Monday, June 30, 2008

The Heavenly Yoke

“No one would want to live in the world Levinas describes. We would all be completely overburdened with the impossible weight of responsibility.” So said the instructor in the Levinas course I started last week.

The course, at Toronto’s Anarchist Free University, is surprisingly packed: twenty five people from all sorts of backgrounds, no doubt attracted by the title of the course “Emmanuel Levinas and Ethical Responsibility.” As the course description says:

… Levinas attempts to show how the Western philosophical tradition has forgotten the ethical foundation to all human life and thought. … His writings have been incredibly influential in post-WWII European thought, shaping the work of Maurice Blanchot, Paul Ricœur and especially Jacques Derrida. … Levinas argues, this tradition forgets the ethical foundation to all human life and thought. His work over fifty years sought to show how the infinite ethical responsibility that arises from the relationship with the Other is "first philosophy." … Levinas's spiritual and ethical positions have influenced activists, intellectuals and statesmen around the world, such as Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, Jorge Semprun in Spain and Liberation Theologist Enrique Dussel.

Now Levinas – though I don’t claim to fully understand him – is one of my intellectual and spiritual heroes. In addition to his philosophical writings he also has an entire parallel body of Jewish writings. In these, he reveals that he views his philosophical project as “translating Hebrew into Greek.” By which I understand him to mean he is explaining/proving Jewish religious principals (as he understand them) in terms intelligible to Western philosophy.

And it is in this light that I understand the “infinite ethical responsibility” of which Levinas speaks, not, first and foremost, as an unbearable burden (though it might be), but as the traditional Jewish concept of “ol malkhut shamyim” - the yoke of the heavenly kingdom. This “yoke”, is indeed a burden, but also a privilege. It is what all religious Jews pray to be able to bear properly: to have the wisdom and strength to “do God’s will” – to act with full ethical responsibility. What’s more, we pray that one day all humankind will accept this yoke: and on that day “His name will be one”- and the messiah will indeed have arrived.

So when the instructor said: “No one would want to live in the world Levinas describes. We would all be completely overburdened with the impossible weight of responsibility,” my first – uncharitable and chauvinistic – thought was: “Goyishe Kop.” (Hey I never said I was perfect – just that I would like to be.)
But thats unfair. Maybe it is that Levinas has failed to truly “translate the Hebrew to the Greek.” Maybe “the Greek” will always be concerned with aesthetics and with intellectual stimulation, while “the Hebrew” will always be concerned with doing the right thing: philosophy versus religion: related, but different.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Say no more: Transsexual Israeli tops Lebanese song chart

The headline pretty much says it all.

Read all about it in this article in the Jerusalem Post.

Israel sure is a bundle of contradictions: crazy haredim, fanatical nationalist, neo-liberal capitalists, abject poverty, brilliant scientists, narrow minded yeshiva students, great poets and authors, and transsexual music stars!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Too Bad

Too bad. Sounds like Spertus Museum of Judaism in Chicago was doing some interesting and relevant things. But now, due to pressure from the local Chicago Jewish Community, they have shut down an important and much praised exhibit .

A good overview of the issue can be read at the JTA blog - The Telegraph.

If Jewish Museums remain merely a cheering section for the accepted wisdom, why will adults continue to visit? They will remain the pervue of children and Hebrew School children dragged there by their elders.


Friday, June 20, 2008

No Law - take 2

In a previous blog entry I bemoaned that fact that the law in Israel often exists only on paper. The Knesset passes laws and the courts rule on them, but the police and other government authorities often just ignore them. This is the sad state of legal culture in the Jewish State.

The latest example is described in detail, in this posting on the blog of The Magnes Zionist.

I short, the Israeli groups Breaking The Silence has been conducting tours of Hebron, to show Israelis and others the extent of the human rights violations perpetrated on the local Arabs by both Jewish settlers and the army. The settlers have done everything in there power to stop these tours, even resorting to violence. Breaking The Silence went to court - all the way to the supreme court as it turned out - an obtained an injunction that forbade the settlers from interfering in these tours and ordered the local police to protect the Breaking the Silence tour participants taking these tours.

