- Tisha B'Av. The Ninth of Av is the Jewish fast day that commemorates the catastrophes that befell the Jewish people over the centuries,especially the destruction of the first, then second temples in Jerusalem. Jews all over the world gather in synagogues to recite the scroll of Lamentations, and then to say elegies over the destruction of Jewish communities, especially in Jerusalem. The graphic description in these elegies of the suffering of innocents is heartrending. Would that we Jews, or for that matter, any people, use these descriptions to sensitive ourselves to the sufferings of other groups! We sit and wail about something that happened centuries ago, when, at the same time, innocent civilians are being killed in indiscriminate bombing in the Republic of Georgia. Can we not make the connection?
- Baseless hatred and Jewish Zealotry. Two reasons are generally given in Rabbinic Judaism for the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ce: baseless hatred among Jews, and the activity of the zealots against other Jews and the Romans. If one reads Josephus, the historian of the Jewish revolt, the emphasis is upon the latter. Josephus, though he is hardly a disinterested observer, provides the "balance and context" for the destruction of the Temple that is lacking in the rabbinic sources. In this way, and using moral standards that civilized people reject, he mitigates the Roman responsibility for the atrocities. Can he not condemn Roman atroicites yet attempt to understand them at the same time?
- "Balance and context," we are often told, is what is lacking in the criticism of Israel's human rights. Granted that the Palestinians are suffering, and there are human rights violations. But haven't the Israelis suffered as well? What about the suicide bombings and the shelling of Sderot? Doesn't this one-sided criticism suggest naivité at best, and, perhaps, anti-semitism at worst? The call for "balance and context" seems reasonable, until one understands the underlying motivaton – to lessen responsibility, to shift the focus to the other side, to justify, and ultimately, to condone. We hear the same demand for "balance and context" from war criminals, dictators, and other apologists for atrocities. I once heard a professor of Serbian studies, herself a Serb, criticize the West for unfairly blaming Milosevic for atrocities. "And what about the atrocities on the other side?" she said. "What about the centuries of atrocities against the Serbian people" She was right, there had been centuries of atrocities. But in her voice I heard the voice of the Jewish supporter of Israel who attempts to mitigate crimes by pointing fingers at other Palestinians. It is natural enough; we all do it in kindergarten. We don't want to be considered bad, so we point our fingers elsewhere. Can we not grow up?
- Whose Balance? Whose Context? Here are two responses to the calls for "balance and context." First, bite the bullet and say, "There is no balance. Both peoples suffer, but one people suffers much, much, more than the other. And when trying to gauge suffering, one doesn't do use a partisan measure. One looks at the total picture using measures that can be used in any conflict." Second, look at context, but not just the context that is favorable to our – or their – side. Both the suicide bombings and the shelling of Sderot have their origins no more in baseless hatred than the actions of Israel in the West Bank. They are local responses to local situations, based on broader ideologies and contexts. These should be studied and lessons should be drawn from them. If one's commitment is to human rights, you will condemn the indiscriminate shelling of Sderot as a violation of human rights, and then go on to condemn the Occupation as a more serious violation of human rights, for obvious reasons.
- The Settlers Demand "Balance and Context" I heard on the radio this morning that the West Bank Settlers are demanding from B'Tselem video cameras. It seems that they want to document the Palestinians who provoke the settlers to use violence, and then who film settler violence with B'Tselem video cameras. B'Tselem's response was that it will cooperate with the settlers when their human rights are violated. More "balance and context" for their crimes.
- Jewish Zealotry. The historical Zealots believed that Jewish independence from Rome trumped all other considerations, and whoever did not agree with them, Jew or non-Jew, was the enemy. With the growth of nationalism, the destruction of most of European Jewry, and the birth of the State of Israel, Jewish zealots today range from respectable spokespeople like Charles Krauthammer, Norman Podhoretz, Ruth Wisse, Yehezkel Dror, Alan Dershowitz, etc., to ROYS (Racist Orcs with Yarmulkes), like the ultra rightwing settlers in Hebron. But, in a sense, anybody who makes the existence of a state – any state – into an absolute value is a zealot. If the price for the existence of a Jewish state is the ongoing occupation and suffering of another people, then that price is too high. I am not saying that this is the price of the Jewish state. But the defenders of Israel, who try to justify the ongoing occupation with Israel's existential worries, lead me to this conclusion.
- Jerusalem in Ruins. When Israeli troups occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, there were some calls to revise the traditional "Nahem" prayer, which describes a decimated city in ruins. One such prayer, by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld, turned the prayer into a memorial prayer for those slained and a call for the flourishing of the city. Most traditional Jews ignored such a liturgical innovation that reflected the moment. And they were right to do so. With each year, the city declines through over-development. Can anybody seriously say that the city has developed positively over the last forty years? Returning from shul today, I found on my car a pamphlet with the headline, "What is Happening on Yorde Ha-Sira Street?" The pamphlet pictured a building that had recently been constructed on the street that dwarfed the other buildings, and that was completely foreign to the Katamon architecture. "We won't let builders and the wealthy destroy the neighborhood." If you can read Hebrew, go to their website here. Every day buildings are being destroyed to make room for multistory complexes that not only replace beautiful building with ugly ones, but that increase the population density of the neighborhoods. A corrupt city management combines forces with greedy developers. The prayer to speedily rebuild Jerusalem is a curse, not a blessing, today.
- Our Hurban. Among the current candidates for Israeli Prime Minister, I vote for Benjamin Netanyahu. In my opinion, Netanyahu, a paper tiger who crumpled before Clinton, will damage Israel's image internationally the most, and will be the most susceptible to American and international pressure. The worst of the crop is, needless to say, Ehud Barak. The reasons are obvious, but if you don't get it, just read Gideon Levy's perceptive op-ed to see why here. As for the other two, Mofaz is preferable to Livni – it will be more difficult to pressure an Israel led by a woman than by an obtuse general who represents all that is wrong about the IDF. But, needless to say, as candidates, they are all a hurban, a destruction.
- Their Nakba. In tribute to the great Palestinian poet who died yesterday. Mahmoud Darwish, on the eve of the Ninth of Ab, I conclude with his beautiful poem:
In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy . . . ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah's messenger
mouth: If you don't believe you won't believe.
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white
biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I dont walk, I fly, I become another,
transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension's presence. But
I think to myself: Alone, the prophet Mohammad
spoke classical Arabic. And then what?
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didnt I kill you?
I said: You killed me . . . and I forgot, like you, to die.