The Editor’s Corner

Several monthsago, I happened to be present when Yoram Ben Ze’ev, Israel’s ConsulGeneral in Los Angeles, addressed a local group at the JewishFederation offices on Wilshire Boulevard. The talk, of course, wasabout politics: the conversion bill, the peace process, Israel andAmerica — the standard fare.

Then a man in the audience rose to ask a question.Well, actually, it was more of a statement than a question. The gistof his remarks was that Israel should adopt a tough stance withArafat and the Palestinians. If they didn’t shape up, the IsraelDefense Force should lend a forceful hand. After all, Israel hadtanks, an air force, the latest in sophisticated weapons, and an armyunmatched in the Middle East. The man appeared to be in his late 60s,maybe early 70s, and he clearly intended his statement-question to besupportive of Israel and the Consul General.

But Ben Ze’ev surprised him…and many others inthe audience. Such a policy, he asserted, was unacceptable. War wasunacceptable. There was a secret fraternity in Israel that boundtogether everyone who had fought, or who had family members who hadfought, in one of Israel’s five wars these past 50 years. Those whoknew war firsthand were dedicated to peace, he said. They knew thecost of war, for both sides, and were determined to prevent it fromhappening again. It was peace that required a tough stance, he added,and was far more the heroic course for Israel to follow.

It was a bold statement, passionate and eloquent;it left the audience silent. He might have added, but did not, thathis father had fought and died in the closing hours of the 1948 Warof Independence. That he himself was wounded in Jerusalem in theSix-Day War of 1967 — in the exact place his father had fallen 19years earlier. That he recovered, his father did not, in the samehospital. And that he was wounded again in 1973. Perhaps for thosereasons, he was determined that his two sons and his daughter wouldnot have to fight in another war because his generation had failed toachieve peace.

The exchange seems, to me, vintage Ben Ze’ev. Itcaptures his passion, his articulateness, his sense of conviction.But in a subtle way, it also reflects just how familiar and at easehe is with Jewish Americans. Indeed, he served as consul for pressand information at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles from 1981 to1985. That experience is serving him well today. Certainly if a timeexisted for someone in his position to be on intimate terms with thefeelings and sentiments of American Jewry, that time is now.

The reasons are obvious. Oslo’s aftermath, theMideast peace process, appears to be at an impasse; the White Houseand the Republicans in Congress are at odds over President Clinton’sperceived attempts to muscle Prime Minister Netanyahu into place; andIsrael has suddenly become a key divisive factor in U.S. politics,particularly for American Jews.

We have not even mentioned the conversion bill andthe anger of Reform and Conservative Jews over their sense ofdisenfranchisement in Israel.

But the central issue at this moment has to dowith peace in the Mideast. Do we (American Jews) support PresidentClinton’s efforts to pressure the Netanyahu government into acceptingthe American peace proposal? Or do we condemn it? We are conflictedhere, and aggressively so; there is no tolerance for fencestraddling.

It is no accident that local federationsnationwide are announcing that UJA funds headed for Israel have beencut to about 35 percent, with the rest slated for local needs. Orthat for the first time in a long while, criticism of Israel and itsprime minister is being voiced publicly by American Jews and by someJewish organizations as well.

In this context, it is fortunate that Ben Ze’evhas all the right credentials. Immediately prior to his appointmentin Los Angeles, he was acting deputy director for the Middle East andthe peace process in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a posthe held from 1993 to 1995. In short, he was intimately involved inthe peace negotiations.

Moreover, he is acquainted with Netanyahu. Severalmonths ago, the Israeli press reported that the prime minister hadasked him to sign on as his chief of staff.

It is this background, presumably, that leads himto say today that no matter what occurs in the next few weeks, thepeace process itself is irreversible. It has changed the status quofor Israelis as well as Palestinians, and there really is no goingback. However, he argues, the Israeli prime minister is getting a badrap in America, for he is following the letter and spirit of Oslo.One only needs to look at the agreement in Hebron. This doesn’tchange the fact that the obstacles are monumental, he adds. Everyonecan see that. But patience is required

One problem lies with Chairman Arafat’sperceptions, says Ben Ze’ev. He has failed to grasp that he mustpersuade the Israeli public he wants peace desperately and sincerelyenough so that he will make every effort to guarantee their security.It is the Israeli people he must win over, explains Ben Ze’ev, and itis not clear he fully understands this.

