Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rav Freedman's Yom Kippur Message

Tonight is the beginning of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, and one of a handful that receives close to impeccable levels of observance (at least in public places) from even the most secular of Israelis, in terms of not eating, driving cars, yacking on mobiles etc. They do however let their kids go cycling and rollerblading down the middle of the totally deserted streets of the city, which is surreal and somehow incredibly beautiful - the buzz of traffic (especially the ubiquitous Israeli honking) replaced by the tinkle of bike bells and sound of children playing everywhere.

Somehow this juxtaposition seems quite appropriate: the solemnity of the day for adults, on a Jewish religious and spiritual level but also as the 36th anniversary of a war that blew away Israel's ideal of invulnerability post-'67; and teenage kids taking advantage of 2 miles of Dizengoff to build up a head of steam on their scooters.

This time of year is always a period of reflection, for the religious and secular, as families get together, broadcasters run their summaries of the year that was, (some) people go to shul in the old-fashioned way, and - even more than it usually does - being in a city composed almost entirely of other Jews, built by our own hand in just the last 100 years, I find myself more contemplative than ever (despite my minimal attendance at shul). I think about all the things I did last year, those I really shouldn't, and consider that the best way to seek forgiveness for the latter is by not doing them again, and striving to redeem myself by actively doing the right things (and doing things right - harming no-one but frittering away time and ability is almost as sinful in my view).

I particularly ponder why I am here - what draws me to Israel, not just on the practical level of it being a financial imperative, a natural break point in my life back in London, crammed full of gorgeous Jewish women at a time when (apparently) I ought to be thinking of settling down with one, and all under delicious blue skies and next to lapping waves.

Some avid readers have been kind enough to post the odd remark or comment on my notes so far, and some more forthright friends have voiced their opinions on my move here. Among these are "I always thought you would go, I am just surprised it took you this long", "why on earth would you live there... there's nothing there", "hope the honeymoon phase lasts", "soooo jealous", "wish I had the courage to do the same" and "still as impartial as ever, Michael!"

With this interesting blend of views in mind, I got to thinking about the bits I am less keen on. Not the obvious stuff that as a Brit abroad, I notice in most places, ie the total ignorance of the concept of personal space, the general barging and pushing by people and vehicles, the grudging service and so on. Israeli society is a long way from perfect, and I question (as do many others) why I would trade the apparent comforts of London life for the daily challenges of living here.

There are problems here on so many levels, with a religious-secular divide, an Arab-Jewish divide, an Israeli-Palestinian divide, a Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide, all the lovely neighbours, water shortages, lack of recycling, general pollution and litter, the fact that having a country has just changed the nature of the Wandering Jew into something more optional, the general level of corruption and protectsia and so on. Then there are all the same ones we suffer from in the UK - a widening gulf between the elite and the poor, alarming levels of hidden poverty, over-reliance on the state by too many sectors of society, concerns about education and health, and the impact of a global financial crisis.

However, the difference I see here, and this is what compels me to be here, is that these are our problems. For all that people in every country like a good old grizzle about such problems, the blame is usually placed on the government or the mystical "they", no practical solutions are mooted, let alone ones which the debaters feel like trotting off and implementing themselves, and the end result is usually a polite but resigned sigh then a cup of tea (British goyim) or a throwing up of hands in the air and an oy va voy then a cup of tea (British Jews).

Here, it is a pretty small country, and the constant interference in each other's personal space and good old protectsia do have their uses. People who feel strongly about something can - and often do - get off their butts and try to fix it. This is the entrepreneurial nature of society, on a commercial and social level. See a disease, an injustice, an empty patch of land, a gap in the market, an opinion that needs a counter-argument, and go do something about it.

For me this is the Israeli way. Or at least, it was.

My greatest concern for Israel is that young people here are tired. They are tired of creating your heart and cancer drugs, your mobile phone chips, your laptops, your desalination and solar technologies, your irrigation systems, your instant messenger, your citrus fruit, only to receive endless calls for a boycott of Israeli goods.

They are tired of silently suffering 8,000 rockets aimed at them with no international condemnation, tired of responding by emailing, texting and leafleting the civilians near the rockets to please step aside, before putting troops on the ground at great risk to check if they left before firing back, when airstrikes would be safer for them, tired of the anonymous and unproven claims of systematic abuse of civilian populations and property during this mission, tired of the world believing every one of the blood libels spread by a side that threw its own brothers off buildings, tired of having to keep checkpoints because although they are inconvenient, they do cut the threat of bombs, tired of removing hundreds of them at their own risk, but getting no thanks from anyone, least of all the Palestinians, tired of being the ones to make concession after concession when the reward for doing so is 8,000 rockets.

