Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What do the Bedouins have to do with Security Concerns in Israel?

For the next few posts, I want to introduce you to four new amazing places and groups of people that are part of Israel, trying to make Israel the best it can be in body and soul. My daughter Talie and I had the privilege of being in these places recently in Israel.

The first group I want you to meet is the Bedouins of El-Arakib (aka Al – Araqueeb). We met with the Sheik that headed the community on Friday, July 8, 2011. He spoke with us in a gentile and respectful manner. Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who has a friendship with the Sheik and took us there to meet with him and some of his fellow community members, remarked that usually he speaks much more about his community and his hopes for his children and grandchildren when he meets new groups. This time he spoke so much about his frustration about the repeated demolitions that have occurred in their village during the past year as a result of orders of the Israeli government. It is not difficult to observe that the time that has passed has worn him down and demoralized him on many levels.

The unrecognized Bedouin villages such as El-Arakib do not receive services from the State of Israel. This means no water, electricity, transportation, paved roads, schools or social services. Children have to walk miles in frigid weather as well as terribly and dangerously hot seasons to get their education. Their connection to their land is palpable. Their land, according to the Sheik that spoke with us in articulate Hebrew, IS their identity and their raison d’etre. Yet, this land and all that has been built on it has been destroyed and demolished 26 times during the past year. The residents have either had to flee to Rahat, a nearby recognized Bedouin village or have stood their ground, at one point, residing in the cemetery attached to their land with graves that date back as much as 100 years.

The Bedouins were once serving in the IDF, proud and loyal members of the Israeli state, and able to sustain themselves in a meaningful and respectful manner. Now, they are the poorest population in Israel, no longer serve in the IDF and feel angered, betrayed and bewildered. The problem cited by many is that somehow, containing this population and taking their land is related to Israeli concerns about external security. Sometimes, it feels as if all human rights issues are cast as an “external security threat” and that many in our community will not challenge this broad brush regarding how Israel is and should be held accountable regarding certain issues, this one regarding El-Arakib being one of them.

We were in the village one week after the twenty sixth time it was dismantled this year. I was thinking of the fact that these people who once considered themselves part of the fabric of Israel find it now nearly impossible for them to continue thinking of themselves in such a manner. There was anger, frustration, lack of understanding and despair as more and more of the people who had been tied to this land for so long had to go elsewhere, to Rahat and to other areas that would provide them with shelter, but not with THEIR land, the source of THEIR dignity and being.

The Bedouins are clearly struggling and this struggle is showing its signs in their own weariness and their own lack of understanding of how this present situation came to be. Yet, within the context of this, after hearing from the Sheik, we were introduced to three remarkable young Bedouin women who are involved in a college program with Israeli and Bedouin women who are working together to make a difficult situation better by addressing real problems within the Bedouin community. They are undertaking wonderful projects to better their community and strengthen its members. In one project, women were being taught to read and write and take care of daily business matters in their own lives. Formerly, these Bedouin women were not able to do things as simple as make a bank deposit, negotiate a utilities bill or complete other simple transactions we take for granted. In another project, a magazine is being produced that will inform, educate and empower the community. In a third project, children are being guided and educated in modern technology and means of communication. These projects are all to empower and to give skill sets to members of the Bedouin community. We were truly inspired by these three remarkable young Bedouin women, all from Rahat, and are sure we will hear more from them. I am proud to have met them, proud to have shared a few hours with them, and hopeful for their future and for those who will benefit from their work, their initiative and their inspiration. My prayer is that as time goes on and these young women empower others, those who have lost their own sense of purpose and being will be able to reclaim it and that Israel will “do better” by facilitating this.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Talie Says That We Need to Stop Thinking about Israel in Binary Terms

Please note that portions of the following post is an abridged form of part of
a lecture for a graduate school course I am teaching on Methodologies for
Teaching about Israel.

So, here I am at Café Hillel on Emek Refaim sitting across the table from my 23 year old daughter Talie, whom I admire so much (and she is definitely part of our younger generation filled with hope and new ideas and energy for our world). She has lived in Israel three times, once in high school, for the gap year between high school and college, and now for four years of Medical School at Ben Gurion University, in addition to joining our family with our ongoing commute here twice each year. She is educated, observant, and dedicated and committed to Israel and really amazing! We should all be able to feel this way towards our children. Amen!.

We always talk about and consider our connections to Israel in our family. Obviously, as Talie and I are together in Israel for three weeks and spending lots of time together, we are having these discussions constantly with each other as well as including others. One of the things that I am very aware of right now is the effect generational differences and various narratives have on how we each see and consider Israel in our lives. In addition to this being an ongoing thought that occupies me generally, it is a hot topic of discussion amongst my colleagues in my seminar at Machon Hartman. My frustration is that I think that too many people see Israel as black or white, right or wrong, having to be solely concerned about external security or internal human rights practices, and so on. Too many of us think of Israel in binary either/or terms. I am, as you well know by now a both/and person so I often joke that I spend half my time defending Position A (Whatever that is) to people who hold Position B (Which is against A) and the other half of my time defending holders of Position B to those who subscribe to Position A.

Regarding this, Talie says that she wants all of us to know that:

I find it kind of unfair for your generation (that’s me and the rest of us, who are parents of these aged children and younger) to be critical of people in my generation for taking on critical positions in the Israel conversation and not feeling as connected as you do to a place that often falls short of the values and expectations we have been taught to have; to respect and view everyone as made in the image of God, to comfort and provide for the vulnerable in our society, to understand that conflicts are complex and should never be reduced to a black and white depiction and to constructively challenge when we see wrongs.

