About Me

Friday, June 26, 2009

My visit to Dheisheh Refugee Camp

My tour of the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, just outside Bethlehem, was prompted by a friend, in Israel leading a birthright tour, who is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and has friends/contacts in the territories. Though she knew that my politics are much different than hers, we are truly friends, have genuine respect for each other, and she knew that I'm quite inquisitive by nature and, as an ardent defender of Israel, might possess a desire to know as much as possible about what I'm talking about when discussing/debating the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. And, as such, first-hand knowledge of a "refugee camp" immediately struck me as something quite valuable.

She has a friend who runs a UN funded recreation center called al-Feneiq, known simply as The Phoenix, which is where, after a bus and cab ride that lasted a little over a half hour coming from the center of Jerusalem, our day began. The community center itself is a nice facility, and contains a kitchen, guest house, gym, library, cultural performance venue, and play room for children.

The tour of the town itself was led by another resident of Dheisheh, who walked us around the area, stopping to point out particular sites of interest, and a bit of history. Though I expressed to my friend prior to our tour that I didn't want this to be a propaganda tour - that I just wanted to see the area with my own eyes and make whatever determinations I would make - and our guide mostly refrained from gratuitous remarks about Israel culpability, and he was quite friendly and a good listener, he would, nonetheless, occasionally relate stories of the IDF destroying specific buildings in the area that were being used by terrorists, clearly indicating that he didn't believe the justification given by the Israelis.

Periodically, our guide would, with a non-judgmental tone, confirm that some of the graffiti we'd see in the neighborhood was the image of deceased terrorists, serving as an urban memorial or sorts. One such image "commemorated" the life of a "martyr" belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist, secular, nationalist Palestinian political and paramilitary organization, founded in 1967, who rejects the right of Israel to exist, and who has been responsible for terrorist attacks which have killed dozens of Israeli citizens. Other graffiti/art we came across included similar images of "resistance" and of course, several images of Che Guevara.

What we came across in Dheishe's densely populated winding, hilly streets doesn't in any way resemble a camp as such. It actually resembled a some of the bad inner city neighborhoods in Philly, New York, and other large cities in the U.S. Many of the homes were extremely run down, and the area was full of what we would call urban blight - structures, for whatever reason, in complete disrepair or partially or fully demolished. Amongst this poverty, there were also homes that were extremely modest but intact, eateries (one of which we stopped in and had, we all agreed, an incredible meal), other miscellaneous shops, at least two high-speed Internet and computer centers, a medical center, and another smaller community/sports center. (The art in the center included both peaceful messages, as well as at least two large murals of young Palestinians throwing a bomb...presumably at Israeli troops)

Indeed, it was at this center where we ended our tour, where the three of us on the tour drank coffee with our guide, and a couple of his friends, at the center's cafe. After about a half hour or so, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, our guide and his friends staring strangely at me, with an inquisitive look on their faces. He asked what I was wearing around my neck. I replied that it was my Star of David which, to be honest, I had worn like I do every day, but had also taken some effort to keep under my shirt...I guess unsure about what the reaction would be. Though their reaction to my Jewish symbol was reserved, I was and am still a bit skeptical that they truly didn't know what it was. I mean, really, the Israeli flag contains the same symbol and they've surely seen that before. I don't know that I felt unsafe necessarily at that point, but I did perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that, in eyes and for most Palestinians, the Israelis, who he sees as his people's oppressors, are synonymous with the Jewish people as a whole....what I described in a recent essay as "Israel as the proverbial Jew, writ large".

I mean, I'm sure, at least prior to discovering that I was Jewish, he saw me, like my other two friends on the tour (who were also Jewish but more pro-Palestinian than me), as "activists" sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and I certainly didn't go out of my way to dissuade him of this assumption on the tour. I would listen to what he said, regardless of how critical he was of Israel, with, if anything, a neutral, inquisitive look, deciding early in the day that I wouldn't, in my conversation and overall affect, lie, and pretend to be share his hostility to Israel, but also wouldn't be argumentative or confrontational - which, in other circumstances, would be my natural reaction to what I perceive as anti-Israeli propaganda.

