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Hunting Season – Kol Nidrei

October 07, 2011

One of the most remarkable places in Israel is located in Jaffa, adjacent to Tel Aviv. It is a combination theatre and restaurant, and it is called the Nalaga’at Center. Nalaga’at means “Please touch.” It opened in 2007 and most of the 70 people on its staff are deaf or blind, and deaf-and-blind. They are afflicted with a genetic disorder called Usher syndrome which results in acute deafness at birth, followed by a gradual loss of vision. The restaurant is called Blackout, and it is there that you eat your meal in a pitch-black environment. You order your vegetarian or fish dishes before entering. Once seated, you are keenly aware of other diners talking at adjacent tables. Do you ‘recognize’ anyone purely by the sound of his or her voice? You probe the table space in front of you. Is there one plate, or two of different sizes, one atop the other? Where is the glass filled with water? Try not to knock it over. When your appetizer arrives, you laboriously move a spoonful of soup toward your mouth, hoping not to spill it on yourself. You quickly decide that the best way is to mimic your dog or cat by hovering over the plate, your face on top of the food. Don’t worry, no one can see you.

With the arrival of salad, your sense of relief is palpable. Solid food has tremendous advantages. You stab at the lettuce with abandon, though you tiptoe through the foliage to find where the tomatoes lie in wait. Fork in hand, you sit up straighter, but now you need to redefine the distance from the plate to your mouth. You hear the constant, irritating sound of neighboring forks and knives tapping and scraping plates, as your fellow diners try to find food by the hit-or-miss method. By the way, has anyone abandoned the effort in favor of eating with his or her fingers? Who would know? Or are you on the ‘honor system’ to use utensils? Throughout the meal, your waitress silently approaches, moving between tables without bumping into anything! She is blind. She asks if you are finished with one course or another, and for the first time in your life you have no idea. You cannot see her and she, of course, cannot see you. You feel helpless, invisible and vulnerable.

The theatre production at the Nalaga’at Center is called ‘Not By Bread Alone.’ Its name is derived from words in the Book of Deuteronomy: “…Not by bread alone does man live” {8:3}. In the time it takes to knead, raise and bake loaves of bread on stage, the deaf and blind actors talk about their desires and frustrations…that is to say, about their lives. Those who are blind know when to recite their lines through touch sign language. They share their thoughts in song and monologue as they knead the dough in individual pans, and then place them in ovens.

“Welcome to our lives,” they say, “to our dreams, to our silence. We invite you to our bakery to dream with us.” A woman on stage says, “My sister gave birth to a baby. I held him and stroked him, and I cried because I understood that I would never be able to see his face.” Another actor says, “It is important that someone shakes my hand. That is how I know that he or she exists.”

This is the only theatre ensemble in the world whose actors are all deaf-blind. The play emphatically conveys the message that people are not defined by their disability. When the loaves of bread are ready to come out of the on-stage oven, the play ends, and the actors invite the audience to join them on stage to break bread with them, to shake their hands, and to talk with them through a touch-sign interpreter and translator.

The first time that I heard about the Nalaga’at Center, I was mesmerized. The concept, the message, the experiential aspects, the lessons, and the drive to connect moved me in profound ways, and still do. However, there is an unintended subtext that is powerful in metaphors about Israel’s precarious position in the world: “No one can see you…you feel vulnerable…desires and frustrations…invite people to join them to break bread and shake hands…dreams…silence.”

It feels like hunting season to me, and Israel is the prey. It has long been said that Israel lives in a tough neighborhood. The neighborhood has changed for the worse. The Arab Spring has yielded a harvest of hatred.

Iran continues to make dramatic progress toward nuclear armament, all the while calling for the destruction of Israel amidst a continued confrontation with America. Her provocations are constant, the threat real, and the need for harsher sanctions remains urgent.

Turkey claims leadership in the Arab world and threatens to send its naval forces to shield and protect the next flotilla heading to Gaza. This is no idle threat. Enraged at the U.N. report that absolved Israel of violating international law when it intercepted the ‘humanitarian flotilla’ that sailed from Cyprus to Gaza in May 2010, Turkey has terminated all dialogue with Israel. The loss of life on board the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara was regrettable, but surely the world knows – though little does it care – that those on board were there with the blessing, funding and support of the highest levels of Turkey’s government. They were armed and prepared to provoke violence – in fact, they were yearning for it – and they instantly attacked Israeli commandos the moment they set foot on the ship after appeals for it to come to a dead stop in the water were ignored. With Gilad Shalit held somewhere, presumably in Gaza, since 2006 and hopefully still alive, no member of the IDF was going to risk being taken alive below deck to face a similar fate. Five ships complied with the Israeli request to be towed to port in Haifa. The ‘humanitarians’ on the Mavi Marmara refused to do so.

Speaking of ‘humanitarian flotillas,’ how many of us await news about a ‘humanitarian convoy’ on its way to Syria to protest the slaughter of defenseless citizens by their own government? The odds of that occurring are less than the possibility that the prophet Elijah will enter this sanctuary tonight. The ‘humanitarians’ are consistent in expressing their concerns: during the Second Intafada that started in late September 2000, students of the International Solidarity Movement sat in churches and mosques on the West Bank to deter the IDF from bombing houses of worship or killing civilians gathered there, presumably preventing Israel from doing what she might otherwise have done were it not for the ‘brave, moral people’ of the International Solidarity Movement. Set aside for a moment the fact that Israel has never done so – contrary to the worst that people believe about her – and ask this question: did the Solidarity Movement send its members to sit on buses, and in restaurants, pizzerias or nightclubs when suicide bombings were part of the Israeli landscape on an almost weekly basis in 2001 and 2002 {40 in 2001; 47 in 2002}? Israel invites frenzied responses and hypocritical behavior by individuals and nations simply because she exists.

When Mahmoud Abbas addressed the United Nations General Assembly just a week and a half ago {September 23, 2011}, he referred to the creation of Israel as Al-Nakba {The Catastrophe}. In the very first section of his address, he made the first of many references to the Nakba dating to 1948. This is what he said: “[For] 63 years [we have] suffer[ed] an ongoing Nakba in the land of the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad and the birthplace of Jesus Christ” [section 8]. Listen carefully to his words: while referring to Christian and Muslim ties to the Holy Land, he fails to mention any Jewish connection to Jerusalem and to the land of Israel. This is part-and-parcel of a full court press by Arab nations, their leaders and allies to delegitimize Israel, and a worldwide movement to isolate her through the strategy of boycott, divestment and sanctions. The goal is to turn Jewish history into a lie, and to launch the counter-claim that there was no ancient Jewish presence in the land of Israel, no ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and that the Holocaust is either fiction or exaggeration. For the purpose of hoped-for negotiations, 1967 will be the starting point, but for Abbas and Hamas, 1948 is the end point. This past May, Abbas signed a pact of reconciliation and partnership with Hamas, which has avowed its determination to rid Israel of Jews. Let there be no doubt about this: Abbas came to the United Nations not just to establish Palestinian statehood through unilateral declaration, but to “pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict” as he has said on several occasions {Oren, Michael. “Israel Offers Peace – Again.” The Wall Street Journal. September 24, 2011}.

Is there any hope on the horizon? For eighteen days earlier this year {January 25-February 11, 2011} hope flourished in Cairo around Tahrir Square, but now it shrivels on the vine. Those who believed that the Muslim Brotherhood might be eclipsed by a young generation of Egyptians on the path to liberal democracy – an independent judiciary, a transparent government, the recognition of women’s rights, and a more pluralistic society – have been sorely disappointed. Once the military coalesced its power, it brought the Brotherhood back into its embrace, effectively dooming the possibility of significant change and setting the course for a more fervent Islamic republic under quasi-military rule.

The Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations published a report just a week ago {September 28, 2011} saying that nearly 100,000 Christians have emigrated since March of this year. The report was sent to the Egyptian cabinet and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, warning that this flight has been prompted by escalating intimidation and attacks on Christians by Islamists, and lack of protection by the regime. Christian emigration has been increasing elsewhere in the neighborhood as families who can afford to do so flee Iraq, the West Bank and Lebanon {Ibrahim, Raymond. “Running for Their Lives.” Jihad Watch. September 28, 2011}.

Lebanon, under the sway of Hezbollah, is armed to the teeth with missiles poised to launch upon Haifa and Tel Aviv. With all of the storm and fury that flow through Yemen, Libya, Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Gaza, it is the relative quiet in Lebanon that gives one pause. Lebanon: armed with 40,000 missiles and rockets, provided by Iran and Syria.

In the midst of all of this, Israel faces pressing internal challenges. I said it last year, as in years past, and I say it again: the ultra-Orthodox and settlers on the religious right are not only a thorn in her side, they are a threat to her existence. Almost 65% of the religious right is supported by government subsidies. They sit in yeshivas while their wives raise large families, and Israel pays them to do so because the Orthodox parties in the Knesset threaten to take away their votes in the governing coalition should their subsidies decrease. They do not join the Army because they believe that Torah study supersedes military service, further distancing them from being part-and-parcel of a society whose benefits they enjoy while shirking many of the responsibilities that come with citizenship. Part of the culture of Israel – “work and serve” – is rejected by the far right Orthodox and its settlers, whose mantra is “study and subsidy.” In its 2011 State and Religion Index survey just released by Hiddush, an organization devoted to religious pluralism in Israel, the findings point to significant internal divides: 80% support reducing state funding for both yeshivas and large families in order to encourage ultra-Orthodox men to enter the workforce; 64% of the public view the tension between secular and ultra-Orthodox as the most acute domestic conflict in Israel; 40% say that all ultra-Orthodox studying in yeshivas should be drafted into compulsory service in the IDF.

This past week {October 3, 2011}, in the Bedouin village of Tuba Zangariya in northern Israel, a mosque was torched and defaced, allegedly by fundamentalist religious youths, in retaliation for the deaths of two Israelis who were killed in the West Bank. These religious youth live in unauthorized settler outposts and are loyal to rabbis who claim that the Israeli government and Army lack the authority to make concessions to the Palestinians. Shimon Peres and Israel’s chief rabbis came to the burned-out mosque to vigorously condemn the attack, as have Israel’s political leaders, saying that they are “filled with shame for this hateful act. This evil act is not only against the law, it is against Judaism, morality and spirit” {Mitnick, Joshua. ‘Mosque is Torched in Israel.’ The Wall Street Journal, October 4, 2011}. It is the settlers who burn Palestinian orchards. It is the settlers who with fists and knives attack fellow Israelis who speak out in defense of the rights of Palestinian farmers to reap the harvests of their own fields.

Israel has enabled the settlers for far too long. She should have declared that many of the settlements not connected to Jerusalem or located in one of the three settlement blocs have no place and will be dismantled. Calling for construction in Gilo shortly after Abbas and Netanyahu addressed the U.N. suggests tone deafness among Israel’s leadership. It defeats the chance of building trust with the Palestinians. To those who are frustrated and say, “There is nothing more Israel can do,” my response is, “There is something else she must do”: immediately establish a new moratorium on building. Palestinian hostility to Israel may change once the two-state option becomes a reality, and that option must be given a chance. A peace treaty would lead to economic growth in the West Bank, a decrease in unemployment, and a rise in the standard of living. It would create an economic reality through joint projects that both sides would be disinclined to break.

Yet for all the storm and fury that the settlements engender, the fact remains that Israel has reached out on numerous occasions to Palestinian leadership with little result. In the words of Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at Israel’s Shalom Hartman Institute, “The greatest obstacle to peace is not the creation of a Palestinian state, which most Israelis support, but the existence of a Jewish state, which most Palestinians reject…The Arab world’s insistence on defining the Jews out of their own national identity isn’t only insulting. It prolongs the conflict by encouraging rejection of Israel’s legitimacy.” {Halevi, Yossi Klein. “The Real Obstacle to Palestinian Statehood.” Reuters, October 6, 2011}.

I believe that there should be a different set of preconditions to negotiation than the ones Abbas demands: the cessation of rhetoric that consistently refers to Israel as “A Catastrophe’ and the elimination of phrases in the charter of Abbas’ partner, Hamas, that read, “Israel will exist…until Islam will obliterate it” {Hamas Charter, preamble} and “peace initiatives, the so-called peaceful resolutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement” {Hamas Charter, Article 13}.

Remarkably, in the midst of all of this, when Israelis might be expected to hunker down into fetal positions of anguish and despair, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets over the past few months – many of them camping out in ‘tent cities’ in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and Beersheba – to protest inadequate education, the prevalence of racism, and an economy in which the poor cannot find housing and the middle class cannot afford it. This is true tikkun olam, based on the belief that the individual has power to create a more just society. This is the Israel that I know and love. This is the Israel that struggles to endure, and to re-establish meaningful dialogue with Turkey, Egypt and Palestinians.

I do not want to stand here a week from now, a month from now, or a year from now and say, Ahl chet sheh’cha’tatee – “for the sin that I committed through silence and inaction” when I could have done more. The battle against Israel is being waged at the United Nations, in the Press, on university campuses, and in retail stores. She is being delegitimized and vilified. She is being threatened with naval armadas and missiles across borders, and by rulers spewing the rhetoric of hate and the drumbeat of destruction.

Rabbi David Hartman – who was born in America, ordained at Yeshiva University in New York, made aliyah with his wife and five children in 1971, and founded the Shalom Hartman think-tank in Jerusalem in 1976 – recently said, “[Israelis] want so much to be loved and it’s not working…They just want the world to say, ‘We feel your pain.’ They’re so hungry for acknowledgement. They’re so hungry for human responses to them” {Tippett, Krista. ‘On Being’ interview with Rabbi David Hartman, September 22, 2011}.

This is our time to respond. It is up to us to give Israel and Israelis the means that will buy her time to resolve tremendous challenges beyond her borders: in the words of the actors and actresses at the Nalaga’at Center, “[to] invite people to join them to break bread and shake hands.” This is the time to call and write to legislators in Washington asking them to strengthen sanctions against Iran, and to support the full funding of the Foreign Aid Bill’s request for military and security assistance to Israel. In 2007, the United States and Israel signed a Memorandum of Understanding that pledged $30 billion in U.S. security assistance to Israel over a 10-year period. President Obama’s request of $3 billion for Israel in fiscal year 2012 fulfills the fourth year of that request. Now is the time to write and to call Capitol Hill. To say “Not now” is not an option. To say, “Not me” is an abdication of responsibility because when Jews are at risk, fellow Jews must stand up.

Now: because the America-Israel alliance is crucial in a rapidly changing world.

Now: for the sake of peace.

Now: for Israel’s sake.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin