Voices of conflict arise in ‘Wrestling Jerusalem’

“It’s complicated,” Aaron Davidman says as he paces a bare stage at the beginning of “Wrestling Jerusalem.” The playwright and actor recounts the pivotal moments in Israel’s history — the 1948 War of Independence that Palestinians call “The Catastrophe,” the Six-Day War of 1967, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and various episodes of bloodshed from 1929 to the present. The settlements, terror attacks, checkpoints and missiles. As Davidman spins out the arguments we know all too well, his words swell into a cacophony of defensiveness and accusations.

Davidman brings his one-man show, “Wrestling Jerusalem,” to the Pico Union Project in Los Angeles Feb. 6 and 7. The play confronts the challenge of having open and honest discussions about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the centuries of history that complicate the situation. The red-haired, goateed Davidman, 47, portrays 17 characters onstage — Israeli, Palestinian, American and British men and women of various ages. There are no costume changes. He uses vocal inflections, dialect and physicality to note the transition from one character to the next, and music, sound and lighting suggests shifts in time and location.

The play is inspired by Davidman’s real-life experiences, including actual as well as composite characters from his travels. He first traveled to Israel in 1992, at 25, to study Torah. Upon arrival, he knelt down at Ben Gurion Airport and kissed the tarmac, burning his lips on the asphalt. In other scenes of the play, he meets with a Palestinian human-rights organizer and an American-Jewish medical student in Hebron. The play is “a nuanced, layered exploration of the history, the spiritual yearning and the politics that live deep in this ongoing conflict,” Davidman said by phone from his home in Berkeley.

“Wrestling Jerusalem” was commissioned by Theatre J in Washington, D.C., and had its premiere at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco last March. Davidman since has rewritten parts of the play. “It was a combination of what I learned about the play, and, added to that, what seemed to be a shift in the mood in America, Israel and Palestine after the Gaza war,” Davidman said. “It was some tone that needed to be addressed, that I didn’t quite have perfect last spring, that now I’ve really zeroed in on. A couple new characters emerged as well. Their voices were missing in the collection of voices that were in there.”

The play revolves around a kabbalistic creation myth, which Davidman recounts onstage: “Once there were vessels of light that contained all that is good in the universe. But this goodness was so powerful that the vessels, with their thin shells, could not contain it. And the vessels burst. And the light of goodness was scattered. Sparks and shards of light flew into all corners of the world. They’re hidden amidst all of us. And it’s the work of human beings, say the kabbalists, to find those sparks, those fragments of goodness, and put them back together. It’s how we heal the world, they say. We gather the broken pieces of goodness and put them back together.”

The characters Davidman inhabits are like those far-flung shards, separated as individuals but part of a greater whole. “What I’m trying to do in the play, and what I’m trying to do in my life, is keep an open heart and stay curious about the other,” he said. “And so the play is an exploration of fragmentation and wholeness.”

This isn’t Davidman’s first look at the Middle East crisis. For 10 years, he was the artistic director of the famed Traveling Jewish Theatre, also known as the Jewish Theatre San Francisco, until it closed in 2011 after 35 years. He spent three years creating and directing “Blood Relative,” a collaboration of American, Israeli and Palestinian artists, which opened in 2005.

“I think it’s an important time to be doing this play, and I don’t think a lot of people are addressing head-on that kind of inner conflict on stage,” said the play’s director, Michael John Garcés. He said audiences can relate to Davidman’s performance, as well as to his desire to reconcile competing perspectives. “The notion of wrestling with a really personal identity in the context of these big geopolitical issues, is, I think, a really American story, something we all do.”

Every production of “Wrestling Jerusalem” ends with a discussion of the play’s themes. Audience members share their hopes and fears about the Israel-Palestine situation, and Davidman helps guide the discussion. “At the end of the day, to feel that we’re building community around a more generous vision of this conflict, that feels hopeful to me,” Davidman said.

“The play is just a catalyst for a conversation. It’s an opportunity for people from both sides of the aisle to sit down and, through an artistic medium, try to understand what the other side might be thinking,” said Craig Taubman, founder of Pico Union Project, a multicultural, multifaith community forum.

Because of its subject matter, staging the play night after night can be exhausting, Davidman said. It’s emotionally and physically draining to embody such competing perspectives. Like Avram, the Hebron resident who says, “It is our birthright to be here in this land.” Or Farah, the Ramallah woman who advocates nonviolent resistance: “It is vicious, these wars. Vicious. And there is nothing we can do. We are trapped here. Surrounded by this wall. Now, even if you protest, they arrest you.” And there’s Jacob, the American who says, “Some people are uncomfortable with Jewish power. I’m not, Aaron. Jewish power was hard won. And we will keep it.”

