Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Racism in Israel?

This is an interesting video from Israel. It's a kind of a sociopolitical “Candid Camera” show. In this episode, actors make it seem as if a woman is being refused service simply because she is an Arab. They record how the other customers react to this discrimination.


Clearly, this is just one example. No one in their right mind would ever say that there isn't serious discrimination against Arabs in Israel. But, at the same time, I am heartened to see how many average Israelis were quick to come to her defense. As the blogger from whom I saw this asked, what are the odds that an obvious Jew would be treated so well by patrons in most of the countries which surround Israel? Not good, to say the least.

As he points out, we do know that no Jewish customer is ever discriminated against in Saudi Arabia. Jews aren't allowed in that country.

As I always say, Israel is far from perfect. But, Israel gives us so much about which to be proud.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Baruch - Blessing, not Praise

About a month ago, I wrote a post about a prayer, and I mentioned in passing that I really disliked when prayerbooks translate the word “baruch” as “praise.” An old friend of mine (hi Greg!) Asked me to elaborate on that, and I so rarely get any requests for anything on this blog (one, and counting…), so I wanted to make sure to get to it. So, here goes…

Baruch” is the most common word in our prayerbook, and it is generally translated as “blessed.” But, many prayerbooks (and, my impression is that this is more and more common in recent years) translate it instead as “praised.” It's almost always used in conjunction with God, so the phrase that we're looking at is either “Blessed be God” or “praised be God.”*

* As an aside, why we pronounce the word "bless-ed" when we pray? Why not one syllable?

I can't remember if I learned this, or just inferred it over the years, but the reason that some people prefer “praised” as a translation has to do with the theological trouble with the word “blessed.” What, exactly, does it mean to bless God? Or to say that God is blessed? God is supposed to be the source of all blessing; what's the point of saying, then, that God is blessed? It's like saying that the ocean is wet, isn't it? Kind of pointless and redundant, no? It's also a little bit chutzpadik: for little old us to be “blessing” God seems backwards. God is all that God ever needs to be. Us declaring God to be blessed, or trying to make God “more blessed” just doesn't make any sense.

So, many people instead use the translation “praised.” Anyone can praise anyone else, so there's no trouble, theological, philosophical or otherwise, with praising God. It's a much less problematic translation. There's only one problem with it: “Baruch” doesn't mean “praise.” In other words, it's a wonderfully non-problematic translation. It's also an incorrect one.


I'm not sure what it means to bless God. To be honest, I'm not really sure what it means to bless anything, or to be blessed. Heck, if you read this stuff regularly, you probably know that I'm not even really sure what the word “God” means. The whole sentence, “Blessed be God” is a big confusing mess to me.

But, I think it's supposed to be.

It's not the translation “blessed” that's confusing. It's the original prayer. Whatever it is that we're being asked to do when we pray, it's just as theologically fraught, and confusing, in the original Hebrew as it is in translation. Maybe even more so. Finding an easy, smooth translation of the prayer is probably doing a disservice to the original. Theological angst might be built in to the text! As some rabbi once said, you shouldn't try to make smooth was always intended to be bumpy.

Religion isn't easy, intellectually/philosophically speaking. So much of what we do is, at least in part, inconsistent, confusing, self-contradictory and troubling. Anyone who is involved in religion and thinks that their religion is easy and obvious is probably missing the point. Cosmic matters, existential matters are, almost by definition, complex. At its best, religion should force us to face that complexity, and try to wrestle with it. Religion shouldn't give us an excuse to hide from complexity, or pretend it doesn't exist.

Complexity is real. Let's face it.


I've been trying to get to this post all week, and I think it's really important that I do, because something very significant has been happening, and I don't think it's been getting much press. It's about the fact-finding mission organized by the UN Human Rights Council, and chaired by Judge Richard Goldstone. It's generally referred to as the “Goldstone Report.”

Here's a quick background summary: in 2008 there was a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel which had been holding up fairly well. However, Israel received intelligence that Hamas was constructing a tunnel from Gaza into Israel. These tunnels have been used, in the past, for terrorist activity, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. Acting preemptively, Israel bombed the tunnel. In response to this act, Hamas began a campaign of launching rockets into southern Israel. These rockets were aimed primarily at civilian centers, with the southern town of Sderot being the most frequent target. Literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rockets were launched in the space of a few months. Finally, Israel mounted an incursion into Gaza, called “Operation Cast Lead.” It was mainly an aerial bombing campaign, and it led to a great number of civilian casualties.

In the wake of the operation, Israel was accused of war crimes by the Palestinian leadership, up to and including genocide. The UN organized its fact-finding mission, and Israel refused to cooperate with it—largely because it doesn't trust the UN to be anything approaching impartial. The result of that endeavor was the Goldstone Report, which confirmed that Israel had acted illegally and immorally, and while it didn't accuse Israel of genocide, it did accuse Israel of having a policy of intentionally targeting civilians.

Needless to say, the report was disastrous, from an Israeli point of view. It lent credence to Israel's enemies, who regularly accuse it of the most heinous crimes, and coming from the UN (and a Jewish judge), it made many of those who love Israel begin to doubt her—it seemed that there was some validity to the terrible accusations.


But, earlier this week, the story changed, and it changed dramatically. Judge Goldstone wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he backed away from much of his report, including the most damning accusations against Israel:

We know a lot more today about what happened in the Gaza war of 2008-09 than we did when I chaired the fact-finding mission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council that produced what has come to be known as the Goldstone Report. If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.


