Saturday, July 22, 2017

Why Does Terrorism Always Interrupt the Beauty of Israel

As is so often the case on a trip to Israel, terror intrudes on all the fun and the learning. I will share with you all the interesting things the group has been doing the past few days, but, to be perfectly honest, it feels somewhat hollow, given the acts of terror and the rising of tensions. Not wanting to bury the lead, I will start with that.

Druze Police Officers Kamil Shnaan and Haiel Sitawe

It started last week with the murder of two police officers, both Israeli Druze on the Temple Mount. The Israeli response was to put up metal detectors to make sure no guns could be smuggled in. There are metal detectors at the Western Wall, metal detectors at the Vatican, even metal detectors at Mecca and Medina. However, many Palestinians, ever worried about Israelis wanting to rebuild the Temple and take over the Temple Mount, saw this as a change in the status quo, and thus called for protests (actually they called for a "day of rage," not the kind of peaceful protests you might be thinking of from Selma, Alabama) to defend the Al Aqsa Mosque. These protests turned into rioting led to 3 Palestinian deaths.

To avenge that, an Arab terrorist broke through the security fence, and stabbed a 70 year old Grandfather and his two sons celebrating a Shabbat meal in a settlement called Halamish, something you can read about here, Murder in Halamish Settlement.

I should probably just leave it there, but I can't  help putting in a little bit of commentary. So far, you have innocent Israeli police officers shot, a reasonable response of putting up metal detectors, and more Palestinian terrorism. Yet much of the response of the world and, I might add, the group I am traveling with, seems to be "what could Israel have done differently to prevent the terrorism." Answers range from working with the Waqf (Muslim religious authorities who control the Temple Mount) to simply backing down and not putting up the metal detectors, as reasonable as they seem. My view is that in cases like these I think nothing Israel would have done would have prevented the violent response. As Jews, while we must ask ourselves these difficult questions, history seems to teach us that whether Israel responds or doesn't respond, tries to accommodate or refuses to accommodate, keeps occupying (the West Bank) or ends an occupation (Gaza), the response is violence and the blame is always placed on Israel. That's just how I see it.

On the other hand, you are driving, even if you have the right of way, it's better to yield than to die. Sometimes, Israel needs to do the same thing. They were absolutely justified in putting up those metal detectors. It's counter intuitive, but as reasonable as metal detectors are, this response did ultimately lead to more violence rather than less, and it could get worse from here. Metal detectors usually save lives; in this case, they may have cost lives. And never underestimate Israel's ability to overreact and increase the tension, either by official responses (demolishing homes, bombing terrorist centers) or by vigilante groups like "Price Tag," who will avenge the murders, killing innocent Palestinians in the process. All of this is quite depressing, of course, but if I am talking about what we are seeing in Israel while I am here, this has to be front and center. In any case, back to the trip.

One highlight was a meeting with activists in the LGBTQ community in Israel. Several were involved with Jerusalem Open House, which is an organization which provides support to lgbtq people of all kinds, Israeli and Palestinian, religious and secular. I particularly enjoyed hearing from Daniel Jonas and Zehorit Sorek, pictured below. Both are Orthodox and Gay, and Zehorit is a candidate for the K'nesset. A fascinating part of their stories is that, despite Orthodox law's disapproval of their sexuality, they refuse to give up their observance of commandments (other than the ones against homosexuality because it is part of their very core). Both said their parents cared less about their sexuality than their observance of Shabbat and other mitzvot, which upset many of our group, because it seemed insulting to other streams of Judaism and religious pluralism. It felt like we were speaking two different languages, but it is important for us to hear their stories for what and who they are, even if our entire agendas don't necessarily match.


We shared Shabbat lunch with Anat Hoffman, director of the Israeli Religious Action Center and best known for her work with Women of the Wall. Her group does a lot of other important human rights work as well, particularly through the courts. Their group has made it illegal for El Al to ask women to change their seats on flights just because Orthodox men might feel they are unable to sit next to women, done essentially the same thing with Israeli buses, are fighting against racism within Israel, and, of course, continue their work with Women of the Wall. The delay by the Israeli government of the compromise of opening a new section which allows mixed prayer at the Wall, essentially created by Anat and Natan Sharansky, is especially painful right now, but the work goes on. To learn more about this cause, click here: Women of the Wall.

