Saturday, December 12, 2009

The generation of desperation

It's no secret that today's society is increasingly becoming more and more secular. The number of false idols in our valueless world is only growing. Which is why it is particularly interesting that within the Jewish tradition, there is a growing number of youth who are turning towards religion, away from this society. By this I am referring to the growing trend of Bal Tsuva's in Judaism- those "who return" to religion. Not only do I notice it within friends of friends and friends but I've also studied it in my Jewish history classes- where the upward trend of today's Jewish history is the return to religion. I suppose the answer to the question- why are people becoming more religious in a society that is becoming more secular- is obvious. Today's youth are grappling for meaning and depth in a society that is quickly losing any remnants of both. This brings me therefore to my main question or topic of this post, a question that I too was once faced with. To get to this question, let me tell a short story. While debating with someone, who claimed they were deeply atheist (at least to me- to counter my faith and belief) they revealed how they perceive the growing trend of religious people; as a form of desperation. These people are not able to face the truth or the reality of a meaningless world, and random world. They need a crutch; to use the tool of HaShem and religion in order to survive. The time-old question: Is it desperation for meaning instead of truth that is driving us towards religion? Is it what we want, not what is. And let's face it, this argument is nothing new. Was it not Marx who said that religion was the opium of the people- a line that resonates with popularity today? The idea that people are desperate for meaning, and can't face the actual realities of this world, and instead convice themselves of illusions. The world is what it is, what we can know, and religion is included in this knowledge. If this is so, than religion is simply a product of this world, and therefore a product of man. For man, the fear of facing a meaningless and random world (where especially in older times, where there was lack of proper government etc.. there was also needed a moral code and rules)was unreal, and so it became easier to believe in meaning. The idea that no path has been written for us, nothing is for any reason, and our existence is a mere coincidence of science, is difficult to accept. In essence- people are desperate for an answer, and are prepared to create illusions and crutches in order to understand. The world has no answers, but for those we create for ourselves. Now- I know it now sounds like I'm on the path to either put down religion or defend it, but I don't think it possible to do either in this blog.... or even ever. Religion today has become an incredible personal decision and a personal debate for each man. Rather, I want to argue against this idea that religion is a form of desperation, or that religion is the opium of the masses- although I do believe it has the potential to be both.

In the past, religion was a given, not a choice. People lived in a G-d drenched world, where G-d permeated every aspect of life. Today, our secularizing world offers most (lets stick to Western societies)the choice of how they want to live. Either world we embrace, we can easily find a community with open arms. So now the question becomes, how do we choose, where does the turn from one world to another come from? While it may be true that many people nowadays are perhaps initially turning towards religion because they are lost, or confused and can’t find their place or yadayadayada to whatever sappy story you hear, (and therefore can be considered desperate) I really wonder if this is what will keep them into religion once they return? I think that the key, at least for me here, is the aspect of spirituality and happiness. While we can use tools in order to get somewhere, we wouldn’t stay in this state for our entire lives, and also, we wouldn’t stay happy. I think that the answers given by a given religion also reflect how much spirituality and happiness they provide for each person. (reflected by how the truth resonates to each person) Therefore, sometimes the beginning of the path may be rocky and unclear, the journey and destination must have some authenticity. (to the person, not universally authentic or true) Are we continually desperate for answers, so much so that we are willing to accept anything that comes our way- or only that that rings true, both in our fufillment of happiness and our measure for truth. Further, the idea that faith can bring us an easy answer towards life is also completely unfounded. The concept of complete faith is much scarier and difficult to do than believing in nothing. Although it may seem that pure faith is easier, (because everything is in Gds hands and everything is done for the best- even the worst experiences in your life- because at the end of the day, Gd is only trying to improve you),as someone who is struggling to do this it's not as simple and easy to do. This is mostly because we have to put our instinctive intellect aside in order to believe. (When bad things happen we don't intuitively see the best in it, we get angry) So in this respect, does desperation lead us to give up all of our inhibitions and rationality in favor of something we can never really know. Perhaps this is the most difficult part of religion- to believe and to have faith. If we believe firmly that there is nothing out there, (or in an agnostic sense- that we can never know what is out there- but there is no way to ever know)then we allow ourselves to be the masters of our own life. 'If it feels good do it' type of ideology. Does life in this respect not become much simpler? We avoid sense of rules and fixed set of morals. Happiness is the next meal, the next lay, the next paycheck. Yet, if this is so, we can also allow our societies to be completely turned around, because we can never truely know what are the right values. Who says my values are better than yours?- no one. Therfore, the idea that the Nazis valued the life of animals, over the life of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and many Eastern European peoples (those not of Aryan decendancy) is fine. With no fixed set of values and mroals, I can't say that this is wrong (even to this day)- and many a peoples in this day, did just that. The value of life, comes only from the Judeo-Christian tradition of fixed morality. The idea that I cannot say what is right or wrong, but that the instruction and the communication (mainly through Torah)from a higher being- from someting infinite intead of finite, comes from religion. SO is this desperation too? I suppose it could be argued that the want of a fixed set of morals is desperation, but it can also be argued, that without this, we are not desperate for it, but that we decsend into a life of utter chaos. (Hobbes' state of nature type of thing)

I just want to take a minute here, to talk about the people turning to religion, whom I do see as desperate. (oh no! am I ruining my entire argument?) I think that parts of our society turning towards relgiion do so because they are desperate and need something to guide them. In this sense religion is good. Why are types of Judaism, like black hat Judaism so popular? becuse these are instructing you exactly how to live. Judaism has high potential to simply be a rulebook, or a book of riddles. (void of spirituality and connection to something loftier) People are living mechanical yet simple lives according to Torah. This is an escape for them, rather than a place for real answers. I once spoke to an incredibly wise person , who really inspired me, who told me that this was the easy answer to religion. Yes we question what we are learning in Yeshivas and seminaries but we are also just accepting what has been written in law without the means of questioning these old traditions. I think Judaism in particular has one of the most interesting histories, because of the way that Halachic law was cemented. Here I'm referring to the process of law and tradition. People will say; if you don't know which prayer to say over the wine?? Simply go out and see what your neighbors are saying,and this is the law. Tradition is therefore as strong as law. (Reference here to "tradition! tradition!" circa fiddler on the roof) tradition in Judaism is just as strong as law. Biblical Jews were not wearing the Hasidic garb, this sort of tradtitional dress was taken from Russian and Polish neighbors when Jews used to live in these areas for many years. Our ancestors were not wondernig the land of Israel wearing a fur hat, or the big black coat. The evolution of Judaism through influence of others, has been sealed into something just as strong as law. Which makes the older traditions of instituting halacha very interesting. Why did one city's law take precedence over another? because one shtetl had 100 more people, and therefore this law was put into the history book. Now our many learn these laws, but don't get the oppertunity to dig deeper into this process. This answer, to me, seems more layered and complicated and doesn't fit the reason why so many people are now becoming religious. So no, I cannot deny the aspect of desperation as reason for why some people become religious. However, the idea that the entire framework of religion is such, is definatly not true. If we are to really explore the depth and the framework of Judaism, in a way that doesn't just let us live our lives mechanically, then we are not desperate because this life only complicates our lives, and forces us to question, debate and challenge all of our prenotions and ideas. If religion is the desperate search for a definate answer then the true study and loyalty to Judaism will do just the opposite. So in my conversation with this wise friend, we discussed how the real potential in Judaism lays not within accepting the answer but rather to challenge the answer at every oppertunity. Religion in this way is not only a way of life, but a journey of exploration, and new discovery. The mere idea that Judaism offers this facet is important.

So maybe what I'm trying to say is that the answers offered in Judaism have potential(this I must concede to) to be a haven for the desperate, more than the truth of a meaningless world. But Judaism isn't all an easy street for the desperate. It would be naive to believe that it was simply this. Using Judaism as the exploration for truth, one will find the exact opposite. There are more quetsions and the path is deeper and longer- and it is in this way that 'nothing' can be a better haven for the desperate. However, the act of teshuva and returning to religion gives more meaning, spirtiuality and perhaps happiness than the endless pursuit of material goods- and living how we want. We gain a sense of vision impossible to understand in a secular world, and a set sense of truth with a brand of values that resonate. Maybe I'm wrong, or maybe I really am desperate, but if this is so, then this answer for my desperation is the wrong answer. Opium to hide the reality of the world is prhaps wrong, perhaps the opium of the people today is the idea that all we have is nothing. This allows us to live how and where we want without consquence, and this allows the blindness of the youth to continue grappeling with no answers. Is this the true condition of the human? Perhaps. Or perhaps this is what we've allowed ourselves to believe, because we can't really face the truth of the human condition within the framework of religion. How will we ever know?? Well, this million dollar question takes us right back to the beginning, and our personal decision about religion.

This was somewhat of a difficult topic for me to explore, so if I was unclear (which sometimes in my head I'm so completely clear but on paper... not so much) please ask and I'll attempt to explain what I meant. Also if you completely disagree or if I haven't fleshed out my argument well enough... go on and comment.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


I recently just finished reading Amos Oz's "A perfect Peace". The book was incredibly weird to say the least, however, when reading an Oz book- you can never really go wrong. Sure enough his incredible talent was once again revealed in this book- despite even the translation. The book is set in a Kibbutz (surprise, surprise for Oz;))and revolves around the lives of the Kibbutznicks. Set in 1966, the book focuses on the two generations of the Kibbutz; those who built the kibbutz; based on their ideological Zionist principles formed in Europe, and the younger generation that inherited the consequences and realities of these ideas and principles. The younger generation in Oz’s book represent the ultimate embodiment of the dreams and hopes of the early Zionists. The book therefore struggles with the realities of this embodiment. It shows how ‘the Sabra’ is burdened with the heavy ideals and expectations from the older generation. They, in some sense, come to resent the life that they are forced and expected to live. This gap in generation is further highlighted by the introduction of a newcomer to the Kibbutz, Azariah, a man described as “born in the wrong generation". He was born in Europe, survived the Holocaust, and ended up on this Kibbutz. Azariah acts and thinks similar to the original Zionists of the land of Israel did, as a result of his early childhood in Europe and his experience in the Shoah. In some sense, among his generation, he is the “Jew”, and is never fully able to assimilate amongst the Sabras.

