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The UN vote is about more than Jerusalem and about more than an embassy
It’s depressing to have to state the obvious. But it’s too maddening to remain silent. So please forgive me if I revisit what many have said but few have heard.
Last week’s United Nations vote – which censured the United States for planning to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem – is a pitch-perfect example of human society’s collective descent into tribalism. And the heart of the matter has nothing to do with Jerusalem, the Mideast, or American foreign policy.
One could reasonably make the case that moving the embassy is ill-advised. I have had my own doubts whether or not the benefits of the largely symbolic gesture outweigh the potential for violent Palestinian reaction.
But that was not the stated reason behind the U.N. resolution.
Instead, leaders and pundits the world around claimed that the move will derail the peace process. And to that, the logical retort is: what peace process?
In the 53 years since the establishment of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (which preceded the Six Day War and Israel’s so-called “occupation” of the West Bank), the only concession offered up by the Palestinian Authority has been to remove from its charter the call for Israel’s destruction.
The concession to stop publicly advocating the extermination of 6 million Israeli Jews was a good first step, not a final offer. Negotiation requires compromise, as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak demonstrated back in 2000 when he offered to return 94% of the West Bank – an offer the P.A. refused. Since then, the only progress has been Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, to which the P.A. responded by launching missiles against Israeli civilians.
So exactly what “process” does the international community think has been derailed?
PSYCHOLOGY AND PATHOLOGY
Even more absurd is denouncing the U.S. embassy move as “illegal.” The whole world has recognized Israel’s ownership of West Jerusalem since 1947. So why should any country not be allowed to name its own capital in its own land? And why should any other country be censured for establishing its embassy in a legal foreign capital? Finally, why should longtime allies join the chorus of condemnation with absolutely no legal or moral justification?
The first two questions are merely rhetorical. It is the third question that really needs answering. Are you listening, Europe and Canada?
There are two explanations. First is the irrational Utopianism that characterizes much of the political left. Like the delusional naturalists who believe that grizzly bears and mountain lions are really peaceful creatures who will respond to human gestures of affection in kind, radical progressives fantasize that terrorists and the sponsors of terror will eagerly embrace peace once the rest of us confess our sins and beg for absolution.
It hasn’t worked yet. But the Utopians have faith, even as they remain blind and deaf to the irrefutable evidence that they themselves have become the enablers of terrorism. For all their good intentions, they have prolonged suffering on all sides by allowing corrupt Palestinian leaders to squander hundreds of millions in international aid on terror tunnels rather than easing the plight of their own people.
The second reason is that western governments are terrified that any sign of support for Israel will spark violent uprisings among their restless Arab minorities. It’s a disappointing fact of life that the politics of cowardice almost always trump commitment to justice.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
The more fundamental problem, however, is the unapologetic disregard for truth.
Think whatever you want and believe whatever you want – but defend your positions with facts and logic, not disinformation and distortion. Once reasoned debate and civil discourse become impossible – whether because of ideology or fear – civilization is sure to crumble beneath our feet.
Truth be told, it’s possible that by showing the Palestinian Authority that intransigence will no longer serve their interests, the U.S. has actually moved the peace process a step forward. If other countries begin to follow America’s example, the PA will be left scrambling to make a deal before they have no more chips left to bargain.
King Solomon says, One who trusts his own heart is a fool, but one who walks in wisdom shall be kept safe.
If we truly hope to bring about peace, we have cast off our rose-colored glasses and confront our fear. Only then might we achieve the intellectual and moral integrity that will allow us to follow in the ways of wise counsel.
Where did all these fanatics come from?
History traces the origins of some, but others remain a mystery. My own personal theory is that one of the most fanatical sects of modern times was invented in the early 1980s by Time Magazine.
I’m talking about the group commonly identified as Ultra-Orthodox.
In truth, there is no such label. Nevertheless, ultra is a favorite adjective of the media: it implies radicalization and imposes a stigma of extremism on otherwise respectable individuals and institutions.
Ironically, the same tactic gave rise to the term Orthodox itself. In the early 19th Century, a movement coalesced among the Jews of Germany to bring “reform” to the 3100-year-old practices of Judaism. To augment their own legitimacy, these self-styled reformers branded Jews adhering to traditional practice as “orthodox,” a pejorative intended to marginalize mainstream adherents as out of date and out of touch.
HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN?
Every driver on the road believes that he alone is travelling at the correct speed – anyone going faster is a maniac, and anyone going slower is a plodder. And it’s no different with ideology, whether political or religious.