There were other speakers, but I have written too much already. Our evening concluded with a visit to Machane Yehuda at night, something I have never seen before. That is a serious party that I am way too old for. Still, it was fun, especially the Kosher beef bacon burger at a restaurant called Crave. And we had a night tour guide whose name was Karen, who pronounced it exactly the same way my wife does, because she was also from Philadelphia. She talked about all kinds of friendships going on between religious and secular, Israelis and Palestinians, artists and scholars, and that includes the ultra Orthodox. It was great to end such a sad day with such a positive, hopeful message. Hatikvah.

On to Tel Aviv and the North tomorrow.

Shavua tov from Jerusalem!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Builders, Negotiators, Pollsters, and Settlers


As busy as Day 1 was, Day 2 was even busier. Today was a story of conflicting narratives, and once again, what an incredible job by AIPAC's Educational Foundation for exposing us to such a broad range of experts.

The day started at 5 in the morning with a visit to one of the many checkpoints in the Security Fence. built to prevent suicide bombers from coming to Israel. We got to hear about it from the main architect of the entire project, Col. Danny Tirza, as we observed what was a relatively smooth day of Palestinians coming into work from the West Bank. Most of the time it is an efficient operation, though it can feel humiliating for Palestinians to have to pass such a checkpoint every day. Most of the time it runs very smoothly, though Col. Tirza explained how they actually have prevented 22 pipe bombs in the past year at this checkpoint alone, including one found in a 7 year old's backpack. At most places, it is a fence, not a wall. He hopes it will come down one day, but for now, his goal is to balance security with the dignity of those who have to go through the process.

Col Danny Tirza, Main Architect of Israel's Security Fence
Palestinians workers having passed the
checkpoint, waiting for rides to Israel
We next met with Saeb Erekat, Chief Negotiator for the Palestinians. He has been involved from Oslo until now and has seen it all. He represents an odd combination of hope and despair, believing that peace is both right around the corner yet perhaps never really achievable. He is still fully committed to the idea that a 2 State solution is the only way. He is certainly anti-extremist, at least theoretically, and it was important to hear his differing perspective and narrative. The pictures below, from a pamphlet given to each of us by his office, are illustrative of this. What we call a security fence he calls a wall. His version of the map of Israel/Palestine is very different from the ones we usually see, and that is something we need to unders But when we asked him his thoughts on why Palestinians keep naming streets and schools after terrorists/martyrs (which we asked him in several different ways), his answer was always to blame Israel for not making peace. 

Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Arekat


A map paints a thousand words



Our meeting with Palestinian pollster Kalil Shikaki was another combination of optimism and pessimism. I love numbers and polls, so I enjoyed his presentation immensely. He talked about the idea that 67% of Palestinians actually support the idea of a two state solution, a number that is up versus 2 years ago (I should point out that what that means to them, in terms of borders is very different than Israel's view), but it was fascinating to hear and gives us some reason for hope. Unfortunately, about 50% support violence against civilians, which is problematic, to say the least.
Palestinian Pollster Professor Kalil Shikaki
Our next visit was to Rawabi, a new city built from scratch in the West Bank with entirely private capital. It is beautiful,with arcades and soccer fields and fancy stores and restaurants. Its founder, entrepreneur Bashar Masri, is a fascinating guy, straight out of Tech Central Casting (he looks and sounds like a venture capitalist from Silicon Valley). Of course he would love a peace process, but he's not waiting for it. His view is that you have to improve the lives of Palestinians through economic investment. You can't wait for peace to do that, so he isn't.

