Part VI: Language and Religion in Israel and the Jewish Diaspora

Meir Shamgar, an old Likudnik, died on 18 October 2019. After he had been a member of the Supreme Court for 8 years, he was appointed president of the Supreme Court in 1983 and held that position for 12 years. A champion of rights, he kept pushing for an Israeli constitution all his late professional life. Because he viewed protection of the law as a basic human right, he was responsible for writing the decision allowing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to appeal directly to the Supreme Court when they had grievances against the state and the army for, in his mind, they were and are entitled to Israeli justice as long as they are governed by the State of Israel. (See Politics – October 2019 – In Memoriam: Meir Shamgar 13 August 1925 – 18 October 2019) Today, the Likud Party is identified with ethnic nationalism rather than individual rights. How did this happen?

Thus far, I have insisted on equality as a basic principle for Jews, in particular equality before the law. It is a principle that should and did unite both progressives and traditional conservatives. Canada and Israel are both wedded to such a principle, even though sometimes differing on its interpretation and application. I now want to extend the principle of equality to Jews, both those living in Israel and in the diaspora, by complementing equality of rights with equality of responsibilities. I believe that equality of responsibility applies to the cultural, especially the linguistic, and religious spheres, to state membership, security and the economic spheres. I will examine language and religion in this blog and the remaining themes in the next blog. Further, I will argue that any diaspora organization, whether progressive or rightist, should take a stand on each of these areas of equality and responsibility.

I begin with culture because it is most basic. Further, language is the most important ingredient of culture. Currently, the commonest linguistic link between Jews in the diaspora and Jews in Israel is English, not Hebrew. The vast majority of Jews in the diaspora do not speak and many cannot even read Hebrew. Yet Hebrew is central to Israel and the core historical language of religion that united Jews in the diaspora during exile.

My first proposition is that diaspora Jews, and particularly progressive diaspora Jews, should adopt as a goal that all Jews in the diaspora master Hebrew. I say this even though I have periodically tried; I am a total failure in mastering Hebrew. But I believe it should be an obligation and a central plank in any progressive Zionist program. There are deeper reasons than convenience and superficial identity.

I have had many political disagreements with Noam Chomsky over the years. However, my disagreements over his linguistic theories are even more basic, that is his conviction about a universal grammar that is built into the human DNA. The Torah has a different position, namely that linguistic categories are created and communicated by humans and do not have an a priori status even if the capacity to use language and to construct that language into communicable propositions may be inborn. I accept the latter, but also the former, the rootedness of culture in linguistic categories, not because the Torah presumes it, but because I believe it has been verified by science. I refer readers to Daniel Everett’s book Language: The Cultural Tool based on thirty years of study of Amazonian tribes.

Why is this important? Because I believe that the Torah happens to be scientifically correct on this issue, that language creates the categories in terms of which we understand the world and, as that understanding shifts, language must shift as well. Thus, there is a critical dialectic at work between language and culture, between the way in which we classify and understand the world and the way in which our experiences in the world and with other cultures forces modifications to a language and culture. To the extent languages differ among groups of people, they have somewhat different cultural views of the world. 

If Jews are to share a common culture, they must share a common language. That language is Hebrew and ALL Jews should be expected and taught to master the language. This is a cultural statement rather than a political one, though it undoubtedly will have an impact on countering the increasing chasm between diaspora and Israeli Jews. Further, it also takes the lesson of the Tower of Babel, that pluralism should be supported rather than envisioning a common cosmopolitan culture even as we aspire towards universal rights. More specifically, responsibilities must be founded initially and continuously within specific cultures.

That offers a natural segue into religion. Generally, debates over religion between the diaspora and Israel tend to focus on the differences between Humanitarian, Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative brands of Jewish observance and the orthodox and ultra-orthodox brands officially endorsed by the Israeli state – though non-orthodox movements have made significant progress over the last decades. Further, there is a division over the role of women. Both issues are played out in the political realm in discussions about controlling religious worshipers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. However, there are other even deeper divisions which divide Israelis over questions of who is a Jew, over control of core institutions such as marriage and divorce, and between secular and religious Jews.

This deeper and more profound problem undergirds all of these divisions and relates to individual and institutional obligations and responsibilities. For in both the diaspora and in Israel, there has been a dramatic fall off in synagogue attendance among younger families. Why is this important? Because in my studies of refugees, I learned that whatever secular Jews offered in support of refugees, religious institutional support was critical for numbers and for continuity.

Now religious beliefs and practices have been declining at a precipitous pace, particularly in non-evangelical Christian congregations, but in Jewish ones as well. Further, although the fall-off may not be as large as in non-evangelical Christianity, it reverberates through Judaism’s central institution in the diaspora, the synagogue. Its effects are felt in voluntarism (time) and charitable commitments (money). Further, not only does communal support suffer, so do communal relationships, particularly in the ability of men and women to meet and mate after they have left the educational period in their personal trajectory. The opportunity to be part of something bigger than oneself – a family, a congregation, a community – is less available as religious institutions decline. Though rites are a terrible substitute for rights, there is a sense in which responsibilities tend to diminish in the absence of some rites.

Why should progressive Zionists take a stand on this issue? Not just because of equality in the treatment of different Jewish religious expressions, not just because of discrimination when it comes to rites of passage, but because religion is as much at the core of what it is to be Jewish, perhaps as much or even more than mastery of Hebrew. Being a Jew means to embed oneself in a community with all of the inherent responsibilities of joining with others in shared joys and sadness, expectations and regrets. Being a Jew means accepting not just a cultural background but some degree of commitment of cultural continuity. And religious participation. Personal relationships leading to the formation of families will likely decline without such participation. I feel that the responsibility to support individuals, particularly young people, to form families will also decline.

I believe that Zionism was developed to ensure a Jewish future. As Jews continue to live throughout the world, Zionism can only ensure that continuity and coherence if Jews also have a language and religion in common. For, in future, I expect Israelis to move out into the diaspora as Jews move from the diaspora to Israel. But the exodus will exceed the influx if Jews in the diaspora fail to develop deeper ties to Israel. Progressive Jews should actively promote and encourage Jewish affiliation through synagogues and other mechanisms of community affiliation.

I recognize that one factor that makes many wary of religion is its history of dogmatism. On the other hand, as membership and participation in religious institutions has fallen away, relatively cheap substitutes – varying from astrology to followers of self-help health care fads – have tended to fill the void. (Cf. the story by Matthew Schultz in the 9 October 2019 issue of Haaretz entitled, “Of Tao and Torah: New Age Beliefs Are Making Serious Inroads in U.S. Jewish Life.”) At the same time, the universal institutionalized practice of charitable giving has been replaced by a system dominated by the wealthy. To avoid faddism and enhance charitable giving amongst all of us, religion is a valuable tool.

However, is it just instrumental? What about God’s role in our ongoing Jewish struggle for justice and law in Israel and in the diaspora? The study of Torah and core practices of Judaism are not just instrumental. However, one’s interpretation of Torah or the collective practices of Judaism need not be determined by the whole community. Different groups of Jews will have their own interpretations of whether even faith in God is a requirement. Some may even argue that the issue is really God’s faith in us. Jews as a collective will have various expectations of God or, for many, none.

However, is not the covenantal relationship to God at the core of Judaism? Yes. But constitutions are also characterized by covenantal relationships; covenantal relations are neither exclusive to Judaism nor is the interpretation of a divine spirit with whom one may share a covenantal relationship uniform. For some, faith in God is equivalent to expectations of God’s intervention in human history. For others, God has withdrawn from any interventionist role and has transferred full responsibility to humans for their future. Some will engage in prayer, both personal and communal, before making decisions and determining actions. Others see prayers as rites rather than as substantive dialogues. If one asserts that a minimal uniformity of practice is required for one to be a Jew, the question arises – where do we draw the line? Perhaps, more importantly, can a line even be drawn that is effective? A respect for pluralism insists that uniform requirements should be minimalized and each community of Jews, whether through their religious institutions or their social substitutes, should be and will be free to determine that for their own group.

Clearly, this is not a position that will be endorsed by the ethnic nationalist right that emerged triumphant in Israel over the last three decades. But it is a position consistent with the new emerging majority on the centre-left or the civic-centre in Israel. These Jews, both in the diaspora and in Israel, share a common approach to their Jewish identity and Judaism, though in the diaspora, the abyss between the secular and religious is both far more pronounced as many of the secular even abandon traditionalism in increasing numbers, and, hence, the last remnant of their Jewish identity.

