Thursday, December 28, 2006

Aliya at a 20 Year Low

Aliya - Jewish immigration to Israel - stood at approximately 21,000 last year. This is the lowest figure since 1988, the year before the flood gates of the Soviet Union opened, and more than 1 million Jews immigrated to Israel during the intervening period. The question now is - will immigration levels level off at a respectable 20,000 - 30,000 a year, or will they fall back to the extremely low levels of the mid 1980's? In 1986 only 9500 people immigrated to Israel.

While the obvious "wells" of large scale Jewish immigration seem to have dried up, there is some indication that there is increased interest in aliya from Jews in English speaking countries. Among the 21,000 who arrived in 2006, 4000 where from the U.S. and Britain, a high point also not seem since the 1980's.

Israel also experiences Yerida - Jewish emigration. While it is hard to find accurate statistics on this, it is estimated that yerida has been averaging 15-20,000 over past 4 years.

All this could spell trouble for those worried about the "demographic threat" - the decreasing percentage of Jews in the territories ruled by Israel. Israeli Jews have a lower birth rate than the non-Jewish inhabitants, and net Jewish immigration is one factor that has been off-setting this.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Challenge of Hanukkah

Hanukkah is a holiday of multiple and fluid meanings.

Originally, it was a holiday celebrating the Maccabees' military victory over the Seleucid Greeks. A war fought not so much for "religious freedom", as against the forces of Hellenization and Jewish assimilation. The war was bloody, and initially, at least, attacked the assimilated Hellenized Jewish elites, as much as, if not more-so than their Seleucid overlords. A reading of the Book Of Macabbees, I and II, makes this clear. Mattathias' cry, which sparked the revolt - "Mi Ladonai Aylai" "He who for God, follow me!" - was, after all, initially directed at a Jew about to sacrifice a pig, and it was that Jew who was the first victim of the revolt.

And so, many people use Hanukkah as a symbol for a militant - and military - religious conservatism and purity, in the face of liberalizing modernity. (See for instance, Michael Medved's article, "The Real Hanukah: A Celebration of the Religious Right" .)

The early Rabbis (or more properly the rabbinic precursors, the Pharisees), de-emphasized the military aspects of the holiday, and instead emphasized the re-dedication of the Temple, and the miracle of the oil. They did this largely because they hated the Maccabbean kings, who, by then, where corrupt and somewhat assimilated themselves, and who opposed the Pharisees' new fangled religious innovations that - ironically - included moving some religious worship away from the Temple and into the Jewish home and synagogue. By putting the emphasis of the holiday on the Temple, on the miracle of the oil, and on Jewish purity and separateness, they could undermine the Kingship, the role of the Maccabees military prowess, the importance of Jewish temporal sovereignty per-se, and at the same time display their loyalty to a hyper-pure Judaism and to Temple worship - but on their own terms. (The Pharisees so wished to repress the Maccabees' role, that the books of Maccabees where not included in the Jewish Bible, and survived only because of their inclusion in Catholic scripture. The Catholics likely preserved these books because of their stories of voluntary Jewish martyrdom in the face of "Greek" religious persecution, something that echoed strongly with the early Christians' own experience of martyrdom at the hands of Rome.)

The later Rabbis - post the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD - subtly changed, yet again, the meaning of the holiday. Even more radically then the Pharisees, they de-emphasized the role of military power. This can be seen in their choice of the Haftorah portion for the first Shabbat of Hanukkah; from Zecahriah chapter 4: ' "Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit", says the Lord.' - to Zerubavel, the leader of the post Babylonian exile Jewish returnees attempting to re-establish the Temple. In other words - right makes might! Jewish sovereignty will be re-established only by way of ethical, godly behavior. Military power and sovereignty (alone ?) will not do it. Furthermore, rather than emphasize the xenophobic and militant "us versus them elements" of previous understandings of the holiday, they acknowledge that the Temple (and by extension Jewish sovereignty) can best be established when the Jews live in harmony and cooperation with their neighbours. Thus, the Haftorah portion chosen for the second Shabbat of Hanukkah - which will be read in synagogues around the world tomorrow; from I Kings chapter 7: '... So Hiram (King of the Phoenicians) finished all the work that he had been doing for King Solomon on the House of the Lord.'

The early Zionists, consciously re-emphasized the military elements of the Hanukkah story. But they re-cast it as primarily a national struggle, not a religious one. The elements of religious Jews fighting assimilated Jews are completely absent; and the Temple and the miracle of the oil are, at best, cute side-bars. The Maccabees' bravery, strength and military effectiveness are front and centre, as is the "victory of the few over the many." God, and godliness are absent.

