Syrian refugees – actually a lot more than two million.

Last week the world reeled as we learned that the number of Syrian refugees had passed the two million mark.

Which is to say: Two million people—the equivalent of the combined populations of Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco—have fled their homes and country to what can only be called an uncertain fate in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and North Africa, with no idea whatsoever when or if they might ever return. Many refugees actually depend on the kindness of family and friends and never register with humanitarian aid organizations, so it’s likely that “two million” is, in fact, a low estimate.

Yet as horrifying as that is, as heartbreaking as the needs of the people fleeing and the people receiving them are, we must remember that those two million actually represent less than a third of all who have run for their lives in the course of this war.

The European Commission Humanitarian Office reports that an estimated 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced persons—people forced out of their homes and communities by the violence, but who haven’t yet made it across a border. Thus, a total of 6.25 million Syrians—fully one third of the country’s population of 21 million—are, in fact, wandering.

The implications of this are staggering. As the region’s nations face historic internal turmoil and grapple with the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of strangers—sometimes at a rate of thousands a day—the social and cultural fabric of Syrian life has been shredded beyond recognition beneath bombs and chemical weapons.

Consider a life: Parents, grandparents, growing children. Income is earned, homes are built, marriages celebrated and babies welcomed. You shop for your daily needs, come home along familiar paths, make holiday plans and hope your aunt makes enough of her signature dish. Your father falls ill, your daughter outgrows her shoes, you bring a present to the neighbors. At every turn, your life is woven tightly into the garment of the lives around you, and whether any given day brings sorrow or joy, you know where to find solace, support, or someone with whom to share your good fortune.

Now it’s gone.

It’s gone, and you don’t know if you’ll ever get it back. It’s gone, not just for you and your family and your community, and not even “just” for the two million people who have (at the very least) found a way out of the country and away from the killing. It’s true for six and a quarter million people—the equivalent of nearly the entire population of Israel.

The Jewish people knows what this chaos looks like. We see it in the eyes of survivors; many can still feel it in their flesh. We are a people that until very recently knew little but the hurriedly packed bag, the abandoned home, the loved one lost forever. Whatever Jews and Arabs may have done to or said about each other in the 20th and 21st centuries, surely when we see a father gather a dead child in his arms, our arms must ache, too.

And as the heart cries out, the mind must also be honest about the horror’s further ramifications. It might be possible to imagine that the strife in Egypt won’t spread beyond its borders; it might be possible to hope that Jordan’s King will work with his opposition toward democracy and stability. It’s possible. But there’s simply no way to see the massive, violent movement of 6.25 million people just beyond and all around Israel’s borders as an event that might leave anyone in the region untouched. At a certain point, likely at many points, chaos tips over in ways that cannot be predicted and whoever is within shouting distance finds themselves in the path of the consequences.

This is the time in the Jewish year in which we straddle the universal and the personal at once: Last week we celebrated harat olam, the world’s creation; this week, we stand before the Divine and weigh our most intimate behavior. We do each while surrounded by our community and all we hold dear. We are reminded, at every holiday table and with every blow of the shofar, that our destiny as individuals and as a community is bound in a spiral of mutuality that turns and returns, endlessly.

The Syrian people are not my people. Some of them have killed some of mine; some of mine have killed some of theirs.

And yet they are my people, because they, too, were created b’tselem Elohim, in God’s image. They are my people because they suffer untold terrors. They are my people because wherever their calamity leads, it will brush against or crash into my people and my home. We cannot yet begin to guess the outcome of the shattering of Syria and its people, but lines drawn on maps will not keep the disaster neat and tidy.

I stand before my Creator this week devastated by what humanity has wrought, and not a little frightened of what is to come—frightened for Israel, frightened for everyone in the region, but mostly frightened for the mothers and fathers grasping little hands in the night, and trembling.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast

Abbas cancels Rosh Hashanah party with Israeli politicians.


Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

On Friday I wrote that Israeli Finance Minister and Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid had forbidden his Members of Knesset from attending a holiday party scheduled for today with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; Lapid was of the opinion that attending the event would undermine Israel’s negotiating position. I expressed some wonder at this decision, however, because just two weeks earlier, three Yesh Atid MKs had not only met with Palestinian officials in Budapest, they and the Palestinians had agreed that a future peace deal would look very much like the Geneva Accord, a draft agreement that includes two states based on the 1967 borders and a shared Jerusalem.

Well. It turns out that Lapid need not have worried: Abbas’s own people have put the kibosh on the party:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas canceled a pre-Rosh Hashana toast with more than 30 ministers and Knesset members that was set for Tuesday because he came under pressure from the anti-normalization movement in Ramallah.

