Saturday, July 30, 2011

Rami Levy, Israeli Racism and the danger of Intermarriage.

The headlines on Wednesday informed the Israeli public of racial segregation in our local supermarket! In response to apparent romance between one of the (Arab) packers and one of the (Jewish) cashiers, a local Rabbi had approached the supermarket owner to ask – in the name of preventing intermarriage and assimilation – that the there be no interaction between Jews and Arabs at the store. In two visits that I have made to the store this week, (I am not an overenthusiastic blogger – just an avid shopper!) the majority of packers are now in fact Jews.

As this is my local store and my community Rabbi, I feel emotionally connected to this issue. I also feel that it raises some important points of conversation that are seldom discussed in Israeli society so let's make a few comments about Israeli-Arab coexistence.


Rami Levy, the owner of the supermarket, described his store as the "Peace Supermarket." Is that so? Well, I certainly do think that Rami Levy has furthered the cause of coexistence in our little segment of the embattled Middle East.

When the store opened last year, and it gave equal access to Jews and Arabs, many local Jews were shocked? "What? Are we going to shop with them? - Those terrorists?" Was this a genuine security concern, or merely discomfort of the "other" a.k.a. racism? – Probably a mixture of both. Jews were fearful of Arabs, after prolongued terrorism, and with nothing to readjust that impression. After the shop opened, the result - almost instantaneously - was very positive interaction. Even though we don't go dancing down the aisles together, there are smiles and there is courtesy, there is mutual assistance, and there is – interaction! Suddenly the Arabs have a human face; they also have wives and husbands, they also buy pasta and toilet paper, and they also have holidays on which they buy exorbitant supplies of food! I would say that the Rami Levy has humanized the Arab population for my children in a very real way.

Let me stress. For the average Israeli, there is little contact with Arabs; and there is much fear. The Arabs with which we interact are unlikely to be on our socio-economic level – academics or white-collar workers. And unless one knows people who are "different and equal" it is difficult to build a culture of tolerance. See the latest satirical piece of Sayed Kashua, the fabulous Israeli-Arab novelist and Ha'aretz columnist. His story demonstrates quite clearly that Israelis don't want to holiday with Arabs, and the latent racism irrespective of which side of the Green Line one resides. In our neck of the woods, before the Oslo accords in 1993, we used to drive through Bethlehem, and people used to shop in their markets and stores. Then came the roadblocks and separate roads. And in 2000, with the intifada came a deeper level of segregation. Without human contact, it is difficult to build trust, and the simple understanding that we are all human beings who deserve respect and dignity..

Here is a letter written by a 30 year-old man who grew up in Gush Etzion. He recently attended a dialogue meeting for Arabs and Israelis (of the Right Wing Eretz Shalom group) to further neighbourly relations in the area. Here is what he wrote on the group's email list:

"On Friday, I went to Hussan (an Arab town) for the first time, with, I admit, many butterflies in my stomach. But almost immediately, all my fears melted
away. I saw a large group of Jews, black and knitted kippot, from Beitar and Gush Etzion, beards and tzitzit flapping on the wind … we sat in the garage we drank coffee and conversed. I was quite embarrassed by my initial suspicions.
Fundamentally, Can anybody tell me that the person who I am sitting and talking to is trying to work behind my back? The culture of cowardice and suspicion has reached heights that we cannot fathom. True! There have been (violent) situations, and … when we fall, we fall down hard and it hurts, and we can add the argument that the suspicions and distrust of Jews (towards Arabs) is the Arabs' fault etc. etc. (- that is what I told myself until now.) But today, I feel that the stigma generated by these sorts of statements is too large. It is a burden too heavy to bear, and it carries a heavy price. And so, alongside a distrust at the national level, every individual must open some sort of friendship or human relationship (with an Arab,) if only so that he learn not to tarnish (all the Arabs) and to be defensive all his life." (written July 24,

I bring all this to show that simple supermarket interaction is vital to expel the view of all Arabs as the enemy, as hostile and threatening. Total separation can lead to a dangerous dehumanisation and demonization of our Arab neighbours.

Now let me address the problem of intermarriage and assimilation. The local Rabbi thinks that if Jews and Arabs work alongside one another, there will be people who fall in love and intermarry. Now, truth be told, this is a real possibility in university, at work, and anywhere.

I think that we really have two choices.

Option 1 is an Israel that is a segregated society in which Arabs are restricted from integration, a culture that will breed a society of bigotry, racism and exclusion (which anyway will be ruled illegal by the Supreme Court,) which but morally is not the ethical Israel that I believe in.

