Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The art of the canvass

November 5, 2018

For many years I was a newspaper reporter and didn’t allow myself even the teensiest involvement in electoral politics. No campaign buttons, no bumper stickers, no lawn signs. I didn’t go as far as former Washington Post editor Len Downie, who famously didn’t allow himself even to vote, but I made every effort to show no bias that could be held against my newspaper and its news coverage. This was and still is standard practice in daily newspapers in the U.S., and it’s part of what is so disgusting about Trump and the right wing’s attacks on “biased mainstream media.” Every reporter I worked with over the years made scrupulous efforts to set aside their personal biases – for we all have them – and report in a fair and factual manner, even about politicans they personally found awful.

I wish I could sit down one-to-one with Fox News viewers and explain this to them. We try really, really hard to be fair. This is not a joke or a smokescreen. Journalists are individual people – people like your family, friends, neighbors – working our butts off and taking our responsibility as information providers in a democracy very seriously.


In 2008, I left my last newspaper job in one of the waves of news industry downsizing. I put an Obama bumper sticker on my car. Hooray! Amidst the sadness of leaving my profession, I was a citizen with a public voice again!

In 2012, I did one short round of phone banking for Obama. It was not enjoyable. It was the end of the campaign, and either people weren’t home or they didn’t want to hear from the 432nd person calling them.

In 2016, I went to Las Vegas and did a weekend of door-to-door canvassing for Clinton. It was fascinating, educational, and fun.

This fall, I’ve done a bunch of canvassing for Democratic candidates in swing districts in California’s Central Valley – four days for Josh Harder in Congressional District 10 (near Modesto) and this past weekend for T.J. Cox in CD 21 (south of Fresno).


Getting ready to canvass at Josh Harder’s campaign headquarters in Modesto

Door-to-door canvassing took a little bit of attitude adjustment for me. With a graduate degree and 30+ years of experience in newspapers and nonprofits, I didn’t want to just be a “worker bee.” It felt wasteful to not be using my writing skills or organizational knowledge. But I wasn’t prepared to put in the months of time required for a higher-level role in a campaign, and what these campaigns needed was worker bees. So… off I buzzed.

If you’ve never canvassed, it can seem scary – talking to strangers! What if they disagree with you? What if they yell at you? But the scariness quickly wears off. Maybe two or three out of every ten households are actually at home. You become so happy to get a live person at the door that it almost doesn’t matter if they support the other candidate. And by and large, people are civil if not friendly. The campaign doesn’t want you wasting time on fruitless arguments with diehards for the other side: Your job is to talk to the undecided, identify supporters, and make sure those supporters fill out their mail ballots or go to the polls.


Sign at T.J. Cox’s campaign office in Hanford (CD21)

Canvassing is exhausting. Like going to a zoo or a museum, you may not be covering a lot of miles, but you are on your feet all day. There is also an up-and-down rhythm of stress. You approach a door and your adrenaline rises: Will there be anyone home? Will they want to talk with me? What will I say? No one answers, and your adrenaline level plummets. Then you walk thirty feet to the next house, and the process starts all over again.

In a day of canvassing, there are usually one or two encounters that stand out and make it worthwhile. On one trip to Modesto, I managed to help a Latino voter sign up for an absentee ballot entirely in (my very poor) Spanish. On another trip, I met a single father of four who had volunteered on the Clinton campaign and who offered to volunteer on Josh Harder’s campaign. I met an elderly Filipina who gave me her absentee ballot to turn in – saving her a trip to the post office, and ensuring it wouldn’t get lost or forgotten – and who told me she was praying for Harder every day.


My friends Monica and Lindsey canvassing in Modesto (CD10)


Canvassing with my neighbor Leslie in Turlock (CD10)

In our trip this past weekend to CD21, my friend Beth had a string of luck meeting 18-year-olds who had never voted and weren’t yet registered. She let them know that in California, you can register all the way through election day if you go to the county elections office! They were thrilled to be able to vote – exchanged fist bumps with her – and she racked up another three or four votes for T.J. Cox.

One of the highlights for me of canvassing this year was doing it with various configurations of friends – one trip with the women in my writing group, another with my next-door neighbor, others with Jewish women friends, not all of whom knew each other before the canvass trip. Carpooling to the swing districts provided rare down-time to catch up, share life stories, and learn about each other. Navigating unfamiliar neighborhoods and working through our “turf” together was a bonding experience. On our CD21 trip, the five of us stayed at a wonderful Air B&B on an organic peach farm in Dinuba, and got a tour of the farm from owner Mike Naylor.

Consider election-season canvassing for your next “girls’ weekend” – less expensive than a getaway to a spa or to wine country, and better for the world!

Now we’re one day out from actual voting. I have no better idea than anyone else of what the outcome will be. I’m as wracked by fear and angst as any other liberal right now. But I feel less powerless than I otherwise would because of the “worker bee” canvassing I’ve done.

And I feel heartened by how many other people – both friends of mine and strangers — have been canvassing, phone banking, texting, and writing postcards as part of Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts. They’re not just whining on Facebook – they’re putting in time and doing stuff.

Fingers crossed!

In 2020, I hope to take the next step — not just canvassing for individual days/weekends, but making a commitment of weeks or months to campaign in a swing area.


I’m running for Congress!

January 14, 2015

I’m running for Congress!

The World Zionist Congress, that is.

“Huh?” you may ask. “What World Zionist Congress? I never heard of such a thing. And how the heck is Ilana involved with it?” 

Patience. All will be explained.

The WZC, for starters.

The World Zionist Congress

Founded in 1897 by Theodor Herzl, the WZC started out as a global gathering of Jews devoted to creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It met every few years to elect officers of the World Zionist Organization, which functioned as a kind of state-in-formation during the years of the British Mandate.

21st Zionist Congress in 1939 / Photo from Wikipedia

21st Zionist Congress in 1939 / Photo from Wikipedia

After creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the WZO’s focus shifted to promoting immigration to Israel and connecting Jews around the world – particularly young people – with Israel. Today it oversees a budget of about $30 million, and has joint authority over the $475 million budget of the Jewish Agency.

Leadership and focus of the WZO is decided every few years at a World Zionist Congress, with the next Congress scheduled for Jerusalem in October 2015.

Participation in the Congress is divided up by country, based on the size of the Jewish population in each country. So Israel gets 38 percent of the seats, the U.S. gets 29 percent, and other Diaspora countries get 33 percent. We’re a Big Kahuna!

The U.S. delegation in turn is determined by elections, with different movements within American Judaism fielding slates of candidates.

American Slates in the WZC

The slate that won the most votes in the last WZC in 2008 was from ARZA, representing Reform Judaism. This makes sense since, numerically, more American Jews are affiliated with Reform synagogues than any other set of institutions.

The overall breakdown of the American delegation in 2006 was:

  • ARZA (Reform Judaism) – 55
  • Religious Zionist Slate (Orthodox Judaism) – 35
  • Mercaz (Conservative Judaism) – 32
  • Zionist Organization of America (right of center) – 5
  • Hatikvah (left-of-center coalition supporting the Israeli Labor and Meretz parties) – 5
  • Likud (right of center)– 3
  • Green Zionist Alliance – 2
  • Herut USA (right of center) – 2
  • Reconstructionist Judaism – 2
  • Other – 4

So what about Ilana?

All very interesting, but you are probably still wondering what I’m doing in the middle of this.

I was approached in late 2014 by by an old friend from Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist-Zionist youth movement that was such a key part of my teenage years and formed the base for much of my Jewish and political identity.

At Hashomer Hatzair's Camp Shomria in the mid-70s. I am in the second row, third from right. Photo by Yonit Brownstein.

At Hashomer Hatzair’s Camp Shomria in the mid-70s. I am in the second row, second from right. Photo by Maria Kontos Barrett.

She asked if I would serve as a delegate for Hatikvah – the Progressive Zionist slate.

Hatikvah represents folks who support the left-of-center Labor and Meretz parties in Israel. It also includes alumni of Hashomer Hatzair and Habonim-Dror, the kibbutz-related youth movements. And this year it has added leaders of the New Israel Fund, J Street, and Americans for Peace Now.

In short, it’s the central gathering spot for American Jews who share a vision of Israel as a socially just, democratic Jewish state that is committed to a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.

The name “Hatikvah” (hope) is fitting. We carry on the founders’ hope that Israel will be a just and ethical light among the nations. We persist in our own hope – despite more setbacks than anyone can count — that Israel can reach a negotiated peace agreement with security for its own residents and self-determination for the Palestinians.

How could I say no?

Not quite like student council

I haven’t run in any kind of election since 6th grade student council, when I campaigned via “win with Wendy” posters in magic marker. And these days people spend tens of millions of dollars to get elected to the U.S. Congress.


I was a little worried about what might be involved in being on the Hatikvah slate.

In reality, though, I don’t have to do much. (Except spread the word like I’m doing here!) The slate is headed by big names like folk singer Theodor Bikel, J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, New Israel Fund Executive Director Daniel Sokatch, Princeton political scientist Michael Walzer, and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers. There are about a hundred people on the slate in total. I am WAAAAY down at the bottom.

So unless the slate goes as viral as a stupid-cat-tricks video, there is no way it will win enough spots for me to be seated. It’s not likely I will have to go to Jerusalem to take part in the Congress next October.

My role is less like Hillary Clinton than like a neighborhood precinct captain trying to get out the vote.

So… I’m asking you to vote!

Why vote?

Yes, you can probably vote, even if you never heard of the WZC before this blog post. Here’s what’s required:

  • You need to be Jewish.
  • You need to pay $10 to cover the cost of the election, or $5 if you are under age 30.
  • You need to be at least 18 years old and a citizen or resident of the US.
  • You need to support the Jerusalem Program, a basic set of principles about Israel being the homeland of the Jewish people. You can read the principles here.

In the last set of elections, only 80,000 American Jews voted. So in fact, this is a situation where a relatively small number of votes can have a big impact. YOUR vote can have an impact.

American Jews – especially those of us on the left side of the spectrum – complain a lot about Israeli policies. We complain about the Israeli government not listening to us.

Here is a chance where we are being invited to make our opinions heard!

Granted, the WZC is not going to determine the future of the Middle East. The upcoming Israeli elections will determine who runs Israel for the next few years — much more important than the WZC. But the WZC does have a say over those $400-500 million that are spent on education and settlement.

And the composition of the WZC sends an important message to Israeli policymakers about what American Jews think.

Do you believe that funds for new housing should go to needy areas inside Israel proper, rather than to settlements on the West Bank? 

Peace Now demonstration in Israel

Peace Now demonstration in Israel

Do you believe that Israel should remain a democratic society that respects the civil rights of its minority populations? 

Do you believe that the Israeli government should provide equal status to all streams of religious Judaism, and not treat Orthodox Judaism as the one “official” Judaism? 

Do you believe that Israeli women should have equal rights to travel, dress, work, and pray as they want? 

Do you believe that Israeli should do more to provide economic opportunity and a safety net for its poorest citizens? 

Do you believe that Israel needs a two-state solution for its survival as a Jewish and democratic state? And that it desperately needs leaders with the courage to pursue that goal? 

The Hatikvah slate in the WZC election is a way to make your voice heard on all these points.

I’d love it if you choose to vote for Hatikvah – the slate representing the values of historic Labor Party leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin, the legacy of the kibbutz movement, the energy of progressive American Jews.

But it’s also fine if, as a Reform Jew, you prefer to support the ARZA slate. (Our rabbi at Temple Sinai, Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, is a delegate with ARZA.)

ARZA and Hatikvah share a commitment to religious pluralism and women’s rights in Israel, and to a two-state solution. In fact, Hatikvah formed a working coalition with the Reform and Conservative slates during the 2006 Congress.

Here’s how I personally might decide between those two slates: If my primary concern were religious pluralism within Israel, I would vote for ARZA. If my primary concern were reaching a secure two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians, I would vote for Hatikvah.

How to vote

Voting takes place online. It starts on January 14, 2014 and goes through April 30.

Still not convinced? Here’s a column by Sue Fishkoff, editor of the J newspaper, talking about why you should vote in the WZC election. It’s got the great title, “Time to stop whining and start voting.”

Click here to register, view a list of the various slates, and then vote.

Click here to learn about the Hatikvah slate and its platform.

Click here to read about ARZA, the Reform Zionist slate.

I know, our lives our very busy. Take five minutes and vote right now before you forget!

Then please share this post – or the slate of your choice – with your friends.

Losing a magical lagoon

February 11, 2014

Three years ago we joined my brother’s and sister’s families for a weeklong vacation in Puerto Rico. We rented a house near the beach together and did all the usual touristy stuff – a day in Old San Juan, a hike in the El Yunque rain forest, a boat trip to a snorkeling reef.

The outing I remember most vividly was a nighttime kayak trip into the bioluminescent Grand Lagoon in Fajardo, on the northest corner of the island.

Photos of Pure Adventure, Fajardo

The bioluminescent bay at sunset / Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor

Here’s what bioluminescence is, scientifically:

Millions of tiny, invisible single-celled organisms that light up as a self-defense mechanism when disturbed.

Here’s what it is, experientially:


You paddle at dusk through a narrow, mangrove-lined channel into the open lagoon. Night falls. Sweeping your paddle through the black water, you create a Milky Way of light. The wake behind your paddle glows, it swirls as you swirl, then it dims as you move on.

You run your hand in the water and create more trails of light. A million little lights switching on, shining against the dark, at just a touch.  It’s like being God at the Creation. It’s like being Harry Potter – no, it’s better than Harry Potter, because you don’t even need a wand.


Bioluminescence as a foot touches the water in Fajardo

Waving hands through the water produces light -- b8t these photos don't do it justice / Photo by Thomas Wiewandt, wild

Waving hands through the water produces light — b8t these photos don’t do it justice / Photo by Thomas Wiewandt, wild

Then I learned last week on NPR’s Science Friday that the Fajardo lagoon had gone dark.

This happened back in November. Suddenly there was no more bioluminescence.

No one was able to identify the specific reason. It could have been any one of a number of things – toxic runoff from construction of a nearby wastewater treatment plant, removal of too many mangroves around the bay, changes in temperature or wave action or ????

This made me deeply sad. We are living at a time when large numbers of creatures are on the edge of extinction, due to loss of habitat and climate change. Many of these threatened creatures are bigger and better known than the invisible Fajardo micro-organisms – leopards, polar bears, Monarch butterflies, coral reefs. But these in the Fajardo lagoon were ones that I’d personally experienced.

It’s one thing to know that polar bears – which I’ve only ever seen behind the walls of zoos — may go extinct.

It’s another to lose something that I have seen in its wild home. That I have actually touched. And that is so stunningly magical.

What kind of legacy are we leaving for future generations? Is my generation going to be the dividing line – will history say that in our time, there were snow leopards and Monarch butterflies and bioluminescent bays, but forever after they were limited to  pictures in natural history books?

Will my daughter tell her children, “When I was ten, I snorkeled in a coral reef – back when there were coral reefs?”

I circled around and around in this depressing line of thinking all weekend. Then today I did a little Googling, and it turns out the story of the Fajardo bay may not be as dismal as I thought:  The biophosphorescent lights went dark just temporarily in November. They are apparently back now, at least somewhat.

So I breathed a sigh of relief.

But how relieved should I be?

Just this month, another bio-bay on the nearby island of Vieques went dark, according to Science Friday.

And we are only beginning to see the effects of climate change on our world…. the subtle changes in water temperature, rainfall, or length of a season that can mean the difference between survival and extinction for a species.

The Fajardo biobay is back for now. But for how long?

And what other magical parts of our natural world are we going to lose because our “leaders,” in thrall to the petrochemical industry, continue to quibble and deny?

Hope in a cookbook

December 24, 2012

There is not a lot of hope floating around the world of Israeli-Palestinian relations these days. We’ve got Hamas still in charge in Gaza, as dead-set against coexistence with Israel as ever. We’ve got Netanyahu in charge in Israel, forming ever more hawkish coalitions and sticking his finger in the eye of a two-state solution by moving ahead with massive new settlements in and near East Jerusalem.

But here is hope… in a cookbook.

My daughter had a job providing holiday retail help this past week at Rockridge Home, a hip, friendly gift store in our neighborhood. Yesterday she pointed me to a cookbook they sell called Jerusalem.

Jerusalem cover

Jerusalem is a beautifully-produced hardcover recipe book with gorgeous photos of food and people from Jerusalem. No big deal, right? There are lots of beautiful cookbooks around. But Jerusalem is co-written by an Israeli and a Palestinian — who are warmly willing to credit the cuisines and cultures of the many peoples living in that disputed city.

This is in distinct contrast to the more common approach, which is to fight over who invented hummus and falafel. Jews invented it! No, Arabs! No, Jews! As if it’s not enough to fight over land, water and sovereignty, people even have to fight over sandwich fixings.

In any case, co-authors Yotam Ottolenghi (Jewish from West Jerusalem) and Sami Tamimi (Palestinian from East Jerusalem) work together as chefs and restaurants owners in London. They’ve both lived abroad for longer than they lived in Jerusalem, which perhaps accounts for their ability to collaborate like this.

The book has plenty of wonderful-sounding recipes from Jerusalem. Stuffed artichokes with peas & dill. Stuffed eggplant with lamb & pine nuts. Butternut squash & tahini spread.  But more importantly, it acknowledges the central role that Jerusalem — its tastes, its smells — plays in the deepest hearts of both Jewish and Arab residents.

The flavors and smells of this city are our mother tongue. We imagine them and dream in them, even though we’ve adopted some new, perhaps more sophisticated languages. They define comfort for us, excitement, joy, serene bliss. Everything we taste and everything we cook is filtered through the prism of our childhood experiences; food our mothers fed us, wild herbs picked on school trips, days spent in markets, the smell of the dry soil on a summer’s day, goat and sheep roaming the hills, fresh pitas withy ground lamb, chopped parsley, chopped liver, black figs, smoky chops, syrupy cakes, crumbly cookies….

Jerusalem market, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / photo by Adam Hinton

Jerusalem market, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / photo by Adam Hinton

In a recipe for Roasted sweet potatoes and fresh figs, the authors describe how Sami as a boy used to sneak onto a neighbor’s roof and steal the sweet figs she was drying there. In a section on seafood, they describe ten-year-old Yotam’s first disgusted taste of gefilte fish — “sweet, gray and smeared with gelatinous gunk, it was perceived as a typical remnant of the old Ashkenazic world that was best left behind in eastern Europe.”

Hummus, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Jonathan Lovekin

Hummus, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Jonathan Lovekin

This is a book that acknowledges and cherishes those childhood memories. It doesn’t ignore the political conflict. But it seeks common ground — even where Jewish and Arab foods may be different, their emotional resonance is shared.

Jerusalem-style bagels, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Adam Hinton

Jerusalem-style bagels, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Adam Hinton

It also pays homage to cultural traditions in Jerusalem such as Russian, Greek, Armenian, Lithuanian, Bukharan, Yemeni and Ethiopian that are often overlooked in broad-brush discussions of Israeli versus Palestinian claims.

In this soup of a city it is completely impossible to find out who invented this delicacy and who brought that one with them. The food cultures are mashed and fused together in a way that is impossible to unravel. They interact all the time and influence one another  other constantly, so nothing is pure any more. In facet, nothing ever was. Jerusalem was never an isolated bastion. Over millennia it has seen countless immigrants, occupiers, visitors and merchants — all bringing foodsand recipes from the four corners of the earth.

So why does this mean hope to me?

Certainly there is the inspirational image of the Palestinian and Israeli chefs as partners, collaborators and friends.

But it is also their philosophical approach — acknowledge the “other,” acknowledge the other’s deep emotional connection to this place, and use that common connection to build a partnership.

(Rather than continually trying to trump the other: We came first. We’re more oppressed. We’re more righteous. You don’t really count. In fact, you don’t really exist.)

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

This is what we will need in order to achieve a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians — enough people who accept the other’s deep ties to the land, who respect the other’s culture, who can perhaps even celebrate the commonalities.

Maybe it requires living in diaspora for this to happen, away from the daily body-blows of checkpoints and missile strikes, in a place with a melting-pot tradition like London or America, in a country where the damp, cold winters make a common longing for sunny olive-studded hillsides and fresh tomato-cucumber salads so much more apparent.

