Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Chofetz Chaim and Proper Speech

I recently started studying Chofetz Chaim with a friend, my second reading of the text, and realized there is no comparable secular framework, that I am aware of, for such comprehensive mindfulness of speech and thought. Indeed, the trend these days is to express one's thoughts in words with the least hesitation and forethought, and only then to deal with the repercussions. If one were to strip the text of its Jewish focus, it may remove some pillars of support, but preserve much good spiritual philosophy for the general public. Perhaps I'll write some of the thoughts that cross my mind on the subject of loshon hora - evil speech, ("gossip", roughly) - as we go through the text. In the meantime, here is a related story.

I once learned of two people speaking about me without my knowledge. I am generally quite oblivious to such machinations, particularly within the community, as I tend not to pry into peoples lives and expect reciprocation. Unfortunately, this sometimes generates unintended consequences, as some individuals, left to their own devices, will fill a void with shocking obscenities I could never have contemplated. In this particular case, I was informed through a bystander that rose in my defense, and who felt I should know, in order that I correct the record.

I did not think much of it, and was quite predisposed to ignore the issue, until much later, after the matter had stewed in my mind. The actual accusations were easy enough to refute, trivial even, and I had no great urge to challenge them - misdirection and ambiguity can have its advantages. What eventually triggered my anger was the context - the who and the why of what transpired. These were no boors, no simpletons; nor was their discussion aimed at achieving some positive outcome. This was a case of conduct unbecoming, and that, as a fellow Jew, I felt I should somehow address.

A confrontation was out of the question as it could further strain relationships - an outcome I preferred to avoid. I let the matter rest as I considered a proper response. Mediation through an intermediary? That would only raise the volume and embroil innocent people in the ugly business. An anonymous, non-specific warning, then? But what could I write to reach the individuals involved, to relate my genuine disappointment in their actions, without raising their defenses and reducing the entire exercise to counterproductive futility?

Aha! But what if I left the writing to a professional, a philosopher, a spiritual and halachic master in the ways of proper speech and more - the Chofetz Chaim! A surreptitiously mailed book bearing his name - Sefer Chofetz Chaim - would deliver a private, yet powerful message. It would be the spiritual equivalent of receiving an authoritative guide to sexually transmitted disease, with a pack of condoms, anonymously and out of the blue. There you are, living out your life, and "bam" - to quote a friend - someone felt it necessary to address your unwise sexual promiscuity, in a way that leaves no room for doubt that the matter has become known, while recognizing the embarrassing nature of the issue and leaving you to address it of your own initiative, if you so choose. Could a solution be more perfect?

Still, there was the matter of humiliating the parties involved, even if discretely and unintentionally. Perhaps they had been coarse to my feelings, but they could be counted on to peak in sensitivity when the matter became an affront to theirs. Who was I, after all, to be dispensing justice by the sharp edge of Chofetz Chaim's sword? If I truly cared about the people involved, and not avenging my pride, then perhaps I should swallow what had transpired and end the bitter cycle. Alternatively, perhaps it was my place to warn and educate the parties involved, so that they could address a serious problem. The small push my anonymous message could provide may be just the incentive needed to make a positive change. I resolved to wait until my feelings on the matter had dissipated, and I could approach the issue with the dispassion and detachment it deserved.

As things turned out, the matter soon receded from my thoughts. Some months later, the parties to the conversation which had so riled me learned the very truth which they had once mischaracterized, without my involvement and in a positive way which left no one the lesser. Looking back, however, the crucial question remains - was this experience a missed opportunity for helping to correct another person's misbehavior, or a study in self-restraint?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Flash Mob Humiliates Israel's Enemies

It was to be a foregone conclusion. Israel, a tiny country of no natural resources, inhabited by a few million spunky refugees with their backs to the sea, bordered on all sides by totalitarian Arab Muslim regimes financed by the largest deposits of black gold in the world and bent on pursuing a religious war of extermination against the Jews... well, Israel's days were said to be numbered before they began. Even with subsequent Arab defeats, again and again, Israel was said to survive on borrowed time.

