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April 15, 2002

Israel and the Jewish soul

By Jon Terkel

Max Silverman didn't realize there was a dress code at Community Hebrew
Academy of Toronto, his Jewish high school, until he decided to wear a pin that read, "End the occupation. Support the intifada."

It wasn't long before school officials asked him not to wear it anymore. Silverman, a soft-spoken 16-year-old, realized that the phrase, "Support the intifada," might have mistakenly led others to believe he supported suicide bombings. He offered to cover up that objectionable portion of the pin.

That wasn't good enough.

"Their excuse was that they don't like political slogans, but every poster in the school has to do with some right-wing issue," he says.

For anyone who's been watching events unfold in the Middle East over the past year and a half or so, it's fair to say that public displays of self-reflection or self-criticism by those representing Israeli or Palestinian viewpoints are scarce, to put it generously.

But Rabbi Joel Wittstein of Temple Israel - a reform synagogue in London - says the debate within Judaism is happening - it's just not happening in the media.

"We try not to wash our laundry in public," he says. "For now, there's an unwritten rule not to present a divided opinion of Israel."

But as the violence in Israel escalates, it's harder for Jews, regardless of where they live, to remain silent.

This is especially true in Israel, where peace activists and those who would take a more militant stand against the Palestinians are often seen screaming at each other in the streets. As the conflict spirals out of control, there doesn't seem to be a middle ground anymore.

Several Israeli journalists have begun to muse openly that if the current situation persists, the country may experience a civil conflict. They point back to Israel's war with Lebanon in 1982, which spawned the first Israeli peace movement.

In Canada, peace groups and those opposed to the occupation have become more vocal since the Palestinian intifada began in September, 2000. A few months ago, Silverman decided to form a group called Toronto Jewish Youth Against the Occupation. They are part of the Coalition for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, and associated with the Montreal Jewish Alliance Against the Occupation.

There are also similar groups to Silverman's in Toronto, including the Jewish Women's Committee to End the Occupation, Yosher, Jews for Justice, and the United Jewish People's Order. Together, they sometimes hold silent vigils outside the Israeli consulate in Toronto, host guest speakers such as conscientious objectors, and orchestrate letter-writing campaigns.

While the debate has largely stayed out of the public domain, it finds other ways to be heard. Silverman's school may have barred his pin, but he still gets into arguments with classmates all the time. Larry Lander, rabbi of the Conservative congregation Or Shalom in London, teaches a weekly class on Judaic studies for young Jews between the ages of 13 to 17. They argue over Israel as well.

"Some are more liberal than others...there's a very healthy debate that goes on," Lander says. "We've almost come to blows," he adds jokingly.

Yet the debate is somewhat of a paradox. On the one hand, it's hard not to talk about Israel, but on the other, it can be very difficult to talk about. It's an issue that can cause friends to yell at one another, and it may ask for a level of introspection that some would prefer to avoid.

Critical analysis of Israel can be painful because for so many it strikes at the heart of Jewish identity. Israel is not just a huge part of Jewish history; it continues to be the hotbed of Jewish culture.

Perhaps more importantly, Israel represents security, a lifeline for Jews living anywhere in the world. After all, this is the country that, in its modern form at least, was born out of the Holocaust. And given an overwhelming history of persecution, says Aaron Flanzraich, rabbi of Beth Sholom synagogue in Toronto, it's not easy for Jews to entertain the notion that they are now the ones with the power, and seen by some as the oppressors.

Palestinian child takes on Israeli tank
Internet Source
Modern day Israel tells a different tale of David and Goliath.

"Jews have always been good victims," Flanzraich says. "Victims never have their morale in question...people face a de-legitimacy of their own identity."


It's not surprising that much of the criticism directed at Israel from within the Jewish community comes from relatively young people. They are, after all, one generation further removed from the Holocaust, one generation further removed from knowing what it's like to live without any security.

Still, as Lander points out, Israel forms an integral part of young people's Jewish identity. It's one thing that keeps young people interested and attached to their religion - a problem these days that is not unique to Judaism.

Lander does what he can. Apart from the youth group he teaches once a week, he maintains ties with Jewish student groups at the University of Western Ontario and Fanshawe College.

Larger congregations, Lander says, are also trying other things to rekindle young people's interests in Judaism. One of these things is to encourage them to go on Birthright Israel.

Birthright is a 10-day free trip to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26. The trip's founders, which include various Jewish foundations and individuals, created an initial five-year project to send 100,000 young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift. Some of the main reasons for this, according to the Birthright Israel website, are "to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; and to strengthen the sense of solidarity between Israeli youth and Jewish communities around the world."

To date, 28,000 young Jews have gone on the trip, with more trips scheduled. Joe Wagner, a spokesperson for Birthright, says it's not meant to be a political trip - it was established long before the intifada began - but instead, is meant to "whet people's appetite" for Israel.

"It's not meant to influence people one way or the other," Wagner says. But he adds that with the current political situation, "the trips have evolved...Interacting with Jews in Israel, they gain an appreciation for what life is like there."

Sari Herson, a 22-year-old Jewish student at the University of Western Ontario, has been to Israel four times, and staffed a Birthright trip last year. She knows first-hand how life is different there.

"One night when we were staying at a kibbutz, we found out that a bomb went off at a bar we were at the night before in Netanya."

On another trip, she recalls sitting on a bus with a 17-year-old friend who was living in Israel. Herson says she remembers him fidgeting, visibly nervous. Feeling totally comfortable herself, she asked her friend if there was something wrong.

"You don't know who these people are," he told her, referring to Palestinian suicide bombers, known to have targeted buses before. "You don't know what they have under their coat."

It is this sort of persistent threat, along with all of the failed attempts at peace agreements, that leaves Herson wondering if peace with the Palestinians will ever be possible. She knows Israel is not perfect, but she sees the battle for Israel linked to the battle for Jewish existence.

Describing the essence of Jewish holidays, she says what is an oft-repeated joke within Jewish circles.

"They tried to conquer us. We survived. Let's eat," she says with a laugh. In a more serious tone, Herson continues, "They're trying to conquer us. If they do, we won't have anything to eat."

Josh Shuval, a friend of Herson's, also looks at the current conflict as a survival issue. The 21-year-old, who is president of the Jewish Student Union at Western, has a bond to Israel that runs especially deep.

Shuval's family is originally from Israel. His father fought in anti-terror operations in the Israeli Defence Force, and his grandfather was killed in the 1967 war. Right now, he has three or four cousins fighting in the territories - trying, Shuval says, "to fight for the security of the country."

Josh Shuval
Photo by Jon Terkel
Josh Shuval celebrates "Israel Day" at the University of Western Ontario.

He checks the Internet six or seven times a day to keep up with what is going on. "There's always this feeling in the back of my mind that one day I could be reading a newspaper that says a cousin of mine..." Shuval pauses, "has been killed."

Of the general mood in Israel, Shuval says, "They only want peace. They don't want a war; they don't want to fight...But, if you have someone who is calling for the destruction of a people, you have to do something."

Silverman, meanwhile, also looks at the crisis as a security issue, but from a different angle. He worries about the danger the occupation poses to Judaism itself. He's familiar with reports, for example, that claim anti-semitism is on the rise in places like Europe.

"There is a huge resurgence. You can't blame it all on Israel, since there are people just using it as an excuse. But you have to look at Israel's policies...I really think it will be the downfall of Jews."

For Silverman, there is something about the occupation itself that goes against the teachings of Judaism. It is impossible for him to separate politics from religion.

"One of the number one reasons I am an activist is because I'm Jewish."

Edan Rotenberg, a 23-year-old student at the University of Toronto, has Israeli parents and describes Israel as a "big defining point" of who he is. As with Shuval, the men on his father's side have fought in the Israeli army. Growing up in Canada, his first language was Hebrew. Like Silverman, he views his criticism of Israel as a Jewish responsibility.

"The Israeli state is set up for Jews - it's designated as a Jewish homeland. The government then claims to act in your name."

Rotenberg does try to instigate debate. He is an active member, for example, in his university's JSU chapter where he finds few people who see eye-to-eye with him on Israel.

Rotenberg finds it hard being critical of Israel in the Jewish community. Some people simply won't listen, he says, or they will only listen so much.

It's such a sensitive issue in fact, that Jews who criticize Israel are sometimes called "self-haters" by other Jews.

In Israel, over 380 army reservists have signed a petition declaring their refusal to serve in the occupied territories when called up for their annual month of military service. They are heroes to some, but traitors to others.

Disagreements over Israeli policies don't usually escalate to the point of name-calling, but it shows how so many view Israel and Judaism as one and the same thing.

So how can two people both profess their loyalty to Judaism, but disagree so vehemently over an issue so central to their Jewish identities?

For Wittstein, Jews of all political stripes tend to look at the idea of Israel as a symbol, as something more than a nation.

"For people on the left, they line it up to certain ideals; a need to affirm humanity for all human beings...values like peace, justice and freedom...For people on the right, it's more of a homeland for Jews, that exists in times of trouble. There is a need to do whatever is necessary to preserve it."

Notwithstanding these differences, attempts at fostering discussion continue.

On a Wednesday night in London, about a dozen Jewish students from Western have gathered at the campus' Chabad house, which is a sort of home away from home for Jewish students. By providing everything from weekly Shabbat dinners to Wednesday "lunch and learns" with a local rabbi, Chabad essentially helps those who have left their Jewish communities behind in another city find a new one.

Herson, who is president of Chabad, sent a last-second invitation to Flanzraich to come and give a lecture about the situation in the Middle East. It probably didn't affect the turnout much.

Shuval says political events organized by the JSU tend to draw poor crowds compared to the social events, something he attributes to the general political passivity that Western students are known for. But, he adds, if people think they are going to disagree with what's going to be said, they probably won't come out.

Tonight is a noticeably informal gathering. Most of the people here know the rabbi from Toronto. A few of the guys even used to play hockey with him.

After dinner, Flanzraich sits with everyone around a big table in the dining room.

When he eventually begins his talk, the cheery atmosphere that once filled the room suddenly transforms into a noticeable tension.

"Truth is a sort of rubber band, " Flanzraich begins, as though to ease everyone's nerves. "It can bend either way. No one is innocent here...Both sides have made mistakes."

Throughout the talk, he tries to involve his audience, asking various questions about Israel's history and attempts at peace agreements. Answers, and sure answers at that, are few and far between. It's as though nobody wants to get caught saying the wrong thing.

Flanzraich clearly didn't come to tell anyone what they should think. He just wants them thinking. He calls into question the legitimacy of the Palestinians' claim to the disputed territories, but he also describes their living conditions in refugee camps as "atrocious and sickening," and says the Israeli government is partly to blame.

Having been in Israel recently, he tells everyone that the delivery business is booming, because people are too scared to go out. After a suicide attack, he says, cell phones all go off at the same time, as parents check to see if their kids are okay.

"Don't be afraid to admit when you're out in public that Israel has made mistakes too," he tells everyone in closing. "But also don't be afraid to point out the differences either."

It just so happens that tonight, there was no spirited debate, but for Flanzraich, such disagreements need not be considered a crisis of Jewish identity. In fact, it's just the opposite.

"Judaism is a profound democracy," he says in a reassuring tone. "The strength of our democracy is found in the strength of our discourse. There's room for everybody."