Last week the settlers again blocked a tour, and the police again refused to enforce their right to take these tours. The local police commander, in fact, labeled the Breaking The Silence folks as "provocateurs," "militants," and "lawbreakers." Assertions such as these, which aren't supported with any real facts or evidence, just prove how much the police are in bed with the settlers. The background for these absurd statements is the weakness of the police, and its unwillingness to uphold the law, when the law does not appeal to them. And by caving in to the settlers’ violence, the police have prevented the tours from being conducted, and proved that as always in Hebron, violence pays, and the law be damned.

The image at the top of this posting is a full page ad taken out by several notable Israelis decrying this sorry state of affairs, and demanding that the law be enforced. A full traslation can be found here.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Anti Semitism at the USAF

The United States Air Force may be about to have its first Jewish chief of staff, but there is still rampant anti-semitism in and around the Air Force Academy.

This story just in from the JTA:

A swastika and cross were drawn on the home of a leading Jewish critic of Christian activity in the U.S. military.The vandalism was committed Sunday night on the Albuquerque home of Mikey Weinstein, the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, according to news reports.Weinstein, an alumnus of the U.S. Air Force Academy, has been a vocal critic of Christian proselytizing within the ranks of the military. He says he has been the target of regular harassment since filing a lawsuit charging that the military has violated the religious liberties of its members."This is the first time I think I've ever felt outrage, humiliation and embarrassment at the same time," Weinstein told the Albuquerque television station KOAT.

Bernalillo County deputies are investigating the incident.
Reports of Christian proselytizing and anti-semtism at the Air Force Academy have been common since at least 2005. See here, here, and here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Blame the Victim

At synagogue last week, someone (a very nice woman I might add) handed me a reprint of an article that had appeared in Haaretz entitled "The Real Nakba". I assume, though I don't know for sure, that she gave it to me because she thought it might temper my "overly dovish" views.

The article, by Israeli political scientist Shlomo Aveneri, is an interesting - and as far as I can tell historically accurate - description of how internal feuding, disunity, and an "inability to form frameworks of consensus and solidarity" have plagued the Palestinian National Movement from it beginnings.

It ends by stating:

The fate of the Palestinians now lies in the balance, and it is in their own hands. Those who look at their history will have trouble imagining Fatah and Hamas settling their dispute by creating a joint, legitimate framework. Perhaps Egypt or Saudi Arabia can foster the signing of some piece of paper or another, like the Mecca agreement. What matters, however, is not a piece of paper but an effective organizational and institutional framework and a commitment to shouldering the burden of a common legitimacy, which is necessary for constructing a nation. Such a framework must encompass the disarming of militias and entrusting one national authority with a monopoly on the use of force. Without this, there will also be no chance of an agreement with Israel, which is vital for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

These things should be said clearly, as difficult as they may be: If the Palestinians do not find a way to extricate themselves from their harsh historical reality, they ultimately will not have a state. It will be bad for them, and bad for Israel

This is mostly true. But it ignores entirely Israel's role in the Palestinian tragedy.

First, it ignores the fact that Yasser Arafat's single greatest accomplishment was achieving precisely what Aveneri called for - a unified and (almost) wall to wall Palestinian political structure - the PLO. And then forcing through its various committees and organs the recognition of Israel, and later of the Oslo accords. And while Israel was not solely responsible for the disintegration of the PLO, it has had a major part.

Israel (specifically Ariel Sharon) helped start and support Hamas in the 1980s, as a counter weight to the PLO. Israel, especially under Netanyahu, did everything in its power to undermine the Olso accords and thus discredit the PLO and the PA in the late 1990s. Later still, during the second intifada, Israel's policy was to retaliate precisely at the centers of PA power and influence, effectively dismantling the PA police, and its Ministries of Education, Interior, and Social Services. Finally, in the lead up to Sharon's disengagement from Gaza, Israel refused to talk to the PA about security - or other transition arrangements - and thus left the PA weakened and Gaza in a chaotic state, with no clear lines of authority.

Israel's policy, despite Aveneri's astute insight that a weak and disunited Palestinian leadership is bad for Israel as well as the Palestinians, has always been to create as much disunity and weakness in the Palestinian leadership as possible. Even today it does everything in its power to prevent a rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, insisting that Fatah simply vanquish Hamas, despite its clear inability to do so.

Second, and more to the point IMO, is that for Jews to read Aveneri's piece as a serious critique of the Palestinians, would be akin to Europeans settlers of the American west blaming the American Indians' plight on the Indians' lack of unity and strategic thinking. The Indians would not have needed unity and strategic thinking if not for the settlers relentlessly land grabs, and wiping out of the buffalo. Similarly if Israel where not so intent on separate development, land grabs, unequal water allocation, unequal allocation of resources, etc., the Palestinians' strategic faults would not have become so significant.

So, while the Aveneri article should be mandatory reading for Palestinian activists, for Jews it is merely interesting; and does nothing, IMO, to lessen our ongoing responsibility for a great part of the tragedy in Israel/Palestine.

Another Reason to Worry About Obama

I have said it before, I hope Obama wins the U.S. presidency more for what that would say about the American people and state of race relations in the U.S., than because of his specific policies. Now Naomi Klein gives us more reason to worry that Obama may be another Clinton on economic policy. More left than the Republicans, but basically centre-right on any world wide scale.

Her remarks appear in the Guardian. Her central point is that Obama has surrounded himself with economic advisers from the "Chicago School" once famously championed by Milton Freidman. These are the same people who brought us Pinochet, IMF "restructuring", "free trade", the "Wisconsin Plan" (aka workfare & lower welfare and Unemployment Insurance rates), and the economic regimes of Mike Harris and Benyamin Netanyahu. They are anti regulation and fanatically pro "unfettered" markets: "economic efficiency" uber-alles, and let the chips fall where they may.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Colin Powell for Obama ?

I guess McCain won't be picking former Secretary of State Colin Powell as his VP candidate.

According to the Globe and Mail

... the former Republican secretary of state, says he is not ruling out a
vote for Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic nominee for president.

..."I will vote for the individual I think that brings the best set of
tools to the problems of 21st-century America and the 21st-century world
regardless of party, ..."

The Sorry State of Israeli Politics

Haaretz journalist Daniel Ben Simon has decided to quit journalism and enter politics. His "swan song" article explaining why, is a primer on what is wrong with Israeli politics.

    • Israel [is] more a loose federation of tribes than a normal state. The well-to-do areas voted heavily for the left, headed by Shimon Peres, while the poor and downtrodden gave Benjamin Netanyahu's right a handy majority.
    • I cannot forget my shock upon learning that Kiryat Malachi, the town most harmed by the market economy, was about to grant then finance minister Netanyahu, honorary citizenship. In a shady political deal, Mayor Motti Malka granted honorary citizenship to the man who bankrupted his town.
    • I [have] tried to sound the alarm of worsening poverty, but the political system ignored it. At all the political conventions I [have] covered, there was not one single discussion that did not relate to Gaza or the settlements or borders or Jerusalem or threats from Iran or Hamas or Hezbollah. The political system was enslaved to the external threat, real or imagined.
    • Investigative journalism [cannot] keep pace with political corruption. In a single year, a prime minister, a president, a finance minister, a welfare minister and a minister without portfolio found themselves in the dock or under investigation.
    • In recent months, as I told people of my plans, many found it hard to believe: Why politics? ... Some wondered if I knew what I was doing, others questioned my sanity. But mostly, I encountered apathy - which in politics, is cancer.
    • Every meeting screams gloom and frustration. Gloom at the situation of Israeli politics and frustration at the inability to change. People came to those meetings to scream to me about the country they have lost and their extinguished hopes.
    • At every meeting, I heard ... You'll be eaten alive. Eliminated, destroyed. That is how the Israeli public sees Israeli politics: ruthless, take no prisoners.
    • I covered the French election last year and saw hundreds of thousands in the streets and at the polls, an impressive act of living, breathing democracy. A similar spark is evident now in the United States. Only at home do we see democracy fading.
I wish him good luck in trying to change this situation. Israel certainly deserves better politicians and better politics than what it currently has.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

News You Can Use: Giraffes Declared Kosher and So Is Their Milk!

Who knew?

Read all about it here.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Obama at AIPAC

Where you as disappointed by Obama's performance at AIPAC as I was? Is this the change we have been waiting for? Not me. Neither McCain nor Hillary said that Jerusalem will never again be divided. Maybe he was over-compensating? Maybe, we can hope he was just posturing?

In case, however, you doubt the power of the self proclaimed "Israel Lobby" check these out.

The Daily Show's take on the AIPAC-fest. (When you get to the page choose part 1 of 4 of the 06/05/08 episode. The AIPAC part starts about 3 minutes 30 seconds in.)

The full text of Obama's speech to AIPAC.

The full text of Clinton' speech to AIPAC.

The full text of McCain's speech to AIPAC.

Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

Jews like to think we invented the rule of Law. And there is no doubt Jewish culture, starting in the Bible itself, places a great emphasis on the rule of law: on having fair courts and a citizenry (or failing that magistrates) that enforce the courts' orders.

Israel, too, has long and proudly claimed to be a country of Law. The Israeli supreme court has a (in my opinion, exaggerated) reputation for being a fair and liberal institution.

But the trouble in Israel is that no one enforces the Law, and that the courts are powerless to make them do so. Add to that the fact that many Israeli laws are deliberately vague and discretionary - e.g. "The Minister of the Interior may, at his discretion, allocate ... " - and you have, de-facto, an unjust and weak legal system. Israel has been, and remains, a country where who you know matters: where assets and power and state favours and protection are allocated based on politics, not justice, fairness, or common legal principals.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the relations between Jews and non-Jews.

This disturbing article in Haaretz - by recently laid off reported Meron Rapoport - is a case in point. In it he shows how Israeli Jews are illegally building in the heart of an Arab neighborhood and no one will stop them, despite repeated court orders to do so. This is particularly unjust in light of the virtual impossibility for Jerusalem Arabs to get building permits, and the very strict enforcement of demolition orders in the the Arab sector. My friend Ronni Jager has recently joined a group called CourtWatch in Israel, and she tells me the rule of law, due process, and fairness are under extreme stress in Israel today. This story just re-enforces that impression.

... The building is seven stories high and is located in the Silwan quarter of East Jerusalem. It was erected for the Ateret Cohanim settlers' association, which deals with "Judaizing" the eastern part of the city. The structure was built some five years ago without a permit and in contravention of the city's master plan, and all attempts to make it legal have failed. Two years ago, a local Jerusalem court decided that the building had to be sealed; a year ago, the Jerusalem District Court rejected an appeal by the occupants. Subsequently, the High Court of Justice refused to allow them to appeal again, and turned down their request to postpone the demolition. The Justice Ministry declared it was forbidden to hold up the process any further, and the police began preparing to destroy the house - but nothing has been sealed or destroyed. Yossi Havilo [the City of Jerusalem's legal adviser] .. claim[s] this is due solely to the pressure being applied by the settlers.

Eight Jewish families live in the building, which the settlers call Beit Yehonatan, making it one of the largest Jewish outposts in the eastern part of the city. This is apparently the reason why such tremendous pressure is being wielded on law-enforcement agencies to prevent it from being sealed up - pressure from Knesset members on the right, from elements inside the municipality, members of the municipal council and even Mayor Uri Lupolianski himself. Last Thursday, this pressure reached new heights. The city council, at the initiative of Lupolianski, convened and decided to change the order of priorities for executing demolition orders in the city. The decision was taken despite the fact Havilio stated "it is not in accordance with the law, the rulings of the courts, the instructions of the attorney general, or the basic precepts of law in Israel."

