Category Archives: Current Events

Not in God’s Name: Rabbi Sacks Confronts Religious Violence

Dear Josep,

Sooooooo…

Let me just give a little context here for our blog readers: when I heard about the terror attack in Barcelona on Thursday, I checked in on Josep to make sure he and his loved ones were okay. As I pointed out then, it was a bit of a weird, if not unexpected (see the last line of that post), role reversal. Josep was safe, but understandably feeling pretty fed up with the state of affairs, and we discussed the situation a little. Over the course of the conversation I mentioned that I’d been reading a book by one of my favorite Jewish leaders of our time, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:¬†Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. (And here’s a shout-out to my friends Shimon and Mandy Detwiler, who not only lent me their copy, but also graciously excused me for spending a large chunk of last Shabbat at their home with my nose buried in it instead of paying attention to them.)

I had been thinking I might write a blog post about the book when I was done reading, and Josep said I should write one so he doesn’t have to read the whole thing. ūüėõ And, well, I finished the book yesterday morning, so here we are.

But I’m going to say again, Josep, that I really don’t think I can do it justice. The ideas Rabbi Sacks discusses are very complex and nuanced, and they just don’t work as soundbites–as befits any really wise and thoughtful discussion of this topic. I still recommend reading the whole thing. And to that end, I shall hereby announce that other thing we discussed: Josep’s Reading List! This is a new page on the blog website that will feature a list of titles I have recommended to you over the years–including links to my short stories at the end–for your convenience and that of our blog readers who happen to be bookworms like us!

Now, back to¬†Not in God’s Name.

The main goal of the book is not necessarily to explain why religious violence happens, but to provide a theological approach to confronting this phenomenon. The book seeks to answer these difficult questions: “Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorise unbelievers?”

Now, I say these questions are difficult knowing that you, and the vast majority of Westerners, do not think of them as difficult at all. Of course the God of Abraham doesn’t rejoice in holy war or want us to hate people or terrorize our enemies! I think Rabbi Sacks is trying to help Westerners understand, however, that the fact that they see that answer as a given is part of the problem.

Modern Westerners don’t understand what drives Muslims, Christians, or Jews to interpret our holy texts in a way that drives us to violence. They solve this problem by saying: well, what these terrorists are practicing isn’t¬†real Islam. What the Christians did during the Crusades wasn’t¬†real Christianity. What Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein did wasn’t¬†real¬†Judaism. In fact, religion has nothing to do with it, they would argue: “People are made violent, as Hobbes said, by fear, glory and the ‘perpetual and restless desire for power after power that ceaseth only in death’… It may be used by manipulative leaders to motivate people to wage wars precisely because it inspires people to heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but religion itself teaches us to love and forgive, not to hate and fight.” I, myself, have expressed a similar view.

Rabbi Sacks points out the problem with this approach: “When terrorist or military groups invoke holy war, define their battle as a struggle against Satan, condemn unbelievers to death and commit murder while declaring ‘God is great’, to deny that they are acting on religious motives is absurd. Religions seek peace, but on their own terms. This is not a recipe for peace but for war.

It may seem obvious to a Westerner that God wants us to be peaceful, and religious people from all three Abrahamic faiths will points to key texts in our holy books that support this: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18); “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44); “If anyone¬†killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or to spread mischief in the land–it would be as if he killed all mankind…” (Qur’an 5:32)

But it is just as easy to find texts in those and other religious sources that seem shockingly intolerant and violent. I’ve seen memes about such verses from the Qur’an and the Bible all over social media. For the most part, we have traditional interpretations that moderate the ideas expressed in these verses, but extremists have been interpreting them differently for centuries. Who am I, as a Jew, to say which interpretations of Islam are the “correct” ones? And who’s to say that my interpretation of “Blot out the memory of Amalek” is correct, while Baruch Goldstein’s interpretation of it was incorrect? Just because something “feels better” or aligns better with modern humanist doctrine doesn’t mean it’s true.

Rabbi Sacks puts the argument of the book as simply as he can in these words: “There is a connection between religion and violence, but it is oblique, not direct.

So what is that connection, and how should we, as religious people, approach it?

Altruistic Evil and Pathological Dualism

The question of why people commit any kind of violence is something we have discussed in other (off-blog) contexts in recent months. Rabbi Sacks, of course, delves a lot deeper, drawing on the writings of philosophers, psychologists, and scientists exploring this question. Looking at humans from a purely evolutionary standpoint, it makes as much sense for humans to be violent toward each other as for lions to be violent toward hyenas. Being altruistic and compassionate toward members of our own group has a distinct evolutionary advantage, because we are much more likely to survive if we cooperate; but we are also wired to be hostile, even violent, toward other groups, since they compete with us for resources and may threaten our survival. This is human nature.

Rabbi Sacks brings up two key phrases to help us understand religious violence. The first is¬†altruistic evil. He defines this as “evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals”. As we discussed off-blog, it takes more than poverty and desperation for people to murder innocent women and children who are not actively threatening them. For people to do this, they must be driven by a belief that those innocent people really¬†are a threat to them–through their mere existence. The easiest example to draw upon, of course, is Nazi Germany. The Nazis drew on the anger and unrest of Germans after their defeat in WWI, and desperation and poverty were certainly a part of that, but the main thing that drove them to commit genocide was the deeply held belief that the Jews had corrupted the natural order of the world. They believed they needed to kill us–all of us–to bring about their idea of utopia. The same is true of Daesh and other manifestations of radical Islam. These people believe that their values, their culture, their way of life, are under existential threat, and the only way to protect these things is to kill every man, woman, and child who represents or somehow perpetuates the destructive forces that threaten them–from Mosul to San Diego.

The second key phrase is¬†pathological dualism. Dualism is a worldview that divides the world into two opposing forces: “children of light” and “children of darkness”. Rabbi Sacks brings historical examples of people from Christianity and Judaism adopting dualistic theologies. In these worldviews, the “children of light” represent God’s will in the universe, while the “children of darkness” represent some other, evil force that must be destroyed or overcome for God’s will to be victorious. This is, of course, strictly opposed to the basic concept of monotheism. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” There is no force in the world that can challenge or defeat God. Believing otherwise is heresy according to the prevailing mainstream view in all three Abrahamic faiths. However, Rabbi Sacks points out, movements that believed in this view emerged during times of despair and disillusionment. Dualism is an easy way out of the difficult question of Divine justice. How can a just God have done something that seems so unjust? Dualists answer by saying that it wasn’t God at all; it was the Satan, or some other force that is fighting God. They can’t hold the idea that a God who is purely good could also be responsible for bad things that happen. It’s a simplistic, black-and-white way of thinking.

Dualism is not only expressed in theology; it is expressed in completely secular contexts as well. The Nazis were also dualists. Their world was divided into desirables and undesirables. There were no shades of gray. There was no acceptance of the idea that people are complex and each individual should be judged on his or her own actions and merits.

This dualistic view of humanity does not only express itself today in places like radical Islam and white supremacism. I see it on the liberal left, too. I see it on my Facebook feed when friends write things like, “If you voted for Trump, please unfriend me”. If you are so disgusted by the “other side” that you no longer wish to engage in conversation with someone based solely on a political decision they made last November, you are expressing a dualistic worldview. And that’s without even getting into BDS and the pathological demonization of Israel that has become a pet project of the left. To many people on the left, saying I’m an Israeli settler is basically the same as saying I’m a Nazi–and that confession is likely to inspire a similar response: disgust, horror, and a complete unwillingness to see me as a person in my own right with some views they may strongly disagree with. That is pathological dualism. To those people, I am an irredeemable child of darkness.

This, argues Rabbi Sacks, is the precursor to dehumanization. The next logical step is that the “children of darkness” must be defeated, or destroyed. It is not a very long road from there to altruistic evil. To deny that your own group is capable of reaching this point is classic in-group bias. “Almost invariably people regard their group as superior to others. Henry Tajfel, one of the pioneers of social identity theory, showed how deeply this runs in even the most trivial of groupings. In one experiment he divided people into groups on the basis of the mere toss of a coin, yet they still rated the members of their own group as more likeable than the others, despite the fact that they had never met one another before and knew that they had been selected on a purely random basis. Groups, like individuals, have a need for self-esteem and they will interpret facts to confirm their sense of superiority.”

There are, and always will be, extremists in our midst who are willing to commit altruistic evil. The question is whether we, as a group, allow that to happen–and perpetuating a pathologically dualistic worldview is one way we enable it.

Sibling Rivalry

“Yet we are still missing a piece of the puzzle,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “The phenomena we have described thus far–identity, splitting, projection, pathological dualism and the scapegoat–are general. They could affect anyone… They help us understand violence but not the fraught relationship between the Abrahamic faiths… What is it that brought Jews, Christians and Muslims, spiritual children to a common father, to such animosity for so long?”

