Monday, June 24, 2013

Remarks by Vic Goldberg on receipt of the Brotherhood Award

Below are Vic's remarks from Friday, June 14th. Also here is a hyperlink to his prize:

Shavua Tov!

Thank you, Bill.    It's a great honor to receive this prestigious award, especially considering the previous distinguished awardees.  And special thanks to Barry Citrin for his generous help in preparing me for this event
My association with WRT goes back over many years.  Jack Stern married my daughter Susan to John Gevertz, who is Joan's Mark's son.  Rick Jacobs married my son Alan to Karen Lipson, and was there for us at the funerals of my first wife, Harriet, and of Joan's son Bruce and her husband Stan.  Three years after Harriet died,  Rick married me to my second wife, Pat Waldeck; and along the way he Bat Mitzah'ed my granddaughters Rebecca and Annie Gevertz. And, I am lucky enough to be around to be thrilled with the leadership of Jonathan Blake.  This may all sound like the "begetting" part of Genesis, but this Temple has played an important role in my life.
While most of my volunteer activities have been in venues other than WRT, I am a great believer in the importance of volunteerism wherever it is exercised, not only for the good it can do for the world, for Tikkun Olam, but for the enhancement of the spirit of the volunteer.  WRT is a place where that spirit abounds.  Most organizations would give a great deal to be supported.... with the zeal and pure ergs of energy .....that are daily in evidence in the increasingly varied activities here.
* * *
Bill gave you the laundry list of my volunteer activities, but the one I want to speak about briefly tonight is my Middle East Peace Prize.
A bit about its origin.  in 2004, I was completing  25 years on the board and 13 years as vice chairman of the Institute of International known for administering the Fulbright scholarships and 250 other international exchange programs, ....and  I wanted to do something in gratitude for how that experience had enriched my life.  The CEO there asked what was important to me, and Israel immediately came to mind.  
As a young American Jew in 1948, (I was 15 years old), I lived in Chicago next door to immigrants with numbers on their forearms, near a parochial school whose students thought I killed Christ, and I was totally drawn to  this new nation, a safe place for Jews which embodied the cultural and moral values with which I was raised.
Now here I was in 2004, having watched nothing but strife in the Middle East for all my adult life, wondering what if anything could bring peace to this Jewish Homeland I had cherished all my life.  Clearly political leadership  had failed, ..... and maybe only work at the grassroots level could form the basis of lasting peace down the road.  
And so I established a Middle East Peace Prize, to which IIE appended my name.  I said they should have called it the Don Quixote IIE prize because to win it you had to have two people, one Israeli Jew and one Arab Muslim, working together at the grass roots, and one of them had to have a connection to an IIE program. ....and we worried there would be no viable candidates. As it turned out, we were never short of wonderful candidates, and a week from tomorrow, Pat and I will go to Jerusalem to present our 9th annual award.
The winners of the first prize in 2005 dealt with the issue of conflicting narratives.  Dan Bar On and Sami Adwan were both college professors, Dan at Ben Gurion University and Sami at Bethlehem University.  They had constructed a middle school history textbook for four historical periods: the Balfour declaration, the 1948 war, the Yom Kippur War and the first Intifada.  On the left hand side of each page was the Israeli narrative, on the right was the Arab narrative, and the middle was composed of the blank lines of a workbook.  To develop this textbook they sometimes had to meet  across checkpoints; and to train 10 Israeli and 10 Palestinian teachers, they eventually had to fly them to Crete for joint sessions.  To this day, neither the Israeli Ministry of Education nor the Palestinian Ministry of Education have approved this textbook.  But with the book's intervening historical periods now complete,  it is being used at the University level.
The 2006 Prize went to an all Israeli team, one Jewish, one Muslim, that established an Arab/ Jewish Community Center In Jaffa.
2007  to a team that established the first integrated school in Israel, with student enrollment, and faculty, each balanced 50/50,  and with Jewish and Muslim Co-Directors.
2008 to founders of a bereavement group called Parents Circle: a Jew who lost his daughter to a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, and a Palestinian whose brother was released from an Israeli prison... beaten so badly that he died shortly thereafter.
2009 to the founders of a Young Professionals Alliance between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.  
2010 to a former member of an elite IDF army unit, and a Palestinian intifada fighter who had been in Israeli jails for 10 years,  who formed a group called Combatants for Peace.  
