Monday, December 21, 2009

Who knows why and what for America chose Obama?

My title line sounds better in Hebrew, in which it's a takeoff of a kids' song that asks, "Who knows why and what for the zebra wears pyjamas?" But let me not get off track before I begin.

I went to an event sponsored by Democrats Abroad-Israel earlier this month. Panelists, including veteran Ha'aretz journalist Akiva Eldar, spoke about the U.S.-Israeli relationship in the age of Obama. (This is a hot topic in Washington as well, and Eldar took it up again in his paper.) Panelists and audience members offered various explanations for why Israelis are not enamored of the current President. The range was wide, including:
  • Obama doesn't support Israel's fundamental right to exist, and so Israelis should be uncomfortable. (I disagree with this one.)
  • There is a strong streak of racism in Israel, which is being encouraged by right-wing American groups suspicious of Obama's black and Muslim parentage. (Unfortunately, I think there's a fair amount of truth in this one.)
  • Obama is trying to be an "honest broker" in the Middle East conflict, a term which is a dirty word in Israel and which conflicts with America's commitment to guarantee Israel's qualitative military edge over its adversaries. (Eldar put this forward and elaborated on the inherent contradiction between the two American roles. I think he's got a good point.)
  • Most Israelis are not really ready for the difficult compromises that a peace agreement will require, and any world leader trying to push or lead the way through the endgame of the peace process will be disliked. (This is my theory.)
For all that, Obama's closing words in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (yeah, I know, I raised an eyebrow, too) show me why Israelis--so often accused of fighting unneccessary wars--should admire the man:
We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that -- for that is the story of human progress; that's the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sweet Potatoes for Peace

On Friday night, I had a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat. Then, on Saturday, I had another Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat.

Thanksgiving seems to be the holiday that American immigrants to Israel hang on to most strongly, just as it’s a holiday that immigrants to America adopt so readily, tweaking it to their own culinary traditions but joining in with the turkey (usually), the story, and the arts and crafts projects that the kids bring home from elementary school.

A few years ago I had a Shabbat Thanksgiving dinner that was one of the most memorable evenings I’ve hosted, if I do say so myself. We had Muslims and Christians who had never been to a Shabbat dinner; Palestinians and Israelis who had never been to a Thanksgiving meal; and American-Jewish immigrants to Israel who had strong feelings about both.

The thing that everyone took to immediately was the generosity of spirit. It was pot-luck, and people put in the most amazing effort to creating their favorite stuffing, sweet potato, cranberry, or other traditional dishes, or making innovative contributions that fit right in, like the British-Israeli vegetarian who made a fried tofu dish that outshined the turkey. Friends lent tables and helped me carry them up two flights of stairs. By arranging them in a Z, I got more than 20 guests into my bachelor(ette?) apartment.

We blessed the food, told the story of Thanksgiving, and sang psalms and folk songs. For one evening, I felt that the coexistence and conflict resolution on which I spend so much of my professional energy was achieved in my own home. For many of the guests, it was a unique opportunity to break bread with people from backgrounds different from their own. People definitely came out of their comfort zones, whether it meant venturing into a Jerusalem neighborhood that was not their own or taking part in an unfamiliar ritual.

I believe in these kinds of encounters. I have seen and felt personally the transformative effect of face-to-face meetings. While I think they are necessary, I do not believe they are sufficient for creating change. It's easy to coexist for an evening, but real conflict resolution means tackling substantive problems and systemic inequities as well as making time and space for difficult conversations. I have become wary of the many programs that claim to be making peace in the region through various kinds of meetings, ranging from strawberries for peace to mountain-climbing for peace to, yes, basketweaving for peace.

I am pleased that the conflict resolution field has made it past its adolescent growth spurt of the 1990s and is now maturing to the point where funders and practitioners alike are thinking carefully about how to define success and measure results. I hope I have a chance to help advance this process.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Haveil Havalim #244: No Protektzia Necessary

I've been remiss in failing to mention that Haveil Havalim is up at A Mother in Israel.

I got a mention, as well as a warm welcome and a cameo appearance as a newbie in the Jewish blogosphere.

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs — a weekly collection of Jewish & Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It’s hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by Jack. The term ‘Haveil Havalim,’ which means “Vanity of Vanities,” is from Qoheleth, (Ecclesiastes) which was written by King Solomon. King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and later on got all bogged down in materialism and other ‘excesses’ and realized that it was nothing but ‘hevel,’ or in English, ‘vanity.’