To answer this question, Rabbi Sacks devotes a major chunk of the rest of the book to exploring the concept of sibling rivalry. Historian and philosopher Ren√©¬†Girard argues that violence is born in something he termed¬†mimetic desire–wanting to have what someone else has because they have it. Mimetic desire is why, when one child is given a toy or a snack, suddenly all the other children around want the same thing. This phenomenon is all too familiar to me as the mother of three boys! We have a natural desire to have what other people have. This desire can lead to violence. Girard argued that we can see this most clearly in the natural jealousy siblings have for one another; how siblings not only desire to have what the other has, but on a deeper level, to be what the other one is. This, says Girard, is one of the primal sources of violence.

All one needs to do is glance at the first book of the Bible to see this idea reflected in Scripture. Genesis is basically a meditation on sibling rivalry. The first murder is a fratricide: Cain murders Abel out of jealousy. Every step along the way from Abraham to Joseph involves a story, or several stories, about sibling rivalry. Rabbi Sacks points out that the most essential disagreements between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism can be reduced to an argument over Abraham’s blessing: who was chosen? Who is most worthy of God’s love? But this problem, Rabbi Sacks argues, obviously started long before Christianity or Islam ever came about. The problem is documented very clearly in the book of Genesis itself. Isaac was chosen over Ishmael (or Ishmael over Isaac in the Qur’an); Jacob over Esau; Rachel over Leah; Joseph over his brothers.

But what if, ventures Rabbi Sacks, we have all been reading these stories wrong?

What if, on close inspection, the Scripture is telling us a different story entirely?

He devotes Part II of the book to exploring that question, through a careful analysis of the text of Genesis. This was the part that really blew me away. Because those stories had always bothered me on some level. It always seemed so unfair. Why should only one of the brothers be chosen to receive God’s blessing? Is it really true that Ishmael and Esau were unworthy? Wasn’t Joseph kind of an insufferable brat who got what was coming to him?

Does God Play Favorites?

I’ve already passed the 2,000-word mark on this post and I obviously will not be able to recount Rabbi Sacks’s entire analysis of Genesis. I want to focus on just one of those stories that spoke to me most deeply: that of Jacob and Esau.

The story I learned as a child went something like this: Jacob was the kind and gentle twin, and Esau was the wild, hairy, and course one. I mean, look how stupid he was–he sold his birthright for some lentil stew! But for some reason Isaac–who was blind, perhaps spiritually as well as physically–favored Esau, while Rebecca, who was clearly in the right, favored Jacob. Jacob then stole Esau’s birthright and his blessing, at the encouragement of Rebecca, and that’s how he became the father of the chosen people.

What Rabbi Sacks points out about this story totally blew my mind. Jacob didn’t actually need to “steal” any blessing.¬†The blessing Isaac was going to give to Esau was never meant for Jacob. Isaac blessed Jacob-dressed-as-Esau with power and wealth. He later blessed Esau himself with a similar blessing. As Jacob was leaving to flee his brother’s wrath, Isaac gave him yet another blessing–a blessing to inherit the land of Canaan, and to have many children.

Abraham was never blessed with power or wealth; he, too, was promised the Land of Canaan and children “as numerous as the stars in the sky”. Isaac meant to give Jacob Abraham’s blessing all along.

Jacob’s story is essentially the story of a younger brother who wanted to have what his brother had–to be what his brother was–and who eventually learned that that’s never what he was meant to be. It’s the story of a man who came to appreciate his own gifts and destiny, and then–in the climactic scene of reconciliation with Esau–essentially¬†give back¬†what he took, which he now understood was never meant for him. That is when his name symbolically changed from Jacob–“He who follows”–to Israel, “He who wrestles with God”.

Throughout this section of the book, Rabbi Sacks consistently shows that God’s “choice” of one sibling over another is not actually an expression of overall preference. The other sibling is also appreciated and blessed in his own right. Of Ishmael the Bible says explicitly that “God was with him”. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are chosen not for their superiority, but for their specific traits: the fact that they were¬†not strong and self-sufficient like Ishmael and Esau were. God blessed Ishmael and Esau with¬†power; he blessed Isaac and Jacob with¬†responsibility.

In other words: no, God does not play favorites. God loves and blesses each one of us according to our unique abilities and traits. We don’t have to fight over God’s love. His love is infinite.

Realizing this is the key to overcoming our “Abrahamic sibling rivalry”–and, Rabbi Sacks emphasizes, we have already seen historically that this is possible. The Catholic Church has undergone a complete revolution in the way it relates to other religions and to Jews in particular in the past few centuries. In the wake of the Holocaust, some deep soul-searching on the part of the Christian world has led to a dramatic change in Jewish-Christian relations. “Today, after an estrangement that lasted almost two millennia, Jews and Christians meet much more often as friends–even (in the word selected by recent popes) ‘brothers’–than as enemies.”

Rabbi Sacks points out that one of the factors that seems to allow this to happen is the separation of religion from political power. We saw this in Judaism 2,000 years ago when the Hasmoneans lost power to the Romans; we saw it in Christianity with the secularization of the Western world in the last few centuries. I don’t know how or when it will be possible with Islam, but I have a theory: Islam is currently in its 15th century. Christianity wasn’t particularly tolerant in its 15th century. Maybe it’s just a matter of time and maturity.

What Then Must We Do?

“We must put put the same long-term planning into strengthening religious freedom as was put into the spread of religious extremism,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “Radical Islam was a movement fuelled by Western petrodollars, used by oil-producing countries to fund networks of schools, madrassahs, university professorships and departments, dedicated to Wahhabi or Salafist interpretations of Islam, thus marginalising the more open, gracious, intellectual and mystical tendencies in Islam that were in the past the source of its greatness. It was a strategy remarkable in its long time-horizons, its precision, patience, detail and dedication. If moderation and religious freedom are to prevail, they will require no less. We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world in its diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.”

“Most Western countries have anti-racist legislation that has proved virtually powerless against the vitriol spread through the social media. Education in many countries continues to be a disgrace. If children continue to be taught that non-believers are destined for hell and that Christians and Jews are the greater and lesser Satan… all the military interventions in the world will not stop the violence.”

In my words: we are not only fighting people. We are fighting ideas. We can kill people with guns and bombs; we can’t kill ideas that way. We need to fight ideas with ideas. We need to empower moderate voices to give young Muslims everywhere a hopeful, powerful, and peaceful alternative to extremism; an alternative that helps them preserve their identity and their values as Muslims without using hate, scapegoating, or dualism.

“Now is the time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to say what they failed to say in the past: We are all children of Abraham. And whether we are Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Leah or Rachel, Joseph or his brothers, we are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way.”

Stay safe, brother.

With love,

Daniella

Blessed Be the True Judge

Dear Josep,

*sigh*

So, first of all, I don’t know if you heard about the crazy wildfire/arson thing last week, but if you did, you probably calculated correctly that there isn’t a whole lot to burn out here and that I was probably okay. Eitan was out hiking with a group on Monday, and one of the foreign firefighting aircraft flew low overhead; it was red and yellow, and he eventually figured out was probably from Spain. Thanks! ūüėČ

Last night, though, a terrible tragedy struck our community. A 10-year-old boy was killed in an accident at the traffic circle down the street. We don’t know the family personally, but in a community like ours, we have multiple connections.¬†Eitan and I attended¬†the funeral this morning.

What can I say? How can I begin to describe what it’s like to watch a family say goodbye to their child?

The mother said that this was God demonstrating to her that it’s impossible to protect our children. He’d been wearing a helmet, crossing at¬†the crosswalk. This is what is so rattling about things like these. We move through our lives thinking we have control and that if we just do everything right, everything will be fine. But it’s not true. That’s not the world God made.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t protect you,” the mother said.

Daggers in the heart.

I started writing the following poem before I left for the funeral, and finished it when I came back. It is a kind of exploration of¬†a phrase Jews say when we hear bad news:¬†barukh dayan haemet, “blessed is¬†the True Judge.”


“Blessed is¬†the True Judge”
We push it out disbelieving lips
We force it past our clenched jaws
“The Lord gave, the Lord took away
May the name of the Lord be blessed”
We say.
We lay
A child to rest.
Why did You give
Only to take?
Why did You nurture
Only to break
Our hearts into a thousand pieces,
Shattered like the vessels that broke
Because the world You made was too small
To contain You?
Blessed
Increased, expanded
Be the True Judge
Perhaps it is not praise
Perhaps it is an accusation
Perhaps it is
A demand:
Expand!
Judge of Truth
Who takes a child in the height of his youth
Who forces a mother to bury her son.
Expand Yourself, O Holy One!
Magnify and sanctify Your own great name
In a world doused in tears and engulfed in flame.
Whisper in our ears
That You’re still here
That the pain has a purpose
That will one day be clear
That You do not hide Your face in vain.
Embrace us. Comfort us.
Heal our pain.
Lord full of mercy
Hear our prayer.
Please.
Don’t make us carry this.
It’s too much to bear.