This is only a cookbook. And I haven’t even tried making any of the recipes yet.

But it’s also a tiny spark of hope.

Thank you Ten Speed Press/Random House for publishing this! At $35, it’s pretty pricey. But the production values are high, the pictures are beautiful, you can learn a lot about the cultures and foods of Jerusalem, and yes, your $35 buys you a little bit of hope.


Click here to order Jerusalem from an independent bookstore. Or click here to order it (at a discount) from Barnes & Noble. 

Conflicted over the (Israel-Iran) Conflict

February 26, 2012

The New York Times had a front-page story last week about how, exactly, Israel would carry out a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Reporter Elizabeth Bumiller interviewed all sorts of military experts about the logistical challenges of such a strike, even including a map of three possible air routes that Israeli fighter planes could use to reach Iran.

This felt surreal. Such a strike would be a a de facto act of war. Normally it would be planned in deepest secrecy with a goal of utter surprise. But here we were — millions of New York Times readers, to say nothing of the diplomats and pundits — discussing it as casually as we would discuss Jeremy Lin’s basketball prowess or Mitt Romney’s strategy for winning Michigan or Florida.

Possible flight routes for Israeli attack on Iran / Map by New York Times

What kind of  “surprise attack” is this when the entire diplomatic world has been debating it for months, and the New York Times has  printed maps of the flight routes on its front page?

Even with all the public discussion, no one knows what the outcome will be:

  • Maybe it would be a quick surgical strike that slows down (doesn’t stop) Iran’s nuclear production. There would be an explosion of news stories, lots of denunciations and finger-pointing, and then life in the Middle East will go on as usual.
  • On the other hand, maybe this is the equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a “surgical strike” that in fact  launched World War I. Maybe Iran retaliates and wipes out half of Tel Aviv. Maybe other countries like Syria or Pakistan decide to intervene on behalf of Iran. Maybe things escalate further and we end up with some kind of huge international conflagration….

When we read the history leading up to World War I these days, it’s easy to scratch our heads and feel, “What were they thinking with all those alliances? Didn’t people see a catastrophic bloodbath in the making?”

Fifty years from now, will history students scratch their heads and say, “How could the world just have let this confrontation between Israel and Iran happen? Didn’t people see a catastrophic bloodbath in the making?”

I feel conflicted about this whole scenario. I believe strongly in the rule of law, international diplomacy and trying to work things out non-violently. Thirty years ago, I would probably have come down squarely against an Israeli attack.

But thirty years ago, the “enemies” that America and Israel were dealing with were different. We hadn’t seen the emergence of the totalitarian, anti-Semitic, fundamentalist Islamic state that is Iran.

I don’t doubt that Iran’s current government would be willing to use a nuclear weapon against Israel if it had one. Unlike Latin American leftist movements, for instance, the Iranian mullahs don’t differentiate between governments and people — they’d be willing to kill a million civilian Israelis to punish the Israeli government.

So one question is — is Iran in fact close to having nuclear weapons? I have no good way to evaluate this. Most experts seem to think so; but then there are some who disagree. We rushed to judgment on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and later found out we were wrong, so there is good reason to be skeptical. Yet people tend to fight the last battle rather than the current one. Just because Iraq didn’t have WMD doesn’t mean that Iran doesn’t have nuclear capability.

So then there is the second question: Is there a non-violent way to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons?

So far, non-violent approaches like economic sanctions don’t seem to be working. If the pessimists among the experts are right, we don’t have the luxury of five or ten years to wait for sanctions to bear fruit. I see only two non-violent approaches that could defuse an Iranian nuclear threat:

  • A revolution within Iran that brings to power a more moderate government that wants to ally with the West.
  • Complete resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so there is no longer any pretext for Iran to attack Israel.

Neither of those are what you might, in the short run, call “likely.”

So where does that leave me? Conflicted.

I hate the idea of Israel acting outside the law, attacking another country, assigning itself the role of international vigilante, and killing civilians as will inevitably happen in any large-scale military action. It’s so completely counter to the idea of Israel as a light unto the nations, a country built on Jewish ethics.

At the same time, I don’t see an effective alternative.

And so I sit here, reading stories like that Feb. 20 New York Times piece with a combination of surreal fascination and angst. I feel like we are watching two trains head toward each other in slow motion. Everyone sees it; no one can stop it.

Is this how people felt in the run-up to the Franz Ferdinand assassination?

Walls, stones and what is sacred

January 22, 2012

I’m a writer and I swim in words. But occasionally, there is an image that expresses things better than any words I could write.

When I was in Israel back in November, I took several photographs of the stones of the Western Wall because I loved all the textures and colors. It’s a classic image; I thought it might be useful sometime for this blog.

Then, as I wrote about in an earlier post, we walked a few hundred steps outside the Old City to the disputed Arab neighborhood of Silwan. And this is what I saw:

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Photo by Ilana DeBare

When I squinted my eyes, those images blurred and became the same — both patchworks of textured white stone.

One was the Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism. The other was a workaday Palestinian neighborhood.

The Torah portion for my Bat Mitzvah service almost a year ago concerned construction of the Tabernacle, and I talked about how places — official “sacred” places, places in wild nature, other kinds of places and settings — can help us get in touch with the spiritual part of ourselves.

But physical places can also become idols, false gods.

I understand how, for many people, the Western Wall is a sacred place. But what those photos say to me is that living communities — the people in them, no matter the nationality or religion — are equally sacred.

To me, the people of Israel and Palestine will always be worth more than any particular place. No stone wall is worth a human life, no matter how many thousands of years of Jewish history it embodies. No olive tree is worth a human life, no matter how many generations of Palestinian family tradition it represents.

That’s the basis of the land-for-peace concept, the basis of a two-state solution. Both Israelis and Palestinians must give up some places that are precious to them in order to save lives that are ultimately more precious.

With right-wingers like Netanyahu and Lieberman running the Israeli government, and the rejectionists of Hamas tying the hands of Palestinian moderates, that solution seems almost impossibly distant these days.

But governments can change — maybe Israel’s will. And perhaps a more open Israeli government will spark a parallel openness among Palestinians. What we can do, in the meantime, is keep reminding ourselves and our leaders that human lives are more sacred than any walls, trees or stones. That’s why I support groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now.

There! It just took me 379 words to deliver this preachy message.

When really, all it takes is looking at those two images.

Israeli women flash mob for their rights

January 9, 2012

If you’re one of my more tech-savvy readers, you know what a flash mob is — when a group of ordinary people come together, in what appears to be spontaneity but has in fact been orchestrated via cell phone, Facebook etc., and perform a group dance or dramatic action in a public spot. There are some great examples on YouTube of people doing this in places like Grand Central Station. It’s fun to watch the looks on the faces of passersby as they try to figure out what’s going on.

Here’s a video of a flash mob last Friday in Beit Shemesh by a bunch of Israeli women standing up for their rights! (Thanks to the Jewish Chronicle online.)

Beit Shemesh, an otherwise pretty ordinary city between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is the latest hot spot in the ongoing clash between the ultra-Orthodox and modern-minded women in Israel. Signs had been hung in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood instructing women not to walk on the same pavement as men, to dress modestly and not to loiter by the local synagogue. Girls as young as eight and nine are regularly harassed, spat upon and called “prostitutes” by local ultra-Orthodox men as they walk to school.

This particular flash mob is not great as far as choreography goes. (For better choreography, see the classic flash mob doing Do Re Mi in the Antwerp train station.) But I love the spirit behind it and the statement it makes.

Plus, who’d ever have guessed that a song by Queen would become a political statement fro women’s rights in the Middle East?

Silwan, Ir David and the Politics of Archeology

December 2, 2011

On my one free Friday in Israel, my old friend Danny agreed to play tourist with me and visit Jerusalem. We wandered around the Arab souk in the Old City, which was just as filled with smells of zaatar and Turkish coffee as I remembered. We tried to join a free guided tour, only to distract ourselves in conversation and lose the tour group completely within the first three minutes.

“Let’s visit Hezekiah’s Tunnel,” I suggested.

This was an archeological site that hadn’t yet opened when I lived in Jerusalem in 1984-5 — a 1/3-mile-long tunnel deep that had been used to bring water from a spring into the Old City around the year 700 BCE. My daughter had visited it with a Jewish American teen tour in 2010. My brother and sister-in-law had visited it with a tour group from their synagogue last summer. They all raved about it – what wasn’t to love about walking for a quarter of a mile with flashlights through a wet, dark, evocative 2,700-year-old tunnel?

When we reached the entrance to the Tunnel site, though, we found a couple of dozen people sitting on prayer rugs in the street with others gathered around them.. A TV truck. A man in a courtyard giving a speech in Arabic. And a banner  announcing a “protest tent against home eviction in wadi hilweh / silwan.”

Silwan protest / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Classic Jerusalem: A casual morning outing morphs into a dose of cultural conflict and duelling realities.

It turns out that the tunnel is part of an archeological/tourism complex called Ir David that is mired in Israeli-Palestinian politics. There is a legitimate, fascinating archeological site there – the excavations were done by professional archeologists over the course of the 20th century. But then management of the site was outsourced to a group affiliated with Jewish nationalist-religious settlers who are determined to turn Silwan, the poor Arab neighborhood around the excavations, into a Jewish neighborhood.

Dozens of Palestinian families living above or alongside the archeological site are facing eviction from their homes. One was due to be evicted a few days after our visit.

And the archeological site itself has been turned into an exercise in nationalist propaganda. We watched a 20-minute 3-D film (with Avatar-type glasses and snazzy special effects) that combined the most kitschy Charlton-Heston-style images of ancient Israelites with a self-congratulatory, triumphalist narrative – all about how Ir David was the ancient, beloved home of the Jews, how it was captured by King David in blood and bravery, how now children’s voices are heard again there “for the first time in 2,000 years.” (As if no children had lived or played on that hillside in all those centuries that Jews were gone!)

Danny and I continued on and walked part of the tunnel. It’s impressive and cool. But knowing that, above you, people are being evicted as part of a religious land grab tends to dampen the historical thrill.

Inside Hezekiah's Tunnel / Photo by Tamar Hayardeni

Walkways leading into Ir David excavations / Photo by Ilana DeBare

And this is what kills me, makes me absolutely furious.  American Jews visiting Ir David with an organized tour – my brother’s family, my own daughter — experience Hezekiah’s Tunnel as a great romp. An archeological theme park.