With the latest crisis in relations between Israel and it's Great Power backer, the United States, Israel's enemies waxed triumphantly about the Jewish State's imminent downfall. Pundits, analysts and news reports all concluded that Israel's best days were behind it, as the gloom of approaching defeat was working its way into the Jewish psyche, undermining the energy and creativity of the state's early generations. Brave Israeli newspapers, secretly bypassing strict Israeli censors, published English samizdat, bringing to the world the self-professed inside story of Israeli democracy's slide into militarism, racism, fascism, religious radicalism and apartheid.

Under diplomatic pressure and economic blockade from the Arabs and their Western allies, the Jews of Israel were said to be marking their final hours, rationing their last grains of wheat, their final drops of water. From the reports, the situation seemed dire, perilous, bleak, glum, dismal, and in general need of a thesaurus.

The reports were wrong. From the center of global Zionist power - Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Center's Food Court - a live video performance of a flash mob performing a much-loved chorus piece from Verdi’s Il Trovatore shook the world. Western analysts and punditry were left bewildered at this stunning coup de grace. In one swift act, the Jews of Israel had removed all doubt of their permanent survival, their commitment to pluralistic democracy and of the Jewish State's enduring cultural and economic success.

The Arab world reeled from a mixture of shock, horror and disbelief. Gone were the hourly pronouncements of imminent victory over the "Zionist dogs". Their confidence and honor shattered, millions of Arabs converged on the palaces of their tyrants, demanding answers, starting with a reliable translation from the Italian in the video, leading to questions of how the Jews, under international sanctions and blockade, had managed to amass more food in one mall's food court than all Arab nations, put together, had fed their people for a week. Set aflame, disoriented and defeated, their cultural humiliation complete, the Arab "street" would take a generation to heal from its wounds.

They said opera was boring, and they were right... until now.

Challenging the "Non-Violence" Narrative

A considerable amount of ink has been spilled, of late, in promoting a perceptible shift in Palestinian tactics against Israel, from violent aggression to non-violent resistance. From the WSJ to the NYT (and NYT blog), Palestinian non-violence is being hailed as a legitimate weapon in the ongoing conflict with Israel, as though the form of aggression is more important than the outcome that aggression is designed to achieve.

In addressing this shift in Palestinian tactics, and Western media reportage, pro-Israel activists have countered that Palestinian rock-throwing and the occasional stabbing and shooting do not constitute non-violence. However, in accepting the premise that the discussion is about the legitimacy of Palestinian tactics, and not Palestinian intentions, they have abandoned the central point - Palestinian aggression or resistance, of any sort, violent or otherwise, to the existence of the State of Israel, and the security of its citizens, is inimical to peace, and thus unacceptable.

Growing Palestinian enchantment with non-violent tactics has less to do with their bloodless consequences than failure to achieve results through traditional violent means. Having failed in rallying the Arab and Muslim worlds to destroy the State of Israel, militarily defeated in two Intifadas and last year's disastrous war in Gaza, and with no realistic prospect for challenging the IDF for another century, the Palestinians could be excused for exploring alternative avenues of remaining at war with the Jewish State.

Yet, the goals have not changed - victory over Israel, rather than a revelry in the success of non-violence. If it had been violence which succeeded, then violence would be cheered in the streets of Ramallah. The focus on the methodology of Palestinian “resistance”, and not its goals, is irresponsible. Yes, non-violence is infinitely preferable to bloodshed. Does that mean that those who preach the non-violent destruction of Israel are to be supported, merely because they choose one methodology in achieving unjust aims over another? Do non-violent tactics legitimize sinister intent?

For true advocates of a two state solution, the ultimate goals should be an end to Palestinian rejectionism to partition, an end to outstanding claims and final settlement. The only thing we’re witnessing is a shift from a violent war, which has decisively failed for the Palestinians, to the non-violent, legal and political challenge to Israel’s security, and ultimately, its existence. Those now egging the Palestinians on to find their inner Ghandi are wrong to qualify a Palestinian shift in tactics, but not objectives, as progress towards peace.

The Palestinian-American Community Rejects Peace

My communications with Hussein Ibish, of the ATFP, regarding retaining Jewish settlements in Yesha in the context of a Palestinian state, have recently received a plug in the comments section of a post at samefacts.com, resulting in a steady stream of visitors. The author, Jonathan Zasloff, a self-described "progressive American Zionist (who of course is furious and outraged at the current Israeli government)", attempts to wean a commitment of support from Ibish and, separately, the ATFP (he appears not to understand that Ibish IS ATFP) on a Jewish-American/Arab-American coalition in favor of the Nusseibeh-Ayalon People’s Voice Agreement of 2002.

I don't know Jonathan Zasloff, but it appears he has little understanding of the dynamics within the Palestinian-American diaspora, and it's role and influence in West Bank Palestinian life and centers of power - Fatah and the PLO. In my extensive personal experience with Palestinian-Americans, they constitute, in general, a community more extremist, Marxist, pro-Islamist and obstinately against the prospect of comprehensive peace with Israel than all but the most militant West Bank enclaves, and equal, or more extreme, to Hamas itself. Any moderation or accommodation to Israel's existence, much less a negotiated two state solution, is simply anathema. We're talking basic Arab Populist Opposition Politics 101 - the less you have to lose, the more extremist and flamboyant with other people's blood you must be, and the Palestinian-American community, far removed from the bombs and bullets, has very little to lose.

That's precisely what makes Hussein Ibish and the ATFP so unique; an oddity created largely by the Bush Administration's State Department, under Secretary Rice, preserved in concert with what is essentially an American sponsored Abbas-Fayaad dictatorship, secured through massive infusions of cash and military aid. Don't take for granted that Ibish is playing with his life discussing, as he does, a pragmatic, two state end of conflict resolution. Yet, what makes Ibish an exceptional Palestinian visionary in Western and Jewish eyes is precisely why peace with the Palestinians in the West Bank, much less the Palestinians in Chicago, remains improbable.

The basic conditions of the Nusseibeh-Ayalon plan - territorial exchange, dividing Jerusalem, compensation for the refugees - have long been accepted by successive Israeli governments, constituting the basis of the 2000 and 2008 offers to the Palestinians. Both offers were rejected by the Palestinian leadership because compromise on any vital issue is unenforceable on the Palestinian "street", and more likely to end in intra-Palestinian bloodshed and purges than final status peace with Israel. Sari Nusseibeh, perhaps the most dovish Palestinian in a position of influence, and the coauthor of the "People's Voice" agreement, has recently had to go into hiding for penning, in his latest book, a sentence which accepts that a Jewish Temple once stood on the Temple Mount. Such is the state of total rejectionism on the Palestinian side, cracked open, slightly, in the form of ATFP and the Abbas-Fayaad axis, with American money and weapons, and Israeli resolve in the face of Palestinian violence and general Arab aggression.

Those Jewish-American Zionists who expect the Palestinian-American community, comfortably insulated from the consequences of provocation and radicalism, to join with them in supporting a peaceful two state solution, at a time when Israel is under increasing international isolation and opprobrium by even its closest allies, while the forces of resistance heap gains and victories against the Jewish state and American regional influence and credibility, need a reality check. Ali Abunimah has dedicated his life to raising international pressure against Israel's very existence; he's not about to pull Zionist chestnuts out of a fire he spent a decade igniting, in favor of a two state solution he would personally shoot in the head were he given the power to do so. The Palestinian-American community has the least to lose through protracted war, whose long term outcome is perhaps favorable to maximalist Arab demands, and nothing to gain by endorsing peace, short of the label "collaborator".

Friday, July 9, 2010

Good Shabbos!

Less than a decade after the Holocaust, in the aftermath of the civil war against the Palestinians, the subsequent invasion and destruction wrought by half a dozen Arab armies, the influx of hundreds of thousands of poor Jewish refugees, in the uncertain but determined building of a nation from the sand and swamps of Palestine, this is the story of Ukrainian-born Jew Efraim Ilin, and Israel's first automobile assembly plant.

And you think you have it rough? Good Shabbos!

Jewish Isolation and Radicalism

Yaacov Lozowick has published, with profound insight born of observation and experience, a post on the development of left-wing Jewish radicalism. His remarks, and his alone, in this past month, have broken my hiatus from blogging - a time I took to address more urgent issues in my life.

