Master and Slave: Independence

Israel’s Independence Day starts next Wednesday evening at sundown and is celebrated on Thursday 19 April 2018, a shifting date on the English calendar, for the date is set in accordance with the Hebrew calendar on the 5th day of Iyar 5778. In Hebrew, it is called Yom Ha’atzmaut, יום העצמאות. Yom means day and ha’atzmaut means independence. If we want to understand what we are celebrating when we take joy in the festivities – whether Jew or gentile, whether Israeli or member of another nation – we must understand what independence means for a nation, and, before that, what it means for an individual.

A week from today in the evening, the holiday of Yom Hazikaron, יוֹם הַזִּכָּרוֹן, begins, that is the Memorial Day for soldiers who lost their lives in battle or otherwise in the defence of Israel and for those who have been victims of terrorism – Yom Hazikaron l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot Ha’eivah (יוֹם זִּכָּרוֹן לַחֲלָלֵי מַעֲרָכוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְנִפְגְעֵי פְּעוּלוֹת הָאֵיבָה).  It is a very solemn day.  For 24 hours, everything is closed; it feels like Yom Kippur. A siren sounds this evening Israeli time at 8:00 pm and all traffic stops for two minutes of silence. This is repeated on 18 April at 11:00 am Israeli time. The end of the siren wailing is followed by a memorial service and recitation of prayers at military cemeteries. If we want to understand what independence is, we must understand what sacrificing one’s life for a nation means.

Further, both holidays follow less than two weeks after Passover, Pesach, פֶּסַח, the week when Jews celebrate their exodus from slavery in Egypt and the quest for freedom. It is called the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the feast of Matzah, the festival of freedom from slavery. To understand the point of these two holidays next week, it helps to have a brief review of the holiday that just passed.

Passover is a celebration of God’s efforts to bring Jews forth from bondage into freedom, from sorrow and pain into joy and happiness. Likewise, next week we repeat and reinforce the experience over two days of going from mourning into festivity. As we celebrate Pesach to re-enact this redemption, this movement from slavery into freedom (Exodus 13:8), the moment must be re-experienced, must be repeated over and over. We must re-experience that journey. We must recognize that it is a spiritual and physical trip that we ourselves must make. We must recognize our personal redemption. We are obligated to see ourselves as if we left a state of bondage for freedom. (Deuteronomy 6:23)

What does it mean to experience being a slave in Egypt? One can think of it as simply physical slavery. Eritreans fleeing their oppressive country have often been enslaved by traffickers and held for ransom until they were redeemed. Slavery does mean enforced servitude. Freedom means being free of such external coercion. But that is not all it means. When a slave is in bondage to a master, he or she is not only forced to work for and supply the needs of the master, he or she must also recognize the master as his Lord and Saviour, he upon whom the preservation of one’s life depends. Further, he or she recognizes the master as his or her superior, and, therefore, himself or herself as his inferior.

This recognition is double-sided. Mastery supposedly defines an ideal. The slave is in bondage to a false idol, another human perceived as superior to oneself. ‘Freedom from’ will mean both freeing oneself from physical bondage, but also freeing oneself from the mental bondage branded into one’s soul so that one is conditioned for a long time to retain a slave mentality, to see oneself as dependent on another for one’s life and to perceive that other as the epitome of life.

That is NOT accomplished by following the guide of Yerachmiel Israel Isaac Danzigerof Alexander (Poland 1853-1910) who in the Yismach Yisrael Haggadah (p. 107a) interpreted the obligation to re-experience one’s freedom from slavery as a process of recognizing one’s “essence,” atzmo, citing Exodus 24:10 – “It was the very essence (etzem) of the heavens for purity.” To quote: “This is an allusion to the inner divine spark found in each of us. A person must strengthen this holy spark no matter how low a state he reaches. In Egypt, we were so deeply mired in impurity that the Prosecutor said ‘both the Israelites and the Egyptians worship idols.” If strengthening the “inner spark” sounds retro as well as new age, it does. I suggest that etzem has nothing to do with an inner spark, and nothing to do with a process of purification, though it certainly has to do with casting off idolatrous propensities.

Exodus 24:10 reads:


י  וַיִּרְאוּ, אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר.
10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness.

The phrase the “like of the very heavens,” the translation of וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם

is interpreted by this commentator in a Platonic way, envisioning transforming and raising up an inner spark into a purified state akin to the heavens, a variation of realization of a pure pre-existing form. However, is we read the biblical text where etzem appears, independence as in Yom Ha’atzmaut, יום העצמאות, the reference is indeed to sameness, but to physical sameness.  Genesis 2:23 reads:

 
כג  וַיֹּאמֶר, הָאָדָם, זֹאת הַפַּעַם עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי, וּבָשָׂר מִבְּשָׂרִי; לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה, כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻקְחָה-זֹּאת. 23 And the man said: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’

Etzem of my etzem, bone of my bone, עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי

Genesis 2 follows the six days of the creation story with the seventh day of rest. The earth still did not have humans nor, for that matter, any vegetation or crops. For it had not rained. Then a mist went up from the earth to water the ground. And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, breathed into his nostrils, and the man became a living soul, that is, a man of flesh and the breath, the spirit of life. There is no discussion of purity. There is no reference to an inner essence, a divine spark. The imagery is water, earth (flesh) and air and not fire. Then God planted the Garden of Eden and placed man in it to groom the trees and plants.

Three things then happen. God tells man that he is free, free to eat whatever he wants from the garden. With one exception: “of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat.” Why? Because if you eat of it, you will have knowledge of your certain and inevitable death. Second, God made birds and beasts. And Adam gave them their names – cows and goats. Third, Adam was put to sleep. Why? Because God saw that man needed a help meet. Not man. Adam did not even know he was lonely.  When Man was asleep, woman came into being for Adam. Woman for Adam is a projection of his unconscious. In Adam’s dream, the woman was an extension of himself, made from his own rib. It is then that man pronounces that woman is “now bone of my bone,” etzem of my etzem: עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי

If etzem means independence, but woman is here envisioned as simply a physical extension and projection of man, one might reasonably conclude that these are opposite states. To be merely viewed as a physical extension of another would appear to be the opposite of independence. How does this make any sense? Unless, of course, the tale is read ironically. Though the woman is perceived as an extension of man’s physical self, she in reality is the true expression of his real self. The real self is not a hidden spark within, but a real presence of another outside whose independence and otherness is not initially recognized. Man discovers his own independence by and through discovering the independence of another. Initially that independence is that of a woman.

One answer is that etzem means “essence,” the bone marrow of the matter, roughly, the heart of the matter, “the essential fact of the matter.” However, Exodus 12:51 reads:


נא  וַיְהִי, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:  הוֹצִיא יְהוָה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם–עַל-צִבְאֹתָם.  {פ}
51 And it came to pass the selfsame day that the LORD did bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts. {P}

The same day, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם

Like bone of my bone, the stress is on sameness, not difference, not autonomy, not independence. This is also true of Leviticus 23:14.


יד  וְלֶחֶם וְקָלִי וְכַרְמֶל לֹא תֹאכְלוּ, עַד-עֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה–עַד הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-קָרְבַּן אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:  חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם.  {ס}
14 And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor fresh ears, until this selfsame day, until ye have brought the offering of your God; it is a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. {S}

The sense is that of identity, as oneness with oneself, oneness with another, and oneness with the experience of escaping oppression. Again, in Leviticus 23:29-30 we once again find etzem translated as sameness.


כח  וְכָל-מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:  כִּי יוֹם כִּפֻּרִים, הוּא, לְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
28 And ye shall do no manner of work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God.
כט  כִּי כָל-הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תְעֻנֶּה, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה–וְנִכְרְתָה, מֵעַמֶּיהָ. 29 For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from his people.

What is going on? How is repetition and sameness equated with independence and freedom? How is a woman projected as simply a physical extension of man connected to independence?

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman

Salvation versus Resurrection

 

ישעיה כו:יט יִחְיוּ מֵתֶיךָ נְבֵלָתִי יְקוּמוּן הָקִיצוּ וְרַנְּנוּ שֹׁכְנֵי עָפָר כִּי טַל אוֹרֹת טַלֶּךָ וָאָרֶץ רְפָאִים תַּפִּיל. Isaiah 26:19 Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust! For Your dew is like the radiant dew; You make the land of the shades come to life.

Resurrection is very infrequently cited in the Torah. In its rare expressions, it is most often interpreted as a vision of glory at the end of days. But try reading it as a nightmare of the end of days when ignorant nostalgia governs, when dead zombies take power, when the shades enter daily life and hide the rays of sun behind a dark cloud, when those who sleep in the dust of the earth on gold-plated beds awake to reproach all others and spread abhorrence and hatred. (Daniel 12:2).

The vision of resurrection is not something to be celebrated, as the rabbis and Jesus did, but to be feared and eschewed. The monster in the black lagoon may now be coloured green as in The Shape of Water and in our imaginations and apparitions, but the real danger lies in the monstrosity of breath entering the dry bones of a dead past, dry bones covered with sinews and flesh, dry bones made to breathe and live again, when those should have been left in the slow decaying heap where they belonged and left to return to dust. (Ezekiel vv:1-2) The goal should be to deliver the Promised Land to our children and our children’s children and not to those lifted out of their graves.

“Dry bones, ’dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord.”

In an age in which a consumer machine with the reach of Amazon, a surveillance machine with the reach of Facebook and a search machine with the power of Google, command the high reaches of our culture, filled in with hordes of more minor players, in an age in which it is so easy to brainwash all in the name of delivering freedom, choice and judgement, in an age when E.M. Forster’s spiritual command to “only connect” has been perverted in the extreme in a connect but totally uncommitted culture, I pray for salvation.

We live in an age of crony capitalism in which real competitive capitalists are exiled as those at the centre of power seek to reduce the independence of the judiciary and laud law and order instead of the rule of law as they create disorder and the rule of whim, in an age in which the political centre can ally with a powerful media network committed to perpetuating and elaborating the same lies instead of holding up truth to power, in an age of political gerrymandering that echoes the corrupt political days of old and power politics is based on a unity of white male elites who cry foul when not permitted to have their cake and eat it too, when simple and arbitrary connects replace commitment and commitment is gutted and converted to sloganeering, when NGOs that are transparent and dedicated are blasted as part of a hidden international conspiracy, when projection onto externals replaces taking responsibility for one’s own actions, when abuse of others replaces critical self-examination of oneself, I pray for salvation.

When those in power wallow in self-pity and victimhood, when the tactics of the powerful weaponize culture to instigate emotionally dominated culture wars, when a nostalgia for the greatness of a nation displaces a historical and critical examination of the past, when anyone committed to the universal oneness of humanity is blasted as a traitor and enemy, when the efforts to improve are turned into a piñata for abuse and calumny, when revenge rather than forgiveness has become the dominating immoral passion, when politicians with a noble conservative heritage turn into impotent patsies of populism, when illiberalism displaces liberalism and when crude nationalism shunts aside true national pride, when the graves for the death of democracies are being excavated, I pray for salvation.

When in the face of feuding sectarianism, shape-shifting allies and local government corruption one turns on one’s heel and retreats, abandoning long-suffering allies, taking with you your military toys, the path is open for corrupt coercion instead of coercion used in the defense of values, I pray for salvation.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Eritrean and Sudanese Refugee Claimants in Israel

There are about 36,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugee claimants currently in Israel. Israel claims that the vast majority are illegal migrants or, as Prime Minister Netanyahu (Bibi) calls them, “infiltrators.” T’ruah, an Israeli human rights NGO, claims the reverse, that they have mostly fled oppression and forced military service (Eritrea) for a safe haven in Israel. Israel was one of the first countries to ratify the Refugee Convention in 1954 and, therefore, had agreed not to refoule refugees if they had a legitimate fear of persecution. To assess the application of this criterion, some background might be helpful.

In the early 2000s, Sudanese fled to Egypt as refugees. By 2005, 30,000 had registered for asylum status there, but there were tens of thousands more in the country who had not been registered. In November 2005, a Sudanese asylum sit-in crisis took place in which the majority of the 4,000 protesters were women and children. Over six weeks in a park near the Mohandessin mosque in Cairo, the participants in the sit-in grew to 4,000 just when Egypt had taken steps to deport 640 Sudanese “illegal migrants.” UNHCR offered to organize a voluntary repatriation to Sudan, given that the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Army had signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement on 9 January 2005.

However, UNHCR, which had suspended its asylum hearings after the peace agreement had been signed, was unsuccessful in mediating the dispute in which Sudanese refugee claimants were protesting the dire social and economic problems they faced in Egypt and the insecurity of their status. Overwhelmingly, the Sudanese were unwilling to return to Sudan given that they faced a worse and more dangerous situation there. Further, the agreement the year before (the so-called four freedoms agreement), guaranteeing Sudanese in Egypt freedom of movement, residence, work and property ownership, had never been implemented. The Sudanese were still treated as foreigners with no rights to stay.

The government turned on the refugees using water cannons and batons. On 30 December 2005, thousands of riot police attacked the refugees to end the protest in the camp and killed at least 20, though Boutros Deng claimed that 26 Sudanese were killed, including two women and seven children. Egyptian human rights and refugee organizations claimed the total was much higher and that over 100 were killed. Though no survey is available, most of the public seemed to support the police and called the Sudanese dirty, rowdy criminals and stealers of jobs.

The Eritreans had a slightly different history. They were not fleeing ethnic cleansing and possible genocide, as the Sudanese did from Darfur, but an extremely oppressive regime that made military service compulsory and indefinite following the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia. Deserters were treated harshly and subjected to indefinite prison terms. Those who fled initially made their way to Sudan and then to Libya. In Libya, they were mistreated and enslaved. By 2006, they had shifted to Egypt, but given that they were subjected to the same conditions as the Sudanese, they and the Sudanese headed for Israel in the belief that this nearby democratic country would treat them better, especially since Jews had suffered so deeply and so many had been refugees.

Between 2008 and 2010, traffickers had taken control of the flow and enslaved or ransomed the “refugees.” In 2009, Israel created its own refugee determination system. Israel also closed its border. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel interviewed survivors among those enslaved by the traffickers and estimated that as many as 4,000 died between 2008 and 2012. However, getting past the traffickers did not end their quest to reach the Promised Land. For example, in October 2012 a group of Eritrean refugees with little food or water had been stranded at the border between Egypt and Israel for over a week.

However, 36,000 Eritreans and Sudanese managed to reach Israel. Contrary to some claims, there was no necessity that Egypt as the first country in which they arrived had the obligation to process them as refugee claimants or that Israel had the right to send them back to the country of first asylum to have the claims processed in Egypt. The first country rule is an EU edict and not part of international law.

Israel responded to the influx by building an impenetrable border fence and detention facilities. In processing the claims, only 4 Sudanese and 10 Eritreans were granted refugee status, or .01% of Eritrean claimants compared to a success rate in Canada of 85-90%. The Israeli government also initiated efforts to deport those that had arrived in Israel as “economic migrants” and “infiltrators.” In spite of the Israeli effort, more kept coming, but in significantly reduced numbers. Some moved on from Israel to other destinations. Nevertheless, by the end of 2017, Israel hosted a population of 40,000 Sudanese and Eritreans without access to health benefits or a legal right to work, though most were employed in the underground economy, mostly in hotels and restaurants. In 2016, the Israeli government introduced a 20% withholding tax on their wages.

This past November, Israel announced that it had arranged to relocate these “illegals” to an African nation widely rumoured to be Rwanda and perhaps Uganda. The internment camp at Holon would be closed. The government gave the “illegals” 90 days to leave voluntarily with a grant of $3,500 or face forceful deportation. A minority of Israelis reacted by initiating a sanctuary movement as well as one of civil disobedience and non-cooperation with Israeli expulsion efforts; a group of pilots announced that they would not fly the refugees back to Africa.

At the end of January 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Rwandan President Paul Kagame met in Davos. Purportedly, they finalized their agreement to secretly transfer thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers from Israel to Rwanda. Though some claimants took up the offer of a $3500 grant to help in relocation, most refused. When the Israeli-Rwandan deal became public this past week, Rwanda was embarrassed by the alleged agreement to receive the expelled refugee claimants in return for a reimbursement of resettlement costs. The country (and Uganda) denied that they had signed any such agreement.

In the midst of the past three months, Israeli courts entered the fray. In response to a case filed by the Tel Aviv University Clinic for Refugee Rights, a special Jerusalem appeals court for refugee issues ruled that flight from service in the Eritrean army was a justified ground for claiming refugee status even though British and Danish courts had ruled that it was not. Further, any argument that insisted that granting refugee status to so many Eritreans would threaten the Jewish character of Israel could not be used to make a refugee determination. A stop order was placed on the deportations. In response, the Israeli government requested, and was granted, an extension in the case of asylum seekers from Darfur and Nuba. The High Court of Justice endorsed granting male migrants of working age a “choice” of either deportation with a $3,500 grant or internment in Israel.

In the diaspora, many liberal Jews mobilized to help the refugee claimants working on two tracks – lobbying the Israeli government to drop the policy and negotiating with their own governments to at least take some of the refugees. The effort was successful in Canada when the private sector stood up to the plate to sponsor the refugees and the Canadian government, strongly influenced by a brief of a former Justice Minister, Irwin Cotler, agreed to allow 2,000 to be resettled in Canada in 2018. As a follow-up, in a totally surprising move, this past Monday a separate agreement was announced between the Israeli government and the UN wherein the UN would arrange for the resettlement of 16,250 refugee claimants to other countries over five years while Israel agreed to allow an equivalent number to remain with resident permits. Netanyahu said that he would now scrap the controversial plan to deport the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers given the unprecedented understanding with the UN.

Within a few hours, in the face of a backlash from his base, Netanyahu reversed course, first suspending the agreement and then cancelling it. Even more oddly, seemingly out of nowhere, Netanyahu blamed the NGO, New Israel Fund (NIF), for sabotaging the deal, but no explanation accompanied the charge. The following day, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in an absolutely unprecedented action in Israel, claimed that NIF had put pressure on Rwanda to withdraw from the deal, but offered no evidence. NIF insists that it has been totally transparent and never did what Bibi claimed. Netanyahu, however, promised that parliament would set up a committee to investigate the NIF and its involvement in sabotaging the deal.

The puzzlement is that this leaves Israel in a far worse position. First, Bibi’s attack on the NIF resulted in an enormous swelling of support for NIF and for the refugees. The support came both from Israel and abroad. It even came from south Tel Aviv that had been undergoing a process of gentrification over the last decade and from which area a delegation met Netanyahu on Tuesday. South Tel Aviv is the area where most of the “infiltrators” live because they have access to the bus station, social services set up by Israeli volunteers and companies seeking casual day labourers. With permanent status, the Eritreans and Sudanese would more likely disperse through the country.

The government’s black eye is even much darker. The Rwandan and Ugandan governments, embarrassed by the whole affair, announced that they had no signed deal with Israel. Further, in openly acknowledging that Israel could not sent the “infiltrators” back to their home countries, the government implicitly conceded that the Eritreans and Sudanese were refugees in some deep sense.

In the meanwhile, the debate continues in Israel with those opposed to the refugee claimants accusing them of being illegal migrant workers and infiltrators who, in Israel, undermine Israeli social life. The defenders of the claimants insist that the vast majority are fleeing oppression and, in Eritrea, endless forced military service. Quite aside from the debate over the refugee claims process, Israel introduced another dimension, its long continuing war with Arab states and the antipathy towards Israel of those states and members of the population. Israel claims the need both to preserve its Jewish character as well as preventing Muslims from entering Israel and undermining the ethnic balance. Tough measures towards asylum seekers (or infiltrators) are necessary, the government declared ignoring a long Jewish tradition, for many, the essence of the Jewish character, to helping those in need.

Netanyahu’s reputation has suffered even more than Israel’s. Yossi Verter wrote:

“In the face of all of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s past capitulations, it was the most disgraceful, the most transparent. In comparison to all his reversals, it was the quickest, the most humiliating. The man had already taught us a chapter on zigzags and back-and-forths – in the story of the Western Wall egalitarian prayer space and the metal detectors at the Temple Mount, for example – but this time he outdid himself, in both speed and flexibility. A contortionist could only dream of having such a liquid backbone.”

However, the result, though embarrassing to the government and especially Netanyahu that finds himself boxed in, still leaves the so-called illegals without security or a clear road to the future. One advance: Israel released the asylum seekers who were interned for refusing deportation to Rwanda.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Foxtrot and Contingency

Let me be perfectly clear. Samuel Maoz’ film Foxtrot, that won eight Ophirs in Israel, the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize in Venice and was a runner-up to the shortlisted nominations for the Academy Award for the best foreign film, is superb. I, however, do not recommend that you see it. The film is just too heart wrenching, just too painful to watch. When physical self-harm is used to inflict pain on oneself in order to distract from the far more ominous and inescapable emotional pain, then you get some idea of the depth and breadth of the pain aimed at the audience. We cannot feel the self-inflicted physical pain. Extraordinarily, that is a relief. For we cannot escape feeling the emotional pain.

And there were so many times I wanted to escape, to just get up and leave the theatre. Admittedly, the pain for me might have been doubled because I watched the film yesterday with my youngest son and the film is about the loss of a son. Admittedly, that pain might have been doubled again because of a trauma of death that my son went through that was not that dissimilar to the one in the movie. Nevertheless, when I awoke this morning after going to bed early because I had been so emotionally rung out, I still felt like a dishrag that had been wrung dry. I slept seven hours in total instead of my usual 4-5 hours.

I will tell you the opening of the first 60 seconds of the film, but no more. After a seemingly unrelated frame of a truck driving down a lonely and dusty road, an Israeli soldier appears at the door of an upper middle-class family in Tel Aviv. Daphna Feldmann (Sarah Adler), the mother of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), faints. Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) is stunned into silence. This is all in the first minute. Little is said. Little needs to be said. And the emotional impact simply grows from there. Reflecting and thinking about the film, rather than reliving it, is itself an escape.

What started as a dance to the syncopated ragtime music of composers and performers like Scott Joplin, the foxtrot was translated by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers into a dance with elegance and fluidity in a 4/4 time signature rhythm. The foxtrot dance alternates between two rhythms – slow-slow-quick-quick and slow-quick-quick. The quick-quicks are reduced to punctuation marks in the movie.

Instead of a free-flowing rhythm, the foxtrot in the film is reduced to a stilted and rigid exercise of squares in which the dancer returns to the original point. According to Maoz, “We thus enter the Foxtrot dance of traumatic circle: no matter what you do, you always end up where you began.” However, instead of going around in circles, the movie actually travels in rigid and repetitive squares. And when illustrated in the film, instead of a close dance, the individual performer moves in isolation. Right, back, left, return. Yamina, sig, smola, shub. The movie moves in a straight line, yashar, yashar, only between the corner points of the square, each time after a radical ninety degree turn.

The term “foxtrot,” reduced to very selective essentials, is ironic. There is never a trot. And the movement is so sluggish as to be paralyzing. As we watch each parent separately from a bird’s eye view in the claustrophobic intimacy of a washroom in the beginning act, we suffer from vertigo, but not from movement, but from lives that literally have come to a dead stop even as their bodies painfully curl up in foetal positions.

The film has four acts, though the director insists that there are three. “The three-act structure enabled me to offer an emotional journey for my viewers: the first act should shock them, the second should hypnotize, and the third should be moving. Each sequence reflects, by using various cinematic tools, the character that stands in its center. The first act, featuring Michael, is sharp and concise—just like him. It consists of detached compositions. The third act is loose and warm, just like Dafna. It floats a few inches above the ground. The second act takes place in a surrealist outpost, occupied by four soldiers and an occasional wandering camel…This act is uniquely non-verbal (in) its wry sense of humor and surrealism.”

It is not as if there is no relief from the emotional pain of Act One. There is. The relief even includes some gentle humour in the second act as Maoz describes it. But the main relief in the film in that second act is boredom, the alternative enemy of human happiness to pain. We choose to be bored, even in the most boring context, precisely because we blame the boredom on externalities. We do not choose emotional pain. Further, boredom is painful in a very different way than emotional pain. For boredom messes with our heads, not our hearts. Boredom results from being disengaged from another (in a Freudian slip, I first typed “from amother”); emotional pain is a product of intimate engagement. We become bored when we are cut off from both internal and external stimuli. We experience the greatest emotional pain when internal and external stimuli combine to whack us in the solar plexus. With emotional pain, there is no one to blame. When people are bored, they always blame their surroundings rather than taking responsibility for their own circular obsession with being bored.

For the German 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, “the two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom.” Life is an oscillation between pain and boredom, between torment and repetitive actions without meaning, such as Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill daily only to see it roll down again just before he reaches the summit. Which is the worst hell? In Schopenhauer’s pessimism, to the degree we escape one, to that degree we are thrust into the arms of another.

However, Schopenhauer inverted the experience of each. Boredom is largely a product of external and objective conditions, but that eminent philosopher believed that boredom comes from the inside. Emotional pain is a product of the internal and subjective, but Schopenhauer attended only to physical pain and attributed it to be a product of poverty and the absence of external conditions that would have allowed us to thrive and prosper instead of feeling pain. The movie tells an opposite story to that of Schopenhauer, of inner emotional pain and external boredom.

But the main philosophical concept underlying the powerful impact of the film is contingency. Contingency has two very opposite meanings. It refers to what may happen. The movie is an exercise in imaginative possibility rather than a depiction of reality. The controversial scene which aroused the ire of Israeli politicians is not a depiction of how the IDF behaves, even though this is what some viewers and commentators thought, but an extension of circumstances to make what is possible plausible. As Maoz said in an interview, “This is not a film about the occupation or the Palestinians. It is a film about Israeli society. Second, a work of art should not aspire to imitate and recreate reality; it should interpret, illuminate, or unravel its hidden aspects. And this is exactly what Foxtrot is trying to achieve.”

The second very different meaning of contingency refers to something liable to happen rather than simply a mere logical possibility. If we take the film to be about contingency as a likely existential liability rather than a remote logical possibility, then from my knowledge of the ethics governing the Israeli army, what is depicted may be a logical possibility, but is also a calumny in portraying the IDF. As Maoz himself said, “I was doing something that seemed right and logical. I wanted to deal with the gap between the things we control and those that are beyond them.” He was not depicting an existential reality.

The second act is a stylized surreal portrayal, a depiction that attracted the wrath of some leftist Israeli politicians for that stylistic quality and the wrath of right wingers because of the content. In spite of the detailed and heightened reality of the first and third acts, the power of the film comes, not from its existential portrayal of reality in the first and third acts, but from the logical sense of inevitability.

For Immanuel Kant, teleology, the end purpose and meaning of everything, is regulative; it is not a depiction of actuality. It serves as a guide, not as a depiction. Hegel argued that teleology served as such a guide only because of an instinct built into reason itself to bring everything together into an actual whole that appeared to constitute reality. That propensity would end up leading people to believe that they understood the absolute truth of the present when a belief in the absolute was precisely what had to be disaggregated in each age. The great philosophic irony is that most commentators took Hegel to be an advocate for the absolute and not someone who described its all-embracing and claustrophobic but inevitable propensity to characterize life that way.

Is the film about self-knowledge, the whole humanistic effort since the Enlightenment and even the Socratic foundations of philosophy? Or is the film a critique of the militarism that infects Israeli society? Is it a fearless autopsy on human emotions in general and Israelis in particular much more than a social critique? Certainly, Maoz’s first film, Lebanon, belonged to the latter category. “Lebanon, was based on my experience as a 20-year-old gunner in one of the first Israeli tanks to enter Lebanon in the 1982 Lebanon War. That film helped me to try and understand what it means to kill other human beings, as I did during my military service at the IDF. I had no other choice, and yet the notion of taking lives is an excruciating burden I am forced to live with. Foxtrot was born from a different place. After Lebanon was released in 2009, I was overwhelmed by the stories other Israelis with PTSD have told me. I realized I was not alone. There are endless variations of my story and the kind of pain and guilt it germinates.”