Palestinian Entrepreneur Bashar Masri of Rawabi
Not so far away in terms of kilometers but a world apart in terms of everything else is the Israeli West Bank City of Efrat. Efrat, next to Bethlehem, is essentially a suburb of Jerusalem but is over the "green line," and thus considered an illegal settlement. In any theoretical 2 state solution, however, it will be "swapped" to be part of Israel. Uniquely, there is no security wall around it, thus allowing relatively free access to surrounding Palestinian villages. According to their colorful Mayor, Oded Ravivi, he and leaders of the villages made their case to people like Danny Tirza (see above), not to build it there, so plans were scrapped. He claims to have excellent relations with the villages (hard to tell for sure, because he is quite the storyteller), but he has evidence. See the fascinating story below, whereby he invited leaders of the surrounding village to his Sukkot party. They ended up taking selfies with Israeli soldiers and police, for which they were promptly arrested by the Palestinian authority.  http://www.timesofisrael.com/pa-releases-palestinians-arrested-over-sukka-visit/. Arrested for grass roots relationships without permission? We have a long way to go.

Efrat Mayor Oded Ravivi
Finally, our evening concluded with a talk from Times of Israel Editor-in-Chief and Founder David Horowitz (not to be confused with right wing columnist David Horovitz). If you don't read this publication, you should. It provides multiple perspectives on all aspects of Israel.

                       Times of Israel Editor and Founder David Horowitz              

          And, finally, a little video message from yours truly.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

2 Knesset Members, 3 Sacred Documents, 1 Arab Citizen of Israel, 1 Institute for Democracy,Protests, a Day of Rage, and That's Just the 1st Day!


What a day! It started at 3 AM. That wasn't on the schedule. That was just the jetlag. I couldn't get to back to sleep, so after tossing and turning for several hours, decided to take a morning jog down to the Western Wall. The Wall has dominated the Israeli news in the last few weeks, first because of the suspension of the deal the Israeli government made to open up a better space for egalitarian prayer and then because of the killing of two police officers on the Temple Mount (that is why this picture includes the policeman; there is so much extra security there right now, even at the crack of dawn). One of the things we hope to do here is both lobby Israelis to reopen the egalitarian prayer space project, since I, and most American Jews feel so strongly about the concept. Yet, even with all its problems, I am mystically and inevitably drawn to it. It was the first place I wanted to visit, even at 6 AM, and I literally ran to it.

Our day officially started with a visit to the K'nesset.

Just the California Rabbis
The Full Contingent of Progressive Rabbis on this Trip
Upon our arrival we were met by protesters, but not the ones we were expecting. We were expecting something having to do with the "day of rage." Palestinian leaders declared that today should be a day of rage? Why? Because in response to Palestinian terrorists shooting and killing those two policemen (who were Arab Druze, by the way), Israel put up metal detectors leading to the Temple Mount. They have had them at the wall for years. But some of the Palestinian leaders read that as an Israeli claim to sovereignty, as ridiculous as that might sound. When people use guns to kill, metal detectors for security makes sense.

                                      
Instead, though, we were met by people from the North of Israel wanting the government to invest more in green energy. It was wonderful to see that Israelis care not only about things like security, but about the environment.




We met with two K'nesset members. First was Stav Shafir of the Zionist Union (formerly Labor) party, the moderate left wing party. She is only 32 years old and was elected at 27, after leading a grass roots social justice movement for fair housing. She is really quite a rock star, the kind of progressive Zionist most people in our community would likely support. She is a big believer in religious pluralism in Israel, and her dynamic presence is inspirational.

Knesset Member Stav Shafir
We then met with another member of Knesset, Yehuda Glick, who is a member of the ruling party, Likud. He was not expected to actually be in the Knesset, since he was way down on the party list (in Israel you vote for the party, not the person), but when others dropped out, he ended up serving. He is not like most politicians; he is completely unfiltered. That's the refreshing part about him. The problem with him is that he is a fanatic. He wants to build the Temple back on the Temple Mount, which no other member of his party does, since it would likely bring World War III immediately as well as change how we "do" Judaism. Even stranger, he is a big supporter of religious pluralism (meaning rights for Reform and Conservative Jews within Israel), despite his fanaticism about other issues. Israel is a strange country. But I give a lot of credit to AIPAC for making us meet with him as well as those we are inclined to agree with. We kept hearing from, just about every speaker across the political spectrum that, including Arab citizens of Israel, that as American Jews, we must engage with all Israelis, not just the Left. That's how we will have the most influence. Pressure and protests only increases Israel's feeling of isolation and entrenches Israel in its positions. I don't know if I completely agree, but it was certainly something to think about.