I was there, ultimately, on something of a fact-finding tour, and I'm glad I went. The whole Palestinian "refugee" camp story, as a political narrative, is so deeply flawed - a story I discussed briefly in my last post - and, without a broader understanding of what the existence of such communities actually represent, I could easily see a neutral observer easily assuming Israeli culpability in every demolished building, every story of woe and suffering that we encountered along the way. Its this facile causation between every conceivable case of Palestinian suffering and Israeli actions that feeds into the demonization of Israel, a wholly false narrative that is quite dangerous to the Jewish state's survival...and something I spend much of my life attempting to refute.

I guess I also was motivated by the desire to really know at least some actual Palestinians, so that my Zionist politics don't merely deal with their population as some abstraction, completely divorced from their reality. Indeed, much of my argument against anti-Israel activists is that, whatever their politics, they simply see Israelis as the proverbial "other", reduced to a cartoon caricature of evil, rather than attempting, at the very least, to see the complexity and nuance, good traits and bad, which Israelis possess, and that exists in every group. Likewise, my Zionist activism can only be strengthened by possessing a more intimate knowledge of the kindness, generosity, complexity and pathos of the Palestinian people.

UPDATE on April 9, 2010:

Regarding that UN funded central community center called al-Feneiq, known simply as The Phoenix, where me and my friends taking the tour of the Dheisheh "Refugee Camp" met our hosts, I recently came across something of interest about the center. The director of the center was an endorser of a document published in the journal, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, calling for a boycott of ''Israel at 60'' celebrations. The document refers to Israel as the "Colonial Settler Project", accuses it of practicing "Apartheid" and of orchestrating a "slow genocide against a million and a half Palestinians". It concludes by charging that ''celebrating “Israel at 60” is tantamount to dancing on Palestinian graves."

The document was signed by the usual cast of radical Israeli and Palestinian NGOs who have been active in the demonization and deligitimation of Israel for years. Their endorsement of such a vile document lends credence to my original observation about the Dheisheh community - one that, with all their talk about simply wanting justice, is compromised by leadership which possesses a hatred of Israel that transcends the particulars of the debate over territory and statehood.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nadi and Razy

Its not everyday that two drunk Palestinians sit down on the bench you're occupying at Ben Yehuda, share their bottle of wine with you, and discuss...the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the ideas of Spinoza, Neitze, and Camus. Mind you, I'm typically quite skeptical when strangers approach me in public wishing to socialize, but I had the sense that Nadi and Razy were harmless...simply socially "emboldened" by a night spent out on the town drinking - an instinct that turned out to be correct.

The conversation, that lasted perhaps a half hour, was at times spirited, always friendly, and, in its civility and respect, transpired like something out of a video produced for some sort of "peace and understanding" group (and, no, I'm not using "peace and understanding" in the pejorative). And yet, much of their discourse laid bare so much about the Palestinian narrative that holds them back politically, and reaffirms my skepticism of any real hope for peace in the near future.

While their English was broken, and there was much that I'm sure I missed, I was able to understand when Razy opened the conversation by stating that he is a Palestinian, living in Jerusalem, and is a "refugee" (from '48, I assumed). While I'm not sure where his original home was, or the conditions which led to his being displaced, by Razi's moral logic, Jews who lived in East Jerusalem prior to the war of Independence, and were expelled by the Jordanians when they took control of that part of the city by the end of the war, and made it to some other city in Israel, were/are also refugees. For that matter, the thousands of Holocaust survivors who fled Nazi occupied/controlled territory in Europe, and ended up emigrating to either the U.S. or to Israel should, by that logic, be considered "refugees." There were tens of millions of refugees from wars in the 1930s and 1940s, masses of people who eventually, after weeks, months, or, at most, a few years, settled someplace else, built roots there, and, quite simply, moved on with their lives. (Not to mention the 800,000 or so Jewish refugees from Arab countries between 1948 and 1967...topic for another day).

The term "refugee" is not only applied to Palestinians, many of whom have been living elsewhere for over 60 years, but is bizarrely applied to their descendants, and their descendants....something that each generation of Palestinians inherit...a victim status that presumably will only be abrogated when they are allowed to return to the homes of their ancestors three generations past, a population numbering 711,000 in 1950, and now, by this law of inherited refugee status, has risen to over four million, as accepted by the United Nations. This "right of return" - the Palestinians "right" to return to Israel proper even if a Palestinian state were to be created for them - if it were ever to be enforced, would quite literally mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state, and indeed use of the term has always been understood to be a euphemism for those wishing to destroy Israel.

But, it was when the topic turned to Mahmood Abbas, Fatah, and Hamas, that this conversation with two moderate and thoughtful Palestinians became especially troubling. When I asked Nadi who he would support in an election for Prime Minister in a newly created Palestinian state - that is, I was trying to get at what kind of government he saw coming into existence...would it be peaceful, moderate, committed to peace, etc. - he told me that, at least if it was between Fatah and Hamas, he would vote for Hamas. When, clearly stunned and angered by his answer, I asked why, he tried to explain that Mahmoud Abbas (current head of Fatah) was a puppet/traitor/etc. Hamas, he claimed, was, at least, strong and you knew where they stood. But, I asked incredulously, how can you support Hamas and say you want peace, when Hamas is openly committed to the destruction of Israel, and cites almost verbatim from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in its very founding charter? Nadi dismissed these "allegations" about Hamas....insisted that they do want peace, and are only misunderstood and have their words distorted by the press.

Interestingly, Nadi, earlier in our conversations, seemed passionately opposed to religious extremism of any kind, spoke of Camus, Spinoza, and Neitze, and, overall, showed himself to be erudite and largely secular...and, yet. Yet, he, like a plurality of Palestinians in Gaza had done in 2006, showed himself to be, at the very least, remarkably naive, and shockingly vulnerable to Hamas' intoxicating rhetoric of "resistance".

In fact, its the fear of a Hamas controlled government in the West Bank that makes Israelis skeptical of ceding more land to the Palestinians, and the words of Nadi and Razy - as moderate as they are - only confirm my deepest fears....that Palestinian political culture hasn't even come close to ridding themselves of the most extreme elements in their society...the bare minimum which needs to transpire for a true peace agreement ever to be achieved.

My conversation with Nadi and Razy was challenging, stimulating, and, given our dramatically different backgrounds, pretty remarkable. And, while I acknowledge feeling genuine affection for them - and, indeed, wouldn't rule out conversing with them again - I'm also truly haunted by their support for Hamas, and wonder how many more moderate voices out there would, away from the TV cameras, and in the privacy of the ballot box in a future Palestinian state, for whatever reasons, cast their ballot for a party so openly hateful of Israelis and Jews.

While I would love for this story to end in a more uplifting and hopeful tone, I simply can't ignore the danger I see in front of me. When it comes to such irreconcilable values, there is definitely a limit to what even the most well-intentioned dialogue can achieve.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Defending Identity

I've spoken in these pages about my identification as a secular Israeli and, while most likely fully understand that one can have a strong Jewish identity without necessarily being religiously observant, what may be less intuitive is the more general connection between such an identity - whether it be ethnic, religious, cultural, etc. - and the willingness to make sacrifices necessarily to defend values such as freedom and democracy, even in a secular state.

I was thinking about this while reading Natan Sharansky's newest book, Defending Identity. Sharansky, whose previous book was, Defending Democracy, argues persuasively that the democratic values we all cherish can more vigorously be defended by citizens who possess strong individual identities, in addition to their more abstract identification with democratic values, as such.

On page 3, he says, "Those who feel a connection to ideals and values beyond the individual self, who believe that they are participating in a grand collective adventure, and who are convinced that they are acting on behalf of past and future generations are prepared to make great individual sacrifices. This sense of purpose and meaning is what attracts so many to fundamentalism, not only in countries governed by fundamentalist groups but even among native-born Europeans. Without a similar strength of purpose and identity, the free world will not long be able to repel the assault against it."

For Sharansky, who was both a human rights activist and Jewish Refusenik in the former Soviet Union, it was his connection to Judaism - its values, history, struggles, and aspirations - which provided him with the strength, courage, and perspective necessary to fight for human rights in a totalitarian state. For him, as for many courageous people throughout history, there was nothing more liberating than fighting for a cause greater than merely his own self-interest, a cause that (paraphrasing a recent U.S. Presidential candidate) encompassed him, but wasn't defined by his existence alone.