Love,

Daniella

No Other Land

Dear Josep,

As I’ve elaborated in the past, the two national days of solemn remembrance in Israel are¬†one week apart; Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day (officially called, in rough translation, “the Day of Remembrance for Those Slain in the Wars¬†of Israel and the Victims of Acts of Terror”). As a recent olah (immigrant to Israel),¬†I¬†noticed that my fellow students and teachers seemed to feel a lot more strongly about Memorial Day, and I found that odd. The Holocaust was, objectively, a far more tragic event. How can you even compare the image of millions of Jews–men, women, and children–being herded into gas chambers and gunned down over mass graves, with the image of Jewish soldiers on the battlefield, dying¬†while fighting for their country?

Of course, over the years, the reason Israelis connect more to Memorial Day became very, very clear to me.

During the evening memorial siren last night, there were two names, two images,¬†I couldn’t get out of my head: Dafna Meir, and Naama Henkin. Both of them were killed in the recent wave of terror, and I believe I mentioned both of them in previous letters. Both were religious mothers of small children like I am.

We tend to identify most strongly with tragedies we have some kind of personal connection to. More than just having friends or acquaintances in common, that connection could be in identity (they were Jewish; women; similar lifestyle to mine), or geography (they both lived relatively close to here), or in time (they were killed recently, and the memory is very fresh). Remember how I mentioned that when teaching small children about the Holocaust, we are supposed to emphasize for them that the Holocaust happened a very long time ago and very far away? That gives them a sense of security.

Israel’s wars, however, are not a thing of the past. They cannot be placed far away over space and time. We don’t need to promise to remember. We are painfully reminded, every single day. Just yesterday morning two little old ladies were stabbed while taking a stroll along the promenade at Armon HaNatziv in Jerusalem. My children have clear memories of taking cover during the air raid sirens two years ago, and of the lockdown in our town a few months ago when a terrorist was on the loose. And the border with Gaza has been heating up again, as befits the¬†two-year cycle of Operation-Protective-Pillar-of-Cast-Lead-Whatever-the-Hell-They’re-Calling-the-Ongoing-War-with-Hamas-These-Days.

I attended¬†elementary school in the post-Oslo lull of the late 90’s, when things felt pretty safe. But even then–I had classmates with uncles and cousins who were killed in wars and terror attacks. The Holocaust was an unfathomable calamity, but it only directly affected European Jewry. More than half of Israelis are not even of European origin. The majority of my classmates were of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

Memorial Day is so much more intense because it is not commemorating a thing of the past. On Holocaust Memorial Day, we honor an unfathomable six million Jewish victims. On Memorial Day, the number of slain that we honor is much smaller, but it grows every year. This year it stands at 23,447. That’s 68 more than last year.

When I was thinking about what I might like to write about for “Israeli Emotional Roller Coaster Week,” I thought about sharing some of the music that is an integral part of¬†Israeli culture around this time of year. On Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day, the radio stations all play soft, sad music, mostly nostalgic Hebrew¬†songs from the 60’s and 70’s about war, loss, peace, and patriotism. I learned a few of them in school in the USA before making aliyah, but when I moved here I realized it was a whole genre, enough to fill entire radio stations for 24 hours.

I could probably write an entire book about Israeli war music, and it was very hard to decide which to write about. But when I decided to focus on one, I knew it had to be this one.

Here is my translation of the lyrics, written by Ehud Manor in memory of his brother, who was killed during the War of Attrition.

I have no other land
Even if that land is burning
Only one word in Hebrew
Penetrates my veins,
Into my soul
With an aching body
With a hungry heart
This is my home

I will not be silent,
For my land has changed her face
I won’t let go, I’ll remind her
And I’ll whisper to her, in her ears,
Until she opens her eyes

The melody was written by Corinne Alel, who performs this version. There is something so chilling and poignant about the a capella opening in her gritty, soulful voice.

The song captures something that I think is at the very core of our current conflict with the Palestinians.

The Palestinian narrative is that we, the Jewish Israelis, are colonialists. Europeans who came from foreign lands to impose sovereignty on the local population, just like the French in Algeria, or the British and Dutch in South Africa. And the way the local population dealt with the colonialists then, was to make living conditions so miserable for them, that they would be scared back to their homelands. That is the goal of Palestinian terrorism.

What they don’t¬†understand is that we have¬†nowhere to go back to.

We have no other land.

Even if that land is burning.

And we are not foreigners. We are indigenous to this land. We have an ancient story about every hill, every valley, every rock. We have been saying “Next year in Jerusalem!” for two thousand years.

This is our home.

The juxtaposition of Memorial Day to Israeli Independence Day further underscores our connection to that truth. We know how much we have sacrificed to stay here. And that fact only makes us more determined than ever to stay and to celebrate the miracle of our return to our historic homeland.

In the Rinat Israel prayer book, it states that we greet one another on Independence Day with the following blessing: “Mo’adim l’simcha, l’ge’ulah shleima”–“happy holidays, to full redemption!”

May we all experience full redemption–a lasting, prosperous peace–in our lifetime.

Love,

Daniella

The Real Freedom of Passover

Dear Josep,

So there was a bus bombing in Jerusalem yesterday. In an area both Eitan and I drive through very often. We are all safe, thank God.

The bomb went off on an empty bus, setting it and a few neighboring vehicles (including another bus) on fire, injuring dozens, but thankfully, miraculously, no one was killed. It sounds like it was a fairly amateur attempt that did not go as planned.

In the terror attacks in Europe and the USA of late, I’ve noticed that it takes a long time before they declare it a terror attack. We’re not used to that here in Israel; usually we know the instant it happens that it was a terror attack. But in this case it took the police a few hours. It was pretty ridiculous, actually. When they were still deliberating, there was a sub-headline on the Times of Israel that read “Mayor says explosion from small bomb on back of vehicle, but police maintain unclear if terror attack or accident.” I was like, “Oh really? They’re investigating the possibility that someone ‘accidentally’ planted a bomb on the back of the bus…? My taxes are paying for this?”

About ten minutes later, the news reported¬†that the police had confirmed a terror attack, and quoted the Jerusalem police chief as saying, “When a bomb explodes on a bus, it is a terror attack.”

YOU DON’T SAY.

I assume part of the confusion was that they had no intelligence about it whatsoever–which apparently means they usually do, which is both reassuring and extremely not reassuring–and the fact that no terrorist organization rushed to claim responsibility. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and their ilk are usually more than happy to gloat about it as soon as they can, but they did not claim responsibility, they just praised it.

*sigh*

I had just been noting, rather cautiously, that the wave of stabbings seemed to have ebbed a little bit. You know, just in time for us to uncover some new Hamas tunnels. Well, it’s that time of year, and we’re due for a war, right? It’s been two years since the last one.

*sigh*

Well… thank God for Passover. Seder night is this coming Friday, and while this holiday may drive the Jewish people collectively insane, it has its advantages. One, we are too busy panicking about getting our houses, kitchens, and pantries ready for the holiday to put much thought into what it means that someone managed to bomb a bus in Jerusalem, or to dwell on the memories from the Second Intifada such an image might invoke.

Two: Passover is a holiday of perspective.

Because when we sit down to tell the story of the Exodus, we zoom out of our current situation and the turmoil we are dealing with now, and we see it for what it is: yet another small blip in the 3,000-year-long story of the Jewish people, fraught with suffering but crowned with triumph.

Recounting the Exodus is about changing our mindset.

For so much of history my ancestors performed the Seder ceremony huddled over meager tables, saying the verses in hushed tones, strangers in strange lands under the shadow of the massacres so common around Easter time. “We were slaves, but now we are free,” they whispered, hiding from the watchful eyes of the Roman soldiers, or the spies of the Inquisition, or the Nazis. How did they live with this paradox? How could they celebrate their freedom when they were anything but free?

But they were free.

Because the kind of freedom we celebrate on Passover is a deeper kind of freedom than simply not being slaves, or enjoying equal rights, or having the opportunity to pursue our own destiny. It is a profound inner freedom, a freedom that cannot be shackled by any kind of chain. It is an inherent sense of knowing who you are, recognizing your place and your role in the grand scheme of things, and knowing that you matter. It is the courage to remain who you are in the face of threat and great pressure to abandon your identity. It is the faith that you are part of a story that will have a happy ending one day.

