Tag Archives: Zionism

Enough of a Syrian what if…

19 Sep

by Ilan Bloch


Image courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the most inane comments I have heard made in relation to the Syrian conflict goes somewhat along the lines of: thank God we didn’t trade the Golan Heights for peace with Syria because then we would now have ISIS or al-Qaida on the banks of the Kinneret. Even seasoned commentators like Ari Shavit and Shmuel Rosner have made such claims.

But history obviously doesn’t work like that. Yes, if we had traded the Golan Heights for peace with Syria, under Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak or Sharon, and every single thing which has actually happened since 1992-5, 1996-1999, 1999-2001, or 2001-2006, would have still actually taken place, then yes, ISIS or al-Qaida would be on the banks of the Kinneret. But to suggest that a comprehensive peace deal with Syria would have triggered the exact same set of events which no comprehensive peace deal with Syria triggered is folly. Who knows what might have happened if we had agreed to a full withdrawal from the Heights?

This post is not written to suggest that Israel should have agreed to such a peace deal but simply to stress that to disparage those who supported, or were even willing to entertain, such an idea as naïve based on what has happened since not agreeing to such a deal is illogical.

Of course, nobody today proposes that Israel should trade the Golan Heights for peace with ISIS, Jabat al-Nusra or Assad. But, students/tourists should certainly be made aware of the fact that Israel’s unilateral application of Israeli law to the area in 1981 was a move still not recognized by the international community. Moreover, they should understand that if and when Syria stabilizes in the future, the issue may well once again become relevant.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed tour guide and the director of Teaching Israel.

Guiding and politics

12 Sep

by Ilan Bloch

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Education Minister Naftali Bennett            Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Over Shabbat meals with other educators this weekend, discussion naturally focused on the new school year – and politics (it was Shabbat and we are in Israel, after all!). We discussed Herzl Schubert, a teacher, who was “caught” on camera at a recent Nabi Saleh protest against the encroachment of residents/settlers of Halamish on privately owned village lands, including the al-Qus spring. Yisrael Zinger, the mayor of Ramat Gan, where Schubert is employed, Deputy Mayor Aviyahu Ben Moshe, and many parents, called for his dismissal. The issue hit national headlines with Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich chiming in and supporting firing Schubert. Discussion also covered Avital Benshalom, the newly appointed principal of an Ashkelon school, who had to justify her 2002 signing of a petition supporting the right of soldiers to refuse to serve in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank in order to keep her job, against the objection of parents and Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni.

Interestingly, one of the tour guides at the meal – an olah from the West Coast of the US – said that she wasn’t surprised at all, and that she herself has personally encountered such attacks in her own professional life as a result of her apparent “extreme leftist activism.” Perhaps her activism might be more rightly considered to be “slacktivism,” as my friend has been to maybe two handfuls of rallies and protests during her time in Israel – perhaps one or two a year on average. Taken aback, I asked what had happened to her. She said she was interrogated in a job interview about her political views, even when she continued to answer questions by explaining that she would teach about all political viewpoints and allow students/tourists to come to their own informed conclusions – whether they be right, center or left.

What is so strange is that my friend is on the public record – in writing and at public appearances – as stating that the aim of her Israel education is to help students/tourists develop independent, critical and analytical thinking skills which will allow them to reach their own educated viewpoints – whatever they might be.

I paused and then asked my friend whether she should have asked her potential employer the following question:

“I understand that you don’t want to employ a leftist as an educator because you view her as too political (even though it is clear that her politics do not enter her classroom; indeed her students/tourists move from their previously held views toward greater complexity and nuance, which often includes moving away from the left).

“Do you also have a problem in employing tour guides who say “I’m not a political person; I just want my students/tourists to love Israel, support the government and do Israel advocacy on campus” (perhaps the most politically loaded sentence one could imagine)?

“What about avowedly right-wing guides who explicitly aim to instill right-wing views in their students/tourists?”

No, I didn’t think so.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed Israel tour guide and the Director of Teaching Israel.

