Jews (as the IDF Rabbinate recently did) or more voices arguing for human rights and the necessity of a Palestinian State side by side with the State of Israel? The debate is, of course, about the future of the State of Israel and justice for the Palestinians. But the debate is also about the soul of Judaism.
6.12.13 at 4:21 pm | In the wake of the Lebanon War (which started 31. . .
6.2.13 at 5:59 pm | For some reason I don’t think that any of the. . .
5.29.13 at 6:09 am | These are the thoughts with which I find myself. . .
5.13.13 at 8:40 am | And yet, we return each year with Sisyphean. . .
5.7.13 at 7:16 pm | The Rabbinic tradition transvalued the warriors. . .
4.23.13 at 5:22 pm |
5.13.13 at 8:40 am | And yet, we return each year with Sisyphean. . . (5)
6.12.13 at 4:21 pm | In the wake of the Lebanon War (which started 31. . . (2)
10.30.12 at 9:23 pm | For argument's sake let us agree that we all. . . (1)
June 2, 2013 | 5:59 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
For some reason I don’t think that any of the founders of Zionism are standing and applauding from their places of eternal reward (wherever those may be).
NPR reported this morning about Caliber 3, an Israeli company which, according to their website, “was established in the year 2000 to design and apply effective security solutions around the world.” They now have a special two hour course which “is geared to all tourists of any age who would like to learn about anti terrorism tactics. Experts in anti terrorism combat will teach how terrorism is fought, how to shoot a pistol and give hands on experience for all participants in shooting a weapon.” They stress that the “program … combine[s] together the values of Zionism with the excitement and enjoyment of shooting which makes the activity more meaningful.” They also do birthday parties. Seriously.
According to Steve Gar, who runs the place, 15,000 tourists participate in the course, which includes shooting automatic weapons, hearing hero stories, and watching the instructors stage an assault on targets which bear an image of a person with a red and and white kaffiyeh.
Gar told reporter Emily Harris: “My mission in life is to teach people, good people, Jewish people how to fight, how to protect themselves.”
The company and its shooting range is located in the Etzion Bloc, in Palestine. The fence around the facility is apparently making it extremely difficult for at least one Palestinian farmer to work his fields. This I would imagine is not part of the patter that Steve Gar gives to the tourists that pass through his facility.
But for now, that is not even the point.
One of the earliest Zionist institutions that was established in Palestine was the Center for Jewish Studies which eventually became the Hebrew University. The earliest Zionists had as their goal cultural and, for some, religious resurrection. They saw state building as the means to that end and political autonomy as a way of either escaping oppression or assuming responsibility for their own history. One of the tools for this was a defensive army which was a necessary evil.
There is a bittersweet victory here for those like Rabbi A. S. Tameres who pulled out of the Zionist movement after attending one of the earliest Zionist Congresses because he feared that the Jewish state on the way was turning to militarism. When any tour to Israel is incomplete without a visit to an army base, or the purchase of some shlock army kitsch, and now the make-believe equivalent of rock-star camp but with the weapons of war and the machinery of death, one must wonder if the Zionist enterprise has not gone off the tracks?
In a five day tour of Israel (which was what was reported on) I wonder how many hours were spent in the manuscript room at the National Library? How much time was spent in the development town of Yeruham? How much time was spent in the Palestinian villages surrounding Caliber 3?
Is this the dream? Jewish military subcontractors giving Jewish businessmen from Philadelphia a fantasy camp about killing Palestinians?
May 29, 2013 | 6:09 am
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
The Torah emphasizes repeatedly that one only approaches the Holy with great fear and trepidation. On the day that the Tabernacle was dedicated, Aaron’s children were killed by the same sacrificial machinery that consumed Israel’s offerings. The ritual choreography which eventually became the Yom Kippur service is preceded by the warning: “Speak to Aaron your brother, that he not come at all times into the sacred zone … lest he die.” God warns Israel as they gather round Mount Sinai that they not approach the mountain “lest they break through to the Lord to see and many of them perish.” The Sages applied to Torah the same paradigm. Comparing Torah to fire, the midrash warns that if one gets too close, one will be burnt, if one strays too far, one will freeze.