... in the eyes of legal adviser Havilio, this is an extremely problematic decision because it expropriates the authority over implementation of demolition orders from the hands of the courts and the municipal legal adviser, and transfers it to the local planning and building committee - which consists of representatives of political parties.

"It is as if the public security minister would tell the police not to deal with murder cases until they have finished investigating all the cases of burglary first," says one legal source. "This is inconceivable."

In a legal opinion he sent to the municipality, Hovav Artzi of the Justice Ministry's department for enforcing property laws, wrote that the local building committee can propose criteria for demolitions to the municipal legal adviser, but that the decision should remain in his hands alone. "It must be forbidden for elected representatives to give instructions about the way in which the prosecutor should act, and under no circumstances should the prosecutor take into consideration the political considerations of public representatives," Artzi explains, quoting the instructions of Attorney General Menahem Mazuz.

But, according to Havilio, the real goal of the city council's decision is to prevent the implementation of the order to close down Beit Yehonatan. The building stands on private land and therefore, if the council's decision is implemented, it will be sealed only after the municipality finishes demolishing all the problematic buildings in public areas - "something which could take years or may never be completed," Havilio notes.

... [Left wing Jerusalem City Councilor Peppe] Allalo shares Havilio's fears. ...

"When it comes to Ateret Cohanim or Beit Yehonatan, the rule of law does not exist," Allalo says. "After the court ruled that the settlers' association has to vacate the building, members of the association, with the help of the Jerusalem Municipality and political elements, are now trying to circumvent the courts via the local building committee." ....

Monday, June 02, 2008

If I Where A Super Delegate

If I where a super delegate , yada dada dada dah. All day long I'd biddy biddy bam. If I where a super delegate! …

Well actually no. It would not be an easy choice for me. At least not till this weekend. Here is why.

While I like what Obama symbolizes - a post racial, post identity-politics, thoughtful USA, committed to its best values rather than the selfish interests of its rich and powerful - he is an incredibly weak candidate: foremost because he stands a good chance of losing the election to McCain. Hillary Clinton is correct in this regard.

She is the stronger candidate. While both he and she are about equal in overall popularity polls vs McCain, she has the better distribution of votes. According to the latest polls she would easily defeat McCain. Obama would win or loose in a squeaker. According to my own tracking of the opinion polls Clinton now leads Obama in overall popularly versus McCain by 0.2% (a virtual tie). (Interestingly both beat McCain in popular vote by about 2%). But as for electoral votes, which is what really counts, Clinton beats McCain easily with between 282 and 318 (270 are needed to win), while Obama only gets between 267 and 272. Moreover her polling numbers have been moving up since early May, while his numbers are stagnent.

Obama would also be a less than ideal President, in my opinion, precisely because he wishes to be a uniter. He compromises too much for my taste. His health care plan is more modest than Clinton's (though the differences between the plans are not all that significant, and any health care plan is better than the mess the U.S. now has) mostly because he thinks he can "sell" it more easily and build a broader coalition to support it. He is clearly thoughtful. But it is not clear he is decisive or politically astute. Being President is not the same as being a university professor. His comments about small town Pennsylvanians probably had more truth to it than most would like to admit, but this sort of speculation, while an interesting insight in a Sociologist, is not useful in a politician. Finally,he si not so principled as he would have us think. He is not averse to sacrifice principal for expediency. His recent resignation from his church proves that. What did he learn about his church (as opposed to Rev Wright) in the past month that he did not already know? Simply that it could be a political liability. He said as much in his explanation of his resignation. Rather than stand up for the principal of pluralism and free speech within his church, he chose to abandon it. This after he had made such a big deal about how important it was to him.

Of course, little of the above has to do with why he is weaker than Hillary in the polls. That, I believe has more to do with good old fashioned racism, and the fact that Obama is, in fact, the more “feminine” of the two. Hillary comes across as the more “macho" one - a “junk yard dog, but ‘our’ junk yard dog” - while he is all cool and thoughtful and willing to talk and compromise if needed. While I find those “feminine” qualities appealing in a leader, many Americans don’t.

So why not just vote for Hillary. Well until this week that is what I would have done (if I was a super delegate!) This despite the fact that Hillary symbolizes the cynical and the hyper-partisan past. And she doesn't just symbolize it. She works at it faithfully. Her position on the gas tax proves she will embrace bad policy just to get votes. Her reference to her leading among “hard working Americans: white Americans” proves she will say anything to get votes. Her increased frenetic energy as her chances got poorer, proves she will do anything to get votes. Her remarks about the RFK assassination prove she will think and scheme anything to get votes.

But I would have, until this weekend, forgiven her all of that, since she presented the more certain chance of beating John McCain.

But this weekend she became a blackmailer and a traitor, and I can’t forgive her for that. This weekend she signalled that if she cannot get the nomination fro herself she will blow up the party and scuttle Obama’s chances to win in November. This weekend showed that she values her own ambitions far above the good of the American people and the world as a whole. If you saw the DNC rules committee meeting you know what I am talking about. If not you can read about it here.

Her supporters (and I can only believe they where scripted, even if only loosely) where rude, crude, and threatening. Bill Clinton may talk about his wife being disrespected, but one only had to watch a few minutes of the TV coverage to see who was being the disrespectful one (and that is putting it way too mildly.) Her supporters, including Mr Ikes, her official surrogate, expressed faux outrage that they did not get to steal the Michigan votes, claiming it was fair election, even though it had only one candidate – Hillary! They made it clear, they will fight to on. Fight Obama that is! It is clear that if Hillary does not win the nomination, she will do little to help Obama (though of course she will pretend to support him) while signalling, not so subtly, to her followers that the nomination was “stolen” from her, and they should either sit on their hands or vote and work from McCain.

I can understand that if she loses the nomination, she may deep down be ambivalent about Obama’s winning the presidency. After all, if he loses, she gets to try again in 4 years. But to be so openly ambitious, to actively stir the pot in the hopes it will cook Obama’s goose, is just too much.

If Hillary would rather see McCain win than Obama, than I would rather take my chances on Obama’s slim chances of beating McCain in the fall.

I won’t give in to blackmail!!

Of course, I am not a super delegate, and not even an American. If I had to live with McCain’s Supreme Court appointments, McCain’s continuation of the deaths in Iraq, McCain’s no-health-insurance, etc … I might yet reconsider. But even then, there so only so much “nose holding” one can do.

So here is hoping that the real super delegates back Obama, and that enough Americans can be persuaded to vote for him. Though not perfect, he is much better than either Clinton or McCain.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Jerusalem of Gold

Each year on "Yom Yerushalayim", or the Shabbat preceding it, my synagogue does something to mark the occasion.

This year our Rabbi made a few remarks and our Israel Connections Committee distributed a booklet of readings.

I have to admit, that I always find this event problematic. Yes, I am emotionally attached to Jerusalem, and I get an emotional charge out of seeing the "Kotel" and the antiquities of the old city. And I have spent many hours - in previous calmer times - exploring the old city, shopping for bargains, and enjoying the "exotic" food. But Yom Yerushalayim also expresses a chauvinistic and irrational attachment to Jerusalem that is only the most extreme example of the destructive emotions and ideas that keeps Israel mired in all of the occupied territories.

Still, the event at my shul has been for the most part low key and benign. This year however, I thought the choice of material that was distributed was problematic.

Below is an excerpt of what I wrote to our Israel Connections Committee about this.


I am writing to you as chair of the Israel Connections Committee to express my disappointment at some of the text in the Yom Yerushalyim readings handed out last Shabbat at shul.

While I don’t believe it is necessary to refer to the problematic parts of Zionist and Israeli history in every published piece or at every mention of Israel, I do think we need to be sensitive that these problems exist, and to avoid glorifying precisely the negative and morally problematic aspects of that history. You and I may disagree as to whether it was necessary for Israel to harm the Arabs in establishing a firm Jewish presence in the land, but I hope we can agree that the denial of Arab existence and/or the subordination of that existence to Jewish national FANTASIES (as opposed to needs) is not something we want to glorify.

Rabbi Grimberg’s reading from the bima of a very thoughtful piece by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on the 1967 re-unification of Jerusalem was a good example of the kind of readings and quotations we should be using. While affirming Jewish historical and emotional attachment to Jerusalem, Rabbi Heschel (and Rabbi Grimberg too, by choosing this piece) noted that possession of the real physical city of Jerusalem challenges us mightily to bring the sublime and universal and ethical ideals we associate with Yerushalyim shel mallah to the real Jerusalem of concreted and stone that we now control. This Heschel quote would have been very appropriate in the readings prepared by the ICC.

On the other hand I found two of the pieces that were included very disturbing, in so far as the quotes should be – I believe - designed to inspire us to our higher ideals, and not hold up our "lowlights" for glorification.

The first is the Herzel quote:

Jerusalem, Diary November 1898

In the afternoon we were on the Mount of Olives
Great moments. What couldn’t be made of this
country-side? A city like Rome, and the Mount of
Olives would furnish a panorama like the Janiculum

I would isolate the old city with its relics and pull out
all the regular traffic; only houses of worship and
philanthropic institutions would be allowed to remain
inside the old walls. ...

Here we have Herzel at his worst. Advocating clearing the old city (nearly the entire city in his day) of it population in order to turn it into a cultural park. It is a triumph of nationalist symbolism over the lives of real people. He is advocating putting the Nation (and even more banally national Symbols) over the needs and feeling of the people who live in the city. (I say “national” and not “religious”, because Herzel scorned the Jewish religion and traditional Jewish values.)

But Hezel can perhaps be forgiven by way of ignorance – this was his first trip to Israel and cultural norms of the 19th century are not what they are today. But the Naomi Shemer song Jerusalem of Gold cannot so easily be apologized for.

Naomi Shemer is a long time supporter of Greater Israel and the Settlement Movement and her lyrics have been excellent propaganda for those advocating retaining the occupied territories come hell or high water. The lyrics of Jerusalem of Gold express her view most succinctly: that ONLY the Jewish presence in Jerusalem counts. The Arab presence does not exist in any meaningful way, and should be ignored. The lyric quintessentially restates the early Zionist slogan (certainly known to be false by 1967 when she wrote the song) that Israel is “a land without people for a People without a land.” (And in my opinion this is THE essence of the moral and strategic problem of Israel and Zionism: what about the people who where living in Israel before the Jewish immigration of the last 100 years?)

The troubling part of the lyric is:

The wells ran dry of all their water,
Forlorn the market square,
The Temple Mount dark and deserted,
In the Old City there.

And in the caverns in the mountain,
The winds howl to and fro,
And no-one takes the Dead Sea highway,
That leads through Jericho.

East Jerusalem is – in May 1967 – depicted as empty! As if there was no life, as if there no commerce, as if Temple mount did not have a mosque on it with thousands praying and visiting each week, as if the entire landscape from Jerusalem to Jericho and the Dead Sea where abandoned.

In the last verse she hopes for the day when the mosques will be gone and the sound of the shofar will be heard on the Temple Mount. (And we know that there are Jewish extremist groups in Israel today that hope and plan to accomplish just that in our lifetimes.)

The attitudes expressed in this song, and in no small part because of a song like this - for too long infected Israeli society and lead to a blindness that is – at least partially – responsible for the moral and strategic mess that we find ourselves in today.

I am aware that the song had become an anthem. But I dare say most North American Jews did not understand what they where singing. In any case, it had faded from popularity, and singing a lyric is not the same as reading it. Reviving this particular song, and including its lyrics as inspirational material in the Yom Yerushalyim pamphlet, is a mistake, in my opinion. It flies in the face of the positive values we all want to promote.

I hope that in future, when the Israel Connections Committee prints material to mark Israel related occasions, it will read the material with a careful eye, and pick materials that do not glorify the worst of our national project, but its best.

I would ask that you pass this note on to the full ICC for consideration.



We will see if I am being naive and arrogant to think I can convince people in this regard. I will keep you posted.