And you know what? Sixty-one years of living in this neighbourhood, trying to make peace with neighbours in a white Western Ashkenazi philosophical manner, trying to "civilise" them, has not worked. In fact I think the opposite is starting to happen. Instead, they are brutalising us.

Let us not just blame the average Palestinian in the street - it is the result of years of steady inculcation of the message that Jews have no claim over any part of this region, that Jews are evil, that Jews drink the blood of Palestinian children, that Jews killed Mohammed al-Durra, that Jews invented the Holocaust.

For as we tumbled into a chicken-and-egg of being attacked, having to occupy these people, thereby unintentionally and unwillingly reinforcing these myths, and creating the next generation of attackers, the world did not stand idly by. Far from it. The world perpetuated this state of affairs by funding the camps, the textbooks, the weaponry, by allowing the smuggling, the revision of history, the barrage of rockets, by failing to even maintain a pretence of impartiality in its reporting, its institutional rulings, its policies.

So to all those people out there in the world, who really believe they are fair-minded decent liberal people, and if only nasty little Israel would learn to behave, everything would resolve itself nicely, my message
this Yom Kippur is this. You should look at yourselves and understand that you hate Israel because we are a reflection of you. A quote from Stephen King's article in the Irish Examiner - "could it actually be that we see Israelis as very much like ourselves – sophisticated, prosperous, well-educated, fairly pale-skinned democrats? Do we hate ourselves that much?"

I propose that you are so terrified of having this same situation on your own doorstep on a daily basis, and more so, terrified of how you would react, whether submissively or repressively, that you demonise Israel even as it struggles with these demons on a daily basis.

Abbas, Erekat et al have admitted in the past few months (just not to the English-speaking media) that they will effectively never sign a peace treaty. They retained the right to try and wipe out Israeli in their constitution, they stated that there is only Allah above and below the Temple Mount (ie even a theoretical Jewish/Israeli right to what is under the Dome of the Rock would be rejected because the Muslim world would tolerate no less, and how can any Israeli government - especially one in coalition with the frummers, sign that away?!), and they continue with the usual equivocations elsewhere. And these are the "moderates"!

This is a conundrum for the world to resolve - cue throwing up of hands and an exasperated sigh, followed by a cup of tea and a spot of BBC News.

To Israelis and to Jews everywhere, my message is that we do not have to be brutalised by our neighbours, enemies and critics, and we should not try to impose our own cultural and philosophical norms on them.

For the Jews, whether in the Diaspora or Israel, instead let us look to ourselves, to all the problems we need to fix internally. Why is there such visceral hatred between settlers and peaceniks, even though they both love Israel and their enemies want them both dead or exiled (just maybe in order)? Why do I not have a mixed-recycling bin as even backward Blighty manages in many areas? Why does the Gordon Beach manage to look pristine on the sand and in the water most days, but is still subject to a layer of flotsam and debris on others? Why must Israeli drivers continue to kill more civilians than the rockets and bomb-belts? Why can't Israeli society learn that Jews have been around for six millenia, outliving every other tribe and nation, including the ones who tried to wipe us out, and therefore show just a little care and patience when it comes to customer service, waiting, queuing, giving a smile every now and then? Why is anyone homeless or hungry in this land, where we have several billionaires, GDP per capital that competes with Europe, and we "have never seen a righteous person in need"?

Why does everyone use the excuse of "this is the Middle East" to explain away every problem (including why Israel is maybe becoming more desensitised to brutality and violence) when the Bauhaus architecture, phenomenal technology, H&M and Ikea, obsession with education, constant self-flagellation, democracy, social liberalism, melting-pot of opinions and beliefs, and easy ability to obtain schnitzel clearly mark us out as a Western society, regardless of which shore we have washed up on?

We are in a unique and blessed situation. Israel was formed by "kibbutz galuyot", the ingathering of exiles - but it is also "Kibbutz Galuyot" in the sense of being a commune of people from the world over, with their ideas, experiences and enthusiasm, and despite the Israeli post-army wanderlust, still nowhere else to go that accepts us and that we can really call home.

All those years of galut mean we have built up some incredible attributes and experience in how to make the best of what we have, how to make the transient into the permanent, how to give to those around us even as they restrict, spite and persecute us, how we tread the line between their grudging respect and seething jealousy. We do this by looking after ourselves first - the family unit, the synagogue, the shtetl, the community, the city, and now that we have our own country, we can try to improve our nation as a whole.

For the Jews, cue throwing up of hands, an oy va voy and a cup of tea. But after Yom Kippur, let us start finding some solutions for our own problems.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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