Some might argue that, as a progressive Bay Area Jew, Davidman cannot comprehend the complexity of the situation, and that it’s naive to think that listening to one another can forge a path to peace. But there’s also an objectivity that comes from being raised outside Israel, Davidman said. One character in “Wrestling Jerusalem,” an Israeli psychologist named Dr. Tzipora, speaks of the “recycled trauma” passed on by generations of Jews since the Holocaust and by Palestinians since 1948. As she puts it, “We are two societies living in profound fear. And to end it, we must have trust. We must know with our eyes, not words, that we are safe. We must discharge these built-up feelings of anger and hurt. They must be released.”

“Wrestling Jerusalem” will be performed at the Pico Union Project, at 1153 Valencia St. in Los Angeles, Feb. 6 and Feb. 7. Each evening’s performance will be accompanied by a post-show discussion with the playwright and leaders of local Muslim and Jewish communities. Tickets are $20-$30. More information is at

Military airfield lands as alternative to banned Ben Gurion

Foreign airlines banned from using Ben Gurion Airport will be able to use a military airfield in southern Israel as an alternative, Israel’s transportation minister said.

The opening of Ovda Airport to increased commercial traffic is aimed at encouraging the resumption of flights to Israel, Yisrael Katz said Wednesday in his announcement.

Ovda, which is nearly 40 miles north of Eilat, now serves many commercial flights to the resort city.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority prohibited all U.S. airlines from flying to Israel for at least 24 hours after a rocket destroyed a house in Yehud, a city near Ben Gurion. That night, the European Aviation Safety Agency night canceled all flights to and from Europe for 36 hours.

The FAA on Wednesday extended the ban another 24 hours.

Some 160 flights in and out of Ben Gurion were canceled on Tuesday night and Wednesday, according to Israel’s Channel 2.

Passengers that arrive at Ovda would take buses to the center of Israel, Haaretz  reported. No airline that flies into Ben Gurion Airport has said it will use Ovda.

U.S. Airways and United will restart flights to Israel on Thursday, the Times of Israel reported, citing Israeli air officials. Germany’s Lufthansa suspended flights for another 24 hours, according to reports.

Among the European airlines that have continued to fly to Israel are British Airways, Azerbaijan Airlines, Ukraine International Airlines, Russia Airlines, Yakutia Airlines, Bluebird Airways and Siberia Airlines, according to Haaretz.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Ben Gurion on Wednesday morning aboard a military plane. Earlier in the day, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrived aboard an El Al flight.

El Al has continued to fly in and out of Ben Gurion. Israel’s national airline has sent planes to pick up stranded passengers from other airlines.

FAA extends Ben Gurion Airport ban another 24 hours

The Federal Aviation Administration extended for another day its ban on flights to Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv.

The U.S. agency said, however, that it had received “significant new information” from Israel that could influence its decision.

“The agency is working closely with the Government of Israel to review the significant new information they have provided and determine whether potential risks to U.S. civil aviation are mitigated so the agency can resolve concerns as quickly as possible,” the FAA said Wednesday in its announcement on the ban’s extension.

The statement did not outline the “new information.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the FAA for extending the ban, which was launched Tuesday after a rocket landing near the airport led at least two commercial carriers to cancel flights to Israel.

“There’s no reason whatsoever for the mistaken FAA decision to instruct American planes not to come here,” Netanyahu said at an appearance Wednesday with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who flew into Israel to protest the ban. “I think this decision only rewards the Hamas terrorists for nothing.

“You can fly in and out of Israel, and I hope that the FAA rescinds this decision as soon as possible,” the Israeli leader said.

Israeli officials have said they understand the ban is a procedural decision.

“Our aviation officials are in contact with the FAA, and we are confident that after they learn all the facts, they will resume flights,” Aaron Sagui, the Israel Embassy spokesman in Washington, said in a statement.

Such reassurances did not altogether stop speculation that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry initiated the ban to penalize Israel, although there was no evidence of such an animus.

“Was this a safety issue, or was it using a federal regulatory agency to punish Israel to try to force them to comply with Secretary Kerry’s demand that Israel stop their military effort to take out Hamas’s rocket capacity?” Sen Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked in a release.

Netanyahu has so far accepted U.S.-backed cease-fire proposals; Hamas has rejected them.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations also called for a removal of the ban.

“Hamas wants to destroy Israel, but also the United States and the values both countries share,” the umbrella body said in a statement Wednesday. “We should not encourage them by invoking a ban on air flights.”