2011 to two women working in Be'er Sheva for the civil rights of Bedouins.
and 2012 to two Israeli lawyers, one Jewish, one Muslim each heading an organization devoted to civil rights within Israel, who file joint briefs to the Israeli Supreme Court on civil rights issues involving women, Muslims, gays, ...and Jews striving to live their lives unrestricted by Haredeem and other Orthodox forces.
Pat and I go to Israel each year to present the prize, and each year are in awe of what the winners have done.  In some years, the winning teams have been composed of one Palestinian and one Israeli.  In other years, both winners have been Israeli citizens.   Where both have been Israeli citizens, the work has been focused on civil rights, ....and it strongly evokes the civil rights struggles in the United States in the last half of the 20th century.  
I remember as a boy on a trip to the American South seeing the water fountains and bathrooms with signs designating “white only.”  I remember the tumultuous years in which African Americans fought to get equal rights.  
I also remember the active role many American Jews, including Rabbi Jack Stern, played in those historical efforts.  And well we should have.  Having for centuries been the victim of discrimination, it was only proper that we help others to be freed from it.  That lesson sometimes seems lost in the Israel of today, but I think the same progress we made here, can happen there, and it will require very similar effort.  Action citizens who are conscious of the disconnect between their moral heritage and the realities of their society,… and who are willing to pressure their government and their society for change.      It's a challenge, but in this area of Israeli civil rights, I see some progress and am somewhat optimistic.  
In the area of finding peace with the Palestinians,  my optimism had pretty much vanished until very recently.  In past years, the necessity and inevitability of a two-state solution seemed to be a given.  But in the last few years, the secular Israeli liberals have seemed dispirited, increasingly powerless portion of society, and the actions of the government have seemed to presage an irreversible turn away from a two-state solution, .....which has been the cornerstone of hope for those who seek long term peace in the Middle East.....indeed, the only solution that will allow a state that is both Jewish and democratic.
I believe that failure to establish a separate Palestinian state will still leave us with a Jewish state, ....but given birth rates of the Palestinians and the Orthodox Jews, not one that is democratic.  We cringe at the term "apartheid state," but that is pretty descriptive of what would be.  
It doesn't seem that the Israeli government has really digested the lessons of the Arab Spring, or the ramifications of Palestinians adopting, ....not arms which the IDF could crush, ....but massive Martin Luther King-type peaceful protests.  Nor it seems has it really focused on the effect of possible international sanctions, like those in the 1970's that forced well-intentioned employers like IBM and Ford, .....who were hiring, training and promoting blacks and coloreds in South Africa,.... to leave that country when major U.S. pension funds threatened divestiture of their stock.    I was close to that one, and it happened very fast!  
Personally, I believe that failure to achieve a two-state solution will be disastrous for Israel,.... bad for the United States, ....and bad for Jews in general.  And I am particularly concerned  because the past couple of years have seen the Israeli government flirting with (destructive) actions that can't be undone.
Last week Secretary of State Kerry, in a speech before the American Jewish Committee, made a powerful plea for the American Jewish community to lend its collective voice in support of a two state solution.  The URJ, the reform movement  led by Rick Jacobs, has come out publicly in support, and I was really encouraged at that very clear statement.  But I have the feeling that too many of our fellow American Jews are afraid of speaking out because we fear being thought disloyal to Israel.       But friends don't let friends drive drunk!   I would hope that all of us, in whatever way we can, will make our voices heard.
* * *
It's true that there has been some cause for optimism in the past couple of months, but this is the Middle East;  and it's full of tribal lunatics who spout personal and state-condoned hatred; and the Palestinians and the Israelis continue to take turns missing opportunities for peace.  So we'll have to see.  
Whatever happens now, I  still believe that grass roots efforts between Arabs and Jews,... a real Brotherhood task, ....are the best chance to one day achieve lasting change.  
Brotherhood, ....empathy and action,  on behalf of "The Other," ..... can be painted on canvasses large and small.  And it all counts.  So we must all keep at it.
I am proud to accept your wonderful award, and hope I will continue to be worthy of it.
Thank you.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Shlach Lchah 5773: The Book of Kvetching!