Ben Ze’ev is a rarity, a seventh-generationIsraeli whose ancestor walked out of Russia in the 18th century. Inpart, this may account for his tendency to take the long view, pastas well as future. It is this propensity perhaps that leads him tostate that the problem looming for Israel is how it will remain astrong democracy and still be a Jewish state.

After peace is achieved, he says, that will be thedifficult task for Israel in the 21st century. But he may leave thatsolution to his children. –GeneLichtenstein

Consul General Yoram Ben Ze’ev Photo by Peter Halmagyi


The Editor’s Corner

The good news about Passover in America circa 1998is that more Jews than ever are embracing the holiday. It has become,as Dr. Ron Wolfson tells us (in the Passover section), our mostpopular Jewish holiday. Even non-Jews seek an invitation to a sederat the home of Jewish friends.

The bad news about Passover in America circa 1998is that more Jews than ever are embracing the holiday. It has become,in many instances, a Jewish version of Thanksgiving, a time forfamily and friends to gather for warmth, friendship andconviviality.

What could be wrong with that? Well, nothing andeverything.

When I think of favorite occasions many of themhave to do with just such a gathering of family and friends. Mywedding (my second wedding, that is); a particular birthday; ananniversary; and Thanksgiving, most definitely Thanksgiving. All ofthese have a special quality about them, marked by what might bedescribed as an overflowing of affection and feeling accompanied by agreat bounty of food and drink.

But neither Thanksgiving nor a wedding anniversaryare quite the same thing as Passover. Why is this night differentfrom all other nights, we ask. And the answer is both significant andprofound…unless of course we fail to do our part.

Our part, I believe, is the key to Passover. I amnot referring here only or even mainly to the scouring and cleaningthat the kitchen undergoes. “Our part” has to do with understandingthat the evening is about ritual and our past; with recognizing thatit is incumbent on us this particular night to “feel” the words ofour story and to be touched by them anew. No easy task. But itseparates Passover from all other celebrations and all othernights.

We are charged on Passover with reciting thefamiliar passages and once again re-experiencing the escape frombondage. Our seder may change ever so slightly from year to year, forthe simple reason that we have changed. And the challenge for each ofus is to convert what has become rote into a dramatic engagement thatis fresh and alive. Perhaps that is why we have so manyhaggadot and somany different seders: feminist and vegetarian; civil rights and newage; traditional and modern. Usually there is an effort in all ofthese to find a way to “connect” – with friends and with our commonpast. And that effort is not always successful.

What does it matter? Is it not enough that moreAmerican Jews come back into the fold, even if just for anight?

Should we not enjoy a secret moment of pleasurethat a seat at a seder has become such a hot item among non-Jews?Should we not, in short, relax and enjoy the holiday?

I think not. Nor can we turn the other way andperform by the numbers Maintaining the ritual in the same rigid andfixed form year after year ensures that Passover will become a roteceremony, detached from our lives and empty of meaning, so that whatwe remember fondly is a favorite uncle invariably exclaiming, “Giveus the short form, I’m hungry.”

What Passover requires of us is demanding and lieselsewhere. The seder ritual calls for an act of the imagination eachyear that sets free our feelings. This seems to me essential if weare to be linked to a common past, to reify that we are one tribe orpeople, to define ourselves as Jews.

And that is something that a Jewish Thanksgiving -as pleasurable and celebratory as it is – can never do.

The Editor’s Corner

My problem with Dennis Prager, author, radio host,newsletter writer, is simple: I like the man, but I just can’t readhis writing. In person, I find him open, engaging, serious. In print,he comes across to me as narrow-minded, ponderous and self-involved.I usually settle my conflict by shying away from the publicpersona.

But with his new book, “Happiness Is a SeriousProblem,” and its appearance on the best-seller list, I thought Imight try again.

Book in hand, I started reading. Almostimmediately, I halted. At the outset, the author confides: “Whilethere is some methodology to the order of the chapters, the chaptersof the book can be read in any order. Each chapter is largely aself-contained unit. However, although the order is not critical,reading all the chapters is.”