Maoz actually offers the same answer in the film. The son of the parents, Jonathan, is a sketch artist. The last drawing he made hangs on their wall. Each parent offers an opposite Freudian interpretation of the drawing. Neither takes it to be about reality. Is the irony that they presume a deep psychological meaning – however opposite for each – when there is none, or is the irony that most members of the audience will believe the parents missed the point – that this was an actual portrayal of a horrific reality?  The audience is then invited to laugh at the parents rather than examine why they do this instead and what such an interpretation says about themselves. Why do commentators and members of the audience tend to interpret the sketch to be about the son’s effort to externalize his trauma rather than a surrealist element in the movie intended to provoke self-examination? Is the weakness of the film, and its limited box office appeal, a result of this ambiguity, when there is one intended outcome but the opposite actual one?

I do not take the film to be primarily a critique of the IDF and the extent to which it does or even could engage in literal corrupt cover-ups that infects and makes complicit the lives of individual soldiers in the IDF. I do not interpret the film, as the Israeli Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, did, as offering a “searing, for her, unjustified, critique of Israeli militarized culture.” As Maoz declared, “If you choose to see this narrow picture (that of Regev), it will be your choice. But I will do anything to force you to see the bigger picture.” Does the film attempt to provide an understanding of military reality or is it primarily an exposure of inner psychological reality? The overwhelming focus of the film on the parents and their internal emotional pain suggests that the latter is the case, that the film is primarily about self-understanding and is not a critique of society, however depressing the external narrative concerning the perpetual nature of the external conflict.

Maoz said, “I needed to find a dance that you can do in many versions, but you will always end at the same starting point. This is the dance of our society. The leadership has to save us from the loop of the foxtrot dance, but they’re doing the opposite.” However, he also said that, given the Holocaust, “we couldn’t complain, we had to repress, and we became a second generation of traumatized victims.” Sometimes he seems to describe the film as a social critique, at other times as a socio-psychological inquiry into the Israeli and human soul. Is the terrible scene in the film’s second act and depicted in the drawing an ewar, death,ffort to describe political reality or is it a metaphor, as Maoz said, “a microcosm of our apathetic and anxious society”? “For me (Maoz), this was the climax of an unhealthy situation that gets more and more crooked. We prefer to bury the victims rather than asking ourselves penetrating questions.”

 

Israel’s African asylum seekers: What needs to be done

FEBRUARY 8, 2018, 2:26 PM 11

BLOGGER

Israel is home to nearly 40,000 African asylum seekers and migrants – of whom some 72 percent are Eritrean and 20% Sudanese – some of whom began to arrive as early as 2005. At the time, asylum seekers from these two countries – both of which are dictatorships that brutally repress their populations and violate their human rights – began to arrive in Canada.

As a Canadian member of Parliament, I chaired the All-Party Save Darfur Parliamentary Coalition, founded in 2003, where we documented the Darfurian genocide and the subsequent ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities perpetrated by the Khartoum regime, and where most Darfurians from this killing field received asylum in Canada.

Equally, the Eritreans fled a country which has been characterized as the “North Korea of Africa,” and where National Service can be tantamount to indefinite slave labour. The Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Human Rights – where I served as vice chair – held hearings into the human rights situation in Eritrea, with witness testimony and evidence documenting the major human rights violations perpetrated by this dictatorial regime. Some 97% of Eritrean asylum seekers received refugee status in Canada.

I write as the Israeli authorities have begun handing out deportation notices pursuant to the government’s “Infiltration Law” adopted by the Israeli Knesset in December, and where deportations are due to begin in March 2018. As of this writing, women, children under 18, and families — as well as Darfurians who have received protected status (some 600) — will not be deported.

When the Darfurians and Eritreans first started to arrive in 2006-8, Israel initially did the right thing in granting them temporary protected status, understanding that deportation would amount to a violation of its obligations under the International Refugee Convention, which Israel had ratified and the adoption of which it had championed in 1951.

However, as the arrivals continued to increase, with the numbers rising to a high of 2,000 per month in 2011, the apprehension grew of African asylum seekers as a security and demographic threat. The political and public discourse dramatically changed with them now characterized as “infiltrators” — “mistanenim” in Hebrew — which was as prejudicial as it was pre-judgmental in effectively predetermining a status which had yet to be determined. That rhetoric began to worsen as the numbers grew, with the “infiltrators” now being increasingly referred to as “criminals” and “predators” – and by government officials, even as a “cancer” – all designed to “make their lives miserable so that they will want to leave,” as one government minister put it at the time.

Indeed, as I testified before a Knesset Committee in 2011, Israeli political leaders — who should have known better — were then engaging in ongoing incitement against asylum seekers that was designed to stigmatize, criminalize and expel, rather than evaluate and properly determine their status according to law. Moreover, the situation of asylum seekers/migrants was further mishandled from the beginning by the dispatch of them to South Tel Aviv where the infrastructure was already crumbling before their arrival – rather than any equitable dispersal around the country – and where the increasing “criminalization” of these asylum seekers only served to incite the otherwise neglected Israelis in South Tel Aviv against them. I myself have made many visits to South Tel Aviv over the years, and I acknowledge and appreciate the pain and fear that besets many of these residents. But this could — and should — have been avoided by not sending the asylum seekers to South Tel Aviv to begin with, by not inciting against them, by instituting a proper refugee determination process, and by respecting — rather than restricting — their right to access employment and social services until such time as their asylum request could be properly processed — which has still yet to be done.

The completion of the construction of a wall in 2013 effectively brought an end to the “infiltration.” Indeed, not one African asylum seeker arrived in 2017, and none since May 2016. But the notion that they are a security and demographic threat had been seriously embedded and still remains. Indeed, the political and public discourse characterizing them as infiltrators still remains as well, and with all its attending prejudice and predetermination. And most importantly, no fair, effective, and efficient refugee status determination process (RSD) has yet been established (I have some familiarity with such a process, as it was set up in Canada during the period where I served as Minister of Justice and attorney general, and where I then recommended it to Israel at the same time that the initial arrivals of Sudanese and Eritreans were taking place in Israel as they were in Canada.)

Regrettably, the refugee status determination system established in Israel made it unduly difficult to even make an application, took an inordinate amount of time to get an answer, and when the answer came it was invariably negative, as evidenced by the fact that only some 10 asylum seekers — nine Eritreans and 1 Darfurian – have received Refugee status. Accordingly, of the some 40,000 African asylum seekers, fewer than 15,000 have been able to submit claims since the RSD process began (since 2011-2012). Of the 15,000 claims presented, fewer than a third have actually been reviewed, and only 10 asylum seekers have been recognized as refugees — and that only after a long and protracted battle in Israel’s courts. In a word, this statistic represents the lowest number of asylum seekers recognized as refugees in the Western world. Again, to compare Israel with the same Western demographic: 97% of Eritrean asylum seekers who applied for a refugee status in Canada received it, and the European Union has recognized asylum claims from 90% of Eritreans who applied for refugee status. The Israeli acceptance rate is 0.056%.

