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.