Meatballs, Blood and Torah

3 Mar

by Yael Brygel

Photo courtesy of Sharon Goldschlager

Photo courtesy of Sharon Goldschlager

Where in the world can you attend a Hassidic-inspired tea house followed by a Buddhist mindfulness workshop? “Eh… Brooklyn,” I hear you say. Yep, I won’t argue with that. I haven’t been to Brooklyn but from my vast academic exploration of the city (The Cosby Show, Sex and the City, Girls, my friend Elissa and a girl I met at a lunch last week) I would have to concur. These events, however, take place in Jerusalem, a Brooklyn in the Middle East minus the brownstones, mung beans, lemongrass, counter-culture, progressive politics, dog funerals and peace with our neighbors – the ones in the apartment above us and the ones across the “border.” (But who needs peace anyway?) Like Brooklyn though, we have the most special characters that the world has to offer. And, fortunately for me, I have acquired a unique knack for drawing the wackiest people in Jerusalem into my personal (but seemingly malfunctioning) “ring of fire.” These magical individuals traverse all sorts of boundaries, both physical and emotional; who indeed needs a therapist, a hug from a loved one or advice from a good friend when a stranger on the bus can breathe down your neck and offer unsolicited advice on how to live you life while standing on one leg and reading Masechet Niddah (Jewish laws pertaining to menstruation)?

There is an upside, of course, to this insanity: Sometimes I get to interact with really good people and hear interesting stories because the boundaries between individuals in this city – and perhaps in this country – tend to not be very absolute (that’s an understatement!) Recently I had the opportunity to exchange meatball recipes and hear divrei torah (words of Torah) from my local phlebotomist (medical term for vampire!) while a needle was entrenched in my arm and blood was oozing out of it during a routine blood test. I had recognized the woman from last time and remembered that she was a grandmother who gets up every morning at around 5am and listens to her favorite Torah program on the radio while making meatballs for her family. I asked her about it and she told me a nice parable she had heard that morning about how when God wanted to bring the Torah to the Jewish people, the angels above cried and begged him not to take it away from them. This woman comes to work enthusiastic and inspired each morning, and loves to share what she has learnt with the people she treats. Her own happiness raises the spirits of her patients (a real lesson in the power of giving and the contagiousness of attitude!) Ordinarily, the two of us would never cross paths or interact. She lives in an ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem. But there was something so nice about this interaction, which transcended political and religious beliefs, and represents the often positive encounters I get to have with other Yerushalmim when I am willing, or when they find me.

This post is dedicated to my auntie Sonia who loved to meet new people and continues to inspire.

.Yael Brygel is a Jerusalem-based writer

Thoughts on the matzav

26 Nov

by Ilan Bloch

Marina Maxamilian opens the night

Marina Maximilian opens the night

Eleven years ago, I made Aliyah to Jerusalem – at the tail end of the Second Intifada. I can count the number of terror attacks in the city which occurred during my first year or two of Aliyah on the one hand.

Last week, I went to the International Exposure to Rock and Indie opening night at Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine. It was a strange experience; on the one hand, it was only a day after the heinous terror attack in the Har Nof shule which claimed five lives and, on the other, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Culture Department spokesperson who talked at the event made clear – Jerusalemites are actually really glad when international visitors and tourists don’t cancel their plans because of terrible incidents such as this one. As a Jerusalemite, I was so happy to be at a musical showcase with performers from three continents at one of Jerusalem’s top night spots but I was also terribly troubled; my mind was racing with questions.

Could I enjoy myself during a night out in Jerusalem after what happened the morning before?

Is it really enough just to acknowledge the tragedy and then move on with the night as planned?

If I had changed my plans would I “be letting terror win?”

Is it sometimes appropriate to change plans in the face of mourning? If the answer is so clear on a personal level, why is it not on a national level?

Why hadn’t I felt this way in relation to the previous terror attacks? Did this one hit home because as much as I don’t see my reasons for being in Israel as relating to Jewish power and self-rule, there was something so Diasporic/Exilic about Jews dying al Kiddush hashem (as martyrs), butchered in the middle of tefilah? The proposal which I have heard discussed of guards being placed outside synagogues during services is so disturbing because at the end of the day perhaps one of the reasons I came here was to no longer be in such a security predicament. I didn’t “escape” from Australia yet still, the idea of Israel as a “safe haven” was/is so ingrained in me from my Zionist upbringing that it is difficult not to be shocked by the fact that this particular attack took place in Jerusalem under Israeli rule. (Of course, we shouldn’t lose perspective; the security forces who put a stop to the nefarious act were Israelis and they were defending Jews, not sponsoring the murder like in Tsarist Russia.)