Delta grounds flights to Israel, diverts plane to Paris

Delta Airlines suspended flights into Tel Aviv until further notice and diverted a flight on its way there due to rocket fire from Gaza.

The flight en route from New York’s Kennedy Airport was sent to Paris on Tuesday after a rocket fired from Gaza struck and destroyed a home in Yehud, an Israeli town near Ben Gurion Airport. Flight 268 was carrying 273 passengers and 17 crew members.

Delta said it made the decision to suspend the flights “in coordination with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration” and “to ensure the safety and security of our customers and employees.”

The airline is offering customers with reservations to Israel a waiver for rebooking their flights.


Guarding Ben-Gurion

A dapper man, wearing his signature safari-style hat, 90-year-old Aaron Friedman becomes exuberant when he shares his tales of being David Ben-Gurion’s bodyguard, a confidant of Yitzhak Shamir and of the fame he enjoyed while being a lifeguard on the beaches of Tel Aviv. He has lots of stories of how he has dedicated his life to helping the Jewish people and humanity — it just happens that many came at critical moments in the birth of the State of Israel.

Currently living in Reseda, he was born in Jaffa in 1924 as Menachem Aaron Friedman. He lived at the edge of the sea in a shanty house that his father built from driftwood. “I love the sea! We were so poor that, before going to school, my father and I would offer fish that we caught with our bare hands to the neighbors for Shabbat dinner,” recalled Friedman. He would walk by the house of Ben-Gurion, the future prime minister, on the way to school. 

Early in his life, Friedman became acutely aware of the plight of Jews in Palestine. “At the age of 5, I became an adult overnight,” Friedman said. “I heard that the entire community of Hebron was slaughtered [during the pogrom of 1929], and I took on the responsibility to protect the Jewish people.”

As a young teen, Friedman wanted to be a lifeguard but wasn’t old enough, so he fudged his age. This wouldn’t be the only time he refused to let his age get in the way of something he wanted.

At 15, Friedman became a legendary lifeguard on the beaches of Tel Aviv. This was a time when the beaches were the hub of the social scene, and Friedman enjoyed his rock-star status. With a physique reminiscent of Jack LaLanne’s, he had a plethora of people vying for his attention and friendship, including several who would become prime minister. “Golda Meir would stop by to talk,” Friedman recalled, “and Yitzhak Shamir — we were Friday-night drinking buddies.” He also became friends with Ariel Sharon. “I saved more than 800 people, among them Danya Weizmann, a sister of Chaim Weizmann [the first president of Israel], and I still have his letter of thank you!” 

When he was 16, Friedman again finessed his age, this time in order to fulfill his dream of becoming a soldier. He served in the Jewish Settlement Police, whose purpose was to protect Jewish settlements from Arab guerillas.

It’s easy to become transfixed when Friedman tells story after story, bringing history to life — especially when he recounts one infamous day in 1941: “The British were desperate that they were going to lose the Middle East and the gate to India — the Suez Canal. Ben-Gurion gave the order to [Moshe] Dayan, who was in charge of the land troop, to dynamite a few bridges and roadways so that there would be no access in. We were on the northern part of the Golan Heights, on the border of Syria, when we encountered a small group of [foreign] advisers to the Syrians, and there was a little skirmish. A bullet grazed Dayan’s eye — there was lots of blood and it looked awful, but Dayan just said “Al kol be seder” — everything is all right. Somehow we escaped and rushed him eventually to Tiberius, but they couldn’t save his eye — and that’s the true story on how he lost his eye.” 

Yaakov Dori, the chief of staff of the Haganah, appointed Friedman in 1946 to be the personal bodyguard of Ben-Gurion, who was then the chairman of the Jewish Agency. It was Friedman’s connections with various militias — especially Etzel and Lehi — and perhaps knowing Ben-Gurion since his childhood that got him the position. “I was one of six bodyguards, and my job was to be attached to him day and night. I protected him not from the Arabs but from the friction that was happening with the militias. There was always danger,” Friedman said. “My admiration for him was because he was a Jew uniter — it didn’t matter if you were from the left or the right, ultra-Orthodox, Conservative. … He was a leader who took command, and he wanted a land for the Jewish people.” 

Friedman wasn’t merely in the shadow of giants of the Jewish state;  he was also part of making history. “It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I learned the full depth of what he was involved in,” said Gregg Alpert, national director of eLearning at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who was 14 when he met Friedman through United Synagogue Youth (USY). “It turns out that he was an operative who was sent into Cyprus to refugee camps to smuggle people out into Israel. So it wasn’t just that he was … David Ben-Gurion’s bodyguard, he also had an active hand in shaping the history of the Jewish people.” 