The subject of Jewish progressive radicalism interests me, having been exposed to it, as extensively as I have, in the process of advocating on behalf of Israel, Jewish rights and Jewish lives. I am drawn to understand the seemingly inexplicable nature of individual Jews working against the interests of a community of Jews.

For all the concerns I have about the Jewish community, both locally, nationally, and in the wider world, no matter the health of my personal relationships with fellow Jews, it is intensely outside my capacity to understand how a Jewish individual could bring themselves to negatively impact the lives of Jews they don't know, whose experiences they don't share, in willful disregard of all but their own ideological priorities.

What Yaacov does not address in his piece, and the outcome my interest in Jewish radicalism serves, is figuring out a way to reverse this cycle. It was once said, in the context of modern, secular life, that the pattern of Jews removed from Yiddishkeit (observant Jewish life) becoming isolated and apathetic was irreversible; it wasn't. Despite setbacks, the dynamic growth in Jewish observance and the overall ba'al teshuvah movement in the last half century, has laid to rest the notion that a Jew, any Jew, no matter their background or place in the world. is irretrievably disconnected from their identity.

However, isolation and apathy are relatively passive - they're easier to approach and address because they have no direction or purpose, no drive. The phenomena of Jews actively seeking to remove themselves from the greater Jewish community, and to punish that community by rallying the non-Jewish world against it, is rooted in estrangement and anger. That anger is not based on a particular set of circumstances; it is purpose-driven. The purpose is to punish and pain - to induce suffering, in a general way - not to achieve a particular, real-world outcome.

We know this, because once a desired outcome is achieved, or is close to achievement - as in the case of a Palestinian state - the anger of Jewish radicals is not pacified. Indeed, the anger grows beyond the confines required by the outcome. What once was understandable, even just - Jewish self-determination, even the collective right of Jews to self-defense - becomes unreasonable, intolerable, perverse. The goal posts shift, the desired outcomes change, the anger remains.

The "organized", "official" Jewish community has increasingly dealt with Jewish radicals by bringing them out of self-imposed isolation, by attempting to draw them into becoming stakeholders in the system. It's one thing to criticize from the outside, goes the argument, but once one has to deal with reality and make choices that affect people, one realizes how constrained the range of options becomes. This addresses the estrangement, but not the accompanying anger. It's like inviting an arsonist to live in your home so that he won't burn it down. Such an action doesn't pacify the arsonist's urges; it merely provides a legitimate outlet for their expression. Whereas, at one point, the arsonist was considered a reckless criminal, now he can claim to be responsibly acting in the interests of the home itself - it is an unsafe living environment, he'll say - even as he burns it down. Instead of tempering his destructive urges, the arsonist is now empowered to save the home from itself, through its own destruction. While the problem of isolation is addressed, the drive, the anger is not appeased, it is institutionalized.

If isolation and anger are at root of left-wing Jewish radicalism, then dealing with one, without addressing the other, is courting disaster. The only remedy for anger that I know of, is time. The bellicose American social radicals of the 60s and 70s now live comfortable lives, driving Subaru Foresters and Toyota Prius (-es, plural: Priora), growing urban gardens and listening to NPR, former passions tempered by reality and disillusionment. Perhaps, such would be the case with Jewish radicals, too, were their anger not endorsed and their ambitions resourced by groups and governments which share a vision of perpetual Jewish suffering.

Yet, I believe, with sincere faith and its imperfect expression, that every Jew is a part of me, and I a part of them; that no one gave us permission to write a single Jew off, or to cast a single Jew aside, and that so many of the answers we seek about our identity, we will find in bringing close those Jews who seem so bitterly far away.

Only Israel - by Yedida Freilich

I'm posting this video for my own "records", as it were, to make finding it easier in the future. I'll assume that many, if not all of my readers, are avid consumers of news and information (and youtube), and have already seen this video.

I've noticed myself forwarding Israel-related videos less and less these days than I once did. Among my friends, Jewish and otherwise, the general depressive mood surrounding all things Israel leaves me wondering what is gained by bringing another grown man to tears, again. If you're someone like this, someone who, after watching this video, will spend the next few hours unable to detach yourself from feelings of sadness and helplessness, or anger, please don't watch this video.

(H/T Yaacov)

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