Contemporary North American liberal Judaism has yet again re-constructed the meaning of Hanukkah. This time into a holiday of religious freedom, of tolerance and of multi-culturalism. The Maccabees' struggle is now understood to be about the right of the ancient Jews to worships as they wanted, and not to be forcibly assimilated into the majority culture.

Many of these meanings will ring true to us. Some will be anathema. The challenge of Hannukah is to decide what the deep meaning of the holiday is for us. What is it that WE are affirming? Tolerance, and faith in the power of the good? Or, faith in the power of military power, and need to stay apart? Or some combination of these themes?

A Shocking Image

I hesitated before posting this just story, from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Is it merely gruesome? Or is there some message in the grisly image depicted? If this where fiction, people would scream "manipulative", "sacrilegious". But since its not ...

Settler murderer hangs self

A settler sentenced to life for murdering four Palestinians killed himself.

Asher Weissgan was found in his Ayalon Prison cell on Friday hanging by his phylacteries, with his prayer book opened to the Kaddish mourning prayer, Ha’aretz reported. Weissgan murdered four Palestinian workers in the West Bank settlement of Shilo in August 2005 and wounded a fifth.

Promise to End Discrimination Broken

Oops, I spoke to soon.

In September (Some Good News Items) I noted as good news that "fact" that he Jewish Agency has finally decided to stop discriminating against Israeli Arabs. "Its about time!" I wrote. Turns out I spoke to soon.

At the time the Jewish Agency, with the Israeli Government's blessing, had promised that a third of the funds raised to aid Israel's north after this summers war would be allocated to Arab communities, a third to Jewish communities and a third to national infrastructures in the region. (Israeli Arabs make up approximately 50% of the citizens in the affected areas.) Now, according to an article in Haaretz, it turns out that only 10% of those funds are being spent in the Arab sector. And so, the decades old discriminations against Israeli Arabs continues. The hopeful new policy announced in September turns out to be a sham.

Perhaps Septembers announcements where just for show. A sop to liberal Diaspora Jews and to those elements of Western opinion that views a de-jure ethnically based state as necessarily discriminatory. (And based on this example, its hard to argue with that view.)

At the same time there is a hew and cry among Israeli Jews, that Israeli Arabs are more and more demanding that Israel stop being a "Jewish State" and become a "State for all her citizens." With discriminatory policies like these - just another example of many - its no wonder.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Mishuga'as & Danger in Tehran

One doesn't quite know what to make of this past week's "Holocaust" conference in Tehran - to laugh or to cry. Two articles in lead American newspapers point out the utter "madness" of the participants. In one case this is just an annoying curiosity. In the other it is worrying.

The Washington Post reports on the representatives of the ultra Orthodox Neturai Karta who attended the conference.

" ... even by the standards of Neturei Karta, these most ultra of ultra-orthodox Jewish Hasids took a step into the world of the very strange, if not the meshuga, or crazy, when they showed up as honored guests at a conference of Holocaust skeptics and deniers in Tehran. With a hug and a smile for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rabbi Aharon Cohen walked into a conference room with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, discredited academics, and more than a few white supremacists and served up a rousing welcome speech. 'Let me express my gratitude to the illustrious organizers of this valuable event," Cohen told the 67 delegates from 30 countries ....' "

Neturei Karta oppose the State of Israel, as being against God's will. They attended the conference, they claim, not to deny the Holocaust, but to help point out how it had been used to support the sin of Zionism.

No matter what you think of Zionism, or the right to hold dissenting opinions within the Jewish community, you have to agree, they Neturai Karta have gone too far this time. They have simply lost any sense of - common sense.

Such displeasure could even be heard on the streets in Satmar South Williamsburg- a bastion of anti Zionist ultra -orthodox.

"Sol Wald, 33, sat in his car on a tenement block.... He wagged his head at mention of Neturei Karta. 'I'm against Israel but . . . to go to Tehran is a bad idea,' he said in accented English. 'My grandmother has numbers on her arm .... There are Holocaust deniers there. Jewish people should not participate in that.' "

* * *

The New York Times reports that Ahmadinejad is not just be using his Holocaust denial to tweak the nose of the West, or to cynically inflame the Muslim "street". He actually believes it!

"... why would the Iranians invite speakers with so little credibility in the West, including a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and disgraced European scholars?"

"That question misses the point. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, portrays participants like David Duke, the former Louisiana Klan leader, and Robert Faurisson of France, who has devoted his life to trying to prove that the Nazi gas chambers were a myth, as silenced truth-tellers whose stories expose Western leaders as the hypocrites he considers them to be."