Sharansky's new identification with his Jewish heritage - in a state where religious belief of any kind was considered subversive and where most of the nation's Jews were forced to leave such faith behind to be considered loyal Soviet citizens - helped him to endure 9 years in a Soviet prison, as he saw his struggle against state tyranny in the context of the Jewish struggle for liberation from tyrants throughout history. Moreover, it was the universal values of Judaism that gave him the intellectual and moral strength to resist his interrogators and their cynical rhetorical tricks - that is, their frequent attempts to convince him of the truth of two inherently contradictory thoughts...what Sharansky refers to often in his book as (Orwellian) double-think.

While I'm not saying that secular people without a strong particular identity can't resist tyranny and, indeed, this is part of a much larger discussion that could be had about secularism and democratic states, it is hard not to be moved when Sharansky, describing his Judaism in the context of his struggle to resist Soviety tyranny, says:
"The fire of freedom that burned inside me was fueled by a passionate connection to my people, our common history and our shared destiny. When I crossed the line from doublethink to dissent, I suddenly discovered a new world. I was no longer an isolated Soviet citizen but part of a vibrant community with a long history of struggle and liberation - a history that had left great empires in its wake."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Herzl never told me there'd be days like this

So, I was told by friends and Aliyah professionals that I would certainly have good days and challenging days....that, though living in Israel was indeed was going to be one of the few things in life that don't fail to live up to expectations, there would also be, as an immigrant living in a new country and not speaking the language, frustrations and annoyances, some minor, some not so minor. And, today was one of those days, fortunately of the more minor variety. (Though, Theodore Herzl in his books, Der Judenstat and Altneuland, was strangely silent on the possibility of such annoying everyday minutia in the new Jewish state. Imagine the nerve of the guy!)

It really shouldn't have been too hard to locate the offices of Association of American and Canadians in Israel (AACI) on Pinsker St., except that, well, Balfour St. is the road leading directly to Pinsker and, perhaps because the Prime Minister's official residence is at the corner of Balfour and Smolenskin streets, and security monitoring the area were kind of intimidating, and there were streets I was unsure if I was allowed to walk down or not, and I wanted to make it to the doctor's office before they closed, so, as it wasn't a necessity to visit the offices of AACI today, I, when my attempts to try alternative routes were stymied, actually turned back around, and TRIED to make it to my next destination.

I had seen this doctor's office listed as a provider covered under my (Maccabi) Israeli health plan and saw that it was a relatively short walk from my apartment, so thought I'd just walk there and see if I could make an appointment because, earlier in the day, the customer service department at Maccabi Health (after finally finding someone who spoke passible English) couldn't locate me anywhere in their records. But, well, I learned later that I had copied the wrong address and there certainly wasn't an office named Central Jerusalem Family Doctor at 7 Strauss St. And, believe me, I walked along the perimeter of the building looking for that one entrance that would not only be in English rather than Hebrew but would enthusiastically announce: "Adam, YES, the office is here!" Instead, I returned home to find out that the mystery office was actually at 24 Strauss St!

Anyone who knows me wouldn't be surprised by my "senior" moments today, but you just need to add an additional factor of not being familiar with the lingua franca here to understand how amazing it is that I haven't gotten truly lost....the kind where I'm never found again, or somehow wind up in a really peculiar place without realizing it...I don't know, like in Damascus, Cairo, or Gaza City. I do tend to walk everywhere - being and avid walker all my life and kind of adverse to public transportation - and don't take the bus, which is probably good because the possible errors when getting on a Jerusalem bus are funny to imagine.

The third and final mishap really wasn't my fault. I had visited a wine and liquor store on Emek Refaim St., in the German Colony, where I had gone to get a slice of Pizza from the best Pizza place in the city my many people's standards, at a place called Sababa, and had purchased a bottle of Irish Whiskey at a Wine and Liquor store nearby. Anyway, the Hebrew Book Fair going on at Liberty Bell Park on the way back to my apartment so I decided to check it, out and walked to the security check at the entrance - which all such events, stores, and public buildings in the city generally have - placing my bags on the table for inspection. Well, I'm not sure if I didn't place the bag with the glass bottle of Bush Mills Irish Whiskey securely on the table or if the security guy mishandled it but the next thing I know the bag w/ bottle fell to the ground, smashing the bottle in pieces...the intense smell of whiskey reminding us all what had happened if it wasn't in any way clear. For some reason, perhaps to add insult to injury or perhaps to contribute to a more poetic and cathartic ending to my ordeal, the security guy then handed me back the bag (broken whiskey bottle inside) which I then carried to the trash. The security seemed more amused than sorry about the whole thing and didn't seem to understand, or perhaps just wasn't that moved by, my anguished complaint about wasting 160 shekels ($40 U.S.).

I guess I'm fortunate that I generally see problems like these in the context of Jewish history - a history full of genuine tragedies and suffering, as opposed to the faux dramas that many of us in the West process as real problems - and can't help but remind myself that these snafus are really quite humorous in the scheme of things. Not that I wasn't annoyed but, look, I'm back in my apartment drinking a beer, safe and sound, typing away on my laptop as a new citizen of the first sovereign Jewish state in 2000 years - and a free, democratic, and prosperous one to boot. Yeah, my life is SO hard!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Courage on the streets of Iran

No doubt because the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel weighs more heavily on me now that I'm a citizen than it did while observing from the safety of the U.S., I've been transfixed by the protests and upheaval taking place in Iran. While I'm under no illusion that, even if the protesters got everything they're asking for, the theocratic regime would magically become a pro-Israel, western leaning, democracy, I do think that, based on what I've read in blogs from Iran, and in pictures of the demonstrations, that the movement represents a move in a slightly more progressive direction. And, as someone who never ceases to be amazed at the illusions of grandeur of those in free Western countries who've convince themselves that they're being brave when they protest the actions of their government, those on the streets of Iran who are confronting their theocratic government are displaying true courage in the face of a regime whose human rights violations - as documented by all promenant human rights organizations - include large-scale arrests, incommunicado detention, torture and violence against those protesting the government. (In fact, in recent months, the Iranian authorities have been carrying out a widespread crackdown on civil society, targeting academics, women's rights activists, students, journalists and labor organizers. Hundreds of trade union activists were arrested as part of measures to prevent planned strikes. Lawyers, bloggers, and others who have spoken out against human rights violations have themselves been targeted for abuse.)

Moreover, these movement also represents, to a large degree, a repudiation (for whatever reason) of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President whose Holocaust denial, and genocide incitement again Israel, I watch with disgust (and, also, with sadness over the propensity of some in the West to excuse or justify his explicit anti-Semitism.)

No, it would be silly to assume that any significant percentage of the protesters in Iran share my anger over his hateful rhetoric towards Jews and Israel, but if the end result is an Ahmadinejad packing his bags for his proverbial "Crawford, TX", I'd be happy nonetheless. Baby steps, for the Iranians, are better than no steps at all.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Protest at Ben Yehuda

This is a picture I took today at Ben Yehuda Mall (a crowded tourist destination in the center of town) of a protest against Israel's a security fence (or "Wall").

The barrier in question consists of a network of fences and vehicle-barrier trenches (with less than 5% of the barrier consists of concrete walls) erected mostly along the 1949 border between Israel and Jordan, but diverging in many places to include on the Israeli side several of the highly populated areas of Israeli settlements in the West Bank such as East Jerusalem, Ariel, Gush Etzion, Emmanuel, Karnei Shomron, Givat Ze'ev, Oranit, and Maale Adumim

As typically is the case in democratic Israel, the protesters, many of whom were clearly from outside the country, were not in any way bothered or harassed by police or other security personnel, nor by the majority of those citizens and tourists on the mall who no doubt strongly support the security fence - seeing it as one of the key factors behind the dramatic decrease in successful terrorist attacks over the past several years.

Indeed, Israel has demonstrated that in the areas where the barrier was complete, the number of hostile infiltrations has decreased to almost zero. Even Palestinian militants, such as a senior members of Islamic Jihad, have confirmed that the barrier made it much harder to conduct attacks inside Israel.

Many who protest the fence claim it is an attempt to annex land and has the intent or effect to pre-empt final status negotiations, and severely restricts Palestinians who live nearby, particularly their ability to travel freely within the West Bank and to access work in Israel. To this, a few things need to be said. First, the rout of the fence can be altered at any time and Israel's withdraw from Gaza has demonstrated that they will not only adjust their borders in the interest of peace, but will undertake the painful task of evacuating its own citizens to achieve such ends. Second, democratic Israel, with its independent judiciary, continues to take the needs of Palestinians seriously, and indeed, On June 30, 2004, our Supreme Court ruled that a portion of the barrier west of Jerusalem violates the rights of Palestinians, and ordered 30 km of existing and planned barrier to be rerouted.

But, I guess the most serious point is, as I've pointed out in the past, critics of the fence, as with critics of Israel more broadly, never offer an alternative to what they're criticizing. If there's another way, other than the security fence, to protect our country from Palestinian terrorists intent on crossing the boarder to kill innocent civilians, I'd be open to it. But, in lieu of such an alternative, I think, in even the most basic moral cost-benefit analysis, the hundres of Israeli lives that have been saved by this fence more than justifies whatever inconvenience its existence causes. (Indeed, countries all over the world have erected such fences at their border - including the United States along their border with Mexico - and it is usually seen as a reasonable, non-lethal, approach to enhancing border security.)

About a half hour into the protest, I saw a few Israelis peacefully engage the protesters, attempting to debate with them the merits of the fence.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


I went on a group (Nefesh B'Nefesh) trip today to the Herzl Museum, followed by lunch at the Ticho House, and a tour of the Me'ah She'arim neighborhood.

Theodor Herzl - one of the ideological founding fathers of modern Zionism - is for me, as with many Israelis and Zionists, one of my heroes. Though he didn't live to see it, and though there were clearly other influential Zionists who deserve credit for the creation of the state of Israel (David Ben-Gurion, Moses Hess, Leo Pinsker, and many others.) his vision of a modern Jewish state eventually became a reality, despite the enormous practical obstacles to achieving such a project, through persistence, his practical skills as a diplomat and a writer, and his ability to inspire others to believe that a dream can indeed become a reality.

I was thinking about Herzl's vision and grit during our tour of the museum, as well as during lunch, where I had the amazing fortune of meeting an elderly woman who accompanied us on our trip named Francis Greenberg. When she, at age 88, walked off an El Al plane and into the terminal and became a citizen of Israel, last July, it was her second time trying to make Aliyah - the first being 61 years ago.

Francis, from Poland, whose parents, two sisters, and brother, were killed by the Nazis, was one of the passengers on the ship, Exodus, in 1947 which carried Jewish emigrants with the intent of taking its passengers to Palestine, then still controlled by the British. Though most of the emigrants, like Francis and her husband, were Holocaust survivor refugees, the British, who had set quotas severely limiting the number of Jews who could enter Palestine, seized the ship, and deported all its passengers back to Europe.

in March 1949, Greenberg and her husband, Isak, who were married in a displaced persons camp in Germany a year earlier, moved to Pittsburgh (Squirrel Hill), where Mr. Greenberg's sister lived.

The Greenbergs had been married for 60 years when Isak passed away, in 2008. Shortly thereafter, Francis decided it was time to try Aliyah again, so she left her home and flew to Israel on a flight arranged by Nefesh B'Nefesh. According to a story in Ha'aretz, loudspeakers at the airport blared Israeli folk songs, and children waved Israeli flags when she, and 200 other N. Americans who made Aliyah that day, arrived.

Herzl in his book, "Old, New Land" said, "If you will it, it is no dream", which became a popular slogan within the Zionist movement. I don't think Francis would disagree.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Secular Israeli

I remember, a while back, a couple of my more religious friends telling me that if/when I live in Israel, there wouldn't be the nuance we have in the U.S. concerning our Jewish identity - the question of whether you are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or unaffiliated. In Israel, I was told, you'll be considered either religious or secular.

Well, I know now exactly what they meant, because within the first week of living here I felt secular in a way I would never have thought possible in the U.S. In the U.S., my "Shabbat-Respectful" reply to the question of "do you observe Shabbat?" was typically sufficient to convey that, though I wasn't shomer Shabbos, I did typically either attend Friday night services, light the candles at home, OR go to a Shabbat dinner somewhere in the community. Indeed, my religous observance, as minimal as it was, was much greater in the past several years than it was thoughout my childhood and early adulthood. Certainly through the eyes of many friends and my family, I was "the religious one"....the one that wished my family a Shabbat Shalom, the one who led our family's Passover Seder, and the one who would be found celebrating, in some manner, the holidays - Shavout, Simcha Torah, Purim, etc. - that aren't always on the proverbial American secular Jewish radar.

In Israel, by contrast, its a pretty clear case. While I'll likely join one of the few Conservative or Reform Jewish communities in the area and carry on the same level of observance that I did in the states, I know that I won't be shomer Shabbos, won't wear a kippah or or display Tzitit. I won't lay tefillin, nor regularly attend services. I am, at heart, a secular Zionist...a secular Israeli. But, digging further into it, I think I have an understanding about my view of Judaism in the U.S. (in the diaspora), and why its somewhat different living in Israel.

In the U.S., as a represetative of a religious minority representing less than 2% of the population - a population, due to various demographic factors within our community, which is stagnant at best, and where our future survival as a distinct religious community is in doubt to some degree -I felt the responsibility to maintain the traditions not only for me and my family, but for my future children (G-d willing) and for future generations of Jews to come.

I said to someone very close to me a couple years ago that I feel very protective of Judaism. And, while I certainly had no doubt that I loved being Jewish independent of any danger or threat, I probably did cling more tightly to the path than I would have if I didn't feel that our future was so precarious.

Now, as a Jew in a majority Jewish country with no shortage of observant Jews to carry on, and pass to futre generations, a love and fidelity to our religious traditions (to observe the Mitzvot), I feel perhaps a bit more free to be the Jew that I feel most comfortable being - one consumed with a passion to preserve and protect the Zionist project (the national liberation movement of a people who have built a state where Jews are free to be whatever Jew they wish to be.)

Amusingly, my mother once expressed this half-kidding fear that I would return to the U.S. one day as a "black hatter". (Orthodox Jew who wears traditional black hat, black coat, black trousers, black tie, beard and curls, etc.) While I knew then, and now know for sure, that this will never happen, I am tempted to play a joke on her when I greet her after returning to the U.S., and might be seen shopping in Me'a She'arim shortly before my flight!

Update on April 27, 2010:

As I married Chana, who happens to be religious, in March, and have taken to wearing a Kippah everyday, perhaps the characterization of myself as "secular" was a bit, let's just say, premature:)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

On a Two-State Solution

I've had a couple exchanges of late with friends about the idea of a two-state solution, the Obama administration's stance on what they see as Israeli intransigence on the issue of settlements, and the degree to which the election of Bibi Netanyahu presents an obstacle to peace - to which I would be inclined to reply as follows:

The recent election of a center-right government headed by Netanyahu - who refuses to (explicitly) accept a two-state solution and who refuses to put a halt to natural growth in W. Bank Settlements - merely reflects mainstream opinion in Israel at the moment that a two-state solution, and subsequent compromises necessary for such a deal, makes sense at some point, but probably not now under the current circumstances.

And, the circumstances I'm referring to are a Hamas-controlled Gaza, PA leadership in the W. Bank that, even if they are committed to peace, is far too weak to carry out the terms of any such deal, and the violence and instability created by Iran and Syria's support of both Hamas and Hezbollah.

More broadly, I think it needs to be noted that a two-state solution should not be viewed as a dynamic that, when implemented, will result in the end of hostilities between Israel and her Arab / Palestinian neighbors. Rather, a peaceful two-state solution will be the RESULT of the end of hostilities against Israel. So, I don't think the onus is on Israel to agree to any more territorial concessions in lieu of concrete steps by the Arab world and the Palestinians to remove the factors which contribute to violence and incitement. I think what Israelis want is some indication that the creation of a Palestinian state will really bring a cessation of hostility against us, will truly result in Hamas being marginalized and/or eliminated as a significant player in the region, and, more broadly, will really result in a truly more peaceful Middle East.

I don't think that's too much to ask.