Our report found evidence of potential war crimes and “possibly crimes against humanity” by both Israel and Hamas. That the crimes allegedly committed by Hamas were intentional goes without saying — its rockets were purposefully and indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets.

The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion. While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.


Let me be clear, as I have before: I am in absolutely no way implying that the death of innocent civilians, Palestinian, Israeli or other, is anything less than an absolute tragedy. I do not celebrate one of these “collateral damage” cases, and I pray that no one else does, either. But, tragedy is one thing; culpability is another. And, it seems that, as a state, Israel is not guilty of murder, or of other war crimes. Israel engaged in military action which, tragically, always leads to civilian deaths. If what Israel did was a crime, then nearly every military action in history is a crime, as well.

Many critics of Israel point to the high ratio of civilian deaths as evidence of Israeli wrongdoing. But, those numbers are actually low, compared to other aerial campaigns. In other words, Israel killed fewer civilians than other countries have in similar situations. That's especially extraordinary, because Hamas makes a practice (as countless others have confirmed) of hiding among civilian populations, specifically so that Israel is faced with an impossible decision: either retaliate, and kill innocents, or do nothing in the face of ongoing attacks from Hamas. The numbers of civilian deaths are actually evidence of Israel trying not to kill civilians, rather than evidence of an organized attempt by Israel to kill as many as possible.

I've pointed out before an observation I first heard from Alan Dershowitz. In American jurisprudence, if I commit a crime, and in the process of trying to stop me, the police accidentally kill an innocent, then I am guilty of murder. Guilt is not decided by who pulls the trigger; guilt is decided by whose actions ultimately caused the death. By this logic, the civilian deaths were indeed a crime, but they were a crime committed by Hamas, not by Israel.

It's also important to say, but I am in no way claiming that no crimes were committed during Operation Cast Lead. It's apparent that individual soldiers, and possibly individual commanders, engaged in war crimes. Israel has a strong (although imperfect) record of investigating and prosecuting these crimes, and although Goldstone is not happy with the pace of these investigations, he is clear that he is satisfied Israel is undergoing them. It's impossible to imagine that any military operation of any reasonable size can happen without some of the soldiers doing awful, illegal things. Countries should be judged not by whether these happen, but by whether they are officially sanctioned/organized, and by whether they are investigated and prosecuted after the fact. By this standard, Israel is a moral actor; Hamas is among the most evil. Hamas openly and explicitly does the things for which Israel is condemned, while Israel does not do those things.

Time and again, we see this pattern. Israel fights an enemy. Israel is accused of heinous crimes. Most of the world accepts those accusations as fact. Hamass crimes are all but ignored. Weeks, months or years later, we discover that Israel, in fact, did not do these horrible things. But, the story has ended, and people's attention span has been exceeded, so no one pays attention.

Please remember this the next time Israel is accused of war crimes, genocide, apartheid, or anything of the sort. Israel should absolutely not be forgiven if it were to engage in any of these activities. But, until evidence arises that has, I think that Israel deserves the benefit of the doubt. And it needs those who love her to speak out for her good name.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And all of its inhabitants.


Friday, April 1, 2011

Youth engagement, from the ground up

You know, sometimes the best ideas are the simplest…

I've just gotten back from thea CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) convention, and one of the topics about which I heard was a new initiative beginning in the Reform movement around teen engagement (“teen engagement” is really just a buzzword for getting teens more deeply involved in synagogue, and Jewish, life). In summary, it's really about applying the principles of Community Organizing to our youth (they kind of vacillated back-and-forth between “teen” and “youth,” so I'll feel free to do the same).

Don't know what "Community Organizing" is? You may remember it as a big buzzword during the last election, since Obama used to be a Community Organizer. Basically, it's about doing social action, often now referred to as “social justice,” but picking our causes in a bottom up, rather than top-down way. The way that synagogues (and, I imagine, most other organizations) tend to do social action is to get a small group of concerned people together, pick a issue which seems important, organize a program, and then try to rally people to that cause. The problem with this method (as effective as it can be, at times) is that the cause is decided on by a few people. They may pick a “good” cause, but they may not. More specifically, they may pick a cause about which most of their constituency doesn't really care.

So, Community Organizing tells us that the first step is an extended process of careful listening. Ask people—a lot of people—what they care about. What issues keep them up at night? What issues do they think about all day long? Ask that of a lot of people, and keep track of the answers. Start to see if a pattern emerges. If there is an issue about which a lot of people already care, then it seems pretty obvious that it will be easier to get people to give of themselves to help fix it!

Well, we can apply that exact same model to our youth programming. Right now, generally speaking, a few smart, well-intentioned people get together and ask, “what do our youth need?” If we're enlightened, we'll ask some of the youth, themselves. “What is important to you?” “What do you want to do in synagogue?” The problem, more than anything, is the depth of the questioning. We hold one or two meetings, and unintentionally only pay attention to the answers which we like, and probably to the answers which we expected to hear before we even started.

What if, instead, we spent a good, long time really talking to our youth? What if we asked them, in various settings, in various ways, what issues they are passionate about? What if we try to find out, from them, what we could do that would fill a hole in their lives? With that information, we could create a youth program which not only attractive than more easily, but also, by definition, filled a void in their lives.

It's a lot of work, and it requires a real openess (you have to be willing to let the process take you somewhere, rather than vice-versa). But it has the potential to really transform a youth program, and a synagogue. It will be interesting to see if we can use some of that here, at our synagogue.