Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Opposition in Israel

Everyone knows that the Israeli left is either dead or (hopefully) in the midst of a world record nap. Tzipi Livni’s centrist opposition is tepid at best. Livni’s first and only act of ‘opposition’ was her refusal to join a coalition government.

This is Livni immediately after the last election:

"we weren't elected to legitimize this extreme right-wing government, and we must represent an alternative of hope and go to the opposition.”

For the last year Livni has spent most of her time, well, legitimizing this right wing government. She has been unwilling or unable to challenge the Israel Right on issues that matter: the occupation, issues of religious equality, Israeli identity, gender equality, discrimination against Arabs, etc.

Livni delivered some revealing remarks at last Friday’s Gay Pride Parade in Tel-Aviv:

"Because the tendencies of the body and heart are not political, the protection of the [gay] community is not within the realm of any one political group. It is a matter of human beings respecting each others."

Livni is dead wrong. For members of the LGTBQ community in Israel, “tendencies of the body and heart” become VERY political when the Deputy Prime Minister for Internal Affairs calls gays “sick” and demands an end to the parade.

Guaranteeing equality “is much more than a matter of human beings respecting each other.” It requires a political fight. Livni doesn’t get it.

The failure of the opposition in Israel stems for their inability to grasp the stakes. Israel is undergoing a political shift to the right. Ministers from nationalist and religious parties are changing government policies in surprisingly terrifying ways. Government ministers routinely voice support for a whole host of bizarre policies: racial discrimination in public housing, loyalty oaths, press censorship, redefining the Jewish State based on its ‘love for Torah'.

Just today, members of the ruling government protested the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate Beit Yaakov a girls school in the West Bank. The Israeli police are preparing for a protest of 20,000 ultra orthodox Jews who oppose schools that integrate Sephardic and Ashkenazi children. Only a few hundred Israelis bothered to protest the flotilla incident.

American Jews are starting to get it. The gap between our values and the values of the current Israeli regime is turning some prominent heads. But the spark must come from Israel. At this point, the Israeli opposition does nothing more than legitimize the current regime, giving them political cover and the veneer of "healthy dissent."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

El Judio Maravilloso

So last week, during Shabbat dinner, my grandma gave me a bunch of old CD's that used to belong to my grandpa Jack. Jack was a huge music fan. Back in the day he used to play bongos in a salsa orchestra. Later on, when he had kids, he used to line them all up in rows and teach them how to dance. Anyways, as I was going through the collection I found this one CD which is labeled as a collaboration of Colombian, American, and ISRAELI, musicians fusing Colombian music with jazz.

The project is titled Folklore Urbano. It is a recent project directed by Colombian pianist Pablo Mayor. There only seems to be one Israeli in the band, though there are also a couple of American Jews. The Israeli dude, who plays trombone and euphonium, is Rafi Malkiel. He seems to be a pretty talented dude and has received a lot of praise for his 2008 album My Island. You can check out his music here.

Anyways, point of the story is, I got to thinking about the involvement of Jews in the emergence of Latin and Afro-Caribbean music during the 40's and 50's. I did a little research, and as it turns out, the close proximity of Jews and Latinos in certain neighborhoods of New York, exposed Jews early on to these new styles of music. Many Jews, such as my grandpa, became diehard fans, and many Jewish businessmen capitalized on the popularity of this music, and helped promote the careers of Latin musicians. Eventually, there also emerged plenty of musical collaborations. Not only did many Jewish musicians play in Latin Orchestras, but the Latin musicians recognized the Jews' enthusiasm and teamed up with Jewish musicians to produce albums like Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos.

The coolest Jew in this whole scene is Larry Harlow, born Lawrence Ira Kahn, a.ka. "El Judio Maravilloso". A star pianist, Harlow was one of the early talents involved in the legendary Fania Records, and helped develop what we know today as modern salsa. He has produced over 250 albums for various artists and continues to perform even today. He is the one playing piano on the video above. If you pay attention you will hear him introduced as "El Judio Marivilloso" around 1:20.

Yiddish-Kop going to our heads

Michael Chabon's Op-Ed in the New York Times: Chosen, but not Special is a timely wakeup call for Jews to abandon self-aggrandizing notions of Jewish exceptionalism.