These are the thoughts with which I find myself as I try to bring some order to the reasons that I am uncomfortable with the movement for equal ritual access at the kotel, known as Women of the Wall. It is not that I fear the disruption of the customs of the place—customs which have only been in place for several decades, not longer, and have been stage managed by the Hareidi rabbis of the kotel, pretending that the force of the police is the same as the patina of authenticity. It is not egalitarian worship at the kotel that I fear. I strongly believe in egalitarian worship everywhere, rarely if ever praying in a quorum divided by sex. It is rather worship of the kotel that makes me anxious.
The Sefat Emet (the first Rebbe of Gur) writes that the reason that Moses broke the tablets when he saw the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf was that he feared that they would make the tablets into an idol. Rather than studying, and observing the Torah, Moses was afraid that the idolatrous actions of the Israelites showed that they would also turn the tablets that God had given them into an idol, and worship it.
For centuries the Wall, the large remnant of the western supporting wall of the Temple Plaza, upon which Herod’s Temple was built, was draped in myth and yearning. Yehudah Halevi, the great medieval Spanish poet wrote “my hear is in the East / while I am in the far West” in his longing for the Land of Israel. The desire of his poetic yearning was transformed into the legend that he was killed by an Arab horseman as he was embracing the dirt near the Temple Mount. Legend has it that the Western Wall survived because it was built by donations from the poor. Popular song refers to it as “stones with the heart of a person.”
In the far right precincts of the messianic settler Zionist movement, the focus has moved from the kotel to the Temple Mount itself. Annually, the Temple Mount faithful make a pilgrimage to the Temple Mount to underscore their desire to build the Third Temple on the spot where the Herod’s Temple had been, and where the Dome of the Rock now stands.
The combination of Nationalist and Hareidi claims of ownership over the kotel and the Temple Mount seem to have alienated most of the Israeli public who have not been paying attention to the controversy over equal ritual access to the Wall. Instead, the monthly Rosh Hodesh gatherings have become a rallying point for North American tour groups, and North Americans temporarily living in Israel. The resistance and the violence that meets these groups is a major publicity problem for the Israeli government. A publicity problem and neither a political nor a moral issue. For this reason Prime Minister Netanyahu dispatched Natan Scharansky, the head of the World Zionist Organization to discuss the issue with the heads of two American Rabbinical Schools, Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary—both of which have supported the Women of the Wall. The goal of such a compromise will be to insure that the support of the State as a whole should not be diminished.
The reason this issue has escaped the enthusiasm of the Israeli public (both right and left, but most interesting, those Israelis actively concerned with human and civil rights) is that it is not framed as an issue within the context of other violations of civil rights. (Though after the recent Supreme Court decision almost half the country seems to support WoW. However, digging into those statistics reveals that the support is greatest by far amongst Olim from Europe and North America and their children.) The police brutality is not framed as one example of the brutality of the Israeli police. The issues are framed from the perspective of the North American Jewish community, as a lone civil rights issue—egalitarian ritual access at the kotel.
This is where the danger of the Holy hits. The picture that is painted and the rhetoric that is employed advocate for the Western Wall “as the the principal symbol of Jewish people-hood and sovereignty” (from the WoW website). However, the site of the kotel, the Old City of Jerusalem, the kotel plaza and the Temple Mount are not uncomplicated. The massive plaza in front of the Western Wall was a Palestinian neighborhood until the ‘67 war. Muslims and Jews share the Old City in a tense and tendentious fashion, and demanding equal ritual access without mention of this larger political context also strengthens the place of the Wall as the symbol of Jerusalem, the “eternal undivided capital of Israel.”
Reinforcing the kotel’s iconic political status makes moving forward on issues of peace and coexistence harder. Women of the Wall is a public relations problem specifically because it might harm the unconditioned support for this nationalist message. This is where it behooves us to break the tablets. If the issue is equal access then we should be taking on the Rabbinate. If the issue is civil rights and police brutality we should be shouting about that. If the issue is the Wall, we walk too close to the fire.
May 13, 2013 | 8:40 am
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
Last year good friends visiting from Israel brought as a gift a CD by Gal Ziv, which put to music some wonderful contemporary Israeli poems. One line sticks with me. It is from the poem “Ibn Gvirol, Tammuz, Future Tense” by Tal Nitzan. The poem is sung with a hauntingly beautiful melody. I am assuming that the poem was written around the time of the Israeli tent protests which captured the passions and imaginations and participation of tens of thousands of Israelis in the summer before the Occupy movement started. I hear the words through the filter of Occupy LA.