The older generation of the Kibbutz, are seeing their ideas come into fruitation, yet are somewhat removed from its complete success. The older generation, despite their attempts to be part of the land, feel as though they can never become natives to the land of Israel, and therefore they want to insure those born in the land, embody what they could never be. Oz has one of the older leaders of the kibbutz write, “...what troubles me is perhaps a vague sense of not belonging. Of homesickness. Of a sorrow that has no address. In this odd place without rivers, without forests, without church bells. Without all those things I loved. Nevertheless, I’m perfectly capable of drawing up the most coldly objective historical, ideological and personal balance sheets, all three of which tell me that the same thing- that there is no mistake. Everyone of us here can take a modest measure of pride in what’s we’ve done, in our long, dogged struggle to create out of nothing this attractive village even if it looks as if it has been built out of blocks by an intelligent child... Detached as I am, I approve of this achievement. We haven’t done a bad job. And to some extend we have truly made better people of ourselves.”(Oz, 221) They’ve created a reality that they can’t necessarily 100% experience. Therefore it is no surprise that even the new generation doesn’t live up to their standards- much of this also has to do with the attitude that the younger generation has to the ideals. The younger generation is stuffed full of ideology they can never fully understand- mostly because they never faced antisemitism and persecution. Not only that but, because of the actions of the older generation they are born in a new conflict, and have the responsibility to protect the land. They therefore ask; : “what more O what more do you want our land that we haven’t given you yet”?? (from a popular patriotic song) I somewhat see this generation as a science experiment- now created to protect the dream of another generation, and told that this too is what they want, and what they need.

Before we continue, I think it is defiantly worth it to look a little closer at the concept of a new Jew or a Sabra, in case anyone is lost thus far. The founding Zionists intended to recreate Jews- basically they wanted to breed a new generation of Jews, a re-definition of the concept of the exilic Jew, in order to create a new type of Hebrew man that would live in Palestine. This redefinition described the Jew as a very manly identity; he was strong, proactive, healthy in body, and ready to labour the land. This new identity clashed with popular perceptions of Jews in Europe; the Jew had come to be seen as weak, pale, cowardly and diseased. Therefore, Zionists had internalized these accusations, and sought to reclaim Jewish masculinity as a reaction to antisemitism. However, the Zionists also rejected their own traditions as Jews, which blurred traditional gender roles. Jews within Ashkenazi culture were either Torah scholars, or smart enlightened men; either way, they were hunched over their books, and passive to the world that surrounded them. Zionism rejected this, and sought to masculinise the new Jew, in order to reject this weak perception and thus create something new in a new land. This reinvention fit into the large context of collective Jewish national revitalization, and came to define a new generation of Jews that would grow up in Palestine.

While there are many interesting themes in Oz's books, I really think that the most interesting theme is this one in particular. While this theme, embedded in Oz’s book, can be seen historically, the theme is definitely still present today in Israeli society. The newest generation of Israelis, although with added years of history, are also the inheritors and the embodiment of the Zionist dream. This thus explains the phenomenon of many Israelis no longer finding any connection to this land. They have no connection to the perils and the threat of exile; it is only something they learn about in class. They face no discrimination within Israel as Jews, obviously because they are the majority of the population. The hardship of Israeli life is reflected not through antisemitism or genocide, but instead through army service, terrorism and the constant threat (and practice) of war. While the older generations were able to justify the later because they valued the eventual goal of statehood, self-determination and acceptance; newer generations have always had this. Without the existential threat that the original Zionists had, the later only become meaningless, and therefore empty tasks. Perhaps the only meaning that has recently been infused in it, is the emergence of nationalism, which is different from Zionism. By this I mean that younger generations value this land because this is where their families for generations have grown, this is where they grew up and this is where a new Israeli (not Jewish) culture is burgeoning. The idea of it being exclusively Jewish, is connected to this new Israeli culture, but it may not always be essential. By this, I mean to say that someone not Jewish can partake in the Israeli culture. (Although the two now are connected, it is growing, so as to not include the Jewish aspect) Therefore, how strong is this nationalism??(Especially in comparison to Zionism) Is it stopping younger generations from the lure of immigration to America—which has its own brand of acceptance, and inclusiveness, that Jews always covet? For some, nationalism is enough to keep them here, but not for others. This would explain the growing number of people who move away to America or Canada. There they can live better economic lives, which are both safer; in all regards (since in many places of Canada and the US, antisemitism is nearly impossible to find) Perhaps, without the deep belief in original Zionism, younger generations are living in an empty shell. A country that they can’t fully connect to the way that original Zionists did. A country they are expected to bleed for, every day of their lives. What for me is especially interesting is the appearance of Oz’s weird character, Azariah, in modern day Israel. To me, he is every Jew that ideologically makes Aliyah- pledging their allegiance to Zionism. They know how it feels to live in Galut, amongst a Christian world, on a Christian calendar, with a Christian focus. They now want to live in the Jewish spotlight, on an exclusively Jewish land. They have no nationalism- only Zionism. This reminds me of a conversation I once had with a native Israeli. He argued that he wanted to live in Canada, away from the craziness, and the burden of Israel- an easy and simple life. I couldn’t understand it; all I see in Thornhill is some boring land, with houses in suburbia that all look the exact same. (some kind of wrinkle in time description) A land with no meaning, and where I have no connection to it’s history. Yet- this is exactly it, this is the lure. Here- the land demands so much from you- and each Israeli has to decide if it's enough in return. And what about all the Azariahs?? Born in the wrong generation, smelling of Zionist propaganda- giving up their families, economic easiness, and simple lives, just to live in Israel. Are we crazy?? Or are we are willing to adopt all this crazy in return for the satisfaction of living the Zionist dream- just as our Zionist elders who came from Europe did. Maybe born in the wrong generation, but re-defining this one too.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The riddle of the century: 'A Jewish Democracy'

