Wednesday, September 06, 2006

[Israel] ...The World’s Been Turned Upside Down

It Must Be Purim, Because The World’s Been Turned Upside Down
Originally Published September 5th, 2006 in Dissent and Zionism.

Ariel Beery has a knack for standing reality on its head. In a recent post on Blogs of Zion, he claims that the mentality of Jewschoolers is precisely that which prevented the greater Jewish community from mobilizing against the Nazis in the 1930s, while it was, in fact, both ideologically and physically Zionism which did so:

Ideologically, Zionism affirmed the Nazi belief that Jews were an alien race that could never be fully accepted and welcomed into European society. This was contrary to the Bundist attempt at Jewish emancipation and normalization, which proclaimed Jews full-fledged members of the nations in which they lived, and ergo, fully entitled to the same rights as all other citizens of those nations. This is very much the ideology underpinning the American Jewish experience: That we are fully American and not strangers in someone else’s house. The Zionists were all too eager to concur with Hitler that the Jews simply did not belong. (Interestingly, when Avraham Avienu declared, “I dwell among you but I am an alien,” he did not then conclude “And therefore I do not belong among you and should leave and form my own state.” He intentionally went to where he would be seen as alien so that he could employ his identity as an outsider to foster cultural criticism and provide a light unto the nations.)

Physically, while Jews and non-Jews alike in North America, Europe and The Middle East had, together, launched a full-scale boycott against Germany that would have toppled the Hilter regime in its first year, Zionists and Zionist organizations, in particular Mapai (the predecessor of the Israeli Labor Party), actively worked to break the international boycott against Nazi Germany in exchange for moving 50,000 able bodied German Jews to Palestine along with $100,000,000 in German Jewish assets, so that they could build the Jewish state. (This secret pact between the Zionists and the Nazis is well-documented in The Tranfer Agreement by Edwin Black, a book which has been endorsed by Yad Vashem for its honesty and sensitivity in handling the subject.)

It is amusing that Beery’s remarks should come within days of Donald Rumsfeld’s portrayal of his critics as appeasers of Hitler, which Jacob Hornberger and Keith Olbermann have both addressed in a manner more articulate than one to which I could aspire. In that, like Rumsfeld, Beery is perpetuating the fear of our imminent destruction and painting his ideological opponents — in this case, me — as proponents of that destruction, in order to invert the definition of morality so as to put himself on the side of justice.

In a recent op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, Beery has crafted for himself a straw man that is neither representative of who we, the organizers of the Acharei Hamilchama concert are, nor of our generation and its priorities. Beery portrays me, Amy Kaplan and Stuart Siegel (Orthodox yeshiva students who have nothing at all to do with Jewschool, Heeb, JDub Records, Jews in the Woods, or any of the “New Jewish” cultural institutions with which I am affiliated) as emissaries of “the ‘New Jewish’ generation,” as though our fundraiser was somehow exemplary of a wider, dominant Jewish paradigm. That I am aware of no more than three other individuals attempting to organize Jewish relief for Lebanon, and that they are facing uphill battles no different from that which Amy, Stuart and I endured — while there have been literally dozens of fundraising efforts for Israel and likewise, well over a dozen solidarity missions by young American Jews to Israel’s north — bespeaks neither a universalist movement nor having shared priorities with our generation. In fact, it evidences quite the opposite.

But no matter for Beery, who tilts at this fictional windmill nonetheless, portraying himself (a former IDF spokesperson, past fellow at the right-leaning Shalem Center, and a pro-Israel campus activist involved in the production of “Columbia Unbecoming”) as a rebel opposing the status quo. Nevermind that he’s representative of the actual status quo. In an email response to one of my co-organizer’s complaints about feeling misrepresented by Beery in his op-ed, Beery purports to be expressing dissent against the priorities of the “‘New Jewish’ generation,” which he feels engages in “justice without regard to nationality or peoplehood” — a notion which (particularly in light of his negative portrayal of the American Jewish World Service’s action on Darfur) denies that religious/ethnic discrimination and genocide are issues of grave importance to the Jewish community itself. “Dissent should be encouraged,” Beery wrote, “not squashed for fear of ‘breaking the ranks.’” That our act was one of dissent against an all-pervasive Jewish particularism (rooted in the fear for our own survival) that frequently translates into transgressions of our highest ideals and therefore jeopardizes the very culture we seek to protect from eradication (like the Bush administration’s suspension of civil liberties for the sake of protecting “our freedoms”), and that I view Beery’s op-ed as an attempt at squashing that dissent, is a matter of extraordinary irony far from lost on me.

I will digress to question, what precisely, in the preservation of our people, are we seeking to keep alive? Merely ourselves? What is the value of our survival as a people if that which gives us peoplehood — our faith and its ideals — are the first casualties in the battle for our survival, or — perhaps a more apropos metaphor — the first cargo tossed overboard the sinking ship of Jewish peoplehood?

The Chafetz Chayyim taught:

Man was put on earth with a difficult mission — to emulate G-d. “To walk in His ways and to cleave to Him” (Devarim 11:22), the Torah commands. Upon no other creature in Creation does this grand expectation rest. Only man must strive for G-dliness, because he alone is equipped to do so. Only man was created in the image of Hashem. The challenge each person faces in his life is to seek out this element of G-dliness in himself and strengthen it by emulating Hashem’s ways. Acts of chesed are the means to that end.

To emulate Hashem, a person must comprehend His nature. Man’s knowledge of Hashem is limited to what he sees of Him in this world; He is the Creator, the Healer, the Protector, the Comforter, the Giver, the Sustainer of all life. “He gives bread to all flesh,” says Tehillim 136:25. Every being in Creation is sustained by Hashem’s giving hand; there is a form of nourishment and shelter provided for everything from the amoeba to the elephant. Therefore, the most effective way for a person to emulate Hashem is for him to give to and care for others. The more he expresses his desire to do kindness, the more precisely he reflects the image of Hashem.

Someone who deludes himself into believing that chesed is an “extra,” something to be avoided if possible, obscures Hashem’s image in himself. He takes himself down from the pedestal upon which Hashem placed mankind — the only creation made in His own image — and sets himself instead among the masses of creatures that roam the earth. Not only does he lose sight of Hashem’s image in himself, he fails to see it in others as well. One who sees other people as a reflection of Hashem naturally feels love and respect for them, and this, in turn, naturally expresses itself in a desire to help others. The person who loves chesed is the person who understands the true greatness of Man and the Source from which this greatness flows.

This sentiment — “junk-food” as Beery calls it — has also been echoed by The Baal Shem Tov, The Maharal of Prague, Moshe Cordovero, Abraham Isaac Kook, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joseph Telushkin and even Hillel the Elder — hardly the Lefty, liberal, secular universalists that we, in keeping with this tradition, have been portrayed as by Beery.

I can only wonder, what — when this aspiration is lost, when this impulse is gone from our people — we have left to offer the world. What is the value in our preservation, other than physical self-perpetuation? Hundreds of nations and civilizations have come and gone from this earth. What makes our’s worthy of survival? Sheer physical force?

Returning from my digression, perhaps an even greater irony inherent in Beery’s attack is the condemnation of our universalism when the intent of our effort was undoubtedly particularistic. Putting our own halakhic obligation to have compassion for all human beings — our first priority in this effort — aside, we have been assailed for our failure to support Israel in its hour of need, when our message actually intended to validate Israel’s supposed reasons for war. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert has stated repeatedly that this was not a war against Lebanon or the Lebanese, but a war against Hizballah. Yet many Jews have been quick to lump Lebanese civilian casualties in with Hizballah, proclaiming them supporters of terrorism desiring the eradication of Israel, and thus wholly deserving of their fate. This attitude completely undercuts Olmert’s assertions, whereas our expression of compassion for Lebanese civilians affirms them. As was stated in our event’s press release and in nearly every article covering the event, if Israel and the Jewish community fail to involve themselves in post-war relief efforts in Lebanon, Hizballah will be the leading option the Lebanese have for post-war relief, thus further indebting the Lebanese to Hizballah and delivering them a post-war victory. We are, effectively, acting to save Israel and the Jewish community from a self-imposed disaster. If anything, we should be accused of shilling for Israel and trying to help the Jewish people out of a jam. Instead, Beery explicity states that we are raising money for Hizballah supporters, claiming that our efforts “will probably do little more than help fix the wall of a Lebanese home, perhaps enabling the return of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s portrait to its former place.” We have gone from supporting Israel to supporting terrorism, as our intent is distorted through the prism of Beery’s apparently narrow, nationalistic, and ethnocentric worldview — a view that appears to be incongruous with our heritage.

All of this, of course, ignores the fact that, amidst our efforts on behalf of Lebanese civilians, we also raised money for Israel — an act for which none of our detractors have commended us.

I wonder how much relief Ariel Beery has organized for people in northern Israel.

Would you be surprised if the answer is none?

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