Coins dive down to the musician’s bag
with the audacity of small change, feet
will wallow in the detritus of the demonstration
what was spoken and shouted will be swept up
life is much stronger*
And I hear the words echoing with the youthful wistfulness of Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.”
Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
And I hear the words resonating with the fleeting nature of revelation as we move toward Shavuot, when we celebrate the necessary distance between people and God by wallowing in the gift of interpretation, of midrash, of study.
And then, in the very next moment, as we look upon it from the perspective of time past, those same people dance around the Golden Calf. The idolatry that is born of a need for concretized meaning and the intimacy of being able to point to a thing—the incarnation perhaps of a divine desire—and say: “This is your god”, overcomes the experience of revelation. Life is much stronger.
The move from rethinking the way the world might work, in which the space that is created between a people and the divine endlessness of Torah writ large, to the small narrow space of concretized and static deity is almost incomprehensible. How does one, let alone everyone, move from the frenetic liberating energy of infinite possibility to the “audacity of small change” which rings hollowly but can be sighted and pointed at. And yet, it is this move, more than revelation, more than liberation, which seems to define history. The day after, when the street sweepers come through and collect the detritus of passion and revolution, and tourists look at the gated off gardens and parks and plazas where righteous anger brought forth a dream of difference, a vital vision of a more just future—that day after regularly saps our spirits and dampens our drive, giving way to the demons of the day to day: “life is much stronger.”
And yet, we return each year with Sisyphean regularity performing the possibility of redemptive reading, hoping that this year the creative discourse of friends and allies hunched over texts ancient and modern, sacred and secular, profound and profane, will propel us into a future more full with the promise of perfectibility.
The future is still covered in the thick fog. With so much in the balance, perhaps this time when the fog clears it will be the dancing of holy revolutionaries singing the psalms of justice that we will hear.
I’ll see you at the foot of the mountain.
* The translation is mine.
May 7, 2013 | 7:16 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
Violence rests heavy in the mythological and religious womb of our civilization. The first murder happens just verses after Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden. According to legend, Cain was stunned after he struck and killed Abel, as death had not yet inhabited the world. He was literally at a loss as to what to do. The birds taught him about how to bury the body.
Violence has never left us from that wayward moment. However, our biblical religions do not glorify the violence. When God commanded Israel to build a Tabernacle so that God might rest amongst the people Israel, part of the package was that the altar would not be hewn with metal. Metal brought death in the form of swords and the altar was a symbol of life. Death would not bring life. If a priest fought in a war, even a commanded war, a righteous conflict, he was forbidden to do the Temple service if he had taken life. King David was not allowed to build the Temple because his hands were bloodied.
The Torah might sanction war and violence in limited cases (self defense, perhaps), however even sanctioned violence is not glorified. Extinguishing the life of a person, even an enemy, even a bad person, is still an act of evil.
The Rabbinic tradition transvalued the warriors into Sages who fought on the battlefield of Torah study. “Who is the hero? The one who triumphs over his will.” The 3rd century mishnah debated the symbolic meaning of the machinery of death. While there is a lone opinion that weapons are a man’s decoration, Sages say that weapons are a disgrace to a person. They call on Isaiah, beating swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.
Yet we are also heir to civilizations which glorify the warrior, which laud the hero with the sword, the battle axe, and later the gun. The macho and often racist mythology of the lone gunslinger whether in a mythical west or a combat zone in Europe, Japan, Vietnam, and more recently America, created the American version of the medieval warrior. This legend of weaponized individuality, cowboyed autonomy (“yippee kay yo”) raised the rifle to iconic status.
We live at a bad moment in the arc of history for us to be embracing these myths and continuing to survive. When the smiths in the middle ages figured out how to forge steel swords, the weaponry of death became much more lethal, since the metal was no longer brittle. However, all this was nothing compared to the death that could be sown with the invention of gunpowder, then guns, repeating rifles and revolvers, and then machine guns in their various types. To our great bad fortune, the aura of the warrior carried over to the poor shlub who wielded an automatic weapon which could spray random death at a distance of a football field.