I look at Benjamin, my son, and I am pretty clear I understand what he’s trying to say to me. Yes he doesn’t have words yet, he is very fond of “Hiya,” his first true word. He uses it kind of like Shalom in Hebrew, something of an every-word for hello, goodbye, and what’s going on.  However, he still makes it very clear what he wants at any given time. He raises his arm in the direction of what he wants, and lets out a clear grunt, when he really wants something, allow me to demonstrate.  He will happily repeat this until he gets it, and if you wait too long, it turns into the scourge of parents everywhere: a higher pitched whine.
Now there is of course a difference between a whine and a complaint, and even the term complain can be broken into two meanings.   On the one hand to issue a complaint, is an attempt to hopefully further the social order.  We complain when we hope to increase the quality of our own service, or to better the situation overall. On the other, we have the connotation that pervades in the yiddish word: kvetch.  
We as a people have a reputation, as a people that loves to kvetch for the sake of kvetching.  The other day I was visiting one of our congregants at White Plains Hospital, and he pulled me aside, sharing that he wanted to be transferred to Greenwich Hospital as soon as possible, and wanted my help in making it happen. I said to him: “What's wrong? Is it the food?"
"No, the food is fine.” He replied. “I can't kvetch."
"Is it the room?"
"No, the room is fine. I can't kvetch."
"Is it the staff?"
"No, everyone on the staff is fine. I can't kvetch."
"Then why do you want to be transferred?"
"I can't kvetch!"
Michael Wex in his commentary on that joke in his book “Born to Kvetch,” reflected: “the fundamental idea that kvetching—complaining—is not only a pastime, not only a response to adverse or imperfect circumstance, but a way of life that has nothing to do with the fulfillment or frustration of desire."[7]
Now I have been saying this since we began the book of Numbers, but today I really want to get inside it: Numbers really should be called the book of kvetching.  My son has been turning the kvetch into an artform that we as a people have persisted to this day. The people kvetch constantly, and this week's parashah is no exception.   Listen to the severity of the kvetching in our Parashah:

Chapter 14
1. The entire community raised their voices and shouted, and the people wept on that night.

א. וַתִּשָּׂא כָּל הָעֵדָה וַיִּתְּנוּ אֶת קוֹלָם וַיִּבְכּוּ הָעָם בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא:
2. All the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the entire congregation said, "If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert.

ב. וַיִּלֹּנוּ עַל משֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן כֹּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם כָּל הָעֵדָה לוּ מַתְנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אוֹ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה לוּ מָתְנוּ:
3. Why does Adonai bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and weak children will be as booty. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?"

ג. וְלָמָה יְהֹוָה מֵבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לִנְפֹּל בַּחֶרֶב נָשֵׁינוּ וְטַפֵּנוּ יִהְיוּ לָבַז הֲלוֹא טוֹב לָנוּ שׁוּב מִצְרָיְמָה:
4. They said to each other, "Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!"

ד. וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל אָחִיו נִתְּנָה רֹאשׁ וְנָשׁוּבָה מִצְרָיְמָה:

