Monday, November 24, 2008

Protesters, a Pivotal Person...and Privilege

It was a sunny autumnal Sunday, with exhilarating clear yellow light, the Cascade and Olympic Mountains both visible with their dusting of snow, and Mt. Rainier casting a dark silhouette, crisp and looming.

A day for two memorable experiences.

With my husband spending the day on an airplane, good friends offered to take me with them to a concert of an ensemble of musicians from the Israel Defense Forces, given at a local Reform Temple. An annual event, it raises awareness of Friends of the IDF, a volunteer group that provides non-combat-related support for the men and women protecting Israel.

I wasn't prepared for the reception we received. Lining the street in front of the Temple were several clusters of protesters, wielding signs denouncing the "occupation" of Palestinian lands. One held a sign reading "Stop Israeli State Terrorism." A fifty-foot-long banner blared "Stop the Siege on Gaza." Perhaps 35 people hovered near the entrance to the program, menacingly glaring at all who walked toward the door. Each one, without exception, hoisting some placard or sash. Some announced their bearers as Jews. Several police cars were parked nearby.
Sponsors of the event stood on the Temple front patio welcoming concert-goers. "Thank you for coming," they smiled. "Come right in." They were well aware that the protesters' aim was to intimidate. One man entering the venue spit on the ground in front of one of the picketers, and called another who advertised he was Jewish "anti-Semitic." He received no response.

Inside, six musicians and three talented singers in khaki uniforms accented in red performed modern standards and Jewish favorites, encouraging the audience to clap the rhythm and sing familiar lyrics. The second woman fighter pilot, diminutive 24-year-old Lieut. Naami, described her path to the cockpit. The local volunteers who raise money to help families of fallen soldiers, provide recreational and supplementary support in the field, contribute college scholarships to veterans and purchase mobile clubs, gyms and synagogues spoke of their work. Finally, the ensemble's lively harmonies roused many in the audience to traditional dance.

Not a very threatening gathering. But very ominous if you believe Israel should not exist. Israel is the only democracy in its region, where Arab citizens, who make up about 20% of the electorate, have a say in the government. I found it ironic that those who would remove such liberty from the mid-east's one free enclave would use that very freedom to heckle people walking to a charity concert.

Later, we attended a screening of the film "Lonely Man of Faith," a biography of Rav Joseph B. Soloveichik, considered the founder of Jewish "Modern Orthodoxy" in America. The film, a first effort by Ethan Isenberg, a 31-year-old former computer programmer who, after absorbing much of the Rabbi's approach at Yeshiva University and in Israel, spent years "on spec" gathering the biographical information and interviews that are movingly combined in this film.

What we see is the melding of old and new worlds--how a genius from a distinguished rabbinical family from White Russia who fled to Poland and finally the United States, evolved an outlook that could combine a rigorous, academic approach to scriptures with the challenges of a fast-paced, assimilationist culture. In the film, he is presented as an enigma, one who tried to lift standards of his community in Boston while at the same time overlaying a flexibility and plasticity demanded by American life.

For his efforts, he was baselessly accused of sinister motives and theft, completely cleared only after stressful years of conflict. His insistence that women receive top-flight education, and his creation of Orthodox day schools where boys and girls learned together, was controversial among the traditional, and subversive among the assimilationists who were the vast majority of Jews in America.

Finally, he gained not only respect but reverence. Considered among the most eminent Torah scholars and teachers in America, he led Yeshiva University in New York, as well as its women's branch, Stern College, to prominence as the premier centers of Jewish philosophical and halachic (law) study. Yet after four decades of teaching, which included his significant The Lonely Man of Faith essay, Rav Soloveichik (1903-1993) is still unknown by almost all Jews in America and elsewhere.

The film does not really explain The Rav's philosophies, which, given their complexity and depth, would be impossible. But it hints at his torment and difficulty carrying Torah through the pivot of revolutionary world events--escape from persecution, pre-war Poland, struggles in America, the scourge of the holocaust, the birth of Israel, and the advent of the technological age intersecting with the Age of Aquarius.

Witnessing today the anger of the protesters at the FIDF concert, and the challenges of Rav Soloveichik, I feel very small. I look at the insignificant decisions of our privileged lives--even as we watch our savings shrivel in the current financial squeeze--and see both how much more I could learn and how blessed we all are to have so many paths already forged for us.

This is the week of Thanksgiving. I'm planning to cook the traditional turkey (the only time of the year my oven contains real meat) but today's events remind me that the holiday is not about the food in our stomachs, but about the intellectual and spiritual sustenance of the friends and teachers we are so fortunate to know, and the environment in which we are free to enjoy them.


  1. I'm sorry you had to walk through that. Our world would be wonderful if people could simply show respect for one another and their opinions. I for one am turned off by any violent/rude protesting. It makes me not want to hear their cause if I have to get to it through all the yelling and screaming. Peaceful demonstrations, respectful demonstrations, I am all for. We are so blessed here in America and I think a lot of us have forgotten that. Definitely something for us all to think about and show thanks this holiday season. God Bless!

  2. How did you get from "A fifty-foot-long banner blared 'Stop the Siege on Gaza'" to "..believe Israel should not exist?" That's quite a leap...

  3. I think I’d better flush out my previous comment a little bit so it makes more sense. I almost went to the protest you talk about, but I had other obligations. The debate about Israeli occupation of Palestine, and their treatment of the Palestinian people in general is a legitimate and important one. Too important to be brushed aside with a Thanksgiving turkey baster.

    You say that demonstrators held signs saying "Stop Israeli State Terrorism,” and that there was a banner proclaiming "Stop the Siege on Gaza." These are legitimate concerns, yes? Some of the protestors said they were Jewish. This should make it more interesting and worthy of engagement. You say they were “menacingly glaring at all who walked toward the door.” I can’t comment on that because I wasn’t there, but I doubt it. That sounds like classic projection to me.

    You say, “One man entering the venue spit on the ground in front of one of the picketers, and called another who advertised he was Jewish ‘anti-Semitic.’ He received no response.” Interesting. The only insult and spitting came from a concert goer. And by the way, almost every time anybody criticizes Israeli policy or comes out in support of Palestinian rights the right wing calls them “anti-Semitic.” It’s a real tired and boring old accusation that has no merit. That’s probably why “he received no response.”

    And then you make the Big Leap. You describe the concert, the musicians, the audience, dancing and singing - and then you say, “Not a very threatening gathering. But very ominous if you believe Israel should not exist.” Diane, where did that come from? Was anybody carrying a sign that said “Israel Should Not Exist?” You would have said so, wouldn’t you? Were people chanting that? Again, you would have said so. No – this is your pre-determined reactive response to criticism. I know a lot of people who take a dim view of Israeli policies, but I can count on one hand the people I have met who think Israel shouldn’t exist.

    So next time you see some of these demonstrators maybe you should take a little time out of your busy schedule to find out what they are talking about. It might at least fill in some of the gaps.

  4. I had to sit through a similar lecturing about the supposed atrocities (e.g.'economic genocide')committed by Israel against palistinians at my Global Health Club in medical school recently. I wanted to ask the student-lecturer why the bordering Arab countries closed their borders (Egypt to Gaza and Jordan to the West Bank) to palistinian territories. People, alas, will believe what they want to believe.

  5. Joseph D. Walsh... Why do you capitalize the name of your health club but not "Palestinian?" You wouldn't be a racist would you?