We then paid a visit to the top secret Israeli archives, where we saw several important documents not available to the general public, including:


The actual peace agreement
with Egypt 
The U.N. Statehood Vote
Gun used to assassinate Yitzchak Rabin
We also met with speakers from the Israeli Democracy Institute, Haaretz Commentator Amos Harel, and Mohammed Darweh, an Arab Citizen of Israel who serves as an advisor to the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Israel. He talked about Israel's poor record on rights for Arab citizens of Israel, socially, economically, and politically. He did not pull punches, giving it to us straight. Again, credit to AIPAC for showing us a real insider's look at Israel, warts and all. But he also pulled no punches with the Palestinians. The advice he gives them is that the road to peace will go through Tel Aviv, not Brussels or the United Nations. Israel has proven time and again that pressure doesn't work.
 Arab Citizen of Israel and Advisor Ohammed Darweh

And that was just the first day. I look forward to sharing more tomorrow when we visit a border crossing, Ramallah, and a West Bank Settlement.

Laila tov! 

Monday, April 4, 2016

2 Knesset Members, 3 Sacred Documents, 1 Arab Citizen of Israel, 1 Institute for Democracy,Protests, a Day of Rage, and That's Just the 1st Day!

July 19, 2017


What a day! It started at 3 AM. That wasn't on the schedule. That was just the jetlag. I couldn't get to back to sleep, so after tossing and turning for several hours, decided to take a morning jog down to the Western Wall. The Wall has dominated the Israeli news in the last few weeks, first because of the suspension of the deal the Israeli government made to open up a better space for egalitarian prayer and then because of the killing of two police officers on the Temple Mount (that is why this picture includes the policeman; there is so much extra security there right now, even at the crack of dawn). One of the things we hope to do here is both lobby Israelis to reopen the egalitarian prayer space project, since I, and most American Jews feel so strongly about the concept. Yet, even with all its problems, I am mystically and inevitably drawn to it. It was the first place I wanted to visit, even at 6 AM, and I literally ran to it.

Our day officially started with a visit to the K'nesset.

Just the California Rabbis
The Full Contingent of Progressive Rabbis on this Trip
Upon our arrival we were met by protesters, but not the ones we were expecting. We were expecting something having to do with the "day of rage." Palestinian leaders declared that today should be a day of rage? Why? Because in response to Palestinian terrorists shooting and killing those two policemen (who were Arab Druze, by the way), Israel put up metal detectors leading to the Temple Mount. They have had them at the wall for years. But some of the Palestinian leaders read that as an Israeli claim to sovereignty, as ridiculous as that might sound. When people use guns to kill, metal detectors for security makes sense.

                                      
Instead, though, we were met by people from the North of Israel wanting the government to invest more in green energy. It was wonderful to see that Israelis care not only about things like security, but about the environment.




We met with two K'nesset members. First was Stav Shafir of the Zionist Union (formerly Labor) party, the moderate left wing party. She is only 32 years old and was elected at 27, after leading a grass roots social justice movement for fair housing. She is really quite a rock star, the kind of progressive Zionist most people in our community would likely support. She is a big believer in religious pluralism in Israel, and her dynamic presence is inspirational.

Knesset Member Stav Shafir
We then met with another member of Knesset, Yehuda Glick, who is a member of the ruling party, Likud. He was not expected to actually be in the Knesset, since he was way down on the party list (in Israel you vote for the party, not the person), but when others dropped out, he ended up serving. He is not like most politicians; he is completely unfiltered. That's the refreshing part about him. The problem with him is that he is a fanatic. He wants to build the Temple back on the Temple Mount, which no other member of his party does, since it would likely bring World War III immediately as well as change how we "do" Judaism. Even stranger, he is a big supporter of religious pluralism (meaning rights for Reform and Conservative Jews within Israel), despite his fanaticism about other issues. Israel is a strange country. But I give a lot of credit to AIPAC for making us meet with him as well as those we are inclined to agree with. We kept hearing from, just about every speaker across the political spectrum that, including Arab citizens of Israel, that as American Jews, we must engage with all Israelis, not just the Left. That's how we will have the most influence. Pressure and protests only increases Israel's feeling of isolation and entrenches Israel in its positions. I don't know if I completely agree, but it was certainly something to think about.