I wonder if Jerusalemites who left the city for places like Modiin, or people born and raised in Tel Aviv, have these thoughts? If they don’t does that allow them to find more meaning in their lives because they don’t need to deal with all of this, or does the ideological self-reflection which perhaps takes place more easily and richly in Jerusalem bring meaning to its residents (or perhaps disrupt the ability of its residents to find meaning on a most basic level?)

And then I wonder, even though I am not at all scared in regard to my personal security, as a tour guide, who wants more tourists to come to Israel (including to Jerusalem), should I even be writing this post? Does talking about it facilitate necessary processing (for Jerusalemites, Israelis, Diaspora Jews and others) or by discussing it continuously does it not only pay due honor to the victims’ memory but also enhance the evil perpetrators’ aim of terrorizing?

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.

There is something sick going on

7 Jul

by Ilan Bloch

Last night in Zion Square.

Last night in Zion Square

Seventy years ago an absolutely powerless nation suffered the archetypal horror of millions of its members being burned in the ovens of Auschwitz. The revolution of Zionism transformed Jewish Exilic life beyond recognition. Jews, who had previously occupied the moral high ground as a default, because we had no other option, now had to cope with the challenge of wielding Jewish power for the first time in almost two millennia. Would (Could) we be an ohr lagoyim (a light unto the nations) or would we be like every other nation in the world? We love to spew hasbara (Israel advocacy) sound bites like “We’re the only democracy in the Middle East” and “We have the most moral army in the world.” But, for years, tag mechir (price tag) attacks have gone almost completely unanswered, with these Jewish terrorists escaping prosecution; meanwhile, incitement continues on a regular basis. Even apparently “enlightened,” educated Israelis, who are familiar with Western democracy spew prejudice, intolerance and bigotry without thinking twice.

This is not about left- or right-wing. This is about hatred, racism and xenophobia. It is about recognizing and protecting the civil rights of minorities. Jabotinsky z”l and Begin z”l are turning in their graves. There is something absolutely sick about what is going on in Israeli society right now. I am ashamed. I am also scared.

I was never scared as a Jew in the Diaspora. To tell you the truth, in my more than a decade living in Israel, I also have not been scared. Until last night. Last night I was scared for my very life. At a rally in downtown Jerusalem condemning calls for blood lust and vengeance I encountered shouts of “Whores!” “Death to leftists,” “Death to the Arabs” and “Arabs are SOBs; Jews are darlings.” This included calls by an armed soldier in uniform, as well as counter-protesters continuously giving us the finger, as well as one pointing to us and making a sign with his finger across his own throat, threatening us with murder. Several protesters lunged at the security forces protecting us, which led to one arrest. Perhaps most worrying was the announcement at the end of the rally stressing police calls not to return to our cars or bus stops alone but only in groups. The calls were reminiscent of the Melbourne Community Security Group’s instructions for the end of High Holy Day services. Here, in the Jewish democratic state, the Israeli police are issuing the same instructions. Here, in the capital city, I apparently need to fear for threats to my security at the hands of Jewish fascists in the same way that I needed to fear for threats to my security at the hands of anti-Semites in Australia.

Every night in downtown Jerusalem, Jewish Jerusalemites don black shirts (both literally and figuratively), roaming the streets and, as the self-declared guardians of Jewish honor, try and promote the “purity” of Jerusalem and its Jews. Tens of thousands, including the head of B’nei Akiva, have called for vengeance. Seventy years after the remnants of our people emerged from the ovens of Auschwitz, we burned an Arab teenager alive. And, instead of true cheshbon hanefesh (moral self-reckoning), we issue lip-service condemnation before immediately stressing that we are better and more moral than the Palestinians because we do not hand out candies to celebrate. I am ashamed.

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.

A Jewish and democratic state

1 Sep

Editor’s note: Welcome again to the Teaching Israel blog. On a regular basis, guest bloggers will offer their thoughts on Israel, Zionism and Israel Education. Please note that the opinions expressed in this blog are not necessarily those of Teaching Israel, but as our website states:

We are a “blue and white” company, which seeks to promote amongst participants a serious engagement with the Land, People and State of Israel. We are also an organization of many colors, which recognizes the multifaceted and variegated nature of Jewish identity and people’s connections to Israel. Put simply, we believe that there is more than one way to have a relationship with Israel. We seek to develop independent and critical thinking amongst our participants, and have them ask pertinent questions, rather than providing them answers. 

by Yefim Pargamanik

I read a blog post about brit milah (circumcision) in which the author claimed that even parents who are indifferent to their Jewish heritage, who care little for shmirat mitzvoth (keeping commandments), except the most basic ethical ones, do care about one thing: brit milah, in strict accordance with Jewish tradition.

