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

The arithmetic of English Anti-Semitism

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The bitter brouhaha in Britain about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party brought me back 50 years to when I was an English schoolboy—or more precisely, a suburban Chicago kid who was thrust into that role, school uniform, National Health Service glasses, and all.

Throughout the sixties, my father, an academic researcher, had brought the family to live in London for an aggregate of three years. Over school terms and summers, I experienced a scintillating parade of cultural phenomena: the Beatles and Rolling Stones, Mods and Rockers, James Bond and Dr. Who.

World War Two wasn’t so long ago; my friends’ parents still spoke about the Blitz. Every week bomb squads would block off part of London to defuse unexploded ordinance of the Nazi, rather than the jihadi, variety.

London was largely an English city, not the ethnic stew of today. I was the only Yank at Barrow Hill, my London County Council school, as well as at William Ellis, the grammar school I was lucky enough to attend after passing the Eleven Plus. That was the dreaded matriculation exam given to every fifth-grade child in order to determine what educational track—and thus what opportunities—the classist society would subsequently provide. It separated my classmates who spoke Cockney from those who spoke the Queen’s English.

It took me months to learn to speak either language. Even after subconsciously softening my R’s and dropping my H’s, just like “me mates”, my teacher still wouldn’t give me speaking roles in school plays. Diversity was not a value to put on stage.

Then I discovered I was Jewish. Not Chicago Jewish, London Jewish.

Sure I already knew I was Jewish. My school tie and beanie cap notwithstanding, I knew I wasn’t English. But I was shocked to discover that the few other Jewish kids weren’t considered English either—certainly not in the same way that I was an American Jew.

“Are you American or are you Jewish?” one of the blokes had asked me in the playground—a place where every day blood was spilled over far less weighty matters.

“I’m American and I’m Jewish,” I answered, confused by the question.

“No! Are you American or are you Jewish?” he demanded, as if I hadn’t understood him.

Being both was arithmetically impossible in 1960s England, where one plus one equaled one. If you were Jewish, no “ands” were allowed. You could be a British Jew, but not an English Jew. The English were English; Jews were Jews.

I’ve not been back to Britain in 37 years, though I loved the place and yearn to return, Jeremy Corbyn’s self-inflicted “Jewish problem” be damned. I thought that my Jewish mates had found a level of acceptance and integration in Britain approximating what we experience in America, despite our nation’s vastly different histories and cultures (make no mistake, they are vastly different). The May 5 London mayoral election, with a Jewish and Muslim candidate squaring off, seemed proof of that.

Brought up in a Zionist Socialist home, I had always identified with the Left. Now, in Britain as in America, elements of the Left are revealing that they have “Jewish problems” that are coming to resemble each other.

Call it if you will a problem with Zionism or with Israel, thanks to my childhood years in England, I know how a Jewish problem looks, sounds and feels. It looks like an equation that doesn’t add up. It sounds threatening despite all the protagonists’ protestations that they don’t hate Jews. And it feels rotten, knowing that the laws of math, of identity, and of justice have been altered, just for you.

If I have hope, it lies in the voices raised in England from across the political spectrum decrying racism of all kinds, including anti-Semitism. The Labour Party, by pandering to the intolerant, has brought the issue to the fore. Now it’s time for the same thing to happen on American’s college campuses, and everywhere else where double standards concerning identity and justice arise. 

Rabin: The last Zionist superhero

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I wrote this piece for JUF News in November, 1995, following the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin.

As I write this, the assassination of  Yitzhak Rabin already is “old” news, far enough past for the initial shock to wear off.  By the time you read this, the event will have occurred three weeks ago—a long time according to the media's short attention span, a long time in a world where events unwind so rapidly. 

Should I write about the assassination at all, I wondered? The event and its aftermath have been so thoroughly described; Rabin has been so eloquently eulogized by so many people more qualified than I to do so.

But not to write about it would be to pretend that business is proceeding as usual -- or worse, to suggest that political assassination is business as usual.

The murder reminded me of the sad reality that for Israel’s people, there hardly is such a thing as "usual"; no status quo remains in effect there for long.

Americans, Jews and others, who have no first-hand experience of Israel, have difficulty appreciating an environment where banality and mundanity are quixotic. We American Jews are mainstream -- we aren’t even considered a minority -- in a country of unparalleled prosperity, security, stability and democracy. Entire generations have grown up without the stench of war, the gut wrenching feel of it, in their nostrils and stomachs.

Now consider the lives of our Israeli brothers and sisters. They have shouldered the burden of war, terror, and economic hardship. The graves of relatives and friends who died violent deaths are permanent features of the rugged landscape.

Life in Israel has been all too easy to romanticize for those of us who grew up with, but did not ourselves fulfill, the Zionist dream. We made superheros of the chalutzim and chayalim, the Zionist pioneers, the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. Indeed, who for us was Yitzhak Rabin if not the epitome of the Zionist hero?

The Six Day War came hot on the heels of my bar mitzvah. I remember Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan and all the brave young men of the IDF, the archetypes of the Zionist man I could only dream of becoming. 

How seductive those images were, the weeping soldier at the Kotel, the tank crew at El Arish.

When I first lived in Israel in the early 1970s, before the Yom Kippur war, I remember how euphoric the people still were at their recent victory. The War of Attrition with Egypt had been costly; but no Arab threat seemed truly credible, even to the most pragmatic analysts.

“The Palestinian people? What Palestinian people?” Golda Meir had said, in a spirit of denial that prevailed even after the slaughter of Israel's Olympic team at Munich.

“The Egyptians would not dare set foot across the Suez Canal,” said Yehoshafat Harkabi, former chief of military intelligence, just months before Sadat's invasion.

Israel was at her zenith in the six years between the '67 and '73 wars. She deserved to be. Her people were proud, confident. Perhaps this was the long desired peace, the yearned for status quo?

I returned to Israel for another year later in the ‘70s. Reality had changed. There was a feeling, at least among doves, that what Rabin then described as the status quo -- “no peace, no war” -- would not, could not endure.

Naturally, Israelis spoke wistfully about peace. But I had the impression they had no real idea what it was; they never had experienced it. It remained a halcyon fantasy. The state of conflict was detestable, but it was familiar, and ironically, there was some comfort in that.

But peace? At best it was the great unknown, at worst a dangerous delusion.

And wasn't there more to think about than individual mortality? Had the Six Day War granted the Jewish people a divine opportunity to fulfill its destiny? Was Israel's destiny to reclaim all of the ancient homeland?

Different Israelis, it is now more painfully obvious than ever, envision different answers to questions of duty and destiny.

The most cogent analyses of the impact of Yitzhak Rabin’s life and the implications of his terrible death will not, can not, be written for some time to come. Meanwhile, I am left with a myriad of images of this man of vision who, within his lifetime, was an architect of both military victory and diplomatic triumph; of tactical advance and strategic retreat; of bold conquest and gracious conciliation.

The Zionist superhero is dead. With his passing I sense that the archetype now has become obsolete. What will replace it I know not.

May Israel’s men and women of courage and wisdom step into the breach.

Boycott yourself

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In some places—college campuses come readily to mind—the most politically active young people are those obsessed with scrutinizing, magnifying and brandishing what they see as the misdeeds attending the creation and ongoing existence of the State of Israel.

For the Palestinian Americans among them, it’s not difficult to understand what animates their zeal; they have skin in the game. What’s perplexing, though, is the cadre of non-Arab, non-Palestinian advocates who have adopted Palestine as their paradigmatic cause. In a world ablaze with human suffering and unconscionable cruelty, how is it that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which in many respects has claimed the fewest lives, has become the most animating of all human rights issues on campus?

And how can the issue even be framed as human rights at all if, as is increasingly the case, the end goal is not the alleviation of suffering nor the celebration of political self-determination, but rather the ultimate elimination of the State of Israel and, thus, the undoing of Jewish national liberation?

To those Americans obsessed with undermining/wiping out Israel, please look in the mirror. Who do you see? Someone who cares about human rights and justice? Or someone who believes that the sole prerequisite for Palestinian justice is the abrogation of Jewish self-determination?

And who do you see in me? An oppressor? A racist? A whitewashing, pinkwashing, greenwashing apologist for genocide? If so, then how do you see yourself? As an American, aren’t you culpable for deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan? And aren’t you portraying the Palestinians themselves as helpless, hapless victims, having no role whatsoever in their own fate? Do they share no responsibility for the failure thus far to craft a future in which both they and the Israelis live freely and securely?

Or has that never been their objective?

Do you interpret Zionism as synonymous with apartheid, or as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people? When you think about Israel, do you see no justice in the rebirth of the Jewish people in their historic homeland? Do you see no justice in the emancipation of the Jewish people from two millennia of dispossession, pogroms, Inquisition, genocide, and Supersessionist Christian and Muslim rulers who, throughout history and to this very day, have sought to disgrace, convert and ultimately destroy the Jews? Two millennia that vastly predate the evils you ascribe to the creation of the modern Jewish State.

Look in the mirror and ask yourself, do you accept the essential objective of BDS (the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel), which is not to pressure Israel, but to completely eliminate it, and thus erase the fruits of Jewish liberation?

Tell me exactly what would you have Israel do? As you call on it to “end the occupation,” what are the repercussions of doing that without a negotiated settlement? Should Israel allow unfettered access to Gaza? Will that throw open the gates to peace? If Israel unilaterally leaves the West Bank, what happens then?

For justice to prevail, Israel and the Palestinians ultimately must negotiate and accommodate both of their legitimate aspirations. But what justice will prevail if we Jews put our destiny in the hands of Hamas? Or Hezbollah? Or Iran? Or, perhaps, ISIS and al Queda? Would you have us yet again bare our throats to Jew-killing terrorists in Israel, Europe and elsewhere?

And what in world history or current affairs suggests that justice somehow will prevail if only the matter of Israel is “resolved”?

Why is there is no peace in the Middle East? Look in the mirror and ask: Why are Muslims slaughtering Muslims, and killing and displacing the world’s oldest Christian communities? For justice? For peace? Because of “the occupation”?

Those who support BDS, please look in the mirror and tell me: What’s your objective? What kind of justice and what kind of peace do you seek? Do you believe Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation is possible, or would you condemn both sides to a zero-sum game?

As it stands now, when I see you, here’s who I see: someone who prefers demonization over dialogue; who denies Jewish history and abhors Jewish liberation, while clamoring for the liberation of others; who scrutinizes, magnifies and focuses only on Israel’s behavior, to the exclusion of any Palestinian culpability in this century-old conflict; who embraces the blood-libel that Israel’s self-defense is an act of genocide; and who rejects reconciliation as the path to conflict resolution.

To change that perception, you will need to reject knee-jerk anti-Zionism. You will need to favor self-determination for all peoples over an end to Jewish self-determination.

Otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, you are the enemy of justice and lasting peace. Therefore, I suggest, go boycott yourself.

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.


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