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

A Muslim friend is visiting Israel

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A Muslim friend who leads a Chicago-based civic organization is heading to Israel next month to participate in a leadership program at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jerusalem education and thought center that serves as a beacon in many facets of Jewish life.

The goal of Hartman’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) “is to empower an elite group of emerging and religious and intellectual leaders—including university chaplains, journalists, academics, and cultural figures—to influence the North American Muslim community in reassessing its preconceived notions of Judaism and Israel.”

 God bless Imam Abdullah Antepli, Muslim chaplain at Duke University, and Yossi Klein Halevi, Israeli journalist, author and educator, who co-lead the Institute, which enables Muslims to learn how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and themselves. Having participated in a trip to Turkey organized by my Muslim friend, I know the value of such interfaith experiences.

In Turkey I witnessed how our hosts—leading business people, journalists, academics, and others—perceive their Muslim faith and its role in their public and personal lives. My preconceived notions were demolished, and my ignorance displaced with substantive content and nuance. Leading Muslims from North America certainly will have a similar experience vis a vis Jews, Judaism and Israel.

 My friend’s visit to Israel couldn’t come at a worse—or a better—time. Worse, in that following last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas, the well of Muslim-Jewish relations in North America is teeming with toxins: a Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is far from resolution; growing international terrorism committed in the name of Islam; radicalized, disaffected youth, who are a grave concern to Muslim communities as well as to others—the list of problems is large and increasing.

 Perversely, these factors also make this Muslim journey to Israel auspicious. Our society stands to lose if Jews, Muslims, and Christians fail to partner in order to counter the very forces that threaten us all. Everyone who wishes to coexist harmoniously, let alone celebrate our collective diversity, must refuse to surrender to the very forces that threaten our common values. For Muslims to travel to Israel to learn about Judaism, and for Jews to engage similarly with Muslims and Islam, are essential acts of good faith. These courageous acts fly in the face of those who preach intolerance; ultimately, I pray, these acts will defeat those forces of intolerance, dissolving them in a sea of brotherly and sisterly love.

 My Muslim friend and his fellow travelers are brave to travel to Israel; surely there are those who will consider their educational visit as some kind of betrayal. Nonsense, I say; only through mutual understanding can we build the kind of future worth living in.

Can Chicago Muslims and Jews engage with mutual respect?

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As the shooting war between Israel and Hamas winds down, Israelis and Palestinians need to rethink how to create a hopeful future for their peoples. Demonization, enmity and bloodshed are not viable options. With the encouragement and support of governments and people of goodwill-including their supporters in Chicago-Israelis and Palestinians can find a path to coexistence.

Chicago-area supporters of Israel and of Palestine need to ask ourselves, can we come to stand on the same side--the side of peace and development--in the aftermath of this summer's war? Can the hurling of insults, the charges of genocide and racism, the free use of Nazi imagery to characterize Jews and Israelis, and the incipient embers of Islamophobia, give way to constructive engagement and respectful discourse?

The fury on Chicago's streets and in its blogospheres has been palpable and alarming this summer. Muslim and Jewish community leaders, together with partners of good faith from across the spectrum in Chicago, need to work together to ensure that the snares that trap ordinary people in the Middle East are not set here by those who put hatred before humanity, hubris before humility, and demonization before decency.

As a pro-Israel Jew, I ask of pro-Palestinians, must our local campuses again roil with anti-Israel stunts-such as disrupting speakers and ramming through divestment measures-designed to intimidate Jewish students? Must self-proclaimed "progressives" expropriate words like "justice," "freedom," and "apartheid" to lend tacit support to virulently anti-progressive movements like Hamas?

For the peoples of the Middle East, nothing good will come from these demonization strategies, and surely nothing good will come from them here at home.

For the sake of all people, let us turn that energy into a mutual embrace of the challenges of finding peace and bringing progress. A helpful first step would be for communal leaders to engage with one another to discuss what constructive engagement looks like.

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.