Before the tenth and final plague in Egypt, God¬†commanded the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb. Tie the lamb outside your house for three days, He commanded, and then slaughter it and paint its blood on your doorpost. That night, I will smite every firstborn in Egypt. But I will pass over the houses whose doorposts are painted with the lamb’s blood, and let your firstborns live.

That’s the source of the name “Passover.”

But why this whole ceremony? Didn’t God know whose firstborns He should kill without needing to “check” the doorpost?!

So here’s the thing. Egyptians worshiped sheep. They saw them as Divine beings.¬†So God commanded us to take this Egyptian god, tie it up in front of our homes for three days, and then slaughter it, eat it, and smear its blood on our doorposts–all out in the open.

I tell you, our lives have gone seriously downhill since these Israelites started with their whole “one God” thing.

This was a supreme act of defiance. One who was willing to perform this act was demonstrating that he no longer subscribed to the belief that the Egyptians and their culture held any power over him. He answered to one authority only: God.

That act, the paschal sacrifice–and the Seder that evolved around it–has become the ultimate symbol¬†of what it means for us to be free. And we have continued performing it year after year, even under the worst of conditions, to continue to remind ourselves of that freedom, that no one can take away from us.

Looking at things from that perspective, we can find some comfort and hope. Because the truth is that our situation now is better than it ever was. With all the hatred and all the turmoil around us, we have a thriving Jewish state. With all the terror and warfare, we are still suffering a lot less violence from our nasty neighbors than we did in years past.

“And it is [that promise] that has stood for our ancestors and ourselves, for not only one has risen to destroy us, but in every generation, they rise up to destroy us, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, saves us from their hands.”

That is the most poignant line from the Passover Haggadah. In this version of the song by Yonatan Razel, he changes the words to present and future tense, because of how relevant they still are, two thousand years after they were first written.

Not only one rises to destroy us… and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, will save us from their hands

Amen, may it be His will.

A joyful and peaceful Passover to all.

Much love,

Daniella

No, Actually, I Am Not Okay.

Dear Josep,

I swear I was in the middle of writing a post about the terrorist attack yesterday–the murder of Daphna Meir in her home in Otniel, south of Hebron–and how it shattered my sense of security, when a text from our town council told us that we were in lockdown.

Soon the news came through that someone had been injured in a stabbing attack within Tekoa and the terrorist had been shot.

The first thing you do is check with the preschools and schools where your kids are that everyone there is okay. After establishing that, the news slowly started to come through: pregnant woman. Seriously injured. Near the industrial zone. Holy crap, I think. That’s like a 2 minute walk from my house. I can practically see it from my kitchen window. Right next to my kid’s school. The terrorist was shot near the horse farm. Holy crap. That’s right next to my other sons’ preschool. One of them is home sick today… but the other. Did he hear the gunshot?

The next thing you do is start to panic about all the pregnant women you know who might have been there. My downstairs neighbor is in her 30s, pregnant, and works at the second-hand clothing store at the industrial zone sometimes. The woman who teaches my bridal counselor course fits those criteria too.

Text messages. E-mails. Facebook. A lot of nail biting. Refreshing news websites. Trembling hands.

A Whatsapp message: please pray for Michal bat Esther. A link to a special site that allows people to collectively read Psalms for a cause. And that horrible sense of relief that settles over you when you realize that it isn’t someone who is close to you. Horrible, because it shouldn’t matter. I read a chapter for her.

And then, as more details emerge, it becomes clear that I do know her. Michal Froman, daughter-in-law of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, the famous and controversial rabbi of Tekoa who was a peace activist. I attended a few of her yoga classes. I did translation jobs for her husband. I see her around every now and then and we exchange hellos.

Talk about a shattered sense of security.

Later reports changed the status of Michal’s¬†injury from “serious” to “moderate.” She underwent successful surgery and is stable, and so is her fetus. Thank God.¬†Another, bigger sigh of relief. She’s going to be okay.

This is all on the backdrop of yesterday’s incident, that I mentioned at the top of the post.¬†Daphna Meir, 38, mother of six (two of whom were foster children), fought off a terrorist who broke into her home¬†and stabbed her. He ran away without harming anyone else, but Daphna died of her wounds. The army is still hunting for the terrorist.

I made the mistake of reading a more detailed account of what happened in the incident.¬†I will spare you the details of what I read. No parent should ever have to hear these things. It’s horrible and heartbreaking and it made me nauseated and weak and short of breath.

It’s not that these incidents are “worse” than what’s been going on for the past¬†few months. They did strike particularly close to home, and this terrorist-breaking-into-your-house-and-murdering-you-in-front-of-your-children thing is¬†truly a whole different level of¬†nightmare. But you know… with these things happening so often, you can’t really feel how awful it is all the time. So you block it out. You numb yourself.

I was 15 during the worst of the second intifada. I remember a period when the word “pigua” (“terror attack”) would sweep my school in an urgent whisper. The first question you asked was, “Where?” And then, “How many killed?” If it was¬†more than five, you clutched your chest and reached for your book of Psalms. If it was less than five, you shook your head and clucked your tongue. If it was “none, only injuries”–you shrugged and went on with your day. It’s awful, but it’s the only way to keep going. You have to step back and look at the situation with cold objectivity. It’s the only way to be okay.

But sometimes, something will happen that will snap the situation¬†back into grim focus.¬†It’ll be something that hits particularly close to home–either someone you know, or somewhere close to where you were, or some situation that is chillingly familiar. And you feel everything. Anger. Fear. Disgust. Desperation. You realize that there are people out there, people who live just over there on the next hill, who want you and your children dead simply because you are Jews daring to live in your historic homeland. And you realize that some of those people are¬†willing to hunt you down and stab you for that reason and that reason alone.

And you are not okay. You are not okay at all.

But eventually the funerals end and the injured come home from the hospital and things start to become routine again. And there is still bad stuff on the news, but slowly you start to breathe a little easier, and you stop checking over your shoulder every time you walk outside your door. And you are okay again. For the time being.

People keep asking me if I’m okay. I feel a need to answer¬†“Yes.” Technically I am. As Eitan wryly jokes, I have all the right holes in all the right places. My family and I are safe… as safe as we could be under the circumstances, at least. And there’s a part of me that wants to show how defiant and strong we are. Sure, I’m okay. I’m fine.¬†Screw the terrorists, they won’t break me.

But no, actually. I am not okay right now.

I’ll be okay.

But not right now.

Love,

Daniella

P.S. If any of you are wondering how on earth one responds to a post such as this, I posted this guide for your convenience¬†a couple months ago. You’re welcome. ūüėõ

On the Awkward Question of Intermarriage

Prefer to listen? I read this letter for the Jewish Geography Podcast:


Dear Josep,

There’s been a great hullabaloo recently over an Israeli Education Ministry decision¬†not to include a certain book in the high school curriculum. The¬†book is called¬†Geder Haya (or “Borderlife” in English) by Dorit Rabinyan, and the reason there was such controversy over it was that it depicts a romance between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab. ¬†Apparently it also depicts Israel from a harshly critical left-wing perspective, but of course the Israeli left and the international media enjoyed latching on to the allegedly racist nature of the decision, claiming that the book was being “censored” because of a desire to “prevent exposure” of the concept of romance between a Jew and an Arab and thus “discourage intermarriage.” The Education Ministry later backtracked slightly and decided to include the book in an advanced curriculum for students specializing in literature.

I haven’t read the book, and I think everyone is making a big deal over nothing here. Leaving a book out of the reading curriculum for high school is not “censoring” or “banning” it. A Tale of Two Cities¬†isn’t in the high school curriculum either. In fact, in my day, there¬†was¬†a novel¬†in the¬†curriculum specifically approved for religious high schools that depicted a romance between a haredi IDF soldier and a secular woman, which¬†included a forbidden sexual encounter. I am far more inclined to believe that the decision had nothing whatsoever to do with the romance aspect of the book.

But, I decided to take this opportunity to open yet another¬†can of worms. It’s true: according to Jewish tradition, Jews are not allowed to marry non-Jews.

On the surface, I know that it looks bad. How could we claim to treat all human beings with equal respect, and then turn right around and say that we would never marry a non-Jew? Isn’t that a little… elitist? Or maybe racist? And particularly when we’re talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, isn’t¬†love the ultimate answer? Jews and Arabs riding off into the sunset together?

On... camels? "Cable Beach Sunset Camel Ride" by Binarysequence - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
On… camels?
Cropped from “Cable Beach Sunset Camel Ride” by Binarysequence ¬†[CC BY-SA 3.0]
One might even argue that the fact that we¬†have this rule about marriage is part of the root of the conflict. They would say that it expresses the¬†view that other groups are not¬†worthy of marrying into our families and becoming part of them. After all, don’t we call ourselves the “Chosen People”?