Friedman’s desire to save people also led to meeting his wife, Esther Shawmut, a Jewish-American pharmacist’s mate in the Navy. In 1948, she was on board the Pan York, a refugee ship that was being searched in the Haifa harbor for able-bodied, military-age people, who were not allowed to enter the country. Shawmut, along with others, jumped ship to swim to shore. But she didn’t know how to swim well and got caught in the riptides. Friedman, one of the Israeli frogmen rescuing the volunteers, pulled her safely ashore. “I told her my name, and she never forgot it,” Friedman said. 

Friedman and Shawmut married in 1954. Soon after that, Friedman recalled, Ben-Gurion approached him and said, “I want you to go the United States. It’s like what I did before World War I — I went to Canada, the United States, and helped liberate Palestine. I had a vision and you can do it, too. I want you to inspire the youth and tell them the story of Israel; that is your next mission.”  

Friedman and his wife went to the United States that same year, first to Miami, where he taught swimming at a small private school. In the years that followed, they had one daughter, Shari Lesnick. They were the founders and directors of Camp David, in Luzerne County, Penn., in the early 1960s. In 1964, Friedman was appointed youth director of USY for the Pacific Southwest Region and moved to Sherman Oaks. He built up the organization for 10 years, which had started with approximately 15 chapters. Meanwhile, Shawmut Friedman was the Southern California regional executive director of the Zionist Organization of America and director of BBYO (formerly B’nai B’rith Youth Organization).

The couple worked together as an influential duo to create a passion for being Jewish and sharing the spirit of the State of Israel. Their dedication to youth infused their entire adult experience. “I was inspired by great people. … I don’t really like politics … I focused on the children, who are the future leadership of humanity. I try to teach with kindness and gentleness — anger brings you nowhere,” Friedman said. Their honeymoon lasted nearly 60 years, until Shawmut Friedman passed away in March 2013. 

Today, Friedman is 90 percent blind in one eye and is losing his sight in the other eye. He’s still vivacious, though, and continues lecturing and sharing his stories. “I am a small pebble in Jewish history,” he said. “The past is for historians, the present is for the living, and the future is for mankind to improve what we have. We have a land and a country — there’s a bright future.”

Begin biography moving, not convincing

In his new biography, “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul” (New York: Next Book, Schocken), Daniel Gordis writes passionately and poignantly about the life of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, from childhood in Brisk (now Brest-Litovsk) to the post of prime minister of Israel. Along the way, Begin escaped from the Nazis, was tortured by the Soviets and hunted by the British in Palestine. Because of his role in the pre-state battles among Zionists, he was ignored by the Israeli establishment and suffered multiple electoral defeats before becoming Israel’s first non-Labor prime minister. He made peace with Egypt and attacked the nuclear reactor in Iraq, securing Israel and the West from Iraqi nuclear terror. He was undone by the 1982 War in Lebanon and unraveled by the death of his beloved wife, Aliza. His journey from hunted “terrorist” to Nobel Peace Prize winner is the stuff of legend, and Gordis skillfully capitalizes on it.

Gordis believes that Begin’s biography is also the story of Israel’s struggle for its Jewish soul. He portrays Begin as the first Israeli prime minister who, while not observant, was at home in Jewish tradition and spoke from the perspective of Jewish history. His predecessors and successors were estranged from Jewish religious life and had revolted against the exilic Jewish ethos. He forgets that Levi Eshkol, Begin’s predecessor by more than a decade, was regarded as so Jewish in humor and demeanor that the Israelis virtually insisted a sabra be appointed defense minister on the eve of the Six-Day War. Moshe Dayan became its hero, not Eshkol, who had built the army that won the war.

Begin’s Judaism, Gordis writes, was both particularistic and universalistic. Using the traditional values of Jewish teachings and historic experience, he extended those values to all people. “Passionate concern for the welfare of the Jewish people did not have to come at the expense of compassion for human beings everywhere.” One must laud such Jews, especially in a world where some Jews celebrate universal values yet are alienated, if not embarrassed, by today’s expressions of Jewish values; and in which there are Jews who act as if Jewish values have no universal import or application beyond the Jewish community. I am moved by Jews who take the Begin approach, and moved by Gordis’ portrayal of that Judaism, but no matter how moved I am, I am also not persuaded by this book.

