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Posts Tagged ‘Israelis’

 

We Want it Brighter, We Light the Flame: Rekindling Hope

Posted on: December 19th, 2017 by Hayim Herring No Comments

I just finished reading the autobiography of the late Shimon Peres, No Room for Small Dreams. Courage, Imagination and the Making of Modern Israel.

Peres, who spent a lifetime in public service to his country, was also a beloved, inspirational elder world statesman. He was esteemed by people of all faiths for his optimism, hope, and belief that the world could not only be better but that we can make it as great as our imaginations allow us. He wrote, “Throughout my life, I have been accused by many people…of being too optimistic – of having too rosy a view of the world and the people who inhabit it. I tell them that both optimists and pessimists die in the end, but the optimist leads a hopeful and happy existence, while the pessimist spends his days cynical and downtrodden” (p.79). And let’s remember, Peres, who received a Nobel Prize for peace-making, also knew the horrors of war and death throughout his long life (he died at the age of 93, on September 28, 2016). He didn’t write these words from a detached perch of one who had lived a carefree, luxurious life.

Peres then goes on to explain just how dangerous cynicism is not just for an individual, but for a nation -any nation. “First, it’s a powerful force with the ability to trample the aspirations of an entire people. Second, it is universal, fundamentally part of human nature, a disease that is ubiquitous and global. Third, it is the single greatest threat to the next generation of leadership. In a world of so many great challenges, what could be more dangerous than discouraging ideas and ambition” (p.79)?

 

Shimon Peres

 

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which concludes on December 20, is a holiday that celebrates hope and optimism over cynicism and despair. We have what are likely accurate historical records of internal debates within the Jewish community of that time between those who were cynical about the possibility of overcoming the seductive Greek culture and mighty army of the Syrian Empire, and those who maintained their optimism against all odds. And the pessimists had a pretty good argument: how could a ragtag, untrained and hastily created a fighting force of Maccabees defeat one of the world’s great powers and reclaim its right to live authentically according to its way of life, making contemporary adaptations on its terms? It turns out that the optimists were right, and we’re still celebrating Hanukkah by kindling lights that inspire us to banish cynicism and replace it with light, joy, and hope. And despite its different origins, the celebration of Christmas, that often coincides with the days of Hanukkah, only reinforces the universal need for more dreamers of hope to nullify cynics who seek to corrode the human spirit.

The refrain of one of the last songs of a great poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen, was, “You (God) want it darker, We kill the flame.” (LYRICS) Cohen was giving voice to the cynicism about the possibility to restore justice, dignity, and opportunity to the many who are still deprived of these basic rights. What’s worse is that this cynicism is often espoused by political leaders, who should be inspiring people’s imaginations with positive possibilities. If Peres, a modern-day Maccabee, had rewritten those lyrics, they would more likely be, “You want it brighter, we light the flame.”

Simply kindling a light won’t make the brightness of hope last for very long. But reflecting on the power of a flame challenges us with a choice: do we want to watch the cynics burn out our latent possibilities for greatness, or inspire us with acts of kindness and imagination to dream about just how beautiful and good the world can be? I’m going with the optimists, not because I’m naïve, but because they actually have a better track record!

Zionism: Once Again Today’s Rorschach Test for American Jews

Posted on: August 10th, 2016 by Hayim Herring

 

As a member of a Jewish youth group (USY) in the mid-1970’s, I remember our advisors often leading us through a “Jewish values clarification” activity about being a Zionist and an American. It was designed to help us gain insight into the inherent tensions of a hyphenated Jewish-American identity. One variation of this activity’s trigger question was, “If Israel and America were on opposite sides of a war, what side would you choose?”

 

As context, at that time, there was a string of historic events involving Israel whose impacts were felt in the United States: the June 1967 Six Day War, the1973 Yom Kippur War, the OPEC oil embargo from 1973-74 that caused severe economic disruption, and the 1975 United Nations resolution describing Zionism as, “…a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Being a Zionist was a kind of Rorschach Test for American Jews. Did the images of Zionism make you see yourself as having a binary choice of being Jewish/pro-Israel or American? Or, as our youth group values clarification exercise sought to do through debate and self-exploration, could we feel that being proud citizens of one country (America) was generally compatible with deep feelings for our “Jewish homeland,” despite periodic tensions?

