On Israel Engagement, De-Legitimization and Our Community

The Washington DCJCC is proud to present professional and authentic examples of Israeli culture in film, theater, art and music. The artistic output of Israel is one of its great achievements, and we were privileged to host the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv’s production of RETURN TO HAIFA at Theater J. The sold-out run was hailed by audiences and critics alike and brought together individuals from all over our community to engage in serious conversations not just about the politics of the Israel, but about the underlying humanity of the men and women on all sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict. There was no single message to be derived from the play, nor were the reactions of any two theater-goers alike — well-wrought dramas can elicit complex and contradictory thoughts and emotions. It was gratifying that our audiences received the production in the spirit it was offered; that rather than shielding ourselves from difficult histories and complex questions, we can engage them with our intellect, our humanity and our capacity to see beyond political sloganeering. We feel that such programs constitute Israel-engagement in the very best sense of the term and make no apology for the art or the artists we present. Increasingly, there is an acknowledgment in the public square of the American Jewish community that fighting the de-legitimization of Israel is poorly served by attacking organizations and individuals within the Jewish community who present challenging portraits of the Jewish State. Implying that such Jewish organizations serve as Trojan horses for those bent on the destruction of Israel plays to our worst fears. While such campaigns may throttle funding to this program or that organization, its ultimate effect is only to narrow the boundaries of allowable conversations and alienate all members of the Jewish community who dare to think outside those strict confines. If we continue down this path, the result will be less Israel engagement, fewer advocates for its cause in the court of public opinion and a poisoning of the intellectual well of American Judaism. The Washington DCJCC will present nearly 100 programs this year that deal with some aspect of Israeli life: some will make you proud, some will make you laugh, some will make you cry and many will make you think. Occasionally one might make you angry. But that is okay, so long as the conversation continues and we express our love for Israel by our honest engagement, through wrestling and hugging and through our ability to disagree civilly.

Learning How to Speak – Israel in light of Egypt

Written by Michal Rosenoer, program coordinator for Behrend Builders and our 2010-2011 AVODAH fellow.

This past weekend, I got into a discussion with a few friends about how the current unrest in Egypt might affect Israel’s stance in the Middle East. Excitedly, I jumped right into the conversation and afterward was proud of myself for being able to engage in a debate about Israel from a political, historical, and even a Jewish perspective (I didn’t have a lot to say, but hey, I was able to participate). This morning, I read an article on just this issue which helped me clarify in my own mind why I had been so satisfied with the dialogue; not only was I informed enough to speak at least a little, but at no point did the conversation go from being about Israel to being about Jews. Even when we discussed the post-Holocaust value of Israel, nobody claimed that “the Jews” were to blame for any of Israel’s political shortcomings. While there are in fact lots of Jews in Israel, it’s imperative that we remember to distinguish between a country’s politics and its people, and it’s people from their religious affiliation. Right now this is an extremely relevant point to be made; as Egypt chooses a new government (hopefully), it is important that rest of the world, if we are to judge, judges the politics and merits of the group without stooping to xenophobia.

The question of “Israel” – yes, it can be that general and grammatically incorrect – is one that I have been grappling with for about six years. As a college student at the Left Coast University of California, Berkeley I was often confronted with a harsh if not violent anti-Zionist presence on campus, one that actually became relatively dangerous during my junior year when students from a pro-Palestine group and their counterparts in a conservative Zionist organization broke out in multiple fist fights, landing themselves in court. These were my first experiences with anti-Israel sentiment, and for the first time in my life, I found myself surrounded by people that not only spoke about Israel as a political entity, but quite often disagreed with its general existence. Granted, middle ground or at least apolitical Jewish life at Cal definitely existed, but at a liberal school with a history like Berkeley’s, it wasn’t unusual to see fake “checkpoints” set up in front of Sather Gate with young men dressed in Israeli military uniforms, holding fake rifles and Israeli flags, yelling and pushing students as they walked into campus. Student groups like the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as well as a variety of progressive political groups often held rallies that were pro liberation-movement if not subversively anti-Israel throughout my stay at Cal, and multiple times I attended meetings or rallies hosted by these groups just to see what was going on. When I started at Cal, I had never really been asked to define my feelings about Israel, but it was hard to escape it in an environment as radical and outspoken as Berkeley’s.