To bolster his case for Begin, Gordis demeans Begin’s archrival, David Ben-Gurion, presenting a revisionist history of Israel’s struggle for independence. I will leave it to others who have written on Israel’s early history to assess the relative contributions of the Haganah, Etzel and the Stern Gang to Israel’s creation. Gordis’ primary criticism of Ben-Gurion seems to be that he was pragmatic — a term Gordis repeats to excess — and willing to compromise in order to achieve his goal, unlike Begin, whose Jewish idealism and Zionist integrity caused him to oppose the 1937 partition effort, an accommodation with the British. Only toward the end of the book does the reader learn that Ben-Gurion’s efforts were essential to the establishment of the Jewish state. 

Nowhere here do we learn about the two enduring streams in Zionist thought: those who felt its primary goal was the establishment of a Jewish state, an all-essential homeland for the Jewish people, and those who insisted that the return to the land of Israel was Zionism’s primary goal. Ben-Gurion led the effort to achieve statehood and understood partition was necessary. Even Golda Meir, who voted against the 1937 partition plan, said wistfully, “I am happy that it did not fail on my account.”

Twenty-five years ago, I did an oral history with Robert Nathan, an economist who helped invent the concept of Gross National Product while working for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  He told me how he spent 1944, at the height of the war years — during one of the deadliest periods of the Holocaust — in Palestine. For two uninterrupted hours, early every morning before Ben-Gurion began his arduous workday, Nathan would work with the head of the Yishuv on the economic blueprint for the Jewish state. But Gordis shamefully repeats a cheap shot from Begin’s successor, Yitzhak Shamir, once a Stern Gang leader: “Ben-Gurion needed Etzel to remind him that it wasn’t enough to want a Jewish state, one had to do something in order to achieve it.” One expects a biographer to evaluate such a statement and not just reiterate it.

Gordis recounts the clash between Ben-Gurion and Begin over the Altalena, the Irgun ship bringing arms to Israel. He rightfully lauds Begin for avoiding civil war and castigates Ben Gurion for duplicity — but nowhere does he consider that a state must have the monopoly on the use of military force in order to effectuate its policies. (Israel was a state by then.) Today, rogue forces in the Middle East undermine state policies in country after country, so one wonders why Gordis hasn’t even a minimal appreciation for Ben-Gurion’s assertion of state power.

When Ben-Gurion does act, as in the 1956 Sinai invasion, Gordis credits Begin’s mentor, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. “Ben Gurion had ultimately come to realize that Jabotinsky was largely right when he understood that only force would convince Arabs that Israel was meant to survive.” One wonders if Gordis consulted Ben-Gurion’s extensive writings or merely came to this conclusion because it fit his own ideological predilections.  

Gordis has a deep appreciation for Jewish values and for Jewish precedents, such as when, in the early 1950s, Begin opposed Israel entering into discussions with Germany regarding reparations, invoking the statement, “Remember what Amalek did to you,” and the genocidal weight of that command. Begin demonstrated against reparations in Zion Square and stormed the Knesset. But even while I know he was protesting out of Jewish anger and anguish — an anger and anguish I share today, 68 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany — hasn’t it been demonstrated that, however controversial, allowing Germany a way back into the family of nations was a wise policy decision? And that Ben-Gurion, who had to build an infrastructure for his new state and homes for new immigrants, needed to find a pragmatic way to survive? 

There is no doubt that Begin intensified Israel’s consciousness of the Holocaust, but he may have also soured many Israelis on his form of remembrance. In order to credit Begin, Gordis completely omits mention of the Eichmann trial under Ben-Gurion and how it opened the doors to Holocaust testimonies and commemoration — in Israel and the world over. He never mentions how Begin saw the invasion of Lebanon as an attempt to rescue Christians who were being murdered by Muslims, because he saw the Israeli presence in Beirut as an example of what the world should have done to save Jews, seemingly confusing Beirut with Berlin. He also neglects to mention that Begin wanted to abolish Yom HaShoah and move Holocaust remembrance to Tisha B’ Av to “normalize” the Holocaust rather than stress its uniqueness in Jewish history.

The most Gordis can say about the war in Lebanon is that it was not a war of choice — it was the first war whose necessity was debatable. A biographer cannot merely quote a disciple defending his master; he should grapple with the historical record.

I take issue with Gordis’ treatment of the Holocaust because it is uninformed by scholarship, merely by rhetoric.

Begin said: “Without readiness for self-sacrifice, there will be another Auschwitz.” Auschwitz did not occur because of the absence of self-sacrifice. To justify the invocation of Auschwitz regarding the retreat to the borders of 1967, Gordis invokes the authority of Abba Eban, a dove who said many wise things, yet failed to appreciate the foolishness in his statement that a “withdrawal to the borders of ’67 is a withdrawal to the borders of Auschwitz.” Eban and all the others who have followed rhetorical excess are guilty of Holocaust trivialization. How many tanks did Jews have at Auschwitz? How many troops?  Today, Israel is armed — more capable and more likely to bomb Iran than Iran is to bomb Israel — hardly an Auschwitz scenario.

Gordis also gives Begin more credit for rescuing Soviet Jewry than the historians of the movement do. When Soviet Jews wanted to come to the United States, there was an authentic clash of values: Basic human values lived in tension with important Zionist values. In the United States, the Soviet Jewry struggle was portrayed as a human rights struggle, and many Jews came to believe that allowing Jews to live in freedom was a Jewish human rights issue. Naturally, Zionists — and I number myself among them — wanted Soviet Jews to go to Israel, but if they did not, Jewish values mandated that we help Jews live in freedom. Gordis is nasty in his comments, such as, “The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and particularly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) had a vested interest in allowing Soviet émigrés to head to the United States. … The 1960s Soviet Jewish immigration provided them with a new focus.” The JDC was heroic in its work in communist Eastern Europe, and HIAS had helped Jews come to these shores for more than a century, bringing Jews from oppression to freedom. That was their mandate, their vested interest.

Despite Begin’s universal values, nowhere does Gordis portray him thinking of the Arabs living in the land of Israel except as a minority in a Jewish state. Nowhere does he consider the demographic issues. How does Israel remain a Jewish and democratic state with a large Arab population, perhaps even a majority? Gordis argues, “The mere question [of Arab rights to the land] raised the issue of whether or not Jews had the right to the land of Israel. For Begin the belief was axiomatic. Without that belief what justification was there for the Zionist enterprise in the first place?” Many of us would challenge that assertion; Gordis does not. 

As a biographer, Gordis fails to tell his readers that Begin reached power only after he faced death. He had a massive heart attack in 1977, before his election. His political power rose just as his personal health deteriorated, and there were long periods of time when those close to him wondered if he had the capacity to carry out the office. At points, he could not lift a pencil or follow a conversation. He was heavily medicated from 1977 onward, throughout his time in office. Even then, the disciples in his inner circle felt that Begin, in failing health, was better qualified than they to lead the nation. As a political commentator, Gordis neglects to mention that the Labor Party lost the 1977 election because it was repudiated. Begin’s share of the electorate increased slightly, and Labor’s lost votes went to Yigael Yadin and his new splinter party.

Another important omission: Gordis quotes Begin’s response to Sabra and Shatila: “Goyim kill goyim and they hang a Jewish child.” Begin forgot that, this time, Jews were in charge; we were actors in history who bore the historic responsibilities of those in power. Gordis does not recount the titan clash over Jewish values — Jewish values, not Israeli values — when the Kahan Commission Report established the principle of “indirect responsibility” based on a biblical teaching of the beheaded heifer offered by the elders of a city when a person was found dead outside the city limits as interpreted by the rabbis, commented upon by Rashi and tested by the norms of Jewish history. They brought to life the responsibility of those who wielded power when events got out of hand. 

To top it all off, Gordis’ epilogue is profoundly disturbing. He draws parallels between the American and the Zionist revolutions and writes in seeming bewilderment: “The reputation of Israeli revolutionaries, despite their similarity to those in America two centuries earlier, has borne the brunt of the international community’s displeasure.” 

Gordis may not realize that many Americans are rightfully ashamed of our record with regard to Native Americans, their displacement from their lands and the abrogation of treaty after treaty. Some in my field consider our treatment of the Native Americans as genocide, albeit unintentional genocide. When the Republicans opened the last Congress with a reading of the Constitution, they were too embarrassed to read it in its entirety: They skipped the three-fifths compromise that regarded a slave as three-fifths of a person. Israel’s accusers regard the Zionist revolution as 20th-century colonialism. It is astonishing to hear this coming from one of Israel’s most ardent defenders.

 Begin deserved better; so, too, Gordis — a skilled writer and a passionate Jew who wants Jewish values to speak to the universal condition of all people. We have every right to expect more from Gordis — much more.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com.

New emigres joining the military land in Israel

A charter aliyah flight carrying 127 young men and women who will be joining the Israel Defense Forces landed in Israel.

The special Nefesh B’Nefesh-Friends of the Israel Defense Forces flight, carrying a total of 350 new emigres to Israel, arrived early Tuesday morning in Israel.

