Thursday, June 24, 2010

Life in A Bowl of Cherries

When I wrote a few weeks ago about Judith Shulevitz’ book, The Sabbath World, I mentioned in passing an off-hand comment she makes there regarding the degree to which our lives—and especially the lives of people just my age—have been characterized by an endless parade of technological innovations and inventions touted as labor-saving devices designed to make our lives more pleasant by making them more efficient. This is hardly her discovery, but just lately I’ve been thinking more and more about its implications for our lives into the future…and also for the way we live our lives neither in the past nor in the future but in the present as it actually exists, as we have allowed it to come into existence.

It’s certainly true, at least in a certain sense, that the machines I have in mind have at least theoretically served the cause of efficiency well. I have in my library, for example, examples of Biblical concordances—books that list the words of the Bible in strict alphabetical order so that one can look up a specific word and know how many times it appears in Scripture and where those instances occur—that must have taken their authors years and years to produce, yet which could be computer-generated today with no errors at all and published, at least without presenting their data beyond its most raw state, almost instantly. I myself can hardly imagine writing without an on-line computer, let alone without a computer at all. I think of that as I work often, by the way, imagining myself having to waste half a day driving to a library to look up some piece of information that is now available to me on my desktop in a matter of seconds. Nor is this an exercise in what-if fantasy for me—I am a semi-proud member of the very last generation of doctoral students who prepared their dissertations without computers. When I think of the tens of thousands of index cards I scribbled on in an attempt to organize the data I eventually turned into my thesis and then match that memory to my recollection of the clunky IBM Selectric typewriter my parents bought me (for twice the price of your average laptop computer today) and on which I typed all 1,100 pages of my dissertation before turning it over to a professional typist who, for a dime per page, typed the other four copies I was obliged to submit, I can hardly believe I’m only my real age and not a century older. (For reasons never revealed, photocopies and carbon copies were not permitted so all five copies had to be typed separately.) Later, when my dissertation was accepted for publication in two parts by two different publishers, I typed both manuscripts myself. And since electric typewriters were by nature uni-directional, I typed all the Hebrew pages backwards. And, no, I did not enjoy the experience, nor did I learn much from it other than how much I hate typing backwards.

But computers are only part of it. E-mail is more efficient than snail mail because it too is almost instant. Like almost all of you, I’m sure, I remember waiting weeks for answers to letters to arrive in the mail whereas now the replies to at least some of my letters appear in my in-box not within weeks or days but within minutes. And if e-mail wasn’t going to be quite quick enough, perhaps because the person I’m e-mailing might possibly not be sitting at his or her computer, there was always text messaging. But even texting did not prove to be quite efficient enough, so now I own a smart phone on which I can actually read my e-mail without having to be anywhere near a computer. And I can answer it too! Of course, I could upgrade to an even fancier phone with even more features and an even faster internet connection. But, really, who needs to be that efficient? Surely there must be a point of diminishing returns!

The real point I want to discuss doesn’t have to do with the machines themselves, however, but rather with the philosophy behind their use. The notion of efficiency, after all, by definition supposes a finite amount of work in need of doing and suggests that it could be done faster by making this or that innovation in the way the work is done or the tools with which it is done. And, of course, that really does work when you have a lawn to mow and someone points out a way to get it mown in less time than you were going to have to spend absent the helpful information now provided. But that does not seem at all to be the right model in terms of the way our lives actually function because the work in my life—in all our lives—is not finite at all but rather more than capable of being endlessly expanded to fill up the space allotted to it. And so, like all of you, I spend far more time dealing with correspondence now than I did before the age of e-mail. I used to read one newspaper every day, whereas now I feel vaguely failed if I haven’t at least perused four or five, not to mention the various news apps that I myself have perversely installed on my phone presumably to make me feel even more guilty for not having the time to get to them all. And whatever time I do save by working at a computer hooked up to the internet instead of at a typewriter hooked up by a street or a parkway to a library I have failed utterly to convert into the kind of leisure time we insist we crave but seem only to drive further from our grasp with each successive wave of technological advance. Indeed, even the notion that I should be enjoying all my newly created leisure time by going for a walk or having a nap instead of simply recalibrating my expectations and demanding that much more of myself sounds more ridiculous than actually upsetting. Who buys an even more powerful laptop than the one he or she already owns with an eye to having more time for catnapping?