This week, Tomer Persico, a research fellow at Jerusalem’s Hartman Institute and a visiting professor in Jewish and Israeli Studies at Berkeley, wrote an article in Haaretz entitled, “In Israel: A New Consensus on What Being Jewish Really Means ( Jewish identity in Israel has evolved as a sort of privatized traditionalism dependent on the right of the individual to customize Jewish religion by insisting on retaining a Jewish identity while resisting religious coercion. In the diaspora, that has only taken place for Jews determined to retain their Jewish identity. The rest leave Judaism and, eventually, their Jewish identity behind.

In Israel, the religious right married ethnic nationalism to halachic observance rather than individualistic liberalism. “The processes of liberalization and globalization that the West is experiencing have made it more homogenous. The rules of the market and consumer culture, the discussion of human and civil rights, even popular culture in all its channels constitute a fixed framework that molds local societies into similar patterns. On the one hand, privatization and liberalization have turned people into individuals who scrupulously cultivate their own autonomy; on the other hand, these same individuals also develop anxiety about their identity. Most of them don’t want to be swallowed up into the liberal shredder and spit out as a generic Western individual. Strengthening national or ethnic identity provides a solution in this respect: The individual feels part of a unique collective while making minimal lifestyle changes.” (Tomer Persico) Out of panic, the right in Israel sacrificed an adherence to individual rights for an identity based on ethnic nationalism.

The National Religious Party, instead of being the link between the secular and religious worlds, evolved into various versions of the political right dominated by the Haredi minority. On the centre-left, the central-civic bloc, Jewish tradition and a stress on individual rights emerged triumphant. The result – on the right, Halacha + ethnic nationalism; on the left of centre, traditionalism + individual liberalism without Halacha. From both sides, there has been a loss of any identity based on Israeli citizenship married to Halacha. The prevailing trend, in spite of the greater reproductivity on the right, has been the growth of a central-civic bloc that marries traditionalism to civic rights and responsibilities.

Progressive Zionists to save themselves from complete secularism on the one hand and, hence, a falling away from any Jewish identity, and a Halachic Judaism that in Israel increasingly identifies itself with ethnic nationalism, need to identify with this new relationship of religion and state, of traditionalism and civic responsibility, by supporting a Jewish state, but not a halachically Jewish religious state while respecting entirely those who interpret their Jewish tradition in halachic terms to meet their cultural, social and spiritual needs. For Jews, this is a new form of privatized Judaism in a communal dress and one with which most Jews in the diaspora can identify.

Part V: Israel and Diaspora Politics

There is another very different area in which progressive Jews who support Israel have to re-examine their thinking, the relationship between Israel and the diaspora. Though far from the only area, the domestic political scene with respect to the political party platforms in one’s own country is one obvious dimension of this relationship. Once a Zionist group re-examines and comes up with a political platform that it will support vis-à-vis Israel, then the politics of one’s own country has to be a priority. I begin with the Canadian party most critical of Israel, The Green Party.

Like all Canadian parties, the Greens support a two-state solution, that is, support Israel as a state alongside the state of Palestine. But both states must be viable. The Greens support the right of Israel to exist, but insist that this must be alongside Palestine as a “viable” state, usually taken as a code word for a Palestine which has the old Green Line as a border – subject usually, but not always, to the usual qualifier, “with adjustments agreeable to both parties.” The Palestinians are then put in the position that the Old City, East Jerusalem and any part of the West Bank can only be part of Israel if the Palestinians agree. Hence, the Greens support a divided Jerusalem with the Old City under Palestinian jurisdiction and the dismantling of all settlements defined as “illegal”. There is no mention of “secure” borders, a code word which endorses a shift from the Green Line as a border for Israel for new borders which will enable Israel to reinforce its security.

Thus, with respect to Gaza, the Greens have focused their political fire on the violence used by Israel against the Palestinians in Gaza and not the rockets fired from Gaza onto Israel, even though the Greens deplore the use of violence from either side. In fact, the Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, went even further and accused Israel of deliberately targeting civilians in Gaza. In a May 2018 press release by the party. Elizabeth May claimed that the “Israeli Defence Forces have targeted and killed 110 Palestinians, including 12 children, with more than 12,000 injured…Targeting civilian protesters is in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which both Israel and Canada are signatories…We call on the Liberal government to join us in demanding that Israel immediately stop targeting civilians.”

If you believe these words were strong, read her other statements where she condemned “the intentionality of the Israeli military” in “the shooting of unarmed civilians in a peaceful protest,” claimed that the shootings were “a clear violation of all accepted international norms,” and that “ Israeli snipers did exactly what they were ordered to do and that the country’s military commanders have said that “every bullet went where it was intended to go…This was a systematic plan to murder unarmed civilians.”

To that end, the Greens have insisted that Canada impose an arms embargo against Israel, but say nothing about stopping missiles and the parts thereto from being shipped into Gaza. “We again call on the government to cease all arms shipments to Israel.” While stating that the party supports Israel’s right to exist, it does not discipline candidates who support BDS, even though BDS is widely charged, in the end, with denying Israel’s right to exist. The party did discipline a candidate who was a vocal Holocaust denier.

Officially, the Green Party “opposes the use of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions tactics,” but defends the rights of members not only to support BDS, but move resolutions at annual conventions endorsing BDS. The party did not discipline its candidate, Dale Dewar, in the riding of Regina-Qu’Appelle, though Dewar did apologize for her tweets on Israel, but not for her support of BDS, but because of the inflammatory tone of her tweets. She had called Israel “a serial rapist,” dubbed Zionism a “cult,” defined Israel as a colonizing state and a country “imposed” on the Palestinians by the U.N., declared support for Israel to be a product of guilt over the treatment of Jews in WWII and accused Israel of having a “distorted sense of reality” and of picking on children. There was no withdrawal of these specific statements or a reprimand for them.

What was JSpace’s response? Elizabeth May’s statements crossed the line and revealed bias. Karen Mock retorted, “Israel does not have a systematic plan to murder civilians. Hamas cannot be trusted when it says it is committed to non-violence. The demonstrations on the border are not really peaceful protests. When a statement censuring Israel says the killing and human rights violations must end, it is absurd to compare the murderous regime that runs Gaza with Israel. While many of the demonstrators were peaceful and exercising their right to protest, others were indeed engaging in violence, including members of Hamas’ military wing. This is why we believe it is both unwise and unhelpful to accuse Israel of intentionally shooting unarmed protesters, as Ms. May did.”

Everyone knows, or should know, how much I both admire and appreciate Karen and her work. The criticisms are pointed, but the evaluation – “unwise and unhelpful” – comes across as milquetoast when Elizabeth May’s observations reflect not only extreme bias and an ideological underpinning, but very distorted observations and evaluations of what took place in the Gaza War.  

Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, came in for similar criticism by Karen. He had denounced Israel’s approach to Gaza as “counterproductive to peace.” Singh had removed Rana Zaman as a Nova Scotia candidate when he characterized Israel as behaving like Nazis, committing genocide and even using money to influence Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The NDP policies on Israel are not nearly as repugnant as those of the Green Party.

However, they cannot be considered to be friendly.  In August, when the Federal Court in Canada ruled that labeling wines made in the West Bank settlements as “products of Israel,” as “false, misleading and deceptive” and, therefore, in violation of Canada’s consumer protection, food and drug laws, the NDP went much further and did not just applaud the decision – which I personally believe was a correct one – but denounced the free trade agreement between Canada and Israel for including products made in settlements in the West Bank. The problem was not just one of misleading labeling, but the fact that the items were produced in “illegal settlements” in clear violation of the fourth Geneva Convention. I happen not to agree with the latter statement, but the fact that the NDP used a court ruling in Canada that said no such thing to imply that the court upheld in effect boycotting products made in “illegal” settlements in the West Bank required a more probing criticism. 

At the very least, JSpace had to clarify and define its position on the settlements otherwise it has no foundation for discriminating among different positions and launching hard-hitting critiques based on its platform.

What about the Liberals? Trudeau dumped Hassan Guillet as a Montreal-area Liberal candidate after he was accused of attacking Israel and glorifying terrorism. That party restored funding to UNRWA cancelled by the Tories. That party said it would not follow the lead of the Americans in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Further, the Liberals also continue to characterize the settlements as illegal.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 (2016) during the Obama administration passed by a 14-0 vote with the U.S. abstaining. The resolution characterized Israel’s settlement activity as a “flagrant violation” of international law with respect to an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention and called on Israel to cease all such activity. Since 1980, no UNSC resolution had previously specifically addressed the issue of Israeli settlements. Resolution 2334 changed that. However, it was adopted under the non-binding Chapter VI of the UN charter.

To be binding, the UNSC would have to first determine that, in international law, Israel was occupying the territory of another state and thereby recognize Palestine as a state. There is a controversy over whether non-state territory fell under this part of the charter, an issue that remained moot as long as U.S. administrations vetoed similar motions. There is also the issue of the failure of the UN to condemn other states in unequivocal flagrant violations – Russia in Crimea. The Palestinian Authority welcomed the passage as a step towards ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines.

This is the nub of the debate. Are the armistice lines of 1949 also the territorial boundaries of the successor political authorities or were these just ceasefire lines? Progressive Zionists have to determine their position on this question and the policies and strategies that follow from such a determination.

Only the Conservative Party of Canada refuses to characterize the settlements as illegal and denounce them. Andrew Scheer also promised to “recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital when we form government.” Further, it was the Harper government that withdrew support for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), monies that the Liberals restored after Trudeau’s first victory. Scheer promised to reinstate that withdrawal of financial support.

As for the Bloc Québécois, out of ignorance, I hesitate to write about their policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though I have a passing acquaintance with the views of Francine Lalonde, the long-time foreign affairs critic for the party who has an intimate knowledge of the conflict. To the degree that I understand the Bloc position, on the one hand, it was critical of President Barack Obama’s stance on settlements because the Bloc found them to be contradictory, praising Netanyahu for freezing the settlements while characterizing them as illegal. She took the Tories to task for their one-sided approach and Israel for perceiving Palestinians only as threats, whereas the independenistes in Québéc never saw English Canadians as threats. One sensed that she both sympathized with the desire of both groups for self-determination but was very willing to contemplate Israel-Palestine as a united federal state. However, this is only an impression. Finally, she was very critical of antisemitism, but also very wary of any attempt to paint critics of Israel as antisemitic.

The three English progressive parties in Canada, to different degrees, are critical of current Israeli policies. Only the Conservatives seem to support them. Where does JSpace stand on the following issues:

  1. The 1967 ceasefire lines as borders or just ceasefire lines
  2. Jerusalem
  3. Settlements
  4. Support for UNRWA
  5. The characterization of IDF military actions in Gaza?

In my perception, many Jewish progressives are torn, disagreeing with progressive parties in Canada on these issues to different degrees but unwilling to endorse a non-progressive party even if its stand may, for some or many, correspond more closely to their own convictions. Is it sufficient to support dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, a peaceful approach to resolution of the issues and the recognition of Palestine as a state alongside Israel, or must JSpace, to be effective, come out with concrete positions on these controversial issues?

On the border question, I would hold that the 1949 armistice lines were an interim border. Further, it divided Israel from Jordan as an occupying and annexing power. With Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, the Jewish state revived its right under the Mandate for Palestine (assumed by the UN as the successor to the League of Nations) to settle anywhere in Palestine. This has been a platform of almost all of the Jewish political parties in Israel from left to right. The dispute was over the extent to which it should be exercised, but not over its legal right to do so. Hence, for Israel, the settlements are not illegal, but they may be considered an obstacle to peace.

Subsequent events and international actions, including steps by Israel, went beyond the Mandate which guaranteed the civil and political rights of Arabs (Article 2 of the Mandate), but no national rights to recognition of Palestinians as a nation with collective political rights in Palestine. Just as the extent of Jewish rights are under dispute, so are the boundaries of Palestinian rights. Hence, I would conclude that the settlements are not illegal though they pose a problem for any peace agreement. Further, Area C in the West Bank has almost achieved the same ratio of Jews to Palestinians as in Israel proper. Finally, it is politically impossible to envision Israel uprooting those settlements. Is it really correct to say that the expansion of settlements (all, some, which ones?) in the West Bank is an obstacle to peace and that they threaten Israel’s security?

What about Jerusalem? Though in the aftermath of the Six Day War, excluding the Old City, many Israelis were willing to cede East Jerusalem in return for peace, this is no longer the case since most Jewish Israelis have become convinced that such an offer would not resolve the issues over Jerusalem. Should JSpace recognize a) Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and b) a united Jerusalem?

As for UNRWA, given the evolution of the refugee repatriation issue as a right and the evolution in practice of virtually no repatriation, would Canada be better off continuing its support for education for Palestinians by channeling such support through the Palestinian Authority, thereby facilitating a unified educational system in both the West Bank and Gaza, but also raising the possibility of conditioning such support on Palestine ending its support for terrorism in its textbooks and its denial of Israel’s right to exist?

Finally, there is the issue of the application of just war theory to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I would claim that the evidence does not support that, in general, Israel has been in violation of those norms and, further, that those who insist that Israel is in violation, more often than not misinterpret those norms.

Would JSpace be better off wrestling with determining its policies on these issues and risk turning off a number of progressives who would hold different views, or would it be better to zero in on its positions on these various issues so that clarity replaces vagueness on JSpace policies?

Next: Israel and Jewish Diaspora Communities

A Re-reading of New Beginnings

A Re-reading of New Beginnings

Michael Greenstein, a blog reader, responded to Friday’s blog with his own commentary on Bereshit. Note the following differences:

  • The radical divergence in methodology used
  • Following a very interesting brief literary history in dealing with “beginnings,” Greenstein combined an alphabetic, linguistic, Kabbalistic mathematical and auditory methodology
  • Noting the juxtaposition but tension between that which comes first, that which is at the ‘head’, and creativity, Greenstein arrives at an admittedly awkward translation – “beginning begat” – which suggests that the process of beginning itself is the root of creativity
  • He states that this conveys “the struggle, mystery, and awe at the heart of the process of creation”
  • In his Kabbalistic use of letters to unlock the mystery, he notes “a dialectic between symmetry and asymmetry,” (my italics) “between outside (ox) and inside (house) that continues through “gimel” (camel) and “daled” (door), or between nature and domestication” (my italics), between firsts and seconds
  • Using the sounds of the words themselves, he finds that God fashions cosmic chronotopes [particular genres or standard speech patterns representing different worldviews or ideologies via relatively stable ways of speaking combining both the cognitive and narrative characteristics of language] and a utopian garden fraught with the foibles of humanity.

The result is a fascinating articulation of the dialectic that I suggested between the cognitive and the emotional, between the heavenly and earthly, between the divine and the human-all-too human.

First Verse, Second Reading


Michael Greenstein

In the nineteenth century Cardinal Newman wrote: “Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning.” A century earlier Laurence Sterne, Anglican priest and author of Tristram Shandy, one of the earliest experimental novels, offered his own advice: “Of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is best – I’m sure it is the most religious – for I begin with writing the first sentence – and trusting to Almighty God for the second.” These obsessions with beginnings carry over to modern times as well in Edward Said’s Beginnings (which distinguishes mythical origins from secular beginnings) and Meir Shalev’s Beginnings, a secular Israeli reading of biblical stories.

All of these beginnings return to Genesis. One of the most striking features of the first verse of Genesis is its strong initial alliteration, “bereisheet barah.” Although the first three letters of both words are identical, the two words are etymologically unrelated. The root of bereisheet, “rosh,” (head or first) has little to do with “barah” (create), except that creation and beginning are ideologically connected. These words initiate a dialectic between symmetry and asymmetry: it’s as if the two connected-disconnected words form a kind of tectonic plate beneath the earth’s surface and beside the visual and aural representation of the letters. An awkward English translation, “beginning begat,” at least captures the first 3 letters of the words in question, which in turn highlight the struggle, mystery, and awe at the heart of the process of creation.

          Also noteworthy is the placement of the second letter of the alphabet to lead the words, while the silent aleph is deferred until the third position. Aleph derives from the head of an ox: kabbalists see the slanted “vav” in the centre as a connection between a “yud” above (divinity) and one below (humanity), while some Christian theologians take the head to be the chief or Jesus. If aleph is a tangled silent letter, “beit” represents house or open tent: these two letters introduce a dialectic between outside (ox) and inside (house) that continues through “gimel” (camel) and daled (door), or between nature and domestication. (Neo-kabbalists may note that the “resh” resembles a “beit” with the bottom removed, as if the ground itself were taken away during God’s ground-breaking work.) Moreover, the reversal of the two letters highlights the thematic dialectic of firsts and seconds throughout the Bible.

          More important than these visual depictions, however, is the aural appeal of the first verse. The initial strong alliteration gives way to a softer “Elohim et,” and Elohim itself suggests an overarching elevation, almost rainbow-like, linking the first half of the verse to the second, which descends from shamayim to aretz. From the grinding and grounding “br” sounds to the softer elevation to the balance of heaven and earth where “aretz” picks up the grinding, the first verse thereby lays the groundwork for what follows. In the state of “reisheet,” the realm of firstness, God creates, calling (Vayikra) into being from the firmament (rakeeah) where emptiness (rake) is reversed by the call of kara. Out of time and place, God fashions cosmic chronotopes and a utopian garden fraught with the foibles of humanity.

Part III: Political Activism and Bereshit

Note, the original Part III, “A Possible Platform for Progressives on Israel,” will appear Monday as Part IV. It will be followed by a final Part V dealing with Israel and the diaspora.

One of the important points I omitted with respect to the JSpace conference on 2-3 November titled, “From Indifference to Making a Difference,” is the vigorous new approach to young people who will be leading some of the sessions in a spirit of tikuun olam, mending the world. As Bernie Farber wrote in the Canadian Jewish News, speakers “will look for ways to put words into actions” (and, I would add, forge words to propel action) to change the Jewish-Palestinian relationships in Israel (Part IV) and re-build Israel-Diaspora relations (Part V). New beginnings as a pre-condition of doing both is the focus of this blog.

For mending the world is at the core of renewal. The function of new beginnings is to reset the effort of confronting chaos, and, hence, calamity, by giving increasing order to events. The beginning of Bereshit reads, “In the beginning of God’s creating…” Not to be translated as, “In the beginning, God created…” Because there is no beginning point. Change, not stasis, is stressed. In the beginning, that change from chaos to order was already underway. It is that primal principle of creation, of imposing order on chaos, that is the foundation for change.

In the beginning of God’s creating heaven and earth, the world lacked form, lacked organization. Creation entails the imposition of order. And the first item of business entails the creating of two modes of dealing with the imposition of order, a heavenly or idealistic one and a grounded or earthly one. Creativity arises from the interaction of the two, but not in a simplistic way one might suppose, such as choosing an Aristotelian middle road between the two.

The roles of Adam and Eve provide examples. Have you ever asked yourself why the God of the Torah in creating the first man did not create a Hobbesian creature with his fundamental insecurity and having as a prime goal the quest for power? Or why not a Lockean possessive individualist with the prime goal of acquiring wealth ad infinitum, unless, of course, he fell back, as most men do, to accepting bare survival, resigned to being a worker bee destined to engage in drudgery his entire life. Instead, God created a nerd.

For Adam is a nerd par excellence and in all dimensions. For one, he sees himself as a primitive scientist, in effect, a taxonomist, who imitates God in giving order to the world by naming different classes of entities. This is a cow. This is a cloud. These are feet. But there is a second dimension to his nerdiness. He does not recognize that he himself is embodied. He thinks he is just a brain and, in that way, imitates God. In failing to recognize and take note that he is embodied, he does not recognize he is mortal and conceives of himself as immortal, though he gives no real thought to the issue or he would recognize how ridiculous that thought is. In visualizing himself as a disembodied brain, he does not recognize he has a penis, that he has a sex drive.

The third, and I believe most important dimension of this nerdiness, of this failure to recognize that he is an embodied creature, is that he projects as other his most demanding passion, his desire for sex. His penis is viewed as an independent being dictating behaviour with no recourse to his own brain. The penis is an erect snake who talks, who cajoles, who seduces. His penis is Other. Further, though he and woman are both created out of the dust of the earth, as embodied creatures, he sees woman as an extension of his body, as an Other who is really himself. Adam others himself by seeing his penis as an independent Other and his Other, his soul mate, as a mere extension of himself, but himself as an embodied creature.

That is why it is not he but the erect snake that seduces Eve. Even though God warned him. He failed to absorb the message that if he and she both ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, if he and she knew one another, if he and she had sex, both would discover they were mortal, that they were embodied, that they would know they would surely die. With sex comes the recognition of one’s mortality. With adolescence we discover that we will not live forever, that we will not be able to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life.

Was Adam’s sin eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? Was Eve’s sin eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? In fact, they learned to love eating that fruit. Adam was thrown into a tizzy. He thought he was a nerd, that he was essentially a brain with a body useful only as an instrument for allowing him to think. Who was he? Adam suffered from extreme cognitive dissonance. He thought he was one thing. His actions showed him that he was another. But instead of becoming enthralled in that discovery, he denied it. He wanted to hide it. He insisted on covering it up in an attempt at disguising it with a fig leaf. The fig leaf was totally incapable of providing that cover-up.

Eve’s sin was not in seeing that she was, and knew she was, an earthly creature. Her sin was not in being seduced by that erect penis, but falling into Adam’s self-denial and also, under his influence, covering up. The sin both committed was the sin of failing to take full responsibility for what they did and for failing to recognize who they were. No longer the innocence of children. With sex, they had to go out into the world, to leave what was perceived to be a world of plenty without scarcity to learn to discover that the world was truly opposite to that, that one had to work for a living, that one would go on to procreate and Eve would give birth to her children in pain and Adam would become enslaved to his labour and suffer from the burden of having to work by the sweat of his brow.

Only the propensity to sin would persist, the propensity to suffer from cognitive dissonance, the propensity to fail to take responsibility, the propensity to cover-up. That is why it is insufficient to classify all things, to subsume everything under objective scientific laws, Know thyself. Own up to who you are. Then see what you do not want to see.

Men are resistant to change. Because their mind becomes set, their mindset becomes comforting and a source of security. The more they are frozen in their ideas, the more they reinforce that way of being. In the extreme, they become troglodytes. Troglodytes are awash in their own ignorance. They refuse to see the reality in front of them. They refuse to acknowledge who they are. They refuse to accept responsibility for what they do.

Ideologists can live on the right or on the left poles of the political spectrum where one burrows into a seeming security in the comforting embrace of a set of dogmas. However, if they are to see truly, if they are to see the world as it is and themselves as they are, they have to throw off the fig leaf of dogma and its supposed heavenly status.  

Allow me to offer two very different examples. The first is a reference to Dr. Andrew Rehfeld, President of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) – the first non-rabbi in that role. As a political scientist, his focus has been on institutional design, that is how ideals of equality and justice interact in a democratic system with the need to protect one’s nation and one’s state. His stress as a progressive was on the good, the right and the just. But within an institutional context. And in Israel, as distinct from Hebrew Union College, the context was that of state institutions whose primary function was to ensure safety and survival while pursuing justice and equality. It should come as no surprise that the concentration of Rehfeld as head of a non-state institution would be on an almost exclusive focus on ethical ideals.

The role of non-state institutions, of NGOs, is often to take up the issue of ethics and norms, but unless one does so responsibly, one engages in a cover-up and a failure to recognize that a major function of institutions is survival, preserving life via work and progeny and in defence of both. The latter cannot in the end be accomplished without boundaries of ethics and law. But a stress on ethics and law to the exclusion of the needs of survival is a recipe for irrelevance and pie-in-the-sky thinking.

Let me offer a second and very different example, The Sveriges Riksbank Prize is the Nobel Prize for Economics, officially the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel created first in 1968. In 2019, it was awarded jointly to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, both at MIT, and Michael Kremer at Harvard. The unusual aspect of the award was that it went, not to ideologists of the right who have prevailed so much over the last few decades, but to three development economists. But development economists of a very different stripe than those who proceed from abstract models. Their approach to alleviating poverty was experimental. That means that their work focused on very specific and well-defined problems and creating field experiments to test which of several different hypotheses might best contribute to a model that might offer solutions.

There is a premise underlying all their theoretical work – humans are not exclusively nor even primarily self-seekers of material goods driven by self-interest. Instead, they are inclined towards cooperative and pacific behaviour to advance the public good, a public good that begins with their own families but extends to one’s larger “tribal” group and eventually to the nation and then the world. The foundation stone of the world is NOT fraternal conflict.

