My Dad and I never watched the Superbowl together. Nor the NBA championships, the World Cup, or the World Series. In my family, the only person who watched sports on television was my grandmother, who never missed an Indians or Browns game. So I grew up with a warped sense of manhood. Watching guys throw balls around was for old ladies. My Dad and I did our small-screen-mediated male bonding on election night.
So I’m happy to report that when this post appears I’ll be on my way from Jerusalem to Denver to spend my first election night with Dad in more than three decades. Tuesday night he and I will be munching pizza and popcorn as we watch the returns come in and tally electoral votes and Senate seats.
Dad, a longtime newspaper reporter, was my first coach in political analysis, as well as in writing. His politics are liberal Democrat; his style is terse, simple, and to the point (he would disapprove of the previous semicolon and these parentheses). So it’s not surprising that I occasionally try my hand at political satire. At its best, it’s a genre that forces readers think about their beliefs in a new way. Furthermore, it can help those of us jaded by the horserace coverage that all too often passes for political journalism to remember that politics is as much a necessary part of our lives as love is, and that it’s important that we get both right.
That’s what I tried to do in my latest “Necessary Stories” piece, published in the current issue of the Jerusalem Report. Called “Persuasion,” it’s a love story in the style of Jane Austen, set in the run-up to the current election.
The Jerusalem Report has given me a platform that few writers enjoy and for which I’m extremely grateful (especially to Eetta Price-Gibson, who offered me the perch during her tenure as editor of the magazine). Once each month I get three pages where I can write whatever I want—memoir, satire, or short story. As I’ve transitioned in recent years from writing journalism and non-fiction into writing fiction, it’s given me a place to experiment with subjects and techniques. Some of my Necessary Stories are funny, some sad, some wistful. By arrangement with the magazine, they are also available in full on my blog, South Jerusalem.
If you like the latest one, you might also sample “Plane Story,” about an encounter with strangers and storytelling on a Delta flight, and “Bananas,” a tale from the immigrant camp that used to occupy the part of Holon where some of my in-laws live. I also recommend “Winter” and “Spring,” the first two installments in a quartet of army stories collectively called Duties of the Heart. “Summer” and “Autumn” are too long for my three pages in the Report and are currently seeking homes elsewhere.
Don’t tell Dad about all those ridiculously long sentences in “Persuasion.” He’d give me a stern lecture on style and we might miss some key returns and projections.
People sometimes ask: What would you like your book to accomplish? In this case, my answer is easy: I would be thrilled if The Promise of Israel changed the conversation that we’re having about Zionism.
The Promise of Israel makes an audacious and seemingly odd claim. It suggests that what now divides Israel and the international community is an idea: the idea of the ethnic nation-state—a country created around a shared cultural heritage. Yes, it is true that the Israelis and the Palestinians are still tragically locked in an intractable and painful conflict; but that, I believe, is not the primary reason for Israel’s unprecedented fall from international grace.
Israel is marginalized and reviled because of a battle over the idea of the nation-state. Israel, the quintessential modern example of the ethnic nation-state, came on the scene just as most of the Western world had decided that the time had come to be rid of the nation-state. Today, Europe’s elites wish to move in one direction, while Israel suggests that humanity should be doing precisely the opposite. The conflict in the Middle East is about borders and statehood, but the conflict about the Middle East is over universalism versus particularism, over competing conceptions of how human beings ought to organize themselves.
So I decided that what we really need to being speaking about is how the conflict over the nation-state developed, how Israel got caught in it, and, most importantly, to demonstrate that a world bereft of the idea that Israel represents would be an impoverished one. Yes, I knew it would sound hyperbolic, but I wanted to argue that what is at stake in the current battle over Israel’s legitimacy is not simply the idea on which Israel is based, but, quite possibly, human freedom as we know it.
The very notion that the future of human freedom might depend on a small country like Israel is very counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. The very idea sounds crazy, I know. But that’s the conversation I wanted to get started. Imagine a world in which Jews, when talking about Israel, focused not on borders and checkpoints, occupation and conflict, but about the idea that the Jewish state is critical not just for Jews, but for freedom-loving people everywhere. It would be a new conversation, a new Zionist discourse. We need that, desperately. If The Promise of Israel contributes to that conversation in even a small way, I’ll be very gratified.
I had an all too familiar conversation with someone the other day who was talking about a community Jewish high school that offered only one course on Israel, in 12th grade, that was optional. Several years ago, when my kids were in day school, I had been shocked to learn that I was paying a fortune for a Jewish education that I took for granted included courses on Israel but had only one poorly taught elective course on Zionism offered the semester before graduation. After that epiphany, I learned that this was common in many day schools. And parents wonder why Jewish students are ill-equipped to respond to Israel’s detractors in college.
The truth is the Jewish community has been asleep at the wheel for decades. Since at least the 1960s, people have written about the lack of preparation of our young people and yet little has been done since then to educate them. In the last ten years, especially, the community has thrown a lot of money into Israel advocacy training for college students. This has been very important; however, it is also very late to first introduce young Jews to the Aleph-Bet of Israeli history, politics and culture.
It is certainly not the kids’ fault that they are ignorant. Where would they get the necessary background if not in day schools? They certainly don’t get it in public schools or after school Hebrew schools that barely have the time to teach basic Judaism.
