Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How the Washington Post (among others) distorts the Middle East

I've said plenty of times that the press does a terrible job of reporting on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, particularly with Israel (it's not exactly an opinion which is original to me). For some reason, the Washington Post has been one of the worst offenders in this regard, and I recently came across this description of exactly how they get it so wrong.

The Washington Post consistently mischaracterizes the Arab-Israeli conflict as: (1) primarily a dispute over land in the West Bank and Gaza, rather than what is, in reality, a continuing attempt by the Arabs to annihilate Israel that began long before Israel was in control of the West Bank and Gaza; (2) then, mischaracterizes the land as "Palestinian land,"illegally occupied by Israel, instead of disputed territory to which Israel has legitimate claims; and, (3) finally, mischaracterizes Israel's military and security tactics as inhumane and in violation of international norms, when they are probably the most protective of human rights in the history of warfare. All three of these fundamental mischaracterizations by The Post are developed in more detail below.

It goes on from there to give a lot more detail. It's not exactly a nuanced article, and even a strong supporter of Israel like myself can find ways in which it goes too far in the other direction (for instance, there are plenty of ways in which the Israeli Army has clearly stepped over the line from time to time. Even if (importantly) these are isolated incidents, rather than planned policy, it's still important to acknowledge them, if you're going to say/suggest that all innocent Palestinian injuries were reasonable accidents). But, it gives a strong summary of how the press can often use omission and distortion to make Israel look bad.

If you're one of the many who want to support Israel more vocally, but are often confused/frustrated by what you see in the press, this is a good place to start.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Israel: still not an Apartheid state

I don't usually reference Dennis Prager, but I have to admit that this five minute video does an excellent job of debunking the “Israel is an Apartheid state” nonsense:

Israel is not perfect. Far from it. Israel has some very serious problems, with its internal politics, as well as with its relations with the Palestinians. That statement is so obvious that it's almost ridiculous to have to say it, but I never want to be accused of being in the “Israel can do no wrong” camp. Israel can do wrong, and it has. And it's the right of anyone, Jewish or not, to criticize Israel when it does so.

But, when that criticism become so ridiculous, so disproportionate, so completely disconnected from reality, we have to ask ourselves about the motivation for that criticism. Is it an honest concern for the country, or for those who are being wronged by the country? Or, is it an attempt to demonize that country, and cut off any reasonable debate?

So then, why is Israel called apartheid state? Because by comparing the freest, most equitable country in the Middle East to the former South Africa those who hate Israel hope they can persuade uninformed people that Israel doesn't deserve to exist just as apartheid South Africa didn't deserve to exist

Imagine, for moment, that you do something wrong. Something serious, but not egregious. And then I call you on it—I point out what you did wrong, and hold you to account for it. We can disagree on whether or not you did it. We can disagree on whether or not you are wrong. We can disagree on how bad it was. All reasonable.

But then, imagine instead that I just begin the conversation by calling you, in all seriousness, an evil, worthless scumbag who deserves a painful death. Would you consider that to be, in any way, a reasonable approach? Would you try to engage me in a rational conversation, explaining that, in fact, you are not an evil worthless scumbag? Or would you assume that I was crazy, unreasonable, and/or just out to get you?

When someone calls Israel and Apartheid state, they aren't engaging in reasonable discussion. They're screaming at the top of their lungs that Israel is evil, and they don't want you to think, and they don't want to listen.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Keeping Kosher

So, skipping a long back story, I wrote an essay explaining why as a Reform Jew I keep kosher. Why would someone who is part of a movement/philosophy which allows him to eat, say, bacon, decide not to. I thought I'd share my first draft with y'all for two reasons. First, you might find it interesting (you are, after all, the ones reading this blog). But, I would also love some feedback. This will, potentially, a ways down the road, get published, so anything you have to say about where it's good and, more importantly, where I'm not getting my point across, or where I'm not very clear, would be appreciated!



My awakening as a serious, adult Jew began while spending a semester of college in Israel. During that time, I encountered Jewish law, Jewish philosophy, Jewish history and much more from the Jewish world for the first time ever on a serious, intellectual, challenging level. As much as I had always identified strongly as a Jew, I was taking my Judaism, and my Jewish practice, seriously for the first time.

It wasn’t easy for me—I grew up in a family which was extremely nonobservant. So, I had little to fall back on in the way of family tradition or previous practice (or, practical knowledge). In many ways, I was building my Judaism from scratch. I was open to everything, and questioning and challenging everything, as well.