Okay, so let’s start sorting these worms out here, shall we?

What Does “the Chosen People” Mean?

First I’ll tell you what it¬†doesn’t mean. The “Chosen People”¬†doesn’t mean that we believe that we are inherently superior in any way to other people.

What does it mean to be “chosen” for something?

Let’s say you have a broken chair¬†and you decide to fix it yourself. You head to a nearby hardware store¬†and stand in front of the aisle of tools. When you choose a tool, you may choose it because of its price, or quality, but primarily, you are choosing it because it’s the one you need for the job. The fact that you chose a screwdriver over a hammer does not mean that the screwdriver is inherently superior to the¬†hammer. It just has a different purpose and different qualities that make it better suited for the job.

See where I’m going here?

God needed a job done. He needed a nation to spread knowledge of Him through the world. He chose the Jewish people for it.

Why?

All God says on the matter is that we are the heirs of Abraham. Meaning, there was this one guy who discovered God, and he¬†devoted his life to spreading knowledge of Him.¬†God promised this guy¬†that his children would fulfill that¬†particular role for humanity. In other words, He didn’t choose us for being inherently superior. He chose us because of His love for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who walked in His ways and showed a great loyalty to Him and to the cause of spreading His message. He granted them eternity through us.

Various sages and historians have assigned particular traits to us, with more or less truth to them, that may have made us particularly suitable for this role. But ultimately, the plain truth that is apparent in the text of the Bible is that God chose us because Abraham chose Him.

That’s it.

So… no.¬†Believing that we are the Chosen People does not mean that we believe we are superior. It means that we believe we have a specific¬†job to do in this world,¬†and the Torah is our guidebook on how to do that job.

Does that mean that there aren’t any Jews who interpret it to mean that we are superior and the¬†goyim are inferior? No, it doesn’t. I’ve said it many times before: people can twist any idea or ideology to justify their bigotry. But the idea in and of itself is not a statement about inherent worth.

So What’s the Problem with Marrying a Non-Jew?

I have to say that this question is something I have dealt with on all kinds of levels and from all kinds of angles. It is a deeply difficult question, and not because it is difficult to answer intellectually.

The intellectual answer can be summed up in two words: Jewish continuity.

I believe that Judaism is more than a nation or a religion. Judaism is also an idea. An idea and a mission. And I see it as one of my primary life goals to pass down that message to future generations. As I’ve mentioned many times before, education is of utmost importance in Judaism.¬†Continuing the legacy of Judaism, the practice and the¬†study of the Torah, is extremely important to us.

It is so important to us that we have made unimaginable sacrifices to preserve it. When you carefully study our history, you realize that it is against every rule of nature that the Torah is still taught and practiced today. Generation after generation,¬†the ruling powers tried their utmost to ethnically cleanse us, sometimes by attacking us as people, sometimes by attacking¬†the Torah as an idea, and often¬†both. Was it Divine intervention that preserved us? Was it extraordinary Jewish stubbornness? Perhaps¬†a little of A and a little of B…

Point is: Judaism is something we really want to pass on to our children.

And the statistics are pretty clear on this. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, children with only one Jewish parent are much less likely to identify as Jewish than children with two Jewish parents, and they are also more likely to intermarry themselves. The result is that within a few generations, all traces of Jewish identity are gone. Assimilation is the primary cause of the decline of the Jewish population in the USA today. Not emigration, not persecution. Assimilation.

Obviously, there are exceptions. A non-Jewish spouse may be very devoted to raising his or her children with a strong Jewish identity. But from the perspective of a child, I can’t help but look at this situation and be like, “Well, if this Judaism thing is so important, why is my father/mother not Jewish?”

It’s Not About Worth. It’s About Life Goals

Let’s say there’s this¬†average middle-class young woman, let’s call her Susan. And when people ask Susan¬†where she’d like to be in ten years, she says “Living in the suburbs with two¬†kids, a dog, and a steady hi-tech career.” Legit, right? Now let’s say Susan¬†meets this great guy, let’s call him Michael, and they¬†start dating and fall in love. Now, when people ask Michael where he sees himself in ten years, he says “Living in¬†the slums of Nairobi teaching math to the local children.”

So, we have a problem here. Susan¬†and Michael have incompatible¬†life goals. If they¬†want to make it work, one of them is going to have to give up one of these goals. Either Susan’s¬†going to have to give up on her idyllic comfortable life in the suburbs to¬†rough it in Africa with Michael, or Michael’s going to have to give up his dream of¬†making a difference to poor people in Africa and live an average (and probably in his opinion boring) life in the suburbs. And it’s not that simple, either. Giving something up for love comes with a price: you may find yourself living with a lot of resentment, feeling that your partner is holding you back from being who you were meant to be.

Now, Susan¬†and Michael might be able to find some kind of compromise–a few years in Africa, and then settling down somewhere civilized. But¬†maybe not. Sometimes it’s just not possible to compromise. Either Susan¬†or Michael may have to give up too much of her- or himself¬†to live a life that suits the other.

And for me, and other Jews who believe that the continuity of the Jewish people and the Jewish message is of utmost importance, the question of the spiritual and religious future of my family is absolutely not up for discussion. Actually, it is possibly the most important thing to me when it comes to building a family.

I think it’s pretty unfair to ask a non-Jewish spouse to completely give up his or her own heritage and family traditions just because of my priorities. I would not want to ask that of him. I would not want to enter into that situation without knowing that he was completely on board with that cause, and practically speaking,¬†that translates as him converting to Judaism.

It’s Not About Race, Either

As I mentioned in my post about the various Jewish cultural groups,¬†ethnicity is not the issue. There are Jews of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, and we’re perfectly willing to marry converts of any origin, too. It’s not about race. It’s about religion.

But What About Love?

What if Michael and Susan¬†are madly in love and just can’t live without each other?

I’m going to say something totally counter-culture and radical here. Ready? Are you sitting down?

There are things in life that are more important than romantic love.

This is a radical thing to say because the world at large¬†worships romantic love. To a very unhealthy degree. “Love conquers all,” it claims. The butterflies and fireworks of the process of falling in love are presented as the¬†highest heights of love–as if there is no greater or truer love than this.

It is a very powerful feeling, for sure. But it is far from what is most important¬†in a romantic relationship–and in life in general.

True love is not those butterflies. True, deep, enduring love is the deep sense of trust and commitment, the continuous nurturing of the relationship, and the choosing–every day, under even the most trying circumstances–to make this life journey together.

I admit, this kind of slow, quiet, hardworking love doesn’t look nearly as exciting on the big screen. So Hollywood doesn’t do a very good job of representing it. And people grow up with the idea that the most important thing that’s ever going to happen to you is that you’re going to fall in love, and that that’s what really matters in a relationship. Unrequited love is seen as a terrible tragedy. Three words: Romeo and Juliet. Am I right?

Feast your eyes, ladies and gents. The "greatest love story of all time" is about a pair of whiny teenagers who commit suicide over each other.
Yeah, um, what does it say about our culture that¬†the “greatest love story of all time” is about a pair of whiny entitled teenagers who commit suicide over each other after knowing each other for less than a week?

Yeah. So. No.¬†The “balcony scene” is not the part that matters.¬†The part that matters is the little, everyday moments of life together. Little moments where you choose to connect. Like when you put down your riveting thriller with only ten pages left because you¬†noticed that your partner looks sad. Or¬†when you stay up at night with the sick baby to let your partner sleep. Or when you are rattling on about something that’s worrying you that your spouse cares nothing about, but she listens anyway because she knows it’s important to you.

And these are things that you actively choose.

You can’t really choose who you fall in love with. You¬†do¬†choose who you stay in love with.¬†True, enduring, forever-love is a choice.

Look. I know that’s easy to say. And that’s why this is such a deeply difficult question. I have had close friends and family fall in love with non-Jews.¬†And when you don’t believe in the importance of Jewish continuity, or you do not see it as a personal responsibility, it makes no sense whatsoever not to be with someone just because he or she¬†isn’t Jewish. If¬†I didn’t feel this way about Judaism, I would have no problem at all with intermarriage. And yes… making the choice not to be with someone you love, because it isn’t right for you for whatever reason, is¬†really, really painful.¬†Especially when that reason has nothing at all to do with that person’s worth or compatibility with you as a human being. I know. It’s a really, really hard decision to make.

But people have to make choices like this all the time in relationships. Heartbreak is an occupational hazard.

Is Love the Answer to the Arab-Israeli Conflict?

I¬†think this is a very sweet, but naive¬†way to view the conflict. Again, this isn’t Romeo and Juliet! We’re not going to toss aside our¬†differences and live out the rest of our years joyfully eating hummus together just because¬†some of our kids fell in love with each other.