A few nights ago in Jerusalem, there were about two thousand secular Israelis demonstrating against police weakness in the face of what they branded ultra-Orthodox religious coercion and violence. (Nir Hasson, Haaretz) Holding signs labeled "Israel is also ours" they reinforce the ever present divide between religious and secular in Israel.. They were protesting against the overwhelming amount of ultra-Orthodox demonstrations that have been happening in Jerusalem, especially since this summer. I'd like to repeat what has been happening in Jerusalem, in case any readers are unfamiliar. This summer, there were many riots held by ultra-orthodox Jews, protesting the opening of a parking lot in a Haradi area. They opposed the building claiming it "violated Shabbas, and interrupted the staus-quo". Violent interactions between police and Haradi Jews erupted in Jerusalem. There were more riots after the arrest of a Haradi mother, accused of starving her baby , and more recently, the opening of a Intel plant in a religious area (Intel is open on Shabba) The secular protest was not only against police inaction, but also a general stand against, what they believe, the statement or the idea that Israel is exclusively for the religious, and that Israel is a land of Judaism. In simpler terms- there is a clear friction between a Jewish state and a democratic state. (Interesting side note though: the ways in which the Haredi express their opinion is through a democratic means)

I think it's really interesting to talk to Jewish tourists about this balance. While Jewish visitors love the Jewish character of Israel, most secular Israelis don't. There is a certain novelty of restaurants and stores being closed, buses not running on Shabbat and other such things. For them, coming from countries that run on the Christian calender, the excitement of seeing how a country can be run in a "religious" manor makes them proud to be Jewish- regardless of how "Jewish" they are or not. Why wouldn't it be exciting to have a country of Jews who follow the rules. But how would these tourists feel if they had to practically live here?? This is the problem that secular Israelis face. They are told they are living in a democratic country, but yet they face injustices because of religion. The friction between "church and state" is never so clearly seen than here in Israel. If an Israeli Jew falls in love with a non-Jew- they don't have the right to get married in Israel. Democracy? Yet, what happens when we strip away these Jewish practices, how Jewish does our state become? What are we willing to sacrifice between the two in order to reach some sort of balance? This question of reconciliation between the two is incredibly tricky.

I think it's useful to think of the "Jewish-democracy scale", where we want to get as most democracy and Judaism into the state as possible. All Judaism and no democracy would be a religious autocratic state, similar to what the Taliban set up in Afghanistan.(with Islam) How would this look in Israel? A team of rabbis running the country. No Judaism, and all democracy would be similar to US, where there is a separation of church and state. In Israel, this would grant full national, (and all other rights) to Palestinian Arabs but also to Israeli Arabs. There would no long longer be any 'Jewish' state- although all the Jews in Israel could continue living here, with the same rights they hold today. With no Judaism and no democracy, we get something like Stalinst Communist Russia. I couldn't even begin to think how that would affect Israel though. Therefore, the goal is to get the most democracy and the most Judaism into this state. But I suppose this is also easier to say than to do or put into place. The status-quo of Jewish laws has been kept since the creation of the state of Israel itself. While Ben-Guirion's Zionism preached a secular re-invention of the Jew- he still made a coalition, and a deal, with the religious Zionists, who envisioned Israel to be eventually run in a purely religious manor. From this stemmed many religious laws in Israel. (one of the most popular, disputed and therefore controversial is the exemption of religious Jews from the army in order to study in Yeshiva, a status-quo that was created right at the beginning) I think that this idea is particularly interesting in the puzzle of a Jewish-democracy, because it was the secular that invited the religious into this state, in some ways. It is well known that the secular movement itself, although deeply secular in practice, had undertones of religious Judaism in their ideas. For example, the use of the Hebrew language- the ancient religious and sacred language of the Jewish people was chosen. (and don't think that this was obvious, because a bitter battle ensured between Yiddish and Hebrew- and German was even took a place in this fight) Further, the insistence of the land of Israel, rather than another type of land- say territorialism in Russian, or a piece of land in Uganda, was insisted by the WZO. The land of Israel is strongly connected to the Jewish religion. Therefore, I would like to argue that, despite the split of religious-secular in the beginning of the creation of the state of Israel, there was also some sort of unison: if at least as some sort of spiritual understanding. Unfortunately, I think that this split has not stayed in unison, but has only continued to part.