The animosity between Cain and Abel, between settled agriculturalists versus nomadic hunters and gatherers and then herdsmen, of one way of economic life and another, which translates into territorial disputes between different tribes or tribal groupings, begins, however, with an internal conflict between thinking divorced from reality, from the recognition of passions and interests versus abstractions, both ethical and scientific. We have a propensity to favour the latter, that is various types of abstractions, and deny our passions and interests. One of the great benefits of modernity was to place a major stress on the latter, but in doing so, covering up that insistence with another set of abstractions, ones supposedly rooted in nature rather than in ethics and law.

That is why awarding the economic prize for experimental development economists committed to everyone’s survival in the tradition of Albert Hirschman is so important. For the very point of experimental science is to prevent abstractions from ignoring reality. And whether we come from the left or the right, we have an inherent propensity to ignore reality, the real importance of both sets of ethical norms and scientific laws as well as the quest of groups for survival.  

New beginnings always represent a return to this basic insight. That is why a new beginning on the progressive side of the divisions over Israel has to start with our own efforts to ignore reality, to ignore our propensity to cover-up that reality with lofty slogans and aspirations. War, organized violence in the name of an ideology (civil war) or a group (inter-state wars) result when we fail to undertake this effort in self-recognition and not because humans are natural born killers that need to have their basic instincts suppressed and re-addressed by an authoritarian order. Humans can and do kill. But the lesson of the Torah is that they do not have to, that a return to understanding the self-denial that leads to war offers a formulation for the effort of avoiding war.

Identity politics can be a source of violence. Humans can be beasts in a way that beasts never are. The very idea that we are “beasts by nature” is itself an abstraction, one defining humans as engaged in a war of all against all. We set on the path of war when we become obsessed with abstractions – ethical ones as well as supposedly scientific ones. Abstract symbols (idols) rather than concrete aspirations, ideological doctrines rather than generalizations based on experiments, a focus on appearances rather than on underlying forces and tensions, lead us to actions based on ignorance untouched by experience. We were thrust out of the Garden so that we could and would learn from experience. And the first lesson we learned is that communal identity – I know that I am getting ahead of the story – is developed and preserved over time and provides the foundation for ethics and is not the antithesis to ethics and the rule of law.

Procedural rules rooted in institutions – whether in experimental science or in the rule of law – entail foundational process rules that have been discovered and reified over time. Due process and egalitarian goals are necessary counterpoints to any communal quest to survive and thrive. We need a communal ethos. We need formal structures and institutions to ensure continuity. But we need critique, we need critical self-examination, to ensure that neither the quest for survival nor its necessary and complementary norms become reified as abstractions that leave reality behind.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part II: Political Activism – The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

JSpace Canada will hold a conference in Toronto on 4 November 2019 entitled, “From Indifference to Making a Difference.” (Novotel, 3 Park Home Ave.) This series of blogs is inspired as a side note to the forthcoming deliberations.  Because of my own backlog, I have been tardy in initiating writing on this tissue.

The main topic of the conference is “political activism” and how indifference can be translated into making a difference. Titles are made to be pithy and there is a problem with the title. Adolph Hitler was not indifferent. He made a difference. Donald Trump has not been indifferent. He is certainly making a difference. The title suggests a goal of stirring Jews, particularly in the diaspora, out of their passivity to become engaged to make a positive difference, a difference that makes the world a better place. Further, the title presumes that the main problem is complacency. And that may be a presumption, but not an accurate picture of the problem.

This blog directly follows the previous one and this issue dealing with the first twenty years of my personal activism and the lessons learned. It did not include any activism with respect to Israel. Someone – I forget who – suggested I title the blog, “Reflections on the Life of an Activist – Forest Gump.” Forest Gump was, of course, present at key points in American post WWII history. I was not so positioned with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but was involved sufficiently to offer reflections on political activism that are more specifically applicable than my thoughts in Part I. I will touch on a few of the other topics that will be discussed, including the role of the liberal left and the possible obsolescence of progressivism.

Other topics such as antisemitism and the boycott will be discussed in future blogs following a diversion onto other matters I plan to write about. I begin with an account of my own involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Like many others, though a minority of Jews in the diaspora, I was at best indifferent to and at worst a silent critic of Zionism prior to 1967 given my strong cosmopolitan new left convictions. I was wary of any type of nationalism. As the 1967 war approached, I became terribly fearful that Israel would be wiped out. But this emotional reaction seemed to be totally contradictory to my political beliefs as a New Leftist. Even more shocking to myself, I was overjoyed when Israel won its unbelievable victories in the Six Day War. I was elated. I wanted to jump up with unrestrained joy. However, my emotions seemed so incongruent with my thinking that I initially became silent on the subject. I had not been complacent. I had not been indifferent. My activism had been focussed elsewhere. I became quiet on the issue and determined to probe into the problem and go visit Israel for myself.

In 1973, I took my wife and four children to Israel following a month in Africa that included observing over a million animals – lions and elephants, wildebeest and hyenas – on the Serengeti. I told my children that Israel could not and would not be as exciting as the places and the people and the animals they had seen in Africa, but it was on our way home so we could spend three weeks there. Much to my surprise again, they – and I – found Israel to be even far more interesting and fascinating than what we had just seen. We had spied out the land and became less concerned with the conflict than Israel’s history, character and accomplishments. And that was long before the romance of Israel as a start-up nation.

The Yom Kippur War followed our return. My deep fears turned to panic. But they were allayed by the victory. But I was also very troubled. How could Israel survive as a small nation surrounded by 150 million hostile Arabs? How could the conflict with the Palestinians be resolved? And it seemed to get worse as the conflict had already begun to shift its centre of gravity from an inter-state conflict to a fight between Israel and non-state terrorist actors. When Hussein Abu al-Khair, the Fatah representative in Cyprus, was assassinated by a presumably Mossad agent in January 1973, Baruch Cohen, the European Mossad Director, was assassinated by Fatah in Madrid two days later and Simha Gilzer, a Mossad agent, was assassinated in Nicosia in March again followed by the murder of PFLP’s Basil al-Kubaisi in Paris. This tit-for-tat secret service war continued until the Yom Kippur War.

In 1974, the trend that had had already begun in the shift to an Israeli-Palestinian war became official. After the Yom Kippur War, the UN recognized the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people and adopted Resolution 3236 recognizing the Palestinian right to self-determination and the question of Palestine was made a central fixture of the UN as the PLO gained observer status and the issue was automatically made part of each year’s agenda for the next 45 years. As the Palestinians shifted from an inter-secret service war to one against Israel civilians – 8 Palestinian terrorists killed 8 hostages in the Savoy Hotel in Tel Aviv and 15 Israelis in Jerusalem with a refrigerator bomb – in November 1974, the UNGA adopted the infamous and repugnant Resolution 3379 depicting Zionism as a form of racism.

It was time to get off the fence. Irwin Cotler, a law professor at McGill, initiated the Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East. His most brilliant move was recruiting Harry Crowe as a member and then successor as chair.  Harry recruited me and, after his untimely death in 1981, I became chair for a year. I found that I could not develop my refugee work and lead the organization. However, I had never abandoned my then obsession with Israel that had been reinforced when I became a Lady Davis Professor at Hebrew University during 1977-8 when Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem and he and Menachem Begin signed the Israel-Egypt Peace Accord.

What happened over the next forty years to me as a political activist and to activism on behalf of Israel? In 2015, JSpace was five years old. It defined itself as a Jewish, progressive, pro-Israel, pro-peace organization. Irwin Cotler was invited to deliver the major address. (Jonathan Kay, the editor of Walrus at the time, moderated.) Karen Mock was elected as the new leader. Cotler enunciated the key principles to guide progressive advocates for peace in the Middle East:

  • Support for the security, legitimacy and well-being of Israel
  • Recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination in an independent state
  • The rejection of terrorism
  • The end to state-sanctioned incitement to hatred, especially of Israel in a new form of antisemitism that went well beyond any legitimate criticisms of Israel

These were precisely the same principles that guided progressives four decades earlier though the emphasis and wording had shifted slightly. But so much had changed. Israel had emerged as unequivocally the strongest military power in the Middle East at the same time as Arab states had been wracked by coups, wars and insurrections. Israel had also moved to a well-off state with a per capita income equal to that of Great Britain, in spite of the drag on the GDP from both the Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jewish sectors. But the most important events that changed the political landscape for political landscape in Israel have been: 1) the first intifada begun in 1987, the same year Hamas was founded; 2) Oslo itself, and 3) the second intifada begun in September 2000 that finally petered out in about 2005.