"... But there is another important point. Mr. Ahmadinejad actually seems to believe that the volumes of documentation, testimony and living memory of the Nazi genocide are at best exaggerated and part of a Zionist conspiracy to falsify history so as to create the case for Israel. As a former member of the Revolutionary Guards, he was indoctrinated with such thinking, a political analyst in Tehran said, and as a radical student leader, he championed such a view."

I find this more worrying than if Ahmadinejad was a cynical manipulator. Someone so convinced he is right, and so clueless about real world history, so confirmed in his fantasy view of reality, is very dangerous indeed.

Hopefully there are other, saner heads in Iran, who can control Ahmadinejad.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Esau - The Eternal Enemy ?

In last Shabbat's parsha (weekly Torah portion) – Vayishlach – we read about Jacob's re-meeting his estranged brother Esau after 20 years "abroad". Jacob had originally fled the Land of Israel to avoid the wrath of Esau, over Jacob's having tricked him out of their fathers blessing.

Now, as he returns home, he is full of trepidation about what Esau might do. He sends messengers (some say spies) to Esau. When they report back that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob's trepidation turns to outright fear. He prays to God. He devises elaborate stratagems to win Esau's favour with a carefully planned succession of gifts. He divides his camp in two, lest Esau attack at night. When he finally does meet Esau, he puts the women and children at the rear, and his most favourite Rachel and Joseph dead last.

But Jacob's fears turn out to be for naught. Esau runs toward him, hugs him, kisses him, and weeps. Esau initially declines the gifts Jacob has offered saying "I have enough; my brother." - Not a sign of anger or jealousy. – Esau offers to travel together with Jacob to his home in Mt. Seir. But Jacob begs off, promising to come to Mt Seir as soon as he can. Esau offers to leave some of his men with Jacob's party, to protect them and help them in their journey. Jacob begs off again saying: "There is no need". Finally, Esau departs, fully expecting Jacob to meet him in Seir in a few weeks. But Jacob has no intention of doing that. Instead, he settles down in Sukkoth, we are told.

This is the "pshat" - the simple story. In it Jacob appears to be a paranoid. Someone who simply cannot take "Yes" for an answer. He assumes, that because he had cheated his brother, that his brother would be forever angry with him. Even when his brother acts toward him in a perfectly brotherly way, saying in effect "let bygones be bygones, offering to travel and live together with Jacob, Jacob acts as if its all a trick. He avoids Esau like the plague. He treats him like the enemy. He can't accept that Esau might ever get over the harm Jacob did him. He assumes nothing can change, and that Esau must remain his eternal enemy.

In the Rabbinic imagination – the midrash – Esau, of course really IS evil. It all really IS a trick. What's more, Esau morphs into the eternal powerful Other – associated first with Rome and later the Catholic Church – cruel, powerful, eternal enemies of the children of Jacob. Thus Jacob was right to worry and scheme and to avoid Esau's faux offer of partnership.

But there is one Midrash that bucks this interpretation.

Genesis 32:23 tells us "[Jacob] rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two handmaids, and his eleven children, and passed over the ford of the Jabbok." – Eleven children? the rabbis ask. But at this point Jacob had twelve children: eleven sons and his daughter, Dina (Benjamin had not yet been born.)

Rather, according to this midrash, Jacob had hidden Dina in a large box, lest Esau be struck by her beauty and wish to take up with her (this was before uncle/niece relations were considered incest.) Thus, though Jacob had offered Esau many gifts, he denied to his brother what he truly valued.

Had Jacob allowed Esau to meet Dina, says the midrash, they would have indeed married, and her good ways would have softened and redeemed the evil Esau. Thus all the evils that befell Israel at the hands of the Roman's would have been avoided. But Jacob was consumed by his own fear, and by his possessiveness for Dina. And this fear and possessiveness has been the cause of so much Jewish suffering over the years.

And on a the personal level too, it was a tragedy for Dina, Jacob, and all their family. The next story in the Bible, is that of the rape of Dina at the hands of Chamor of Schem, and the ensuing slaughter of Schemites by Jacob's sons, an act that make the clan of Jacob unwelcome with the surrounding peoples. The midrash explicitly attributes all this as the punishment for Jacob's hiding of Dina from Esau.

I like this midrash very much. How much courage and faith it must have taken in the midst of the Roman oppression for one brave rabbi to say, perhaps our fear and cynicism are not always justified, perhaps sometimes one needs to test the "evil reality" to see if it might change, perhaps sometimes, by being optimistic and generous, we might indeed change our fearful reality into something better. If only we can see the opportunities, overcome our fears, and act bravely and smartly. Or, we can continue acting fearfully – as did Jacob - and assure our fears become self fulfilling.