I do think that facilitating more contact in neutral, nonthreatening conditions may bring about positive change.¬†Polls show that Palestinians who have regular contact with Israelis tend to be more moderate, and I imagine the opposite is true, too. But it is very tricky to implement this when there is a strong opposition in Palestinian society to what they call “normalization,” and Palestinians who engage in dialogue must do so at great personal cost.

Furthermore, I don’t think¬†romantic love is the only kind of love that is helpful in building bridges. My dear friend Abi has¬†been very¬†involved with online peace communities and has forged some deep and important friendships with people “on the other side.” (You can read an article she wrote about one particularly powerful experience with this here.)

So… yes and no. Love is definitely part of the answer, but it is only a small part. (Don’t ask me what the rest is. If anybody knew, this conflict would have been over decades ago…)

Well, in any case, the author of Borderlife¬†has received an enormous amount of attention in light of this so-called scandal. Her book is flying off the shelves so fast, her publisher¬†ran a reprint. And a fellow author being successful is always good news to me, so here’s to that!

Much love,

Daniella

How to Support a Loved One Affected by Terror

Dear Josep,

You may have noticed that¬†I have a strange impulse to reach out to you, in particular, when something especially¬†horrible or scary happens in Israel. I did this even during a period where we were hardly in touch at all. It was¬†when 5 members of the Fogel family–including a baby–were stabbed to death¬†in their home by terrorists. You hadn’t heard about this incident, and seemed to be bewildered and alarmed to receive this desperate e-mail from me completely out of the blue.

I think the reason I have this impulse is that¬†you are the one person in my life who is outside the “echo chambers” of the Israeli communities and the Jewish Diaspora communities I interact with on a regular basis. We all talk about it and try to support each other, but especially when it seems like the rest of the world is ignoring it at best or being actively hostile towards us at worst, getting support from outside those circles has so much value.

You are the only person I know who wouldn’t have heard of the Fogel murders.

You’re also the only person I know who probably didn’t hear about the terror attack on Thursday evening.

The one that killed an 18-year-old American Jewish volunteer, a Palestinian bystander, and a beloved Israeli schoolteacher, at that same junction where the three teens were kidnapped and a woman from my community was killed last year.

The one occurred a 20-minute drive from here.

It’s not that this is new. There have been terror attacks, every day or every couple of days, for the last two months. Two people were stabbed to death in Tel Aviv coming out of a synagogue earlier that day, and there have been three stabbing attacks since (one last night in Kiryat Gat and two this morning in Samaria–and the security forces have foiled several more attempts). [ETA: Ugh, and as soon as I posted this I discovered that a young woman was critically wounded in another stabbing attack very close to where the attack on Thursday occurred.] [ETA2: She died from her wounds. ūüôĀ ]

But when it happens so close to home, on a road I have driven many times, it’s very hard to maintain the rationalizations and denial that keep us going about our business as usual. And¬†especially in juxtaposition¬†with the Paris attacks, which everyone seemed to care about so much, and countries all over the world flew the French flag and lit up their buildings in red, white and blue… the silence and indifference were deafening and made me feel more alone than ever.

I have wondered sometimes what it¬†must be like to be at the receiving end of this impulse I have to contact¬†you in those moments. I picture you sitting there in the hospital that one time a year and a half ago, dealing with your own stuff, suddenly getting a message¬†from me that reads something like “I just had to grab my kids from their beds and take cover from a rocket barrage.” Or being in between flights to God knows where, drowning in paperwork, glancing at your phone to see a note from me informing you that¬†someone in my community was stabbed to death by a terrorist a few hours ago. Like, what do you even say?!

"Oh no. A message from Daniella. Somebody get me some wine."
“Oh no. A message from Daniella. Somebody bring me¬†a glass of¬†wine.”

So… this is a post about what you can say. I think a lot of people, especially within those circles of Diaspora Jews who care a lot about Israel and have friends and family here, find themselves at a loss in situations like these. Other¬†people with friends in Paris may have experienced this last week, too. Unfortunately, I anticipate that it will not be the last time Europeans find themselves afraid to leave their homes. So this how to respond–and how¬†not to respond–when a friend affected by terror tells you what he or she is going through.

DO…

  • express your relief¬†that they are safe and indicate that you are glad to hear from them.
  • …ask how they are doing. (And if you can manage it–do this again from time to time on your own initiative. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you have no idea how much of a difference it makes to get even a really brief e-mail, message or phone call just checking in on us.)
  • …let them know they are in your thoughts and prayers.
  • follow their lead. Remember how I mentioned that in the Jewish practice of comforting mourners, visitors may only speak to the mourners if the mourners address them first? People deal with tragedy and crisis in many different ways. Some people may want to talk about their experiences. Some people may want to vent their anger. Some people may not want to talk about it at all. The idea is to give the person the space to share what they want, and¬†then show them that they are being heard.
  • …ask, “What do you need from me right now?” This is one of the most important questions you can ask in any relationship, under any circumstances–including with yourself. (I have learned to ask myself this from time to time.) Sometimes your loved one won’t know what they need and won’t be able to tell you, but the fact that you asked means that you care, and that is enough. Sometimes they will need something that you can’t give. In that case, you can always say, “I wish I could.” It’s the thought that counts.
  • express solidarity, in whatever way you can. I’m not sure you will ever understand how much it meant to me when you posted something in solidarity with or in defense of Israel on social media. Someone I know¬†in Paris asked her friends to light a candle for France after the attacks. Organizing or attending rallies and vigils, collecting donations in support of the victims and their families, and writing articles and op-eds about the situation are all strong expressions of support. Best of all? Come visit. The hospitality industry in Paris is¬†suffering a lot right now because people are afraid to visit Paris. As you know, my husband Eitan is a tour guide and the tourism industry here is the first to suffer during wars, intifadas, and “terror waves.” Nothing expresses solidarity like showing up in person and supporting our local businesses.

DON’T…

  • ignore the situation.¬†Say something.¬†Even if you have no idea what to say. (If that’s the case, “I don’t know what to say” works just fine.) When putting this post together I asked around for other people’s experiences, and “Silence”¬†topped the list of unhelpful or hurtful responses.
  • offer solutions, especially the “Why don’t you move to [someplace I perceive as being safer]?” variety. It’s not nearly that simple, and¬†especially for people who chose to live here for ideological reasons, that kind of questioning can feel threatening and delegitimizing. When we are scared, hurt, and grieving is the worst time to raise these voices of doubt.
  • imply that it’s their fault for living where they do. Israelis get this all the time.¬†People don’t realize that this is exactly like telling a woman who was raped that it was her fault for being in a rough¬†neighborhood. It’s called “victim-blaming.” Don’t do it.
  • point out that people on the “other side” are suffering too. I recently had a conversation where I shared my sense of fear and isolation, and someone thought it would be helpful to point out that the Palestinians are afraid too. Sorry, but more people suffering does not make me feel better.¬†Especially when paired with the previous item, which¬†this person did (inadvertently, I hope) by stating¬†her view that Israel bears partial¬†responsibility¬†for the violence. Which brings me to the next item: don’t…
  • make a political statement¬†criticizing their government and/or society for creating the conditions that allowed this incident to happen. There is a time and a place for those discussions. A¬†personal conversation with someone who is afraid to leave his home because he might get stabbed or shot by a terrorist? Not the time and place. A conversation with someone who just witnessed an attack, was injured in one, or lost someone in one? Absolutely, 100%, not the time and place. (Unless he, himself, initiates that discussion. See¬†“follow their lead” above.)
  • offer platitudes or rationalizations, like “It’s going to be okay” (you don’t actually know that, do you?) or “Statistically, you’re much more likely to die in a car accident” (statistics don’t help when you fall¬†on the wrong side of them).¬†Be willing to be present with your loved one in his or her fear, grief, or anger, without dismissing it or trying to make it go away.

 

Obviously, I am sharing from my own experience (and the experiences of my friends), so people may feel differently about the things I’ve listed above. At the end of the day, the main point is: be kind; be present; and listen.

Praying as always for better news soon.

Love,

Daniella

Thoughts on Paris

Dear Josep,

Last year, after the three teens were kidnapped, I began to develop what I call “Havdalah Anxiety.” You see, in today’s world, there is something so freeing about turning off my computer and cellphone before lighting candles and bringing in Shabbat. I know that for the next 25 hours, I will not be subject to a constant barrage of information, most of it distressing, and I will not be part of any global conversation. I will simply be focused on the here and now. I will eat good food, enjoy good company, play with my kids, and/or read a good book. This disconnection from the world is such a blessing.