The friction that exists between the Jewish part of the state, and the democratic part of the state, runs deep. There are no right answers here. The balance between a Jewish democracy is continually tipping, and each question needs to be individualized. I personally believe that without the Jewish character of the state, we destroy the seams of which this country was sewn from, and destroy Zionism- despite it's deeply secular character. How much am I willing to concede and how much democracy am I willing to sacrifice? This is an unfortunate question that each Jew must struggle with. This struggle is represented in the two types of people in this country- the religious and the secular. Each has to live with the concessions that the other has forced the state to make. It is therefore no surprise that there is an incredible bitterness between them. The secular perceive the religious as non-nationalistic bums, who don't work, don't give anything to the country (a lot of this is related to the fact that the ultra-orthodox don't go to the army)- yet they take and take from the country- namely through welfare. The secular are perceived as hedonistic sinners,many of whom they don't even consider Jewish, who don't care at all about Judaism or Jews. Obviously many of these are hyperboles or based on mythology. So, is there any hope?? Or are we simply looking into a dark abyss?? Let's also remember that much of this divide is also fueled by ignorance and stereotypes. While talking to a religious teacher in a secular high school, she confided in me the ignorance she faces surrounded by secular students. She expressed that people right away assume that she didn't go to the army, or that she doesn't believe in the state of Israel, and that she too agrees with all the actions that many ultra-religious profess to. She feels as though they perceive her as a democracy-hating Jew, who wants to let only rabbis run this country. Astounded, she says she is happy she has the opportunity to educate these kids, and explain to them the differences in religious opinions; she too struggles with a Jewish democracy. Just as secular Jews may find themselves not in the same opinion about many things, so do religious Jews- they are far from a united front. She tells them that many religious people go to the army, including women- although many also choose to participate in the "national service" program, where they get the opportunity to service their country in different ways through volunteer work. I think it is through people like her, that we are hopefully beginning to bridge gaps and old bitterness. There is no right answer but to know that despite our beliefs we are all Jews; this land belongs to all of us- and therefore it is all of our struggle.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Strength of Ideology

The stories in the news are becoming worse and worse when it comes to Israel. Iran is launching war games after threatening to "hit the heart of Tel Aviv" with bombs, meanwhile, in the Palestinian territories, there are threats of a third intifada. People are buzzing with the inevitability of a third Lebanon war and another Gaza war, not to mention Syria, threatening to become more hostile if peace talks don't start. So what does it all mean? Well in simplest terms it means that Israel isn't the safest place in the entire world. It seems as though it's enemies are always growing sharper claws, and that the light at the end of the tunnel for the coveted "peace in the middle east" is merely an optimist's dream. It really begs the question of why do people live here, why do people make aliyah? True there are arguments that say that no where is safe- no one predicted 9/11- and people would have sworn that U.S is one of the safest places to live. People also claim that Israel is relatively safe when it comes to terrorism, most incidents happen in "danger zones"; West Bank and Gaza. A common saying is that you are in more danger crossing a street than from a terrorist. However, when you face the facts, you can't hide that Israel is a scary place. It is constantly in conversation for peace, and therefore teetering at the edge of constant war. There are army bases everywhere, compulsory service, bomb shelters in each apartement, security guards stationed in front of supermarkets, restaurants and malls. So what is it that draws people to this land? In my last blog I spoke about the question of Zionism and it's ever changing structure and definition, this time I want to talk about Zionism in terms of it's ideology; the power of an idea.

Why is Israel so important to people that they are willing to "risk their lives" for it. Fine- let me clear about things before I start- living in Israel doesn't mean you are doomed or something, but it does mean an understanding that you are living under some kind of risk. (Whether this risk be a dangerous one, or you could even say by living without your family or something) I'd like to compare this to the life of the BILU.
The Bilu were a group of young Russians who lived for the Zionist dream. They wanted to establish a homeland for the Jews in the land of Israel in light of recent pograms in Russia, and the growing danger of being a Jew in Europe. So what did they do?- they moved to the land of Israel, before the land of Israel looked anything like it does today. Life was difficult and there were MANY dangers. (in 1882) These young pioneers were escaping the antisemitism of Russia but they didn't have to move to Palestine. They could have moved to America (or Canada :)) and had it easier. They could have lived the American dream; pulled themselves up from their bootstraps and had a much easier life. However, their ideology was stronger than this. They weren't just running away from antisemitic Russia, they were fulfilling their dream, for themselves and generations after them. Your life only has worth with meaning. So why live an easy meaningless life? Their efforts not only helped establish both Rishon Letzion but also Zikron Yakov. They not only inspired themselves but also others.

I think that this answer is the same for many Jews today flocking to Israel. Many Jews have to serve in the army, put their lives at risk, worry more about terrorism and crazy countries like Iran. The question is yes, they take this on, and in some way, give up a sense of security, but what do they get in return? A sense of fulfillment and meaning in their lives, something worth living for. I think that for me, the question I'm still struggling is, how much of a meaning am I putting in my life? What is this meaning? What is this ideology- we know it's Zionism, but how strong is it, to give up our lives in America, our lives of comfort, family and easiness. While speaking to one of my roommates, she told me that as much as she loves Israel, it's not worth it to live here. She doesn't feel anything really for Judaism. Feeling of culturally being Jewish can be felt anywhere, not necessarily in Israel, and therefore ideological needs are met specifically in Israel, but wherever there is a cultural Jewish center. This meaning and fulfillment is anywhere you make it. Even for religious people, the same can be said. Is the center of Thornhill not concentrated with religious Jews, making life really easy, culturally and religiously for Jews? What is it specifically about Israel that fuels our passion for a Jewish state and Zionism? Is it simply the knowledge that Israel is a haven for Jews- but in that case, it can be anywhere- Uganda? So many Jews argue nowadays, that "Israel" is where you make it, and that all Jews can just get a land somewhere in America and make that the new Jewish home. Why here? For religious Jews, the answer is easier, this is our promised land. This is our spiritual center and prophesied state. But this answer is too simple- the BILU were secular as secular can be. They were not only secular but made a conscious decision to reject religion. (This was part of a greater trend of the Jews making aliyah from Europe- they rejected the religious character of their brethren in Europe in a bid to recreate the Jew- as the "new Jew": a secular, strong man.) Also, it's not just religious Jews making aliyah, it is secular Jews too. Why is it when you look at these trends you feel caught up in some historical narrative that is without explanation. An inexplicable phenomenon, that is impossible to describe. I'd like to explain to myself the lure of living in Israel, but I think that it is simply something that must be felt. I'm living here now because I'm enamored with the land of Israel. I think that historically Jews need a land, but this land runs deeper than this. This land speaks to me, in a way that Canada never could. I feel like I'm in a living miracle, something my ancestors only prayed for. The rush of living among Jews and in a Jewish state is inexplicable and putting myself into a historical context excites me more than anything. Even though I'm not a member of the BILU, I'm contributing something; I know because I can feel I'm getting something back.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

This ain't your grandpa's Zionism

While volunteering in Israel, working with kids ranging from ages 7-17, me and my fellow volunteers are always asked the same questions: why do you love Israel so much that you are living here, bascially: why are you here? The answers vary, some think Israel is a beautiful country, some are enticed by the free trip we're on, some think Israel is an interesting place to spend 5 months, some want to learn more about Israel and Judaism, and some are considering making aliyah. But for me, the question has always been somewhat obvious: I'm here because I'm a Zionist. But as I keep spending more and more time in Israel, my definition of Zionism and my identity as being one, has become blurry- and by this I mean I am constantly struggling and redefining what I mean!!

As a Jewish history major, it was always easy for me to identify with 19th and early 20th century Zionism: you know, LoveofZion-Bilu-BenGuirion-BerBerochov-Weitzman sort of Zionism. (and a little Herzl) As a politics student I understood the position of post Zionists, or post modern Zionists, but I was too ideological in mind to really face these ideas... as Amos Oz writes in a perfect peace "the eternal and tragic conflict between high ideals and gray realities". Obviously I chose high ideals. I was stuck in this whirlwind obsession and love for the ideal of the Jewish state. Especially when my studies focus on the Holocaust, my emotions and my passions pointed to the obvious need of the state. So basically my Zionism was old and outdated. I wanted to work the land, become a new Jew, contribute to the Jewish state- as if it really needed me. I know this basic picture has been many times complicated by history, but the romance of loving Israel in this simple way is defiantly charming. The lure of a people getting their hands dirty, and redefining themselves for a fresh start, despite attractiveness, is over. We are no longer the people huddled over our radios claiming victory on November 29, 1947- foaming over our prospects of new beginnings. World history has gotten in the way- and in order to re-evaluate our Zionism, we must include this in our definitions.

So- starting from the beginning: what is Zionism for me? I guess the most basic I can get is, the belief in the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel. However, is this task not over? Have we not already established a Jewish homeland- the state of Israel? (True, that for some this definition is still in progress- the struggle to establish the Jewish homeland includes the West Bank; Judea and Samaria. Jewish settles claim to be settling the land which will become part of the state of Israel, therefore they believe they too are settling the land, much as Jews did pre-1948) However, the existence of the Jewish state complicates our vision of basic Zionism. If the state is established then what does it mean to be a Zionist? Does love or support for Israel, as a Jewish state, become the new definition? How do you support Israel- is it enough to simply believe in it`s existence? Does the state of Israel really need us, in the way it used to need Jews when it was still establishing itself, or is the current population enough to support it? Further, we can get into the question of 'sure the state is established now, but do we like the way it`s established'; how can we change it to create a better state? How does democracy fit into this as well- so yes sure I support a Jewish state, but is it only if it`s democratic as well... and once you get into that you get into questions of how to balance ideas of democracy and Judaism. Is there truly such a thing as both Jewish and democratic? (EX. Is it democratic that a Jew can`t marry a non-Jew in Israel? It`s by ``Jewish law``, but this sort of thing wouldn`t fly as democracy in the US or Canada) And now we can dip into the questions of Palestinians, or Arab Israelis. Are you less, or more of Zionist if you believe in land for peace? People would say both; by giving up land you are sacrificing the state, and then you don't even have a 100% guarantee for peace. Yet on the other hand, maybe you are less of a Zionist if you don't want to give up land because you are endangering the peace efforts of Israel, dooming it in the future. And what about the idea that Zionism was created as a safe haven for the Jews- is it really this now?? Maybe you could argue that Jews in North America are safer; antisemitism is low in places like New York, and they don't live with the threat of suicide bombers or Iran's nuclear threat. What does it really mean to say you are Zionist? What are you saying- what are you inferring?

