“Big Questions”

The following is an article I wrote for an alumni newsletter for “Ask Big Questions,” a Jewish student initiative I used to be a part of. In it I try to explain my motivations for going to Israel and the questions that were on my mind, as well as the kinds of answers I had been finding. It’s a good summary of my thinking regarding Israel, at least until the point I wrote it (late November). Enjoy!

Big Questions

At the end of July I set out for Israel with four questions on my mind. The first three were big and broad, covering the nature of the state, and the forces shaping it. The last was smaller, concerning just me and my role as a new citizen of Israel. None of them were easy to answer, but with patience and open-mindedness, and the knowledge that all questions have a surprising depth (all traits I honed as an ABQ fellow), I’ve been able to gather some answers.

The day after I arrived in Israel I traveled north, to kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, my new home on kibbutz Ma’agan Michael. Ma’agan Michael is one of the largest and most prosperous of Israel’s kibbutzim, with over 1000 members. I lived there for three months. In the mornings, I would wake up at 5:30, grab my boots and hat, and head to the avocado fields where I would work alongside a team of kibbutzniks to harvest the season’s crop. Moving on foot, or in large gas-powered cherry pickers, we worked up and down the rows, gathering kilo after kilo of the rich, green fruit.

My first question concerned socialism, its results and prospects.  Coming out of a seasoned career in the cooperative houses of my university, I had many questions about the communal living model; I thought the kibbutzim of Israel might hold some answers.

Our small crew of eight was just one piece in the massive puzzle that is Ma’agan Michael–as we worked among the trees, others were catching fish in nets, minding machines in the plastics factory, washing the cows, and helping with children. Ma’agan Michael is a remarkable place: still socialist in its value, all kibbutz members enjoy the same lifestyle whether they work in the garden or run the factory. Set on the coast, with a gorgeous beach and lush foliage, it is a paradise on earth.

I went there with a question: can this place be real? The answer I found: yes, after a fashion. Ma’agan Michael is thriving under socialist principles. However, there are many hidden gears beneath the surface. A certain amount of labor is brought in from the outside, giving the kibbutz extra manpower without giving them all the benefits of kibbutz membership. Despite all the diversity of incomes sources, the kibbutz’s fate hinges completely on their massive plastic factory, Plasson, shifting power to those involved with its business. There are political currents among the members who think that wages shouldn’t be so equal, and are are looking to disassemble the socialist structure from the inside. The ideological unity has weakened over the decades, and in many ways it is the kibbutz’s prosperity, not the socialist dream, that holds it all together. My main conclusion, after months of asking questions and listening to answers, was that while socialist societies are possible, ideology can only take you so far. Without material prosperity, the community will not last. As long as the community prospers, then a community it will likely remain.

Almost three months after moving to Ma’agan Michael, I left. I had answered my first question, but I had also realized that as long as I remained in the kibbutz bubble, my others questions would go unanswered. On a sunny Sunday afternoon I said my goodbyes to the friends I had made, tucked my memories safely into my backpack, and caught a bus south, to Jerusalem.

My next two questions concerned the state and people of Israel, and I thought that the country’s capital would be an appropriate place to work these through in my head. Traveling on a tight budget, I found lodging in a hostel in West Jerusalem, the Abraham Hostel, which traded me room and board in exchange for about twenty-five hours per week of work. I helped in the kitchen, ran errands, and tended bar in the evenings. In addition, a little bit of proactive networking had landed me a research position at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I would use my Cognitive Science background to help a law professor come up with some ideas for a book chapter he was writing. Beyond that, in my free time, I explored.

