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.

Advertisements

Why Purim is not Jewish Halloween

Ha’aretz 2/24/13

The commandment to get intoxicated on Purim and the tradition of fancy dress have led many Jews to treat the holiday as a “Jewish Halloween”, while glossing over its real message and relevance today. Purim, while it appears boorish from the outside, is actually a festival of great philosophical significance.

At its essence, Purim is about how Judaism views spirituality. Unlike many other religions, Judaism believes that true holiness is found by fusing normal earthly acts with holiness. It is not a religion that honors those who remove themselves from everyday life to concentrate on the holy: our rabbis are expected to be married, and we mark holy days with meat and wine rather then deny ourselves of such earthly pleasures.

Purim is the zenith of this concept. In the Book of Ester, G-d’s name is famously absent. Yet the entire story is seen as G-d acting through these mundane events and lays out how we should expect to experience G-d in the modern era.

Through festive meals, drinking, charity and telling the story of Purim, the Megillat Esther, we mark how Jewish holiness comes from the way we inject spirituality into our surroundings, rather than removing ourselves from that physical reality – via asceticism – in order to reach a high level of spirituality.

This of course is not an excuse for drunken brawls or tomfoolery, as one of my rabbis used to say. The message of Purim that he preached was that one should work on himself for the 364 days leading up to Purim so that the person he presents to the world on Purim is one who can celebrate excess as a mensch.

Today, Purim is often overused as a festival in political circles. With Megillat Esther’s Persian setting, it has been used as a frame of reference for those who wish to highlight the seriousness of Israel’s concerns about the intentions of the current Iranian regime. So many of us have been fixated on updating the story of Purim to today’s geopolitics that its spiritual message on our own understanding of religious practice has been neglected.

For far too many of us, Jewish practice is restricted to acts of worship that take place in the synagogue alone. We abscond from infusing our normal life with Jewish meaning, seeing that as the domain of the ultra-Orthodox alone.

Fundamentally, this is not the case. Judaism belongs to every aspect of our lives and by celebrating it we demonstrate our ownership of it. This was exemplified recently by MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid), whose maiden speech to the Knesset went viral through its thoughtful Talmudic reasoning and message of unity.

For me, the most important part of Purim is its end. The majority of Jewish holy days – be it Shabbat or a festival – end with Havdalah, a religious service that marks the separation between the end of the holy day and the start of the week. For Purim, there is no Havdalah; Purim never ends. Its message is supposed to stick with us all year round.