In addition to the unjust and unfair refugee determination process, the Israeli government has taken a series of ever-increasing measures to make the lives of African Asylum seekers/migrants in Israel harsh and difficult. It is particularly alarming that in this context:

  • No rights (social, labour, health) accompany African visa holders in Israel;
  • Though African migrants are not officially forbidden from working, the mention on their visa that “this is not a work permit” makes their employment situation unstable and often precarious, even as many are working in restaurants, construction, and cleaning positions that are helpful for Israelis and the Israeli economy;
  • A deposit law that came into effect in May 19, 2017 makes the situation of the African Asylum seeker/migrant all the more challenging, because 20% of their already meager salaries are seized by the government — returnable to them only when they leave — while also obliging their Israeli employers to pay an extra 16% of taxes, even if they employ 2 A5 (humanitarian) visa holders;
  • As of 2012-2013, Israel had declared it had negotiated removal agreements with two African countries. Those who agreed to leave Israel voluntary for these countries (commonly known to be Uganda and Rwanda) were given $3,500, and Israel will reportedly pay $5,000 to the receiving government;
  • While Israeli authorities report that receiving governments have committed to providing African migrants arriving from Israel with protective status while facilitating their integration, researchers and witness testimony, my own examination has shown that the receiving countries have provided neither status nor protection for the African migrants arriving from Israel. Indeed, most of the Africans have had to leave, and many have suffered abuse and worse in their attempts to seek safety and security elsewhere.

This is what should — and can — be done:

  1. Suspend, if not repeal, the planned forced deportation/imprisonment protocol of the Israeli government as set forth in the amendment of the “Infiltration Law” adopted in December 2017 — embodied now in the deportation notices sent this week to African asylum seekers/migrants, and which 25 distinguished Israeli legal experts have now characterized as a violation of international law and basic human rights.
  2. Recognize the dangers involved in deporting refugees to a country like Rwanda, under conditions that are kept secret, where there is no official guarantee of safety and integration, and where manifold reports detail the danger and risks inherent in such deportations.
  3. Establish a just, fair, and effective refugee status determination process so that refugee claims can be made to begin with, processed in a timely and fair manner, and where just determination can be made in accordance with international standards.
  4. Provide asylum seekers awaiting the processing of their asylum requests a temporary protected status that ensures a minimal safety, stability and dignity (including the possibility to work legally and gainfully) and protection against arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.
  5. Provide a protected status to some 6,000 non-Arab Darfurians as recommended in a legal opinion written by the refugee status determination unit itself three years ago, but never acted upon.
  6. Ensure minimal standards for children and youths — in terms of access to education, health and welfare — while ensuring protection against their deportation.
  7. Cease and desist from the ongoing campaign of incitement against, and defamation of, Africans in Israel. Simply put, end the discourse re “infiltrators,” end the incitement that scapegoats them as dangerous predators who are responsible for all that ails South Tel Aviv, and cease and desist from any political or electoral manipulation of both the vulnerable South Tel Aviv residents and this vulnerable African constituency.
  8. Respect the independent plight of South Tel Aviv neighbourhoods and seek to rehabilitate them. As African scholar Sheldon Gellar has put it, “money now used to finance prisons, detention centers, and deportation logistics and payoffs can be reallocated to fight crime, improve housing, infrastructure, and public services in south Tel Aviv. This policy would provide some compensation to south Tel Aviv residents for the burden caused by placing large numbers of African asylum-seekers in their neighborhoods without a plan and against their will.”
  9. Ensure proper access to services in cities outside of Tel Aviv, and in Israel’s periphery, and reinforce migrant communities all over Israel (through local involvement, community organizations, local volunteering opportunities on behalf of migrants), especially in cities like Eilat, Beersheva, Haifa, Petah Tikva, etc., where important refugee communities already reside.
  10. Engage constructively with the UNHCR, which has had a standing offer to work with Israel to resettle asylum seekers, and which is prepared to facilitate the resettlement of upwards of some 10,000 of them. If Israel engages in a policy of resettlement to third countries, it needs to ensure that such resettlement is to countries where asylum seekers will be treated with dignity and where they will be guaranteed status, stability, well-being, and dignity (for example, in a country like Canada, where the Jewish communities would play a role in sponsoring, welcoming and integrating refugee families).
  11. Appreciate the asset that the African Asylum seekers/migrants can be for the Israeli government and society in matters of diplomacy and the economy, as well as a bridgehead to Africa.
  12. Stop punishing employers who hire African asylum seekers. Indeed, the current policy exacerbates labour shortages and necessitates bringing in more foreign workers to fill the gap. The policy is especially harmful to hotels, restaurants, and the tourist industry.
  13. Develop an immigration policy, that is anchored in the values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, protecting Israel’s security while respecting the values of respecting the stranger, which is referenced some 36 times in the Bible.

In short, what is so necessary now is for parliament and all of government to change the prejudicial discourse, to cease and desist from any incitement, and to put in place a proper refugee status determination system as befits a democracy like Israel, and even more so, as befits a country whose ethics and ethos effectively command us to respect the stranger, let alone not to persecute them.  There is no contradiction, as it has sometimes been suggested, between Zionism and human rights and between Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. It is bad policy — and bad proclamations — which create false dichotomies. A Jewish and democratic state — which Israel is — can address and redress these problems, thereby reflecting and representing the best of Jewish tradition and Israeli democracy.

The Alt-Right in the Torah

A Prolegomena

I wrote the following blog on Sunday morning. But I did not send it out. Instead, I rewrote it on Monday. I still did not send it out. I set it aside on Tuesday and did other tasks in preparation for my leaving today. I read it over once again this morning, did a few edits and continued the debate with myself about whether to send it out. Spoiler alert! If you decide to read this tale of Israelite alt-right zealotry, you may find some current echoes, particularly a link between self-righteous religious pandering and wanton behaviour, and between defensive apologetics and inexcusable decadence.

In this case, I am not referring to Donald Trump and the alleged “treasonous” behaviour of Donald Trump Jr., but rather of Netanyahu’s pandering to the religious right and their imposition of shabat restrictive laws on the non-orthodox community while Netanyahu’s son, Yair, is recorded as engaging in whoring in Tel Aviv and of blackmailing wealthy friends for money to pay the prostitutes. “It was only fair given the $20 billion gas deal that “my father got you.” And there is another link – an emphasis on exclusion of the Other regarded as a danger to national identity. Donald Trump may inconsistently suddenly want to protect “dreamers,” Latin Americans brought to the U.S. at a very young age who grew up as Americans, but Netanyahu continues to move ahead to forcefully expel tens of thousands of African asylum seekers.

Why is corruption usually so intertwined with nationalist self-righteousness, whether in ancient Israel, contemporary Iran or the U.S.? Why are dodgy deals and sordid behaviour linked to a presentation of a wholesome image? When perpetrators are rewarded with an elevated status, is that elevation linked to a curse as well? Is hubris inevitable?

