Heart of the Matter

Heart of the Matter photo 2

A heartfelt look by Aaron B. Cohen at the great arc of life through the prism of its details.

Heart of the Matter

Hamas undermines Palestinians who want peace

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Visiting the beautiful new Palestinian city of Rawabi several weeks ago was deeply moving. There is a stunning example of something good happening to, for, and by Palestinians, despite the obstacles they face.

As a pro-Israel Jew, how could I be anything but pro-Palestinian, provided that means supporting an outcome to the conflict that enables my people and    theirs to live side-by-side in peace?

In the face of a seemingly intractable conflict, I met with Palestinian builders and dreamers who had invited me to see their dream struggling to come true. My heart went out to them, for they desire to coexist with Israel, not to eliminate the only Jewish state.

Under the green, black, red and white flag of Palestine, Rawabi represents a vision of a state that could be, should be, might be.

Will it be?

Days after leaving the region, the situation went from bad-the murder of Israeli teenagers and the revenge murder of a Palestinian teen-to worse, the deja vu nightmare of Hamas rockets raining on Israel, and Israeli raids on Gaza to stop them.

Under the leadership of Hamas, there is no Rawabi in Gaza. Palestinians like Rawabi developer Bashar Masri could do so much for their people in the God-forsaken Gaza Strip, but Hamas has other "developments" in mind, primarily a quixotic duel to the death with Israel.

What has Hamas invested in since its last confrontation with Israel, in November 2012? You guessed it: more powerful, longer range rockets with which to blanket not just southern Israel, but all of Israel.

What a travesty. What a shame.

Which leads me to the streets of Chicago. In recent days, local Palestinian, Arab and Muslim groups have organized anti-Israel demonstrations, where I saw much passion, anger, and pain. I also witnessed vitriol, hypocrisy and wild distortions.

To those Chicagoans who have lost innocent family members in the conflict with Israel, I offer condolences and regret. To those Chicagoans who demonize Israel, claim Israelis don't want peace, justify "resistance" (a code word for terrorism) and vilify Chicagoans like me for supporting Israel, I offer Rawabi-not so much the place itself but rather the place as metaphor for the Palestine that can come to be.

As the Gaza conflict rages on, forgive me for raising the quaint notion of peace. Sensible people on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide already know the outlines of a fair settlement to their dispute over the land. Issues like borders, water rights, security, and refugees have much-discussed-and viable-solutions. What's lacking is the will or the trust to implement those solutions, and both sides deserve some blame for that. 

Chicagoans of all kinds-Arab, Muslim, Jewish, pro-Israel, Protestant and Catholic-can help create that will, and thus increase the chances for peace. They can do this by rejecting distortion and demonization. Or, they can undermine the will for peace, with potentially lethal consequences for the people who actually live in the Middle East.

After spending time with Palestinians who are risking much to build a peaceful future, I feel more strongly than ever the need to support their vision. More strongly than ever do I also see the harm done by campaigns and demonstrations-occurring too many times during the past year on Chicago's campuses and on its streets-aimed to demonize and delegitimize Israel, and by extension undermine Palestinian patriots who want to find a way to coexist.

What to say in the wake of murder

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In the wake of the murders of Jewish and Arab teens in Israel, all I have to say is this:

 To all those who cry for revenge.

To all those who practice and endorse terrorism (the targeting of innocents).

To all those who make excuses for attacking innocents.

To all those who reject the concept of innocence.

To all those who hate in God’s name.

To all those who believe they are more sanctified than others.

To all those who fail to extend a hand in peace, even over the abyss of hatred.

Please find a gentle hobby.

Please distract yourselves from your grim thoughts and deeds.

Read a sweet novel. Bake bread. Play acoustic music.

Do something else so that others might live in peace.

Please understand.

Your triumphalism is but a sandcastle.

Grains of sand heaped near the tide.

It will wash away and be no more.

So meanwhile, let us live.