It was not the anti-Israel sentiment that I minded so much however; while I was unprepared for my own visceral responses to the protests and the often heated debates that followed, I actually think that speaks to the general lack of Israel education we teach our Jewish youth – which is a topic for another post. Regardless,what did bother me and continues to worry me today is that all-too-often, what starts as anti-Zionist or anti-Israeli political movements on campuses often translates to viral, insidious anti-Semitism. For example, not long after the aforementioned SJP vs. Zionist group violence broke out, swastikas were graffited all over campus. This example is almost too concrete for the actions I hope to describe; often times, discussions that started about Gaza often just deteriorated into messy, hateful, religiously-oriented one-upping. In fact, as a testament to how diffuse and caustic this kind of talk can be, even as an AVODAH fellow and JCC staffer, I still feel uncomfortable wearing a Star of David; my resistance to being openly Jewish is, while maybe antiquated, also very real for me in a large part due to the melding of anti-Israel politics with anti-Semitism that I experienced in college.

Thus, while I openly support exploratory, curious, respectful dialogue about Egypt, Israel, and their evolving relationship, I implore people to keep their discussions focused on the facts and away from religious scapegoating. We aren’t going to resolve these issues sitting at our dinner tables here in the States. Allowing our fears or feelings to drag us into stereotyping does nothing but set a bad example for others, complicate the already painful conflict, and hurt people like…me.

Food Justice and Jews

“What is a food democracy, and why do we need one?” This was the central question of the panel discussion entitled “How Good Food Makes a Difference” that took place at the Goethe-Institut (in cooperation with the Heinrich Boll Foundation) on Wednesday evening. The speakers, Tanja Busse* and Mark Winne**, both ardent food activists and authors of best-selling books about food justice issues in Germany and America respectively, gave more than a few good responses to these questions, emphasizing the connections between health, community, citizenry, and consumerism in light of our current food system. This conversation about health and food isn’t new to the Jewish community however; for the last few decades, Jews the world over have been making connections between food, social justice, and Jewish law in novel and meaningful ways.

But before we delve into the Jewish side of things, let’s talk terms. First, what is a “food democracy?” According to Busse, in a food democracy, all community members regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, or age, would be involved in the decision-making processes that govern local food systems. This means not only having access to political decision-making processes, but also having access to the knowledge about our greater global agricultural system, federal subsidies, and structural inequalities that have shaped the sorry state of health and access in our communities today. Instead of a democracy, Busse claimed, we currently have a “food dictatorship” in which just a handful of biotech, oil, and Big Ag companies have the power and the pockets deep enough to make decisions about what and how the world eats. This is a problem, the authors claim, because these corporations are more concerned with their bottom lines than they are with either environmental sustainability or human rights.

So what are people doing about it? Well, lots of things. First, grassroots food justice movements have sprung up all over the world in the last few decades calling for a more just, equitable, and transparent food system. Both local and international, programs like the Campesino y Campesino movement in South America and the DC Farm to School Network here in the district are working to change the way we engage with food on a daily basis in the hopes of creating real change. From the Jewish side, programs like Adamah, a Jewish land-based organic farming program is teaching young Jews how to engage with their food and the environment in a religious context. Likewise, Hazon is organizing Jews to create more environmentally friendly and just communities, which includes advocating for better food access and more local production. There’s even a blog about Jews and  food issues called the Jew and the Carrot. Here at the JCC, we also offer programs like Hunger Action and our Spring into Action annual Day of Service that affords volunteers the opportunity to engage with local environmental and hunger issues.