Well, not everything. Certainly not kashrut—the dietary laws of Judaism. I remember being rather dismissive of those. Maybe it was just a lifetime of eating shellfish and pork*, but I couldn't imagine a world in which I give them up. I distinctly remember telling a friend, also a Reform Jew, but much more observant than I was, that I would never keep kosher.

* bloggy addition - I've often said that the closest that that family ever came to discussion kashrut was in asking whether it was allowed to put the shrimp with lobster sauce on the same plate as the roast pork fried rice.

The answer, by the way, is "yes."

During our Spring Break, two friends and I traveled to Turkey and Greece. Somewhere along the way, we stopped at a street cart and ordered gyros. Looking at the meat, I found myself asking the cart owner what was in them. Among other things, he told me, there was pork. It suddenly dawned on me—I hadn't eaten pork in months. Living in Jerusalem, sharing an apartment with students who were much more committed to Jewish practice than I was, keeping kosher was just the default behavior. I had been doing it, more or less, without thought.

I don't know that I can explain the reasons any better now than I could have then, but I was suddenly overcome with an intense, unmistakable desire to not eat pork. Although it came, clearly, from a Jewish place, it felt more nonspecific than that. I just knew that, at that moment, I wasn't supposed to break kashrut. I threw the gyro into the trash, and bought something else to eat.

I didn't commit, at that moment, to a lifetime of keeping kosher. I decided, instead, to take a day by day approach, and to keep an open mind to this new practice which I had suddenly, totally unexpectedly, taken upon myself. I started to learn more about the laws of kashrut, talk to people who kept kosher (for the first time with an open mind, rather than with an eye toward refuting their arguments), and to actively engage with the mitzvah—to make conscious decisions about what I ate, from a Jewish point of view, and to pay attention to how it felt, and what it meant to me.

To my great surprise, it felt good. No—that's not quite right. It didn't feel good. I missed (and continue to miss) the foods I gave up. I often don't “like” keeping kosher. But, it felt right. More than anything, I remember the power of turning eating, an act which had been, up until that time, totally mundane, into a religious event. That's not to say that, every time I ate, I felt the presence of God, or heard angels sing. It's just that now eating had become part of my religious life. Which meant that, every time I ate, I had to shift my mind into “religious mode.” Keeping kosher was the first way that religion became a regular part of my life, and it remains, for that very reason, one of the most important.

I do not keep kosher by Orthodox standards. That might be partially because of a lack of willpower or discipline, but it's mostly because it felt inauthentic to cede my decision-making to authorities who see Judaism so radically differently than I do. The details of my practice have changed over the years—at first, it was mostly a case of “doing more and more.” But, with time, that changed, too as I began to learn which specific details spoke most powerfully to me as a Reform Jew, and which ones didn't seem as if they had a place in my practice. I imagine that these details will continue to change as I learn and grow. But, the larger decision to keep kosher is no longer one which I make on a daily basis. It's simply a part of who I am.

The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig taught that, if we do a Jewish practice with enough sincerity, and enough thoughtfulness, we might discover that it's moved from a practice to a commandment. To something which we have to do. I know that, were I to stop keeping kosher, I would not suffer physically—God will not punish me for eating pork. But, given how integral keeping kosher has been in my own Jewish practice, stopping would definitely come with a penalty. It would both symbolize and create a break between me and my religion, my tradition, and my God. Through my practice, then, I can safely say that keeping kosher has become a mitzvah.

A Liberal Jew - and proud of it

I just came across a bunch of articles which I had put aside to blog about, but never got to. They're old, but still relevant, so now I've got some excuses to do some more blogging…

Here's the first one—it's an article by Alex Sinclair, about Liberal Judaism (which, for those who don't know, can more or less be defined as non-Orthodox Judaism), and it's one of those articles that says something that I've been trying to say for years: not only do liberal Jews need to be more comfortable with, and proud of our version of Judaism, but we have to be clear about some fundamental facts, as we see them:

Liberal Judaism makes a powerful claim, and the claim is that Orthodox Judaism is, at its core, wrong. Orthodox Judaism is built around a narrative that contains a foundational error: “The Torah was written by God and given to Moses on Mount Sinai”. This statement, and the orthodox religious narrative that emerges from it, has been disproven by generations of Biblical scholars, archaeologists, sociologists of religion, and historians. These scholars have demonstrated “beyond a reasonable doubt,” in the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ words, that the traditional, orthodox understanding of Jewish history is false. The origins of Judaism are much more complicated than that.

Liberal Judaism is, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many (all?) leaders of Liberal Judaism, correct. True.