We earned the moniker, Stiff necked people for a reason, we are a people that like to whine and complain. This is a trope throughout our Torah,. that the grass is perpetually greener back in Egypt according to the Israelites.  Yet in reading this and considering it I began to wonder: What is the point of complaining? I also wonder: what are the benefits of complaining, or are there any as we as a people have earned such a reputation for complaining?
Even if you are complaining not just to vent, but in the hopes of changing your situation, what is the power of time, place, and circumstance? In the age of constant connectivity, there are countless stories of people complaining about poor service on Social Media, and seeing almost immediate reaction from huge corporations.  The goal is to increase the social welfare, even a little bit, and a bit selfishly.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes in his book, Future Tense, “Judaism is a critique of empire and the rule of the strong.” (p78) He believes, that as a people we have consistently served as the kvetching voice refusing to allow right by might, but raising our voices in protest.   Complaining has a potentially powerful role in changing our society. We complain about injustice, we complain about inequality in our world today. That form of complaining, where we are acting towards a better world and voicing what that world can be versus just kvetching about the world that is.  Now for the Israelites, it was this complaint that earned them 40 years in the desert, never able to see the promised land; yet as a people, time and again, we have stood on the sidelines of history complaining, trying to make this a better world.  
 Since we’re talking about complaints, let me not forget the humble kvetch session, a healthy expression of frustration, which everyone needs once in awhile. As researcher Dr. Barbara Held notes, it is a valuable life skill to vent constructively.  Her guidelines for any kvetch session: “Be up-front about your need to complain (rather than try to pretend you're just having a regular conversation), limit your kvetch time, and don't act as though your gripes trump everyone else's. Above all, select an appropriate listener.”
Now I know my son is a bit young to have this kind of realization about complaining.  He will continue to whine and groan at me for I would assume, years to come. Yet we as a people and as human beings need to work hard to ensure our complaining is not simply to bring others down, or to whine indiscriminately. It’s about healthily letting off some steam, and powerfully critiquing the social order to make a better world today.  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Gatekeepers by Sarah Friedman

I’ve been reading a lot about The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary that interviews the six living heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. It’s not yet in wide release in the States, and I was happy to learn that it is playing in Israel. On Sunday evening, walked to the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and saw it.

It is an extraordinary documentary, and difficult to watch. Straightforward interviews are powerfully juxtaposed with highly edited old photos made crisp and three-dimensional and old news footage that is graphically and emotionally raw. There is mind-blowing quote after mind-blowing quote, and little background music that influences the mood of the film. The filmmaker is clearly left-wing and his rare but probing questions become irritating mostly because they are so unnecessary: all six men speak straightforwardly, often saying things that are unbelievable to hear an Israeli security chief say. They speak mostly about Israeli-Palestinian history and relations.

Throughout the film I heard sniffling and sighing in the seats around me, particularly when graphic footage of the aftermath of First Intifada bus bombings filled the screen. The build-up to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination is also rough– seeing rallies of religious Israelis burning the PM’s photo, holding a mock funeral, a small child looking full of hatred as he strained his voice to join the crowd shouting against a peacemaker, a traitor to them. Interviews touch on the planned bombing of the Temple Mount by Jewish extremists, ethical deliberations surrounding IDF assassinations of terrorist leaders, the controversial handling of the hijacking of bus 300… the window it provides into Israel’s security-related history is so valuable for anyone trying to understand the difficult security dilemmas Israel faces.

I won’t hide that the former chiefs’ conclusions mostly jibe well with my own politics. But although the film deals with fundamentally political issues and has received both commendation and condemnation for its handling of them, the overwhelming takeaway is not a political perspective. It is sadness at missed opportunities, and urgency – urgency to work toward a better future now because we won’t have the opportunity to do so in the future. It’s a perspective that is not common here. Although the majority of Israelis support a two-state solution as part of a negotiated peace, belief in its possibility is rare. The shrinking left that not only believes in it but also wants to act on it is seen as naïve. With elections one week away, current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is widely expected to retain his seat but lead a far more extremist right coalition, filled with politicians who call for annexing the West Bank – among other strategies unpalatable to proponents of a state that is both democratic and Jewish. Although there are dozens of political parties, few if any can boast politically experienced, credible leaders devoted to and able to articulate an inspiring vision for a sustainable peace. (Feel free to start a discussion in the comments section if you disagree – I hope to be proved wrong.)