The world’s libraries are filled with books written by authors who worked before the advent of personal computers, yet why is it I imagine their lives were less hectic and far less harried than the lives all of us live today? Many of you know of my personal predilection for the books of Henry David Thoreau, one of the greatest American authors and thinkers of the nineteenth century, but not everyone realizes that his original impetus to flee to Walden Pond was not rooted in some utopian vision he had previously developed of life in the wilderness but was far more prosaically a function of the fact that Thoreau found daily life in Concord too frenzied and distracting to bear. (This is life in Concord, Mass., in the 1840s that we’re talking about too, so I can only imagine what Thoreau would have made of life there today.) And that seems to me to constitute an interesting challenge for all modern types who would profitably ponder his flight to Walden today. (Do kids today still read Walden in high school? It was my favorite book!) Here, after all, was a man who, when faced with a world that was too busy and too bewildering, did not set himself to simplifying things by buying or inventing bigger and better machines but by consciously choosing to divest, to simplify, to do more—in that famously thorovian way—by doing less. It all sounds so appealing—the simpler, less harried life part, not the living in an unheated, un-insulated hut by myself part—and yet all I seem to do when I feel stressed to the max by my own, mostly self-generated, to-do list is to figure out how to acquire an even more powerful machine that will make me feel even more guilty for not doing in hours what people just a century ago took weeks or even months to accomplish. Am I the only person whom it strikes as ominous that Apple took 600,000 first-day orders for the iPhone 4 before the system crashed under the weight of consumers’ desire to own a slightly more powerful version of the same machine most of them I’m guessing already owned?

I close with a vignette for my readers to ponder. To celebrate their sixty-second anniversary last week, my parents-in-law shared a bowl of cherries in their Toronto backyard. It’s a good time for cherries, of course. And Ontario cherries are, it’s always seemed to me, exceptionally juicy and sweet. But what made a real impression on me was not specifically the cherries, but the larger picture of two people whose idea of enhancing what might have otherwise been “ordinary” time involved sitting quietly in the same space, eating something delicious, feeling grateful and happy to have an anniversary to celebrate and someone to celebrate it with and a quiet, verdant place to celebrate it with that person in…without a machine, labor-saving or otherwise, in sight. Maybe I’m reading too much into the whole thing, but the whole picture seems so dramatically at odds with the quest for endless technological innovation in the pursuit of more efficient lives that never actually seem to include any real leisure in them that it seems worth pausing just for a moment to contemplate the fact that there can be pleasure and leisure in life that requires no more money than it costs to buy a pound of cherries, no machines designed to improve the experience by making it more efficient or more cost-effective, and, in fact, no technological enhancement of the base experience of any sort. If Thoreau were alive, he’d be 192 years old. (He died in 1862 at age forty-four.) What he would make of e-mail and smart phones, I can only imagine. But I think he’d have enjoyed those cherries in my parents’-in-law backyard…and understood perfectly well why they failed to take fifteen pictures of them with their smart phones and then e-mail them around the world so that the experience, otherwise doomed to be shared just by two, could be improved and made that much more efficient through the use of technology.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Only Good News!

One of the reasons it’s so incredibly depressing to read the daily newspapers is because bad news is generally considered so much more interesting than good news. Who, for example, would buy a newspaper that featuring happy, well-balanced people watching over their families and honestly earning their livings on the front page? I felt my eyes closing just typing that last sentence! And yet, for all the world is filled with horrifically bad people behaving awfully, there are also positive things to report…and these are generally precisely the kind of things no one ever hears about. Therefore, in the service of positivistic journalism—I just made that expression up, but it sounds like what I mean—I would like to attempt to write a full e-letter this week to you all that contains only good news. If you prefer being depressed, just type “Helen Thomas” into the Google search engine and I promise you’ll have enough vituperative rhetoric, most of it truly appalling, to last you until I return to bad news mode!

