Friday, November 30, 2012

Humanity in 140 Characters or Less

Glued to the television, I watched news coverage of the battles in Gaza.  Exhausted from eighteen hours of return travel from a month in Israel, I grew increasingly frustrated by what I felt was bias in CNN’s coverage of the situation.  I watched as anchorpeople tolerated long-winded tirades by representatives of the Palestinian Authority without interruption or challenge to any points raised.  At the same time, they had no problem interrupting Israeli government officials or IDF spokespeople.  As night melted into day, my frustration heated up as I thought about my friends in Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Beersheva living under a constant barrage of Hamas missiles intentionally aimed at civilians.

Anderson Cooper of CNN broke in to the coverage to report from a rooftop in Gaza that at least one person was shot dead and dragged through the streets behind a motorcycle.  Cooper reported that Hamas men on motorcycles were shouting, “God is Great” and that the man was a spy for Israel.  I could not believe my ears.  Perhaps I was so tired I missed his using the term “alleged,” but the first time I heard the report I was certain he stated categorically that the dead man was a spy for Israel.  Exasperated, I tweeted:

May just stop watching #CNN. Now @andersoncooper almost apologizing for #Hamas dragging a dead "Spy" for #Israel & yelling God is great! Oy.

I was shocked to discover that while standing on a Gaza rooftop, missiles flying toward my friends while IDF missiles struck military targets in Gaza, Anderson Cooper had time to read my tweet and, more surprising, had time to respond:

.@Rabbi_Sykes excuse me, but how am I apologizing for Hamas by reporting them dragging a body through the streets? That is deeply offensive

I took a few moments to let Mr. Cooper’s message sink in:  Was I oversensitive to his reporting?  Was his tone apologetic toward Hamas?  Did he leave out the word “alleged” with the word spy?  What was it that set me off and why did I use the term “apologizing?”  In retrospect, Mr. Cooper was right.  He was not apologizing for Hamas.  He was reporting what he saw and heard.

I was, however, bothered by Mr. Cooper leaving out the term “alleged,” and by his not just referring to the victim as a human being.  Reporting what Hamas members yelled about the murdered man while dragging his body behind a motorcycle was, in my opinion, unnecessary. I tweeted again:

@andersoncooper In this case, you are correct. "Apologizing" is an unfair term. My apologies.


@andersoncooper At same time, you know words matter. Your peers note victims were alleged spies. Makes a difference. Murdered nonetheless

I did not hear from Anderson Cooper again.

What happened next shocked me as much as getting a response from Anderson Cooper in the first place.  I was unaware that Mr. Cooper has a penchant for responding, at times harshly,  to tweets from certain people.  Moreover, I did not know that there were stories about this circulating on websites throughout the blogosphere.  Looking at his response to me,I did not think it was harsh.  It was direct. It actually made me reconsider what I had written.  However, Mr. Cooper’s fan base went ballistic.  I experienced a Twitter fusillade: over two hundred responses in just under a few minutes.  They ranged from the polite:

@Rabbi_Sykes @andersoncooper There was nothing said that suggests he's a Hamas apologist. It was a neutral statement.

To the insulting:

@Rabbi_Sykes where the hell do u get off?!? @andersoncooperis one of the bet reporters ever! You need to just shut up!!

To the offensive:

@andersoncooper I think its becoz u appear 2refer 2 Palestinians as humans- 4people like @Rabbi_Sykes they r subspecies & deserve 2die #Gaza

And hateful:

@andersoncooper @Rabbi_Sykes If this guy was a cause in killing my children, brothers and sisters and destroying my home I'd do the same!

In reflecting on my brief twitter encounter with Anderson Cooper, I distilled a few rules to live by. I refer to them as The Sykes Rules for Tweeting in General and Tweeting on Hot Topics with Celebrities.  Sharing them is a helpful reminder to me and I offer them in case of interest or need.  There is no great wisdom here, just personal learning:

1.  Never Tweet when tired and/or angry.

I am a careful listener but maybe I did miss something this time.  I am, however, certain that I was both tired from the travel and angry about the coverage of the situation in general.  I should not have sent the tweet.  I should have written it, gotten it out of my system and then deleted it; or, I should have been just a little more thoughtful about the message I wanted to send to Anderson Cooper and CNN.

2.  Discretion is the better part of valor.

It is difficult to make a nuanced statement on a complex topic like the situation in Gaza in 140 characters or less.  In the world of social media, a Facebook status can be a more appropriate place to share a thought or feeling, as it can be more detailed and complete.

3.  Remember, almost nobody reads past the second tweet in a conversation.

Looking over the twitter feed, it is clear that most people jumped from Mr. Cooper’s response to their own thoughts or the thoughts of others.  Very few actually noted that I DID apologize to Anderson Cooper.  Most either jumped directly onto the Anderson Cooper support bandwagon or onto the hateful, anti-Semitic bandwagon.

Moreover, my first tweet was included in articles on websites that I would never want to appear in, such as Perez Hilton to cite just one example, and they clearly never read past the initial exchange either (Rebecca said I’m lucky he didn’t include my photo with his visual commentary), which leads me to the next rule:

4.  Once you put your thoughts out there, you have NO control over what happens to them, how they are understood or where they end up. Post responsibly and let it go.

5.  If you make a mistake, apologize publicly.

Despite rule #3, if you are wrong, even slightly, take responsibility and do the right thing: apologize.

6.  Don’t bother engaging with “true believers.” They will not hear you.

The responses from Hamas apologists, anti-Semites, haters of Israel were numerous. I engaged with a few of them.  One wanted to argue about whether or not I thought God was great, as I indicated a problem believing that a great God would want any person shot in the head and dragged through the streets behind a motorcycle.  He had a hard time with that. One or two tweets in, I remembered: there is no convincing a “true believer” to think differently. I was wasting my time.

7.  Do engage with people that respond in a civil, thoughtful fashion.

I now follow one aspiring journalist who pointed out the absence of any apology in Mr. Cooper’s broadcast in a polite and thoughtful way; one friend of Israel who was being pushed by a supposed “expert” in bullying to avoid engaging with me because I was “bullying” Anderson Cooper; and one person who wants to visit Israel but is scared because of the constant turmoil in the Middle East, to name just a few.

8.  Remember, it doesn’t cost anything extra to be polite and nice.

I was bombarded with tweets from people who were just nasty and made assumptions about my beliefs and about me.  In the limited number of cases where I did engage, I did so in a polite and civil way so I could go to sleep at night, secure in the knowledge that I behaved like a mensch.

9.  Don’t let rule #3 or #4  prevent you from holding journalists accountable for their words.

I never heard back from Anderson Cooper.  I did, however, watch his broadcast following our twitter exchange.  In the next segment, when showing the horrific video footage of the poor guy shot in the head and dragged through the streets, Anderson Cooper did state that the Hamas terrorists were chanting “God is Great” and that the man was “alleged” to be a spy. He was horrified and disgusted.  In the end, Mr. Cooper was right to call me out. At the same time, I could not help but feel that I made a small difference in how the story was reported the second time around. 

At the end of the day, however, the twitter conversation is beside the point.   Sadly, the man dragged behind the motorcycle is still dead, murdered brutally by Hamas.  A human being, he was deprived of any due process, any rights, any dignity.  His family and friends buried  him.  They mourn his death.   Others in Gaza are once again reminded by Hamas: this can happen to you, for any reason, at any time, just because we can.

And the world saw the brutality that is Hamas.

Unfortunately, I fear, not enough people are willing to pay attention.

May we all work hard to achieve Peace soon and in our day!

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Taking Back the "Z" Word!

With tensions escalating throughout the region, with increasing numbers of citizens living under the threat of missile attacks, it is not surprising that an important date in modern Jewish and Israeli history passed by this week virtually unnoticed.  On November 11, 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed the infamous Resolution 3379 declaring that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination."   While the UN revoked the resolution in 1991 after the first Gulf War as an enticement to gain Israel's involvement in the Madrid Peace Conference, General Assembly Resolution 4686 could not undue the damage already done.  The revocation, while symbolically important, was irrelevant in practice. The basis for today's efforts to delegitimize Israel were sown and given legitimacy by the UN with the 1975 resolution. The term "Zionism" became anathema, the equivalent of the actually repugnant "N" word.

The 1975 UN resolution initiated a process whereby individuals, countries and terrorist groups co-opted Zionism for their own purposes, turning it into the "Z" word.  To make matters worse, by preceding the "Z" word with the modifier, "Anti," they gave themselves  cover from accusations of anti-Semitism.  "We don't hate individual Jews; rather, we are just opposed to Israel."  The far left throughout the world, the Jewish world included, took ownership of Zionism, turned it into the "Z" word and claimed that those who were Zionists were, by definition, racists, discriminators and murderers.

Worse still, as the far left claimed the "Z" term with greater and greater passion, many in the organized Jewish world distanced themselves from using the word Zionism.  Sadly, that distancing continues today.  The result is the strengthening of radical BDS groups who revel in our embarrassment while, at the same time, strengthening the true racists and murderous terror organizations and the regimes, past, present and emerging, that support them.  Terms such as "pro-Israel" and phrases such as "support Israel" are wonderful.  At the same time, I believe they represent reactions to the co-opting of the word Zionism by those who hate Israel, who seek to delegitimate it and to destroy it.  "Pro-Israel" is clearly a reaction to "Anti-Israel."

The time has come for a new strategy, one that is proactive rather than reactive.

Instead of distancing ourselves from Zionism, we must reclaim the word and celebrate it anywhere and everywhere.  While definitions abound, we must make clear that the meaning of the term Zionism is "the certain knowledge of the right of the Jewish People to a safe, sovereign State in our ancient and  ancestral homeland."  We must cease arguing the legitimacy of this right with those who seek to delegitimate Zionism, Zionists and The State of Israel.  Engaging in such argument is a waste of time as it simply legitimates the ability to raise the question of our right, a right that is as inalienable as it is ancient.  When others try to embarrass us by turning Zionism into the abhorrent "Z" word, we cannot not run and hide.  Our response must be clear, full-throated and unbending: Those who deny the fact of the "the right of the Jewish People to a safe, sovereign State in our ancient and ancestral homeland" are the racists, the spreaders of hatred, the hypocrites.  One can accept the fact of this right and still be critical of or have a problem with specific policies. One cannot, however, be a denier of the fact of Israel and expect to be invited to join, be part of or initiate conversations that seeks to solve those problems by eliminating that fact.

Being "pro-Israel" or "supporting Israel" is important.  We need as many people as possible to side with Israel, to support her, to love her.  What we need even more, however, is for everyone who knows with certainty the fact of "the right of the Jewish People to a safe, sovereign State in our ancient and ancestral homeland," everyone throughout the world - Jews and non-Jews alike -  to take back the "Z" word from those among our detractors who seek to destroy Israel.  We must remove any sense of shame that others may give to it, shouting loudly to the world in a strong, clear voice that the "right of the Jewish People to a safe, sovereign State in our ancient and ancestral homeland" is a non-negotiable fact.

While over one million Israeli citizens need to be close enough to protected shelters to avoid death by missiles shot with the intention of killing civilians, while thousands of missiles have been shot from Gaza into Israel on a near daily basis over the past few year,  reclaiming our 2,000 year old dream, "being a free people in the Land of Zion and Jerusalem," from those who seek to destroy us, seems to me to be the least we can do.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 9, 2012

MASA and The Jewish Future

The music was so loud I felt the bass pounding in my chest. The crowd, having spent much of the first hour of the evening seated, leapt to their feet, raised their hands, clapped and moved toward the stage. Idan Reichel, legendary musician, and his "Project" took the stage, replacing the speakers, dancers and videos, and the room rose to a different level of life.  I was not the intended audience for the evening nor were the scores of donors and representatives sitting nearby in the VIP section of Binyanei Ha'Umah in Jerusalem.  This was MASA Fest, the grand opening event of the year for participants on long-term Israel programs.  This show was for the students.

Despite my feelings of aging (and awareness of increasing amounts of gray hair), I too was energized by the event.  One of the heroes of my teen years, Natan Sharansky spoke about the importance of Jewish identity and exploration MASA participants could experience this year.  Videos of the emcees were inspiring and included a participant from NATIV, our excellent gap year program, as well as one of my former campers at Ramah Darom.  The message MASA participant emcees sent was one of diversity, joy and Jewish hope.  The hall shook with cheers from programs and participants of all kinds: multiple languages, ages ranging from gap-year to post-college, and programs focused on everything from Torah study to high-tech internships.  Even the somewhat sappy choreography, with dancers in blue and white, strutting to a mix of Hava Nagila and the theme song to "Dirty Dancing," seemed appropriate during our Zionist pep rally.

As mentioned earlier, if the first half of the program was an infomercial on Israel, Zionism and MASA programs, the second half was a straightforward rock concert for the enjoyment of the collective MASA community.  Idan Reichel's hauntingly beautiful music, a mix of jazz, gospel and Middle Eastern tradition, was a far cry from the Safam and Craig Taubman tunes of my youth.  Reichel speaks to the souls of his listeners in a completely different and transformational way than the mix of English and Hebrew music of twenty years ago.  It didn't matter that half the room had no idea what the lyrics meant.  The performance had a magical way of creating a common community out of a mix of Jews from around the world.

Reading this week's Torah commentary by Rabbi Haim Amsallem, head of the Am Shalem party, I am reminded that, at the heart, parashat Hayyei Sarah is about leadership transitions.  This week, while the US demonstrated the power of the democratic process and peaceful transition of power, the Torah teaches about passing on the torch of leadership.  Abraham, coming to the end of his life, passes on the Divine blessing and promise - generations and a homeland - to his son, Isaac.  Isaac represents a different kind of leadership than that of Abraham.  In a very short time, Isaac too will pass on leadership to Jacob who will encounter a different world and will build his own leadership style.  The process that started with Abraham continues in the Jewish world today.

Watching the MASA participants, I was acutely aware of the start of the leadership transition taking place before my very ideas.  The gap year and graduate students in Binyanei Ha'Umah, rocking to the beat of Idan Reichel, will be the next generation with potential to take on the mantle of leadership in the Jewish world.  Right now, for the foreseeable future and perhaps for always, however, they are consumers of what we in the Jewish world and in Jewish leadership have to offer them.  We have to invest in them, meet them where they are AND move them forward on their path.

The Jewish world makes this investment in many ways.  Birthright Israel is one, and the most attended, example.  As a short-term program, it can be a taste of rich, sweet, joyous Jewish involvement and, for a few, that is enough to transform lives.  I believe that short-term programs have their greatest impact when they lead participants to long-term programs such as Nativ, the Conservative Yeshiva and the plethora of other excellent, immersive programs.   From multiple studies, we know that the greatest transformation, the deepest involvement, and the most soulful commitment to Jewish living, learning and, perhaps, leading comes from those who participate in long-term, immersive, substantial Jewish experiences.  This is what leads someone like my friend, Rabbi Todd Berman, to make the case in eJewishphilanthropy that ever larger investment is needed to support MASA programs.  I believe this to be true regarding increased funding both for scholarships for participants and operational funds for the providers.

In my first few weeks on the job as CEO of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center, I am deeply impressed by the future potential of participants in our Conservative Yeshiva and Nativ programs to be the next generation of committed Jews and, perhaps, Jewish leaders.  It is clear that the greater the investment in long-term programs like Ramah camping, gap year programs and post-graduate MASA programs, the greater the impact we will have on building lifelong involvement and commitment.  Like Isaac to Abraham, these incredible people and their compatriots on countless other MASA programs deserve our best.  They also deserve our continued involvement with and investment in them once they finish these programs.  Long-term connection with and investment in MASA participants is how we will build a brighter future for the Jewish people, how we will pass on the blessing and promise that started with Abraham, was passed on to Isaac and to every subsequent generation of Jews and how we will attain the vision of an eternally brighter tomorrow.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Wearing New Shoes...

From the drive to the food, from the people to the shoes, everything feels different.  The world feels different.  I feel different.  This time, I know I will be back again and again and again, all year long.  More than just a visit, this is the beginning of a journey to citizenship, back to the motherland, to the State, Land and People of Israel.  What is most amazing though is that I feel the differences the most in the small things.  Perhaps my senses are heightened or maybe, just maybe, I am different.

דוגמא ראשונה:

The drive from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem in a taxi is one I made a hundred times before.  Like Persimmon Road in Clayton, Georgia or Buckatabon Road in Conover, Wisconsin, I can drive this with my eyes closed.  On previous trips, I quivered with the anticipation of a tourist.  Now, I look forward, excited, with the eyes of a soon to be citizen.  Rather than visiting, I feel the pulse of coming to a new home.  My taxi driver, Lazer, asks why I am here.  I tell him about my new job and our Aliyah in August 2013.  Like most Israelis, he wants to know why in the world I am leave America, The Goldeneh Medinah, to come here where everything is so hard.  In fact, he tells me that he is thinking that 25 years in Israel, coming from Tajikistan, is enough.  He is considering moving to America.  By the time I am done with my personal, and perhaps naive,  Zionist narrative, he is saying: "Kol HaKavod! Who am I kidding?  This is my home. I can't leave."

דוגמא שניה:

My Achilles' tendons have been bothering me for months. A visit to an ankle specialist in the US, six months overdue, sends me to a physical therapist.  At the end of my visit, she looks at my gym shoes, tells me they are not right and hands me a list of shoes and styles that will be better.  She tells me that the more I can walk around barefoot the better.  The next best thing, in her opinion, are sandals.

"Flip flops?" I ask, my arch-enemy as a camp director.
"No!  Good sandals." She replies.
"Have you ever heard of Teva, Naot?" I retort, fully prepared for a "no" as the therapist is not a Hebrew speaker, an Israeli, or Jewish for that matter.
"That is exactly what I mean.  They form to your feet. Great for your ankles."

I don't ever recall wearing sandals as regular shoes.  In fact, other than wearing them on Shabbat at Ramah Darom making my way down to the pool, I cannot remember wearing sandals at all.  I don't even like walking barefoot.  Sandals?  She might as well demand that I eat okra every day.  But, as soon as I got here, I met our friend Zahava for coffee and she accompanied me to buy my first pair of sandals.

Now, I walk to and from the office more conscious of my gait and posture, trying to stand straighter and look ahead rather than downward.  My heightened awareness leads to noticing small things along the way: how the flowers on Emek Refa'im/Keren HaYesod smell different in the fall than in the winter when I usually visit;  the Eritrean weddings, replete with elaborate costumes, taking place in the park next to Yemin Moshe on Shabbat Mornings;  and even the way my feet feel as they strike the floor in the Shuk Mahane Yehuda as I go eat at an Indian vegetarian restaurant that is giving up its kashrut certification rather than conceding to the near extortion mashgichim are demanding by forcing them to buy vegetables from only four stands in the shuk.

And, wouldn't you know it, in the end my feet feel better.

דוגמא שלישית:

Coming to visit, to interview and, later, to train shlichim, I always felt the need to eat fleishigs (meat) as much as possible.  While there are a few good kosher meat restaurants in Chicago, they are a schlepp from the city and the variety is limited.  Here, however, I can eat kosher Indian, Thai, Moroccan, French, Italian and virtually every other cuisine you can imagine. As a visitor, I wanted to be so fleishig that upon return to the US, I would feel fleishig for months.  Moreover, most meat restaurants in Israel have excellent desserts which I used to dutifully eat at the end of each meal.

This time, I find myself making different choices.  I eat fish as often as I eat meat.  I eat smaller portions.  I am more conscious of what I order.  I almost never eat dessert.  I eat more vegetables and fruit and they taste sweeter and richer than anything I buy back in Lakeview.  These differences  may seem silly but for me, they represent the shift from tourism visits to home building, from guest to resident, from foreigner to citizen.

I walk past the Old City of Jerusalem, in my sandals of course, and see The Dome of The Rock sitting on The Temple Mount.  According to tradition, The Beit HaMikdash was built on the spot where Abraham took Isaac, bound him to the altar and almost offered him up as a sacrifice.  At the last moment, God intervened through the voice of an angel and Abraham spotted a ram caught up in a thicket and offered it up in place of Isaac.  The midrash teaches that this same spot, on the top of Mount Moriah, is where two brothers bumped into each other to discover that they had been helping one another anonymously.  Mt. Moriah is the place of brotherly Peace, of human-Divine connection, of שלימות and שלום.  As I walk, looking at The Temple Mount, it looks different and I feel different.  I won't have to take in the vision so that it will sustain me for another year.  I will be able to walk by any time I want to catch a glimpse.

Today, Mt. Moriah looks different.  It isn't different. The eyes that look toward it are different.  I am different.  I, and my family, are about to become part of the first experiment in Jewish sovereignty since 70 C.E.  We will be part of all of the blessings and the challenges.  Things that used to bother me but that I refrained from commenting  on or working to change precisely because I was not a citizen will now be my problems to speak up about and act to try and change, like eating at the Indian restaurant.  Laws that I found problematic in theory will now be problematic in reality. It will be my job to join others to insure that Israel is an אור לגוים, a light unto the nations.  And the things that I love about Israel, that fill my soul, that heighten my spirit will be here every day to invigorate me with a greater sense of purpose.

This trip is different.  And, more importantly, I am different too.

Shabbat Shalom.