This blog has become more of a forum for questions; I've put alot down on the plate, and could probably keep going for days. And so how do I answer all these questions? Well I don't have all the answers, that is forsure. Struggling with them means struggling with the answers as well. Hopefully I can get into some of these answers a bit more in later blogs, but really I guess the important thing for me now, is knowing that I'm asking. I don't want to say that the beginnings of modern Zionism were simple, because that too we can write page and pages on, but I think that those complications are still present, and more have appeared. For me, this means I can no longer just believe I am a simple Zionist, but understanding the layers that involve calling myself a Zionist and knowing it's a journey of struggle.

Feel free to post comments- I want to know what you`re thinking.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Religious Left?

I spent this past weekend in Eilat, on a trip organized by a program which is secular in nature. The trip attempted to provide a comfortable setting for anyone, including those who were shomar Shabbat, but, I had my doubts. IT was with this fear of "who is going to hang out with me, and who will help me create a Shabbat experience" that I sought out a Shabbat buddy. I was lucky to find someone who was newly religious, kept Shabbat and really wanted to keep the Shabbat spirit as well. On Shabbas lunch, we lingered behind most of the participants, and we and a few others, shmoozed over Araq and orange juice. Obviously the topic turned to what it always turns to: politics. The question that emerged, the popular one that I am always faced with, is the rarity of finding someone religious (and at least conservative with perspectives concerning religion) who feels more left winged, when it comes to Israeli politics. And then I recalled how earlier, my roommate, upon first seeing me in a skirt, and hearing how i kept Shabbat, assumed right off the bat that I'd be more right winged; she was surprised to hear me talk about politics. did this happen? While most people "find religion" they also seem to find some sort of "right-wingess" While they too used to jump into the "Bush-bashing" train, they now begin to see Obama as a threat to Israel, Bibi as a strong leader, who should follow his previous policy of "three no's": no withdrawal from the Golan Heights, no discussion of the case of Jerusalem, and no negotiations under any preconditions. Although this is not true to all, it is not far-fetched to say that most religious Jews lean to the right, no matter if they are center. In a meeting of doves you are most likely to find secular Jews, than Orthodox Jews. (Note though: Although most doves are secular, hawks are usually both secular and religious/orthodox) It is at this point in the conversation that my Shabbat friend teased me by reminding me the impossibility of finding a husband that is both religious and left: I guess I'm fated to just be debating politics my entire life.

So how did this happen? First, where do my political beliefs come from and how does it jive with religion? I suppose when I begin to answer this question, I realized that both questions are related in my answer. I trace my personal political sentiment, or my political awakening, to my University experience. Just a moment on this- because this too I think is unusual. I think that now the University experience is pushing more and more Jews to the right. I believe because of the rising "anti-Israel" sentiment- often being mixed with antisemitism, it is pushing Jews to be more defensive of Israel, instead of allowing themselves to be constructive of Israel, and it's policies. Jews are being attacked on campus, not just for being Zionists but for being Jewish too. Therefore, to question Israel is to question their own Judaism. Also- there is a phenomenon of "right wing activist groups" popping up on university campuses- "educating" students on how to defend Israel against it's enemies- unfortunately I've found many of these students to be fed scripts, where they just rehash the same information over and over again. (This can have an entire subject of it's own, that I hope to tackle soon) However, at my University it was rare to find vocal anti-Israel activists, and therefore I was never defending Israel, in fact, I found myself more in dialogue about Israel. In this way, I was able to question my conception of Zionism. Dialogue led to research, and research led to my political views. I was very influenced by a professor , whom I believed encouraged this dialogue and this research, in an atmosphere that neither defended nor attacked Israel, but fostered question and answer.
So now about left wing and religion jiving. Settling in the West Bank, can be seen as a biblical commandment; part of the overall goal of "a promised land and a promised life". Further this land, according to Torah belongs to the Jews, and has Jewish historical and religious importance. This is not Arab land that is being settled by Jews, but rather it is Jewish land that's being retaken by it's proper owners after years of Arab occupation. And to top this off, giving up land won't work either. That is not what the Arabs want, they want all of Israel,and what will stop them from stabbing us in the back and breaking our trust once we exchange land for peace? We gave them Gaza, and they gave us bombs reaching to Ashdod. Will the West Bank not give them closer range to Tel Aviv? Perhaps land isn't the way to make peace. Is this not what I am supposed to think as a religious Jew?? If this is so, then why does this paragraph really creep me out. I feel like I'm eliminating any chance of justice and sense of right for the Palestinian people. Doesn't my religion also value the virtues of Tikun olam? And what about respect for our neighbors? Can I really say these things, knowing the history; how Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza, in horrible humanitarian conditions, because they are refugees. (Now we can get into a discussion here about HOW Palestinians left their homes: by force, by choice or by fear; from both Israelis and their leaders- that is another discussion however- but I can point you in the direction of Benny Morris and the New Historians) Can I feel like a good Jew, if I am ignoring the situation of a people? If I place precedence and importance of one people OVER another? True: Palestinians are not our best friends, BUT desperation, poverty, and poor education is a great recipe for radicalism. However, it is also imporatnt to understand= that situation and nurture can explain many actions,and that we have the opportunity to change these ingredients to create a better future for Palestinians and Israelis. We should rather strive for justice for both Isralies and Palestinians: and this seems more in line with religion to me. So for me, to be religious, also means being left wing. I can't understand it any other way.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Kristallnacht Annivesary: November 9-10