 

Zionism is once again a Rorschach Tests for American Jews. There were early warning signs that anti-Zionism was on the march: several Christian denominations that castigated only Israel and not Palestinians for the ongoing conflict; the growing campus “Boycott Divestment Sanctions” (BDS) protests; and, blatantly anti-Semitic articles by the likes of academics including Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.

 

Because of its unabashed anti-Israel platform that asserts Israel’s campaign of “genocide” against Palestinians, the Movement for Black Lives has “called the question” for American Jews: Do you stand with the progressive American social justice movement and against Israel, or do you stand with Israel, which by definition, negates your social justice “creds” and invalidates your alliance with progressive social justice issues. The compartmentalized explanations about simultaneous commitments to social justice work in America and staunch support for Israel do not work anymore; Jewish organizations will increasingly have difficulties in forming alliances with NGO’s and faith-based groups dedicated to social justice causes.

 

This ultimatum for a binary choice creates a painful dilemma for the many American Jews whose Jewish identity rests upon deeply rooted Jewish values and teachings to address mounting social justice issues (structural racism, economic inequities, literacy gaps-to name just a few). Some, most recently like American Jewish historians Hasia Dinar and Marjorie Feld, have let personal ideologies override historical facts and publicly renounced their Zionism. As Jonathan Sarna incisively noted, their ideas are naively delusional (and I would add, destructive) propaganda. But because they are scholars of American Jewish history, their personal animus against Israel creates pressure for other American Jews to “act bravely” and renounce Zionism.

 

While Diner and Feld’s agenda is to undermine American support for Israel within and outside of the Jewish community, there are many American Jews who love Israel but are justifiably weary about having to defend Israel’s actions before their peers. Israel did not seek the wars that led to its conquest of territory. But fair or not, after forty-nine years, the Israeli government is a co-owner of the indignities that Palestinians who are entitled to sovereignty suffer every day. Especially under Prime Minister Netanyahu’s administrations, the Israeli government continues to promote an environment that chills democratic values of a free and independent press, and funds right-wing religious bigotry, courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate. So American Jews who care deeply about Israel, like many Israeli citizens, have ample reason to to express disapproval about the direction of Israel as a Jewish and democratic nation.

 

And that is why I worry that as an American Jewish community, we are losing our collective ability to withstand the trap of the binary choice of either being with social progressives and against Israel, or with Israel and against social progressives. Extremism has taken root on the left and the right in the American Jewish community. Often, the American Jewish left looks blithely past the realities of living in Israel and raising a family: Intifadas, knifing attacks, bus bombings, vehicles turned into weapons of mass destruction by plowing into crowds of pedestrians, withdrawal from territories that lead to greater violence, ISIL at all of Israel’s borders….At age eighteen, American young adults complain about not having enough “safe spaces” for troubling ideas in college classrooms. At age eighteen, Israeli young adults worry about safety for their lives as they enter mandatory military service. It’s easy to talk about all of the failures of another country that you don’t visit, let alone live in, from a safe distance of 6,000 to 8000 miles away.

 

At the same time, the American Jewish right often ignores the indignities of daily life for Palestinians, even those that can be more easily ameliorated, with a justification that there are, “no partners for peace.” Maybe there are no partners for peace, but what actions can Israel take to try to cultivate better relations and the possibilities for having future partners for peace? There are over 200 retired senior officials from Israel’s security agencies who believe that, “launching an Israeli regional initiative is essential, possible, and urgent.” They assert that, “…a two-state solution can be implemented and sustained while providing both Israelis and Palestinians with the security, sovereignty, and dignity they deserve.” What special military and diplomatic insights does the Jewish political right wing have that makes them dismiss statements like these?

 

The mutual extremism of the left and right only reinforces the unsatisfactory status quo because vitriolic attacks against “the other side” don’t demand new and divergent ways of thinking. They only make people defend their failed positions.

 

I’m in Israel now. It’s a relief being away from the degrading political scene in the United States, and having some momentary respite from news about violence continuing in communities across America. But even on my days of very low feelings about the current state of America, it would never occur to me to label America as thoroughly evil country responsible for all of the world’s ills. There is still a lot of goodness in Americans, despite the tremendous amount of corruption in politics. I’m not blind to the shocking social problems that are besetting us as Americans. But would I renounce my faith in America and abandon hope in believing that we can make progress? Absolutely not!

 

That leads me back to memories of my youth group values clarification activities. I’m still a Zionist, but a more mature one: aware of some dangerous tendencies today in Israel, and equally aware of Israel’s tremendous achievements despite its location in a region that makes it ever vulnerable. That means that I won’t support any progressive cause that has aligned itself with those who seek to legally dismantle Israel’s right to exist by using the kind of intentional, malicious rhetoric found in the Movement for Black Lives platform, but I will support other progressive groups that don’t make taking an anti-Israel oath a prerequisite for involvement. Nor will I support any right wing groups that dismiss the reality that Israel occupies territories that have a Palestinian majority who are ultimately entitled to statehood (which every Israeli government has affirmed, since the Oslo accords in 1993 to this very day) or refuse to take greater steps to increase chances for the implementation of the two-state solution.

 

I’m on firm ground in staking out the desideratum of holding on to the tensions of being a proud American Zionist who cares about progressive causes. Between the Fast of the 17th of Tamuz and the week leading up to Rosh ha-Shanah, there are 10 weeks, each with specially designated haftarot. The first three are rebukes to the Israelites by the Biblical prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, for immoral and unjust behavior. These three prophetic portions are then followed by seven others expressing hope and consolation about the redemption of Zion through justice. Three prophetic portions about rebuke, and seven about hope. Coincidently, recent brain science suggests that a person needs an average of about six messages of positive feedback in order to accept one piece of constructive criticism, approximating that ratio of positive to negative feedback during this ten week period.

 

Dinar and Feld claim that we are not sufficiently self-critical within the Jewish community. They are not only wrong, but they misconstrue the purpose of criticism or tochekha that this ten-week period gets right. Self-criticism isn’t a goal, but one of the tools that leaders use as a springboard for striving closer toward Jewish ideals of peace, justice, and an overall better condition for all of humanity. So while I have deep disappointments in the lack of progress toward a two-state solution (just like I have deep disappointments about so many problems in America today), and I will lovingly express them, I won’t make statements that feed distorted, destructive narratives about Zionism and Israel. There are enough other people who are happily doing so already.

 

Why a Dead Iranian Deal is Worse Now Than No Deal

Posted on: August 6th, 2015 by Hayim Herring

 

 

“Iran can keep the deal or Iran can cheat on the deal. Either way it will have the bomb….” That is what Prime Minister Netanyahu said two days ago in a webcast to American Jewish leaders. By his own logic, it therefore makes no sense to lobby Congress against the Iranian accord. The terms of the agreement are vital to the security of Israel and the broader Middle East—in theory. But if you don’t trust the Iranian clerics who run the country, and you believe that they will acquire nuclear weapons at any cost, then a dead deal will likely be worse than no deal for the American-Israeli relationship and for Israel.

 

Switzerland Nuclear Iran

 

If you assume, as I do, that Iran’s clerics will “cheat on the deal,” here are four additional reasons why going toe-to-toe with President Obama is a risky gambit:

 

1. Prime Minister Netanyahu has consistently bet on the strength of support from the Republican Party. He publicly displayed his preference for Republican candidate Mitt Romney over President Obama during the last election, and broke protocol in accepting an invitation from the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, to address Congress, who had not consulted the White House. This Republican bet has not exactly created a warm, fuzzy feeling between Jerusalem and Washington, D.C. And the odds of a Republican presidency in the next election are questionable: Republicans have lost five of the six last popular votes for the presidency, and the demographics of the United States voting population present challenges for a Republican presidency.