Since I’ve just mentioned Google, let’s start by giving equal time to Yahoo. Some of you who have iPhones may have noted that the pre-installed Yahoo weather app, declining to recognize Jerusalem as the united capital city of Israel, offered users a choice between finding out what the weather is like in West Jerusalem, Israel, or in East Jerusalem, which was located in the non-country called “West Bank.” I don’t have an iPhone, but I understand that many users were displeased and expressed their displeasure to Yahoo itself, as a result of which Jerusalem has been reunited and users can only get the weather for the one city that actual exists: Jerusalem, Israel. Well done, Yahoo! (I’m still not getting an iPhone, however.)

Moving along with more good news, the French broadcast authority called the CSA this week banned satellite companies that serve France from carrying Hamas’ Al-Aksa television station, declaring that it is a purveyor of hateful views that incite viewers to violence “on the grounds of race, religion, or nationality.” Since Israel has a hard enough time putting its message across without violent anti-Israel rhetoric, most of it pure propaganda, being broadcast directly into the homes of people who might otherwise be inclined not to be knee-jerk opponents of everything Israel does or tries to do, we should celebrate this decision as decent and just. It’s a small victory, admittedly, yet still something to feel positive about.

Next comes some interesting news from southern California. Many of you know that Joan and I both used to teach at the Tarbut VeTorah School in Irvine, California, just down Bonita Canyon Drive from the campus of the University of California at Irvine, one of the hotbeds of anti-Israel activism in southern California. In the non-positivistic press you may well have read about the appalling and insulting reception to which Israel ambassador Michael Oren was subjected to when he attempted to speak there last February as a guest of the university. But now, just a few months later, a university-sponsored disciplinary committee has ruled that the Muslim Students Union, which group orchestrated the vile reception accorded the ambassador, should be forbidden to operate on campus for at least a year. Also, even more to the point, a huge pro-Israel street fair called iFest drew upwards of 600 students for its opening event on the main thoroughfare of the UC Irvine campus just a week or so ago. (If I was going to balance positivist journalism with negativist, I would mention that iFest follows on the heels of Israeli Apartheid Week, an annual Israel-bashing event sponsored by the now-banned Muslim Students Organization. But I promised only good news this week!)

From north of the border, there is also some positive news to report from my other country. Most readers will not know the name of Libby Davis, the senior Canadian parliamentarian and the leader of the far-left leaning New Democratic Party who earlier this month referred to the entire existence of the state of Israel as one sixty-odd year occupation of other people’s land by Jewish settlers whose right to live in the land of Israel, she implied, has no legal basis at all. That was not good news, but far more encouraging was the unequivocal call just this week for her ouster from Parliament by Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister. Speaking in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Harper referred to Davis’ remarks as constituting “a fundamental denial of Israel’s right to exist.” Also impressive was the comment by Bob Rae, the foreign policy critic of the Liberal Party, who characterized Davis’ remarks as appalling and also called upon her to resign. Possibly shocked by the response to her comments, Davis apologized for her remark referring to it as a “serious and completely inadvertent” error of judgment. Whether she really thinks that or not, who knows? But the good news I promised lies in the across-the-board condemnation of her statement, one paralleled by the reception Helen Thomas’s similar comments occasioned just a few weeks earlier in Washington. So that’s also encouraging—there will always be hostile people out there unwilling to imagine that the right of Jewish people to live in a Jewish state in the Jewish homeland should be considered as inalienable and natural as the right of any people to live in its own place on its own terms, but at least there are also those to whom Israel’s right to exist is just as unquestionable and that latter group clearly includes some of the most influential people in Canadian politics. So that too ended up on an encouraging note.

From Israel too came some encouraging news as well this week. Some of you may have been following the disgraceful effort by some groups of Slonimer Hasidim in the West Bank settlement of Emanuel to prevent their daughters from attending schools in which they would be obliged to mingle with girls of Sephardic origin. But now Israel’s Supreme Court has formally ordered these parents to be jailed if they persist in that kind of overtly racist behavior. The parents involved have vowed to resist. And there was a truly disgraceful demonstration in Jerusalem yesterday that brought together something like 100,000 Haredim unwilling to serve in their country’s army but apparently more than willing to go to the barricades in defense of segregation and prejudice. The court was right to intercede, I believe, and I hope that good sense will prevail quickly now that the matter has finally be adjudicated in court and a decision rendered. And then, when everybody finally calms down, perhaps we can go back to imagining that the kind of overt prejudice that prompted the parents involved to go so far as to build a dividing wall within the school to segregate children of Ashkenazic and Sephardic origin will quickly become a footnote to Israeli social history rather than a principle anyone would consider worth going to jail to defend. So the Supreme Court decision itself counts, I think, as good news for reasonableness and decency! (I told you I could fill up an entire letter with only good news!)

And finally I would like to report to you about a true treasure that I have just recently acquired, a book that seems so precious to me that I can hardly keep from carrying it around with me just to enjoy the way it feels in my hand. I am talking about Siddur Va’ani Tefilati: Siddur Yisra’eili, the new prayer book published by the Masorti/Conservative movement in Israel. Or rather not published by them at all but published for them (and also, I suspect, for many, many other readers) by Yediot Acharonot Press, one of Israel’s largest publishing houses. It is expected to sell very well. In fact, it is already selling excellently, a feat no doubt helped along by a full one thousand radio spots purchased and paid for by the movement to bring its book to the attention of the Israeli public. The book is, of course, entirely in Hebrew. But this is not just an Israeli prayer book because of its language. There are alternate versions of many prayers that reflect the texts in use in Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Oriental Jewish communities, thus making the book mirror the population of Israel itself. Israel Independence Day and Yom Hashoah are treated as “normal” holidays, not add-ons to the traditional festivals of the Jewish year. There are special prayers for people called to the Torah that mirror Israeli society to a T: prayers for new immigrants to Israel, for new converts to Judaism, for couples who have adopted children but also for single adoptive parents, for agunot who after being held back by recalcitrant ex-husbands have finally received their gittin and are thus free to remarry, for new grandparents, for young men and women about to be inducted into the IDF, as well as all the more traditional formulations for births, bar- and bat-mitzvahs, and marriages. Alongside the traditional liturgy for a Brit Milah is a parallel service called Zeved Habat welcoming a girl into the covenant. Also worth noting is the true beauty of the volume. Designed by Devora Lifshitz, a well-known Israeli graphic artist, the book is gorgeous, the type clear and bold, each page laid out perfectly. The publication of Siddur Va’ani Tefilati marks the true coming of age of the Masorti movement and should be widely noted by Conservative Jews everywhere. It’s publication—and by a large, professional publishing house at that—is truly good news, the kind that deserves to be not merely noted but truly celebrated. Of all the good news I’ve brought together this week, Siddur Va’ani Tefilati is by far the best news of all. Can you read Hebrew? If you can, buy this book. You can order it at a 30% discount from Steimatzky’s at or you can buy it directly from the Yediot Acharonot Press at Even if your Hebrew skills are rudimentary you will love owning this book! Honestly, I can’t put it down!

And that concludes my good news survey for the week. Don’t worry, though. I’m done. Starting next week, we’ll be back to our usual litany of misery. But just this once…is anyone still awake?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Shabbos in America

I just finished reading Judith Shulevitz’s very interesting book, The Sabbath World, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you all about it. You’ve probably all read some of her work in the New York Times (where some material from this book first appeared in the Sunday magazine section), the New Republic, or the New Yorker, but this is her first full-length work. And it is really quite the debut. I myself was not certain what to expect when I first saw it advertised. But then, as I began to consider the matter more carefully, I found myself very curious what it was all about. The vast majority of books about the Sabbath that I (or, I suspect, most of my readers) come into contact with, after all, are the kind of how-to-make-Shabbos manuals that are published by the dozens for a very specific segment of the Jewish market and that rarely, if ever, address the larger issues inherent in Sabbath observance. But a book about Shabbat—and Shulevitz uses the word “Sabbath” in her title specifically to signal that she is not speaking, or not solely speaking, about the observant Jewish version of the weekly day of rest—such a book written neither to encourage observance nor explain the ins and outs of making a pot of tea or having a baby on Shabbos, but rather to explore the concept of there being such a weekly day of rest in the first place and then to recommend that it be considered by moderns, and she means specifically to include non-Jewish people, with far more attention that it generally garners (which is, I’m sure, for most people none at all)…that, it struck me, is a book I should find very interesting indeed.

And that is exactly how I did find it. And more than just interesting, actually. By interspersing her analysis of the place of the Sabbath in Western culture with details of her own spiritual journey, the author has created a kind of testament to the way that religious values can be brought to bear as the building blocks of a life without the person whose life is in play being first obliged to equate embracing observance with the loss of intellectual integrity or perspective. Indeed, by speaking frankly about her inability to adopt traditional observance in all its punctiliousness and the way she has learned to live with the various inconsistencies (also enumerated in some detail) that have come to characterize her life as a Sabbath-involved modern Jewish woman, Shulevitz manages to speak both candidly and intelligently about a topic that really ought to interest all students of religion and culture and particularly all Jewish ones. Some of what she has to say is painful to read—I’m thinking particularly of a long passage detailing the Shabbos she once spent with a super-observant family in New Haven as a way of pleasing her then-boyfriend and how she was treated not as a welcome, dignified guest, but as a moron too insufficiently trained in her own Jewishness to be trusted to clear the dining room table or help clean up the kitchen without inadvertently violating some specific detail of Shabbat observance—but most of her reminiscences are benign enough. When she writes about her childhood home and especially about her mother, for example, even those parts of her story that will make readers cringe are bathed in a kind of warm light far more reflective of the love she clearly feels for the people in her story than suggestive of any sinister intention to expose their failings or their flaws to the reading public. And the same could be said of her various accounts of synagogue life—a certain amount of what she has to say that will make readers (and especially Jewish ones) uncomfortable, but even those accounts feel suffused with some sort of basically wholesome combination of respect for the larger enterprise and sympathy for the players in her story…including, impressively, those she does not appear to recall especially fondly.

There’s a lot here to ponder. Her long chapter, for example, about the growth of Christian sabbatarianism is fascinating and contained a huge amount of material that was either unfamiliar or wholly unknown to me. (I’m thinking here specifically of her description of the Transylvanian Szombatosok—literally “Saturday People”— who numbered tens of thousands in the seventeenth century and who embraced some Christianized version of what Jews would easily recognize as Shabbat.) But although her effort to trace the roots of the back-to-the-Sabbath movement in the Reformation was interesting enough in its own right, it was when the authors turns to the history of the Sabbath in America that I found myself totally caught up in what she had to say. Her chapter connecting the beginning of the story in Puritan America—and especially her account of the life of Thomas Shepard, one of the founders of Harvard University and also one of Christian America’s greatest sabbatarians—with the crazy quilt of blue laws that continue to govern the hugely inconsistent American approach to the maintenance of a common day of rest, for example, is terrifically interesting and filled with all sorts of provocative, challenging insights into the way Americans see themselves and understand American culture to function. But it is when Shulevitz turns to the philosophical issues behind the concept of a weekly day of rest that she shines the most brightly. Starting out from the observation that our world is filled to overflowing with mechanical and electronic devices touted as labor-saving wonders but which end up quickly enough first encroaching upon and then entirely swallowing up whatever limited leisure time their purchasers may actually have had before acquiring them, Shulevitz makes a very convincing case that Americans in particular have moved past the notion of a common day of rest too quickly for their own good. It’s a convincing case. And regardless of whether readers are completely brought on board, they will still find the argument thoughtfully and persuasively put.

There are flaws with the book as well. Shulevitz is not a trained scholar of religion and so has no choice but to rely on the research of others, which she cites extensively throughout the book. But she occasionally gives forth with undue authority about subjects she appears to know well but not really well enough. Her description of how the Torah came to be, for example, presents as simple facts theories that hold sway only in some specific corners of the scholarly world and which are considered wholly passé in others. The same—that she relies on the books she happens to have read—could be said with respect to her retelling of the story of the Maccabean revolt or the history of the early Christian church. Her habit of referring to the Tanakh as the Old Testament and to Jesus as Christ (as though that were his last name) will make Jewish readers, to say the least, uncomfortable.

But the section of the book that Jewish readers will find the most perplexing will be the concluding chapter in which she waxes poetic about all the positive things re-introducing the concept of even a wholly secular, religion-free Sabbath into American life would at least possibly bring to this country. Noting that she is not the first to have this thought—I personally took her advice to check on and was astounded at how many books published in the last decade alone have as their basic thesis the idea that Christian America should embrace the idea of a real Sabbath-style day of personal rest on a weekly basis—she never quite explains how the national re-adoption of legally requisite Sabbath rest on Sundays, or even the widespread, non-legally-required re-introduction of a weekly Sunday Sabbath into secular American culture, could possibly not be a ruinous development for observant American Jews who already have a day each week on which they do not work and on which they therefore cannot look after all the chores that there is no time to address during the work week. (In all fairness, she acknowledges the problem and addresses it. She just doesn’t really offer a practical solution.) And therein lies the crux of the book’s nervous energy: the author’s realization that she is proposing something that would probably do secular American culture no end of good but which would even further marginalize, alienate, and isolate those of us American citizens who already have a rich, meaningful non-Sunday Sabbath in our lives. Does Shulevitz sees this as somehow emblematic of some of the larger issues surrounding the Jewish presence in American society? I came away thinking so, although I’m not sure how fair that is. (In all fairness, I have to admit I didn’t really understand the last few pages of the book in terms of what the author is actually recommending. The point, for example, of her retelling of the story about how Freud’s attitude towards ritual developed against the background of an insult his father was obliged (partially by circumstance and partially because of his own meekness) to endure at the hands of an anti-Semitic hooligan on the sidewalk of his hometown also eluded me. Is the point that his father was asking for trouble by taking a walk dressed up in his Shabbos finery when he just as easily could have hidden his faith by dressing down to avoid notice? Surely, all rituals serve to divide those who observe them from those who don’t. Is that bad? Or, more to the point, does that oblige all who openly practice their faith to feel at least partially responsible when bigots respond negatively to their unhidden, unsubtle piety?)

These are all interesting questions that are compellingly presented and adroitly handled by the author in what is, finally, a very worthwhile work for American Jews (and also American non-Jews) to ponder. I know Judith Shulevitz’s mother, who is a colleague of mine in the Rabbinical Assembly, and I imagine she must be very proud of her daughter’s work. Reading this book I felt proud too: proud to be part of a national culture in which a Jewish author can publish such a very Jewish book and expect, apparently correctly, for it to find a wide audience among non-Jewish readers eager to learn what they can about our national ethos from an author who is so thoroughly and unabashedly Jewish in her orientation towards life, religion, and public policy. The Sabbath World is a great book and I recommend it to you wholeheartedly.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Israel and the Flotilla

Can you stand getting even one more piece of e-mail about the flotilla incident that occurred earlier this week in international waters just off the coast of Gaza? I can guess how many you’re received and how hard it's been to keep it all straight and not become bored by the repetition of the same details over and over. I myself have lost count of how much mail I’ve received in the course of these last three or four days. E-mails encouraging me to vote in a dozen different internet polls. E-mails encouraging me to watch this or that clip on youtube that will “prove” who is right and who is lying about what really happened. E-mails purporting to have the “true” story about the whole incident…and the videotape to prove it. E-mails from at least a dozen and a half different organizations, only one or two of which I actually belong to, encouraging me to understand how serious the situation has become for Israel both from a security and a public relations point of view. And also a sprinkling of hate-filled e-mails filled with the kind of vile anti-Israel rhetoric that equates Zionism with Nazism and other kinds of vituperative, sickening language. (Where do these people get my e-mail address? Maybe I don’t want to know.)

The short version of the story is actually rather simple. A non-governmental organization bearing the innocuous sounding name of “Turkish Humanitarian Relief Organization” organized a flotilla of boats with the intention of breaking Israel’s blockade of the Gaza coast. (You will also see the organization referred to by the acronym IHH, derived from the group’s official name in the Turkish language.) Israel agreed that the humanitarian supplies could be delivered to Gazans in need, but that the ships would have to be unloaded and inspected in Ashdod. Then, once it was certain that there were no arms or illegal materials aboard, the supplies would be delivered. Of the six ships involved, five complied. One however, a ship called the Mavi Marmara, declined to go along with Israel’s instructions, as a result of which Israeli naval commandos boarded the vessel to force compliance. What happened next is the specific part of the story being debated endlessly both on the ground and in the ether. The most likely scenario is that the people on the boat reacted violently to the presence of Israeli personnel and the Israelis responded in kind. Once gun shots were fired at the Israelis, the fire was returned and when it was all over nine people were dead, four of them said to be Turkish citizens. (There were, according to yesterday’s Yediot Acharonot, about six hundred people on the boat representing thirty-eight different nationalities.) The boats are now in Ashdod, where what is happening is precisely what ought to have happened in the first place: the boats are being inspected and the goods they were carrying slowly cleared for transport into Gaza.

For those of us who finish our prayers daily by asking that God bring peace to Israel, it is beyond sickening to watch so many world leaders tripping over their own feet to condemn Israel even more sharply or even more aggressively for…for what? For attempting to prevent people from possibly smuggling rockets or weapons into an adjacent territory governed by people who self-define as terrorists and who have already fired something like 10,000 rockets and mortars into Israel, almost all of them aimed at civilian targets, over the last few years? You would think that it wouldn’t matter, that we for whom Israel’s security is of paramount importance would have learned long ago not to care or even to listen while the world fulminates about this or that effort by the IDF to make safe the people of Israel. But somehow it continues to make me crazy, this spectacle of one-sided criticism intended not seriously to take issue with this or that Israeli policy but merely to legitimize the effort to de-legitimize Israel by decrying its policies as misguided, its leadership as morally bankrupt, and its right to defend its own interests—and, for some reason, especially to protect its citizenry against real and constant threats—as somehow bogus. From the United Nations, of course, we have long since learned to expect nothing at all, not even empty rhetoric formally intended at least to sound even-handed. But even so it was intensely distressing to watch the Security Council race to judgment. That that same council seems to have no interest whatsoever in condemning or even discussing human rights abuses in Muslim lands or acts of terrorism specifically intended to murder innocents—I’m thinking of the suicide bombing of a mosque of a minority Muslim sect in Lahore, Pakistan, earlier this week that intentionally took the lives of somewhere between eighty and one hundred innocent worshipers and which seems to have elicited no response at all from the Security Council at all—should be such old news to all of us that it actually amazes me that I still find it upsetting. But I do. And I’m getting worse, not better.

In my professional life as teacher and preacher, I have always tried to avoid an “us vs. them” approach to the world. I have never wanted to think that the world consists only of Jews and non-Jews, and neither have I ever wanted to embrace the corollary of that principle according to which that the distinctions between different groups of non-Jews are real but essentially trivial, something akin to the way lepidopterists distinguish between thousands of different species of moths in technical ways that seem unimportant for the rest of us to master or even really to understand. But the older I get and the more I see of the kind of knee-jerk response to any vigorous effort of the IDF to do work that has its precise parallel in the work undertaken by the armed forces of every single member country of the United Nations to safeguard its citizens and to make them secure, the more distressing the whole picture and its larger implications are to me.

About a year ago, I wrote here expressing my reservations about the efforts undertaken by some specific evangelical organizations in our country to support Israel. I actually wrote about this theme several times, mostly in pieces focused on the work of the Reverend John Hagee of San Antonio, Texas, and the organization he founded called the Christians United for Israel. I found fault with the some of the reverend’s statements about the Shoah and the biblical precedents he saw at work both in the Holocaust and its aftermath, but also in the historical relationship between the Shoah and the founding of Israel. Since then, not much has changed. The reverend, I’m sure, continues to hold his views and I continue to hold mine. But I find that I have abandoned whatever uncertainty I once harbored about his efforts on Israel’s behalf, and particularly about his effort to create pro-Israel Christian groups on the campuses of American universities. (You can visit his organization’s website at to see what I mean.) Regardless of what else he stands for, this is someone prepared to stand up in public and defend Israel and the IDF. And, because more than a quarter of American citizens are affiliated in some way with different sorts of evangelical churches, the Reverend Hagee is also someone whom American politicians are loath to be seen treating dismissively, let alone whose views they can safely ignore. Watching the brouhaha surrounding the Gaza flotilla incident has inspired me to abandon my hesitancy and welcome his support and the support of evangelical America in general.

In the end, maybe I was both right and wrong about how the world works. Maybe it really is an “us vs. them” world after all…only not precisely in the way I earlier thought. The world in which Israel struggles to survive does not divide down easily into Jews and Gentiles. But it does divide down almost neatly into people whose implacable hatred for Israel cannot be countered by balanced, thoughtful argumentation—the people who find Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez to be inspiring leaders—and the rest of the world, which includes people who find the right of Jewish people to live securely and peacefully in a Jewish state in the Jewish homeland as self-evident and reasonable as the right of the Irish to live in Ireland or the right of the Japanese to live in Japan. I used to decry efforts to simplify the situation by establishing categories of people with respect to their attitudes towards Israel and then assigning people to those categories based on their actions or their words, but now I find myself far less willing to declare such efforts simplistic or misleading. What if the world really does divide down into people for whom the existence of Israel itself is anathema and people prepared to accept the reasonableness of the Jewish people charting its own course, thus also its own destiny, as a nation among nations and a people secure in its rights among the peoples of the world? Could it really be that simple?

After reading endlessly about the flotilla incident in the course of these last days, including especially Ambassador Oren’s essay on the op-ed page of the Times Wednesday, I find in myself a new willingness to accept the support of the world from wherever it comes, even from people who clearly view the situation from a perspective I do not and cannot ever share. Support is support regardless of whence it comes, and support—in the international arena, in the Congress of the United States, even in that vipers’ den in Turtle Bay—is what Israel needs as it charts its course through waters that are in some ways more dangerous than any straits through which it has previously passed.

All my readers know how deeply I fear the world becoming inured to the supposed inevitability of a nuclear Iran. To me, this whole incident surrounding the Gaza flotilla is highly suggestive of the direction the world could well end up taking with respect to Iran as well, one that pivots on the assumption that Israel’s right to live in peace without being threatened by Kassam rockets from Gaza or, God forbid a million times over, nuclear missiles from Iran is somehow negotiable or, worse, an internal matter for Jewish people to fret over but for the world at large mostly to ignore. I find myself dispirited and discouraged not by the actions of the IDF—because, in the end, for all the loss of life is to be regretted, those boats did not end up bringing any rockets or missiles into Gaza—but by the reaction of an unfeeling, uncaring world working on the assumption, all too familiar to those of us steeped in Jewish history, that the very right of Israel to defend itself (or, for that matter, of Jews anywhere at all to defend themselves and insist on safeguarding their own security) is somehow by its very nature suspect.

I don’t share the reverend Hagee’s views on many topics and least of all do I share his evangelical worldview. But I welcome his support and the support of others from his world. I think the time has come for all of us to feel that way. And to urge our own leaders within the Jewish community not merely to accept the support that comes even from the most unlikely quarters, but actively to solicit support from whatever source it might eventually come.