Option 2 is a society which respects its citizens and every human being on its streets.

But we have a problem. If Arabs are equal to Jews, and integrated in society, then what WILL be with intermarriage? The answer is clear. We have to educate our kids to want to be Jewish, to value Judaism, and to desire a Jewish lifestyle. Just like in Chutz LaAratez, people will have to choose to be Jewish and to marry a Jew. Now, for some, they wish that Israel will be the place where one doesn't need to think about these things. In Israel the football players and street-sweepers should be Jewish as should be the doctors, lawyers and cashiers. But the realty is that over 25% of the Israeli population is non-Jewish; be it Russian immigrants or Arabs or what have you.

Now, you will ask correctly… if we create an equal Israel, how can we justify allowing that increased intermarriage. Possibly we should push more segregation to stop that momentum. So again, I return to our two options above. Either we create a exploitative unequal society or we invite full participation. I am unwilling to live in a society that grades its citizens to first class and 2nd class. It is wrong.

Now, this is difficult. I desperately want to further Israel's Jewish character, and to see Judaism reflected positively in Israel's public and cultural environment. I would cry over any case of intermarriage. Sometimes, I wish that the problem will simply go away, because this is about making hard choices, and pitting religious interests against humanistic ones. And yet , civility and respect for all decent human beings are also mitzvot. We cannot solve the problem by creating an increasingly unequal society. Education, and strengthening of Jewish-Israeli identity is the key way that this should work.

Ironically, the newspaper articles saw this as a Gush Etzion, "settler" problem. But it is a problem throughout Israel. And we are going to need to face this one head on.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Housing Protest and the Three Weeks.

Here in Israel, we frequently discover unexpected connections between current events and the Jewish calendar. Usually at the peak of the summer we get a war (2006), or a disengagement from Gaza (2005), or just some angry demonstration or another.

This year, in the thick of the "three weeks" [traditional mourning period for the Temple destruction and exile,] we have the widespread housing protests, and doctors' strike. And I have to say that this movement is very close to the heart of the message of the three weeks. I will explain.

What are people protesting? As regards the issues, it started with a boycott of the price of cottage cheese, and quickly followed with a protest of rising house and rental prices, along with the trainee doctors who scuttled a negotiation deal that ignored the ridiculously long hours that trainee doctors spend at the hospital without a break, and with little pay.

The government responded 2 days ago with a wide housing initiative, but unfortunately they are missing the point.

The main issue is that Israel's economy is run by a very small group of tycoons, monopolies and cartels - some are government sponsored like the electricity company - who fix the prices of cell phones, banking charges, electricity, water, food, clothing, etc. at a rate that merely increases the profits of the wealthy while severely squeezing the middle class. This has hit a point at which families who were relatively comfortable some ten years ago, are now scrambling to balance their budgets, and young families cannot afford to purchase a home. Israel has not suffered from a recession like the US and Europe, and yet the economic growth has affected only the highest paid sectors and life has become more expensive for the majority of the population. Wages for the lower percentiles (75%) of the workforce have dropped, whereas basic commodities have risen over 40% in the past 5 years.

The reason why this is protest reverberates so poignantly at this time of year relates to the special haftara next week, a haftara that is read in the Eicha tune and is meant to give us pause to think before the 9 of Av. Some people merely connect the "3 weeks" to Jewish infighting , sometimes called "sinat chinam.' But it is the opening chapter of Isaiah which labels a corrupt and uncharitable society as "Sodom and Gomorrah." Isaiah accuses the leaders of society of making a profit on the backs of the lower classes in society:

“Cease to do evil; Learn to do good.

Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged,

Uphold the orphan, defend the cause of the widow.

... Your rulers are rogues, and thieving cronies.

every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts,

... Zion shall be saved by her justice,

her repentant ones with Tzedaka.” (Yishayahu 1:16-28)

Isaiah relates to the situation in which the poor are abused by the leadership whose culture is one of bribes and cronyism. The poor suffer and God finds it abhorrent.

This protest has a wide base of support and is likely to continue. It is not merely about housing costs. It is about the question of the widening division between rich and poor in Israel and the erosion of the financial security for whole sectors of Israeli society. I believe that Yishayahu would have parked his tent along Rothschild boulevard, or would have joined the doctors in their march to Jerusalem. The current protest resounds with the sounds of his words, spoken to a very unequal and corrupt Jerusalem, 2500 years ago

As for solutions ... who knows? When I listen to the protesters asking for the govt. to fund education/health/housing etc. I wonder what planet they live on ... Where do they think the govt. will get the money? But on the other hand, as I say, the fact that the economy is soooo centralized and that there is a dearth of competition -- those sorts of things can be changed as the economy becomes more efficient and more competitive.