My first question concerned the Israeli state and the politics of the region, and my first stop was the Israeli Supreme Court, only a few blocks from my hostel. I wanted to see what the center of Israeli justice looked like, and I was impressed: it is a stunning complex, with a panoramic view of the city. The building houses five courtrooms, each presided over by three of the fifteen supreme court justices. Growing up in the United States, I had assumed that the jury system was standard in the West. Not in Israel, though: judges decide all cases. Observing a trial, I watched as the Israeli attorneys unfurled their arguments and the three judges examined and probed them. There was a certain levity in the room, as the judges bantered with each other and the prosecution, a certain informality even in an environment of such gravitas that I can only chalk up to that all-pervasive casualness of Israeli culture.

My next was to the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. I had hoped to observe the parliamentary debates but was turned away at the door, being told that the Knesset was out of session until after the January elections. Disappointed, I turned instead to reading, and started scouring the web for information about Israel’s political system. I learned about Israel’s constantly-changing parties, the practice of government by coalition, and the state’s history. In addition, I learned that Israel has no constitution, a revelation which stunned my American sensibilities. Aside from some general humanist guidelines and a paradoxical commitment to being a “democratic, jewish state” Israel rests on no solid declaration of principles. The Knesset is free to pass any law and make any change to the government, with none of the restrictions and guarantees that a constitution provides. Slowly, answers were starting to coalesce in my head.

I started to think about the debates raging through Israeli society, and realized that without a constitution to provide common values and common ground in times of disagreement, rival parties will hold fast to their own assumptions and tensions will smolder. Israel’s electoral system, in which Israelis vote for their one preferred party and parties win seats based on the percentage of votes they receive, means that the Knesset is full of small factions representing a dozen: conservative and liberal, secular and religious, all with their own agendas, and little to unite them. Israel’s internal political challenges were becoming clearer.

Its social problems were becoming clear as well. My weeks in Jerusalem had taught me my first lessons about life for an average Israeli, as well as about the relationship between the Arabs and Jews. For the average Israeli, life is harder than you might expect. Wages are low and rents are high, and from many of my conversations, “saving for the future” was not a concept that held mass appeal. That said, Israelis savor their days, and enjoy themselves despite the financial strain. Regarding Arabs and Jews, the situation is gloomy. While peace prospects seemed good at the end of the ‘90s, the intifada of the early 2000’s has left the young Israeli generations with much pessimism about the peace process and a low view of the Palestinian leadership. Conservative elements on both sides discourage interaction, and while liberal groups are actively trying to bring Arabs and Jews together, the task is daunting. For those of you interested in learning more, I highly recommend David Shipler’s Pulitzer-Prize winning “Arab and Jew,” which catalogues exhaustively the many cultural and historical dimensions of the conflict.

The conflict. I had made friends with activists on both sides while at university, and despite my family warning me to keep my distance, I felt like I had an obligation to go and see for myself what the situation looked like for the Palestinians in the West Bank. With the radical Palestinians invoking language of genocide and apartheid and radical Israelis denying the very existence of a Palestinian people, I thought it would be best to just go in person. It took me awhile to muster the courage–Israeli citizens are forbidden from visiting the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, and as an American Israeli I knew I would be on shaky legal ground. Eventually I decided that I would take my chances with the checkpoints, found a group, and went.

My visits to the West Bank was valuable. My first trip took me to Bethlehem, Jericho, and Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority. My second trip took me to Hebron, the divided holy city. My thoughts: for most Palestinians in the West Bank, life goes on as usual. The conflict and the Israeli presence are constant elements in daily life, but Palestinians adapt, as people do. It is not an environment of constant suffering or oppression, but one of mundane routines and human lives.

That said, there are certain aspects of the Israeli presence that I found shocking. First, the checkpoints are borderline inhumane. Going through one involves standing in line in what is essentially a cage, with cameras all around and barbed wire everywhere. You are checked, screened, and given hard stares by the border guards. It’s easy to see why Palestinians whose main interaction with Israelis are during their checkpoint crossings would have such hostile views–these are hostile places. The second thing that troubled me was the under-discussed Palestinian water issue. The Israeli state controls the flow of water in the West Bank, and has a policy of routinely depriving the Palestinian areas of water. While there, I learned that the typical Israeli settler in the West Bank receives about 350 liters of water per day, while the typical Palestinian receives 50. As far as the settlements… they’re a slap in the face to the Palestinian people, a blatant disregard for the 1967 borders and clear message about Israel’s disinterest in the Palestinian future.

After a few weeks of visiting and investigating, I was done with politics for a while. I had been thoroughly schooled in the complexity of the Israeli situation, and needed a change of pace. I thought it would be high time to turn to my third question, that of religion in Israel.

In my few months in the country, I had noticed that the spectrum of observance that you find in North America (with Orthodox giving way to Conservative giving way to Reform) doesn’t exist in Israel. Curious as to why, I realized that for Jews outside of Israel (I believe the term is “in Diaspora,” which I find a bit strong but will use for simplicity), religion is the frame that they use to preserve their Jewish identity. There is a much greater incentive for the religious establishments to find ways to keep Jews in Diaspora connected to the religion Judaism, and so they take greater pains to revise and adjust the religion according to the Diaspora tastes. In Israel, that motivation disappears. Once you’re in Israel, you don’t need religion to maintain your Jewish identity… being in Israel is enough. So Israeli Jews either go all-out Orthodox, or they drop the whole thing and go secular. The Conservative and Reform movements don’t fill the same needs in Israel.

That said, it seemed like diving head-first into the world of the black hats was my only option. Having grown up in a household that was strange mix of secular and traditional, my knowledge of Judaism was surprisingly strong, but full of holes the size of the second temple. After a little more of my favorite thing ever, listening, I found out that Jerusalem is full of what they call “Baal Teshuva” yeshivas, meant for Jews without a religious background who get interested in Judaism later in life. Essentially, born again Jews. I also found out that there are a ton of rich Jewish donors who love paying for young torah-curious Jews like myself to go and tickle their frum fancies. I was cautious, though: I knew that each of these places would have a different approach to Judaism, and I should do my research and choose wisely. I didn’t want to find myself in a Jewish cult, after all. After a little digging and a few emails to my wonderful Hillel rabbis, I had a better sense of my options, and of the curious history of some of these places:

First, Aish HaTorah. A very wealthy yeshiva with classrooms facing the Western Wall, this yeshiva was very popular with students and donors alike. Known for it’s “scientific” approach to Judaism, Aish seems to stay way from the text itself (at least at first), and focus on giving you the conclusions and the philosophy in an easy-to-digest way. The approach is controversial: the web is full of accounts of people getting “sucked in” to the Aish “cult” and rapidly adopting a religious lifestyle. In addition, their “scientific” approach is superficial at best, with some of their arguments resting on little more than “trust us, science will eventually figure it out that we were right.” They also seem confident in their conviction that Jews are basically the best things ever, which seemed a little arrogant. That said, Aish does a good job of giving you Jewish philosophy and values, if you’re willing to filter through the baggage that comes with it.

The second, Ohr Somayach, is more traditional in their approach, focusing on the texts and letting students derive their own understandings through analysis. Less newbie-friendly than Aish, Ohr caters to those willing to roll up their sleeves and get in the ring with mishna. Interesting factoid: Aish was founded by a former Ohr rabbi who left when he felt that Ohr wasn’t accessible enough.

The third, Mayanot, is a Chabad yeshiva. Chabad is a branch of Hassidic judaism which is defined largely by their reverence to a particular lineage of rabbis. To the Chabadniks, these rabbis are practically messiahs, and they see everything through “rebbe colored” glasses. I’m still trying to figure out what that means in practice though, as they seem as focused on text as Ohr Somayach is. Chabad is known for their commitment to outreach to Jews around the world, and their modesty and inclusivity.

Those were my main options, each offering a different combination of programs and scholarship options. After some thinking, emailing, meeting, and smiling charmingly, I was signed up to spend six weeks at Mayanot. I found enough scholarship money to cut my costs down to $200 for the whole time, including room and board, which made me and happy and helped me stick to my shoestring travel ethic. Then the learning began.

