Monday, July 19, 2010

Tisha b'Av: Why we don't deserve a Temple yet.

There is mint between the stones. It grows, along with others herbs, in bunches that seem to come from within the mount, the scattered eruptions of wild weedy life bursting through the cold stone of the Kotel. It's fragrance mixes with the sweat of bodies which is faint and varied on most days, thick today when few have showered. On other days it smells like the breath of the shekhinah is mixing with that of her people; today it feels like the perfume applied to mask a corpse. Today is Tisha b'Av. Originally the commemoration of first one Temple's destruction and then another, it now stands as memorial for all the suffering of Israel. Today the Wall, a place of joy, of home, is little more than a broken wall.

Finding meaning in suffering is a trope of the Jewish tradition. When the cities had been burned, when swords have been broken, and Temples destroyed, Rabbis and Prophets fought back not by violence but by writing their oppressors out of Truth. The eternal subject of violence both for and against Israel was not the Assyrians, nor the Romans, nor the Crusaders but always G-d. The bastards didn't even exist on their own; only as agents of the Almighty. Thus Israel fell and suffered not because of any superiority of strength on her enemies' part but because G-d had decided Israel should fall. The sages sought to understand why. The Prophets are full of condemnation over the sins of Israel. The people went after idols, they worshiped what their hands could make; in doing so, they worshiped themselves. They worshiped things over reality, over goodness, over G-d.

It's no surprise that the high ideals of Torah justice vanished in the land. The Talmud cites idolatry and injustice as the charges for which the first Temple was destroyed. The people were carted away to Judah. The rich nobleman who, according to Lamentations, wouldn't give a morsel to a starving child, now starved alongside the slave in a land that belonged to neither of them. They came back from that experience chastised. No longer would they serve after other G-ds. There would be a new striving after justice. The new Israel would not act as the old. It would be a light unto the nations, a holy people. The Talmud records that the people occupied themselves with the study of Torah, Mitzvot and charity. I'm reminded of the idealism that accompanied the foundation of the modern State here. A socialist paradise where Jews would all be brothers and sisters; where they would build great modern cities founded on a higher sense of justice than the countries they had left behind, a Jewish sense of justice. That idealism is still here but it has been rephrased in the terms of ugly triumphalism. The future is less often spoken of now. The future is a vaguely defined time of war, of imperilment, of paranoia. The past, the imagined present, these are now the times of moral greatness.

Of learning. Israel invented the cell phone. At the same time some of the greatest academics of our time are banned from entering the country.

Of mitzvot. When the state may soon reject the Jewishness of thousands, the validity of their mitzvot.

Of charity. When there are mass movements calling for the deportation of foreign workers, their children, refugees.

The ancient shivat tzion, the return to Zion was accompanied by ethnic cleansing. The people of Israel who had stayed, who had not shared in the transformative experience of exile, who could not claim the same priviledge of suffering were cast out of the nation; they became the am ha'aretz, the people of the land. Just as the am ha'aretz of this time in the land, who did not live through the Holocaust nor were a part of it are punished for it. But there was more. The Jews who had married foreign women, had to, like Avraham long before, expel them and their children, send them back into the exile the nation had so recently escaped from.

I imagine a witchhunt. A time when anyone could be seen as an agent of the Enemy; either in reality, or by veering too far from the new and narrow definition of Jewishness. To veer too far might lead to idolatry, might cause Hashem to take back their newly regained national existence.

This anxiety around security, identity did not fade. The Maccabis fought what was at once a war for national autonomy and a civil war over the purity of identity. With the same fervor that the Inquisition sought out Judaizers, they sought out those who tried to syncretize Judaism and Hellenism. As the Second Temple period drew to a close, even the "pure" Jewish establishment began to divide against itself. Essenes withdrew from what they perceived to be the desecration of the Temple by the Romanizing Zadokites. The latter saw accommodation with Rome as necessary to the survival of the cult, even if it came the cost of the people's welfare. The Pharisees, men like Jesus, Yohanan ben Zakkai and Akiva sought to resist Rome and transform Judaism, into a religion of the soul or of study or of the law. Each group saw the other as collaborators with or provokers of the forces of destruction, now no longer with G-d, but with the Other.

