Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Strangers and Citizens, Parents and Children

Because we are all different people coming from different backgrounds and carrying along different kinds of cultural baggage, we Americans are naturally going to respond in different ways to the phenomenon of families caught trying to cross the southwest border illegally being separated when parents are incarcerated in prison and their children are handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services to be watched over or, at least ideally, placed in foster care until their parents’ cases are adjudicated. And even thought the President’s executive order of earlier this week appears intended to ameliorate the situation with respect to future families, there are apparently no plans to reunite families already separated. Nor is it clear precisely what the effect of the President’s order will be even if the courts to uphold its legality with the respect to the now-famous Flores decision of 1997 according to which children may only be kept in detention for a maximum of twenty days. In other words, the fire is slightly less hot than it was earlier in the week, maybe, but the pot is definitely still in serious danger of boiling over.
For me personally—as well, I’m sure as for all Jewish souls like myself whose lives are lived out against the backdrop of the Shoah and its aftermath, the sight of crying children being forcefully taken from their parents and sent off to be detained in special facilities set up to house them is not only emotionally upsetting but viscerally repugnant.  More than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents since the zero-tolerance program went into effect in May. Some, the fortunate ones, have been placed in foster care. (This number includes 239 children, some as young as 9 months of age, who have been sent to the New York area.) Of some of the less lucky, we have heard lots: the 1500 boys housed in that Walmart store in Brownsville, Texas, for example. But of the others of those being housed by the government, we have heard almost nothing other than some vague references to at least three “tender age facilities” where babies and toddlers are being kept.

Of course, children in our nation are routinely separated from their parents when their parents are incarcerated after being sentenced in court to prison. But in such cases the parent facing incarceration has the time to arrange for the child to be looked after and cared for, and the possibility of the government losing track of where exactly that person’s child is being housed is nil. Yet that appears too to have happened in this case, as admitted the other day by Steve Wagner, an official at the Department of Health and Human Services, when he testified in the Senate in April that his agency had lost track of 1,475 children who had been apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on their own and subsequently placed with adult sponsors of various sorts. These are specifically not children taken from their parents. But it does not bode well for those who have been taken from their parents’ watchful supervision in these last weeks since the zero-tolerance policy has gone into effect.
The whole situation feels intractable. But while some aspects of the situation feel like details in need of working out—how exactly to determine any specific individual’s application for refugee status, for example—the question of whether the enforced separation of families, including families with very young children, should be permitted under any circumstances does not feel that way at all to me. In the end, either we are a nation that can countenance doing irrevocable harm to children or we aren’t.

One of our Shelter Rock physicians, Dr. Steve Goldstein, showed me a remarkable essay the other day published by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University under the directorship of Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, the director of the center. The essay, entitled “Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain,” explains how subjecting a child to toxic levels of stress can actually affect the child’s brain in ways that may well be irreversible even should the child be eventually restored to a stable, caring environment either with his or her own parents or in some other setting. You cannot, it turns out, simply subject a young child to traumatic levels of stress and then suppose that the child will return to normal later on when things calm down. Some damage, it turns out, risks to be permanent.
I have to say, I felt bowled over by reading this—amazed both at how little I knew about the topic and also by the fact that this information, at least so far, has largely failed to inform the whole discussion about the question of separating children—most of whom don’t speak English and who barely understand what it happening to them—from their parents and incarcerating them in facilities that were neither built nor designed to house children and which are staffed by overwhelmed officials unable to communicate even poorly with most of the children  in their charge. (To read the essay, click here. It’s only seven pages long and it will affect your thinking on the matter dramatically. For Dr. Shonkoff’s most recent statement about the potential damage to children forcibly separated from their parents, issued just the day before yesterday, click here.)

And then there was Attorney General Sessions’ remark the other day that he perceived himself to responding to, of all things, a biblical mandate in pursuing the zero-tolerance policy that leads to the separation of children from their parents.
The Attorney General was speaking to a group of police officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when he first mentioned the biblical passage that he identified as the source of his motivation to punish the children of illegals (or, more precisely, would-be illegals) with separation from their parents, specifying to the officers that he had in mind the passage from the New Testament that opens the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Leaving aside the question of why a federal official would base himself on a passage from Christian Scripture rather than the Constitution when determining policy, the choice itself is an interesting one. The text in question reads as follows:  Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

Those lines have their own place in our nation’s history. They were used by loyalists to argue against the colonial Americans who were preparing to go to war to gain freedom from Britain in the eighteenth century. And they were last cited in Congress in 1850 in support of the Fugitive Slave Act, possibly the most odious piece of legislation ever to be enacted by our American Congress. But my question for the Attorney General is not about his grasp of history but, since he opened the door himself, about his personal beliefs: does he really believe that there are no governments at all other than those that God in heaven has established? I don’t think so. I doubt any of my readers do, particularly those who endured life under the Nazis (who did not, after all, seize power violently but who came to power after winning the most seats in the Reichstag in the election of 1932). And I can’t believe Attorney General Sessions thinks that either.

As it happens, I know a few biblical verses myself. My Bible imagines a slave escaping from a brutal master and says, “You may not return a fugitive slave to his master after he has escaped from that master and sought refuge with you.” My Bible imagines people naturally inclined to mistrust foreigners and says, “You may not oppress or make anxious the stranger for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” My Bible features two Egyptian midwives, women with neither power nor status, refusing to harm Israelite children merely because the king of Egypt has commanded them to do so, and says of them, not that whatever the government commands is by definition just, but that “God granted great favor to the midwives and made them the matriarchs of their own burgeoning clans” in recompense for having resisted the government’s command to harm children.
That “…for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt” trope repeats over and over in the Torah. All instances are interesting, but one stands out in particular to me: “The stranger shall be to you as the citizen, and you shall love the stranger in your midst just as you love your fellow countrymen for you were strangers in the land of Egypt just as surely as I the Lord am your God. Do not pervert justice!” I suppose we all have our favorite verses.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

King Whoever

Who are you, little man? I look into your sad eyes…and see only resolve not to share your secrets. But you’re out in the open now, in the sunlight. You won’t understand what the Internet is just quite yet, but you’re well featured on it…and that means that even though you obviously can’t see any of us, we can all see you. It’s sort of hard to explain. But it’s a good thing, mostly.
You haven’t been out there in full view for all to admire for long. I know that, and I can imagine how disorienting this kind of unsought-after publicity must be for someone your age—you have, after all, spent the last three thousand years buried under a huge mountain of dirt and debris—and it’s clearly going to take a while to adjust to the modern world. But you’ll like it here once you get used to it. Or you mostly will.

You really do look good for someone your age. What? Yes, of course I understand that the end part your nose is just missing-in-action and that your nose didn’t really look like that when you were alive. Your chin too, obviously. But you still cut a rather dashing figure, even without the bits and pieces that have fallen away over the millennia. Nice hair, too! I like the cornrows on top and the ringlets on the side. (In our world, only hasidim and the women in Jane Austen novels wear side ringlets like that. On me, they wouldn’t look that good. But I like them on you.)  I have a beard too, by the way, although mine reaches all the way up the side of my head to meet my sideburns and yours looks like it just stops halfway up your face. But it’s actually sort of cool that way, now that I take a second look. A little pasted-on looking maybe, but still appealing.
While we’re being frank, your mouth is a little crooked too—but maybe that was just the sculptor trying to make you look regal. Yes, obviously, regal: you are wearing a golden crown, aren’t you? Even I know what that means! And your crooked mouth is more than made up for by your soulful eyes, my little friend. (Okay, okay, I’m done with the little guy stuff—I know you weren’t really 2 inches tall, or that your head wasn’t.) I suppose it’s unlikely we would have been friends had we been each other’s contemporaries. (I don’t actually know any kings in this world I inhabit and I suppose I probably wouldn’t have known any in yours either.) But maybe we could have just hung out together sometimes anyway. When my daughter Lucy was about eight or nine, she taught me how to braid hair. I was pretty good at it too! So I’m sure I could learn how to do cornrows. You know what, I bet we could have been pals.

He really is two inches tall. Or at least his head is. And he really has spent the last three thousand or so years underground, buried deep beneath the ruins of biblical Abel Beth Maacah, a tel located just south of the Israeli-Lebanese line near the border town of Metula, until he was unearthed just recently by a team of archeologists from the Hebrew University and California’s Asuza Pacific University under the supervision of Professor Naama Yahalom-Mack of the Hebrew University. And his story clearly goes back that far as well. No one can say for sure who he is. But that he was someone—that goes without saying. To read more about the excavations that led to his discovery, click here.

Based on the datable detritus amongst which he was found, it seems certain that King Whoever lived in the ninth century BCE. In its day, Abel Beth Maacah was the Trieste of its day, sitting at the spot where the borders of three powerful kingdoms met: the Kingdom of Israel to the south, the Phoenician kingdom of Tyre to the west, and the kingdom of Aram (with its capital at Damascus) to the east. The town is mentioned a few times in the Bible, most notably in the Second Book of Samuel, where it is the setting for the decapitation of one Sheva ben Bikhri, a Benjaminite who unsuccessfully tried to stir up a rebellion against King David and who then, having sought refuge in Abel Beth Maacah, was rewarded for his efforts by having his head cut off and tossed over the wall into the waiting arms of David’s general Yoav, who, delighted, promptly called off the siege of the city and sent his troops home instead. What he did with Sheva’s head exactly is not recorded. (For readers who can’t get enough, this story is retold in detail in my novel, Heads You Lose.)
This, however, is definitely not Sheva ben Bikhri’s head. For one thing, the crown guarantees that we are looking at a king. For another, why would anyone make a bust of Sheva ben Bikhri, a failed malcontent? So, a king. But which one? Presuming a ninth-century monarch doesn’t cut down the field as much as you’d think: without going outside the Bible, we have several reasonable possibilities to choose between. The little guy could be King Ethbaal of Tyre, the father of our own Queen Jezebel and father-in-law of King Ahab of Israel.  For that matter, he could be King Ahab himself. Or he could plausibly be one of Ahab’s two sons who reigned after him, King Ahaziah or King Jehoram. Or he could be King Jehu, who seized power from the House of Omri (to which Ahab and his sons belonged) by, among other things, shooting an arrow through King Jehoram’s shoulder blades with such force that it pierced his heart and exited his chest on the other side. Or it could be King Ben Haddad or King Hazael of Damascus. All would be reasonable choices. We’ll never know. The thought, though, that this is what an ancient king looked like and probably an ancient Israelite one (the tel is the site of an ancient Israelite city, after all)—that thought is remarkably attractive to me. I’ve read about these guys my whole life. I’ve written about them too…but who ever thought I would be able actually to see one of them?

That question is just a bit misleading, however. For example, there actually is  a portrait of King Jehu to compare our fellow with, although not a particularly flattering one.
One of the most amazing archeological finds of the nineteenth century was the discovery in 1846 by Sir Austen Henry Layard of the so-called Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, which he found at a place called Nimrud in northern Iraq and which contains the oldest known picture of a person mentioned in the Bible: none other than King Jehu himself. We can be fairly certain, however, that this is not the portrait the king himself would have chosen to be remembered by as it depicts him prostrate before King Shalmaneser of Assyria as he offers him the tribute that is listed in detail on the obelisk as well: “silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase with a pointed bottom, golden tumblers, tin, a staff [fit] for a king, and spears.” (The concept of buying off superpowers with gifts to keep them from swallowing your country into their empire is a very old one.) And here he is, the king of Israel with his royal derrière higher off the ground than his royal head as he kisses Shalmaneser III’s imperial feet and attempts to buy him off with some really expensive presents:

Is that our guy? The hair is the same, as is the beard (although it looks like it meets his sideburns here—but surely that’s just a detail.) Why he’s wearing a smurf’s hat, who knows? But it certainly could be our guy. Maybe his head was cold when he took his royal crown off, which you obviously have to do when you beg the big guys to take the money and leave your people alone!
There are remarkably few pictures of ancient Israelites. In the throne room of King Sennacharib of Assyria, there is a famous frieze depicting the Battle of Lachish, which pitted the Assyrians against the Kingdom of Judah in 701 BCE and which the Assyrians won handily, taking these two Judahite soldiers captive.

What the story with their hair was, who can say? And how they got their beards to match seems even less easy to imagine. To people my age, they will resemble most of all those type-ball things once featured in IBM Selectric typewriters. (Kids, ask your parents about this: typewriters were something like printers, except you had to input each word separately and couldn’t make any changes without having to type the whole thing over again.) But, joking aside, there’s something serious here to contemplate: the Bible talks endlessly about the Israelites, but this is what they actually looked like. Does any of these guys look like someone you might run into at a UJA reception? If you ignore their remarkably thick necks, they somehow do. Also, nice moustaches!

Friday, June 8, 2018

Learning to Listen

The Israeli-Palestinian dispute has many unique features, by which I mean qualities that it specifically does not share with similar geo-political disputes and which are features particularly of the parties to it. But there are other features that it does share with other disputes between nations or peoples, into which category I would put those aspects of the problem that are specifically not especially unique to the players involved. I suppose there are probably many different aspects to the endless sikhsukh between Arab and Jew in the Holy Land that could be included in that second category, but I think probably the most prominent of them all—and paradoxically both the most difficult to resolve and, in other ways, also the simplest—is the inability both sides show with remarkable regularity to see the people on the other side of the fence at all clearly. Or to hear them when they speak. Or to listen without prejudice to what they wish to say.
There are circles, as I am well aware, in which even the suggestion that the responsibility for the situation as it has evolved to date could or, worse, should be shared by the involved parties is anathema. I have fallen prey to that line of thinking myself. And although I find some scant comfort in the fact that I was in excellent (and famous) company in that regard, the reality of the situation no longer affords anyone who longs for peace in the region the luxury of listening only to his or her own voice. To describe those willing to listen to dissenting opinions as terminally gullible seems beyond childish at this point: it seems counterproductive and morally indefensible to imagine that peace can ever be made between people who are not prepared even formally, let alone intently, to listen to each other and to respond honestly and genuinely to what the other party has to say. It is certainly so that lots of what people say about the Middle East is nonsense, their arguments baseless blather and their positions intellectually and morally indefensible. The problem is that there’s no way to weigh the worth of other people’s opinions without listening to them carefully, and doing so generously and without prejudice. To do that, however, requires that you at least occasionally stop talking yourself. But that inability to fall silent with someone else speaks turns out, more than slightly paradoxically, to be one of the major things Israelis and Palestinians actually do have in common.

All this by way of introducing to you a very interesting book I finished reading earlier this week, Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. Published just last month by HarperCollins, the book is remarkable in several different ways and I would like to recommend it as serious, thoughtful summer reading for anyone who wants to understand—and on a particularly intelligent, reasonable plain—the underlying reasons that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute seems so intractable.

Halevi has framed his book as a series of letters to an unidentified neighbor living in Iswiya, the Arab town on the other side of the separation fence that blocks access to French Hill, the modern Israeli neighborhood adjacent to the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University in which Halevi lives. For readers unfamiliar with the geography of Jerusalem, the basic principle is that, with certain famous exceptions, most Arab villages—including ones inside the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem—and the Jewish communities almost adjacent to them are sealed off from each other, if not precisely by law, then by custom: my own apartment in Arnona is not half a mile from the Arab village of Jabel Mukaber, but I’ve never been there and wouldn’t think of going there—it would be unsafe and unwise—and neither do I know anyone who has ever gone there. That’s just how it is. Yet I see Arab families all the time in the shopping malls in Talpiyot, the neighborhood directly to our west, and no one seems to notice or care. It’s all a little hard to explain, but Halevi’s idea—which I think he manages to carry through successfully—is both to notice and to care…and also to imagine that where people shop contiguously and eat at adjacent tables in restaurants, they could also speak to each other honestly and from the heart…if they felt that there was someone actually listening. A little bit, he’s tilting at windmills. But he’s also taken the remarkable step of having his entire book—this book that I’m writing to you about—translated into Arabic and posted for free download on a website that should be easily accessible to all Israeli and Palestinian Arabs.

The author writes frankly and from the heart. To the Palestinians, he offers the clear message that they are doing themselves a disservice and more or less guaranteeing that almost no Israelis will listen seriously (or even at all, really), when they speak as though the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel began in the nineteenth century and refuse on principle to take the preceding millennia into account, millennia which included centuries of Jewish autonomy in that place and of ongoing spiritual, emotional, and intellectual attachment to it. Indeed, when Palestinian leaders insist—passionately but ridiculously—that the entire Bible is a falsification of history, that there never was a Temple on the Temple Mount, that the Davidic kingdom never existed, that all the archeological evidence that ties the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is bogus and phony, they are more or less guaranteeing that no Israeli with any sense of pride in his or her nation will still be listening after the first sentence or two. But when Israelis, and particularly religious Israelis, wave away the Palestinians as mere interlopers because their ancestors only arrived on the scene a mere twelve centuries ago, they are guaranteeing no less surely that no thoughtful Palestinian born in that place and whose whole sense of identity is tied to his or her national sense of self is going to continue listening after the first few words either.
In other words, what both sides have accomplished magnificently is the discovery and honing of precisely the right kind of code words to use so as to be able to guarantee that no one will actually be listening when you finally do stand up to speak.

Halevi addresses painful, difficult topics in the course of his letters to his unidentified neighbor across the security fence. He talks openly—and passionately—about the way that terrorism has taken its toll not only on the specific individuals who have died as the result of Palestinian terror attacks, but on the national consciousness of Israelis as well. And he also writes, in my opinion remarkably openly, about the specific reasons so many Israelis do not feel themselves able to believe truly that their Palestinian neighbors wish to live in peace. Indeed, when he asks, not guilelessly but sharply and acidulously, why the Palestinians have turned down so many different offers of statehood—at Camp David and at Oslo, but also on other occasions as well—if they truly wish to negotiate a settlement and get on with the work of nation building, he is merely doing his part to hold up his end of the dialogue honestly and candidly.
One review I read suggested that the best way to read this book would be first to read an entirely different one: Hillel Halkin’s Letters to an American Jewish Friend, published in 1977 and still in print. I was in my final year at JTS when that book came out and I remember reading it and feeling both inspired by its argument, yet unjustly marginalized by its conclusions. The book angered me—which I’m sure was exactly the response the author hoped to provoke—but also challenged me to revisit my feelings about living in the diaspora and about my personal relationship to Israel. I recommend the book highly to all my readers, however: here is a truly passionate argument for aliyah that all who wish truly honestly to engage with the Zionist ideal should read. 

For most, it will not be pleasant reading. But political writing at its best is not meant to soothe, but to irritate—somewhat in the way sand irritates oysters into producing pearls—and to allow readers to confront their complacency and address the logical flaws or moral sloppiness in the way they approach the philosophical or political issues that engage them the most passionately. I see that reviewer’s point and second the motion: to read those two books, one after the other, would truly to engage with the twin axes of Israel life: the x-axis of Jewishness which connects Israelis with Jews in all the lands of our dispersion, and the y-axis of rootedness in the land which ties Israelis, whether they like it or not, to the Palestinians who self-define in terms of their own rootedness in that same soil. And for those of us whose hearts beat with Israel, that kind of engagement with the grid can only produce insight into what we all understand is a very complicated situation.  Anna Porter, who wrote a very intelligent review of Halevi’s book for the Toronto newspaper, The Globe and Mail (click here to read it), wraps up her appraisal by noting that “Israel is a very complicated country.” That, surely, we can all agree is true. But books like Halevi’s are attempts to shed more light than heat on the precise issues that make life in the Holy Land so complicated…and to inspire a dialogue, for once, that is rooted in reality rather than rhetoric.
Since I am not a Palestinian, I am presumably not the intended audience for a book entitled “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.” Nor will the large majority of people reading this be. Nonetheless, I recommend this to you all wholeheartedly as an opportunity to look out at the world, and the Middle East in particular, through Yossi Klein Halevi’s eyes. Particularly for young people eager to understand their parents’ deep commitment to Israel but unsure of where they personally stand, this book will be an eye-opening, inspiring read.