None of the previews I’ve found online do The Gatekeepers any justice. You just have to see it, and see it with someone whose hand you can hold. It’s difficult to watch but extremely worthwhile as an invaluable perspective on Israel’s past, present, and future from the Israeli security apparatus’s most knowledgeable insiders.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A step in the right direction by Sarah Friedman

I spent the weekend at Kibbutz Ketura, home of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where I interned this summer. I was excited to go back and meet the students who arrived for the semester after I left - Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, Jordanians. Throughout the semester or year, they learn together about the environment and examine their political and personal preconceptions through a periodic Peace and Environmental Leadership seminar. The idea is to create regional leaders who will use shared understanding of shared environmental problems to improve regional cooperation on the environment and beyond. (“Nature knows no borders” is the Institute's slogan.) I was attracted to the Institute because of this approach, the extension of which was the foundation of my interest in the environment of the Middle East: the idea of peacebuilding through shared environmental concerns, that developing trust in a practical and emotionally lower-stakes area will enable existing partnerships – among students, academics, NGOs, governments - to more effectively tackle the greater political challenge of creating a mutually agreed-upon peace.

I loved being a part of the AIES community over the summer, but this time I got the full experience. With students, the place is spectacular: in the gorgeous emptiness of the Arava, in Israel but also in its own world, young people who would never otherwise interact are roommates and friends, spending every waking minute together in class, in the kibbutz dining hall, in the common spaces of the newly built dormitory, on hikes through the surrounding desert. Though their narratives are different, even conflicting, they build connections and understanding that will influence their professional and personal careers forever. Twice during the weekend, students and I discussed how we could solve the whole conflict. Our plans ranged from the ridiculous - build a second floor on top of the entire land so both sides can have it all! - to the painfully practical - '67 lines with land swaps, East Jerusalem to Palestine and West Jerusalem to Israel with some form of international control over the Holy Basin. It goes without saying that we were oversimplifying, but for people of such different backgrounds, each with divergent and dearly held narratives, to speak candidly if lightheartedly about solutions is a step in the right direction. We weren’t being flippant. We were joking around because the situation feels so hopeless: when individuals can connect on a meaningful level but our leaders and people cannot, it’s so sad that when our weeks of working toward a solution end, we have to laugh. It’s a step.

There are many of these small-scale, person-to-person, interfaith/intercultural/international peacebuilding efforts. They make a huge difference in the lives of participants, even if the participants are self-selecting from the start, already inclined to want to understand the other side. So these kinds of programs aren't a society-wide panacea. But hopefully participants will become effective leaders and inspire the rest. At the J Street conference in March, renowned Israeli author Amos Oz said it best: "I don't know who will be the leader or the leaders, who will carry out the necessary surgeries, but I know those leaders are already amongst us; they are alive. I wish I knew how old they are."

At the end of the weekend, the last night of Chanukah, I stood on the top floor of the dorms and looked at the mountain I'd hiked that morning. "Electricity Mountain" has nine big barrels of gas that are lit as a chanukiah every year. The kibbutz kids who became bar and bat mitzvahs that year hike up to light the "candles" every night. It's a beautiful site, visible from the whole kibbutz, the highway, and probably low-flying planes. I hope in the near future, that chanukiah will shine over a nation at peace, and thanks may be due to AIES alumni and others like them.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

IDF Ethics by Sarah Friedman

A few weeks ago I went to a MASA-sponsored security & diplomacy-themed shabbaton, run by Kol Voice Seminars, an educational company run by British olim. I had signed up for it weeks earlier, unsure what to expect, and was both excited and newly hesitant as the weekend began, two days since the end of Operation Pillar of Defense, the almost-war. My experience with this type of presentation has not been one of nuance or balance, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

One perspective I’d never heard in detail was from Colonel (Res.) Bentzi Gruber, who speaks about the IDF ethical code. He arrived straight from eight days on a base in the south, gave a well-practiced and half-heartening, half-discouraging lecture, and left us with the oddest business card I’ve ever seen, featuring a rainbow leading to a tank.

He opened by poking legitimate fun at Egyptians blaming a shark attack on the Israel Defense Forces, but on a related and more serious note he said that Israel can’t seem to avoid losing the PR war. I agree: Israel does make political and military moves deserving of criticism, but it also does and is a lot of great things, and those don’t make it into the news often enough. Israel transgressions – real, exaggerated, or imaginary (like the shark) – make for more popular news. It was encouraging to hear, then, about the IDF’s institutional concern for the ethical implications of its actions, disconnected from PR value, for better or for worse.