Setting aside the absence of even a lighteditorial hand (all those “chapters” and “orders” stuffed into threesentences), I found myself somewhat surprised at this approach. Itforces the book into functioning as a compendium of opinions,presented in the form of moral sermons and/or advice columns. Nosingle chapter launches an idea or develops an argument that issustained throughout the 170-plus pages. It is, in my lexicon, anon-book.

As if that were not enough, I soon discovered thatits advice and homilies were also suspect. For example, by Chapter 4,Page 9, I came upon the following:

“I offer no definition of happiness,” writes theauthor, who then lists four dictionary meanings, none of which heindicates is relevant to his purpose. The reason? They have little todo with his notion of happiness. Instead, he paraphrases formerSupreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s comment on obscenity: “Icannot define it, but I know it when I see it.” And he tells us thatthe intent of this advice book is probably best grasped by focusingon unhappiness. The gist of his sentiment seems to be that if welearn to avoid unhappiness, its opposite, happiness, will morereadily be ours.

But, of course, that is not necessarily true. Weknow that there are people in therapy who learn to recognize theyoften create situations which make them unhappy. With some help, theycan, at times, take measures to avoid, or at least blunt, thisrepetitive behavior. But, in so doing, they are not necessarily madehappy. More frequently, we simply encounter people who neitheridentify themselves as happy or unhappy. They function differently.Is there a word other than happiness that perhaps better defines whatPrager is trying to tell us?

My problem with Dennis Prager became clearermidway through the book, in the titillating chapter called “TheOpposite Sex.” Prager claims that men, by nature, are libidinouscreatures who lust after an endless series of women. It makes littledifference if they love one woman or are married. All they can do isrein in their natural tendencies and try to stay faithful. They willbe happier for it, he offers, comfortingly (but not convincingly, Ithought). Women, on the other hand, have no such natural urge, hesays. Their drive is for emotional intimacy.

In a sort of EST-like way, these pronouncementsmust be reassuring to Prager’s readers. They reinforce a stereotypeabout gender and sex roles that many men find soothing. We men may befantasizing about the woman with the great legs sitting on the couchacross the way, but our wife or girlfriend harbors no such thoughtsabout the lean, handsome, young man who just entered the room. Onedifficulty is that there is no evidence to support these beliefs: nohistorical references (which, in my readings of French and Englishsocial history, would seem to contradict the author), no biologicalor scientific studies. Just assertions by Dennis Prager, which, onclose inspection, turn out to be opinions, backed by otherassertion-opinions, with personal or “common-sense” anecdotes offeredby way of evidence.

In fact, recent data would suggest that women tendto be just as libidinous as men. (Prager says that if this were thecase, “the world would self-destruct.”) Equal opportunity in themarketplace, birth-control pills and the legalization of abortion mayall have contributed to this change in behavior. It might be viewedas a change for the better, or as a setback to a more civilized (andperhaps male-dominated) world, depending on your values and the kindof order you want. It is an interesting subject for discussion, butthere are no discussions in these chapters — only opinions passedoff with the certitude of a sermonizer.

On reflection, I see now that it is not arroganceon Prager’s part that sends me running from his written sermons onwhat is essentially a common theme: How to Be A Better Person. It is,rather, his naiveté. In this book, Prager’s advice essentiallyboils down to a set of precepts: 1) Fulfillment in love and work willmake you a happier person; 2) if you look at the doughnut and not thehole, you will be happier and people will prefer to be in yourcompany; and 3) if you want to be happy, it requires hard work, justlike losing weight.

Who could argue with such prescriptions? With suchgeneralizations?

But the author’s path to this “philosophy” lacksany sense of history or any awareness of psychology. We know fromstudies of weight loss, that, hard work notwithstanding, about 90percent of us soon regain the weight. We also know that years intherapy often bring insight but do not always (or even usually)result in character change. Just standing on a platform and layingdown steps to follow does not seem a likely way to gainresults.

In short, through hard work, you may learn to stopwhining; but it doesn’t necessarily follow that happiness will beyours.