Thursday, November 29, 2007

Kaf Tet Be'November: 60 Years On

60 years after the UN voted to partition Mandatory Palestine into two states, it's not uncommon for questions to be raised over the relevancy of a Jewish State. In this context, I'd like to share a beautiful piece of literature from Amos Oz that reminds us of the inherent problems statelessness brings and why, as Israeli commentator Amnon Rubenstein writes, "I prefer the dangers that face us in Israel to the humiliation of being a Jewish minority even in the enlightened West."

And very late, at a time when this child had never been allowed not to be fast asleep in bed, maybe at three or four o clock, I crawled under my blanket fully dressed. And after a while Father’s hand lifted my blanket in the dark, not to be angry with me because I’d got into bed with my clothes on, but to get in and to lie down next to me, and he was in his clothes too, that were drenched in sweat from the crush of the crowds, just like mine (and we had an iron rule; you must never, for any reason whatsoever, get between the sheets in your outdoor clothes). My father lay besides me for a few minutes and said nothing, although normally he detested silence and hurried to banish it. But this time he did not touch the silence that was there between us but shared in it, with his hand just lightly stroking my head. As though in this darkness my father had turned into my mother.

Then he told me in a whisper, without once calling me Your Highness or Your Honour, what some hooligans did to him and his brother David in Odessa and what some gentile boys did to him at his Polish school in Vilna, and the girls joined in too, and the next day, when his father, Grandpa Alexander, came to the school to register a complaint, the bullies refused to return the torn trousers but attacked his father, Grandpa, in front of his eyes, forced him down on the paving stones and removed his trousers too in the middle of the playground, and the girls laughed and made dirty jokes, saying that Jews were all so-and-sos, while the teachers watched and said nothing, or maybe they were laughing too.

And still in a voice of darkness with his hand still losing its way in my hair (because he was not used to stroking my hair) my father told me under my blanket in the early hours of the thirtieth of November 1947, ‘Bullies may well bother you in the street or at school some day. They may do it precisely because you are a bit like me. But from now on, from the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew and because Jews are so-and-sos. Not that. Never again. From tonight that’s finished here. For ever’

I reached out sleepily to touch his face, just below his high forehead, and all of a sudden instead of his glasses my fingers met tears. Never in my life, before or after that night, not even when my mother died, did I see my father cry. And in fact I didn’t see him cry that night either. Only my left hand saw. (A Tale of Love and Darkness - Amos Oz p346)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving, Partition and Showing Gratitude

Tonight I'm off to my maiden Thanksgiving Party courtesy of the lovely Maayan and Susi. Meriting as I did to grow up in the north-western suburbs of London, the Thanksgiving experience is new to me.

Yet no one needs an excuse for a party. And giving thanks is something we probably don't do often enough.

In fact, the Talmudic Rabbis teach us an important lesson on this issue in a discussion over how much one needs to eat before reciting grace after meals. Whereas the Torah in Devarim suggests we only need to 'Bensch' after being satisfied (ככתוב ואכלת ושבעת וברכת ) the Rabbis conclude that Jews should say 'grace' after only eating a Kezayit (about 30 grams.)

In other words, one doesn’t need to be full to express thanks for food.

Falling as it does on the 4th Thursday of November, Thanksgiving weekend always comes around the same time as the anniversary of the UN Partition Plan that promised a sovereign part of Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish people for the first time in two millenia. Next week on the 29th November we mark its 60th anniversary.

And like the declaration of independence, the words
'The Temple Mount is in our hands' or Hatikva sung in a full football stadium, hearing the British accent announcing how those votes were cast in the UN General Assembly is one of those things that send shivers down my spine;

Argentina…Argentina? abstention.
The resolution was adopted for 33 votes 13 against with 10 abstentions".

As I wrote last year, the Partition Plan wasn’t ideal by any means - it didn’t even include Jerusalem as part of the proposed State.

But in many ways, I think its acceptance by the Yishuv is what Zionism is about – being satisfied with something less than our dreams – and making reasoned decisions of what is achievable at any particular time given the circumstances.

At its core, Zionism and Rabbinic Judaism teach us that life is about giving thanks even when we aren't completely satisfied, when we eat yet aren't full, when we dream yet experience only partial ful-fillment.

At last years Thanksgiving, President Bush declared that "We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day."

We celebrate this year in the lead up to a peace Summit in Annapolis that will inevitably lead to concessions over what many Israelis believe is rightfully theirs.

Yet perhaps we should be happy for the sovereign recognized State we do have, for the safe passage to places generations of Jews could only dream; give thanks, even if the compromises we will need to make (to provide another people their freedom) aren't necessarily what we would have ideally wanted.

And pray that the Author of Life continues to watch over our nation every day.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Of Borders, Identity and Hard Decisions

Parshat Chayeh Sarah is also known as Shabbat Chevron in commemoration of Avraham buying the Cave of Machpelah to bury his wife. The Cave ultimately 'houses' three generations of our forefathers and mothers and turned Hebron into an important religious and historical site for the Jewish people. Based on Biblical stories (and the fact the places were bought for their full market price), the Talmud mentions that there are three locations which are indisputably the legal property of the Jewish people; Hebron, Shechem (modern day Nablus) and Jerusalem.

It was this religious reasoning mixed with the continuation of pre-State strategy, coalitional sensitivities and Arab intransigence that allowed governments of the day (both left and right) to ambivalently acquiesce to the settler movement after the 6 Day War, ignoring warnings by some politicians and foreign ministry lawyers that in an era of decolonization the world would never tolerate such fait-accompli's. 40 years later, over 200,000 Israelis live in the West Bank. And by encouraging continued settlement on the one hand while emphasizing Israel's readiness to withdraw on the other, no government has ever formulated a clear position on their future…

That Talmudic statement always makes me smile – after all, how ironic (or prophetic) that the three most controversial areas Israel captured in 1967 are Nablus (the most populous city in the West Bank) Hebron (where several hundred Jews live among 170,000 Palestinians) and Jerusalem (which the world still refuses to recognize as Israel’s capital).

The 1967 War constituted a great victory for Israel. Not only did we survive, but the temporary disappearance of the armistice lines between Israel and Jordan “erased the difference between the State of Israel and the land of Israel” in the words of poet Nathan Alterman. Yet perhaps smiling is not the correct response. As a side effect, the fruits of victory and settlement growth artificially created a Bosnia scenario violently locking Jews and Palestinian Arabs into a Gordian ethnic embrace.

The future of the settlements is one issue to be discussed at the Annapolis Summit in Maryland later this month. At Reut, we've been working on the prospects for the Summit (
not great) and the potential consequences for their failure (very serious). Due to the changing geo-political reality, failure may be the straw that causes the end of Abu Mazen’s political career, a Hamas take over in the West Bank and a third Intifada. Moreover, it may further erode the already weakening consensus that a Jewish Israel alongside a Palestinian state is the correct paradigm to solve our conflict. If we’re not careful, if we don’t decide the future of the West Bank soon, the international community may be tempted to support a bi-national state.

Deciding on the future of the liberated / occupied territories has haunted Israeli governments since the immediate aftermath of the war. In a conversation between President Johnson and PM Eshkol, the Prime Minister is unable to answer a simple question posed to him by the leader of the free world – “What Israel would you like to see?” Forty years and many administrations later, we’re still unable to genuinely decide what type of country we want Israel to become, what its border will be, how its identity will be defined.

No one suggests it's easy to determine a border, and not just because of emotional attachment to areas of biblical significance. Israeli author A.B Yehoshua discusses the interconnection between boundaries and identity explaining that Jews have traditionally been unrestricted by national borders, used to crossing boundaries and moving between cultures. Setting a border in some way restricts our identity - it permanently fixes what is inside and belongs to us, and what is outside and doesn’t. Like choosing one option yet closing the door to others, determining a border is necessary, but inevitably leads to loss.

Continued indecision meanwhile, will endanger the whole Zionist project. Unless we finally decide what parts of our identity are central to us and which are not, unless we succeed in once again separating the State of Israel from the Land, we may be in danger of losing both. We can't keep putting it off. Johnson's question has gone unanswered long enough.