Friday, August 13, 2010

A Polish Education

Across Poland, a new form of Jewish remembrance is taking place. Inmates from 10 different prisons are contributing their manpower to a country-wide effort to clean and maintain abandoned Jewish cemeteries. Participation in the project—which is sponsored by the prison service and the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland—is, however, about more than coming up with creative ways to keep prisoners occupied. Beyond the actual labor, the men are also introduced to Jewish culture and religious traditions.

For many of prisoners who came of age under communism, talking about anything Jewish was taboo. But through this program, and with the aid of Poland’s chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, that is beginning to change. Before the prisoners set foot in the cemeteries Rabbi Schudrich visits each of the prisons and talks to inmates about everything from Jewish marriage laws to how to put on tefillin. By educating the men, the project leaders hope to break through the anti-Semitic outlook that remains present in Polish society and change the way the inmates were taught to view Jews.

So far, the response has been positive. One of the men involved in the project, Artur Blinski, says “the scheme has broadened his outlook towards his country’s past. ‘Until now I wasn’t that interested. This program has changed my attitude towards Jewish culture and I’ve started to get interested in it. I had no idea about this culture and the more I learn the more interesting it becomes.

That it has taken so many decades for Poles to be able to confront not only their own attitudes towards Jews as well as the importance and influence of pre-war Jewish life in Poland is distressing. However, this effort–as well as others aimed at opening up the discussion and breaking societal taboos–is heartening. It takes strength and courage to challenge the status quo. In a recent blog post, I pointed out important steps taken within Poland to confront its past. I hope this latest project represents not the end of such forward movement, but rather just the beginning.

When We Talk About The Middle East

I think Thomas Friedman can read my mind. Just as I sat down to write this blog post, I came across a new op-ed of his that addressed my very topic. (Hat tip to Mr. Friedman)

In his op-ed, Friedman takes on recent efforts by Western political leaders and entertainment personalities to delegitimize Israel. He argues that Israel is a complex and multi-faceted country that deserves to be seen and understood in all of its nuance rather than as a symbol of unfettered cruelty. Furthermore, he gives his readers a glimpse into the Israeli psyche and shows just how it fits into the context of the greater Middle East. But more importantly, he demonstrates that simplistic views, such as the ones put forth by Britain's Prime Minister or Oliver Stone, serve not to ameliorate the situation, but rather simply prolong the anguish for all involved.

Friedman's views may not be particularly novel, but his words rang especially true for me in the wake of a rather emotional conversation I had with a new Brazilian acquaintance, Peter (not his real name). We were both participants in a journalism training course in Prague and were relaxing at a bar with friends at the end of an intense week. Suddenly, one of the people in our group mentioned that Peter’s last name is also common Brazilian Jewish name. Teasingly, I turned to him and suggested that he might actually be Jewish. His immediate reply of: “no, I don’t want to be Jewish,” didn’t bother me until he added that the reason he didn’t want to be Jewish because of Israel. He felt that Jews were selfish in their dealings with Palestinians and in their refusal to give more land to the Palestinian state. Blindsided, I didn’t quite know what to say. I had expected a simple answer of “I don’t want to keep Kosher” or even, “I’m Catholic, why would I want to convert?” My immediate response—although unsaid—was to reply defensively and demand to know what was so bad about Israel. Another part of me wanted to give him a crash course in Jewish politics and explain the huge rifts within the American Jewish community over that very topic. A third part of me felt grateful.

Grateful because I have always felt secure about my place as a Jew in the American mainstream. While I've certainly gotten into heated discussions with people--primarily other Jews--about Israel or other Jewish topics, I've always felt supported by a larger network of voices. I've never felt alone. But during that quick conversation, I caught a glimpse of what it might be like for Jews from smaller communities elsewhere in the world for whom expressing their religion or their pro-Israeli views is a never-ending exercise in self-defense. A whiff of realization of what it might feel like to always be conscious of one's minority status. American Jews are lucky. Our community is strong and organized and not afraid—for better or worse--to speak out. We don’t feel the need to hide our kippot in public or our synagogues behind innocuous facades. We have a vast network to which we can turn to learn how to respond to anti-Israeli sentiment. While we might not all agree on what anti-Israeli sentiment sounds like, we all, especially today, can find a group from whom to draw confidence in our position as American Jews. Can the same be said for South American or European Jews? Based on anecdotal evidence, I’m skeptical.

Peter and I chose to end the conversation when we realized that a slightly tipsy discussion at a bar about the Middle East was not the best place to talk about such a sensitive topic. Plus, I, and perhaps he too, felt that a potential friendship was more important than an emotionally fueled argument with an outcome that could have left us both uncomfortable in each other's presence.

Thomas Friedman separates criticism of Israel into two categories: constructive and destructive. To him, constructive criticism is to acknowledge Israel and to view its actions within the larger context of the Middle East while looking for a real solution. Destructive criticism is to maintain the status quo and to single out Israel's destructive behavior while ignoring all others. While I think Peter’s views of Jews and Israelis falls into the destructive category, I wasn’t willing to take him on. Perhaps next time, I won’t have to. I’ll simply hand over Friedman’s op-ed and calmly ask if he wants to be part of the problem or part of the solution.