Friday, August 07, 2009

Summer Reading

I will be on vacation, and then on an overseas business trip, so I don't think I will get much blogging done in the next month.

But since you have come to look at my site, I don't want you to leave empty handed. So let me leave you with a bit of "summer reading" to do - good stuff on other blogs, some emails I received, and a good book - until I get back.

First you could read several good postings about the recent eviction of Palestinians from homes in East Jerusalem's Sheik Jarah neighbourhood. The underlying issue here, more than most similar cases, is the discriminatory nature of the Israeli legal and administrative systems: one set of procedures and laws for Jews and one for Palestineans. This is brought sharply into focus in this case, because, according to Israel, East Jerusalem is part of Israel 'de jure' and thus subject to full Israeli law.

Start by reading some background stories from the The Jerusalem Post on July 26, ISM July on 28, and The Jerusalem Post on Aug 2.

And now for some analysis, read stories from The Magnes Zionist on August 3, The Magnes Zionist on August 3 (watch the video on that one), and Haaretz on August 6.

Second, you can read the statment below, from artist Toronto Jewish artist Reena Katz. This is a follow up on to Toronto's Koffler Centre for the Arts withdrawing support for an art project of Ms. Katz because of her perceived anti-Israel activities. I blogged about the original incident here.

And here is a statement issued by Ms Katz, earlier this week:

We are pleased to update you regarding the status of Katz’s performative project in Kensington Market, each hand as they are called:

As many of you know, The Koffler Centre for the Arts dissociated from Katz and the commissioned project in early May, 2009 because of her political work for Palestinian human rights, and subsequently sent a defamatory press release across the country, falsely claiming that Katz supports the extinction of the State of Israel. Since late May, we have been in legal negotiations with the Koffler about moving forward with the project and we have now reached an agreement. While the specific terms of this agreement are confidential, we are happy to continue discussions about our experience and understanding of the Koffler “dissociation” as well as the project itself.

Simultaneously but independent of our legal negotiations, the Toronto Arts Council(TAC) Board ofDirectors has been involved in internal discussion, as well as in consultation with the Koffler about their decision to dissociate as well as their professional and ethical conduct. The TAC has determined that the Koffler was in violation of the City of Toronto’s non-discrimination policy regarding an individual’s right to freedom of political association. As it is not TAC general policy to release public statements regarding such matters, for a more detailed statement regarding the decision, the TAC invites you to contact Executive Director Claire Hopkinson directly at

It is our understanding that while the TAC will not be withholding funding from the Koffler, they have approached this situation in a productive gesture of stewardship.

This includes working nonpunitively with Koffler around issues of anti-discrimination policy development, transparency of mandate, curatorial and board structure, as well as accountability and eligibility where public funds are concerned. We are heartened by the TAC’s official acknowledgement that Koffler violated Katz’s right to freedom of association, and by extension violated one of the terms of the City of Toronto’s public funding. We are sincerely encouraged and hopeful about the TAC’s strategies for addressing this matter.

Finally, we are thrilled to announce that we will soon share details about the presentation of a revised version of each hand as they are called, to be presented in Kensington in the fall of 2009.

We consider this presentation a positive outcome of a very difficult situation, and look forward to seeing you at the exhibition. We also encourage continued personal and public dialogue around Israel/Palestine and the role of cultural institutions in relation to discussion and dissent. The events of these last few months have embodied the extreme need for such dialogue in all our intersecting communities, and we are deeply thankful for the threads of discussion arising from the support, suggestions, and questions you have offered.

Please contact us for further information on each hand as they are called, and check out our website for continued regular updates.

Reena Katz, artist
Kim Simon, curator

There is a delicious irony, in my opinion, at the thought of the Koffler Centre executives having to undergo "sensitivity training" by the TAC. (... "working nonpunitively with Koffler around issues of anti-discrimination policy development, ...") Now if we could just extend this to a few more of the Toronto Jewish Establishment!

Third, you might want an update on the Quebec court case, where the Village of Bilin in the West Bank is suing a Canadian company for aiding and participating in the confiscation of Palestinan lands and the building of Jewish only settlements. (Read the back story here.)

While I have no news of the actual court case, turns out that this action must have hit some hot buttons in Israel. I received this notice yesterday via email:

A solidarity rally for Bil’in village has been called in Montreal to protest the recent arrest of Palestinian activist Mohammad Khatib and the ongoing nighttime raids on Bil’in being carried out by the Israeli military.

In the early morning hours on Monday, Israeli military forces wearing combat paint and masks invaded the West Bank village of Bil’in. Israeli soldiers raided several homes, arresting two Palestinian children and five Palestinians adults including Mohammad Khatib from the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements.

In June 2009 Mohammed Khatib traveled to Canada for the preliminary hearings in a historic lawsuit launched by Bil’in village against two Quebec-based companies, Green Park International and Green Mount International, both involved in constructing illegal Israeli-only settlements on the lands of the Palestinian village of Bil’in.Palestinian activist Mohammed Khatib also spoke to Canada’s major media outlets and public in eleven Canadian cities with Emily Schaeffer, an Israeli lawyer representing the village of Bil’in, connecting with hundreds of people across Canada.

At present time Mohammed Khatib remains in Israeli custody although no charges have been brought against Khatib or the other Palestinians arrested, including the children.“Mohmmad Khatib and Adib Abu Rahme along with other leaders of the Palestinian popular struggle are being targeted because they mobilize Palestinians to resist non-violently,” outlines Abdullah Abu Rahme, coordinator of Bil’in’s popular committee, “the fact is that the Apartheid Wall and the settlements built on Palestinian land are illegal under international law. In the case of our village even the biased Israeli court declared the route illegal, yet Israel is prosecuting us as
criminals because we struggle non-violently for our freedom.”

Monday’s night-time raid is another in a series of many that Israeli forces have carried out in Bil’in since June 2009, raids that commenced in tandem to the commencement of legal proceedings in Canada.Israeli forces have arrested 25 people from Bil’in village in the last month, most under 18 years of age. Israeli forces have been using interrogation techniques to pressure the arrested youth to give statements against Bil’in community leaders.

Forth, you can read my old friend J.J. Goldberg's article on splits within the "National Religious Camp" in Israel. (The good news , there are still a few "Moderns" left.)

Fifth, I highly recommend Amos Oz' memoir of childhood in 1940s Jerusalem: A Tale of Love and Darkness. The politics and personal in a delicious bittersweet mix.

Lastly, if you don't already do so, you might want to amuse, inflame and/or inform yourself by reading some of my favorite blogs - listed in the right hand column of this blog page.

"See you" in a few weeks.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Contradictory Impulses in Light of Scandal

The Orthodox Jewish community is having contradictory impulses in light of the latest scandal: the New Jersey corruption probe that snagged several Orthodox Rabbis in money laundering and tax evasion, and another orthodox Jew in a long standing racket to sell human organs for transplants. Pictures. like the one above, have prompted strong reactions.

On the one hand we have the typical defensive and insular responses. The Israeli Sephardi Orthodox party Shas, downplayed the significance of the crimes and blamed the whole thing on antisemitism. "FBI Sting Motivated by Antisemitism" reads the headline in their party newspaper. Similarly, and more shockingly, the father of the main FBI informant, Solomon Dwek, is sitting shiva for his son. According to the elder Dwek - a prominent rabbi himself, the major sin in this case was not the money laundering nor the trade in human organs, but the shame the incident has brought in the Jewish people (and the "God fearing" segment of the Jewish people in particular.) And the person who is primarily responsible for that are not those who committed the crimes - corrupt rabbis and greedy businessmen, but those - his son in particular - who cooperated with the secular (and goyish) authorities to expose these crimes. "Stoolie Dead to his Daddy" reads the headline in the New York Post.

The elder Rabbi Dwek, went so far as delivering a blistering speech at a public gathering, in which he denounced the actions of any Jew being an informant against fellow Jews, and requested the community’s prayers for him in a time of suffering. And then, as if to underline the point, the elder Dwek taught a class together with one of the men caught in his son’s sting. Apparently neither Rabbi Dwek nor his followers saw the irony of giving such a lesson in their synagogue, pictured to the right. The inscription over the door reads "This is the gate to God, the righteous shall enter."

On the other hand, we have some long needed soul searching.

In an article from The Forward, echoed in other media, some rabbis have been admitting that the fault may indeed be with the accused, and more significantly that the whole insular (narrow and self absorbed, others may claim) Orthodox lifestyle may be partly to blame.

“It has been an awful week, and an awful few months, and that places a growing obligation on us to change the direction" says Daniel Feldman, a rabbi at Yeshiva University.

Yair Hoffman, a Long Island Haredi Rabbi offered: “We’ve got to re-conceive our relationship to the country we’re in. This is a beautiful country. Its laws are proper laws that are designed to help its citizenry, and we’re not dealing with a situation where Jews are necessarily the underdog — a situation that at times can contribute to a mindset of, ‘Let’s not necessarily observe the law.’”

The same Rabbi, writing on an ultra-Orthodox web site observed: "The fault may partially lie with us and our system of education."

Perhaps most significantly, Rabbi David Zwiebel, head of the main ultra-Orthodox umbrella organization, Agudath Israel, speaking at a public meeting said: “There are a lot of benefits of insulating oneself from the broader culture around us, as we do. But one of the costs of insularity is perhaps a lack of appreciation of the importance of compliance with secular law. That is a message that is important for people to hear.”

Why is any of this important to the majority of liberal or secular North American Jews?

Because, sadly in my opinion, ultra Orthodox Jewry has a disproportionate influence on the rest of world Jewry. Most of the Jewish community spends too much time looking over its right shoulder to assure itself of its own authenticity. The modern Orthodox, look to the Ultras; the Conservatives to the modern Orthodox; the Reform to the Conservatives; etc etc.

As a fabrente Reconstructionist, who believes that "living in two civilizations" (well actually more than two) is not only a matter of practical necessity but also a positive value to be pursued, these baby steps on the Jewish right are a welcome sign. Lets hope they grow into a major shift in attitude, and are not overwhelmed by the more traditional voices of the elder Rabbi Dwek and his allies.