Post-election healing — kumbaya in class and at the beach

Alison Weinreb, a teacher at Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood, invited her sixth-grade social studies class to her home for an election-night viewing party.

As the electoral map turned increasingly blue, she noticed that her scattered Obama supporters were keeping pretty quiet — embarrassed even in victory to be in the minority among their McCain-supporting friends.

At the same time, McCain supporters — who have been the majority of students at Orthodox day schools like Maimonides — needed a fair amount of reassuring that an Obama presidency would not spell immediate disaster for Israel and the Jews, the message they had been hearing throughout the election from their friends and gleaning from conversations at home.

Weinreb wasn’t the only one facing a distressed and confused community in the aftermath of this year’s presidential race. Jews battered one another in passionate arguments throughout this election season, as each side staked out their positions, often spilling over into questionably grounded rhetoric and incivility. Friends and institutions squared off around Shabbat tables and at debate lecterns in what each considered life-or-death debates.

How children have interpreted such passion offers a revealing, though slightly distorted, mirror in which to view adult political discourse.

While children selectively perceive and then reinterpret information that comes their way, they reflect an atmosphere where issues of race, security, economic class divisions and Israel’s future have stirred up strong emotions.

At Orthodox day schools, mock elections yielded landslide McCain victories.

Students from at least one elementary school came home reporting that friends told them that if Obama were elected, he would “kill all the Jews.”

On the other side, at a another, more liberal school, one mother reported that her daughter was afraid to let on that her parents were McCain supporters, since everyone around her was so enamored of Obama.

Now that the election is over and campaign exaggerations can give way to reality, in schools, and everywhere else, people are making efforts to put things back into perspective.

At Maimonides, Weinreb helped organize a post-election assembly on Wednesday morning. On the stage, between the American and Israeli flags, two piƱatas — an elephant and a donkey — stood side by side. Rabbi Karmi Gross, headmaster of the school, invited the sixth- through eighth-graders to come together to celebrate this historic triumph for American freedom and democracy.

“But we also come together for a different reason,” Gross continued. “We come together because this was one election — and I have seen quite a few — where the battle lines in America were drawn more clearly than ever, which pitted American against American, the red and the blue states, the left and the right, against each other in ways I do not recall. And sometimes the debates became very loud, and many times the debates became very nasty.”

Gross, using a talmudic parable, urged the children to understand the difference between disagreeing with an idea — which is fine — and attacking the person who holds such ideas, which is not.

Students together watched a video of McCain’s concession speech, and were asked to pull out some of the major themes.

“He said he was more proud to be associated with America than anything else,” one student offered.

“He said that we shouldn’t be upset that Obama won, because he’ll do good things for this country,” another said.

One rabbi acknowledged that many of the students were worried about Israel, but he assured them that Israel was strong, and that Israel’s ultimate fate lies in God’s hands, not in any president’s.

Jews who believed McCain was the better choice for Israel had to do a delicate dance with children.

One father, who asked not to be named to protect his son’s privacy, described a conversation he had with his 6-year-old son about the historic nature of this election and about the many reasons he was voting for McCain. In an age-appropriate way, they talked about security, the economy and issues that were important to them — such as having a president who had a record of supporting Israel. And the father posed the idea that he didn’t know whether Barack Obama would be a friend to Israel and the Jews, because there was not a very long record to rely on.

“Then — like all kids do, they pick up a small amount of what you tell them — he picked up from that that Barack Obama may not be nice to the Jewish people,” the father said, a declaration the boy made to his horrified mother.

The couple talked to their son again, softening the stance and saying that Obama might end up being a very good friend to the Jews. By the time Obama’s picture covered the front pages on Nov. 5, the boy seemed fine with his new president.

Helping kids process the broken-telephone game of information coming from the home and through their friends was a major focus at Emek Hebrew Academy-Teichman Family Torah Center in Sherman Oaks, where teachers integrated ideas about democracy or the specific campaign issues into the curriculum.

“But there were also moments where the students made baseless or exaggerated claims, repeating things they had heard,” said Gabriela Shapiro, general studies principal at Emek. “What we did at the time and will continue to do is teach the students about discernment — in other words, if someone makes a negative comment about Obama, we want the student hearing the claim to ask ‘what is the basis for your claim?'”

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills brought in Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, who introduced a pre-election debate by highlighting a moment several weeks ago in which McCain asked riled-up ralliers to stop relying on rumor and innuendo to attack Obama as a person, and to focus instead on the issues.

Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, headmaster of Hillel, plans to use examples from the election when the school starts a conflict-resolution and community-building program next week.

“We’re going to deal with issues of perception and judging others favorably, and attacking issues, not people. We’re going to talk about accepting people’s differences and understanding what you have in common,” he said.

It’s a tough message to get across to kids, when adults themselves haven’t been behaving well.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom said he found the rancor among Jewish voters “painful and discouraging.” At a pre-election debate in his synagogue, Feinstein had to put on his former middle school principal hat to discipline the crowd.

“It’s discouraging to me as an American and as a person who believes in democracy, and it’s discouraging to me as the rabbi of a synagogue where important things should be discussed that you can’t have a serious political debate without hooting and hollering and drowning out the other side,” Feinstein said.

ALTTEXTIt was such rancor that a Healing Havdalah — the ritual marking the end of Shabbat — last Saturday night aimed to overcome. The event was organized by LimmudLA, the apolitical, nondenominational, Jewish-unity organization that will hold its second annual conference in Orange County over Presidents’ Day weekend, in February.

Saturday’s event, organized by Gary Wexler, a Jewish marketing expert, attracted 150 people to Dockweiler Beach, where drums and guitars competed with the wind and planes taking off from the nearby LAX.

Warming themselves around a crackling fire, participants talked about how Havdalah, like the election, marks the end and the beginning, the perfect moment for healing.

Many kids were at the Havdalah, joining their parents in singing and dancing, basking in the very Limmud idea that no matter our differences, we can come together for a kumbaya moment of Jewish oneness.

While a lot of healing may still be needed before that sort of unity can move beyond a Saturday night at the beach, one uniting factor all agree on is that this election brought a new level of political awareness and passion across party lines and across ages.

“I’ve heard kids saying that for the first time in their lives they care about politics and elections and personally feel involved, and that is amazing — that energy is constructive,” Vicki Helfand, a teacher at Maimonides, told the students at the assembly. “When you care about something, you can do amazing things. Now that this election is over, we encourage you to keep being passionate, to keep believing that what you think matters — because it does.”

Danielle Berrin and Orit Arfa at Dockweiler Beach. Photo by Joe Haber

Underclass Surfaces From Floodwaters

The gut-wrenching scenes of human suffering witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are not only the result of the levee failures at Lake Pontchartrain, but also the failure of a nation numbed to the growing division between “haves” and “have-nots.”

What is appearing on television sets across America is the inevitable impact of decades of ignoring a stark difference in economic realities. While wealthy, predominantly white Gulf residents — and most Jews — were able to leave the region or escape to higher ground, it was poorer, largely black, elderly and sick Americans who were left behind to fend for themselves.

In the case of New Orleans, high poverty rates already existed before the storm: More than 30 percent of the population lived below the federal poverty line. These are, in most cases, the victims whose bodies we saw floating in the Mississippi River and dying for lack of basic necessities at the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome.

If you couldn’t recognize the half-submerged landmarks in the French Quarter, you would swear footage from New Orleans and beyond came right from Haiti or some other Third World country.

Just last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released staggering new poverty data. The numbers show that 1.1 million more Americans slipped below the poverty line in 2004, bringing the total to 37 million. Hunger rates in this country closely track the poverty index, and both numbers have seen steady increases for four years running. The Census Bureau also reported that income inequality is at an all-time high, with 50 percent of income going to the top 20 percent of households.

So when natural disaster strikes, it is all too easy to predict who will bear the brunt of the devastation. It won’t be the high-flying corporate raiders and image-obsessed celebrities who typically occupy the front pages of newspapers and magazines. It will be the person who fixes your car, or who serves you lunch, or who takes care of your friend’s mother at the local old age home. These will be the people we read about, our new “celebrities of tragedy” — fellow citizens who hold down multiple minimum-wage jobs and still struggle to make ends meet.

As these divisions become more evident from the images we have been waking up to, growing numbers of Americans are asking hard questions. They are moved, I hope, by the realization that we are witnessing the coming out of a national underclass, one that has long existed and can no longer be confined to the margins.

The recovery is already under way, although efforts to rebuild will take years and years. As we repair the cracks in the levees and begin the difficult work of restoring people’s lives, we will be remiss if we do not seize this moment to heal the fractures running deep through our society.