In the Hamas-PLO civil war, Hamas emerged as the political authority in Gaza in 2007. In the Oslo Accords signed between the PLO and Israel on 13 September 1993, Israel intended to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through both territorial concessions and bringing into being a Palestinian state based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338. (Modifications in Oslo II were signed in 1995.) There were six issues left to resolve by the new supposed PLO-Israeli partnership:

  • Borders and the status of Israeli settlements
  • The status of Jerusalem
  • Full autonomy and recognition of Palestine to emerge out of the Palestinian Authority and its limited self-government in Gaza and the West Bank
  • The security of Israel and the continuing presence of Israeli military forces in Gaza and the West Bank
  • The sharing of resources, specifically water
  • The right of return with respect to Palestinian refugees.

The Oslo Accords ignored the right of the even greater number of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. Further, the Accords did not have the support of Hamas. In the Hamas-PLO civil war, Hamas emerged in 2007 with control over the Gaza strip and its 1.6 million inhabitants, 62.5% of them former refugees and their descendants from what is now Israel. Three Israeli-Gaza wars followed. Since then, the U.S. has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Israeli settlements in area C have been enormously expanded in their population to about 450,000 while the Palestinian population has declined to about 115,000. The U.S. has recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

These changes are but the major tips of the iceberg, or should I write volcano. Yet the key planks of the progressive platform in Canada, and more specifically, JSpace, have not changed. In the 1970s we expected Jerusalem to be divided. Can any objective and rational supporter of Israel retain that expectation today? In the 1970s, settlements were an important but relatively marginal concern. In 2020, can any objective and rational supporter of Israel expect Israel to repatriate 450,000 of its citizens in a peace agreement? Is it not far more likely that Area C comprising 60% of the West Bank will remain part of Israel? Given Israel’s experience following its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, can any objective and rational supporter of Israel expect Israel to give up its security dominance of the West Bank? Does anyone, including the Palestinians, expect any significant return of refugees when the vast majority of the refugees already live in Palestine or as a majority in Jordan?

Since the Oslo Accords were signed, and I truly expected peace between Israel and an independent sovereign Palestinian state to result, my personal political activism turned elsewhere, to the genocide in Rwanda, to early warning systems in East and West Africa, to mediation in a few of the African conflicts and to refugees around the world. Prior to Oslo, I had become an active part of one of the many Track II efforts at diplomacy between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We made no real progress. Instead, two Haifa professors, not previously part of any of the Track II efforts, brought the process to a culmination. Given my expertise on refugees and given that Canada had been handed the mandate to gavel the refugee talks after Madrid, I became one of the advisors to those talks.

Initially, the refugee talks were used as a front for the bilateral talks where the breakthroughs were made for the Palestinians to be recognized as a negotiator at the table separate from Jordan and then the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians after a great deal of Israeli resistance on both issues had been overcome. With Oslo signed, the Canadian attention began to focus on concrete possible solutions to the refugee issue. I will not focus on the myriad dead-end paths of those discussions. Instead I will sum up the conclusions of a book I and Elazar Barkan published in 2011 called No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation.

Our study showed that in not one of the refugee flows since WWII did refugees who fled or were expelled as minorities return except following victory in war – the Tutus in Rwanda in 1994. There was no right of return except rhetorically, including with respect to the Palestinians in any reasonable understanding of the UN resolution that was subsequently interpreted as endorsing a right of return. Instead, with some refugees, especially if they had sources of external support, the dream of return had become a rite rather than a right. No significant return of Palestinian refugees could be expected unless the Palestinians managed to defeat Israel in a war. Hamas understands that. So do its supporters.

Where do all these changes leave progressives? Are they engaged in their own rites of repeating the mantras of the 1970s or are they going to face the reality that a two-state solution will involve a very truncated state for Palestinians, which Palestinians will certainly not accept, that Jerusalem will remain under the control of Israel, that the Palestinian refugees – now really their descendants – will not be returning? Will progressives choose to shift from the generalities and mantras of the 1970s to concretely wrestle with these issues or will they prefer to hold onto their rites and rituals developed decades earlier in a much different world?

A former graduate student of mine opined that, “provided there is no clear willingness on the part of the Palestinians to recognize Israel, something which needs to be reflected among other things in their school texts for example, and no clear direction from the Israeli government to curb abuses against the Palestinian population in the West Bank (both by settlers and the military in Judea and Samaria), the sovereignists with their policies will keep on advancing their expansionist agenda, regardless of what international law, the UN or the laughable if not irrelevant UNHRC have to say. Any boycott efforts or sanctions will only keep on entrenching the right, prompting reciprocal measures against the boycotters,”

Finally, may I suggest that the issue is not one of complacency or indifference. Significant sectors of Canada, especially among youth, including Jewish youth, have shifted their emotional allegiance to the underdog or support the de facto victor but will not overtly say so given their empathy for the weaker party. Further, they have other, and more urgent priorities – climate change. If progressives truly want to make a difference, they will have to abandon their allegiance to abstract and amorphous generalized principles and become mired in the muddy mess to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has descended.

I suggest the following:

  • Quietism among Jewish progressive youth in the diaspora is a result of cognitive dissonance between their tendency to support underdogs and the incompatibility of that support with “objective” conclusions that stare them in the face
  • The older progressive leadership is stuck and unable to get its hands dirty clarifying in very specific terms and in relationship to actual concrete circumstances policies and programs that make sense
  • One cannot make a difference unless one knows the difference one should make
  • Until then, confusion should not be mistaken for indifference.

To be continued: Alternative Progressive Models

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part I – Political Activism: From Strontium-90 to Refugee Advocacy

There are two very different types of political activism. One type is engaged in existing political processes – running for a political position, assisting those who run (and hopefully then make it), or campaigning for a political party of your choice. Alternatively, there are those who apply pressure on various elements of our civil and political society to effect change. Activities may vary widely, from promoting a boycott of Israeli goods from the West Bank to promoting the boycott of the boycotters, from advocacy of drastic measures on behalf of combatting climate change to arguing for universal child care, from urging prosecution of the pharmaceutical companies that promoted the sale of opioids to urging that speed bumps be installed on your street. The possible issues are almost endless.

Political activism can be local; it can be international. I began my personal involvement in political activism in the second NGO stream. In early September of 1959, after sitting around and griping about strontium-90 being spewed forth from the testing of nuclear weapons, Mac Makarchuk (who would later enter stream 1, join the New Democratic Party and win a seat in the Ontario legislature in 1967 representing Brampton) and I decided to set up a talking box similar to the ones they had in Hyde Park, London. We would use that “soap box” to make speeches to denounce nuclear testing and urge governments to sign a test ban treaty.

The threat of strontium-90 was not of the same order of magnitude as the effects of carbon in the atmosphere that is the major man-made cause of climate change. At the time, however, strontium-90 was feared, for it was a byproduct of nuclear testing resulting in a radioactive isotope of strontium produced by nuclear fission with a half-life of almost 29 years. The negative effects were measurable, for scientists had established that strontium-90 was both a carcinogen (a cause of cancer) and a mutagen that damaged a person’s DNA.  In the body, strontium-90 acts like calcium and is incorporated in our bones and teeth, much more heavily in babies and growing children. The results: bone cancer, leukemia (cancer in our bone marrow) and even cancer in the soft tissue around our bones. Even water near nuclear plants in those days was shown to have higher concentrations of strontium-90 and people living near such plants had a greater risk of contracting leukemia.

Mac and I did what we planned and learned at least two important lessons from our first attempt at speaking in Christie Pitts in Toronto. First, a deep immersion in well-established scientific evidence was important to making our case even if cognitive knowledge turned out not to be the most effective organizing tool. Second, we learned the crucial role of media in promoting our initial feeble attempts to get the public aroused to oppose nuclear testing.

The first lesson may be self-evident. In our case, the second lesson was comical. When Mac and I got to the park with our literal “soap box,” I chickened out at first and could not stand on a box and simply start haranguing the people in the park. Mac, however, was not to be intimidated. He got up on the box and started speaking. Only then did I follow. The effects in the park were insignificant compared to the results the next week when we returned to university.

Al Walker, a reporter with The Varsity, who went on to become a well-known Time magazine writer, heard about our initiative and, without bothering to interview us, wrote a front-page story headlined, “Cops Mounted on Horses Shut Down Free Speech.” In his version, those cops rushed us, threatened to arrest us and dispersed the crown that had gathered. The reality was quite different. There was no crowd. Only two people stopped to listen to our harangue. There was only one police officer on a horse. He never charged towards us. He came by and asked if we had a speaking permit. We replied that we did not and did not know that a permit was required to speak in a park. He advised us to get a permit next time and rode off.

I was furious with the total misrepresentation and stormed the office of The Varsity for which I was the drama critic. I railed against Al’s invented version of events. Al countered that if it was not for his story, there would be no Toronto chapter of the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament for, as a direct by-product of his wild tale, almost sixty students contacted me and we immediately held a meeting and dubbed ourselves the Toronto chapter of the CUCND that had been started in Britain under the instigation of Bertrand Russel. We did not know at the time that an initiative had begun to develop a national organization in Montreal by Dimitri Roussopoulos. He became the first editor of Our Generation Against Nuclear War, later shortened to Our Generation. This marked the beginning of Canadian sixties new left political activism outside the political party system focused on international issues.

Influenced by Murray Bookchin, Roussopoloulos, theoretically an anarchist, believed in and promoted extra-parliamentary opposition and not just activism. He was also a deft self-promoter. Thus, though the founding of his first chapter followed ours by two months, in his writings he claimed to be responsible for the movement, which, in a sense, he was, for we were focused on the University of Toronto and he concentrated on getting CUCND established on every campus, beginning with a national protest in Ottawa which we joined.

There was a third lesson we learned much more gradually – the need for money. In this area, the Toronto chapter excelled for, with our fund raising efforts and the support of other organizations based in Toronto – Voice of Women and the Canadian Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament headed by United Church minister James Gareth Endicott – we raised enough monies to sustain not only our own university chapter, but were able to contribute considerable sums to the national campaign.

We did have a major handicap – we were far more wedded to the truth. Second, we were basically optimists and Dimitri was a born Eeyore. In his article on “Canada: 1968 and the New Left,” he wrote, “By 1963, however, despite its considerable influence and high level of activism…the movement failed: the Liberal Party of Canada, having won the elections, reversed its anti-nuclear stance and imported nuclear warheads for the Bomarc missiles—anti-aircraft missiles developed as a joint US-Canadian effort against the Soviet threat.”

This summary misrepresented what had taken place in two ways. First, we achieved our first and foremost objective. On 5 August 1963, the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (formally the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Tests in the Atmosphere, in outer Space, and Under Water) was signed in Moscow four year after we had begun our campaign. The USSR, USA and UK were signatories. Only underground testing had been excluded.

Second, unbeknownst to both Dimitri and myself at the time, though the Liberal Party under extreme pressure from the USA agreed to allow the Bomarc missiles to be armed with nuclear warheads, a move we opposed, I learned twenty years later that the arming of the Bomarcs with nuclear warheads had been irrelevant. When I chaired a commission looking into the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, Brian Cox, a professor from Queens University, made a presentation to us that demonstrated that the arming of the Bomarcs with nuclear weapons had been a ruse and a distraction. We had been correct. Nuclear-armed Bomarcs were useless. But while we were all focused on these missile batteries in Sudbury, the USA had armed all its missiles along the Dew Line in the far north with nuclear warheads and we, and, according to Cox, the Canadian government, knew nothing about this.  

Thus, we succeeded in our primary objective. And we failed in our secondary one, but what we did not know at the time, the failure was a total side-show. The lesson: activists may be policy wonks, they may develop a terrific bank of scientific knowledge, but they may also be woefully ignorant of the secret proceedings that may be far more important than what seems to be the case on the surface.

However, I became convinced sixteen years later in the movement to encourage the private sponsorship of Indochinese, which began in 1979, that we had all absorbed an even more important lesson that was not widely recognized at the time. We had learned how to organize. We had absorbed a generic lesson that could easily be applied to other issues. That was probably the most important positive by-product of the nuclear disarmament movement.

We had learned that:

  • developing expertise was crucial
  • the role of the media in spreading the message was vital
  • money is always needed in non-parliamentary advocacy
  • advocacy does not have to be defined as opposition.

The last lesson I had learned in getting changes made to the National Housing Legislation to facilitate the funding of student cooperatives. We needed to get politicians in leading positions, the policy mandarins and enough of a small segment of the public onside to prove that there was significant demand for the changes desired. For rational arguments and even political alignment with civil service convictions were insufficient generally unless accompanied by a demonstrated public demand.

In the case of the organization of the movement promoting the private sponsorship of refugees – in 1979 the Indochinese refugees – contrary to the interpretation of the media, the movement was far less of an advocate directed at the government than a public education advocacy movement directed at the larger public. For when we organized the first meeting on a Sunday afternoon in early June, we had come together to advocate that the government become much more generous in the number of Indochinese refugees that would be admitted to Canada. Ron Atkey, the Minster of Employment and Immigration, was our Member of Parliament. We gathered together to write an advocacy letter to him.

Word evidently got out about our planned meeting. A few minutes after we started, there was a knock on the door. Two gentlemen introduced themselves as federal civil servants. One was the Director of Resettlement for Ontario and the other was in charge of public relations for the Immigration Department. They had heard about the meeting and asked if we would mind if they attended. We were very startled (civil servants appearing uninvited at a private house on a Sunday!), but had no objections to their joining us.

After fifteen unproductive minutes of 19 people trying to write a letter to Ron Atkey, the two government officials asked if they could have a few minutes. We quickly agreed – if only for relief from the pettiness of writing a letter as a collective enterprise. They informed us of a sentence in the Immigration Act that allowed the private sponsorship of refugees. Not one of us was aware of that provision. They asked if we would consider that type of activism as witnessing. Within minutes, we agreed that such a move would be far better than writing a letter. In the next hour, we decided to organize fifty private refugee sponsorships in our riding and thought we could accomplish the task in the next 2-3 months.

I had invited one of my graduate students to attend the meeting as a matter of interest and so we could meet afterwards while I was in town to work on his thesis. I did not know he was a stringer for The Globe and Mail. The next morning at 6:30 a.m., I received a telephone call. (I am at my desk early.) The woman on the phone said she was from, if my memory serves me correctly, Battle Harbour, Newfoundland. She asked how she could help Operation Lifeline. I asked, “What is Operation Lifeline?” She was surprised I did not know and read to me a full-length column by Dick Beddoes that had appeared in The Globe and Mail that morning. Dick had given our initiative a name, printed my name and phone number at the bottom and suggested that people get in touch if they wanted to help.

That is when my New Left training in horizontal rather than vertical organizing kicked in. Though the story was totally misleading in numerous ways, I ignored that, asked the woman for her name, address and phone number, and named her the Head of the Battle Harbour chapter of Operation Lifeline. She protested that she had no experience in doing any such thing. I told her how to organize a core group and within days would send her a package of information on how to organize a private sponsorship group.

The phone never stopped ringing literally for weeks. Volunteers showed up at the door unannounced. Within ten days we had achieved our goal of fifty sponsorships from our riding, and, at the end of two weeks, tallied up that we had organized 66 chapters of Operation Lifeline across the country based on a federal constituency system. Serendipity played a role. A lawyer who had been in graduate school with me was one of the persons who showed up at the house that first afternoon when he was unable to reach me by phone. He had accumulated an enormous amount of information and expertise because he had been trying, unsuccessfully to that point, to get his United Church to sponsor a refugee family. Within 24 hours we produced a 60-page pamphlet on private sponsorship, thus solving the problem of expertise.

One final point. None of this would have been possible without the enormous help of the media, not just with Dick Beddoes’ initial column, but with the extensive newspaper, radio and TV coverage. On the other hand, the media never, not once, gave up their conviction that public pressure had forced the government to increase the targeted number for the intake of refugees. The truth was that the government was ahead of the public in this case and needed a partner. Operation Lifeline, and others like us, such as Project 4000 in Ottawa, were responses to the political will at the centre and reinforcements for translating that will into deliverables.

Next: Part II: Political Activism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part III Our Boys: MetaEthics – A Review [Chol NaMo-eid Sukkot: Exodus 33:12-34:26]

In this blog, I will discuss some of the ethical issues raised in the series Our Boys under the following headings:

Metaethical Issues:


Theme: terrorism versus hate crime – racism

Equality: moral superiority and self-righteousness

Viewing God and Goodness

In the last blog in this series on Our Boys, I will probe the following ethical issues:

Ethical Issues (in Part IV):





I intended to raise the issue of selection in Part I of this series of blogs on Our Boys, to discuss “The Boys” rather than just Our Boys, but decided to confine the discussion of ethics to a separate blog. However, I forgot my original intention and in a typical Freudian slip ended up sometimes mistakenly calling the series, The Boys.

The ethical issue at one level is fairly straightforward. How we interpret history, agency, choice and individual responsibility depends, in good part, on how we tell our stories. What is at stake here is a very thin slice of history that focuses very much on individual actions rather than historical patterns or structures. This slim historical event is then represented through a docudrama with its own limitations and biases. Inherently, there will be an implication from a piece of micro-history about larger events, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the development of systems of justice or just war theory, to name but a few. Such an examination will touch on human nature and the extent to which it is sociologically determined, but will not deal with issues, such as whether history has a direction, that is, whether there might be progress. At that level, a specifically focused representation is most likely to be indifferent to such larger issues or adopt an agnostic approach. Scale selection has its own built-in biases.

However, the issue of selection – and, therefore, bias – comes up in the specific slice of history represented. The murder of a sixteen-year-old Arab teenager began with grainy material from another crime, the murder of three Jewish Israeli teenagers. Excluded was the issue of teenagers killed in the Gaza War before any of these murders. In Part I, I focused on two deaths and alluded to a few others in May of 2014 after the U.S. mediated peace talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority imploded in April, and, therefore, to some degree between Hamas and Israel. In Operation Brother’s Keeper, the search for the missing Israeli teenagers for 18 days in June of 2014, six Palestinians were killed, none of them minors, but almost 300 minors were detained. In the 50-day summer war with Gaza that followed finding the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers, of the estimated over 2,000 killed, 490 minors in Gaza died while Israel lost 64 soldiers and six civilians, one of them a four-year-old boy.

Why focus then on one 16-year-old Palestinian teenager killed by three religious Israelis? The explanation is that the focus was on a horrendous hate crime rather than terrorism or war, and, further, one committed by Jews rather than rabid anti-Semites or anti-Israelis. Further, it was a crime of ostensible vengeance, though the target had absolutely nothing to do with the murder of the three Israeli teenagers. The suggestion of the series is that, while revenge was an immediate motive, the deeper factor was the denigration of Palestinians, particularly by some West Bank Jewish zealots.

Thus, the choice of the story has significance in the message contained in the tale. The reference in the series is to “our boys,” both our three boys who were murdered and the three Jewish Israelis, two of them just boys, who were murderers. Though a Palestinian teenager was killed, the TV series is about our Jewish boys. For as Jews, we must take immediate responsibility for both victims and murderers who are Jewish. Thus, the entire Jewish population of Israel during the eighteen days of the search became mesmerized and focused on the abduction of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel. When the bodies of the three sixteen-year-olds were found, virtually all Jewish Israelis as well as Jews around the world felt immense grief.

When it came to the Arab teenagers killed by Israeli troops in the military exchanges with Gazans prior to the murders, any possible teenagers killed during Operation Brother’s Keeper in the 18-day search for the abducted boys, and more Palestinian teenagers killed in the 50-day war, Operation Protective Edge, that followed, our “Jewish” responsibility is moved to an outer tier. Thus, the killing of Mohammed Abu Khdier that initiates the series is a matter of Jewish collective guilt and responsibility and the effects on the Palestinian family, and, to a minor degree, the Palestinian community, one step removed.

The focus on the three Israeli murderers rather than the three victims is viewed by some Jews as a travesty. Those murderers are then generally depicted as “crazed,” thereby excluding them from the “normal” Jewish body politique and placing them outside the norms of the Jewish community. There is, indeed, a selection bias. It is inherent in any document or documentary or docudrama. It cannot be avoided. But it does suggest, even if absolutely unintended, priorities.

Further, rather than simply unconcern for the three Jewish victims, implicit in the alternative focus on the murderers, particularly the two teenagers, there is the danger of a possible presumption of moral superiority. Jews don’t arbitrarily murder innocent victims. Arabs presumably do. Therefore, when Jewish boys actually do commit an atrocity of this type, it demands attention, not particularly to deter such crimes in the future, but to understand how those Jews lost their moral compass. Thus, the propensity of the narrative, again almost certainly not intended, will be to reinforce a sense of self-righteousness. The greatest significance of this series, in my mind, is that this pitfall is very largely avoided.

One critic expressed his outrage at the series precisely because it was not self-righteous in its choice of subject matter. “What makes us different in a world of violence and extremism is that we do not glorify terrorism, nor do we respond to it with joyous celebration and the distribution of sweets to children. Jews who commit acts of terrorism are not rewarded with lifelong stipends for themselves and their families nor do they have schools and public places named after them in their honor. They are punished by law, as were the killers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.” (Rabbi Benjamin Blech)

However, the role of religion, in particular, Jewish ultra-orthodoxy, did play an important role in the interpretation by the makers of the film. This is not only because the killers were Orthodox youth, but the moral understanding of those boys which emerged in the trial and derived from their yeshiva studies, gave the youngest of the boys, Avishay Elbaz (played by Adam Gabay), an ethical rationale. The intention is revealed in the action. “But,” Avishay protested, “I called out not to kill him.” But the prosecutor countered, “You held his arms down. You helped in the killing. You did not try to actually stop it.”

Another angle of insight was the inner conflict of Rabbi Shalom Ben-David (played by Yaacov Cohen), who headed the yeshiva where the boys studied. He was also the father of the uncle who instigated the act and the grandfather of the two boys. On the one hand, he wanted those individuals to own up to their respective responsibilities, particularly his own son. On the other hand, he was strongly driven to seek protection for his son and grandsons and rationalize their crime. The tension between these two polar positions also affected his shift over time from defensiveness to an ethics of responsibility.

The rabbi is not only a father and grandfather, but a moral leader. He lives as if he were Moses asking God to show him the way of righteousness so he can properly lead and, thereby, make Jews a light unto the nations – hence the inherent search for rather than assertion of moral superiority. (The two should not be confused.)  And God answers, as He did to Moses, “I will make All my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show.” But, He said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” (Exodus 33:19-20)

One of the shattering moments in the series comes when the rabbi visits his son in prison and asks him to take full responsibility for what he did and not hide behind a mask of insanity, a choice that would benefit the court’s treatment of his two grandchildren. His son does not own up to what he did. The rabbi turns his back on his own son and walks out. It is as if God suddenly hid His face and would never more be seen by that son.

The dilemma is how do we see goodness? How do we transmit what we see? The answer in the tale is clear – we do so when we do not stereotype the other, when we respect the other, when we identify with the pain of the other and when we do not get so caught up in our own pain that we disregard the help we can give to the other We certainly do not engage in murder of the other, even when at war with them.

The rabbi who headed the yeshiva at Har Not clearly tried to hide his face from God, clearly tried at first to avoid his own duties and acknowledgement of his own responsibility for what happened, but he shifts and changes, not because he sees God, but because he stares evil in the face of his own son. We only see goodness pass us by when we stare directly at evil. We must not look away.

But what of the depiction of God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness”? (Exodus 34:6) Man cannot see that God. Humans can only act by serving those very values of God. And the rabbi eventually does, even though the iniquity of fathers will be visited upon their children. (Exodus 34:7)

Where is that best done? Not simply in a psychological-sociological meeting of a son with his father and a father with his son, but in a court of law where the granting of grace and of punishment is left in the hands of a judge who must balance punishment with grace, and withhold any emotional approach to the case.

However, that is harder to do than it sounds. For the psychiatrist confronts Simon, the composite investigator (played by Shlomo Elkabetz) who comes across as the epitome of both detachment and determination, a jaded sensibility but also judiciousness. He is, in turn, justly accused by the psychiatrist of betraying, not only a promise to her, but of tricking the youngest boy into confessing by seemingly extending to him his full compassion.

This shabat portion comes in the midst of Sukkot, of the Festival of Booths, in which we welcome strangers as well as family and friends to share our hospitality. Essentially, the series, Our Boys, is about the important task of respecting strangers and the terrible consequences when this lesson is forgotten. Welcoming strangers is an action, and if Succoth is to be restored to its once mighty holy status, then good deeds will count much more than the study of words.

Our Boys is not, as some critics contend, a condemnation of Israeli society. Quite the reverse. It upholds both the Israeli system of justice as well as the religious roots of the imperatives of responsibility.  The brilliance of the series is that it does this with nuance rather than self-pride, with grey-on-grey rather than in a black and white morality.