Col. Gruber outlined the principles the IDF trains it soldiers to use in real-time decision-making:

  1. Necessity – use only the force required to complete mission
  2. Distinction – don’t harm innocents (difficult against terrorists, who do not wear uniforms like regular soldiers). He said that during Operation Pillar of Defense the IDF hit 1600 targets and refrained from hitting an additional 400 because of doubts.
  3. Proportionality – killing civilians is acceptable when preventing an imminent threat, but not when targeting a terrorist for past wrongs. (Weary from battle preparations, he added: “I am not doing a party when I kill a terrorist. … When you come back from the field after destroying villages, you bring it back home with you.”)

He showed us video of a Hamas member picking up an unwilling child to cross the street with so the IDF wouldn’t shoot. He told us that 98 percent of the medical visits from Gaza to Israel were approved in 2009 and that 95 percent of electricity in Gaza comes from Ashkelon, Israel, up from 35 percent in 2009. He denied a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, saying that civilians are not his enemies, and estimated that of the 1.8 million residents, 40,000 are terrorists. It’s difficult to judge the reliability of presented information when the perspective is clearly one-sided, even if it’s one I’m inclined to trust, but I guess that’s part of the PR war he lamented.

Throughout the presentation, I kept thinking about the actual implications of these ethics. We live in a Jewish state, by Jewish principles (though if two Jews have three opinions, it’s a certainty that not everyone will be happy with the Jewish principles applied), but what happens if a mistake is made? He never mentioned circumstances that might lead to the code not being followed – though it’s not difficult for me to imagine things going occasionally awry among scared 18-year-olds with guns – but he did describe the fear and overwhelmingness of warfare. Col. Gruber said that carrying 60+ pounds for four hours during a mission makes soldiers lose half their brain power, helpfully adding: “put on your helmet and you’re almost an idiot.” (I don’t know how much speculation, observation, or science contributed to that assertion, but I think it’s how I would feel, too.)

In response to a questioner who asked if it wouldn’t have been better to attack Gaza with great force and wipe out the threat completely, Col. Gruber said that this problem can only be managed, not solved – pointing to the fact that after Cast Lead in 2008-9 only six months passed before rockets were shot into Israel again. I don’t agree that the political situation is hopeless (yet), so I was happily surprised when he emphasized that we also need to teach both sides not to hate each other. I wonder if that is possible in a managed situation – when Palestinians grow up stateless, disenfranchised, and Israelis grow up in a hostile neighborhood fearing attacks from all sides. But it revives my optimism that the Israeli military strives to operate ethically, even if the PR war is hopeless; and I hope the Israeli political system can also follow a pragmatic ethical code, intended to preserve the Jewish, democratic nature of the state, even when the political future looks hopeless.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Life in Tel Aviv by Sarah Friedman

Sarah E. Friedman
November 15, 2012

Last night marked the first time since the Gulf War that air raid sirens have sounded in Tel Aviv signaling imminent danger. (It also marked the only time in my life I will regret living in an apartment with a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows.)

When I heard the siren, around 7 pm on Thursday, its meaning didn’t register at first. I poked my head out my window to survey the situation, and when I heard the penetrating thud of an explosion I decided to change clothes, pack a bag, and head downstairs to find a shelter. (Needless to say, this is not the correct order in which to proceed). I didn’t see one in my building, so I stood in the elevator bank beneath the staircase until a neighbor came along. The neighbor said that there is no shelter in our old building (though building codes now require new residential construction to include shelters) but that inside a staircase away from windows was the recommended alternative, and where I was standing was perfect. Soon after I returned to my apartment – sheltering is recommended for only 10 minutes after the siren stops – I started receiving worried messages from family and friends, and cautionary missives from various authorities, including the U.S. Embassy, urging residents to find shelter in case of another siren.