She says this while acknowledging where my generation and those before me come from, because for us Israel was not a reality and there were so many threats against both Israel and Jews constantly being made. She accepts and is grateful for the fact that as she has grown up and matured, Israel has never been a question mark but rather a given reality – that is, an exclamation point! Here is, I think, what allows Talie and her contemporaries to speak of and think about and feel loyalties to Israel in other than a binary system.

So, she has the luxury of loving and caring for Israel while simultaneously being honest and reminding all of us of the ideals and values on which Israel was founded and that these need to be reclaimed and present in the Israel of today.

I get this! Do all of you? As for myself, I have always encouraged my children and my students and those around me to look at and consider all sides of a given concern, and while doing so, remember to be the best they can be and to ask this of those around them. So, this response from my daughter is a direct result of this orientation and I own it as well. I guess sometimes, I might just be in the wrong generation. I suppose this is not the only issue that makes me feel this way.

Further, Talie knows fully well and offers as a disclaimer that “for me Israel has always been a given” and that she has always grown up and experienced (from both sides of the pond) Israel as a strong leader in the world and in the “power seat” so to speak. Our parents and former generations who approach Israel through the prism of pogroms and Holocaust experiences do not have the luxury of this viewpoint. Those of us who lived through the fears and threats of war in 1967, 1973 (as well as before and after) and questions regarding the viability of Israel often do have fears and concerns about Israel that inform how we approach this place; I think it is stamped onto our souls. These are our “war wounds” so to speak. Our children, both for good and perhaps naïve reasons, do not see this and do not feel this. THE STRONG ISRAEL THAT IS THAT EXCLAMATION MARK FOR THEM has many responsibilities and possibilities regarding their place in the world and in helping those in need that older generations only dared to hope could be part of our expectations of Israel.

One of the coordinators of our seminar, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Shabbat Beit Halachmi stated the other night with simultaneous simplicity and profound insight, “I am so proud of Israel 95% of the time and 5% of the time, I am not and expect so much more from Israel.” This statement has been repeated in many different venues around many different discussions these two weeks in this place of honest exploration and discussions about Israel – what it is and what it should be! As for me, I agree both with Talie (who would by the way argue with the actual %s given) and Rachel – I am so proud AND I want so much more for Israel! I hope that those of us that can hold this BOTH/AND position can forge ahead in a way that Israel deserves and that Israel can work towards being the place that all those connected to it in an honest and genuine way deserve.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

What I learned at the Israel Museum about colors of clothing at weddings and “gentrification” of our Jewish community

I know, it’s a really strange title, but totally appropriate for one of the very compelling lessons I learned during the day long field trip I took myself on this past Wednesday to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It was really quite a wonderful day. I was able to stop at exhibits as long as I want, read the explanations as carefully as I wished and really take it all in – I went alone just so I could do this. By 5:15 p.m. when I was ushered out of the museum with the last visitors for the day, I was mentally exhausted – I think my brain cells were sleeping.

I loved going through the archeology and ancient cultures sections and learning about tens of thousands of years ago, the beginning of civilization as we know it, the earliest life of man, of Jews, of Egyptians, and others. I was, as always, particularly enthralled by the glass and the beautiful workmanship of reclaimed bowls, columns, mortars and pestles and such.

After three and a half hours in this exhibit I went into the next one, the one about Jewish life through the ages. There was so much to see and remember (from what I know and what I recall from being here before and elsewhere as well) about customs, celebrations and the observances that have marked our people for so very long.

Now we come to the part that is the centerpiece of this post. THE WEDDING DRESSES! Wow!! So much color, so many different styles, headdresses, jeweled broaches that covered from the neck to the waist of the bride, beautiful materials and it was all just a magnificent feast for the eyes. Each exquisite costume came with a wonderful explanation of the land of origin and the meaning and symbolism of the various parts of the outfit. These colors and styles dazzled and I just could not pull myself away from them to go on except that the next bridal outfit and its various accessories was just as bewitching and inviting to stare at! Then, after about fifteen of these amazing bridal outfits, there was one long lacy white dress and a long explanation of how the Ashkenazic Jews had assimilated the European habit of wearing white as a sign of purity, which is attributed to Christian roots, and how this took over and eventually eclipsed the native bridal wear of the many lands included in the display. I was struck by this, I mean like hit between the eyes! This was about much more than the different colors and styles for me.

It has been an interesting history of color in my life in the Orthodox community part of my life. I have noticed less and less colors worn by women. At weddings, virtually all of the women except for the bride are in black and she of course is in white. There have been many times when I am practically the only one in the room with a splash of color. Now, in shul as well – the accepted colors are black, navy blue, very deep purple (not too bright now!), dark green and white with splashes of pink (still an acceptable girl color)! What is going on here?

I love color and I wear lots of it. I LOVED, I mean was totally taken by the beautiful colors and textures of those bridal outfits in the Israel Museum. I know that some families do still have ceremonies with these customary bridal costumes, but generally, we do not see this kind of color at our weddings, regardless of the various lands of origin from where the families trace their roots. As I left the museum, I remember feeling somewhat melancholy about the loss or paucity of color in our lives. As we become more gentrified and more muted and more LIKE EVERYONE ELSE and wear bridal white instead of the colors and styles of our lands of origin, eschew a variety of beautiful colors because they are not “modest” and in general “look like everyone else and wear the uniform” on the outside of our body, I fear what this trend represents on our insides --- are we losing our unique and special and DIFFERENT souls for the sake of fitting in and being like everyone else? How wonderful it would be to bring back all these different ways of coming to the bridal canopy and celebrating our Jewish lives.

I’ll tell you what – go (and run do not walk after your flight of course) to the Israel Museum and go into the Jewish Life exhibit and look at these beautiful bridal outfits and then see what you feel. Now I am going to put on one of my colorful outfits and go to shul. Shabbat Shalom!