But then the sun begins to set Saturday evening. We sing the sad songs of Se’udah Shleesheet, the third meal of the Sabbath, and the sky darkens around us. When three stars emerge, we perform the havdalah ceremony, described in the post about Shabbat, to officially declare the Sabbath over and begin the new week.

And then we turn on our cellphones.

Under normal circumstances this is no cause for anxiety. But during those two-and-a-half weeks of the search for the three teens, I found it agonizing. What if they were found over Shabbat? Alive? Dead? What if there is no news at all? All the possibilities began to haunt me from the moment the sun began to set until I finally skimmed my Facebook feed and/or the headlines and got past the disappointment that there had been no developments. After they were found, there was the murder of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, and the riots in Jerusalem, and the escalation in Gaza and eventually the war that took over the summer. And even after the war, there were the terror attacks in Jerusalem, car rammings and stabbings. Turning on my cellphone after Shabbat became inextricably linked with the anxiety about what I might find on the news.

Very unfortunately, that anxiety justified itself once again last night when I turned on my phone. I clicked on my Facebook app, glanced at it for about 5 seconds and¬†blurted, “What the hell happened in Paris?!”

You have to understand; when we plug back in after Shabbat, we have already missed several news cycles, and the headlines are already about the aftermath, the condemnations, the responses. So we have to dig through all that to get to the facts of what happened.

And honestly I don’t really know what to say.

My heart goes out to the people of Paris and I¬†extend my greatest sympathies and prayers.¬†But something about it feels wrong and hypocritical in light of the horrific attacks all over the place (Lebanon, Turkey, Kenya) that somehow the Western world seems to care very little about. Where is all the solidarity for the other victims of Daesh’s death cult–a number growing daily? Not to mention our own situation here in Israel, where we are still facing terror on a daily basis.¬†A father and son were shot dead near Hevron¬†very shortly after the Paris attacks took place, on their way to a celebration preceding their daughter/sister’s wedding. Hardly newsworthy for the international media.

On the other¬†hand, I understand; of course you’re going to care more about an incident that feels closer to you, that effects people who are more like you, in a country that is politically similar to your own. That’s only natural.

When we Israelis encounter these horrific terror attacks in Europe and the USA, we tend to have this erroneous hope that “Maybe now they’ll understand what we’re dealing with.” Erroneous, because that’s never true. The international community’s narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict is so distorted that no matter what happens here, we will always be seen as the aggressors and never as the victims. So we get angry and frustrated and post snarky memes about the perceived hypocrisy. And I hear it.

I hear the pain of my Muslim friends, too. My Muslim friends who get hate mail and people demanding that they prove their commitment to peace and democratic values. These terror attacks increase suspicion against Muslims, feeding into a cycle of fear, hatred, and polarization. And of course there will be a backlash for the refugees fleeing Syria. One of the terrorists in Paris was a “refugee,” lending more legitimacy to the claim that European countries cannot accept the refugees because they might be involved in terror. On the one hand, the vast, vast majority of them are probably genuine refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria and trying to make a peaceful new life somewhere else. And the free world must do what it can to make that possible for them.¬†On the other hand, it is very hard to tell if there are Daesh supporters being smuggled in among them. And the results of these types of infiltration can be deadly. How could we take that risk? But how could we take the moral risk of turning away all these innocent refugees and letting them die, by fire or by water?

So many contradictions. So much pain and fear. I have no answers. Only prayers.

I know Barcelona is not Paris, but for once, I feel a need to ask you to stay safe. May we hear only good news.

Love,

Daniella

The 5 Secrets of Israeli Resilience Against Terror

Prefer to listen? This letter was featured on the Jewish Geography Podcast:

It was also featured in the Jewish news network for Australia and New Zealand, J-Wire, here.


Dear Josep,

I’d been debating with myself about whether to post here¬†about current events in Israel. I generally prefer to keep our political discussions to our private correspondence, and I’ve updated you on the situation, but the blog is about life in Israel too, and this, unfortunately, is part of life here.

So let me explain for our blog readers who haven’t been following the news from Israel: “this” is a fresh wave of violence and terror. The claim is that the Palestinians are upset¬†because of a rumor that the Israeli government plans to change the status quo on the Temple Mount–as in, allow Jews to pray there. Yes, you understood that right:¬†Palestinians are stabbing Jews all over Israel over the [false!] allegation¬†that the Israeli government will grant religious freedom to Jews.¬†At the holiest site to Judaism.

You can’t make this stuff up.

But we all know it’s not really about that. It’s about the same things¬†as always.

Now, because our security forces have thwarting¬†large terror attacks down to an art, thankfully,¬†we are not seeing¬†the kinds of horrible suicide bombings that characterized¬†the Second Intifada. They have mostly been stabbings, usually single terrorists, sometimes trying to seize weapons from soldiers or civilians. The scary thing, though, is that it’s been happening multiple times a day all over the country–from Tel Aviv to Afula to Kiryat Gat to Petah Tikva to Raanana, not only the Old City in Jerusalem or the West Bank. And of course, along the roads in Judea and Samaria, there has been a marked increase of rock attacks and Molotov cocktails thrown at Israeli cars.

So… what is it like to have all this going on around us?

A friend of mine from high school, the phenomenally talented artist and animator Reut Bortz, drew this cartoon, which expresses so well what it feels like:

cartoon reut

It’s like navigating a game of Snakes and Ladders. You try to live your life normally, praying you will land on a “safe space.” You try to make the choices that will keep you and your family safe, but¬†ultimately you feel¬†helpless to protect yourself and your family. This is how terror works. While statistically we are much more likely to be killed in a car accident, the high profile of these incidents keeps us afraid. Eventually, the terrorists believe, it will wear us down and weaken us, to a point where we will just give up and leave.

…Apparently they don’t know who they’re dealing with here.

They call us the Eternal Nation for a reason. We don’t get weak when we are threatened; we get stronger. Palestinian terror is¬†just one unpleasant–and fairly unimpressive–blip in the centuries-long timeline of horrors¬†we have survived.

When I gave you a “security briefing” during another rough time last year, you said, “I wonder how you live like that!” I responded, “A lot of dark humor.” While that is an important (and my personal favorite) coping mechanism Israelis tend to employ, there are others, and I want to tell you about them today.¬†But let’s start with that one:

1) Dark Humor

I'm heading to the store; need anything?
Based on a Hebrew meme I saw on Facebook last week.

Yup. I’ve written about this typically Jewish coping mechanism before, but I really think it’s a fascinating sociological phenomenon. Israelis make a point of laughing about tough situations. I told you about how during the war last year, Hamas tried its hand at using social media to intimidate Israelis, and how that backfired, big time. Their efforts were met with an onslaught of mockery–from the popular parodies of their propaganda music video to the hilarious responses to their hacking of a Domino’s Pizza page. This period is no different. No matter what you do to us, we will never stop laughing.

Humor helps us in a few ways:

  1. It helps create some distance between us and the threat, which makes it feel less scary and threatening. It’s hard to be afraid of something ridiculous.
  2. It brings us together, increasing solidarity (see item #3).
  3. Laughter is an excellent medicine. It oxygenates the blood, increases endorphin and dopamine levels, decreases stress hormones, and burns calories to boot!

Here are a few of the jokes getting tossed around on social media:

–“I hate this kind of weather, where you don’t know whether to wear long sleeves or a bulletproof vest” (Yotam Zimri, Israeli comedian)

–“Apparently terrorist groups are paying Palestinian kids $30 to throw rocks at soldiers. They don’t realize we’re so underpaid that we’d throw rocks at ourselves for half the price.” (Anonymous Israeli soldier)

–(Background: one of the attacks yesterday was carried out by an Arab employee of Bezeq, a large telecommunications company)
“Me: Your employee just stabbed me.
Bezeq: Have you tried taking out the knife and reinserting it?” (Michael Butir)

As per item #2, which we will get to in a moment, there were a bunch of videos going around demonstrating knife defense techniques, some more helpful than others. Well, this one is a little different.

2) Fighting Spirit

On the night two Israelis were stabbed to death in Jerusalem a week and a half ago, Bon Jovi performed in Tel Aviv. He dedicated a new song of his, “We Don’t Run,” to Israel, saying that it should be Tel Aviv’s fight song. Eitan and I have been listening to it on repeat ever since.

We don’t run
I’m standing my ground
We don’t run
And we don’t back down
There’s fire in the sky
There’s thunder on the mountain
Bless each tear
And this dirt I was born in
Run
We don’t run

Nailed it, Jon.

One of the most remarkable things about the attacks in the past week or so is that the terrorists have been neutralized within minutes, not only by the police or security, but by ordinary passersby–with ingenuity that does me proud as a self-defense instructor. Yesterday a terrorist stabbed a guy in Ra’anana, only to be pounced upon by several bystanders and beaten to a pulp. Another guy fought off a terrorist with his umbrella; one used a selfie stick; one martial artist¬†happened to be carrying his nunchaku in his bag and jumped on a bus where a terrorist was being subdued, using his weapon to help neutralize him.

…As per item #1, you can imagine we had a ball with this. Benji Lovitt, Anglo Israeli comedian, wrote: “I can’t believe we wasted billions of dollars on the Iron Dome. Do you know how many umbrellas, nunchucks, and selfie sticks we could have bought?” Eretz Nehederet, an Israeli satire show, put out a cartoon of an army insignia for the “Neutralizing Brigade,” featuring those three “weapons.”

We don’t run. We go out and buy pepper spray, take self-defense classes, and arm ourselves. And when a terrorist goes on a rampage, we don’t run and hide and wait for someone to save us. We tackle that b#$*#@^ and give him what he deserves.

David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli Prime Minister, is quoted as saying, “The entire nation is the army, the entire country is the front.” Still true 70 years later.

3) Solidarity and Unity

I wrote about this during the war, too. Nothing brings us together like an external threat. From sending gifts to the families of victims or food to the soldiers to wishing strangers “b’sorot tovot” (“good news”), there is a strong sense that we are in this together and we are here for each other.

Solidarity from outside Israel helps a lot too. Jewish communities praying for our welfare, and friends checking in on us, make us feel that we are not alone, and give us a lot of strength. If you are reading about the situation in Israel and feeling angry and helpless, there is one simple and highly effective thing you can do: just write a quick note saying you are thinking of us, or asking how we are. It helps more than you can imagine.

4) “Doing Davka” (Stubborn Defiance)

Footage from one of the recent attacks¬†showed an Israeli soldier pointing¬†her gun at¬†a knife-wielding¬†terrorist while¬†still holding an ice cream bar¬†she had been¬†eating. (This of course triggered a parody video of a guy doing all kinds of things while holding on to an ice cream bar…) “I’m not throwing away perfectly good ice cream just ’cause¬†I need to neutralize a terrorist!”¬†If that doesn’t illustrate quintessential Israeli defiance in the face of terror, I don’t know what does.

One of the responses to the violence in the Old City of Jerusalem was a group of young men gathering at the Damascus Gate to study Torah. This is also a quintessential Jewish response. “You want to scare away the Jews? We’re coming, and we’re bringing our Torah with us.” They have been studying there regularly since the violence escalated.

Like I said, the goal of terror is to weaken us, to disrupt our daily lives. We therefore go out of our way to show the terrorists that they have not succeeded, by davka celebrating life and going about our regular activities with stubborn defiance.

God called us a “stiff-necked people” in the book of Exodus.¬†It was not a compliment at the time, but that same trait¬†has served us pretty well in this context!

5) Faith (Seeing the Big Picture)

It was during the Second Intifada that I became intimately acquainted with the book of Psalms. Every time there was a serious terror attack, our teachers would hand out booklets of Psalms for us to read. And there were, unfortunately, many opportunities to do so. Prayer, and specifically the book of Psalms, has been our go-to response to bad situations for centuries. To me, that book is the symbol of Jewish spiritual resistance.

Armed and dangerous.
Armed and dangerous.

Faith in God doesn’t mean I think that if I just believe and pray enough, nothing bad will ever happen to me. Faith in God means that no matter what happens, I trust that He is on my side, and that even if something bad happens, it’s for the ultimate good. It means trusting Him to be with me and give me the strength to handle whatever comes. Reading the book of Psalms helps me because it reminds me that I am not alone in my fear, anger, and yearning for a better world–that Jews have been feeling these things for centuries, and we have overcome.

Faith as a coping mechanism also¬†means seeing the Big Picture. The Big Picture is that this wave of violence is truly nothing compared to the bloodshed we have survived in the past–and it could be so, so much worse.¬†Faith means seeing¬†that each day is full of¬†honest-to-goodness¬†miracles. The fact that more Israelis have not been killed, despite the best efforts of the hateful hordes, is a¬†revealed¬†miracle–what we religious people call it when God’s hand is very¬†clear. It can be hard to think this way when you’re in the depths of pain and despair, especially when someone has been injured or killed. That’s fine too.¬†Sometimes we are meant to focus in on our little part of the picture and do what we can to improve it. But when we can pan out and take the long view, we can take heart. Because to the person of faith flipping through the many pages of Jewish history, it is undeniable that Someone is running the show–Someone who is¬†on our side.

That’s the Jewish people for you.¬†Afraid, but courageous; broken, but defiant; constantly arguing, but united; questioning, but keeping faith; crying, laughing, praying, mourning death and most of all–stubbornly, audaciously¬†celebrating life. And it is just that that carries us through. During the war in 2014, Hamas MP Fathi Hammad said, “We desire death like you desire life.” You betcha,¬†Hammad.¬†And may God grant us both what we desire.

Hoping for better times very, very soon.

Love,

Daniella

Dusty Divinity

Dear Josep,

If I sound a little muffled, it’s because I’m writing from beneath a huge cloud of dust.

Epic sandstorm. Photo courtesy of NASA.
Yeah, we’re in¬†there somewhere. Photo courtesy of NASA.

On Tuesday we awoke to yellow skies. This is not too unusual for the transitional seasons, but usually the dust storm lasts maybe a day, and then the heat “breaks” with a muddy rainfall, and the weather moves on with its topsy-turvy unpredictable transitional-season self.

Not this week, though. It’s Thursday, and though the skies are more gray than yellow now, the sand is still here. And it’s hot as all heck out there. This weather is dangerous for people with breathing difficulties, so they are advised to stay inside, and the Ministry of Education issued a directive to keep kids indoors during the school day. We’ve had the windows closed and the A/C on pretty much all day since Tuesday.

I have a habit of looking for God in the weather. I dunno; the weather is one of those things that is so beyond our control, something that feels like¬†the direct result of His will.¬†Therefore,¬†when we have unusual weather, I tend to feel that God is speaking to me through it somehow. So I find myself asking, what’s with this dust, so soon before Rosh Hashana–which begins¬†on¬†Sunday night?

I thought about dust, and references to dust in the Rosh Hashana prayer services. It is mentioned in the context of our humility before God; “I am like dust in my lifetime…” And then it occurred to me: in Genesis 2:7, the Torah describes the creation of Man. “The Lord God created man, dust from the earth, and He blew¬†into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul.” (The Hebrew word for “man” or “human” is Adam–◊ź◊ď◊Ě–which comes from the word¬†adama, ◊ź◊ď◊ě◊Ē, which means “earth.”)

According to our tradition, Rosh Hashana is the birthday of the first man, Adam. The story described in Genesis is not necessarily meant to be taken literally, but I think what it is showing us is that as humans, we are a synthesis between the most tangible¬†of matter–“dust of the earth”–and the highest of “spiritual matter”, “the breath of God.”¬†This tension also represents what I am always saying is one of the most important¬†tasks¬†the Torah assigns: to take the material and elevate it into something spiritual.

In the previous chapter of Genesis, 1:26, we find a passage that is curious in its use of the plural: “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image…'” Us? Our?

The Bible critics would jump on this and say it proves that whoever wrote the Bible believed in multiple gods, or something. The traditional commentaries would roll their eyes and say, “Sit down, you pretentious¬†cynics. It’s a ‘royal we’.” Others say He was speaking to the angels, to teach us the lesson of humility, that we should always consult with those “lesser” than us and not see ourselves above asking their advice.

But there is one interpretation of the use of the plural form in this passage that I have always found particularly inspiring. [And I can’t find its source, so if anyone reading knows it, please tell me!]

God isn’t speaking to the angels or to other gods or to Himself with the royal ‘we’.

He is speaking to you.

He is saying, “Let us make man–you and Me. I’ll give you the raw materials–the dust–and you will breathe in My spirit. I’ll give you a body and free will, and you will use those to make good choices, to¬†refine yourself and become all that you can be, and to elevate My world to its fullest spiritual potential.”

And that’s what Rosh Hashana is all about. What are we doing with our dust? Are we simply clumps¬†of dust, coming from dust, returning to dust? Or are we drawing in God’s spirit with every breath we take, infusing our dust with Divinity?

So obviously, I have no idea why God kicked up this epic sandstorm at this particular point in time. But there is something that feels appropriate about it, being surrounded by these metaphorical particles that form what we are in this life, that create the veil of this material world behind which the infinite spiritual universe resides.

And those are my dusty thoughts for the day. ūüėČ I will take this opportunity to wish you a sweet and happy new year, full of new beginnings, and personal fulfillment, and love, and joy, and everything your heart desires. May we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life.

Shana Tova,

Daniella