Complexity: Acknowledge it

Complexity: Acknowledge it
Asymmetrical image of shapes inside a kaleidoscope illustrating a post about complexity

Complexity. What are your strategies for holding it? Especially when grief, rage, and helplessness push your thoughts in every direction? We discussed this at an ALEPH Zoom program about Israel and Palestine. As a co-facilitator, I shared some personal opening words. Here’s what I said about “Holding the Complexity of Our Responses.”

We left Eden long ago for complexity

Last Friday night I was a guest at a terrific Shabbat dinner. Together we celebrated a successful High Holy Day season. We talked and laughed and sang. Children played across the room. It was like being in the Garden of Eden.

We did not know what was happening just then in southern Israel.

But in the morning, we knew. And once you eat from the tree of knowledge, there is no going back.

Remember the fiery turning sword that blocks the way back to Eden (Gen. 3:24)? It’s turning and flashing right now. Literally, fiery weapons are everywhere. Figuratively, so are my thoughts. Going round and round and round in my mind.

My own thoughts trigger me. Surely some will trigger you. Still, I will share some of them.

The news from Vancouver

A young man from our Vancouver Jewish community, Ben Mizrachi, was murdered by Hamas soldiers at the Nova music festival near Kibbutz Reim. Camp Miriam, a Habonim-Dror youth camp, is on an island just off our coast. Ofir Libstein, chair of the board of Habonim Dror International, was killed defending his kibbutz. Movement elder Vivian Silver has been taken to Gaza as a hostage. We do not know how or where she is.

On Wednesday morning, two young men were arrested for stalking and threatening young women leaving a “Stand with Israel” rally. Many local Jews are frightened; I heard this last night at a women’s Zoom gathering.

So it is surreal to realize that some people in Vancouver are not on edge. The news from Israel and Gaza does not affect them. Not because they are antisemitic. But because it is just not their issue.

Antisemitism: experiences may vary

All four of my grandparents came to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We are not a family of holocaust refugees. My father was a soldier in WWII and a Nazi hunter in France.

Of course I have experienced antisemitism. A restaurant refused to serve me. Colleagues ignored my work. Antagonists and some supposed friends called me names. Acquaintances and strangers say ignorant and insulting things all the time. But honestly I can live with all of this.

One of my colleagues, however, has a different experience. His grandparents are holocaust survivors. He survived the bombing of a Jewish Community Centre. His sister just survived the music festival massacre. Over and over again this family escapes those who want to kill Jews.

The dream of a safe nation-state (?)

So I know why this colleague dedicates his work life to the state of Israel. He believes that the only safe space is one controlled by Jews, for Jews.

But to create a Jewish space, other people get pushed aside. And the state of Israel does this in ways big and small. There are inconveniences, harassment, arrests, violence, and suppression of nonviolent resistance.

In Canada’s not-so-distant past, British and French people did this to Indigenous peoples. And also to many new immigrant groups, including Jews and Asians.

It is what nation-states do. They try to hide the worst of it from their own populations. But when they can’t, they try to justify it. And it is terrible.

Colonial complexity

At work, I co-direct a program in Indigenous and Inter-religious Studies. My colleagues teach about settlers and Indigenous peoples of Canada. We know these categories do not map accurately onto the lives of Israelis and Palestinians. Rather, the analysis is more complex. Both Israelis and Palestinians are Indigenous. And both are deeply caught up in the colonial projects of large and powerful nations.

One recent graduate of our program is a Palestinian peace activist. She wrote a thesis comparing the two colonial contexts. So, I read most of the scholars she cited. And thus I know: not a single one of them would justify the terrible atrocities committed by Hamas. That is not their concept of resistance.

They prefer nonviolent resistance—though they know it can be hard. Before the pandemic restrictions, I had dinner with a Palestinian peace activist. He understood that in Canada’s Jewish community you can lose your job for not speaking about the state of Israel in just the right way. And he said he was surprised—but not surprised.

Holding complexity

I love the Jewish people. You are my extended family. A dysfunctional one, but so what? I love the Jewish people in all our complexity. Even when we agree on very little. And I love being Jewish. And even if I didn’t—well, I don’t know any other life.

So, how do I hold complexity? The challenges of conflicting thoughts and feelings and relationships?

Mostly, I try to remember some core principles. And then I try to live into them.

Don’t create a new conflict

First, I am sure I do not want to be part of what Neil Caplan calls “the other Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” That’s the one where we, outside the land, express our pain and helplessness by arguing with—and sometimes attacking—others.

Be a non-anxious presence for yourself

Second, I use my ability to be a non-anxious presence. Not just with others, but also with myself. One practice is to observe my own feelings. And then—if I can—make choices about how to act on them. For example, many of my interfaith partners have reached out to me. But some have not. Do I feel hurt by that? Yes I do. So I reach out to them. Do I feel stunned that my Christian colleagues are buzzing with business as usual? Yes I do. So I tell them: life is not normal for us right now.

Know that morality IS complex

Third, I remind myself: it is natural to have more than one moral perspective. One, for example, is immediate and visceral. It leaps up when those dearest to us are harmed. Another, more universal, comes from empathy and slow thinking. These two (at least!) processes are at play inside us. Sometimes in harmony, sometimes in tension.

Reflect on your political theory

Fourth, I keep my main political theory in mind. It’s pretty simple: greedy narcissists exploit us all. American politicians are not the American people. Sometimes they are at odds with almost all of us. Canadian politicians do not always speak for all the Canadian people. Bibi Netanyahu is not the Israeli people. Hamas is not the Palestinian people. True, they did elect Hamas 17 years ago. But the party has not fulfilled their hopes. And there have been no recent elections.

Value enduring relationships

Fifth, I remember that relationships are key. Sometimes they matter more than…other things. (And I say this even though I am an introvert.)

Friends and colleagues do criticize me for being a peacemaking Aaron and not an angry Moses. But here I am. And they are still with me.

I am grateful to my colleague and co-facilitator Rabbi Dr. Elliot Ginsberg for the two long conversations that helped me formulate these thoughts. And to ALEPH for organizing the event.