Hundreds of families and friends as well as Israeli dignitaries gathered at Ben Gurion Airport for an arrival ceremony featuring an address by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Each of the 350 people who have made aliyah today have decided to link their personal future with the future of the Jewish state and the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said. “But you’ve decided to do something else. You’ve decided to defend the Jewish future, and to have the opportunity to do so is a great privilege. It wasn’t accorded to previous generations of Jews.

“In previous times, for almost two millennia, the Jews could not defend themselves. This is the great transformation that occurred in our time—that we can regain our destiny and defend our future—and this is a privilege that you have now decided to practice personally, thereby altering your lives and the Jewish future as well.”

The prime minister asked Nefesh B’Nefesh founder Tony Gelbart to arrange a meeting with the new soldiers in three years, when they have finished their military service, to salute them again.

The flight was organized in cooperation with the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel and Tzofim Garin Tzabar.

The Friends of the IDF and Nefesh B’Nefesh are working to expand their existing partnership, which provides comprehensive support for Lone Soldiers, who serve in Israel though their families live in the Diaspora. The program offers assistance before and during army service, as well as with post-army acclimation into Israeli life.

More than 2,700 Lone Soldiers from around the world are now serving in the IDF, including more than 900 from North America, 625 from Russia, 390 from Ukraine and 250 from France.

More than 4,800 American, Canadian and British Jews have or will be making aliyah this year, which marks Nefesh B’Nefesh’s 10th anniversary.

Israel in the eyes of Harvey Pekar

Ever since Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” won a Pulitzer Prize, no apologies need to be made for the aspirations of comic book artists to enter the realm of literature.  R. Crumb, for example, recently rendered nothing less exalted than the Book of Genesis as a graphic novel.  And Marjane Satrapi applied the same techniques to a best-selling work of memoir in “Persepolis.”

“Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me” (Hill and Wang: $24.95) is a ” title=”J.T. Waldman draws on Harvey Pekars Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me” target=”_blank”>J.T. Waldman draws on Harvey Pekar’s
‘Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me’

Pekar, however, does not.  He acknowledges the role assigned to God in Jewish texts and tradition, but he’s not buying it.  Indeed, he challenges most of the pieties and true beliefs of Judaism and Zionism, and he frankly shows us how and why he was booted out of Hebrew school because of his oppositional ways. “Harvey, there’s a thin line between genius and crazy,” his exasperated teacher scolds him, “and you’ve crossed it.”

For Pekar, as for Abraham, Jacob and Moses, struggling with higher authority — and even the highest authority — is itself an authentic Jewish tradition. “I guess we’ve always been a thickheaded people who enjoy disagreeing with one another,” says Pekar, and Waldman is shown to correct him: “I believe the term is ‘stiff-necked,’” says the young man, putting air-quotes around the word.

The qualms and quandaries that afflicted Pekar, of course, are neither original nor profound, and the experiences he describes are common to his entire generation.  But Pekar and Waldman express themselves with a striking visual inventiveness that deepens and sharpens the story. When Pekar shows us the history of Judea during the Roman era, the illustrations are rendered in mosaic patterns; when he describes the emergence of Islam, the panels are drawn to resemble illuminated pages from the Koran, decorated only with calligraphical and geometrical patterns. And when he depicts his abortive effort at aliyah — he never actually makes it to Eretz Yisrael — the faces are blurred out as if to show how alienated he felt when he showed up at the Israeli consulate in Chicago.

“Well, maybe I could work on a kibbutz,” says Pekar. The consular official confronts him with the harsh truth: “They wouldn’t take you, and if they did, they’d throw you out.”  Explains Pekar, no less harsh and no less truthful:  “What the guy was saying was that I was a loser, and Israel had no time to rehabilitate shmucks.”

Pekar may not believe in God and Torah, but he definitely shares the Jewish habit of mind that allows many of us to see both sides of every question. “The Arabs have a legitimate beef,” he insists. “Ben-Gurion admitted it. Dayan admitted it. Sure, the Jews tell everyone that God provided them the land because they are his people. But every ethnic group thinks they are his chosen people.”

By the end of “Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me,” Pekar readily confesses that he is clueless about practical solutions — “Yeah, I know I’ve never been to Israel, but…that doesn’t mean we’re not entitled to an opinion” And he insists that he knows the difference between right and wrong. “I’ve got no idea how to resolve this thing,” he says, “but if the main issues — like Jerusalem, the right of return, and possible reparations — aren’t discussed, it’s hard to imagine any progress being made.”

So the book fits neatly into the literature of hand-wringing resulting from the current stalemate that has stalled the peace process and gridlocked the governance of Israel.  “I do not hate myself,” Pekar announces to those who pronounce him to be a self-hating Jew, “and Jews who criticize Israel aren’t necessarily mentally ill.”