The Talmud says that for all the Torah learning and charity of Israel, the Temple was still destroyed, because of baseless hatred, sinat hinam. Jews hated Jews because they were a politcal threat, a religious or moral threat or simply because they were not Jewish enough by someone else's standards. It was easier to justify hatred when the nation had Torah and mitzvot and charity, when it could imagine itself a light unto the nations. In Jerusalem, where I try to spend as much spare time as I can, there is of course, great Torah learning. There are mitzvot. And there are great institutions of charity. And at the same time, if you wander in the wrong area wearing the wrong thing, you can get stoned by Torah scholars. In the East of the City, servants of the Mitzvot push for the expansion settlements, for the demolition of families' homes. And in the halls of power, the great philanthropists seek to steal Judaism away from thousands by refusing to recognize their conversions.

Hillel's words have been forgotten, that the essence of Torah is not it's rigorous technical fulfillment but the command to love your neighbor as yourself; that the rest of it, even the charity such love engenders is secondary, is commentary. It is those who forget that G-d wants kindness, not animal sacrifices, who weep most fervently for the ruined Temple, who dream of a day when another people's holy places will be burned like ours were and replaced with a Third Temple. When I was at the Kotel on Tisha b'Av, there was a riot squad guarding the gate to the Haram al-Sharif, the Mount. This day is an angry day for would be Jewish terrorists who plant bombs under and open fire in al-Aqsa. A Third Temple, conceived in sinat hinam, in fantasies of messianic bloodshed will be about as holy as the Temple of Jupiter Hadrian once built there.

Rav Kook said the Third Temple would only come when sinat hinam was reversed, when baseless and unconditional kindness replaces all hatred. The Prophets spoke of the new Temple as an alter for all the nations to come to and worship alongside one another, a place of justice and lovingkindness, of openness. This will not be the Temple that the Third Temple people crave. The Dome will still be there. Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah will still look upon it. Maybe an international border will cut through the city. But Jerusalem will regain it's kedusha, so long in exile.

It is said that Moshiach will be born on Tisha b'Av. Perhaps this is not because we have merited it this day. Perhaps its because, on this day, we're in the gravest need of redemption.

Shalom, Salaam, Peace.

Monday, June 21, 2010

"In the Space Between You and Me"

Laying by my bed is the siddur written by my friends Patrick and Michael at PunkTorah. In their bracha for tzitzit, they thank the Shekhina for teaching us how to clothe ourselves. By fringes. By corners. By confirming and enforcing that our garments and ourselves have borders.

As a feminist postcolonialist postmodernist anarchist I'm not comfortable with borders. In myself there are no borders between me as a man and a Jew or as a Jew and a heterosexual or as a hetersexual and a Vancouverite. I believe the borders between genders or sexuality or religions or cultures are fluid. How can I thank Hashem for borders?

Because borders are neccesary. And they are real. Life has borders, in the body of the mother and the body of the earth, in silences. The earth has borders, a fact I am constantly reminded of by the shelter of the nights sky.

And there is a border between me and you. Tracey Chapman said "there's a fiction in the space between". Sometimes. Sometimes that space disappears. In shared fear or anger or joy. In sex. In love. And when that happens, when we cease to be these inclosed seperate individuals something wonderful happens. But these experiences are shared. If I unilaterally decide to forget the border between me and you then I am an invader. The person who crosses that border can be a lover or a saint. Or a sociopath. If I forget the sanctity of your otherness I have committed an act of violence against you and I have desecrated the G-d who has established that border. My borders have been crossed and tonight I realized how much I don't want to ever invade someone else's borders. In any way. If I expect you to no longer be other but to be me; that is violence. If I am only for that self and forget the otherness of the other, "what am I?" to quote Hillel. At the same time if I lose the borders of my self by my self -"if I am not for myself"- well then "who is for me?"

There are borders between people and that is a good thing. Hashem asks us to put borders around ourselves to remember to careful in overstepping them. Tonight I violated that mitzvah. I don't want to forget my borders, those places I don't have the right to cross. I don't want to forget that even those I feel closest too have boundaries.

And by the way, if this sounds like an apology to someone, it is.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Altneuland: Reflections on the World ZIonist Congress

Mike Knight, the father of Punk Islam said that since you can’t hold an ideology, a worldview in the palm of your hand how can you even start to say what it is? Islam. Punk. Judaism. Zionism. When no person can hold it, how can one person own it?

It’s the things that can’t be held that are usually the most fervently grasped after and back in Vancouver, in the diaspora, Zionism is viewed less as any broad intellectual tradition than an arena of violent polemics. It’s hard to be a Zionist on the Left there. I don't know how I feel about Jewish statehood in the abstract but I strongly support the existence of this Jewish state. I'd fight and die for this place in a just cause. I want to move here in a few months. At the same time, I wholeheartedly believe Israel is the primary, though not sole, cause and sustainer of a people's suffering and exile. Most folks back home who agree with me, that Palestinians are entitled to sustenance, rights and sovereignty, see Zionism as a racist colonial monolith. Those who disagree with me say I cant be a Zionist because I don’t practise Zionism like a racist colonial monolith. As a Zionist who feels support for Palestinian rights is integral to my belief in a just Jewish State, I am forced to choose between the label and the content.

The other night we attended a Gala of the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem.

On the bus ride to Jerusalem I listened to Matisyahu with my friend Sam and felt the same chill entering the city that I had felt when I was here for the first time two years ago. That’s my Zionism. No one can take that feeling from me. But it is a connection, not a claim. It gets murkier when you try to translate feelings into exclusionary politics.

When we got to the Congress I wandered around the photo displays of Halutzim draining swamps, of bright eyed, bronzy soldiers. The standard images of a pinup Zionism. I collected all the brochures and pamphlets I could find. I found a big coffeetable magazine Haaretz did on Herzl that I look forward to reading. I met briefly with the head of the MERCAZ delegation, representing Conservative and Masorti Judaism. My Persian friend there got a dirty look from some Haredim. He thinks it was racism. I wouldn’t be surprising given that 100,000 Haredim just rallied for school segregation.

Eventually we picked up translating headsets, filed into the auditorium, filed back out when the headsets wouldn’t function and finally filed back in, took our seats.

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, keynote of the evening missed his first curtain call but eventually showed.

Early in his speech Peres referred to the establishment of Israel as Jewry’s “step back into history”. Such an understanding at once attempts to erase the exilic experience and makes pointed ideological use of it. Thus Peres can, as he did, speak of an unceasing anti-Semitism in history, prevalent enough to define 2000 years of Jewish history while at the same time saying “we never listened to” the gentiles, we remained unchanged, pure from antiquity. Zionism commands us to both blot out the exile and remember it constantly, just as Torah asks us to treat the memory of Amalek. By erasing Exile from history, we dehistoricize its tropes, we make them a constant reality. Torquemada or Hitler, like Amalek cease to be historically grounded personalities and become constant shades, lurking around every corner, in the words of all who oppose us. This is not to suggest that Israel does not have enemies and that antisemitism does not play a role sometimes in those animosities. Helen Thomas' comments a couple weeks ago demanding that Israeli Jews return to the graveyards of Poland and Germany were antisemitic, not to mention ignorant of Israeli demographics where the majority of Jews are Mizrachi. When the IHH tells Israelis to go back to Auschwitz or when the Left focuses disproportionately on Israel's crimes while ignoring those of other states; there is antisemitism here. But awareness of hatred, vigilance against it's manifestation is the opposite of paranoia. One calls us to live and guard ourselves in the muck of reality, the other exalts ourselves as the world's blameless victim and divides the world into uncritical friends, of which ultimately there are none, and enemies, of which there are many. Peres can therefore say that “if you delegitamize Israel, you legitimize terrorism” because such fine distinctions disappear when we mentally depart from reality and enter the discourse of eternal truth. Then we begin to make statements like “the war never ends here”. We begin to believe them. We begin to resign ourselves and to excuse ourselves from moral commitment. We unchoose ourselves as Jews. This realm of ideas is what Peres called “the order of existence” which Zionism claims to understand. What we don’t understand, according to the President is “who is a human being”, that is, who is a real person in history and who is a shade, a face of the eternal anti-Semite. These are the “warmongers”, the “fanatics who threaten us”. We have to “get rid of them”. But we can’t. Because they’re not real.

