Israel, Canada and Me in the Age of Trump
(Prepared for Independent Jewish Voices)
I think I’m the only Canadian born on this panel. Not only was I born in Canada, in North Battleford, Saskatchewan to be exact, my parents were also born in Canada. Even more than that, my maternal grandfather was also born in Canada. My families’ roots in Canada are very deep and wide. Both sides came to Canada in the late 19th century, probably fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe.
I was raised in Edmonton, Alberta. My father owned a dry cleaning business; my mother was a medical stenographer. I went to Jewish day school until the end of grade 6. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
After graduation I worked as a social worker in north-western Alberta and then went traveling, spending five months on a kibbutz in Israel. It was the fall of 1973. I was in Israel for four days when the Yom Kippur War broke out. I was fascinated because I had studied international politics as an undergraduate. My parents - not so much! I settled in Winnipeg for a bit after that because I wanted to live in a place that had a larger Jewish community than Edmonton’s. It was there that I first heard about Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of what we now call Jewish Renewal.
I moved to Vancouver for graduate school, but finally realized I needed a professional trade, went to law school, and pursued a legal career in administrative and workers’ compensation law for the next 30 years. During that time I became involved with the fledgling community that Rabbis Daniel and Hanna Siegel were building which became Or Shalom Synagogue. When I retired in 2010, I “seized the day”, began my retirement project - becoming a rabbi - and was ordained this past January.
I view Israel from the perspective of Jewish social justice values. I’ve been there four times. I’ve already told you a bit about my first trip. I was 22/23. I didn’t see much of the country because of the war. Most of my five months were spent on kibbutz, working various jobs and studying Hebrew.
My second trip was in 24 years later. Two memories: First, the son of the friend we were staying with in Jerusalem took us on a tour of the Old City which did not include the Western Wall. Second, we took a bus from Jerusalem to the Golan through the occupied territories on a road only Jewish Israelis are allowed to use.
My third trip was in the summer of 2007. We travelled the country from Rosh Hanikra to Eilat. Perhaps the most significant experience for me was an alternative day tour we took of East Jerusalem. Our Palestinian guide took us into the occupied territories, showed us the separation wall, how it divides Palestinian towns, forcing residents to walk far out of their way just to cross the street, how it divides olive orchards from their owners so they can’t take the crops off and risk confiscation of their property. He showed us the contrast between beautiful new settlements, and impoverished Palestinian towns. He showed us check points. We watched long lines of Palestinians waiting patiently to cross. We watched a Palestinian ambulance pull up and wait until an Israeli ambulance arrived so that the patient could be transferred. The Palestinian ambulance itself is not allowed to cross.
My most recent trip was 1 1/2 years ago. I spent a month in Jerusalem, studying. I participated in the ten day Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar at the Shalom Hartman Institute. I toured with Rabbis for Human Rights and met Palestinian and Bedouin villages in the occupied territories under threat. Umm al-Hiran has since been destroyed to make way for a settlement. Susiya still stands because it has been one of the most successful Palestinian villages at harnessing international support.
Israel is a complex place. But it’s not just one place. When people speak of Israel, there are at least five distinct landscapes they might be referring to: an imagined land of deep magic, a covenantal land of relationship with God, a remembered land of exile, a lived land of the modern state, and an envisioned land of the future. When someone says that Israel is in violation of international law, they are talking about the modern state. If they are in conversation with someone who sees Israel as a covenantal land of relationship with God, they will not understand each other.
Zionism is a complex idea. And it’s not just one idea. When people speak of Zionism there are at least five distinct ideologies they might be referring to: religious, messianic, secular (including cultural, socialist and utopian), rationalist/pragmatic, militant, etc. When someone says they are a Zionist, I actually don’t know what they mean. They could simply mean that they are a pro-Israelist. The only way I can find out is to have dialogue with them, and to lean into the tension of that conversation, as Amna Farooqi, past president of J Street U, says so eloquently.
What does it mean to say that Israel is a Jewish state? Is it just a head count? In my opinion, being a Jewish state means living according to and governed by Jewish values. By that definition, sadly Israel stopped being a Jewish state long ago. What happened to those foundational Jewish values which are so important to us? There are so many that we repeat over and over again: seek peace, pursue justice, love your neighbour, welcome the stranger, be a holy people, steward the earth, perform acts of loving-kindness, repair the world, and most importantly, as the Sage Hillel said: “that which is hateful to you, do not do unto others”!
Not only must we welcome the stranger (which we are enjoined to do 36 times in the Torah), we must not oppress the stranger. Different justifications are give, usually because we were slaves in Egypt. But the one I prefer is because God said so (He actually says, do not oppress the stranger, I am the Lord your God). In the Holiness Code, God tells the people, you are holy because I am holy.
How can a holy people oppress the stranger, do unto the other what is hateful to it? A Jewish state is not merely a reflection of numbers, but of the Jewish values which it stands for and by. A Jewish state must be committed to the core teachings of our tradition. Nearly half a century of occupation has not only taken a toll on the Palestinian people, it has also taken a toll on the Jewish soul.
I recently watched a January 29, 2017 panel discussion on the current state of Jewish politics in America which included Shaul Magid, rabbi and professor of Jewish and religious studies at Indiana University. He spoke about how the notion of Israel has effaced all other aspects of Jewish identity in the United States (and Canada). That didn’t used to be the case. I had an aha! moment. That’s why I often feel out of step with the establishment Jewish community. My Jewish identity is very strong, but it is much more tied to my community, my friends and family, my learning, my teachers, the TaNaKh, the sages, the classical commentators, the Hasidic rebbes, the weekly, monthly and yearly cycle of the seasons and the holidays than it is to Israel.
I was saying all of this long before President Trump was elected. Things have changed. We are living in a time of great uncertainty; the normal we knew has come completely unhinged. What once seemed legitimate is not anymore. We who live in an elitist bubble and couldn’t imagine that Donald Trump would be elected as the President, are trying to come to terms with what that means. Not in terms of the man himself, but in terms of the people who voted for him, who felt so dissatisfied, so betrayed, so alienated from and by the “system” that they used the only tool available to them - their vote.
But I’m starting to feel optimistic. President Trump’s unflinching and extreme support of Israel has emboldened the current Israeli government to enhance its occupation policies, to change the rules of the game, and to announce the death of the two state solution. On the other hand, his anti-immigration, anti-Muslim rhetoric, has lead to a rise in anti-Semitic acts, the like of which we haven’t seen before in North America. The result? The building of alliances and coalitions, the like of which we also haven’t seen before in North America. People are working together in ways that we could not have conceived of even a few months ago. There is a new inter-connectedness, a realization of the power of people driven by authentic values. I’m feeling some hope.