I recently attended a meeting of educators and donors that seemed to, at long last, recognize the crisis in Israel education. Not surprisingly, there is a multiplicity of opinions as to how to address the problem. Still, a few areas of consensus were clear. These included:
• The need to integrate Israel education in an age-appropriate manner from kindergarten through high school.
• That Jewish summer camps offer opportunities to teach Israel to large numbers of students, especially those who do not attend day schools.
• The importance of training teachers to teach about Israel.
People have certainly talked about teaching Israel for a long time and a lot of curricula have been developed over the years. Shockingly, however, no textbooks were available to teach basic Israeli history to high school students. A typical course would be in a loose-leaf binder and contain a hodgepodge of information, articles and maps. The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles used something like this in a unique program they developed for educating students in Catholic schools about Israel. The organizers of this Holy Land Democracy Project recognized that something more was needed and asked me to write a book that would cover what everyone should know about Israel.
Having written the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Middle East Conflict, I had experience in explaining the complexities of the history and politics of Israel for a lay audience. My goal with this new book was to help readers get to better know Israel and Israelis, to teach them the essential history, lay out some of the dilemmas the nation faces and to ensure they have the information they need to feel knowledgeable. Of course, one book cannot provide all the answers. The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise publishes the book Myths and Facts to address more specific issues that frequently arise on college campuses such as attacks on Zionism, critiques of Israeli security measures and canards about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
The new book, Israel Matters: Understand the Past – Look to the Future (Behrman House), does provide an overview and context that enables readers to understand how history, politics, religion, geography and psychology influence Israelis and the policies of their government. Through profiles of important figures in Israeli history, and descriptions of typical young Israelis, I hope that readers will also get a better sense of the people who live in Israel.
One of the problems with Israel education has been to present an idyllic portrayal of the Jewish State. Students today are too sophisticated to see Israel through rose-colored glasses. They are sensitive to what appears to them to be propaganda. They are correct in recognizing that Israel is a complex place that aspires to be a light unto the nations but is not perfect. Part of our challenge as educators is to give them the background they need to wrestle with Israel, to see it, warts and all, and to reach their own conclusions.
Given the proper education, I am confident that young Jews will become passionate Zionists who will know how to respond to the detractors inside and outside college classrooms and, ultimately, become active members of the pro-Israel community.
Michael Weingrad made something of a splash last year in writing “Why There is no Jewish Narnia” at the Jewish Review of Books. Of course, Weingrad misunderstands Narnia. To explain the seven novels succinctly, let us refer to the following equation:
Jesus was Jewish (therefore) Aslan was Jewish (therefore) Narnia = Jewish Autonomous Oblast (and) The White Witch = Christianity/Rome. QED.
But before you give me the combined Nobel Prize for Physics and Literature, let’s think about that seeming paradox. The fields of both science fiction and fantasy are filled with Jewish writers, from Isaac Asimov (can you get more Jewish than that?) to, erm, William Shatner. (Yes, he wrote TekWar! No, the Federation is not proud). Why, then, do so few genre works deal with Jewish universes? Where are the vampires who laugh at a crucifix, the Space Navy with Stars of David proudly painted on the hull of the ships? Imagine the ending for 2001: A Space Odyssey: “My God! It’s full of Jews!”
Or the Jewish immigrants passing en masse through the wardrobe to get to the safe-haven of Narnia, kicking some holy lion butt in the process. No?
Yes and no.
Joel Rosenberg’s novel Not For Glory (1988) features a galactic corps of Israeli mercenaries from the planet of Metzada (no, really, it does!). And one of the most obscure of science fiction’s Jewish masterpieces (its only one?) is the unjustly neglected The Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, by Isidore Haiblum, concerning the comic adventures of two galactic operators trapped in Jewish history, and turning to the eponymous Tsaddik (and his travel maven Greenberg) for help. If Rosenberg’s novel is, how shall we say, not so great, Tsaddik is a true classic, one I return to with joy every time (appropriately enough, I have both the English and Hebrew editions, both long out of print).
Israel is enjoying something of an awakening in terms of Jewish fantasy and science fiction. Recently it has produced the first true masterpiece of Israeli SF – the novel Kfor by Shimon Adaf. It is an astonishing novel, following the lives of several characters in the Jewish city/country of Tel Aviv in five hundred years’ time, and combining science fiction, detective fiction, poetry and absolutely wonderful, heart-breakingly beautiful writing. It is unlikely to ever be translated.
Another novel by Adaf, however – the massive Sunburnt Faces – will be published in English next year by PS Publishing in the UK, the same small publisher that had taken such a chance on my own Osama. Small publishers can afford to take risks larger ones can’t, and to me this is nothing less than an event, an opportunity for a new audience to appreciate, for the first time, Adaf’s unique talent.
Do we need Narnia? This is what we ask ourselves after a couple of pints at the pub. What’s the real estate value on Cair Paravel? And just which law firm represents the White Witch’s interest? We picture Maurice Levy from The Wire as he defends yet another faun or centaur caught in the deadly world of illicit Turkish Delight wholesaling.
Let them have their Narnia, I say. We have the Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, and we now have Shimon Adaf.
And we’ll always have Shatner.