By erasing exile, Zionism is able to present itself as the manifestation of a pure mytho-antiquity that is simultaneously on the cutting edge of hypermodernity. This antiquity extends into time immemorial and is a statement of political confrontation; Peres can make statements like: “we were here before anyone else” and “ours is the oldest legitimacy in the region”; neither of which are, technically speaking, true. The erasure of exile is confirmed by the delusion that the “we” and the “ours” have not changed in 2000 years of exile. “The language of the prophets” remains the “language of our children”. Zionism has a special place in this sacred recast of history. It is the step “from exile to redemption”.

Redemption is characterized in deeply Modernist language, in talk of “construction and democracy” as if human rights were synonymous with factories. Zionism’s Israel has to strive after both the “ten commandments” and the cutting edge expansion of scientific research. Zionism may have begun as a “horizontal expansion” across Palestine, Peres recounted; now its goals were vertical, building upwards into skyscrapers and forward unto the restless horizon. I’m reminded of the words of Levi Eshkol: “When can we finish building the state and go home to rest?” Phrases like “value of modernity”, “awareness of modernity” and “orientation to the future” were interspersed with vague and unelaborated references to the example of the Prophets. The only figures mentioned explicitly as prophets however were Marx and Herzl.

We all rose to attention as he walked off stage and was replaced by Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem. As critical as I am of Peres’ speech, I liked it. I might problematize the narrative he presents but it is a story of idealism, of a people who spoke for justice in suffering and must still strive for justice in power. He called on Israel to become more than a refuge of a fearful Jewry but a beacon, a Light unto the Nations. We are not there yet. But we can be. Statehood is not the ends but the means.

I did not like Barkat’s speech. Here was the other conclusion of the Zionist narrative, not the open ended idealism that Peres and I each in our own way held to but the terrifying triumphalism of an ideology that is too busy marching forward to see who it’s marching over. Statehood as an end. It's not that I wouldn't like to share this triumphalism. For once in 2000 years, we're the ones with the guns and the tanks and the borders. But when we allow the arrogance of power and the desperation of an imagined imperilment to cause us to forget the humanity of the other, we embark upon the road to Fascism.

Barkat is a main force behind the expansion of Jewish building in East Jerusalem. He began by quoting Herzl, declaring that “with Jerusalem, you can make a diamond”, rather than the traditional belief that Jerusalem is a diamond regardless. There’s not much I have to say about Barkat’s tirade for development. Jerusalem has to “become a more attractive city for tourists and investors”, he said since such parties have “shares in the city, no less than its residents”.

Investment, development, resources.

He called for “Jerusalem to be taken out of poverty” and said nothing about taking poverty out of Jerusalem. Barkat’s image of Jerusalem is a rosy and attractive one. But it is not a real one. Jerusalem is not the “strong and united city” he claimed it to be. It is a deeply divided place where identities build over, dig under and war after eachother. Freedom of religion is not a Zionist innovation in this place. It existed for most of the history of Muslim Jerusalem, if not its final decades. Jerusalem is not perfect now, it was not so terrible before.

That doesn’t mean Jerusalem is not a diamond. But it has been tainted by suffering and hatred, by true believers as much as by greedy hypocrites; it has been crusted over by tears and blood. But the only way we’re ever going to see that diamond is by working to uncover each of its infinite faces, not by building skyscrapers on top of it.

So that’s it. In other news, we went to the Tel Aviv Pride Parade last week where I got pamphleted by Messianic Jews.

Crazy Place.

Shalom, Salaam, Peace

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Queen of the Desert

Al-Ramla was built in the beginning of the 8th century on dunes and sometimes I like to think you can feel that here, that there is nothing under this place but sand, that there are no hungry zombie hands of history. Yehuda Amichai said that the air above Jerusalem is thick with prayers like the smog over a factory town. I don't feel that here. There is a lightness. Al-Ramla translates, loosely as "Queen of the Desert".

This is not a place without history. In '48, 10s of thousands of its inhabitants were exiled, by Israeli intimidation, by the hope of refuge and revenge in the Jordanian camp. Leaflets were dropped, promising death if they did not leave. There is a deadness in the south of the city. In a couple weeks will be the anniversary of that exodus. I hope to sit in the Muslim cemetary that sits under the old Mamluk minaret in the centre of town and say Kaddish or Fatiha or something to commemorate. They say there are sahabas buried in that cemetary. They call the Minaret, the Tower of the 40 Martyrs. 40 is lowballing it.

Many stayed though. I saw a woman in Niqqab today. I don't know if she gets hassled or not. I assume it's not easy and I respect her. This is not an easy country to live in for everyone but it feels often like a harder country to leave.

This is a country where past and present are, like Jews, always screaming over eachother. Right now the tension is fresh. Soon, maybe in a week, maybe less, Iran intends to send two aid ships past the Gaza blockade with partial military escort. It seems nothing but a ploy for primacy in the region that, once again, uses the people of Palestine as an empty reference like others in the neighborhood use "history" or "G-d". Politics mask Religion mask history mask everything and I am reminded of what Declan de Barra, an Irish rebel singer once told me that sometimes the only way to sing about any of those is by singing about love. Irish poets saw their country as a beautiful and tormented woman. So did the Prophets. There are some things that can only be spoken of, as they are, to a point. Sometimes we are not prepared to see things as darkly as they can be. There is poetry after Auschwitz because there has to be.

I hope Ahmadinejad reconsiders. I am hopeful. Egypt has opened Rafah indefinitely, even though a year ago Al-Azhar declared any suggestion at doing so "unIslamic". There is talk in the government here of lightening the Israeli blockade. It feels like the Rachel Corrie finally called Bibi's bluff. Barukh Hashem.

All that heavy end of the world stuff aside, we've been planning ways out of this town. In the next few months are Jazz Festivals in Eilat, Klezmer Hasidic Acid Rock in Tzfat and Theatre in Akko. Next week is the World Zionist Congress and I'm excited. We're invited to some sort of Gala. I hope Mimi will get me an invite from Meimad to sit in on some of the real stuff. Being in this place, reading Haaretz every day again, makes me more comfortable in calling myself a Zionist, knowing more precisely what I mean by it and not having to listen to people tell me I'm wrong.

I still haven't been to Shul here. I bought an Artscroll in Mea Sharim and I've davvened Shabes Maariv with Lindsay and a few Shacharits on my own. I'm nervous. Some of the shuls here don't even have Mechitza. They simply don't allow women. I am worried I'll feel nothing in a place my sisters are kept out of. But do I respond by excluding my less feminist brothers? I don't know. Is inclusivity anything more than neutrality here? I didn't feel much at the kotel this time around. I just pictured women being handcuffed in Tallis. My religion is not an old boy's club. Apparently the hookah bar here is. What does that say?

Our coordinator in this place is Nir. I like him alot. His grandfather was Etzel so I've steered clear of politics. I do respect Etzel's willingness to take action against the British. I like to think I would have picked up a gun for that. I can't forgive the rest. But past is past and Jews are Jews and sometimes that's enough for me.

Nir set me making Shnitzel tonight and I fell into the kitchen dance though I did spill oil all over my foot.

And with that,

Shalom, salaam, peace