Through the act of rebuilding — and by that I mean rebuilding policies and values as well as levees — we have a chance to fashion a society that addresses inequality and cherishes the contributions of every individual. We ignore that opportunity at our own peril.

H. Eric Schockman is president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which is among the organizations aiding hurricane relief efforts.


Will Gaza Pullout Bring Civil Strife?

On the eve of the Jewish New Year, Israel’s national discourse was dominated by talk of potential civil war, but few of those talking dared define the possible dimensions of such a conflict.

Would it mean confrontations between soldiers and civilians? Would it be limited to the extreme margins of the settler movement? Could it really present a threat to the very existence of the State of Israel, as Knesset member Yossi Sarid suggested?

Various groups on the right have sent a clear warning to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that if he moves ahead with plans to dismantle settlements in Gaza next year, he will face the danger of "tearing the nation apart." Sharon, for his part, is showing no signs of backing down, insisting he will push ahead with the disengagement plan and will not be cowed by threats of civil strife. For the time being, it seems, both the extreme right and Sharon are pointing to the danger of civil conflict to serve their own causes.

Tens of thousands gathered at Jerusalem’s Zion Square Sunday night to protest the disengagement, carrying posters calling Sharon a "dictator." Although rally organizers pulled down a sign labeling Sharon a traitor, the event was reminiscent of a similar rally nine years ago against the Oslo process, with demonstrators carrying signs of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin dressed in a Nazi uniform. Two months later Rabin was murdered.

Also highlighting the depth of the division, dozens of well-known right-wingers — among them Bentzion Netanyahu, father of Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the minister’s brother, Iddo — signed a petition urging soldiers not to obey orders to evacuate settlers, insisting that such an evacuation would amount to "crimes against humanity."

Also, at a meeting between settler leaders and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, the settlers warned that a civil confrontation could take place within weeks. Under certain circumstances, they said, settlers would not hesitate to confront soldiers.

Eliezer Hisdai, mayor of the West Bank settlement of Alfei Menashe, whose daughter is buried in the settlement, said: "If anyone dared touch my daughter’s grave, if someone tried to take her out of the grave, I would shoot him, be it a soldier or the chief of staff."

Nissan Slomiansky, a Knesset member from the National Religious Party (NRP), charged that Sharon and his disengagement plan were "crazy." Despite such statements, NRP was expected to stay in Sharon’s coalition.

But despite such statements, the NRP voted Monday to stay in Sharon’s coalition. And, indeed, some settler leaders refrained from direct calls for confrontation, electing to play it safe. They spoke instead of the danger that others could resort to violence.

At the Jerusalem protest, there was obvious concern that rhetoric could get out of hand. Speeches were toned downed, and settler leaders urged their supporters not to resort to violence and to avert a civil conflict.

Zvulun Orlev, the influential welfare minister from the NRP, sharply condemned anyone threatening civil conflict — though at the same time, he declared that Sharon was wrong in putting all the blame on the settlers.

For now, Sharon is displaying no weakness. At a meeting with Likud activists in Tel Aviv, he declared: "We will go ahead with all our plans. I don’t believe it is possible that the present situation can continue with such hatred and incitement."

He was furious at Cabinet ministers for not standing by him publicly, although they had voted in favor of the disengagement and cautioned this week, for the first time in public, against the danger of a civil war.

The security services are concerned that as the actual disengagement grows closer, the threat of Jew-against-Jew confrontations will become more real. General Security Service sources have spoken openly of the increased possibility that zealots may try and hurt Sharon or attempt to sabotage the mosques on the Temple Mount.

There is genuine concern that Jewish extremists will follow the example of Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, whose single act of violence triggered events that may have resulted in the collapse of the Oslo process.

Israel’s police inspector general, Moshe Karadi, has already instructed his officers to take drastic measures against any "show of incitement." If the verbal escalation continues, the authorities are likely to issue administrative arrest orders against suspects, bypassing the courts.

The administrative detention of right-wing activist Noam Federman, who had been suspected of links to a West Bank settler group that tried to bomb an Arab school in Jerusalem, was extended Monday for an additional three months.

Still, no one knows for sure what the real prospects are for a violent clash between the government and settlers. After all, Israel survived the evacuation of the northern Sinai settlements in 1982.

However, there is always the possibility that continuous talk of civil strife will amount to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Romance in the Negev

He closed the cap on my gas tank, returned the nozzle and
handed me a slip of paper.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“A coupon for a car wash,” he responded. “Kind of like a
present.” He smiled, dazzling me.

“Give me another present,” I said, handing back the slip of
paper. “Your phone number.”

When I moved 10,000 miles from California to Israel this
fall, I did not expect to end up with an Arab Muslim boyfriend from a
traditional Bedouin tribe. My friend, Josh, thought I was nuts when I told him
I was still involved with Sabih one month later.

“How do you reconcile your radical feminist values with
someone who comes from such a misogynistic background?” Josh asked.

I didn’t know whether to laugh like a madwoman or strangle
the man. This is the same Josh who told me I had serious psychological problems
because I didn’t want to sleep with him. Harvard-educated Josh with a coveted
job at a prestigious New York law firm, I might add. So much for the superior feminist
consciousness of America’s elite men.

Culturally, Sabih’s Arab identity and my Jewish identity are
not as diametrically opposed as people might think. I come from an Iraqi Jewish
family. Far from being a bagels-and-cream cheese stereotype, I have a
Judeo-Arabic name, my Jewish prayers are to a God alternately called Elokeem
and Allah, and my family has various shades of olive and brown skin.

A common Middle Eastern identity, however, is not what
brought me into this relationship or what keeps Sabih and me together. To the
contrary, we operate in a little bubble removed from identity politics. Our
relationship is based on simple things: wacky humor, independent thinking, a
kindred-spirit connection, heaps of respect and an appreciation of the basic goodness
in each of us. Oh, did I mention the fireworks?

Coming from Berkeley, an American suburb with its own damn
foreign policy, it was quite a challenge to learn how to be apolitical in a
relationship. But since the climate around Sabih and me was so explosive, it
seemed imperative to keep politics out until we built a strong foundation and
had time on our side.

During the first few months of my relationship with Sabih, I
was attacked twice by a group of Arab men. In addition, my neighbors were
hostile when they found out I was with an Arab. It was difficult not to talk
with Sabih about conflicts like these — to “process the issue,” as we say in
Berkeley speak. These kinds of incidents added a lot of stress to my side of
the relationship, shoving in my face the tensions and divisions between Arabs
and Jews. In the first few months, I felt as if I am standing in the middle of
a crossfire.

“Loolwa,” a close friend said as I burst into tears, “this
is not an environment that will encourage your love to blossom. It will be a
miracle if your relationship survives.”

Not exactly comforting words, but seemingly true.

As Sabih and I got to know each other, he himself made a
number of comments that disturbed me: On several occasions, he stereotyped all
Israeli Jews with the negative behaviors of a few people. A few times, he
implicitly failed to recognize Israel’s significance for me as a Jew. Once, he
put all blame for the Arab-Israel conflict squarely on the shoulders of Israel.
Sometimes I gently objected to his comments; sometimes I made a joke out of
what he said to minimize the sting; other times I remained silent.

And yet, Sabih also showed respect for my identity and
religious observance. One day after breakfast, for example, I returned from the
shower to find him washing the dishes. I was delighted by his gesture. Then I
panicked. In Jewish tradition, we separate the dishes used for dairy and meat
products, and I had not yet put up the signs identifying which was which.

“Are you concerned about dairy and meat?” Sabih asked,
scrubbing a fork.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Don’t worry,” he smiled. “I looked at the patterns on the
silverware and figured out what was what.”

These caring gestures made all the difference to me. I chose
to focus on them and let go of the negative comments, rather than get into
heated political debates with Sabih. Over time, I noticed the Arab-Jewish
conflict slip away from our relationship, simply through the strengthening of
our personal, apolitical connection.

What’s more, seeing I was not about to drop Sabih like a hot
potato, my neighbors came to accept that we were an item. Out of love for me, they
started to care about him. And so, just through the simple act of our being
together, we created our own little version of a peace agreement, without the
big political brouhaha.

“I’d like to meet you in a timeless, placeless place,” I
once said to Sabih, quoting Suzanne Vega. “Somewhere out of context and beyond
all consequences.”

“Yah,” he laughed cynically, “that place doesn’t exist. It’s
just a fantasy.”

But I don’t agree. In the middle of the Negev desert, amidst
hatred, violence and decay, Sabih and I have created an oasis of love, respect
and laughter. Ironically, keeping politics out of our relationship has resulted
in perhaps the biggest political act of all: Despite our surroundings, we are
still together — growing with, learning from and getting closer to each other
as the weeks and months go by.

Loolwa Khazzoom (