The author is, of course, mostly right but not quite right, as everybody who saw The Princess Bride knows that there is a difference between being mostly dead and quite dead. Some Jewish new immigrants (both Halachically Jewish and otherwise) who arrive in Israel, the US or Germany, are not circumcised. Whereas in the US or Germany, this matter is considered to be a private one (after all, how much more private can you get than the phallus!), in Israel the situation is different.

At Israeli schools, uncircumcised boys can be humiliated by their classmates. There is at least one organization which offers discreet circumcision services, free of charge, to Jews. And the state offers subsidized courses for non-Halachic Jews (who were eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return) to convert.

All of this involves immense pressure by Jewish Israeli society. (“Don’t you and your children want to become real Israelis?”) But if Jewish citizens of any other developed country were subjected to such state-sponsored pressure to become really American or German by converting to Christianity (including the opportunity to participate in state-sponsored courses), or if Jewish boys at public schools in these countries were humiliated because of their circumcision, such societies would be considered to be bigoted.

The same should hold true for Israel. The government and public education system do next to nothing to promote the idea that one’s circumcision status, and his religion (or lack thereof), are private and personal matters, and that a fellow citizen should not be judged by them but rather by his personal characteristics.

The establishment and ongoing maintenance of Jewish religious institutions is subsidized by the Israeli government, but not one single non-Jewish religious institution has been established in areas where many Halachically non-Jewish olim chadashim (new immigrants) are concentrated. These people are Israeli citizens and they number in the hundreds of thousands. This is a disgrace and it makes Israel more of a medieval than modern state, finding itself in better company with countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, than with the western world.

Yefim Pargamanik is an Israeli citizen at present, a citizen of the USSR in the past, and a retired computer programmer.

It is not a question of Zionism

25 Aug

by Ilan Bloch


Martin Buber. Image courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/

Several years ago I was facilitating a seminar on Zionist thought and theory, which included a presentation of “Humanistic Zionism,” represented by personalities such as Martin Buber and Judah Leon Magnes. These thinkers called for a bi-national state, in which Jews would enjoy not only constitutionally guaranteed individual rights, but also rights as a collective. I shared with the class my thoughts that many Israel educators would refrain from presenting these views as part of their teaching about Zionism and that, in fact, some might even condemn me for presenting what they might consider to be anti-Zionist ideas. When I asked my students what they thought about the matter some argued that such viewpoints were anti-Zionist because Zionism means a Jewish state, some said that such ideas were not anti-Zionist before the establishment of the State of Israel but that their application today should be considered anti-Zionist, and others recognized these beliefs as Zionist in every way.

One student, however, responded by remarking that the question was a silly, or at least irrelevant, one, and that it had no business being asked in an academic setting. When I asked her what she meant, she responded by arguing that the relevant issues at hand when discussing a political idea about the future of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) are whether it can be applied in a way which strengthens democracy, human rights, the security of the residents of the Land and the development of Jewish culture in the Land. Whether this policy or another can be defined as Zionist, post-Zionist or even anti-Zionist is simply irrelevant. “Zionism” meant a lot of different things to different people before the State was established – there were thinkers who called for a Jewish state, those who thought such a state was unnecessary, those who thought the status of Jews was the key problem to be resolved and those who thought it was the status of Judaism itself. Only after the establishment of the State did “Zionism” become a tool which could be used to invalidate opposing political views. Today, instead of actually critically analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of this policy or another, one can simply dismiss it as “anti-Zionist.” People attempt to disenfranchise their political opponents through branding them anti-Zionists, instead of actually engaging with their challenging ideas. Such as an act is a demagogic one, similar to dismissing an opponent’s argument by responding that “it’s against the will of God.”

I thought of this discussion when considering the statements of many left-wing politicians, thinkers and public activists who call the settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank (and previously in the Gaza Strip) “anti-Zionist.” Such name-calling is irrelevant. Criticism of the settlement movement – just like criticism of far-left wing ideas, or any other ideas about the future of Israel for that matter – needs to be based on the same four criteria my student enumerated during the seminar about Zionism. This is not to argue that Zionism is irrelevant per se, but rather that using it as the measure of whether a particular political idea is cogent or not is not a useful exercise when discussing politics in the twenty-first century.

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.

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