We all believe ourselves to be balanced in our worldviews. Anyone to this side is a zealot; anyone to the other side is a heretic. And there are always just enough true zealots and true heretics associated with any group so that detractors can point and declare, “See! They’re all like that.”
The sign of true leadership, therefore, is not to denounce opponents on the other side of the aisle or the divide; rather, it is to call out those on one’s own side whose irresponsible speech or behavior threatens to discredit one’s own affiliation.
Former President George W. Bush drew fire from the right last week for doing just that, when he denounced the incendiary rhetoric and tribalism that have become too common within his own party.
Should Mr. Bush have called out those across the aisle as well? Possibly. But perhaps he hoped that leaders on the other side might follow his example and demand proper conduct from their own. And indeed, only days later former President Jimmy Carter chastised the media for its open hostility toward Donald Trump, Colin Kaepernick and his cohorts for their disrespect of the national anthem, and Barak Obama for his “disappointing” presidency.
Meanwhile, two oceans away, a similar story of leadership unfolded.
A VOICE OF ULTRA-MODERATION
For decades, a large contingency among the community of Torah observant Jews in Israel has felt itself under attack by a secular government and secular society. Recent legislation to eliminate army service exemptions for seminary students sent sparks into the tinder, igniting last week into unruly protests that blocked traffic, intimidated bystanders, and cast a pall of chaos over the city of Jerusalem.
In response, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the Torah community’s most revered leaders, broke his characteristic silence by denouncing the protesters as “empty” and “reckless,” an “inflamed mob,” and “public desecrators.”
Yes, there is justifiable cause for anger and protest. But for those who choose to identify themselves as observant Jews, as children of Torah, and as students of the sages, it is inexcusably perverse to embrace the tactics of the street in order to defend a lifestyle of spiritual and moral refinement.
But the dark display brought forth a beacon of light, as Rabbi Kanievsky imparted the wisdom of true leadership upon the confused and misguided souls whose hearts may have been well-intentioned but whose reason clearly abandoned them. Whether they aspire to be truly Torah observant or Orthodox Jews, their “day of rage” exposed them as deserving of only one label:
May we soon witness leaders on every side and from every corner who demonstrate the courage and conviction to denounce not only opponents but allies whose extremism endangers the essence of civilization and civil society.
Reporter Hunter Stuart describes how a strong dose of reality forced him to reconsider his biases and preconceptions.
In the summer of 2015, just three days after I moved to Israel for a one-and-a-half year stint freelance reporting in the region, I wrote down my feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A friend of mine in New York had mentioned that it would be interesting to see if living in Israel would change the way I felt about it. My friend probably suspected that things would look differently from the front-row seat, so to speak.
Boy was he right.
In its never-ending quest for editorial balance and integrity, the venerable New York Times gave equal time to Israeli and Palestinian news channels in its reporting of the devastating fires sweeping through Israel.
Israeli news expressed the widely-held opinion that arson is behind the unprecedented rash of urban and forest conflagrations, the latest tactic of Palestinian terrorism.
Palestinian news reported that fires in Israel are started primarily by discarded cigarette butts and children playing with matches, with the remainder caused by electrical malfunction.
An Arab spokesman observed that Israel should take measures to ensure that these causes are addressed to prevent future fires. He failed to explain why fires anywhere near this scale have been unknown for the entire 68 year history of the State of Israel.
Thank you once again, New York Times, for honoring your famous motto:
All the news that fits, we print.
Driving in any unfamiliar city can be daunting, disorienting, and disconcerting. Driving in a foreign country can be downright dyspeptic. Driving in Israel can be a flirtation with catastrophe.
In some ways it’s better than it used to be. Traffic has gotten so dense that drivers simply cannot indulge the reckless habits that once prevailed. It’s hard to bob and weave when your car is stuck in gridlock.
But when the traffic starts moving, the experience can be harrowing, made all the more stressful as you try to find your way along unfamiliar boulevards and position yourself to make quick turns with little notice.
Thank goodness for Waze.
Just plug in your destination, follow the directions, and voila! Oh, sure, we made a few wrong turns, but even then Waze got us right back on track.
Most of the time.
Hat tip: Rabbi Yehoshua Binyamin Falk
Everyone I see should be smiling. A few of them are. Most of them aren’t, and I feel sorry for them, caught up in the distractions of earthly existence and overlooking the miracles that surround them.
Such is the human condition: the eyes betray the soul, and the heart grows deaf to its own inner voice, which vanishes into the rumble of routine that drums out the exhilaration of each new moment.
It should be easier here at the eye of the universe, and indeed it is. But easier is a relative term, and a hundred pounds might as well be a hundred tons when our muscles have atrophied from disuse. Just the same, in the absence of spiritual discipline, spirituality itself remains a cliché, a meaningless abstraction or, at best, a mere footnote in the narrative of life, an asterisk relegated to indices of the Sabbath, the Festivals, and the House of Worship.
Such an insidious lie. Such an insipid deception.
The Jewish liturgy begins each day with a series of 15 blessings acknowledging the gifts of fundamental existence and identity. How fortunate we are to have eyes that can behold the beauty of our world, limbs that can carry us to the corners of the earth, minds capable of discerning light from dark and good from evil; how reassured we are to commit ourselves to a higher purpose, to recognize that path we are meant to follow, and to trust the guiding Hand that gently steers us toward the fulfillment of our destiny; how much reason we have to rejoice that we are able to master our own passions, to summon the strength to meet failure with determination, and to discover new inspiration everyday amidst the monotony of life in the material world.
Yet still we forget. Even here in this place where heaven and earth kiss, even here at the focal point of human history, human nobility, and human aspiration. Too much light can blind even more effectively than too much darkness.
In the Old City of Jerusalem, the center of Creation, and in the ancient village of Tzefat, home of the greatest kabbalists of the last 500 years, the tension between the past and the present gives way to a supernal harmony that radiates from every rock and tree, that grows stronger as you turn every corner and pass through every archway. The voices of ages gone by whisper always in your ear, if you remember to listen for them.
Listen in on my interview with Clint Bellows last week discussing the challenges facing Israel and America. Interview begins at about 49:00.
In the vast, austere entry hall to the Israel Museum, with its ultramodern monochrome walls, prismatic focal point, and symbiotic theme of shadow and luminescence, you happen upon a discordant figure: one of the Burghers of Calais, sculpted by the French master Auguste Rodin.
The original sextet of figures represents the city fathers of Calais who surrendered themselves to save their besieged city during the Hundred Years’ War. With heads and feet bare, ropes around their necks, and the keys of the town in their hands, the burghers were brought before the English king Edward III who ordered them beheaded.
Although their lives were eventually spared, Rodin has rendered their images as they prepare to meet what they believe will be their end, their respective expressions spanning the gamut from stoicism to despair.
As jarring as the image may appear in this contemporary setting, the story resonates deeply with ancient Jewish tradition. In the Yom Kippur liturgy, there figures prominently the narrative of the 10 Martyrs, the talmudic sages who received the Heavenly decree that their deaths would atone for the sins of their generation and deflect Divine wrath from their people. They too went to meet their end stoically, but without despair.
Martyrdom is not something we seek, but there are times that call for self-sacrifice of one kind or another. In this generation of selfish individualism, entitlement, and personal autonomy, we can look to the past to remind us that tribalism, senseless violence, and identity politics are all symptoms of a society that has forgotten how to commit itself to a higher sense of purpose, and that only by setting aside our superficial differences can we survive as one people.
This provocative image from the Israel Museum provides one of the most compelling examples of what modern art can accomplish. Even as the values of contemporary society become more tangled, our priorities more topsy-turvy, our ideals more overgrown with deadwood, and the roots of civilized society increasingly shriveled, it’s not too late to take a fresh look at where we are and where we’re headed.
We just need to look with open eyes and clear minds.
The Talmud compares a person whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds to a tree with many branches and few roots. Ideas that fail to materialize into positive action may be worse than no ideas at all, since they allow us to live in the world of the mind and praise ourselves for our noble intentions while we stand idly by and allow evil to reign.
Only by recognizing the contradictions in our own lives will we be able to turn the world right-side-up again and restore order amidst the chaos.
Once upon a time, the commemoration served as a warning against the consequences of unbridled nationalism. But in this generation, the memory of Nazi atrocities has mutated into a political football tossed about to score points for one ideological cause or against another.
IDF Major General Yair Golan made the most egregious fumble when he suggested last Wednesday that events in pre-war Germany are repeating themselves in modern-day Israel. Like all public figures who talk first and think later, the deputy chief of staff was soon scurrying to revise his comments, pleading that he hadn’t meant what he said and hadn’t said what he meant.
More likely, General Golan meant exactly what he said. And it’s likely that his heart was in the right place, even if his brain was out to lunch.