So I ventured into my immediate neighborhood to find a shelter, figuring the businesses surrounding me would know if the neighbors didn’t. I was wrong: the calm that I observed when I stupidly peeked out the window was truly felt and internalized by the Israelis I spoke with. In the grocery store downstairs, in the restaurant connected to my building, no one knew where a shelter was. They seemed unconcerned, not brazenly so, just calm. In the coffee shop across the street, the barista laughed kindly at my question, as if it was cute and very dutiful of me to want to know, but really not necessary.

My Israeli aunt and several friends called me that night. They all wanted to see if I felt okay, if I was scared, if there was anything they could do. They themselves weren’t disturbed. Even though the sirens haven’t sounded in Tel Aviv in more than 20 years, the Israeli mentality is prepared to face random violence. I don’t mean to romanticize Israelis or downplay the seriousness of the situation – but living in a danger zone is part of the deal here and they don’t let fear rule. And the issue today isn’t Iran, which could become a more serious immediate threat. The present physical danger is being hit by a not-precisely-aimed rocket, of which Gaza has many less since the Israeli Air Force hit targets including rocket storage and launching pads. There won’t be blocks leveled in Tel Aviv, fortunately, and safety procedures including sirens with a 2-minute warning time seem to me the mark of an incredibly prepared and well-equipped government.

On that semi-positive note and in that context, I have mixed feelings about the reactions I’ve heard from outside of Israel. Many individuals and organizations are declaring solidarity with Israel no matter what, promoting any military action, no questions asked. Of course I stand with the country and idea of Israel no matter what - I stand in Israel, I live here, I study here, I run on the boulevard outside my house and sit on the beach and ride the bus daily and don’t want my daily life disrupted by rockets and explosions and war. I love Israel, which is why I am here. And it would be gratifying to see more informed discourse on the situation coming from the States, passionate and controversial discourse of the kind that is going on here in Israel, where the violence is a reality.
Throughout the night, I was in constant communication with friends, confined to my apartment but too distracted and adrenaline-rushed to do school work. I read and thought a lot about what is happening and why. I don’t know enough to judge what is absolutely right and wrong, and I don’t think not being sure is a moral or intellectual abdication. The most important debate to have in the Jewish community, internally or publicly, is about Israel’s long-term interests. Israel has a right to defend itself against violent attacks, as any sovereign nation does. Last night I felt very grateful for the IAF’s targeted attacks on Gazan weaponry. And so far, the civilian casualties on both sides can be counted on fingers and toes. Yet especially with the IDF calling up reservists last night to prepare for a potential ground invasion, many are frightened that this will become another Operation Cast Lead. Whatever your political opinion, the killing of 1,400 Palestinians was gravely damaging to Israel’s international relations and public image. What is the right balance between the short-term and long-term interests when reacting to violence today?

In the case of the assassination of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, there are a lot of questions that are worth parsing but may never be answered fully. No one argues that he was a friend of Israel: he was a terrorist behind plots against Israel and behind the abduction of Gilad Shalit. But then he was also behind the negotiated release of Shalit, and according to Gershon Baskin (whose politics you can agree with or not, but there’s no pretending he’s a lightweight since the Shalit deal) he had a practical approach to his interests that apparently included a long-term cease-fire. How are we going to interact with Hamas leaders in the future, if at all, knowing that assassinating those who sit at our table doesn’t encourage others to cooperate?

The timing of this escalation, especially if it becomes a ground war, is expected to take social justice issues off the electorate’s mind and make security – perceived as the strength of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak – the decisive issue in the January elections. And it can’t be good for Israel that Egypt, with whom we share a cold but strategically crucial peace, withdrew its ambassador. From here in Tel Aviv, things already seem to be changing, and I can’t see how an escalation involving ground troops will help Israel’s security in the short term or the long term. I hope not to find out. I do hope for more informed and nuanced discourse in addition to support for the people of Israel and, as always, for peace for Israel and the region.

