Talking About the Gaza Flotilla

When I first learned of the ill-fated Israeli raid on the Gaza Flotilla boat Mavi Marmara I got a sick feeling in my stomach. Why? Because something had gone horribly wrong and already I was preparing myself for the recriminations that would be hurled against an Israeli state that I love at an elemental part of my being. Because there was a dizzying element of multiple asymmetries to the whole story as it unfolded: protesters versus soldiers, paintball guns versus knives and lead pipes, a dozen soldiers (each like my “brother” from my mishpacha me-ametzet) versus hundreds of violent opponents, nine dead people versus unspecified injuries, occupied Palestinians versus powerful Israelis, a tiny Jewish state versus a host of hostile neighbors that would smile on its annihilation. Because while I consider myself an unambiguous Zionist, I have great misgivings about this whole episode, from the motivations of the Turkish organizers who set it in-motion to those who would defend every aspect of Israel’s handling of the affair and question the loyalty of those who think otherwise. As I followed events on my Blackberry as they developed on Monday afternoon, I just kept saying to my wife, “This really upsets me.” But I couldn’t articulate beyond that.

When I came into work on Tuesday I felt like I needed to provide the beginnings of a process to make sense of this for myself, and so I picked-up the phone and called my colleague at the Embassy of Israel to arrange for a free and open to the public briefing from an Embassy spokesperson this Friday at 8 am. All are welcome. In the short time the event has be open for registration, I think I can conclude that I am not the only one with questions.

As I began spreading word of the event I got a note from a friend who asked, “Are [you] taking the Embassy line on the flotilla situation?  Or are [you] allowing for the Jeffery Goldberg / Amos Oz view to be articulated as well?” My response was that I (or the Washington DCJCC for that matter) am not taking anyone’s line. That’s not what we do. That’s not what this is intended to be. This is the start of a conversation. Or perhaps it is the continuation of a conversation we’ve been having since 1948. Or 1967. Or 70 C.E. In either case, it is not meant to be the totality of the conversation, only a point of departure. And it is my hope that it will not be an event where the audience passively absorbs without question everything that is asserted from the podium. My hope is that we can talk to each other. We’re starting with the Embassy, and while they won’t be there, I am sure Amos Oz and Jeffrey Goldberg will have their people in the room. And if we’re lucky, so will Alan Dershowitz, David Grossman, Marty Peretz, Max Boot, John Podhoretz, Gershom Gorenberg and Bernard-Henri Lévy. They are all welcome, because we all have to contend with a post-flotilla reality.

I don’t care if the Palestinians or their allies don’t “indulge” in this level of communal introspection. Perhaps they already do, we just aren’t privy to those conversations. Perhaps they will some day, or never will. It doesn’t truly matter to me. To abstain from discussion in the name of solidarity strikes me as the least Jewish thing we could do at a time like this. Whatever our separate conclusions, the goal is shared, a Jewish democratic Israel secure in its borders, at peace with its neighbors, and in-touch with its highest values.

You can register for the briefing here.

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The Detail of a David Grossman Inscription

I sat enthralled today – listening to the “lecture” by the brilliantly human, jet-lagged David Grossman (a co-presentation of Nextbook at the Washington DCJCC and American University’s Center for Israel Studies program).  In my opinion, Grossman is the resonating moral center of the universe – the model of public introspection.  So he starts with a story about a short, elderly character in a novel of his and the “interiority” of a writer struggling to inhabit and be inhabited by characters who are totally different from his own experience and persona. David was sitting on a Tel Aviv-Jerusalem bus six years after he wrote about this character and suddenly heard a section he wrote about her read aloud on the radio news “culture corner” that the driver was playing.  A particular detail of an extra wooden pedal he’d given the character for her Singer sewing machine struck his creative memory – at just the moment that the driver changed the station to the delight of his fellow passengers.  Grossman absorbed the insult to his book and to himself – and then jumped back into looking at what he had written about this short woman’s need for the booster pedal, as the kind of detail that is a link in a chain of writer’s attentions to human needs that make up the human texture of a story.  He was then off onto a tour de force exploration of the interior journeys he experiences moving between small character detail and the enormities of parents and children, the Shoah, and the Israeli-Palestinian entanglement, among other topics and passions

There is joy and despair and disappointment in every life, in every world drama.  Grossman writes and talks brilliantly about the joy and despair – the human challenge of it all.  He is never a disappointment.  So I purchased his novel The Smile of the Lamb, to have it signed – and exchanged a few sentences with him about the kind of dialogues we do here at the 16th Street J.  He said, oh, I will sign it and write something. After he signed, I asked him a bit more about how the detail of characters and the world situations come to him and influence each other.  (It happens as it happens.  It’s not planned).  Then a quick L’hitraot and I snuck away to read this inscription:

“To Stephen: For every thing you are doing to bring the two people to listen to each other. Thank You! David Grossman”

Thanked by David Grossman for maybe a glint in my eyes – a quick expression of yearning and purpose!  I’ll read the novel, pay attention to character detail and the big picture – and cherish those words of encouragement always.

Stephen Stern is the Director of Dialogues and Public Affairs at the Washington DCJCC.

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