The Alt-Right in the Torah

by

Howard Adelman

If it is true, and, even further, if I endorsed Eric Ward‘s conclusion of his years of research, that the core of the alt-right is antisemitism, how can I suggest that the position of the alt-right is to be found in the Torah itself? I can because, although antisemitism is the central expression of the alt-Right of the twenty-first century, the core factors are universal. They characterize a certain type of personality and a certain type of political program. Those core values include the following:

Core Beliefs

  1. Supremacist beliefs, particularly male superiority
  2. Racism – defining that Other as inferior
  3. Placing blame on an Other
  4. Paranoia of that Other
  5. Nationalism rooted in racism to achieve security
  6. Ethnic cleansing or even genocide to get rid of the perceived threat
  7. Core Emotional Expressions
  8. Zealotry and evangelical fervour
  9. Cowardice or spinelessness – a lack of backbone
  10. Pornographic obsessions
  11. Authoritarianism
  12. A politics of resentment, of tactics and intrigue, rather than strategy aimed at achievable goals
  13. Utopian dreams of freedom from institutions and constraining rules
  14. Core Behaviour
  15. Spewing forth hatred
  16. Parading
  17. Property destruction
  18. Coercion versus assent; while projecting a utopian vision of social harmony, demonstrating a ready resort to non-state violence
  19. Attacks on Media
  20. Murder

The key part of the Torah where an alt-Right position is not only depicted, but seems to have been endorsed, takes place in the story of Pinchas or Phinehas in Numbers 25:10-30:1. Aaron’s grandson is called Pinchas. His most celebrated action is thrusting a spear or javelin through the bodies of a Simeonite prince, Zimri, son of Salu, and his paramour, Cozbi, a Midianite princess and daughter of Zur. It is an archetypal tale of a Jewish prince consorting with a shicksa (a gentile woman) that is perceived as threatening the genetic unity of the Israelites, completely ignoring that many, perhaps most, of the heroines in the Biblical tales are of non-Israelite background – whether Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh and refused to kill baby boys, the princess Bithiah who saved Moses, Zipporah whom Moses married, and, of course, Ruth.

The worst part of the story is not the lawless murder of the lovers, but that God forges a covenant of peace with Pinchas and makes Pinchas chief priest, inheritor of the mantle of Aaron. Not only Pinchas, but all his heirs and descendants. A divine priestly right of inheritance is created as Pinchas was credited for his “righteousness unto all generations forever.” (Psalm 106:28-31)

It is not as if this is a one-off story. It has a prominent place in the Torah. In fact, it is probably the most repeated narrative. The reward is discussed in Numbers 31:15-16 and the Ba’al Pe’or tale of sacrilegious behaviour is recounted in Deuteronomy 4:3-4, Joshua 22:16-18, Judges:20:28; 1 Samuel 1:3-4:11.

The story simplified is as follows: Just before the Israelites are to enter the Promised Land, at Shittim (named after an Acacia tree used to make furniture) where they camp, Israelite men become involved with Moabite women. Involved is a euphemism. The men are described as “whoring” with the Moabite women. Further, the men are not only enamoured by these women, but are enticed into their “idolatrous” practices. The Israelites were allegedly being led into sin via assimilation and flouting of the Mosaic ethical code.

As a result of the Israelite men consorting with the Moabite women and in partaking of their worship of their god, Ba’al, the Lord of the Israelites became incensed. God ordered Moses to take the ringleaders and have them impaled before him.  Only in that way could God’s wrath be redirected away from the Israelites. Moses ordered his officials to each slay those of his men who attached themselves to Ba’al Pe’or. Just after issuing the order, an Israelite male brought a Midianite, not a Moabite, woman into the camp. Phinehas or Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron, left the assembly at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and stabbed the man and the woman in their bed chamber with a spear right through their private parts.

Did it matter that a Midianite rather than a Moabite woman was the consort of the Israelite? Does it matter that in this case there was no association with worshipping false gods? Does it matter that Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses and a very important and influential political adviser, was a Midianite? Does it matter that this vigilante action was taken against people of wealth and status from both the Israelite and Midianite communities? Was the action motivated by resentment? Does it matter that the execution was carried out by Phinehas, whose name, like that of Moses, was of Egyptian origin and referred to a Nubian, perhaps from Sudan, like Sadat with a darker complexion? Had Aaron or his son, Eleazar, married a Nubian woman? Does it matter that the method of killing was not stoning – the usual means of dealing with those who followed false gods – but stabbing with a spear? Does it matter that they were stabbed through the belly? As Gunther Plaut notes (fn. 8), “into the chamber….through the belly” is a Hebrew word play better rendered “into the private chamber…through the private parts.”

When I was reading the latter, I immediately recalled a vivid scene. I was at the place of a mass murder outside of Butare in Rwanda of over 17,000 Tutsis who had been killed at the Murambi Technical School where they had sought refuge from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. They had been buried in a mass grave. The bodies, barely decomposed because they had been so packed together, had been laid out on school benches and we had the onerous task of sampling and confirming the numbers slaughtered. I was most appalled by the babies and young children killed. But some of the women who were killed still had the spears in them that had been thrust up through their private parts to kill them.

In the biblical tale, the murder by Pinchas of the Israelite man and the Midianite woman stops the plague that had already killed 24,000. God spoke to Moses and praised Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron. Because of his action, God’s wrath and desire to commit genocide against the Israelites was turned aside. As a reward, God gave Phinehas a pact of friendship granting to him and his descendants a hereditary right to the priesthood in Israel. God then ordered the genocide of the Midianites.

Does it matter that an apparent result of destroying contact between Israelite men and Moabite and Midianite women may have had the benefit of stopping the plague which may have been made worse because the form of worship of the Moabites and their allies, the Midianites, was a of a fertility cult? Does it not matter that the murder was NOT “merely a kind of battlefield execution,” as Plaut describes in his commentary, but a summary execution of unarmed civilians in their private chamber? Does it matter that the persons killed had both status and wealth? Does it matter that humans had assumed God’s responsibilities to determine who should live and who should die? Whatever the answer and significance of the answers to the many questions above, what is clear is that, to repair a breach of the covenant, civilian murder and genocide were being endorsed in the Torah.

The issue becomes even more problematic. For when the story of Pinchas is the assigned Torah portion to be read that week, the Haftorah portion from the prophets that is read is the story of 1 Kings 18, where Elijah, who also acted in defence of the Jewish God and Hebrew practices, was so esteemed and even associated with the miracle of the resurrection of the dead. Elijah is viewed as a Messiah-in-waiting and Elijah’s name is invoked at the reading of Havdalah marking the end of shabat as well as at a Passover seder and in the performance of a brit, the circumcision ceremony.

More appalling I find is all the apologetics attached to the actions, to the beliefs and to the attitudes of Pinchas. For example, Targum Jonathan (18) claims that because Pinchas held the spear with his arm, prayed with his mouth, and stabbed the couple through their innards, that explains why the tender parts of the shoulder (zeroa), cheekbone (lechayayim) and maw (kevaw) accrue to the priesthood. Hirsch in his commentary insists that Pinchas was given such great credit because he caught them in flagrante delicto, in the overt prohibited act, and by the way he assassinated them, he sent a sign to others, as do professional mafia assassins and the gangs involved in the drug cartel. Given that the couple were “royals,” Pinchas was given greater credit; Moses, in contrast, had only slain an overseer and was not credited, even though the act was carried out in defence of another Israelite.

I am clearly disturbed by the tale. I am more disturbed by those who regard the spontaneous eruption of emotion, passion and murder as worthy of merit. I am appalled that commentators are not outraged by the action and by the apologetics that explain the action away as following the norms of the time. If so, why is the action not denounced in the commentary? Perhaps the story had an ironic thread. Perhaps the death of the two sons of Pinchas was his punishment. Perhaps the reward of an hereditary priesthood was really a curse for a family who would encounter tragedy after tragedy.

I am most troubled because the scene depicted conforms so closely to that of a mass rally where one of the demonstrators is so enraged that he leaves the crowd and takes upon himself the responsibility of murdering those with whom he disagrees. He is a zealot. Hatred spews from his mouth and blood comes from the use of his arms. Coercion not persuasion is the answer. When royals engage in the practice, it is regarded as even more heinous because, just as now, socialites stand out because of their role in the media in communicating values. Sometimes the messengers are killed as well. Antisemitic zealots murdered the Jewish radio talk show host, Alan Berg, in Denver.

The defined problem is not just a difference in belief between the Israelites compared to the Midianites and the Moabites, but that intercourse with the latter was regarded as the source of the plague. The others were blamed. The Israelites were not just different, but regarded themselves as superior. And the allure of females was pointed to as a source of betrayal. The others were not only regarded as Other, as an inferior Other, as a dangerous Other, but, in the name of respect for the Covenant of the Israelites with God, genocide was endorsed. Israelite nationalism was wedded to fanaticism in defence of security and continuity of the group.

Go further. In the portrait of God, vanity and brand management seem to be the key components at stake. The Israelites, in their escape from slavery, seem to be riven with insecurity and a fear of disappointing their demanding God. For God, politics is personal. Only He could occupy the limelight. If this does not trouble you, I would like to hear why.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

 

Part V: An Assessment of Trump’s Disruptive Diplomacy using Jerusalem

Part V: An Assessment of Trump’s Disruptive Diplomacy using Jerusalem

 

by

 

Howard Adelman

 

The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, leaving the borders to be defined through mutual negotiations, is likely neither to serve as a stimulus to put the negotiations back on track nor lead to widespread violence and the breakout of a Third Intifada. Why? Because there is no real peace process to disrupt. The recognition is symbolic and changes virtually nothing on the ground. It may bury the false idea that America has been neutral, but since the prospect for a two-state solution at this time has been highly unlikely, what had been squandered by Trump’s pronouncement?

Only noble purposes and noble intentions.

 

How do I explain and evaluate the Trump initiative? I believe rationalism, whether in a realist or a constructivist format, provides the foundation for the structure and wording of the initiative that was fundamentally irrational, founded on both the madness and stupidity of the individual making the announcement while being masked by sentiment and a patina of rationality.

Because of the lack of specificity, many ordinary Palestinians are sure to interpret the U.S. announcement as dismissing their historical, political, and cultural ties to Jerusalem and disputing their right to independence and self-determination. In their eyes, it condones Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967 and implies that the city is solely Israeli.

“Palestinians, especially of the younger generation, have been questioning the feasibility of a two-state solution for some time. This is a generation that came of age during the second intifada and watched its land swallowed up by settlements and the separation wall as the years slipped by. Young men and women witnessed their own policemen arrest fellow countrymen at the behest of their occupier, while leaders placated them with empty words and slogans. They’re done playing this game.” But will they rise up or become more resigned to their fate or respond with a mixture of both?

“If there is a silver lining to Trump’s announcement, it does provide clarity and a unifying objective for Palestinians. Last summer, a wave of civil disobedience by Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line forced Israel to give up on its unilateral measures regarding Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif compound (also known as the Temple Mount), which houses the Al-Aqsa mosque. The PA had no say in the matter; religious leaders took their cues from ordinary Palestinians when they rallied for support. These events showed ordinary Palestinians that they have some power to change what’s happening on the ground: they can rally, strategize, and mobilize. And with a vision for a one-state solution unimpeded by a sham peace process, that goal may finally gain traction to make a new reality seems possible.”

However, will that even be a greater illusion than fixating on the corpse of a dead peace process? One of the effects of disruptive diplomacy, whatever the interpretation of the underlying motives, is that it fosters other illusions. Anything seems possible – unification of the land of Israel under Israeli hegemony or driving the Jews into the sea and establishing a Palestinian state that excludes Jews.

Given the differences in explaining and justifying disruptive diplomacy, different and opposite outcomes are envisioned. I, on the other hand, am a terrible prophet. I sometimes slip into prognosticating about the future, but I am usually more wrong than I am right. Disruptive diplomacy makes prediction even more difficult. I do not know what the short term or eventual outcome will be. I have neither a crystal ball nor is my ear tuned to God’s will. I can only offer analysis that perhaps confuses as much as it clarifies.

Let me summarize that analysis. Supporters of realist diplomacy, constructivist diplomacy or some combination thereof have been mildly supportive or mildly critical and hoped to shape Trump’s disruptive diplomacy into a realistic form. This began with the creative nuancing of the announcement, but one which readily revealed its contradictions and inadequacies.

There are a number of givens:

  1. When Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and initiated the process of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, he severed seven decades of American policy.
  2. On the other hand, he recognized a reality – that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, a recognition of a capital denied no other country, a recognition that destroyed a long-held fiction that the city might not be Israel’s capital even though the Knesset, the Supreme Court, government ministries, including the foreign ministry, were all located in that capital.
  3. However, in refusing to define the borders of the city that Trump recognized as that capital, in the name of absolute clarity he left open the possibility that those borders were subject to negotiation just as he seemed to foreclose the possibility of the U.S. acting as a neutral mediator in such negotiations, signaled by omitting to reference any Palestinian claims to the city.
  4. While Trump claimed that the initiative reflected “the best interests of the United States of America,” this seemed to be part of the camouflage imposed by his realist sycophants but lacked any substance since there was no evident national interest served in giving that recognition at this time; at the same time, the move alienated virtually all of America’s allies and partners, and sent America’s enemies on a chest-pounding victory dance since the pronouncement demonstrably omitted any reference to Palestinian claims and revealed gross incompetence.

“Populism thrives when politics become about symbols rather than substance.” Ivan Krastev

  1. When the domestic political interests were so apparent behind the initiative – offering a quid quo pro to wealthy Jewish supporters of a right persuasion, catering to his evangelical Christian base, fulfilling a promise, seeking an initiative with a built-in legacy, providing a distraction from the Mueller inquiry and counterbalancing Obama’s failure to veto a UN resolution which provided a new, retrograde and realistically irrelevant reference point for negotiations – the disconnect and incongruence between realism in international affairs and catering to a political domestic constituency has never been more apparent.
  2. Though Trump used the rhetoric that the initiative would “advance the peace process,” those were now empty words which simply drove a stake into an already dead or, at the very least, comatose peace effort while significantly widening the chasm between the initiative and the supposed goal of giving new momentum to the peace process.
  3. If the dispute was merely up to the parties involved, why was Trump acting as a pyromaniac at this time?
  4. The move was symbolic only, and this was both its great importance as well as revealing its inability to affect facts on the ground, except possibly to encourage Israel to create more facts on the ground given the gross disparity in power between the contending parties.

The potential impact of this disruptive diplomacy could portend radical change, but the change could add to the chaos, for disruptive diplomacy radically breaks with a tradition of predictability. Only one thing is clear to me – there is now a widespread recognition that the two-state solution needs to be buried while we wait, holding our breath, to watch what alternative will emerge from the ashes of that burnt offering, even while traditional realists continue to worship the conception as a living, viable option that for them is too important to cast aside though it no longer has any potency. Which is better – that idolatry or Trump’s smashing of idols?