We then paid a visit to the top secret Israeli archives, where we saw several important documents not available to the general public, including:


The actual peace agreement
with Egypt 
The U.N. Statehood Vote
Gun used to assassinate Yitzchak Rabin
We also met with speakers from the Israeli Democracy Institute, Haaretz Commentator Amos Harel, and Mohammed Darweh, an Arab Citizen of Israel who serves as an advisor to the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Israel. He talked about Israel's poor record on rights for Arab citizens of Israel, socially, economically, and politically. He did not pull punches, giving it to us straight. Again, credit to AIPAC for showing us a real insider's look at Israel, warts and all. But he also pulled no punches with the Palestinians. The advice he gives them is that the road to peace will go through Tel Aviv, not Brussels or the United Nations. Israel has proven time and again that pressure doesn't work.
 Arab Citizen of Israel and Advisor Ohammed Darweh

And that was just the first day. I look forward to sharing more tomorrow when we visit a border crossing, Ramallah, and a West Bank Settlement.

Laila tov! 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Obligatory Slide Show

I didn't take as many pictures as I would have liked. But this may be the most memorable trip ever--for good and bad.

.

video
L'hitraot Israel. I am sure I will see you again soon.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Red Alert Jerusalem


Did you know there's an app for that?  Yes, there is a real app on the iphone called "Red Alert" that sounds an alarm on your iphone and warns you when a bomb is on its way and in what locale. From there, you have somewhere between 15 and 25 seconds to take cover, preferably in a bomb shelter. If not a bomb shelter, you are instructed to move anywhere indoors that you can. If you don''t have time to get indoors, take shelter beside a parked car. If you still don't have time for that, hit the ground and cover your head with your hands. After that, well, I suppose you can continue to pray.
 

  All day long, as Hamas, the Al Aksa Martyr's Brigade, and other Palestinian terror groups reigned over 100 bombs on Israeli civilian targets, the app kept ringing. Most of the alerts were for the cities in the South--Sderot, Ashdod, Asheklon, Moatza Ezorit, and others. The fact that bombs were not falling close to where I was staying in Jerusalem riddled me with guilt. After all, these are still the people of Israel, people I think of as nothing less than my extended family.  Am I so self centered that my first reaction is not "how terrible for the people of the South," but "thank God that my family and I are safe?" I also can't really begin to imagine what it must be like having to worry every single moment that a rocket may be on its way in about 15 seconds.

But around 6 PM, as we were sitting in our apartment, the alert suddenly read "Jerusalem." Now I had my family's moment of worry. We quickly put on shoes and headed for the bomb shelter in our building. Why didn't we hear the siren? The other people in the shelter told us that it was quite loud. Why didn't we hear it? It's nice to be staying in a quiet apartment, but sound proof? Can we pay less for an apartment that's not completely sound proof?

The all clear came about 2 minutes later. Four bombs actually made their way to the Jerusalem area, two of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome, while the other two landed in open fields just outide of the city. Debris from one of them fell onto the roofs of some houses in a religious community of Jerusalem. 
Heading down into the bomb shelter or "miklat" in our apartment building.

What to do now? Do we hunker down in the apartment for the next two days or do we try to "not let the terrorists win" by returning to normalcy as quickly as possible? And is this the time for making statements with my actions or making sure my children are safe? The guilt has taken a new form now.

Well, we decided to go out to dinner anyway. Restaurants have bomb shelters too, right, and at least there we could be sure we would hear the sirens. We expected to see nobody out on the streets, and while it wasn't as crowded as usual on a Thursday night on Ben Yehuda Street, there were definitely plenty of folks out and about sitting in the restaurants and cafes.


BBYO Regional Presidents Then
And Now
We met my long-time friend Brenda and her husband at our favorite place, Rimon Bistro. Brenda and I were the Regional Presidents of BBYO in the Bay Area back in the early 80's, and it's like we never stopped, both of us still working in the Jewish community on different sides of the world. Fortunately, there were no bombs in Jerusalem during dinner, though Red Alert reminded me that at least 14 more fell in the rest of the country during our leisurely meal.