Burning synagogues, feathers from torn comforters, broken glass, and men being arrested, create the most vivid memories survivors share about their experience on November 9-10, 1938, Germany's worse pogram. To many German Jews, this memory represents a shift in the society they lived in, and fractured their perception of the Jewish status within Germany. No longer could they deny the danger Nazism and Hitler posed. It really was the beginning of the end. Tomorrow marks the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass. Quickly, to summarize the event, Kristallnacht was a government organized program against Jews in Germany. This included mass destruction of Jewish synagogues, businesses and homes. Further, about 30, 000 Jewish men were arrested all across Germany and sent to concentration camps in Germany. (Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, 2006) Up until that point, these camps consisted of non-Jews; political enemies, homosexuals, gypsies and Jehovah witnesses. Kristallnacht, tipped the balance of inmates, reflecting the first time Jews in large numbers were jailed. (Andreas Nachama, Jews in Berlin, 2002) German propaganda explained the incident as a “spontaneous outburst of public rage”- in response to the assignation of Ernst vom Rath, a German in the embassy in paris, who was murdered by Herschel Grysnszpan, a 17 year old Polish Jew on November 7th, 1938. However, the government sponsored pogram had been in planning for some time, and this incident only provided the catalyst to create the event.

After Kristallnacht, most Jews could no longer believe that “things would change for the better” in Germany. Although most ordinary Germans (at least in bigger cities) did not participate in the pogram (side note: most were embarrassed with the program , not by the violence directed against Jews, but by the relative mess it left within Germany- Germans tended to be sticklers for neatness+organization) there was no real movement against it. Up to this point, many German Jewish families denied the possibility of any harm happening to them personally- their integration and status within German society eluded them to see the truth. However, it is only in retrospect of the Holocaust that we today, see concentration camps and death camps as inevitable. From their point of view, the Germans were still the most enlightened and forward peoples in Europe, and therefore these barbaric realities would have seemed farfetched and impossible to many German Jews living in 1938.

And now, people commorate and remember November 9th as an important turnning point withint he Holocaust. However, I ask; how does Kristallnacht, and the Holocaust in general affect our lives today as Jews? Why is it important? Is it simply to remind us of the past perils of the Jewish people? Or is it a call to believe more deeply and strongly in the Zionist dream? The Holocaust offers the prefext to believe in the neccessity of Israel as a safe-haven for Jews- or a land of "just in case", as is often quoted vis-a-vis the Jews of Russia or Ethiopia. I often meet Jews who find identity within the Holocaust; their identity is wrapped up in their sympathy, guilt, sadness and fear the Holocaust has created. “I am Jewish because my people was prosecuted, my people was threatened to the point of complete destruction, and therefore I must continue to be and live Jewish.” For me, my obsession for history, and my fascination of the holocaust, is inspired by viewing history as the explanation and the reason for everything we experience today. History has created the building blocks of our cultures, society and lives. Everything can be explained by looking at its historical beginnings, and everything gains more meaning and understanding by tracing its beginnings. Yet, when I ask myself why commeration of Kristallnacht, and the Holocaust is improtant, I can't justify it throught my love of history. I can’t look at this simply as an explanation, if I looked at the Holocaust or Kristallnacht as only an explanation for what I see today, I suck the importance out of the event. Perhaps it is therefore useful to sometimes look at events in a more "isolated fashion." By this I mean, I tend to focus on the the lives lost, affected and torn. I remember the burning Torahs, the men beaten on the street, the glass broken from stones thrown at Jewish business. I remember the marches men were forced to walk as they were stomped off to concentration camps for the first time, and how their wives and children felt, knowing their father was lost inthe unknown. I feel the injustice, the anti-semitism, the desperation and the sadness. For this, and this alone I remember Kristallnacht.. and although as a historian it provides the key for meaning in the Holocaust, it is as a Jew that I try to feel, as those Jews felt. And so, I remember so I won’t forget, so I can remember you and what you went through, and so that I can say never again.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Because I'm under duress stress.. (does this even make sense) I cannot begin this blog. Henceforth, I call this blog: Under construction.

Only 1 1/2 hours until I can RECLAIM MY LIFE!