The Jew-by-choice conundrum

Lately, around these parts, there’s been a lot of talk about reserving the right to define ourselves by whichever terms we choose, and that a problem for Jews in modern-day Western society is non-Jews occasionally taking it upon themselves to define what a Jew is, and which terms are acceptable. However, there’s been very little discussion about how this is done within Judaism, and I’m not referring to the whole Haredim vs. Modern Orthodox vs. Everyone Else debate of halakhic observance; that’s too big a topic.

To start, I’ll just come right out and say it: I absolutely am not a fan of the term “Jew-by-choice”. I think the use of this term helps perpetuate, whether consciously or not, the idea that there is an intrinsic difference between those who came into the religion later, and those born into it. Now, I’ll grant that there can be, and often is, a difference. Jews born into the religion, if they were raised in an observant household, have an advantage of being culturally conversant in ways that Jews like me aren’t, and have to spend a lot of time playing catch-up. This isn’t a complaint, mind you; I knew this going into it, and I personally don’t consider it demoralizing the way some might.

However, I take my commitment to Judaism very seriously. The use of these terms, as I said, merely differentiates “Jew” from “Jew-by-choice” and, frankly, there’s nothing in the sources that I’ve seen which makes such a distinction valid. I know Orthodoxy prefers to discourage conversion (which, you know, has its merits – it takes a lot for some people to integrate into that world), but the use of this term, even by well-meaning Reform Jews and the like, can serve to discourage such an act because, to the potential convert, they won’t be, in the minds of others, just “Jew”. Even in contradiction to the Book of Ruth which is read at every Reform conversion ceremony, and the writings of Maimonides, where a Jew from any origin is just a Jew. Which is what I prefer.

If other people have no problem with being referred to as a Jew-by-choice, that’s fine, that’s not really my concern; I don’t like the term, and don’t like its alienating potential.

Dear Madonna:

a) You are actually not Jewish.

b) As a corollary to a), you have no grounds whatsoever to be comparing John McCain to Adolf Hitler.

Naturally, of course, you would have no grounds to make such a comparison in any case.

c) The entire world is not yours to appropriate for each successive reinvention. See, also Renee.

Free Gaza update – and cooler-headed commentary

Despite my frustration at the rhetoric they employ and the anti-Semitism of certain members, I am sincerely happy that the Free Gaza Movement has been such an overwhelming success so far, and I’m excited to see that the ships have plans to return to Gaza in the future. I also commend the Israeli government for doing the right thing by letting the boats in and allowing them to fish. (Part of the frustrating rhetoric is the movement’s scattered references to sneaking past the bumbling IDF. It’s easy to stay angry at what you’re fighting against even after they cede ground – but it can be an amazing judo-throw to show them kindness. Pettiness and cheap shots don’t make anyone look good.) My hope is that this movement will spawn other international movements – more ships, more visitors, more nonviolent direct action. My hope is that these movements will prove to everyone watching, in or out of Israel, that Gaza deserves and is capable of autonomy, and that Palestinians are human beings.

Maybe I’ll be on one of those ships sometime. I’d like to be.

See also Laila El-Haddad’s reports from the Gaza coast. Meanwhile, settlement construction in the West Bank nearly doubled this year, and roughly half of those new settlements are going up east of the separation wall.


For More Information, Please Contact:
(Gaza) Paul Larudee: +972 598 765 370
(Gaza) Huwaida Arraf: +972 599 130 426
(Cyprus) Osama Qashoo: +357 97 793 595 /
(Jerusalem) Angela Godfrey-Goldstein: +972 547 366 393 /

(GAZA CITY, 26 August 2008) – The SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty will leave Gaza for Cyprus on Thursday morning at 9:00 am. Several Palestinian students who have been denied exit visas by Israel will travel to Cyprus on the boats. One Palestinian professor will finally be able to go back to teaching in Europe and one young, Palestinian woman will finally be reunited with her husband. Several of the Free Gaza international human rights workers will remain in Gaza to do human rights monitoring.

By freely traveling to Gaza, on Saturday, August 23rd, in two, small, wooden boats, the Free Gaza Movement forced the Israeli government to issue a fundamental policy change regarding their military and economic blockade of Gaza. Until now, Israel has wanted absolute control of Gaza with no
responsibility. Israel has managed to maintain this situation, in spite of international law, because its policies have never been challenged.

When the SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty approached the waters of Gaza, the Israeli government had to decide whether it wanted to publicly acknowledge that Israel remains an occupying power in Gaza, in which case Israel would be responsible under international law for its actions, including war crimes. In the face of intense, public scrutiny, Israel instead chose to acknowledge the inherent right of Palestinians to freely engage with the world. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign affairs publicly announced that humanitarian and human rights missions to Gaza will no longer be stopped or threatened by Israel. With the end of the Israeli siege of Gaza, Palestinians are free to exercise their rights without fear of being stopped or killed by the Israeli military.

Since the organizers of the Free Gaza Movement will not be entering Israeli territorial waters, and since they will request an inspection from the Gaza Port Authority, they expect no interference on the part of the Israeli authorities when they leave Gaza. By Israel’s own admission, it has no authority to inspect the boats or the passengers when they leave Gaza.

With the collapse of the Israeli blockade, the Free Gaza Movement will quickly return to Gaza with another delegation, and invites the United Nations, Arab League and international community to organize similar human rights and humanitarian efforts. The Free Gaza Movement will continue to work to ensure the free passage between Gaza and the outside world will remain safe and open.

Israel and Immigration

Image description: a girl between 8 and 10 years old holds a rose and an Israeli flag. She’s wearing a backpack and looking at the camera without smiling. A boy is visible behind her. Photo credit: Brian Hendler.

This picture was featured on last week’s photo roundup on JTA. The girl is a Georgian refugee whose family has chosen to immigrate to Israel to escape the fighting. The image certainly says a lot about the girl’s current state, but I think it says a lot about Israel, too.

A couple of disclaimers:

1. Obviously I’m not a mind-reader, so don’t interpret this as my attempt to pick this particular girl’s brain. My reading of the photo is on a purely symbolic level.

2. As a Diaspora Jew, I know that I don’t have insider knowledge of life in contemporary Israel (although many native-born Israelis seem to feel they have insider knowledge of life in the contemporary Diaspora).

What’s interesting about the photo is that the girl has apparently been given a flower and an Israeli flag upon her arrival at Ben Gurion. Only the top of the flag is visible, but I recognize it as the same type I was given at the Birthright Mega-Event a few years ago. For those of you not familiar with what goes on during a Birthright trip, the Mega-Event is the culmination of a tour around the country for Jews ages 18-26. The evening is crammed with the gaudiest spectacles you can imagine – laser shows, dance troupes, pop stars, visiting heads of state, a post-show rave – and little plastic Israeli flags are made available to the thousands of audience members. The official purpose of the flags, I suppose, is to give Birthrighters a memento of their trip. The real purpose becomes clear, though, whenever Israel is mentioned during the show. The stands appear to quiver as everyone cheers and waves their flag. Anyone not waving one can’t help but feel almost seditious.

The symbolism of a national flag can’t be underestimated. It’s what you hold up to support your government’s actions, to demonstrate solidarity with the other inhabitants of your country (the ones that look and sound like you, at least), to show support for your country when it’s challenged or threatened by another country, or to display your love of the ideals of your country. You wave it at national celebrations or in times of collective crisis. You lower it when in mourning for someone who supported it. You use it to contrast your country with others, to show what you are by highlighting what you’re not.

The flag doesn’t have to be about that, of course, as I’ve discussed before. But those are the most commonly accepted connotations. It’s a symbol of pride in and loyalty to a particular nation – and a way of establishing a very clear-cut identity.

So this new Israeli has just arrived from a war-torn region. She’s lost her home, most of her belongings, and quite possibly close friends and family members. She looks tired and distracted. She’s holding the flag she’s been given, but she’s not smiling.

What are a Jew’s motives for moving to Israel? What are Israel’s motives for encouraging refugees to immigrate?