One of the hallmarks of yeshiva study is the practice of learning in pairs, called “chevrutas”, where two people study together, and talk through the text as they go along. The rabbi at Mayanot set me up with one of the students there, a young New Yorker named Zevy, to be my “chevruta,” who I started meeting with once a week. Zevy was a total champ, talking my ear off about whatever topic I was curious about. Over our sessions together, I learned a few interesting things about Judaism I hadn’t known before, which changed my entire understanding of the faith.

The biggest revelation was learning the way that Judaism changes over time. I learned that Jewish religious thinking has adopted a convention where contemporary scholars are forbidden from revising or challenging the scholarship of previous generations. The rationale is that the ancient scholars were closest to the “source” of Judaism, the traditions of the Second Temple period, and therefore they knew best what Judaism was “really” like. Us contemporary scholars, modern as we are, are too far removed to be able to challenge their thinking. We are instructed to accept their conclusions as our starting points, and are allowed only to extrapolate based on what they said, never to revise their conclusions in light of modern knowledge. All the religious writings (Mishna, Gemarah, Talmud, Midrash, Shulchan Aruch) and writers (Rashi, Rambam, etc) are landmarks on this one-way street. I could easily be mistaken about this, and I’m by no means passing judgment on Jewish religious scholarship, but this seems like a great way to keep a religion trapped in the past. That said, history seems to demonstrate the effectiveness of Jewish traditions in keeping our people happy, healthy, and successful, so perhaps there is deep wisdom behind this practice. I’m very curious to see how this idea develops as my studies continue, as at the time of this writing I’ve only just begun my stay at Mayanot.

So what to make of this crazy country? What role do the young Jews around the world have to play in shaping its future?

To answer the first question, perhaps Israel can be thought of as a storm moving in slow motion, made up of various forces clashing against each other on the scale of decades and generations. When looking around and seeing Israel in this moment, it’s important to realize that you are looking at an entity in historical motion, with past events stretching back thousands of years bursting forth into current circumstances, circumstances which themselves are resolving into the winds of the future. Of course, this is true for all countries at all times. But while other countries might be compared to a gentle rain, Israel is a maelstrom. There are social, cultural, historical forces at work here that are hugely powerful and incredibly old, and to think that they can be resolved on the scale of months or a handful of years is arrogance.

A lot of what I’ve written here might come off as critical of Israel. That is both intended and unintended. It is intended, to highlight the clash and disillusionment that comes when the partial history taught to young North American Jews at their Hebrew schools and summer camps is confronted with the realities of the region. It is unintended, though, because it paints perhaps a harsher picture than is deserved. Throughout this whole piece, my criticisms have not been of Israeli citizens, or even Israeli society, but the varied and conflicting institutions–political, judicial, cultural, military, religious–that structure and shape individual lives in Israel. The density, intensity, and historical momentum of these institutions is staggering, and they drive the people of the region in ways beyond any individual’s control.

And us? Israel is deeply tied up in who we are as Jews. I would encourage all of you to spend some time here, and see things for yourself.  If you can, come without a program. They offer a great service, but realize that programs have agendas, and pay people to help you have a certain kind of pre-designed “Israel Experience.” If that’s what you want, by all means go for it. But realize that you’re seeing a “food photography” version of Israel: shiny, appetizing, but not quite real. Come by yourself and see what kind of currents catch you. Don’t need to always have a good time, because there will be struggle and hardship. Come free to form your own opinions, and don’t feel pressured to adopt the popular views. Personally, I don’t think my future is in Israel, as my opportunities are greater for me in the United States. However, I am grateful to have had this time here. If Israel is a storm, than knowledge is the foundation on which we can build a shelter to see the storm through. Israel is a country of challenges and hopes, many questions and few answers. It is a country of good hearted people in challenging circumstances. It is a country at the crossroads of history, and it’s waiting for you.


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