 

2. Generally, American support for Israel has been bipartisan. This latest push by Israel into American politics has the potential to significantly intensify the partisan nature of support for Israel. Additionally, while Israel has not enjoyed total support from the American Jewish community in recent years, a majority of American Jews has been able to rally behind Israel in times of need. Overt Israeli lobbying in American foreign politics has driven a wedge internally between American Jews of different political viewpoints. In politics, ill will has a long shelf life. Regardless of who occupies the White House after the next election, why leave it tainted with negative feelings when it comes to support for Israel? And as the BDS movement heats up on college campuses, and European displeasure with Israel is resulting in increasingly tense trade relations and cultural exchanges, can we really afford more internal fractures?

 

3. “Increase the sanctions, increase the pressure”—another request from Prime Minister Netanyahu. How many deals with some European nations, China and Russia do you think are already under discussion? One can argue about the wisdom of promising to ease economic sanctions already about a year ago, but even our European allies, let alone China and Russia, have abandoned the notion of more economic sanctions.

 

4. On a related note, let’s also remember that Pime Minister Netanyahu has been rolling back legislation requiring more Charedi (religious right wing) young men to serve in the army. If there is another war, it could require American ground troops. How will the optics look when a historic democratic ally, Israel, exempts a significant number of young men from its own military service, if U.S. troops fight in a war that many will claim Israel is responsible for? (I’ve already heard some people raise this issue.)

 

At this point in the game, as Prime Minister Netanyahu stated, the reality is that Iran will find a way to develop nuclear arms. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, that were expected to protest, have accepted this reality. I doubt that they have any more trust in this accord than the Israeli government and public. But their relatively quiet stance indicates that they are thinking further into the future about maintaining good relations with United States in order to combat immediate threats like ISIL and the disintegration of Syria.

 

Prime Minister Netanyahu was elected several times on his promise to do everything that he could to keep Iran from going nuclear. President Obama, already in his first run at the presidency, set forth a goal of re-integrating Iran into the “family of nations” (and perhaps also recalibrating the balance of power between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East). Two sovereign nations, located in different parts of the world, one a super power and the other an embattled regional power, are entitled to see the world differently. Despite vigorous efforts, the time when it might have been possible to exercise other options and bring about a different kind of agreement has passed. I believe that it’s strategically smarter to put efforts now into planning for a reality of a stronger, regional and likely nuclear power that Iran will become, and the implications of that reality both for the United Sates and Israel.

 
 

 

From Generation to Degeneration: Declining American Jewish Kinship with Israel?

Posted on: April 22nd, 2015 by Hayim Herring

 

 

Over the past five years, my wife and I have spent about six weeks each year in Israel. We’re clearly not Israeli citizens, but we’re more than occasional visitors. Like many, we have family and close friends in Israel, and are intentionally deepening those relationships and making new ones. Whenever we return from a visit, we’re asked, “What did you see this time?” While we enjoy museums, concerts, new wineries, restaurants and archaeological findings, we most enjoy being with family and friends and, for me, getting my spiritual fix.

 

With more frequent visits, I’ve become more aware of the differences between the American and Israeli Jewish communities. Yom ha’Atzmaut felt like the right time to share some reflections… and to ask you for your opinions.

 

The modern state of Israel is only 67 years old. Although Israel is the indisputable historic homeland of the Jewish people, in its current iteration, it is young. In fact, my parents are older than the modern State of Israel. Israel is only about 10 years older than my wife and me, over 40 years older than my children, and well over 60 years older for some of my friends who have grandchildren.

 

israel-rabbi-hayim-herring

 

 

Doing this simple, personal math clearly reminds me that within the American Jewish community, there are two generations that can remember the fragility of the State of Israel, and two generations (going on three) that think that Israel is an outsized global powerhouse. Because of such a significant divide, I wonder to what extent the words “from generation to generation,” that imply continuity of values and kinship, apply to the majority of American Jews who are third generation and beyond. They do not have personal living memories of Israel’s vulnerability but are routinely reminded of Israel’s deficiencies. In daily doses of media images and text, they absorb a one-sided, distorted view of Israel, where Israel almost always does wrong and rarely can do right.

 

(more…)


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