Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Fear of Collapse - Some Thoughts on Tisha Be'Av

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond describes different processes that lead to the destruction of civilizations. Giving examples stretching hundreds of years from Easter Islanders to Rwandans, Diamond shows how different factors – environmental and climactic changes, the loss of supporting allies and the presence of hostile neighbours – often coalesce together to bring ruin to societies.

The 5th reason the author brings – how each society responded to the changes it faced - is particularly apropos to discuss on Tisha Be’Av, the fast day that commemorates many tragedies that befell the Jewish people, not least, the destruction of our temples and loss of sovereignty only recently regained.

While Diamond concludes that it’s a society’s inability to adapt itself and its values to new situations, (sometimes, it’s those same values that had strengthened a society in the past that ultimately led to their disappearance) Jewish tradition has its own explanations for collapse. Our Rabbis teach that the destruction of the temple and subsequent exiles were caused by our sins – idolatry, murder, incest and baseless hatred. More
secular commentators meanwhile, emphasize the people’s political mistakes and their inability to accept the limits of Jewish power and embrace compromise.

Whether social anthropologists, secular Israelis or Talmudic Rabbis, the underlying message seems to be that the future of any society (including our modern day Israeli one) is not guaranteed. Instead, it depends on the political choices we make, the type of society we create and perhaps most importantly, on the ability of our leaders to help us adapt to our changing environment and decide which of our values to maintain and which to forego.

I spent the night of Tisha Be’Av by Rabin Square in Tel Aviv at a ceremony entitled ‘Tonight we don’t learn Torah’ which brought Israeli religious and secular MKs, journalists and jurists together to discuss the contemporary meaning of the day. The theme of the evening was leadership and for good reason – most people in the country have given up on finding a leader they respect or admire, a personality not compromised by sexual indiscretion, financial corruption, or political incompetence.

The speakers discussed their own personal Jewish heroes; Moshe for his strong identification with his enslaved brothers,
Yochanan Ben Zakai for his subtle understanding of Israel’s geo strategic position and ability to adapt Judaism to a changing (post Temple) reality, Ben Gurion for his political courage and foresight. The implied message by all speakers was the absence of similar personalities nowadays to steer us through these difficult times.

Tisha Be'av teaches us that our future hangs in the balance. And if indeed bloodshed, sexual indiscretion and hatred is rife in our country, if we lack inspiring respected leaders who can help us adapt to the painful changes we will need to make if we want to live in peace and security here, then our future here really is not guaranteed. As Yossi Sarid writes; “ TheThird Temple is in imminent danger, if we judge by the precedents.”

No Israeli needs to be reminded of the presence of hostile neighbours, nor our fear that our allies might one day abandon us. And deep down, there is a primordial fear that our experiment of reviving a nation in its ancient land will collapse due to internal fissures and external threats.

Yet I also feel that among the prophets of doom, sometimes we need to focus on the perspective of a Jewish leader who wasn’t mentioned that night at the square, a Rabbi who can see a fox walking in the Holy of Holies yet laugh, who can experience disaster but imagine a better future;

Perhaps sometimes we should act like
Rabbi Akiva and try and see past our petty and self interested leadership to the bigger picture, the return of our sovereignty after 2000 years, the good things that occur on a daily basis…the fact that regardless of what may happen to us now, at least our fate is in our own hands.

And imagine a time when Tisha Be’Av will no longer be a time for self-introspection, but a time for joy and celebration instead.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Passports, Politics and the Search for Utopia

3 weeks ago I flew back to London for a long weekend for my cousins wedding. It was a great few days – dancing at the wedding, laughing with old friends (there’s always something special about hanging out with those you knew at 14). Generally being the guest that everyone wanted to see…In fact, the only annoying thing was waiting in line at Heathrow with all the Europeans at passport control – after all, surely the point of a British passport is to save you having to queue with the Greeks and French!

According to some Israelis, that’s not the only reason for valuing a foreign passport. Promoting his new book 'Defeating Hitler', former head of the Jewish agency and Knesset speaker, Avrum Burg, recently caused a stir in Israel when he described us as a frightened society, unable to trust the outside world and negatively influenced by the primal fear of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Claiming that Israel is sliding towards greater militarism and ultimate ruin, Burg advised anyone who could to get a foreign passport before its too late, bemoaning the fact Zionism had focused on Herzelian political Zionism rather than the gentler more spiritual Zionism of Ahad Haam.