They have no clue about the nationalist agenda and the political subtext. They have no idea that there is another side to the story. They are being duped and manipulated by the settlers.

When I lived in Jerusalem in 1984-5, the fascination and also the heartbreak was that the city holds two such completely duelling realities. Each one has its truths, and each one has its propaganda and myths.

It kills me when American Jews go to Israel and see only one side of the story. Sure, each side has its propaganda. But that makes it even more important for people to seek out and hear the stories of the other side.

And archeology doesn’t have to be like this. There are ways to do archeology that respect living communities as well as dead artifacts. There are ways to do archeology that tell an inclusive story of all the peoples living at a site over the millennia, not just the story of those currently in power.

Poking around on the Web later, I found a cool site on archeology and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, called Emek Shaveh. There Raphael Greenberg of Tel Aviv University paints an inspiring vision of how archeology at Silwan / Ir David could be inclusive, people-focused and a force for peace:

Archaeology can provide a robust and viable alternative to nationalist and exclusivist readings of history. Jerusalem’s material remains are so varied and contradictory that only by ignoring large parts of them can a single narrative be offered. Once it is recognized that conflicting narratives can coexist, and that there is no unitary historical truth, then the stranglehold of the past on the present begins to weaken…. Far from the mere confirmation of prior beliefs, the best kind of archaeology challenges what we think we know about the world and about humanity. Perhaps a little less complacency — and a little more humility — about our past is what we need to give Jerusalem a viable future.

We can do so much better, so easily.


The Jewish demographic threat to Israel

November 30, 2011

Like many other American Jews, I’ve heard warnings for a long time about the Arab demographic threat to Israel. If Israel continues to occupy the West Bank, this argument goes, the Palestinian population will outnumber the Jewish population and the country will have to choose between being a Jewish state and being a democracy.

During my visit to Israel this month, though, I heard over and over about a different demographic threat facing the country — an ultra-Orthodox demographic threat.

Recent decades have seen huge population growth among Israeli haredim — the extremely observant, black-hatted sects within Orthodox Judaism that believe halacha (Talmudic law) should govern every aspect of their lives, that don’t accept modern reforms such as the equality of women and men, and that maintain a kind of 17th century shtetl lifestyle in our 21st century world.

Haredim in Jerusalem

The ultra-Orthodox have been exempt from Israel’s compulsory three years of military service since the founding of the state. They receive government funding to run their own school systems, which unlike in the U.S. are not required to teach secular subjects such as math. The ultra-Orthodox in Israel have institutionalized Torah study to a point where few adult men hold jobs: They are all expected to study in yeshiva, regardless of their aptitude or interest. They typically have large families of seven, eight or more children. Sometimes the wives work to support the family, but most haredim live in poverty, supported by Israeli welfare payments or charity from abroad.

Secular and moderately-religious Israelis have had occasional friction with the ultra-Orthodox for years. When I lived in Jerusalem in the mid-1980s, the ultra-Orthodox would throw stones at any cars that happened to drive through their neighborhoods on Shabbat. Secular Israelis chafe at the Orthodox monopoly on marriage and divorce. Feminists continue to protest against Orthodox-driven rules that prohibit women from reading Torah at the Western Wall.

But these occasional conflicts may be dwarfed by the demographic issues looming ahead.

The ultra-Orthodox population is growing at an estimated six percent each year — far above the general Jewish Israeli growth rate of about two percent. That means the ultra-Orthodox population will double every twelve years.

While Haredim today make up about eight or nine percent of Israel’s adult populace, by 2028 they are likely to account for more than one-fifth of the Jewish population in Israel.

One-fifth of the Jewish population relying on the other 4/5 to defend it militarily. One-fifth of the population relying on the other 4/5 to support it financially. One-fifth of the population without the basic educational skills to hold jobs in Israel’s increasingly high-tech economy.

I heard concern about this over and over from the scientific and high-tech leaders I met.

“The way this country is going, we are in deep, deep trouble,” said Zehev Tadmor, a former president of the Technion, Israel’s premier engineering and science university. “Maybe in 20 years the Technion becomes a yeshiva? We will have 27 percent of students who are ultra-Orthodox, and 20 percent who are Arabs. The Arabs are less of a problem because they want to become scientists. What number of ultra-Orthodox can a country bear without them entering into productive jobs?”

Meanwhile, Dan Shechtman, who just won the Nobel Price in chemistry, has been beating a drum about the need for science and math education for all Israeli students — including the ultra-Orthodox, whose secular knowledge is often limited to basic addition and subtraction. Some never even learn multiplication.

“My grandchildren are the sixth generation in this country,” Shechtman said at a Technion ceremony last week honoring him for the prize. “I am a real Zionist. I want them to feel good in this country. The task is to bring about an understanding that we will not have redemption without good education for everybody. We need to make sure every person in Israel receives an excellent education.”

This problem needs to be addressed on multiple fronts. On the political front, the government needs to find the guts to stand up to the ultra-Orthodox and insist that their young people receive a secular as well as religious education. (But that is sadly unlikely, given how the Israeli parliamentary system gives disproportionate power to small parties such as the religious parties when they are needed to form a coalition government.)

On the cultural front, secular and moderately-religious Israelis should insist upon a religiously pluralistic society, and reject the common assumption that religion = Orthodox Judaism.

On the economic front, efforts need to be made to provide training and job opportunities to haredim who are willing to engage with broader Israeli society.

In one example of that last point, the Technion has started an 18-month program of remedial math and science studies for ultra-Orthodox men interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree there. It also offers a three-year program in mapping and surveying at a haredi school in Bnei Brak.

Promising. But those are only little steps affecting a handful of haredim. And the potential solutions present other problems. How far should Israeli society bend to accommodate the integration of the ultra-Orthodox?

Recently several Orthodox Israeli soldiers protested the appearance of women singers at cultural events for the troops. The Army responded by agreeing to eliminate all women soloists. So the talented young women in the Army’s musical unit may now sing as part of a choir, but not solo.

What does the ultra-Orthodox population boom mean for Israel? Are we moving toward something that is a Jewish version of Iran?

Sodom — the sin is not what you think it is

November 11, 2011

Blogger Reb Jeff (alias Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser of Congregation Beit Ha Yam in Stuart, Florida) had a post today that I really liked, so I thought I’d share it with you. You can find the original and the rest of his insightful, inspiring blog at Reb Jeff. (P.S. I added the photo.)

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Vayera: The Children of Sodom

I don’t usually talk about politics on the pulpit. In general, it strikes me as arrogant to claim to know “the Jewish position” on any policy choice our society faces. The rabbis of the Talmud could not agree with each other on the issues of their own day, so how can we imagine that we know what positions they would take on immigration reform, tax policy or gun control? Yet, even if Judaism cannot dictate specific policies, Judaism can teach us values that will guide us as we struggle to find the best way to shape our society.

This week’s Torah portion (Vayera), I believe, has something important to say to us about the values we apply when weighing the needs of the individual against the needs of society as a whole. There are lessons for us in the Torah about the way we think about wealth and its obligations.

We are presented this week with the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Christian tradition, the sin of Sodom is identified with sexual transgression. However, in Judaism, the emphasis is quite different. In forming their interpretation of the story, the rabbis read a passage from the prophet Ezekiel:

Behold, this was the sin of your sister, Sodom—arrogance! She and her daughters had their fill of bread and untroubled contentment. Yet, she did not support the poor and needy. In their haughtiness they committed abomination before Me. That is why I took them away when I saw it. (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

To the rabbis, the sin of the Sodomites was not sodomy, as it is in Christianity. Rather, it was the sin of haughty greed. The rabbis embellished this image of Sodom and Gomorrah with midrashic legends about their selfishness:

After a while, travelers avoided these cities, but if some poor devil was betrayed occasionally into entering them, they would give him gold and silver, but never any food, so that he was bound to die of starvation.  Once he was dead, the residents of the city came and took back the marked gold and silver which they had given him, and they would quarrel about the distribution of his clothes, for they would bury him naked.(Ginsburg, Legends of the Jews, 1:247).

Photo by

It should be painfully obvious how to apply this teaching to our own society. We, in the contemporary developed nations, are living in the most affluent society the world has ever known. The comfortable among us toss around miraculous electronic gadgets as if they were toys (I’m typing on one right now), and we are so used to the luxuries of modern life that we have come to think of them as necessities. Yet, we live oblivious to the poverty next door to us.

In the relatively affluent Florida county where I live, almost 15% of the population is at or below the poverty line. Almost 30% of children live in poverty. Thousands in our community live with hunger as a daily experience in the midst of wealth that would have made the pharaohs blush. Across North America, you do not have to go far to find today’s Sodoms.

The rabbis teach in the Mishnah (Avot 5:10) that there are four types of people: the ordinary people who say, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours,” the foolish people who say, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine,” the pious people who say, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours,” and the wicked people who say, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine.”

Which of these four is the type we would find in Sodom? One might be tempted to say that it is the fourth type—the wicked people who lay claim to everyone’s possessions. Curiously, though, the Mishnah says that it is the first type—the ordinary sort of people who neither share what is theirs nor claim what belongs to others. What is wrong with that kind of “ordinary” thinking?

Our society did not become a place where real poverty and extreme wealth live side-by-side because of rapacious robber barons. Rather, we are a society shaped by the ordinary behaviors of people who believe they are entitled to keep what is theirs and “let everyone else do the same.” It is this attitude that is the recipe for Sodom. In such a society, the prevailing rule becomes “each man for himself” and the prevailing attitude toward the poor becomes “they have none to blame but themselves.” Such ordinary, common evil is what the rabbis so much wanted to warn us against.

I cannot claim that Jewish tradition has specific policies to recommend to us for the creation of a more open-hearted and caring society. After all, there is no prescription in the Torah for the right tax code or the right welfare policy for our times. However, I can say that the rabbis have warned us against building a society on policies that focus more on property rights than on the obligation to care for each other. I ask you to think about the way that contemporary politics puts so much emphasis on keeping the hands of government off of the wealth of the wealthy, and so little emphasis on the immorality of allowing people to go hungry. When you do, consider that we have become the children of Sodom.