Rami Levy in Gush Etzion – Arabs in Israel: Does an equal society mean intermarriage?

Monday, July 04, 2011

Old and Young. Does it make a Difference?

We live in a world that worships youth. Whether in TV or on the catwalk, youthfulness is cool, daring, and attractive. Older people are at times, too old for a particular job, are made to look out of touch in movies, and (some) feel a need to inject themselves with Botox to somehow fend off the years!

In Judaism, we have a sense that age is realted to differently. It is addressed with veneration; it is something that we prize. Sefer Vayikra tells us:

"מִפְּנֵי שֵׂיבָה תָּקוּם וְהָדַרְתָּ פְּנֵי זָקֵן"
"'Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly" (19:32)

In Judaism we recognize age - זקנה - as related to sagacity and wisdom (age-sage… is there an English connection too?) and we encourage the young to revere and cherish the older generation as an invaluable resource.

זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דּוֹר וָדוֹר שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ.
Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you. (Devarim 32)

I mention this topic because I had a couple of new insights to the topic this week. We have a family practice of studying Pirkei Avot every Seuda Shelishit during the summer. This week, we related to the topic of old and young in a series of Mishnayot (that I had never perceived as a series until now!)

4:25 Elisha ben Avuyah used to say: He who learns as a child, what is he like? He is like ink written on new paper. He who learns as an old man, what is he like? He is like ink written on "erased" paper.

4:26. Rabbi Yosi bar Judah of Kefar ha-Bavli said: He who learns from the young, what is he like? He is like one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine fresh from his wine press. But he who learns from the aged, what is he like? He is like one who eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine.

4: 27. Rabbi Meir used to say: Do not look at the flask but at what is in it; there may be a new flask that is full of old wine and an old flask that does not even have new wine in it.

4:25 talks about the fresh mind of children, or is it youths in general, (…or until what age may a person be termed a ילד?) in which every new piece of data makes an indelible mark, in which a child has a special capacity to absorb new information without any interference. The older person, is like writing on paper from which text has been erased. I think this means that the paper is marked, even if it is erased; one finding it difficult to undo previous misconceptions and misperceptions. New information must be configured into an already organized brain and seeks to find its place amongst the existent data.

(Interestingly the Talmud in Chagiga 14a-b records the way that Elisha Ben Avuya had a fatalist attitude, convincing himself that he was unable to change from his heresy and rejection of a Torah lifestyle. This Mishna too, reflects the feeling of "too little too late," and the inability to engage in a full experience of Torah due to the scars of prior experience.)

4:26 Rabbi Yossi bar Yehuda proposes that the old have an advantage over the young. Their minds are mature like old wine. In contrast, the minds of the young are unripe, sharp in taste, sour. Their knowledge is raw, untried and untested, full of unbridled adolescent passion and idealism. But it is as if the youthful minds lack the ability to truly process the knowledge, to understand its far-reaching implications, to foresee its effects. Time allows one discipline to enhance another. The experience of life is the understanding of ideas that have succeeded and failed, a perspective that discerns between that which is fundamental and that which is peripheral. The older a person, the more his knowledge has developed, deepened, undergone a process of integration and cross-fertilization, of thoughtful reflection, of selection and rejection.

This is reminiscent of the Talmudic saying of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar:

If elders say "destroy" and children say to "build" – destroy and don't build, for the destruction of elders constitutes an act of construction, and the building of youths is, in fact, an act of destruction. The indication of this principle is the story of Rechavam, son of Shlomo. (Megilla 31b)

Is Rav Yossi arguing with Elisha ben Avuya? Or do they agree – teach the young, but learn only from the old?

Would the Educational Psychologist concur? Do children and youth exhibit the power of data retention, as opposed to an older person's ability to process and apply knowledge? And should our educational curriculum follow this dichotomy?

In reading Rabbi Meir in 4:27, it would seem that he disagrees with this sharp distinction based upon age. He argues that one must not judge a book by its cover, or a person in accordance with their age. Some young people exhibit extraordinary wisdom, insight and sensitivity. Some mature adults reflect an immaturity and have little to share in knowledge or worldly advice. Rabbi Meir cautions us to afford young people the opportunity to prove themselves, and not to automatically defer to the elderly unless they offer insight and vision.