As I finished this blog on Friday early afternoon, the siren sounded again. I ran downstairs and crowded into a windowless corridor with the patrons of the nearby restaurant and coffee shop. And now that my adrenaline is up again, I’m going for a run, trying to absorb the Israeli mentality that life must go on despite these jarring interruptions.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Real Bedouin Life in Israel by Sarah Friedman

Real Bedouin Life in Israel

The orientation trip for my Masters program took us to the south of Israel, where we saw many sites that are typical tourist stops: the colored sands of the Negev, Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, the Dead Sea. Next, of course, was a Bedouin village. But when we arrived in Qasr-a-Sir, near Dimona, it was a surprise – not a stand-alone tent clearly made for tourists where Bedouins claiming to have no formal education speak in perfect English about their four wives and the camels that are their only form of transport (we slept in one of those!), but a town where actual Bedouins live.

Qasr-a-Sir is a pre-state settlement where 4,500 Bedouins live on 10 percent of their original land, holding on to some traditions while adapting to the changed reality of their surroundings. We started with cups of tea: coffee, apparently, is the authentic drink of hospitality and giving us that would symbolize a whole host of mutual obligations our hosts for the afternoon weren’t ready to extend to a group of international graduate students, including defense by sword. Then a local man took us up a hill to give us a view over the town and, through a translator, narrated his community’s history. Ramshackle buildings, piles of rubble (including one that was his grandmother’s house until the Israel Defense Forces demolished it), a big modern school building, and an access road to the highway spread out before us, and as the sun set we noticed that the town has no electricity. The lights of nearby Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor and the city that took over this village’s land, competed with the highway’s brightness as the village grew darker.

Our guide told us that after years of a community effort led by his father, the village was finally recognized by Israel in 2001. (You can read more about the difficulties of obtaining recognition here, from the Israeli organization Bustan, which works for fair resource allocation and sustainable development for Bedouin and Jewish communities in the Negev.) Since recognition, the modern school and the access road were built and the village was hooked up to Mekorot, the Israeli national water provider. Our guide said the water equipment is functional, though not kept up to date. Homes are not yet connected to electricity, and the individual solar panels most have do not store adequate power for family use.

When the muezzin called out for evening prayers, our guide said he wanted to tell us something about Islam. He said that Islam is not terrorism; it is a religion in line with modernity that is supposed to build lives and create connections, not be a force for destruction. He said the people in the news may be Arab, but they are not Muslim. I imagine that most of my fellow students did not need to be told that not all Muslims are terrorists, and I wish that his simple, sincere statement could have gone directly to the ears of the many people worldwide – including, unfortunately, some American Jews – who basically distrust Muslims. I have heard some claim that the majority of Muslims must sympathize if not support terrorism, or it would be their first and constant priority to speak out against the misuse of their religion. As a Reform Jew, I’ve always found these accusations deeply troubling. I live my life according to the values that my specific Jewish education and my personal understanding of Jewish tradition and texts have instilled in me. I would be infuriated if anyone suggested that I must disavow Baruch Goldstein (the Jewish extremist who murdered dozens of praying Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron) or Psalm 137:9 (which advocates smashing Babylonian babies’ heads against rocks) every time I reveal my religious background. The way I live my life is a constant disavowal of extremism and of the literal meanings of some archaic texts from a very different time in my people’s history. I’m sure the same goes for every WRT member, most American Jews, and most Muslims worldwide. Not every member of a group is called upon to be the spokesperson for all other members – and Islam is a group of more than 1.6 billion. I was sorry that this man felt the need to defend his religion to strangers, but moved that he did so with passion and without anger.

I respect Tel Aviv University’s decision to include in our orientation to the country a glimpse into the reality of modern Bedouin life. It wasn’t as inspiring as the rest of our trip, which showcased the natural beauty of the ancient land of our ancestors and the amazing successes of the start-up nation, but acknowledging challenges and trying to address them is a mark of a strong society. Our afternoon in Qasr-a-Sir added valuable depth to the trip.

Then, of course, we boarded the bus and headed to a tourist-friendly Bedouin-themed resort, replete with camel rides, ornate tents full of fruit baskets and colorful pillows, and low tables supporting overloaded platters of “traditional” food that included (lucky for me) soy balls for the vegetarians.