Despite it being shocking coming from someone of Burg’s stature, I’m not convinced that his critique of Zionism actually broke any new ground. There's always been a strain among Jews idealizing pacifism and rejecting the idea of sovereignty and the ‘impurity’ that comes with it – those like George Steiner who posited the idea of the morally pure exilic Jew as the human conscience of the world, powerless to abuse the ‘other’ and dirty himself with realpolitik. Burg’s critique of our current predicament was hanging on the coat tails of previous ideologues. And to completely reject his argument in the name of patriotism would be like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Truth is, I also wish this country was different – that we lived without a Shoah complex with Scandinavian neighbours, comfortable in the fact we were always victims and never victimizers. I’d love to go to Friday night dinners without hearing the (erroneous) view of how the world hates us and that we can only rely on ourselves. I wish the early Zionist idealized dreams of a utopian island of peace and enlightenment hadn’t become an incomplete reality with poverty, violence, aggression and corruption.

Yet however great it may be to live in a postmodern ivory tower philosophizing about the perils of power and militarism and bemoaning how the dream went so badly astray; however artistic all of that may be, it’s simply so much less real. And just because moral ambiguity and complexity aren’t sexy doesn’t mean they should be ignored.

It’s easy to forget that we Jews didn’t do so well with powerlessness (or Statelessness), easy to minimize the challenge of being a people with the responsibility of wielding force for the first time in two millennium.

And that’s what Israel’s about – a place where Jewish culture is naturally imbibed, where we speak to the greengrocer in our ancient language, where secular kids dress up on Purim, and where policy makers need to weigh up how best to utilize force to ensure our continued existence in an area where most of our neighbours would rather we weren’t here.

Its to be in a place where ‘spiritual Zionism’ doesn’t just mean practicing non violence as Burg sees it but discussing what we should do about the environment, unemployment benefits, and democracy…where the realms of what is considered Judaism have been immeasurably expanded to include how we use power, or determine what a Jewish economic policy looks like.

Utopia for Burg may be closer to Brussels than Jerusalem. And life in London may sometimes be easier than Tel Aviv. But living here is about something more than just comfort and ease. Its about the challenge of leaving behind what writer A.B Yehoshua calls the ‘personal spice box’ of the Diaspora and diving in to the murky waters of a sovereign national reality...and continuing to believe that this idea is worth fighting for even when we sometimes come up short.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Jews and Conspiracy Theories

‘Once you’ve been here for longer you’ll become more right wing’ I was told 3 months into my Aliya by Roey, the neighbour of some close family friends. Sitting around the Shabbat table, I had been asking questions about Disengagement and Amona, but as has happened time and time again, the act of questioning itself was seen as betraying left wing tendencies.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been upset – after all, the moment someone can't see an underlying logic in someone else's opinion, the moment they believe that only their opinion is correct and legitimate, it follows that anyone with a dissenting view must be either irrational, stupid or na├»ve. Maybe I should have been thankful that I was getting the benefit of the doubt.


Last month I attended a conference in Bar Ilan on the future of US-Israel relations, part of which dealt with the
article by two political realists, Walt and Mearsheimer who claim that US foreign policy has been unduly influenced by the Jewish lobby.

As one speaker said, this conspirational view became a mainstream accusation in Europe years ago. Because if, as the European thinking goes, Israel is clearly in the wrong, if (as Portuguese Nobel prize winner Jose Saramago stated)
Ramallah is the equivalent of Auschwitz, then any policy supporting Israel must be irrational, must be unduly partial to some sinister group working behind the scenes.

The moment we convince ourselves of the absence of any other reasonable opinion is the day we embrace conspiracies. The moment we can't see that the war in Afghanistan and Iraq had something to do with genocidal regimes, or that disengagement was in some way influenced by demography or preventing international isolation, all we are left with are more indefinable factors 'explaining' the policy – that the US is on an anti Muslim crusade, that the Israeli government wants to screw over the religious.

Working in politics in a country in which everyone fancies themselves as a political analyst is not always easy. And I am still surprised that Ichud HaLeumi seems to be the default mainstream national religious position or that a two state solution remains controversial in some quarters.

Yet what really bothers me is the inability of so many people to understand the logic behind another person’s views, to grasp the subtlety of positions, to understand that an opinion can be legitimate even if you think it's wrong.
As I wrote last year, what I can't get used to is that anyone who thinks differently is automatically considered to be irrational or mistaken – something the Netziv argues led to the destruction of the temple.

Or maybe Roey was right; maybe I just I haven’t been here long enough…