This recent flotilla debacle has lead to a flurry of all too public pronouncements of "we are too smart for this." Goldberg, on his blog for the Atlantic Monthly, led the charge. Jews, so says Goldberg,possess a Yiddish-Kop (Yiddish head) which allows for quicker, wittier, thinking. The botched flotilla operations, according to Goldberg, is a rare nearly unparalleled example of Jews doing something dumb.

Even the left-leaning Jewish daily Forward published an editorial asking: How is it, then, that a nation with the economic brainpower to lead the world in per-capita start-ups cannot apply that same clever intellect to defending itself and charting its future."

I’ve heard this same formula around the dinner table and all over the media. Check out this article in the Post, where an ex-Mossad Agent calls the raid “so stupid its stupidifying.” Acting as if the Occupation/Gaza situation were simply a tough intellectual problem, this approach sidesteps the tougher, more important questions: Is the blockade just? Why must we always apologize for civilians deaths and collateral damage, etc..

Jews often welcome stereotypes of intellectual prowess. In fact, secular Jews who may reject the notion of a biblically “chosen” people may still embrace stereotypes of Jewish intellectual dexterity, nurtured by years of heavy persecution. There’s nothing wrong with taking a little pride in Albert Einstein, Phillip Roth, and Woody Allen. Yet, this way of thinking has lead to a toxic hubris when it comes to Israel.

When the IDF levels the U.N. School in Gaza or violently confronts peaceful protesters in the West Bank, American Jews often assume the IDF, the Jewish Army, must be the paragon of competency; they would never purposefully engage in an operation that reflected poorly on Israel. The fault, then, must lie somewhere else.

The Jewish particularity--the beautiful set of unique cultural, religious, and historical factors that make Jews Jews, is truly extraordinary. Yet, healthy self reflection is possible only when we abandon the notion of Jewish exceptionalism and realize that we are just as fallible as the rest.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

HaBanot Nechama

HaBanot Nechama is one of the best bands I've ever heard from Israel. They're music is a nice little mixture of folk and reggae, and their vocal harmonies are just spot on. Also, I don't think anyone has ever made Hebrew sound so sexy. This is one of the songs from their self-titled debut album which came out in August of 2007. Since then the girls have been working on their own solo projects. It is unfortunate that most conversations about Israel always focus on the political situation and rarely touch on cultural themes. Israel advocacy groups desperately need to add a cultural element to their efforts. Anyways, enjoy!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A View from Gaza

This is a recent post from Ashley Bates' blog "Dispatches from Gaza". A former Peace Corps volunteer, and an Arabic speaker, Ashley serves as Program Director at Hands of Peace, a dialogue camp for Israeli, Palestinian, and American teenagers. She has been working as a freelance journalist in Gaza for the last few months. Her posts provide a fresh and fascinating perspective from inside Gaza itself, an angle we are rarely exposed to. This particular post discusses the debate over humanitarian tragedies in light of the flotilla incident. Highly recommended!

Diversity an an Offensive Tool

Perhaps the biggest challenge we face as a community is making Judaism exciting. How do we get unaffiliated and disenchanted Jews, especially young ones, to renew an interest in their Jewish heritage and become active in the community? How do we cultivate Jewish identity in an era of assimilation and intermarriage?

It is a tough challenge. For most of our history Jewish identity was a product of an all-encompassing Jewish environment that did not require much introspection in its formation. It was the product of life in the ghetto. Though the physical realities of being Jewish – the oppression, the constant threat of expulsion, and the inferior legal status to which they were relegated – were undoubtedly a challenge to Jewish life, the intellectual difficulties of coming to terms with a Jewish identity in an enveloping Christian world were not really present.

Today’s world is characterized by its fluid boundaries, its rapid flow of information, and its increasingly globalized popular culture. The modern individual is distinguished by his range of interests and by his multiple and at times conflicting identities. It is precisely this interest in diversity, which we can and should use to our advantage. Because of its tumultuous history, Judaism has developed a whole range of different theological ideas, philosophical trends, and cultural expressions. Whether an individual is drawn to mysticism, religion, music, literature, art, gastronomy, philosophy, archaeology, sociology, or even politics, Jewish history, as well as the contemporary Jewish world can offer a little bit of everything. Every person can and will choose a different gateway into Judaism, what is necessary is for the all the doors to be open.

In this respect, it seems that the mainstream Jewish establishment is lagging behind. Most of the current efforts aimed at strengthening Jewish identity seem to revolve around revitalizing religious services and creating awareness and support for Israel. In order to captivate the modern individual, the Jewish world cannot limit itself to its national and religious components. We must recognize that in today’s world it is less and less likely that a Jewish individual, especially one who doesn’t identify strongly with his heritage, will suddenly have a religious epiphany or a moment of transcendent connection to his people. What seems more likely to happen, and what the Jewish world should be striving for, is that something seemingly insignificant as a song, a movie, or a philosophical insight, that captures the essence of Jewish culture or thought, will spark the individual’s interest and then he himself will want to explore this connection further.

The task at hand for the Jewish world, is not to remold, and not to push itself onto individuals in a sort of propaganda scheme as it seems to be doing now, but rather to open up its gates and expose its diverse heritage of thought, culture, and practice so that the individual himself can come and explore.

There are encouraging signs that this is happening. There is a growing number of non-profits around the country dedicated to strengthening Jewish identity by creating programs that blend Jewish thought with specific areas of interest such as music, film, and sustainable farming. These organizations are on the right track. As they sometimes say in football, “the best defense is a good offense”. Instead of agonizing over high rates of assimilation and intermarriage, and accordingly trying to find new ways to make Judaism relevant, how about flaunting the entire breadth of Jewish expression, and hoping that people will be interested of their own accord. If it makes the scope of Jewish thought and cultural expression available, from Israeli music, to Jewish American literature, to ultra-Orthodox mysticism, the Jewish world might be able to benefit from its diversity and fragmentation.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Marc Ellis and Prophecy

“Some Jews intent on enabling empire, collude with other powers to keep everything as it is, how they want it, and therefore every voice that counters that view has to be brought low.”
--Dr. Marc Ellis, Professor of Jewish Studies, Baylor University

Last week, Dr. Marc Ellis gave a fascinating talk at the Palestine Center here in Washington DC. According to Ellis world Jewry is engaged in a sort of Civil War between empire-enabling Jews and Jews who continue the prophetic tradition of challenging authority and undermining empires.

Think Noam Chomsky, deemed a “security threat” and detained by the IDF because he planned to deliver a lecture critical of the Occupation.

Ellis is a provocative thinker. He labels Jewish organizations like Peace Now and Rabbis for Human Rights as “progressive Jews,” who criticize Israel but ultimately apologize for Israeli wrongs and only serve to guard the “left flank” of the Jewish establishment. These organizations, so says Ellis, are part of the problem. Apathetic Jews too are at fault: their silence enables right wing Jews to hijack the Jewish tradition in support of empire.

There is a lot of truth in what Ellis says. From 1st century Rome to 20th century Germany, we have spent most of our history boxed in, limited, and oppressed by empires. There is nothing more Jewish than speaking truth to power, undermining the ruling order, never apologizing for injustice. Historically, this critical tendency has also been directed inwards; Jews have often reserve their harshest words for each other.

Today the mainstream Jewish establishment spends most of its time on its heels, enabling and apologizing. Ellis thinks these organizations have abandoned the thousand-year critical prophetic tradition in favor of more contemporary reference points: The Jewish State and the Holocaust. Today there is no respect for prophetic dissent.

If we are truly engaged in Civil War, then, it is important for us all to take sides. Yet, we should also be critical of thinkers like Ellis, men from out parent’s generation, who claim to know and define the contours of this conflict. Labeling organizations like Peace Now and Rabbis for Human Rights as “enablers” is counterproductive and hysterically ideological. As an aging luminary, Ellis may have the luxury of denouncing all who disagree with his vision as “enablers.” We do not have this luxury.

If we are serious about breathing new life into the Jewish movement, we should embrace an inclusive framework. Those willing to engage the prophetic tradition are our allies. Together we should wrestle with the morality of the occupation, engage issues of assimilation and intermarriage, question the orthodox stranglehold on legitimate spirituality, welcome the LGBTQ community, and denounce racism and Islamophobia. As Jews, we will not always agree, yet, the inspiration of our movement should be the prophetic tradition. We should always be critical of traditional sources of authority and legitimacy. The rusted Jewish establishment does not and should not speak for all Jews. It is time for our generation to assert a new era of prophecy.