I am the Other.

I am the Other’s Other.

In this world we must find a way.

To love each Other.

If not us, who?

 If not now, when?

 

Kidnapping is a shot across the bow

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Chicagoans will hold a prayer vigil on Monday for three Israeli youths kidnapped in the West Bank last Friday by people who believe kidnapping minors and other forms of terrorism are legitimate way to “resist” Israel.

Desperate as the plight of these children might be, does it merit more, or more special, attention than that of hundreds of thousands of kids elsewhere in the world, from Nigeria to Pakistan, and from Syria to Iraq?

And what about the tens of thousands of Chicago kids who live in fear of intimidation and gun violence? Don't they deserve a vigil too?

Two reasons explain why Chicagoans will hold a vigil for Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel. First, any parent can relate to the trauma of having the most precious part of you wrenched away in an act of terror—just because they are Jewish. Jews around the world feel especially for these boys not because they are intrinsically more valuable than any other of God's other children. We feel this way, as members of an extended Jewish family, because Eyal, Gilad and Naftali are “our” boys. 

Second, this kidnapping—like the ongoing traumas in the other parts of the world I mentioned—does not exist in a vacuum. These conflicts, in terms of their motivations and their methods, are related. There are common points of reference to the religiously-inspired hatred, intolerance, delegitimization and dehumanization occurring in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Palestinian territory, places where peacemaking seems especially difficult.

In the volatile Middle East, forces beget forces; efforts beget consequences. Things do not go according to plan (and often there is no plan). Will and commitment give way to accommodation and appeasement. Negotiation gives way to confrontation. Stability gives way to chaos. Tectonic plates shift. Peace talks collapse. New interests align; new alliances emerge. Old enmities surge.

All this conflict feels remote unless it happens in the backyard of your cousin's house, which for us Jews figuratively and literally, is Israel. Then the conflict becomes personal. But not only that; it also hits us where our values live.

Israel, with its flaws, is a bastion of success and a beacon of liberal values in a part of the world where hatred, slaughter, and expulsion are no vestiges of the past. They happen today and will happen tomorrow on a scale that boggles the mind. The perpetrators are neither liberators nor freedom fighters, but rather ruthless fanatics, who murder, kidnap, rape, amputate limbs; kill, destroy, and annihilate anything or anyone who stands in their way or proclaims another way.

Chicagoans will attend the vigil not only because we empathize with the plight of the kidnapped students and their families. We also will come because we recognize this kidnapping as a shot across our bow, and as a test of our resolve.

I pray for the day when Israelis and Palestinians (and people of all religions and ethnicities) resolve their differences and live alongside one another in harmony and peace. Meanwhile, what to do about the killers and the haters. Perhaps the still, small voice will speak to us from the silence of a vigil.

Pre-Passover cleaning

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As we approach Passover, and prepare to read again from the Haggada, the "Telling" of the story of our people's transition from one situation to another, I return to my journals to remind myself where I was in my personal journey at points in the past. Here's a reflection from 10 years ago, during a Passover visit to a family member in New Mexico. I see now it's a mediation on cleaning house, and cleansing the spirit, before the holiday.

 April, 2004

 It's morning in Las Cruces, with the sun rising over the Organ mountains, and around me the essence of my relative's life: the home reflecting so much, even as the people who inhabit it sleep. The old cars and the antique cameras, the handmade woodcraft and the academic papers filled with mathematical theorems, the fading photos, the fraying around the edges of the whole construct and the fatiguing struggle to maintain it.

We build our lives around some essential outlook, which guides us as we spin our webs, create structures, and then at some point wither. There is a great need here to clean house, to clear away that which no longer serves a purpose, that is detritus, that is the crystallized echo of hopes and desires, aspirations and yearnings and ambitions, which no longer have momentum. The need is to take that stuff and simply discard it without ceremony, to note its passing but to fix the gaze not on how it all arrived, but on what might replace it. To be stuck, to be mired, to be a body beneath the accretion of sediment, to cling to it all with sentiment, believing in the kernel of unkempt truth that holds the key to the past, but may present an obstacle to the future--that is what we must overcome. 

A journey of (re)discovery

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What I learned on a recent visit to Israel, as recorded in my personal journal

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Next week, God willing, I'll return to Israel for the first time in five years, or maybe four? I've been to that tiny country that looms so large many times—enough it seems to have the exact time of my last visit dissolve into the vapors that swirl in my head and form the mist of memory.

Being in Israel, inhaling its air, eating the fruits of the land, rubbing shoulders on buses and cafes with the salt of its earth, has left no indelible marks on my body. But my mind has been irrevocably touched. Romanticism roars forth from my soul when I think of the piney scent of Israel's forests, of the play of lemon and garlic on my taste buds after each swipe of humus on pita, and when I feel the hot-blooded kiss of Hebrew on my lips and ears. 

I'm in love, smitten by the sensual images of a faraway place. You have to come closer to see that grime and dust, and stark cruelty coexist with bougainvillea and loving hearts. Heaps of stone, rock piles of history, narratives slathered one on top of the other like palimpsests trapped within riddles of their own making, I prepare for all of this to drive me mad. Each step, each encounter, each brush with meaning will register on my spiritual tableau. It is with no clean slate that I will enter that hallowed place next week. Inscribed within are words of ancient songs and tapestries of dreams. Strike the chord of yearning and stumble into the glaring light of human frailty; somewhere on those craggy cliffs lies the foundation stone. Somewhere it waits to be found. Next week I'll search for it again.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Just back last evening, and the visit was all that I expected per the previous entry. A bit less breathless, a tad less exhilarating, a touch more exhausting. I am 60 not 40 or 50, and the difference shows itself to me. It's not simply physical stamina that's somewhat diminished, it's also psychic absorptivity. I can soak up only so much feeling without encountering walls that have lost a measure of their elasticity and permeability.

It was magical to reconnect with Israel on the dirt-in-the-street level. Again, the place enchanted me; again it exhausted me. And it also surprised me. The level of building and development, even in the past four years; the seemingly good security situation internally; the feeling of being in a stable and sane Western country, rather than on a tipping point of Middle Eastern madness. Maybe all the problems that seemed so central and so vexing have paled in the face of the turn of the wheel of time. Maybe Israel has normalized.

The visit provided a new benchmark against which to gauge changes over a long time span, from my first impression as an eight-year old boy, to the first year I spent in Israel as a 19-year old student, to living there as a 26-year old young professional, to my many visits throughout the past two decades. The Israel I knew as a young man has disappeared, has been paved over and blurred by prosperity and growth, and the concrete that accompanies all that. Distance from the founding traumas and triumphs places a mask of distance and distortion between the great and pivotal events and turning points, and the current situation. I see all this in personal and symbolic terms—and must accept that “my” Israel—the one that I discovered when I was young—no longer is there in the way that it was. The huge and world-class visitors' center at Masada, with its McDonald's, has robbed the spot of its remoteness and exoticism. There will be no going back. Big Macs served at Masada challenges my notion of what is unique and special about Israel and the Jews.

Of course, it's a good sign that Big Macs are there, but also a signpost pointing to things that have been lost, and no longer can be as easily defined or even considered definitive. Maybe, and for this I pray, normalcy has come, and come to stay.

A time to build

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Construction cranes sprout from the Tel Aviv skyline like new shoots in a fertile field. Crumbling old buildings, which give the city its disheveled charm, get a fresh coat of paint or plaster, or fall to the wrecking ball. For a visitor like me, who hasn't been here in awhile, the changes are stunning to behold. Development is both blessing and curse; rebirth spells hope, even as the demise of the old leaves a pang in the heart.

On the road to Jerusalem yesterday, the motif continued. The two lane road I recall long ago gave way to four lanes, and soon there will be six. The Romans, master builders in their time, would have been impressed.

I wonder how Iran's peevish leaders feel. The audacity of the Jews to build and to grow—a needle in the ayatollah's eye. Iran's Syrian proxy Bashar Al Assad, smashes the life out of his erstwhile citizens, while over the border in the Jewish state it's build, build, build.

Hardly reason for Mr. Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, to have a nuclear tantrum. And if you have to destroy something, how about those uranium enrichment centrifuges? Kiss economic sanctions goodbye; embrace the ingenuity of the Jewish state. Don't opt for mutually assured destruction, assured growth could be yours by doing business with Israel.

It's sad to ponder so many lost dreams and shattered lives in the Middle East. For so many of the people beyond Israel's borders it's hard to think of goodness prevailing. And for the Jewish people within Israel and outside, it's unimaginable to think of anything but good arising.

That was the message delivered today by Israel's President, the venerable and wise Shimon Peres. “Logic has a limit, but not courage,” he told the assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, meeting here in Jerusalem. “The greatest treasure in life is the human being,” he said.

And so the construction cranes dot the skyline, in Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem, and all over the Jewish state. Under them new apartment buildings arise.

Reflecting on the founding of the state, Peres said, “We answered the call of the time.”

Then as now, the call of the time must be to build, not to destroy. May others in this part of the world, where destruction spreads like an infection, come to see building, not killing, as the call of the time as well.

Listen to Aaron read the piece on our JUF News podcast page.

'A generation goes and a generation comes...'

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The generation of kids who fought World War II has been on my mind. Their herd is thinning. 

Funerals and shivas are coming fast now. I stand at attention and salute them, those kids raised in hardship in the Great Depression. Immigrant kids and kids of immigrants. Nothing guaranteed. No “entitlement” in the dictionary. No easy path.

Struggle, hardship, war, jitterbug, swing and the GI Bill. Out of all that they created the most prosperous and cohesive Jewish America ever.

Applaud them as they take their bow, applaud them.  Keep them on stage to bask in our cheers as long as possible. May they smile with pride. May their eyes twinkle in our praise.

“A generation goes and a generation comes” (Ecclesiastes 1:4). “The great conveyor belt,” my mother, of blessed memory, called it.

Soon I will be called to take the place of those who came before me, as my children step down the line to occupy the place I held when I started my career and family.

With each passing of a member of the greatest generation, I grow ever more conscious of time's bewildering expanse, as well as of its sleight of hand, and of its treachery. Such a small slice is ours to experience; such a vast realm is ours to contemplate. 

Erev Yom Kippur, at Kol Nidre, we learned of the death of Julia Fishelson, a “grande dame” (as her daughter-in-law called her) who figured prominently in my wife's family as a friend and even a role mode. Julia was a major philanthropist to liberal, women's and Jewish causes; to her hometown of Wooster, Ohio; and to the arts, especially in her beloved second home of New Orleans, where we were fortunate to spend time with her. 

“If she didn't have a great time, I don't know who the hell would,” her son Nick said in her eulogy. 

We were lucky to be in Wooster for Julia's funeral, and to attend it with my father-in-law, Albert, now 89. “I'm now the oldest member of this congregation,” he noted wryly at Ne'ila the previous day.

“Adonai gives, and Adonai takes away” (Job 1:21). How laden with meaning and portent it was to stand in the Jewish section of the cemetery with the elders of that small-town Jewish community; to contemplate the going and the coming, the giving and the taking; to consider my own movement on that great, unidirectional conveyor belt.

My parents and their peers were scrappy fighters and survivors, men and women who mastered their own destiny at great effort and sacrifice, who gave to my generation every privilege and opportunity, and who, thank God, in the main, have enjoyed unprecedented longevity.

Each one of them who passes takes a piece of my heart, and fills me with desire to pass on their tales. I will leave that for another time.
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