And so it is up to us to once again choose life. What is called for at this moment is a new Right to Life movement. A movement that does not fetishize the machinery of death in the name of a misguided masculinity or a corrupted culture. The machinery of death is now produced by a vast industry which profits from a product whose only use is the destruction of life. It is up to us to take the streets, the culture and this country back from the death-industrial complex.
In a week when children became killers with their guns, while Wayne LaPierre, the lobbyist for the death-industrial complex vowed to never give an inch in his worship of those guns, and the governer of Arizona declared it illegal to destroy guns, even those that were bought back by the state; in this week when again more people were killed than were killed in Newtown; we must state loudly that our right to life trumps the unfettered right to deal in the machinery of death.
Call your Representatives, take to the streets to protest outside the NRA’s branches, read the names of thousands of victims of the NRA’s war on America outside gun shows, and gun plants. This is the moment and we are called on to seize it.
April 23, 2013 | 5:22 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
David Suissa bemoans the "fact" that Muslims are not self-critical, nor do they condemn terror attacks loudly enough.
So for general edification I spent 5 minutes on Google and came up with this list.
Sometimes we only hear what we want to hear.
April 18, 2013 | 5:34 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
This week has been the week when we have had to repeat simple truths over and over again.
Nobody should be killed by a bomb while watching a marathon.
Weapons of war should not be in the hands of civilians.
And yesterday I found myself standing with car wash workers outside the Aztec Car Wash in Century City demanding, among other things, that they be allowed to have bathroom breaks in a bathroom and not be forced to pee in a cup and then pour it down a drain. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, peeing in a cup has got to go!” That cringing feeling you just got reading that, is what I was feeling yesterday. It was the feeling that we should be past this. That it should be obvious already that workers deserve reasonable compensation and that they should be treated with dignity.
Martin Luther King went to Memphis on his last fateful trip almost fifty years ago to stand with sanitation workers demanding dignity. They carried signs that read “I am a man.” It is embarrassing that this sentiment is still up for debate.
This week’s Torah portion includes the exhortation: “Be Holy.” Sometimes, it seems, we are not even up to being decent. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, peeing in a cup has got to go.”
Simple statements that we, apparently have to repeat over and over again
“What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now!”
March 15, 2013 | 1:24 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
Yesterday during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a ban on 157 different types of assault weapons, and magazines containing more than ten bullets, Ted Cruz, Republican Senator from Texas, lectured Diane Feinstein on the Constitution. Cruz archly asked Feinstein, the author of the bill, if she would agree to limit the First Amendment so that it only applied to certain books and not others. While Sen. Feinstein appropriately decried and dismissed Cruz’ inappropriate attack, there is yet more irony to be exposed and explored.
Ted Cruz, the apparent supporter of rights enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, actually supports curtailing the Fourteenth Amendment so that a woman will not be able to protect her own right to privacy in the case of an unwanted pregnancy. Ted Cruz has also vigorously supported curtailing the First Amendment separation of Church and State. (In other masterful strokes Cruz argued before the Supreme Court in 2003 that Texas was free to back out of a legal settlement in which it had vowed to improve health care services for poor children. The justices ruled unanimously against Texas. The next year, Mr. Cruz persuaded the court not to release Michael Haley, who had been sentenced to 14 years in prison for stealing a calculator from a Walmart, even though the maximum was two years under state law. even Mr. Cruz conceded that prosecutors had erred.)
In addition to obviously wanting to curtail some less important and peskier amendments while being an absolutist on the second amendment, Cruz also stretches credulity with his claim that he is pro-life. While supporting the rights of fetuses who are not people, he seems to blithely dismiss the rights of actual children and adults (some 2600+ have been killed since Newtown) who are threatened by the approximately three hundred million firearms already in private hands.
There is a Hassidic teaching that the reason that Moses broke the Tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written when he saw the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf, was that he was afraid that they would also make the Ten Commandments into an idol—that it would be worshiped rather than understood, frozen rather than interpreted. Cruz and his ilk (back by the Gun Industry and their shills at the NRA) have made the second amendment into an idol. If even weapons of war are not to be banned from private ownership, we are truly dancing around the Golden Calf.