Indeed, as he catches the reader’s eye from within a cartoon panel, Pekar comes across as thoroughly and authentically Jewish, a man who knows the weight and volume of tragedy that afflicts the history of his people but insists on aspiring to a better world than the one in which he finds himself.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.  His next book, “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan, will be published under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton during the 75th anniversary year of Kristallnacht in 2013.  Kirsch blogs at books@jewishjournal.com.

Opinion: Agreements with Israeli schools a turning point for UC Irvine

Few universities have garnered as much international attention and Jewish communal concern over student-led, anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic activities on campus than the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

A history of incendiary demonstrations demonizing Israel; a revolving door of speakers sympathetic to Hamas and Hezbollah; accusations of harassment of, and threats to, Jewish students, and a pattern of unsatisfactory responses by campus administrators — at least until the 2010 suspension of the Muslim Student Union (MSU) for its role in the Michael Oren debacle — led this writer in a Jewish Journal cover story that year to wonder if UCI was safe for Jews. Some in the community had even accused the university itself of being anti-Semitic.

That’s why UCI’s new agreements with four Israeli universities are nothing less than historic.

During a momentous academic mission to Israel in March, Chancellor Michael Drake signed memoranda of understanding with Hebrew University, Ben-Gurion University and the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, as well as a letter of intent with Tel Aviv University. These agreements recognize shared areas of academic interest and expertise and open the door to collaborative research, faculty and student exchanges, conferences and other initiatives.

Drake calls Israeli universities “natural partners” with which UCI shares a “synergistic series of competencies and approaches to problems.” Speaking with leaders of the Rose Project, Jewish Federation & Family Services’ program established in 2008 to create a comprehensive and proactive approach to addressing challenges at UCI, the chancellor cited the schools’ cultural and demographic similarities that help build strong relationships among faculty and administrators. He was clearly excited about the potential of these agreements for UCI and Israeli scholars and students.

The university is wasting no time getting started. While in Israel, UCI deans of physical science, medicine and engineering who accompanied Drake laid the groundwork for short- and long-term programs, some of which will launch this summer. Among these are student and faculty exchanges in electrical, civil and environmental engineering; visiting medical rotations, post-doctoral fellowships in the physical sciences; virtual conferences for medical school faculty; and a workshop on water resources. UCI also announced plans to establish “Communications 2025,” a major conference in Israel to explore the technologies needed for IT and communications in the next decade.

The notion that more positive discourse on college campuses can be generated through academia has fueled a number of initiatives by pro-Israel organizations, including the rapid growth in North America of multidisciplinary Israel studies programs. Embracing this approach, Rose Project leaders in 2008 began engaging the UCI administration in dialogue regarding the value a wider academic lens on Israel would have for building a civil campus climate. Significant steps with measurable progress have been achieved: Top pro-Israel speakers and Israeli officials regularly address the UCI community; Israeli journalists and academics are frequent guests in classes dealing with Israel and the conflict; the Israel Fellows Program of the Jewish Agency for Israel has added an important educational and advocacy component to the UCI Hillel agenda; and the Schusterman Family Foundation — in cooperation with the Rose Project — has established a visiting Israeli professor program that brings a scholarly, pro-Israel voice to campus to engage in broad education inside and outside the classroom.

The Orange County Jewish community has seen time and again the transformative effects of Birthright Israel, Hasbara Fellowships, Hillel and StandWithUs Israel programming – all of which are supported by the Rose Project — on participants’ understanding and perception of Israel. Now that UCI’s administration is actively seeking Israeli partnerships, a growing cadre of faculty and students are unequivocally empowered to have the kind of direct interaction with Israel and Israelis that we know will leave a lasting imprint on how they will view the country, its people and their contributions to society. Let’s hope they take up this mantle of opportunity and responsibility.

With the MSU’s notorious “Palestine Awareness Week” assumed to be three weeks away, anti-Israel speakers and their supporters will once again assemble on Ring Road to lambast Israel. And while that small but vocal group may continue to call on the university to divest from companies doing business with Israel, the UCI leadership has outright rejected calls for an Israeli academic boycott. Instead, it has set in place a positive path and vision regarding Israel that will have a profound impact on the campus climate for years to come.

Lisa Armony is a former Jewish Journal Orange County correspondent and now director of the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services.

Historian Aaron Friedman on Israel’s leaders [VIDEO]

Israeli historian Aaron Friedman shares his experiences in the creation of the State of Israel and his relationships with its leaders.