The easiest answers are the cynical ones. Why not move to Israel when your home has been destroyed? Why not exploit a humanitarian crisis to recruit more citizens, when part of your government’s strategy is to entrench itself in someone else’s territory through illegal settlements and state-sanctioned violence? When your national identity is based, in part, on being a safe haven for a persecuted people – which ties a little too nicely into justifying the persecution of the people who put down roots during the 2,000 years you were gone?

And there’s truth in those answers. But there’s truth in the stickier answers, too. A few Georgians were quoted as saying that they’d already been considering moving to Israel; the war was just the catalyst. It’s a joke to claim that anti-Semitism abruptly vanished in the latter half of the 20th century. Recently I was helping a student brainstorm essay ideas, and she mentioned her youth group’s trip to Poland – where, upon spotting the boys’ yarmulkes, people felt free to shout “Heil Hitler” at them. The Lithuanian government regularly engages in various anti-Semitic activities, and the Jewish school in Paris where I picked up my charges as an au pair had to be protected by a fifteen-foot-high wall and police officers. Jews are routinely harassed, attacked, and killed – not for opposing Palestinian rights (in fact, many are attacked while participating at progressive rallies), but for having the gall to be Jewish. To say that Jews have no reason to want a country of our own – not to criticize the location of that country or the ethnic cleansing that has been occurring since its inception, but to claim that we were fine as we were – is a pretty profound act of hatred.

But maybe anti-Semitism didn’t play a role in those refugees’ deliberations. Georgia isn’t known for having a particularly high level of anti-Jewish sentiment. Even without hostility, though, there’s power in wanting to be around other people like you.

And despite (because of) the corruption, hawkishness, and racism riddling their government, Israelis do sincerely believe that it’s better to be a Jew in Israel than a Jew in the Diaspora. According to that logic, one’s arrival in Israel is a cause for celebration, even if the circumstances are tragic.

Which brings us back to the photo. I’m struck most by the contrast between the object and the face – the joyful, congratulatory gesture of a flag coupled with the fear and uncertainty of a refugee; the simplicity of nationalism at odds with the complexity of survival. Is the flag a distraction? An insult? Maybe she was smiling a moment before. As always, the issue of Palestine looms around the edges. Why does this child deserve a haven and a home more than a Palestinian does? Why can’t they both have it? To say that it has to be one or the other is unacceptable.

I don’t know how to accomplish this – not in this all-or-nothing climate. It saddens me that to acknowledge the humanity of both Jews and Arabs is, on either end of the political spectrum, an act of radicalism.

To the girl – if you or your family is reading this, I hope I didn’t use your image unfairly. I wish you the best of luck in your new home.

(Cross-posted at Alas, a Blog)

Free Gaza Update: Boats Reach Gaza Strip

Via Haaretz:

Arab League chief praises activists who challenged Gaza siege

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa on Sunday praised pro-Palestinian peace activists who sailed from Cyprus and successfully broke through an Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip.

“These Palestinian supporters who have endured hardship to deliver their message to the world and to express their objection to the harsh siege on Gaza deserve every support and appreciation,” Mussa said in a statement.

Despite an Israel Defense Forces plan to halt boats bearing left-wing activists on their way to Gaza, the government decided to permit the boats to reach Gaza shores in order to avoid a public relations disaster.

Senior political sources in Jerusalem said that the fact that Israel allowed the boats to reach Gaza “took the wind out of the sails of the left-wing activists who were seeking to create a provocation.”

Give me… a fucking… break.

Yes, by allowing the boats to accomplish their goal, you actually won. If you hadn’t allowed the boats to accomplish their goal, you also would have won! Up is down! Black is white! Always twirling, twirling towards freedom!

So congratulations, everyone. The Free Gaza Movement has shown its propensity to act like children by demonizing Teh Zionists (yes, I’m resorting to internet-speak, I’m so fed up), invoking Holocaust imagery against Jews, and failing to produce a copy of Admiral Marom’s “strange proclamation.” The Israeli government has shown its propensity to act like children by first threatening to arrest the crews and interrogate them, and then patting itself on the back for avoiding a PR flare-up. So we’re all children here! Good! Great! We all win! We’re all the bestest! I’m rubber and you’re glue! PUT DOWN MY TOYS THEY’RE MINE!!!

