Shortcut Thinking

Linda Epstein

Linda Epstein, an Israeli living in Jerusalem, explores questions we need to ask ourselves from time to time.

Shortcut Thinking

Here and there: Shalom U’Lehitra’ot

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This is my final blog as JUF/JF's Israel Office Director after 17 years on the job. It has been a wonderful professional period for me. The challenges and the satisfaction have both been remarkable.

I was here in 1995 to help with then-Cardinal Joseph Bernadin's visit to Israel (at the time, the highest ranking Roman Catholic ever to have visited the country); I was here to help through the period of the Second Intifada, the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead, rockets raining down on Sderot and throughout the south of Israel - that is, throughout JUF's remarkable response via both the first and second Israel Emergency Campaigns.

And I have been part of the day-to-day involvements of JUF in Israel as well-the enduring and deeply entrenched care which the Jews of Chicago have evidenced year in and year out, despite their own challenges, in particular since the financial downturn which began in 2008.

If there has been one weakness, it pertains to Jews on both sides of the ocean. There's a seriously insufficient depth of knowledge of 'the other' - Jews in Chicago by and large don't know enough about the realities of life in Israel; and Israeli Jews don't know enough about the realities of being Jewish in Chicago.

The irony of course is that with modern technology, there's greater access to information than ever before. Yet information is not knowledge, and it certainly is no replacement for direct human interaction between Chicago Jewry and Israeli Jewry.

And even if the Chicagoans speak Hebrew and the Israelis speak English, it doesn't mean they speak a common language.

Why do Israeli politicians make some of the decisions they do which seem to fly in the face of what Jewish Americans think makes sense? Why do Jewish Americans often know the words of Christmas carols even if they have a strong personal Jewish identity? A case in point indicating the misunderstandings was the recent campaign Israel's Ministry of Immigrant Absorption undertook to encourage Israelis living in the US to return to Israel. The ad campaign was quickly stopped when it became clear that American Jews found it offensive to their way of life.

To appreciate the substance of each other's worlds, to more fully appreciate the need to sustain the thread which has connected this unique peoplehood over 4,000 years, there have to be more face-to-face interactions-honest ones; open ones. Such opportunities to exchange ideas about what it means to be Jewish in each other's contexts require the infrastructure to facilitate this. Yet the infrastructure exists; it's just underutilized.

Birthright brings Americans to Israel for 10-day visits and puts Israelis on the buses with them; the Jewish Agency for Israel supports a program called MASA, which creates longer-term opportunities for Jews from around the world to spend 6-12 months in Israel; JAFI (The Jewish Agency for Israel) is also now developing programs for durations which fall between the 10 days and the 6-month programs. JDC (the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) has a program for Jews from around the world to participate in 'tikkun olam' in developing countries, albeit without Israelis.

All of these programs are focused on helping Jews in the Diaspora understand Israel or be part of a world larger than themselves; they do not relate to Israeli Jews understanding the Diaspora.

There is only one program which consistently does that - Partnership2Gether (formerly Partnership 2000). Chicago has carefully built relations with her partnered communities of Kiryat Gat, Lachish and Shafir over the last 16 years.

Numerable Chicagoans visit the region and spend time with their peers (1,300 alone in 2010), while Israelis from the Region visit Chicago in a myriad of programs, including school connections, summer camps, professional exchanges. And for the last few years, school students, teens on summer programs and Jewish Chicagoans 65+ have been coming to Israel while Israelis from the P2 Region travel with them throughout Israel or have them meet their families in their own homes.

And it's still just a drop in the bucket. We can-and should-do more. It teaches Chicagoan Jews about what it means to be an Israeli Jew; and it teaches Israeli Jews on what it means to live in the Diaspora and to maintain a deep connection to their Judaism. And more often than not, the participants maintain personal connections for years after the personal encounter.

Part of my role in representing JUF/JF in Israel has been to help bridge the cultural divides. In the 17 years I have been doing this, I have not encountered any other program which provides such long-lasting substantive opportunities to learn one from the other, to work towards the common goal of maintaining the warp and woof of the weave which gives world Jewry its raison d'etre to continue to call itself a 'people'.

Thank you for the opportunities you have provided me, and good luck to us all.

Big issues

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Israel rejoiced with the return home of Gilad Shalit, a young man who had been kidnapped by Hamas as he patrolled Israel's border opposite the Gaza Strip. Yet there was more than a tinge of worry and no small amount of bitterness that over 1,000 Palestinians were released in exchange, many of whom were behind bars because they had decided to kill Israelis and had actually gone about doing something about it. The Shalit family never forgot for a moment that the victims of these killers are part of their family as well—the family of Israel.

Not three weeks later, the media is filled with a discussion of the pros and cons of a possible Israeli strike of Iran's military nuclear facilities.

There are nearly 200 countries in the world today. The only one which is targeted to be destroyed is Israel, both literally (Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad: "As the Imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map," as Iran comes close to finalizing the creation of its nuclear bombs); and figuratively (per Professor Robert S. Wistrich:"It was perhaps all too appropriate that the keynote speaker for Durban II in Geneva (held on April 20, 2009) was none other than the world's leading Holocaust denier, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By some macabre coincidence he spoke at the UN podium on Hitler's 120th birthday, which also coincided with Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel. Brazenly abusing the misplaced honor he had been given, Ahmadinejad once again vilified Israel as a "totally racist state," endlessly ranting on about the "Zionist racist perpetrators of genocide.. . .") 

How can one prove that you are not what you are accused of? How can one prove a negative? It's a near impossibility, particularly when intellectual integrity and open-mindedness are rare, and the sound-bite, instant gratification, and twitters are what pass for dialogue these days.

I have traveled to over 90 countries so far, yet never have I encountered the kind of existential questionson an ongoing basiswhich living in Israel demands. Is a strike right or wrong? How many murderers should be released to obtain the return of one citizen? How does one determine the 'value' of one human life? In seeking answers, the constant questions often swirl around "short-term versus long-term" needs and consequences. And they themselves give rise to other questions. Should the decisions be only in the hands of the duly elected representatives of the people? Or should they be put to referenda?

There are no rules for answering these questions; there aren't even any guidelines. There's the rule of law; there are even the rules of international law (as outmoded as many of them are); there are no international laws relating to libel and slander. And there are no rules at all when it comes to the national psyche and what is the best way to ensure a healthy future for a country.

All we can do is our best. No guarantees we are always right, but I know that my friends and I do our parts. Do you?

Vigilant / Vigilante

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The comparison between these words struck me today, less than 24 hours after the end of Yom Kippur, upon hearing of the so-called price tag attacks on Muslim and Christian cemeteries in Jaffa (technically part of the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa).  This comes upon the heels of the torching of a mosque in Israel.

The term ‘price tag’ has recently been applied by extremist Jewish groups in Israel, whom I hastily add are relatively small in number, as the cost others will pay for not agreeing with their interpretation of justice for the Jewish community. 

Who are these people?  And how did Israeli society produce them?  This second question assumes they are Israelis who were raised here, and the likelihood is great that this assumption is so, albeit not yet proven.

The population groups which inhabit the land stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River tend to live in bubbles.  I doubt it was anyone’s grand plan to create bubbles of population groups. They just grew. 

Spending time only with those who think the way you do or who always agree with you reduces the need to exercise the brain, not to mention restraint.

So what were the perpetrators of these despicable acts trying to accomplish?  Their slogan of ‘price tag’ seems to suggest it was revenge; but revenge for what?  That’s not at all clear.  And does this also mean that the perpetrators are not prepared to give credence to Israel’s justice system—either for the real or perceived injustice?  Are they simply thumbing their noses at the entire system?

I suggest we all stay vigilant.  Use your ‘eyes’ and not your ‘e’s.

Thoughts on the minority/majority struggle

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Growing up in small city Canada, the Jewish population was not much bigger than a large kibbutz. Living in Israel for over 28 years, with the Jewish population representing upwards of 75 percent of the citizens, this question has often crossed my mind: what are the effects upon the members of Jewish community when you are a member of a minority group and what are they when you are part of the majority?

As a child, I experienced discrimination due to my being Jewish—both from individuals and from institutions. The most popular ‘country club’ of the day did not admit Jews or African-Canadians (then termed 'blacks'), although my father and his insistence on justice brought us to become the first Jewish family to break the barrier. Dad also started the first non-denominational golf club in the area after being refused entry to another due to his being Jewish (and he was a WWII prisoner-of-war) and after an ex-Luftwaffe officer had been accepted into that other club.

Today's Canada and U.S. are very different. Anti-Semitism is against the law, thankfully. Yet I sometimes encounter Jews visiting Israel from North America and find myself eavesdropping on conversations when they suddenly 'whisper' the word Jew in the middle of a sentence. That is, some are still self-conscious about publicly acknowledging their Jewishness.

By the same token, Israeli Jews—even though many born and raised in primarily non-Jewish countries—don't always hear themselves when they speak of "the Arabs." Terminology in Israel isn't easy—we are the People of Israel (Am Yisrael) and we are the State of Israel (with nearly 25 percent of the citizens Arab). And the countries surrounding Israel are populated with Arabs, by and large. To my mind, this is precisely the reason that collective nouns should not be used. Who are "the Arabs" to which such speakers refer? Who are "the Jews?"

Being a member of a minority group is never easy. I remember a woman from Los Angeles who is a member of a visible minority group asking once, "why do the Jews need their own word for discrimination [Note: anti-Semitism] when other minority groups just suffer from discrimination? Isn’t that good enough?" Yet for all minority group members, when one lives in a democracy in the 21st century, life is a lot easier than it used to be. What seems to have become harder is being a member of a majority group, which isn't surprising since for centuries the majorities could pretty much do what they wanted.

So here we are—majorities and minorities, all of whom have rights and duties vis a vis each other. And precisely in time for the world's tribes to begin moving away from unification and integration and back to their own isolationism. Is something missing from this picture?

Democracies

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"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." - Winston Churchill 

The system of government known as 'democracies' takes many forms. The U.S. is a presidential system; Israel, along with Canada and most European countries, is parliamentary. The beauty and the challenge of all democratic systems of government is the never-ending struggle for a balance between the rights of the individual versus the benefits to society as a whole - and none of them, as Churchill noted, is perfect.

In 1970, members of the Front de Liberation du Quebec - an organization which sought independence for Quebec from Canada - kidnapped two people. When one was found murdered, habeas corpus was suspended for the entire country while a search was undertaken for the other person. Was the benefit to society worth trampling on the rights of individuals?

Since 9/11, every person who travels by plane in the U.S. has to undergo searches at airports - which might even be considered a form of 'collective punishment'. 'Benefits to society' trumps 'rights of the individuals'?

In Israel, a country which has seen countless kidnappings, fire bombings, rocket attacks on civilians, assassinations, and all-out wars, the never-ending struggle for balance seems, on the whole, to do reasonably well. Is it perfect? Not a chance! Room for improvement? You bet! But the balance is always in flux. As with all democracies, we must always fulfill our civic duty of keeping an eye out and speak up when there's evidence of moving too far in one direction or the other.

That is why democracies have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, elections, etc. We all have that constant struggle within ourselves as well - benefits to ourselves versus duties to the society as a whole. It's worth some thought.

Shorthand

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Ever wonder about the word 'shorthand?' It's meant to suggest an abbreviated way to convey information. When the term was coined, the implication was for a stenographer to reduce to squiggles the precise words a person spoke. Today, shorthand is really a way to condense ideas. Ideas and thoughts are complex. Philosophers have written entire books on the possible interpretations of one brief idea. One example of such an idea which deserves an entire book—ask yourself—'What is intellectual integrity?'

We all like to think we are honest with ourselves. Sadly, this is often not so. When it comes to the issue of Israel and its 'place among the nations,' intellectual integrity is blatantly lacking. Israel is not a perfect place; but show me a country which is. I often say, "there's not a government in the world with which I fully agree."

The story of this land and its peoples (note the plural) is not just complicated; it's also complex. When in Italy last spring, I met someone who told me—in no uncertain terms—that Zionism was created in order for the Jews to steal the land from the Palestinians. If "the Jews" were really going to steal a land from anyone, why pick a place so desolate and bereft of natural resources?

Do yourselves a favor and read some history. Not just one book; but lots of them. And lots of them from different perspectives. And think about what you read. And then ask yourself: how do you turn this complex story of two peoples into a soundbite (today's shorthand). And are you one of those few in the world who strives for intellectual integrity?

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