Abbas invited the Knesset’s Caucus on Ending the Israeli- Arab Conflict to his headquarters in Ramallah after a Palestinian delegation was greeted by 30 MKs and ministers and a Palestinian flag at the Knesset on July 31. That meeting emphasized the need to have a show of force in Ramallah to boost the nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

But the anti-normalization movement, which is strong inside Abbas’s Fatah party, criticized him for meeting such a high-profile Israeli delegation so soon after the IDF killed Palestinians in recent incidents in Jenin and Kalandiya.

As an American-Israeli Jew, I can’t presume to tell Palestinian nationalists how to approach my people. Me and mine are in the position of power in this conflict, and those who struggle against military occupation have a limited number of tools at their disposal. And indeed: The Israeli military just killed Palestinians—if Palestinians had just killed Israelis, it’s a good bet that Israeli parliamentarians would not be going to Ramallah for a pre-holiday toast. (Moreover, as Peter Beinart so eloquently documented in the New York Review of Books yesterday, American Jews have their own anti-normalization movement—we just don’t call it that).

Furthermore, the gathering might not be permanently cancelled: According to Labor MK and caucus head Hilik Bar, the Palestinian officials behind the now-cancelled event have promised him that they’ll reschedule. “I told the Palestinians that if this is not the ideal time, we can do it after the holidays,” Bar said. “I want the President [Abbas] to feel comfortable and hold the meeting in the best environment possible.” It could be that just as Lapid didn’t raise a stink about the earlier, more quietly held meeting in Hungary, Abbas will be able to pull off a less high-profile event.

But I do despair a little bit more every time one side or the other refuses to so much as sit at a table with their opposite number (apparently the supply of despair is bottomless). These things do not—cannot possibly—replace a rigorous examination of the conflict, its perpetuation, and the possibility for resolution. They are not a substitute for the difficult and painful process of letting go of decades-old habits and fear in order to forge a path to mutual respect and self-determination for a people too long denied their rights.

Yet it also cannot be denied that no genuine peace will be born or survive without the million smaller moments in which two enemies learn to see each other as people. And the irony of Fatah’s anti-normalizationists being on the same side as Yair Lapid isn’t lost on me.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

The cost of the occupation.

The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is an enormous drain on the State of Israel in innumerable ways. Some of these are quantifiable, some are not.

Here are some of the quantifiable ways (via The Daily Beast/Newsweek):

[T]aken as a whole, Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories remains the single largest expenditure in the nation’s short history.

Because Israel has never released all the necessary data, we’ve taken the numbers available from various Israeli research studies, extrapolated them, and adjusted the results for interest and inflation. In arriving at a very conservative estimate, we made sure to count only the extra costs of controlling the occupied territories, not the costs of basic-services that settlers would receive if they lived in Israel proper, or the buildup of the state’s military.




ANNUAL COST (IN 2010 DOLLARS): $6.3 billion


BUDGET PER SETTLER (AS OF 2010): $22,522

TOTAL NET COST: $88.5 billion

ANNUAL COST (IN 2010 DOLLARS): $6.3 billion

Here are some of the less quantifiable:


  1. Israeli settlers assault nonviolent Israeli and Palestinian activists, as the security forces watch and to a certain degree help. Money quote – Border Patrol officer, in reference to a group of settlers closing in on the protest, says to activists who are declining to remove Palestinian flags from the Palestinian’s land: “They’re here because some of them [the settlers] want to come tear you apart, to beat all of you up. If that’s what you want, leave the flags up.”
  2. Later that night, the settlers pull out knives, pick up rocks, and punch Israeli protesters in the face. Security forces do essentially nothing.
  3. Settlers call the Israeli activists “Arab-loving pieces of shit,” a woman settler declares that “all of these women fuck Arabs,” and the video ends with full-throated calls of “Death to Arabs” and “Death to Leftists.”

All of this, by the way, on Rosh Hashana. Because really, is there a better way to celebrate the Sovereignty of the Holy One Blessed Be He than by taking up knives and rocks and shouting “Death to Arabs”?

On the second day of Rosh Hashana, we read the story of the binding of Isaac. There’s a knife and a rock in that story, too. But somehow I don’t think that God is waiting in the bushes with a ram for us. If we want to sacrifice ourselves over the occupation? That’s on us.

Video via Shiekh Jarrah Solidarity; they can be followed on Twitter at @justjerusalem and are perma-linked on my blogroll, to your right.

Update: Within minutes after posting this, I learned that one of the settlers involved in the Rosh Hashana violence is Yossi Ben Arush, a police investigator who lives in the settlement outside of which protests were taking place. One of the activists has been interrogated by him the past, and she apparently yelled at him “What are you doing, I recognize you, you’re a cop.” For more details, click here.

Rosh Hashana 2011 – a little grumpy, but I’m trying my best.

Tonight is Erev Rosh Hashana – the eve of the Jewish New Year. In the Jewish calendar, days begin and end at sunset, so once the sun has set over the Greater Chicagoland Area, I will be off the grid for three solid days*: Tonight, tomorrow, Friday (the holiday is actually two days long for almost everyone but some in the Reform movement), and Saturday-until-after-sunset, because that’ll be Shabbat. Try not to let the world blow up without me, ‘kay?

Truth be told, I’m not feeling very holiday-ish today. I’ve bought a ton of special food, we have plans for services and time with friends, and it’s hard for me not to love anything that results in me getting to spend concentrated time with my family — but.

But, for me, being Jewish is hopelessly entangled with being Israeli, a thing which I very loudly announced I was tired of being the other day. I have always found the American Jewish community’s attachment to the modern State of Israel as an article of religious faith to be problematic — surely when in prayer, our thoughts are to be on our relationship to the Divine, and not the latest policies of a political construct? Surely we can be good Jews, and yet oppose some of those policies, no matter our familial relationship to the people making them? — but in light of my utter exhaustion with being Israeli this year, I feel even more knee-jerk misanthropic about the notion of spending time with my own people (the people to whom, let’s not forget, I happily joined myself of my own accord. I was at Sinai! Etc, etc, and so on. Oh, bother).

So, you know, writing about the holiday hasn’t exactly felt like a thing I wanted to do. And yet here we are! And here’s the thing that I’ve been thinking about lately, re: Rosh Hashana:

We are taught that Rosh Hashana is not, as I just called it, “the Jewish New Year.” Aside from anything else, it falls on the first day of the seventh month of our calendar, meaning that calling it the Jewish New Year is a little bit like planning your New Year’s Eve bash for the Fourth of July.

The words “Rosh Hashana” do translate to “head of the year” — it’s just not our “head,” our beginning, that we’re celebrating. We’re taught that Rosh Hashana marks the very, very beginning — the world’s creation. The Holy One Blessed Be He completed His work on this day, we believe, which is why we also call the holiday Yom Harat Olam, the day of the world’s birth. Rather than drawing inward on this holiday, in a very real way, we’re meant to look out — to celebrate all of creation, and annually reconsider the role we play on the world stage.

And here’s what recently struck me: Isn’t fall kind of an odd time to celebrate the birth of the world?

This honestly never crossed my mind before. Jewish holidays are very tightly bound to the turn of the seasons, in part because we were once an agricultural society, and in part because we’re taught that our holidays sanctify the cosmic year. You really can’t celebrate Passover in the summer, for instance. It’s in the spring because it’s meant to be in the spring — the holiday depends on the calendar, but the calendar also depends on the holiday. Given that our calendar is, in fact, lunar, the ancients had to go to real trouble to tinker with it to make sure the holidays stay on course; a solar aspect was folded into things, and every third, sixth, eighth, eleventh, fourteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth year, we have a second month of Adar to even things up. That’s a lot of trouble to go to in order to keep the holidays in their seasons — so why are we celebrating the world’s birth in the very season in which the world begins its annual slumber?

I’m guessing the more Orthodox among us would say “because we did the math and that’s when it happened,” but I’m not the kind of Jew for whom that’s a very useful answer.

I don’t know, of course, but I wonder if this doesn’t tell us something about becoming, and being. I wonder if, at the very moment that we are becoming, we might not need to withdraw into the earth, cover ourselves with mulch, and gestate. We like to believe (I like to believe) that the desire to change or become is all we need in order to effect change — from the social protests in Israel, to the revolutions in the Arab World, to the individual upheavals of the heart — but that really and truly isn’t how humans work. We trundle along, bump into the need to change, think about that for awhile, decide to change, struggle with that for awhile, achieve some newness, readjust for awhile. Like that. We cannot just burst into being — we have to lay low and allow the change to seep into blood and bones that are still enough, quiet enough, to really take it in.

So Happy New Year, world! As we all struggle forward, as we are born anew, may be also lay still and quiet enough to allow ourselves to grow straight and true, and bring a much, much better year to a very weary world. May your year be sweet, and may your blessings be as numerous as the seeds of the pomegranate, amen, amen.


*In terms of this blog, that means that comments may get stuck in moderation for awhile. I generally ask my Shabbos goy (aka: the husband, a raging atheist) to fish these out now and then, because one doesn’t want to be rude, especially not for three solid days, but yeah…. If you get stuck, don’t despair! It’ll show up eventually!

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

%d bloggers like this: