Thursday, January 1, 2009

On Being Jewish and the State of Israel

Before I can begin any discussion of Israel/Palestine I need to talk about the bile, vitriol and wild accusations one receives when voicing any criticism of Israel’s actions or policies. There are only about 50 people on this email list who actually read this stuff. Judging by the number of comments received on the recently established blog (almost none) not many more there. Yet last time I discussed the Jewish state I had an Israeli ask me why I hated them, a relative who called me a self-effacing Jew and reminded me of the Holocaust (as if any Jew needs to be reminded of that monstrous time) and a friend who told me not to send anything critical of Israel because they weren’t interested in reading it.

On the first point, I don’t hate Israelis. I’ve met many in my travels and expat life and during my short time in that country who were good-hearted people. Many Israelis are devoting their lives into campaigning for a fair settlement for the Palestinian people – I wish I had the energy, dedication and space in my life to join them. I am, however, disheartened, dismayed, discouraged and almost distraught at times at the inhumane and dastardly actions of the Israeli state, which its people are responsible for voting into power. They have created an apartheid state and I’m not even talking about the West Bank which is under brutal military rule or Gaza which is under siege.

They love to tout their country as a democracy but in reality it’s more like the segregated American South than a modern egalitarian state. Israeli Arabs, which make up about 20% of the population, are exempt from military service – they obviously couldn’t be used to subjugate their own people – which excludes them from many benefits that only accrue to ex-military personnel. Their schools receive far less per pupil than Jewish schools, just like in the old South where schools were separate but never equal. In every facet of social and economic life they are second class citizens.

I don’t hate myself for being a Jew. I’m proud of the important contributions to culture, science and politics we have made over the centuries and inspired by the amazing story of a people dispersed for two millennia who could come together after the tragedy of the holocaust to create a new nation. Israel, moreover, is a beautiful, stylish and ecologically conscientious place. I was impressed by seeing nearly every building there equipped with solar water heaters.

However, a beautiful place does not make an ethical or moral place any more than saying a lot of prayers and not eating pork makes a person a righteous person. I must admit to some ambivalence towards Jewishness; that is, the ceremonial and community part. I have no feeling for observing the holidays. They seem to be relics; inspiring stories from the past without a whole lot of spiritual foundation, mostly Chosen People stuff. But chosen for what? Two millenniums of persecution and objects of loathing?

Part of my problem has to do with having ascribed to the Jesus story for a long time. It’s a story of tolerance, inclusion and mercy as opposed to the superiority, zealotry and fundamentalism of many Jews of his time. They rejected his message – given by the greatest of all Jews – because they were looking for their Messiah to be a temporal ruler who would smite their enemies and make them all kings, whereas he was talking about turning the other cheek and Good Samaritans. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews of their time: The essence of the story is that the lowly Samaritan stopped to help the person in need while the good, observant Jews passed by.

If they were chosen it was to bring the new message to the world, but after Jesus kicked the money changers out of the Temple, the rulers of the Jews, afraid of losing their power and wealth, asked Herod to have him offed. The Jews of Israel are fighting the same battles today. As a secular, egalitarian state Israel could be a beacon to the world. As a sectarian state focused exclusively on Jewish privilege, it represents the worst of humanity. It is a nation so fixated on real estate, on expanding its territorial hold, it’s become a rogue state in contempt of all international humanitarian laws and norms. It has become a pariah state noted for cruelty, oppression and heartlessness.

But let’s be clear: The only place in the world where Jews have any problem relating to their neighbors is in the Middle East. There will always be small pockets of bigotry and occasional tensions in any multicultural society but by and large we get along well and make positive contributions to the larger community everywhere we live outside of Israel. There the same stubborness and fanaticism of the first century is alive and well.

I know I’m ranting but it all seems tied together. I have no problem getting along with anyone, including other Jews, but I have no desire to seek out Jewish groups or ceremonies; to separate myself, in other words, from the melting pot of humanity. I’ll never deny being a Jew but also never shrink from my duty to speak out against injustice not only wherever it occurs, but especially when it is perpetrated by my own people.

When Ariel Sharon, after one of his bloody attacks on the West Bank, said he was doing it to protect Jews everywhere, I practically screamed at my radio, NOT IN MY NAME!!!

I absolutely reject the premise that Israel’s actions are beyond reproach. There is nothing in existence that is beyond being questioned. When Jimmy Carter, one of the fairest, most respected and altruistic people in the entire world is accused of anti-Semitism for speaking truth to Israel’s power, you know he must be right on the mark and that the defenders of Israel at all costs are simply unable to face the truth and honestly answer his charges.

I’m reminded of the time I worked in a Wall Street bank back in 1960 (don’t worry, it was the lowest paid job in the company and I only lasted a year). I started in the filing department - a whole floor of filing cabinets - and was on my feet all day. It was a time when shoes were nearly always uncomfortable; especially on my budget as I earned $48 per week. My feet were killing me so I started walking around in my socks. It didn’t matter that nobody of any importance ever strayed there, this was 1960 in a Wall Street bank, and a clear and obvious transgression. When called to account on the matter I accused the manager of anti-Semitism; which was about as relevant to walking around in socks as answering Jimmy Carter’s criticism with shrill cries of prejudice.

So once again, if you have a problem with the concepts of fairness, of evenhandedness, of equal respect and dignity for all human beings then avoid at all costs any posts with Israel in the name. It’ll just make your blood boil, as mine is now at Israel’s despicable and bloodthirsty actions in Gaza.


Jeff said...

Agree 100% Stan. Well said.

Anonymous said...

Go stan,pity you are not the secretary of state!