Quick note: the IDF hasn’t ruled out the possibility of arresting the crews on their way out. Stay tuned, I guess. In the meantime, the activists are delivering hearing aids and helping Gazan fishermen fish.

I give up.

I’ve spent the past few weeks searching for a computer with Adobe Photoshop, but to no avail. Here’s how it went when I tried to use the graphics computer in the campus reprographics center:

Me: Hurray! This computer has Photoshop. Who’d have thought a measly community college would be able to afford it? I’ll have a snazzy new banner up on my Jewish social justice blog in no time.

Me – four minutes later: Excuse me, sir? I just tried to open Photoshop on the graphics computer, but it said the program’s missing some files.

Sir: Hmm. Let me check with the guy in back.

Guy in back: Oh, yeah. We downloaded that program illegally.

Me: So… if you don’t have the files for it now…

Sir and guy: We never will.

So I’m asking my readers and co-bloggers a favor. Would anyone out there like to work with me on designing the header for this site? I’ve got a simple design in mind – it would basically be the current image, except with a white border around the text, which would be in a different font, and a tagline. If anyone would like to submit their own design, though, you would be credited on the About page.

Or if, er, anyone knows where I could get a copy of graphics software, I’d much appreciate it.

Free Gaza Update

The following message was sent to us from aboard the SS Liberty, currently at sea – on the way to Gaza!

Admiral Marom’s Strange Proclamation

The signature of Israeli Navy Commander in Chief Admiral Eliezer Marom appears on a very odd document. (See attached.) (Note: I didn’t receive an attachment, but I’ve emailed them and I’ll be checking the website periodically. – TGD) Dated August 11th, 2008, it is not written on official stationery, nor is it addressed to anyone.

The document declares that the Israeli Navy is operating in a maritime zone off the coast of Gaza. Was there any doubt that they have been doing so continuously since 1967?

It includes the sketch of a map and a series of coordinates (also attached) to define the zone, which includes all of Gaza coastal waters, and a major slice of international waters as well. It advises all foreign vessels to remain clear of this zone because of a “security situation” that is apparently so
obvious that it requires no definition or explanation.

The only hint about the “security situation” is a reference to the delivery of humanitarian supplies to the civilian population in the Gaza Strip, which, according to the document, should be done only at the land crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip (i.e. by Israeli permission only). Why is the
Israeli Navy issuing a proclamation regarding the delivery of humanitarian aid by land?

The proclamation goes on to prescribe a set of protocols for vessels approaching the “maritime zone” and to prohibit vessels from entering Gaza because of the undefined “security situation.”

Finally, the document pronounces its benevolent intentions to ensure “safe navigation” and its neighborly undertaking to prevent vessels from approaching an area where their safety may be endangered. Endangered? By whom? By what?

There is, of course, an explanation for such a strange document, disseminated (as nearly as can be determined) to a narrow circle of maritime authorities. It is that the document itself is an embarrassment to Israel, which nevertheless feels compelled to issue it in some form, as a disclaimer for any forceful action that they might take against an unnamed threat.

The embarrassment is that the unnamed threat consists of the two converted fishing boats of the Free Gaza Movement, bought and refurbished in Greece, and flying the Greek flag. On board is a contingent of forty-three crew and human rights advocates, sworn to nonviolence, as well as a modest cargo of hearing aids for Palestinian children in Gaza. Among their ranks are a Greek member of
parliament, an 81-year-old Catholic nun and the sister-in-law of former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Admiral’s Marom’s proclamation shows nothing so much as the desperation and paranoia of a regime that lacks the imagination and courage to embrace a project that harms no one and delivers hope as its primary cargo. It behooves Israel to welcome the Free Gaza initiative as a step towards mutual respect for the human rights of all persons who call the land of Palestine their home.

–Paul Larudee

Written and sent from aboard the SS Liberty, one of two boats heading to Gaza as part of the Free Gaza Movement.

EDIT: Removed some offensive and problematic statements.