Passover in the Shadow of a Gunman

4/14/14 This post first appeared in Haaretz

The article I planned on writing revolved around the Golden Age of television we are now experiencing. I was going to write specifically about how Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews and Neil DeGrass Tyson’s Cosmos have had huge emotional effects on me.

I was going to comment on how Schama’s show is a work of staggering achievement that manages to make the Jewish experience accessible to everyone. My plan was to contrast this with the universal majesty of Cosmos, a series that depicts the history of our universe. The tension between the particularism of the story of the Jews and the grandeur of the Cosmos is a theme baked into the Passover Seder, as we struggle between these different concepts.

I was going to finish the article by comparing this tension to that found within the writings of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, whose work “The Lonely Man of Faith” speaks to the tension of the Jewish condition as one between majestic man and covenantal man. This tension between the awesomeness of being created in the image of G-d and simultaneously being created from the dust of the earth.

I was going to remark that there is no synthesis between the particularism of Jewish Peoplehood and our Universalist values. That we have to expect to continue to struggle through the challenge of what it means to be Jewish today.

Yet as I sat down to write this blog, three people were killed in a shooting at the Jewish Community Center and a Jewish assisted living center in Kansas City. Here in the most integrated, comfortable and successful Jewish community in the history of the world, peoplewere targeted and killed because they were Jews.

This is not supposed to happen. Yet it still does. Hate finds a way forth and Jews are killed because they are Jews.Kids and pensioners both targeted and killed. Young and old gunned down due to this hate.

One can look at Jewish history and know that the line from the Haggadah “In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us,” is true.

Yet what should our response to this be? We are within our rights to be hostile to the outside world, to close ourselves off and be suspicious of all those around us. Yet by doing so we would be failing in our duty to be an or l’goyim (a light onto nations.)

Being Jewish is not easy. We need to be able to deal with the tensions that our traditions demand from us. We need to understand our own particularism while being open to the universalism of the world around us. Sadly, even today, there are those who rise up to destroy us, but we cannot allow them to destroy our way of life.

Our resilience is shown by not withdrawing from the world and enclosing ourselves in the comfort of our particularism. Nor is it found in assimilating into the universalism of all of that around us. Rather, our quest to demonstrate what it means to live as a happy and free people, celebrating our traditions and impacting those around us, is found in balancing the wonder of the cosmos and the glory of our rich history together.

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KKK costumes and an incompetent city near Jerusalem

3/31/14 This post first appeared in Haaretz 

Costume parties have a long history of going disastrously wrong. From Prince Harry dressing as a Nazi to a Brooklyn assemblyman going blackface for Purim, those who feel their outfits are pushing the limit are best to err on the side of caution. This is especially the case in today’s social media age, when a picture can fly around the world in just a few minutes.

This year, the award for the most offensive costume goes to 17 students from the Harel High School in Mevasseret Tzion, near Jerusalem, who dressed up as KKK members and created a whole tableau. They even marched in their local Purim parade right past an absorption center that houses some 1,100 Ethiopian olim.

The Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel saw these pictures and reached out to Jeremy Saltan (Habayit Hayehudi), a member of Mevasseret Tzion’s Immigrant Absorption Committee.

Saltan publicly decried the incident and promised to bring the issue to the committee’s attention. Indeed on March 26, he brought a motion to the committee, condemning the incident and stating that there is no place for racism in the city. The motion also stated that educational lessons should be drawn from this incident so that nothing like it ever happens again.

It is here that this issue stopped being about uneducated, ignorant schoolchildren who do something racist and horrid, and started being about a major systemic failure.

Mevasseret Tzion is a pretty secular place, judging by the 2013 election results. Those results show that 52 percent of the city voted for centrist parties Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz, Hatnuah and Kadima, while 26 percent voted for Likud. These are mainstream Israelis.

This is also a city in which there is a large absorption center for Ethiopian olim.
Given the nature of the city and its constituency, one would expect Saltan’s resolution to pass pretty unanimously. It flopped. Only Saltan, who proposed the motion, voted for it, while every other member of the Immigrant Absorption Committee voted against it.

Not only could the council not find it within their wisdom to condemn this act, the Harel High School felt it was appropriate to include these students’ costumes on their official Purim Flickr stream.

The principle of the school, Rina Even Tov, when questioned about the costumes saw no reason to reprimand the students. KKK, Pol Pot, she has no problem with Nazi costumes either: “There would be no difference if it was a Nazi costume.” Yes one can imagine the silence of elected officials if there were students parading as Nazis in the streets of Israel. I think not.

Kids can be stupid and offensive the world over and things like this happen with some regularity. But what normally happens is that the perpetrators of unacceptable acts get educated and learn their lesson. When a school and a city can’t see what is wrong with 17 kids dressing up like members of the KKK and parading through the streets of Israel, the entire educational system is broken.

Shame on the council members that serve on the city’s Immigrant Absorption Committee who voted against the measure and shame on the Harel High School for adding these pictures to their official website.

We are taught that kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. If the members of Mevasseret Tzion are absent in their educational duties, we as a people have a duty to step in. The students should be forced to apologize and go through some serious anti-racism education. For that matter, the city council should, too.