I don't expect everyone to agree with me, but all of us who are liberal religionists need to make it clear that we are at least as sure in our beliefs as our more conservative (not to be confused with “Conservative Jews,” who are, ironically, liberal jews) brethren. I am not a Reform Jew because I don't have the commitment, or energy, or knowledge to be an Orthodox Jew. I am a Reform Jew because I believe that Reform Judaism comes closest to the Truth.

Sinclair argues that there are three reasons that Liberal Jews are not more vocal about this: first of all, we fool ourselves about how dangerous it is to let the Orthodox control the conversation. I'd say that this is more true in Israel (where Sinclair is writing) because of the overlap of the religious and political worlds, but it's true here, as well. First of all, we all know that our religious and political world aren't actually so separate in America these days (or, I guess, ever). But there's also a religious danger to this—it leaves many Liberal Jews feeling as if they are “less Jewish” than Orthodox Jews. It drives many people who would benefit greatly from a modern, open, rational Judaism towards a less fulfilling (for them) version of Judaism, because they believe it to be "more authentic." It's not, ulitmately, as pressing as questions of settlements in disputed territories or ceding control of marriage to religious extremists, but it's still real.

The second reason that Sinclair gives for our meekness is our desire for Jewish unity:

A second reason that we allow the orthodox narrative to hold center stage is our own fear of Jewish disunity. We tread on eggshells for fear of saying that others’ opinions might be “wrong” or “false”. We nod our heads when we hear absurd and historically ridiculous statements spouted by orthodox friends, because we believe in everyone’s right to their own opinion, and because we want to be nice. We think it’s important to be united as a people, so we swallow our pride and allow the orthodox narrative to become the default Jewish position.

He makes an interesting point, but I'm not really sure how much that still a relevant motivator. Sure, we may shy away from confrontation in social settings, but I'm not sure that it's a big deal when we're talking more seriously. Or, maybe it is, and I'm in the minority on this one.

His third reason is, to me, the most interesting, and troubling. He says that we fear that, even though we believe in Liberal Judaism in principle, it might lead to assimilation and the loss of Judaism:

The third reason we tolerate the orthodox narrative as default is because we are concerned about assimilation, and deep down we wonder if the narrative, even if it’s false, might help stem the tide of Jews leaving the Jewish people.

I've touched on this before, because I really do find it troubling: it is not unreasonable to believe that orthodox religion has more staying power than liberal religion. That orthodoxy, of any sort, might be more effective, by many measures. I wouldn't say that it's a closed argument, but there is a lot of research which seems to say that more extreme groups are more and more successful, while more liberal, open groups will tend to dissipate and fade away.

I'm not going to give up on my convictions and become Orthodox just because it's a good “business plan” or anything like that. But, it's an issue that we can't ignore: what if Liberal Judaism, as powerful as many of us find it, isn't sustainable?

In the end, it's probably a question which has to be ignored, on some practical level. All I can do is live the most sincere Jewish life that I can, and try to express to others why I find this version of Judaism so powerful, so sacred, and so true. I may be a practicing a kind of “boutique Judaism” that will never have mass appeal, or that will eventually be put out of business by “big-box Judaism.” But, I really don't believe in their product, so I guess I'd better keep selling mine.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Liberal Case for Israel

For some time now, it's been fairly standard among the Left to be Anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian. It's certainly not universal, but it's incredibly widespread. Anti-Israel sentiment has become very common in other liberal groups, even when they have absolutely nothing to do with Middle East politics.

I've really never understood where this bias comes from. Some ascribe it to good, old fashioned Anti-Semitism, but I think that's far too simplistic. Others say that the Left has a strong bias towards the weak and oppressed, and that the Palestinians are, or have been effective at portraying themselves as, weak and oppressed. These, and the few other explanations I've heard, never really seem convincing - the strength, and often virulence, of Anti-Zionism on the Left is hard to account for.

As someone who is so strongly Liberal in almost every way, but also passionately pro-Israel, this anti-Israel bias has always frustrated me, but it's also confused me. Especially when, in so many ways, Israel is actually a model of Leftist, Liberal society. It's not perfect (what country is?), but in so many ways, it embodies the causes espoused by the Left.

This point is made, clearly and strongly, by Jonathan Miller. He argues that Leftist groups really should be supporting Israel, especially since Israel is almost infinitely more likely to support their particular cause than any likely Palestinian State would be. I won't pull any quotes from it - it's too good, so it's worth the click-through.

Economic Justice, Civil Liberties, Gay Rights, Women's Rights and more - Israel is, in many ways, a model country on these issues. Her neighbors are anything but.

As always, there are valid complaints about Israel, some of them very serious. But, for (for example) a LGBT group to support the Palestinians over Israel is ironic, to say the least. 

I wish someone could explain that to me.