But now, having the illusion of it "not being in our yard" shattered, every sound on the walk there made us just a little bit jumpy-- a truck running over a metal grate, a chair falling down, a siren from a police car with an extremely loud announcement from a loud speaker, which turned out to be just a police officer pulling someone over for speeding. The strangest sound of all, though, came from a car blasting a radio. The drum beat, in our state of mind, sounded like an explosion. It was just music, though.
 
Then again, it wasn't "just" music. After we decided it wasn't a bomb, we thought that maybe it was a rap song. But no, the car was blasting the song from the morning service. "V'ha-er eineinu b'toratecha, v'dabek libeinu b'mitzvotecha," enlighten our eyes with your Torah, and let our hearts cleave to your commandments."
 
And there was our sign. In this time of fear and uncertainty and red alerts, I pray O God, for the people of Israel, for the peace of Jerusalem, and that none of us of any religion or nation should live in fear. Instead, let us cleave to You, O God, and elighten our eyes to Your Torah, to peace, and to hope.
 
And now, a few pictures of our friends who are here weathering the storm along with us and beyond.
 
With our former Office Manager, Aliza Schechter, at a Cafe in Tel Aviv

With former Bat Mitzvah student and future entrepeneur Eva Sasson in Jerusalem


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Safe and Sound Yet Concerned and Confused

Dear Friends,

The short version is the title above. All the rest is commentary, as Rabbi Hillel might say.

Warning: Political opinions ahead.

Today is probably the first time I have had to think about my personal safety in Israel since at least the second Intifada in the early 2000's and possibly even the Gulf War in 1990/91. My brain understands that I am much more likely to be the victim of a violent crime in Oakland than a bomb in Israel, but my heart and stomach are still tied up in knots.

We were actually out to dinner with our friends from the congregation, Gary Sherne and Sandy Frucht, in Tel Aviv tonight, when the wait staff calmly told us to follow them to the "miklat," the bomb shelter nearby. We followed the wait staff to the center of the building where the restaurant was located, away from glass. After about 5 minutes, the all clear was sounded and we went back to the table. After dinner, we drove back to Jerusalem, wondering what we would do if a siren sounded. Would we even hear it?  We decided we would do whatever the other cars on the road were doing. The drive was uneventful, except that every time the GPS would act up, we were just a bit more nervous than usual that we might get lost.

What is most unusual about this particular time is that bombs have never really reached Jerusalem or Tel Aviv before. When Hamas bombs Sderot or Ashkelon, it hardly makes the news. But Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are different. As thankful as we are for the quiet times of the last two years, Hamas has used that very quiet to arm themselves with more sophisticated weaponry. The very same calm that gives us hope creates conditions that make the conflict that much worse when tensions inevitably resume. Thankfully, the Iron Dome is interecepting nearly all of these bombs and not a single Israeli has been killed as of this writing. But again, there goes the brain. Logic only takes us so far when there is a rock in the pit of your stomach.

On the emotional side, I feel a tremendous solidarity with the people of Eretz Yisrael. We are getting a small taste of what it is like for them every day, living with the reality that their civilian population can be deliberately targeted at any time.

It is important for me to add that the retaliatory crime of the Israeli teenagers who murdered Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir was a heinous and horrific crime. It makes me sick to my stomach. My heart goes out to his family. Actually hearing that one of the families of the three Israeli teenagers who was murdered and kidnapped reached out to them was unbelievably heart-warming. I was also proud to hear that Israel had found the suspects and arrested them immediately. There was and is no denial.  And yet, the anger I feel that Hamas' reaction was to bomb the heck out of as many Israeli cities as possible is real and raw. And the Israelis are my family. When my brother is attacked, my first reaction is to defend him. Only later can I begin to deal with the more difficult questions that might follow.

For now, I leave us with two prayers.

Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha'olam, she'g'malani kol tov.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has delivered me from danger in order to do good.

Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha'olam, haporeis sukkat shalom aleinu v'al kol amo Yisrael.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, may God spread over us a Sukkah of peace and over all the people Israel.

L'shalom,

Rabbi Mark Bloom