Busse and Winne also offered some small, concrete steps for individuals looking to help create change around food issues. For instance, Winne’s mantra is to “get your hands in the soil, vegetables on the chopping block, and voices down to city hall.” Winne believes that to create large-scale change, we first must re-introduce intimacy into our personal relationships with food. For example, kids need to be exposed to gardens, healthy food options, and real cooking at home and in school so they value real food, not just the “food” served cheap and fast at their local Burger King. Likewise, Winne advocates for getting together with your friends and family and just talking about food – what do we want from our local food systems? What isn’t working? How can we make it better? Asking those questions is the first step to doing something about it. Similarly, Busse thinks that we need to take a critical eye with us to the grocery store; if you read the labels on the back of your Froot Loops and don’t know what “pink berry flavoring” is, call or email the company and ask for an explanation. It’s your right as a consumer and a citizen, Busse argues, to ask those questions and to make your voice heard.

It’s not only your right, but also your responsibility, in Judaism,  to engage with these issues. Jewish law implores us to remember that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt; thus, it is our responsibility to help those currently struggling as best we can. So even if you don’t think you are being affected by food issues, get out and volunteer, teach your children to cook, or even just visit a local farmers market. Little steps make a big difference, and starting to think about it is where real change begins.

Contact Michal Rosenoer with comments, concerns, or for more information at behrendbuilders@washingtondcjcc.org

*Tanja Busse is a freelance journalist for Die Zeit and Germany’s Greenpeace Magazine. She is also author of the German non-fiction bestseller Die Einkaufsrevolution (2006) dealing with political consumerism, agriculture, and scandals in the food industry.

** Mark Winne is the former executive director of the Hartford Food System and author of the acclaimed Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture (2010) which challenges us to go beyond eating local food to becoming part of a larger call for a sustainable and intimate food system and culture.

An Introduction to “Yew Tree Project”

Introductory Remarks presented by Laura Katzman for Carolyn Bernstein’s Artist Talk on Yew Tree Project

I am delighted to introduce our Visiting Artist, Carolyn Bernstein, whom I’ve known since 2002, when we shared an office here at the Washington DCJCC. She was a Program Director for art classes and I was a Guest Curator for the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery, organizing an exhibition on the graphic work of Ben Shahn.

Even though Carolyn and I overlapped for only a short time, I was able to see that she was a special, deep-thinking individual with a sharp mind and keen vision—an artist who would bring an intensity of focus and an analytical precision to whatever she undertook.

I was therefore not surprised to learn that she had created such a profound, thought-provoking, and enduring body of work with Yew Tree Project. Nor was I surprised that she went on to pursue art (and win awards) at the Corcoran School of Art and Design and to complete an MFA in 2008 at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago.

Yew Tree Project (initiated in 2006) quickly garnered accolades with two solo exhibitions at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago and at the Museum at Aurora University in Aurora, Illinois.

The series addresses the cancer drug derived from the poisonous yew tree. It deals with what the artist calls “the contemporary visual culture of medical imaging technologies.”

The work documents the labyrinthian journey that diseased individuals (and their bodies) face when encountering the intersection of the corporate, pharmaceutical, medical, and existential worlds that are involved in the battling of cancer.

In the context of this universe, Yew Tree Project  is a brilliant and subtle investigation of relationships between:

–the human body and the natural world
–the individual and the collective
–the worlds of art and science

One of the most fascinating aspects of Carolyn’s work—for me—is the way it draws parallels between how artists and scientists visualize the body in an attempt to understand and make sense of the inevitable processes of aging and deterioration. But at the same time, the work reveals how both art and science record the beauty of the mortal human body—in all its complexities, intricacies, and mysteries.

Carolyn brings her impressive technical skills to Yew Tree Project, sandblasting on glass, and drawing and painting on a range of papers both opaque and transparent. Her images are multivalent and meticulously detailed. They require close looking and intense engagement in order to decode their dense layers of meaning. I encourage you all to give this rich body of work the visual and mental time that it deserves.

Professor Laura Katzman is Associate Professor of Art History at James Madison University. Dr. Katzman was Associate Professor of Art and Director of the Museum Studies Program at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (1995-2007). She has been a Senior Lecturer in Museum Studies at Smith College and a Guest Professor in the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Hamburg in Germany. As a Visiting Curator at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and the Maier Museum of Art, she has organized numerous exhibitions of American photography that have toured the United States.
%d bloggers like this: