« September 2009 | Main | November 2009 »

Reclaiming Zuleikha

Some of you may remember that back in August I was part of a Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders. I blogged very briefly from the retreat, and later wrote an essay about the experience, which was published at Zeek: Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul.

The story we studied that week was the story of Joseph / Yusuf, as he appears in both the Torah (and later Jewish texts) and Qur'an (and later Muslim texts.) One of the most fascinating differences between "our" version of the story and "their" version of the story is the figure of Potiphar's wife, who in later tradition is known as Zuleikha.

One of my fellow retreatants asked me to contribute a brief reflection on Zuleikha as she appears (or doesn't appear) in Jewish text and tradition, for a four-voiced essay which would appear in AltMuslimah, an online magazine which "provides a space for compelling comment on gender in Islam from both the male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim, perspectives." (For more about AltMuslimah, you can read their mission statement and this introductory article.) That essay has now gone live. Here's how it begins:

In August, four scholars and a small group of Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders met to discuss the story of Joseph in the Qur’an and in the Bible. Here are four reflections, by two Muslim women and two Jewish women, about the significance of Zuleikha in the story and in their respective traditions...

Read the essay here: Zuleikha in the Qur'an and in the Bible.

All four contributors to the essay were participants in the retreat, and I'm honored that my voice appears alongside the voices of Asma T. Uddin, Homayra Ziad, and Marion Lev-Cohen. Thanks, Asma, for inviting me to be a part of this collaboration around our beloved, if sometimes challenging, shared story.


Anna Baltzer and Mustafa Barghouti on the Daily Show

There's an interesting post about Jon Stewart and the Middle East at Talking Points Memo: Jon Stewart Creates Sea Change on Middle East Coverage. (More reasons to love Jon Stewart! Not that I really needed any help in that department.)

On Wednesday night, October 28, as I was on my way home from the JStreet conference, the Daily Show aired an abbreviated interview featuring Mustafa Barghouti and Anna Baltzer, a Palestinian and a Jew who are working together as part of a broad-based movement toward Israeli/Palestinian peace. The full version of the interview can be seen online, and I'm embedding it here beneath the extended-entry link. It's in two parts; they add up to about 15 minutes of conversation.

Continue reading "Anna Baltzer and Mustafa Barghouti on the Daily Show" »


A round-up of other people's post-JStreet posts

I've been keeping an eye on my corner of the blogosphere in search of interesting reflections on the JStreet conference, and here are a few things I've found which I think are worth reading.

Kung Fu Jew asks Are you here for community or to build an effective lobby? I think he's right that some of us were there for community-building (the conference had almost a coming-out-of-the-closet feeling for many who'd long felt silenced around these issues) and some of us were there for political work and lobbying, and those two things don't always go neatly hand-in-hand, though I'm glad the conference made space for both.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz posts Reflections on the J Street Conference, part 1. She writes:

[T]he conference itself was much more than just a platform for advocating a very specific agenda; at this first gathering, there was an attempt to set a new tone and foster and encourage a culture of dialogue that could be taken back to our home communities.

From TPMCafe comes a story of an encounter with a young Palestinian man who despite pretty significant odds is dedicating himself to dialogue and peace. It's one hell of a story.

And the last commentary to which I'll point today comes from someone who wasn't at the conference but who offers rabbinic wisdom in linking the conference and its themes with the parashat ha-shavua (Torah portion of the week), Lech Lecha. This comes from the blog Doreshet, a recent addition to my blogroll and my aggregator. Doreshet notes that there's a kind of cosmic irony in this conference happening during this week:

If I had to point to the one part of the Bible that most explicitly articulated the Jewish people’s spiritual/mythic/emotional/ancestral connection with the Land of Israel, this would be it. God says, over and over and over again, that S/He is giving this land to Abraham and his descendants, forever and ever.

On the one hand, I can read this through my Reconstructionist lens and say that I don’t believe in a God who acts in history, that the stories in Tanakh are holy simply because they are our stories, and not because they document real events or constitute legally binding contracts. My historical-critical brain supports this, and tells me that stories like these were probably written as political propaganda, designed to cement the ascendancy of one group over another.

However. If that’s all I see when I read this, I think I lose something.

Read the whole post here: Lekh Lekha and JStreet.

I welcome links to other post-JStreet reflections -- feel free to share your own in comments.


Roundup of JStreet conference posts

I have nine posts -- roughly 32,000 words -- to offer from my two days of liveblogging the first JStreet conference. You can find all of them in the JStreet category, or use the handy chronological list which appears below:

Thanks to everyone who worked hard to make the conference a success, and to everyone who's been reading and following along via Velveteen Rabbi!


Reflections on the first JStreet conference

I'm writing this post on the train home from the first JStreet conference. Not surprisingly, I'm exhausted. (Oddly, I seem to have been the only very pregnant woman who decided to attend!) Still, I'm really glad to have been there. Like many other participants, I was amazed by the size of the crowd and the excited buzz of energy we generated in coming together. I suspect that most of us had never before been in such a large gathering of people who self-identify as "pro-Israel, pro-peace." It's exciting to think that together we can articulate a different way of relating to Israel.

My time in Israel last year gave me a sense of just how broken the situation is, and how urgent is the need for repair. The Occupation has been disastrous for Israel on levels both practical and spiritual. Unilateral actions like the building of what some call the "separation wall" and others call the "security fence" move the region further away from the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. So does the policy of supporting settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank (there are more than 300,000 settlers in the West Bank alone -- most of whom planted themselves there after the peace process was ostensibly underway, which has not given the Palestinians any trust in Israel's inclination to make peace.) And if a viable Palestinian state cannot arise, Israel herself is in deep trouble which can only worsen.

Primary responsibility for Israel's decisions lies in the hands of the Israeli government. But as a Jew with spiritual connection to the place, its people, and its history, and as an American whose tax dollars provide military support for Israel in its various choices, I feel both entitled and obligated to speak out when I understand that Israel's actions are making matters worse. I believe that a two-state solution is key to the healthy self-determination of both peoples, and that Israel's actions have often run counter to this goal -- as has support from the United States which fails to take these realities into account. It was remarkable to attend such a large gathering where these basic stances were largely shared.

On Tuesday afternoon, Israei politician Haim Ramon argued that the greatest threat to Israel's security is the status quo. If change doesn't come soon, the window for creating a peaceful resolution to this conflict will close, and the resulting "one-state solution" will be disastrous for Israel, which will have to choose between being a "Jewish state" and being a democracy where all citizens are enfranchised to vote. Hearing that was a powerful wake-up call. I suspect it's a message which most Americans, and specifically most American Jews, don't generally hear. I'm grateful to JStreet for creating a context within which these realities can be named.

Continue reading "Reflections on the first JStreet conference" »


Zeek moves Forward

Happy news: Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture (where I am, as y'all probably know, a contributing editor) has found a new online home with The Jewish Daily Forward, the biggest Jewish newspaper in the United States!

You can find Zeek's newest articles on the right-hand side of The Forward's home page, or you can go directly to zeek.forward.com. In celebration of the launch, we've put up some terrific new content -- which we will naturally continue to do.

We're deeply appreciative of the folks at Jewcy for giving us a temporary online home (to which we bade farewell a few weeks ago.) And our original url, zeek.net, will always point to wherever the magazine lives now.

Anyway: go and read, and enjoy!


[JStreet] Plenary session: Why Two States? Why Now?

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

I was a few minutes late to this session -- I'm pretty slow-moving at this stage in the pregnancy, and the Brit Tzedek v'Shalom Rabbinic Cabinet lunch was on another floor. By the time I got in, the large ballroom was entirely full; I wound up in an unofficial overflow room with a handful of other laptop users, and I missed the introduction, whatever it may have been. As the (three-hour-long!) session unfolded, it became clear that this is a three-part prorgram: first a keynote address from General Jones, then a panel of speakers offering Israeli perspectives on the need for a two-state solution, then a panel of speakers offering American perspectives on the same theme.

Photo by Dan Sieradski / mobius1ski, used with permission.

General James M. Jones begins by promising us that this administration will be represented at all future JStreet conferences, which draws wild applause from the room.

For going on six decades, General Jones says, the abiding friendship between the United States and Israel has been based on deep connections, "founded as much on personal experience as on geopolitics." Through countless interactions with Israelis in military and in private life, he's been blessed with many Israeli friends; his own exposure to Israel began when he was a young Marine training there in the early 1990s, and he's been impressed with the professionalism of the IDF ever since. He developed an understanding of Israel's unique security concerns and tried to bring that to his work serving as as special envoy for Middle East security.

His dream, he says, is to see peace in the Middle East. He says "without equivocation, Israeli security and Middle East peace are inseparable. Neither can exist without the other, and only a 2-state solution can provide the lasting dignity that people of both sides deserve." But time, he says, is not necessarily on our side. "The imperative for peace is now."

Continue reading "[JStreet] Plenary session: Why Two States? Why Now?" »


[JStreet] Dancing on the head of a pin: the role of rabbis

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

The next session I opted to attend was BRIT TZEDEK RABBINIC CABINET PRESENTS: Dancing on the Head of a Pin: The Role of Rabbis in the Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Movement. (It's a pretty natural fit for me, given that I'm in my fifth year of rabbinic school.) The session features Rabbi David J. Cooper, Kehilla Community Congregation, Piedmont, CA; Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, Pasadena, CA; Rabbi Toba Spitzer, Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, Newton, MA; and Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller, Congregation Sherith Israel, San Francisco, CA; Our moderator is Rabbi John Friedman, Judea Reform Congregation, Durham, North Carolina, chair of the Brit Tzedek v'Shalom rabbinic cabbinet.

"The only metaphor I know about dancing on the head of a pin is about angels," says R' Friedman, "so there may be some identity confusion here about what rabbis and cantors are!" There's laughter. "The Brit Tzedek rabbinic cabinet is made up both of rabbis and cantors, rabbinical students and cantorial students, and we number over 1000 nationwide."

"Why is a rabbinic cabinet necessary? What an rabbis do that others perhaps can't do from the same vantage point?" he asks. Rabbis and cantors represent Judaism, our faith, more than any other group can do; "we speak with knowledge of and understanding of Torah and a certain amount of access to our tradition." So when we go to lobby a congressman, "we come with a certain standing," and may garner a greater listening ear as a result. Ditto when we sign a letter that runs in a local or Jewish newspaper, taking a stand together with other rabbis or with our congregants. "And when we speak together in numbers, the power of our voice can't be underestimated."

We can support one another -- and we need to, because speaking our opinions can be risky. It can be dangerous "to speak what's in our hearts, what's in our minds, what's in our Torah about this conflictual and divisive subject." Three rabbis inspired him greatly when he was young: Steve, Sam, and William. "Steve gave a sermon about labor unions to a congregation filled with factory owners, and was almost fired for it. Sam took on the local corrupt political machine and almost got himself killed. And William became a civil rights advocate in the south and got his temple blown up. Their last names were Wise, Mayerberg, and Rothschild." We know who they are, he points out. We remember them for the risk they took took against their congregations' fears, the risk they took for what they believed was the right way." Brit Tzedek rabbis do this today.

Our first speaker is Rabbi David Cooper. He doesn't have time to give us personal background about his Zionist family or his experiences in Israel in 1967, how they rushed to see the West Bank before it was returned to the Palestinians as "a bargaining chip for peace." How the settlements troubled him even then. "Since the early 70s I've been at the center of the covnersation about the conduct of Israeli Arabs. For a short time I lost my faith in the Zionist dream, but as I contemplated what optios were open to us as Jews, I knew that Israel was a necessity and that its spirit pervaded my consciousness."

"My love of Israel and my prayers for its peace were joined by my concern for the Palestinian people and my prayers for the realization of their national aspirations," as long as those aspirations are consonant also with the existence of Israel. He's supported the two-state solution since before that solution had a name. For 40 years he's seen how any dissenting group on Israeli policy has been pilloried as anti-semitic or as furthering the destruction of Israel. "This morning I responded to an email on the Jewish Renewal rabbis' list serv that implied that JStreet should just admit that it's anti-Israel," he says, and the room makes distressed noises. "Even more insidious have been the efforts to contract the Jewish tent, to exclude those who have offered alternatives for Israel's peace and security. The extreme right is often included in the tent while the near left has often been excluded."

Continue reading "[JStreet] Dancing on the head of a pin: the role of rabbis" »


[JStreet] What Does It Mean to be Pro-Israel?

 I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

Today's first session for me is What Does It Mean to be Pro-Israel? The panel features Jonathan Chait, senior editor at the The New Republic alongside Matt Yglesias, Blogger at ThinkProgress.org, and is moderated by J. J. Goldberg from The Forward. (As a side note, before blogging the panel I wanted to mention that I read a short piece by Matt Yglesias recently called What's Driving the Jihad Against JStreet; the essay explores the question of why AIPAC and a certain segment of the American Jewish establishment are so agitated about JStreet when the founding of groups like Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom didn't even register on their radar. Anyway, it's worth a read.)

"This is an intensification of one of the underlying themes of the conference, which is 'what does it mean to be pro-Israel'," says moderator Goldberg. "We have with us two well-defined advocates on the issue."

Jonathan Chait is our first speaker. "I was invited here because I wrote a somewhat critical column about JStreet in the spirit of tough love," he says, but he wants to start off by talking about what he likes about JStreet and why the mission is important. (I think that column is Tough Love.)

"Any ethnic community has a tendency to certain pathologies, certain tribalistic ways of viewing the world; the Jewish community has this around Israel." Israel, in the Jewish community, plays a role analagous to the civil rights movement in the African-American community; it's become enshrined and hard to talk about. "Pro-Israel" has become defined as meaning "having maximal rightwing views on Israel," such that you can't be pro-Israel even if you're in the center of the mainstream of Israeli society! "You're considered extremely pro-Israel if you share the Christian Right definition, e.g. that Israel can't be allowed to cede one inch of the territory it controls...so it can help bring about a fiery inferno at the end of the world!"

The trouble, he says, is that the definition has become too loose. Anyone who says they have Israel's best interests at heart is defined as "pro-Israel," and we need to look at this usage more rigorously. Two people who have a good faith disagreement about the Middle East should not be able to co-opt this label for one side or the other, but in Chait's opinion, "a sensible definition of pro-Israel is someone who #1 historically believes that Israel is the more sympathetic party in the Middle East dispute... (and) that the fundamental problem in the Middle East is the failure of the Arab world to accept Israel's existence. [...] and 2) that the US should not have an even-handed posture in the Middle East but should be Israel's ally."

Chait sees it as a problem that some people -- Walt and Mearsheimer, Pat Buchanan, various bloggers with complicated views on Israel -- are embracing JStreet. He cites the story of poet Josh Yglesias who writes about how Jews have recreated our own history and now we're the oppressors/Nazis; the poet was going to give a reading here, but was disinvited by Jeremy Ben-Ami "on the most narrow grounds possible." (Fascinating; I've been reading a lot of voices who argue that disinviting the poet on the grounds of his Holocaust imagery verges on censorship and silencing and was a terrible move -- see Artistic freedom? J Street boycotts and sanctions poet Josh Healey -- but clearly the disinvitation is not strong enough for Chait. Speaking as a poet, I'm definitely bummed that Yglesias was disinvited; I would have liked to have heard the voices of a variety of poets on these issues.)

Continue reading "[JStreet] What Does It Mean to be Pro-Israel?" »


[JStreet] Plenary session: View from the Hill

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

The last formal session of my day is a plenary session entitled View from the Hill: Congress and the US-Israel Relationship, featuring Representatives Jan Schakowski (IL), Bob Filner (CA), Jared Polis (CO), and Charles Boustany (LA), moderated by former CNN correspondent Bob Franken. Big plenary sessions aren't usually my cup of tea; I tend to be more interested in smaller conversations, but since this was the only thing on the agenda at this hour (and I was actually able to get a seat in the room along with the other 1500 people here today), I figured it was worth a try.

Photo of Rep. Filner & Rep. Polis by Dan Sieradski, used with permission.

Bob Franken notes that he's here as a journalist -- "not to take one side or the other... what I want to be able to do is stand for an open airing of ideas from valid parties, which is what we journalists are supposed to be all about.

Representative Schakowsky begins by mentioning her support for a "secure and Jewish" state of Israel, and giving a shout-out to her rabbi. "From the earliest moment of her founding, the US has supported Israel," she says; a strong Israel is in US interest, as is peace in the region. Congressional support for Israel has been nearly universal over the years, even when the politics of various representatives differ. "After 61 years, Israelis live in a state of perpetual danger with only intermittent respite from deadly conflict. As Israel's best friend in the world, it is only natural that we would be debating how best to work toward longterm security." Her belief is that this involves a negotiated two-state solution. "The United States can, should, and must play a role." Also security means averting a nuclear arms race and bringing about a peaceful resolution to the problems caused by Iran's nuclear program.

"The obstacles to peace have been festering for a long time," she says, "but perpetual war is not the answer." President Obama enjoyed 79% of the Jewish vote, and has appointed George Mitchell as a special envoy to the region -- these are signs of his commitment to this cause. "The administration, and many of us, feel a sense of urgency," she tells us. "I am hopeful that the debate on what to do can be conducted within the Jewish community and within our country in a matter that acknowledges that differences of opinion do not reflect a difference of commitment to Israel."

Not surprisingly, this feels to me like grandstanding. She's a good speaker, but her remarks feel awfully "safe" to me. But part of what's fascinating is that these four speakers give me four different vibes, so read on:

Continue reading "[JStreet] Plenary session: View from the Hill" »


[JStreet] How We Stop Talking to Ourselves

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category. If you want to watch the conference as it unfolds, it's being streamed live here.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

I couldn't get into the plenary session, the "Jewish Community Town Hall" featuring Jeremy Ben-Ami (Executive Director, J Street) and Rabbi Eric Yoffie (President, The Union for Reform Judaism) -- the blogger lunch session ran long, and by the time I tried to get into the plenary session, both the big ballroom where it was happening and the overflow ballroom where the presentation was being simulcast were completely full and I couldn't find anywhere to sit, even on the floor. So I took a bit of a break to polish and post my notes from earlier sessions.

Next up: How We Stop Talking to Ourselves: Innovative Ways to Broaden the Conversation. This session features Ronit Avni, Founder and Executive Director of Just Vision; Malka Fenyvesi, Director of Interfaith Programming at Progressive Jewish Alliance and and Co-Director of NewGround, "A Muslim / Jewish partnership for change;" and Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, Co-founder and Co-Executive Director of Encounter. (A personal note: I had hoped to go on an Encounter program last summer while living in Israel, but the trip was canceled, so I had to find other ways to engage with the situation in the West Bank. I had the subsequent opportunity to meet R' Weintraub at the RHR-NA conference last December, where I attended her session on Torture in Jewish Laws and Values.)

Moderator Shawn Landres kicks us off explaining that he's CEO of Jumpstart, an incubator and think tank which favors initiatives which lead to an open and inclusive Jewish life and benefit broader Jewish society and the world. "I hope this is going to be a beneficial follow-up to the conversation we had in the plenary," he says -- Yoffie and Ben-Ami did a great job of modeling how to deal with issues where we may agree and issues where we may disagree. "So how do we engage people in our communities of all backgrounds and perspectives who wouldn't come to this conference?" How do we talk to people who may be hostile or indifferent to "the pro-Israel, pro-peace" movement?

The emphasis of the workshop will be on sharing specific models for reframing the conversation and drawing people one might not expect to be in the same conversation into that same conversation.

Rabbi Melissa Weintraub is up first. "How we stop talking to ouselves is the central question of my life," she says. It's the question behind the founding of Encounter, which brings Orthodox and Reform rabbis, national religious settlers and antioccupation activists and Palestinian families, together to talk about what's going on and what it means. "We're an organization whose very purpose is to enable and facilitate people who don't usually talk to each other, to talk to each other."

The big question is why. "Why bother? Why not just rally the troops that are here and run with the beauty and excitement of what's happening in this moment?"

Five years ago she found herself in a unique position, leading what felt like a double life. She was a 4th-year Conservative rabbinic student in Jerusalem, and in her 8th year of involvement in Israeli and Palestinian peace efforts. It was nearly impossible for Palestinians to enter Israel and vice versa, so if Israelis and Palestinians wanted to meet face to face they met in Cypress or in Maine. The reality was one of "polarization and separation," not only among Israelis and Palestinians but also those of us engaging in the conflict, near and far. She spent that fall shuttling back and forth between Palestinian living rooms and Machon Shechter. There was very little contact between young activists on both sides. "Worlds literally down the street from each other but mutually invisible. Cocoons with no interaction but complete mutual impact."

Continue reading "[JStreet] How We Stop Talking to Ourselves" »


[JStreet] Unofficial Israeli-Palestinian Blogger Lunch Session

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category. If you want to watch the conference as it unfolds, it's being streamed live here.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

One of the unofficial JStreet events about which I've been most excited is the Israel-Palestine Blogger Panel orchestrated by Richard Silverstone of Tikun Olam and Jerry Haber of The Magnes Zionist, which apparently got some pretty negative press in the JTA (see JTA Attacks Israel-Palestine Blogger Panel.) The line-up of panelists includes:

Phil Weiss (Mondoweiss) -- Jerry Haber (Magnes Zionist) -- Richard Silverstein (Tikun Olam) -- Dan Sieradski (formerly of Jewschool) -- Helena Cobban (Just World News) -- Max Blumenthal (Daily Beast) -- Laila el Haddad (Gaza Mom) -- Matt Duss (Think Progress) -- Joseph Dana (Ibn Ezra) -- Mark J. Levey (Daily Kos) -- Sydney Levy (Muzzlewatch, Jewish Voice for Peace) -- and Jesse Hochheiser (Across the Border)

-- a pretty impressive range of voices and opinions. These folks are pretty much guaranteed to disagree on some important issues, which is part of why I'm so pleased to see them all in one room. There are also two remote bloggers participating via Skype: Joseph Dana (Ibn Ezra) and Ray Hanania (Ray Hanania's Blog).

"The 3 topics I wanted to deal with," explains Richard Silverstein, "were Iran -- nuclear crisis and all the permutations of that; the Occupation, the Goldstone report, etc; and the relationship of the broad Left Jewish-blogosphere, the Israel/Palestine blogosphere, and JStreet, and how we're going to interact with each other as loyal opposition and give each other room to present our own opinions and to disagree respectfully." (All this over lunch! There's some wry laughter around the room.)

Continue reading "[JStreet] Unofficial Israeli-Palestinian Blogger Lunch Session" »


[JStreet] How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together For Peace

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category. If you want to watch the conference as it unfolds, it's being streamed live here.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together For Peace, featuring Greg Khalil, President and Co-Founder, The Kairos Project; Salam Al-Marayati, Executive Director, Muslim Public Affairs Council; Mark Pelavin, Associate Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Maureen Shea, Former Director, Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations and former Churches For Middle East Peace Chair.

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling introduces the session; he's part of The Shalom Center which works for peace in the Middle East, peace for human beings and for the environment; the org has long been involved in this wor through its annual Tent of Abraham celebration and through the work of (my teacher) Rabbi Arthur Waskow who would be here today except that he was in a devastating car accident some weeks ago and is still rehabilitating from that experience.

"Jews, Muslims, and Christians clearly have a long connection to what is known to some as the Holy Land," says Rabbi Liebling. Our three communities can work together to bring peace; how to do that will be the subject of this morning's panel. There are challenges to our communities working together in this country to bring peace, but we need to remember that at its origins this is not a religious conflict but rather a territorial one. "Religion can be used to remind us all of the interconnection and interdependence of all humanity."

Moderator Ron Young from the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East begins with "There are still people who say, if were going to talk about peace in the Middle East, for God's sake keep religion out of it!" He tells a story about getting together in 1987 ago with a group of fifty leaders from all three traditions to begin this work, all of whom agreed that they weren't sure how this kind of peace work was possible but all felt called by their religious traditions to begin doing the work.

At that session, a prominent Palestinian businessman named Sami [I missed his last name -- anyone?] from Kansas City said "I have long had the deepest respect for Judaism but I have a bitter hatred for Zionism." Rabbi Arnie Wolf said, "I have never met Sami before; I hope we can work together for peace; but the left side of my heart is Judaism and the right side of my heart is Zionism and I can't take my heart apart for Sami or anyone else." The encouraging thing that happened at the coffee break, says Young, is that no one left the room, and Sami and Arnie headed straight for each other and engaged in intense dialogue. That kind of thing happened repeatedly, and at the end of 2 days these 50 religious leaders endorsed a two-state solution and spoke out in favor of self-determination for both communities.

The format for the session is this: first Ron Young will ask some big questions for all of the panelists to answer, then we'll begin to work from questions written down on index cards by people in the room. Here's the first of those bg questions:

In the last few years, there's been a convergence of advocacy positions among a range of groups in DC which heretofore had found each other problematic, simplistically pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. The American Task Force on Palestine; Americans for Peace Now; the Arab-American Institute; Churches for Middle East Peace; Brit Tzedek v'Shalom; the Muslim Affairs Council -- we've mostly been on the same page in terms of what we advocate the US Government should do. My question to the panelists is: the scene locally is not always the same as it is nationally. So these forces, which are significant nationally, are very significant but locally it gets messier. It is more complicated. I want each of you to comment on reminding us why you think this religious dimension is important, and talk a bit about the scene locally as you see it: what advice you have for people who want to work together. And also, think about how if some other community is going to work with our community, here are some things you should be cautious about or sensitive to.

Our first respondent is Mark Pelavin. "The local scene is as different as there are localities," he says. The diversity of discussion in communities is fascinating to him, and how different the conversation is in different places, how it's driven by the strengths and weaknesses of individuals in various communities. "The local level is where the most interesting things are happening, and also where the worst things are happening," he says.

Continue reading "[JStreet] How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together For Peace" »


[JStreet] West Bank Settlements: Obstacles on the Road to Peace

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category. If you want to watch the conference as it unfolds, it's being streamed live here.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

AMERICANS FOR PEACE NOW PRESENTS: West Bank Settlements: Obstacles on the Road to Peace - A View From the Ground and From the Diplomatic Arena

Featuring Akiva Eldar, Chief Political Columnist and Editorial Writer, Ha'aretz; Hagit Ofran, Director, Settlement Watch, a project of Peace Now; and Scott Lasensky, Senior Research Associate, Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, United States Institute of Peace.

Finding the hotel and registering was more of a challenge than I expected, so I entered this session about 20 minutes late. My deep thanks to Jerry Haber (Magnes Zionist) for yielding his chair to the visibly pregnant lady (that'd be me) -- you can't begin to imagine how much I appreciated having a place to sit in this overcrowded room! (And wow, is the room full; every seat is filled and people are crowded into standing room as though this were a subway car at rush hour. Near as I can tell, the other 4 sessions are also this packed.)

"There are people who believe in the two-state solution -- like President Obama. People on the other side of the aisle are undermining Zionism," says Akiva Eldar. A few weeks ago, a settler was invited to a discussion; he was Netanyahu's chief of staff during his first term as PM. He said the following: "The land of Israel is like my wife. The state of Israel is the cleaning lady. I have married my wife. If I had to choose between the two, I would choose my wife." Which means: the land of Israel is the most important thing; the state of Israel is in a way an instrument to me. It's not part of my ideology.

There are, he says, ideological settlers; Hareidi settlers who are becoming the majority of settlers in the Occupied Territories and Gaza; there are those who are happy to get compensation to move into the territories. "Some with time get more addicted to the ideology...you need to justify, emotionally and rationally, your existence there." The declaration of independence, he says, "suggests that Israel is to be Jewish, democratic, safe. [The question is] If the settlements are helping Israel to reach those different visions, or not?"

Continue reading "[JStreet] West Bank Settlements: Obstacles on the Road to Peace " »


On my way to JStreet

I posited a few days ago that I would likely be the only person going from Pop!Tech to JStreet. It turns out I was wrong about that. I met one person at my first conference who's going to be at my second one -- Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, whose film Control Room knocked my socks off a few years ago.

Jehane pointed me to an article which I wanted to share with y'all: Nightmare on J Street by Rebecca Abou-Chedid. Abou-Chedid, who is Lebanese-American, made a donation to JStreet. Former AIPAC and Israeli embassy official Lenny Ben-David wrote something denouncing both JStreet and Abou-Chedid for her support of the organization. Here's a taste of Abou-Chedid's response:

It is possible to be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, not out of some blanket support for either government, but out of a sincere belief that peace is in both people's best interests.

...The reason J Street causes such fury among certain detractors often has nothing to do with its policy positions. These people are angry because the political climate has shifted in a way that they no longer understand or control. The generation that elected President Obama is not interested in being divided based on religion or ethnic heritage. We are not interested in a zero-sum game. We believe our elected officials must play a leadership role in brokering a two-state solution to this conflict, and that Arab and Jewish Americans must work together to support them. How can anyone profess to believe in a two-state solution, in which Israelis and Palestinians will live side by side, if they view with suspicion Arab and Jewish Americans working together to get there?

Read her whole essay here.

I'm on a train to Washington, DC today (I set this up to auto-post while I'm en route) -- next time you hear from me I'll be at the conference. I won't be liveblogging as comprehensively as Ethan and I did from Pop!Tech, but I hope to get a few posts up over the next few days. Please bear with me if I'm not able to moderate  or respond to comments promptly; my online time is likely to be limited and while I'm at the conference I want to spend as much time as I can connecting with others who are there. If you're at the conference and you see a very pregnant woman in a rainbow kippah, that's me: come and say hi!


Mark O'Connor and Ruby Jane Smith: virtuosos of American fiddle

I'm tag-teaming today, as I did yesterday, with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

"One of the country's, and the world's most accomplished, inventive, and personally generous master fiddle players," says Andrew Zolli, introducing Mark O'Connor (Pop!Tech bio; website.)

CC photo; O'Connor practices in the Green Room before coming onstage.

O'Connor's fiddle playing is fast, virtuosic, lyrical, like the rush of notes pouring from a wood thrush's throat. It's mesmerizing, somewhere between classical music and something I wish I knew how to dance to. The piece he's playing keeps shifting, a sonic patchwork quilt with all sorts of influences and more different time signatures than I can count.

Many of the early motifs return, by the end, giving me the sense that we've come full circle. Through key changes and almost unthinkably fast waterfalls of notes, we're all mesmerized.

When he stops playing, O'Connor tells us that his presentation is going to be about how natural habitat interfaces with music education. The piece he just played was commissioned for the bicentennial of Tennessee, about 15 years ago; it's called "The Mockingbird," which is Tennessee's state bird.

"The next piece has to do with the ocean," O'Connor says, and with how waves reach the shoreline, each one carving a chapter in the history of the ocean. He hopes we'll hear solitude, drama, hope. "While I'm playing this I'll think about the earlier presentation about the albatross on Midway island." (He's referring to Chris Jordan’s photos of plastic inside an albatross at Midway Atoll, seen here on Thursday. You can see some of them here.)

This one starts out slow and melancholy. Maybe it's because I've been tipped off beforehand, but I can imagine this accompanying a walk along a cold, windswept north Atlantic beach. After a time the tempo picks up, like the wind raising itself into a squall, and runs of notes crest like whitecaps. The piece ends with a long slow rise toward silence, and at first the crowd hesitates, hoping for more before we applaud.

Continue reading "Mark O'Connor and Ruby Jane Smith: virtuosos of American fiddle" »


Naif Al-Mutawa brings multicultural superheroes to life

I'm tag-teaming today, as I did yesterday, with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

"Sometimes giving the right information at the right time can create change," says Andrew Zolli. "Our next presenter is engaged in a 'meta-cultural hack.'" Naif Al-Mutawa (Pop!Tech bio; here's his standard bio) is the creator of THE 99 -- the first group of superheroes born of an Islamic archetype. (You can download a pdf of The 99: Origins for free here if you're interested.) Al-Mutawa is speaking as part of the Meaningful Engagements session this afternoon.

Here's an animated trailer for "The 99: Origins." This is not the trailer for the forthcoming animated series, which has much higher production values, but that latter trailer doesn't seem to be online, alas.

"I'm from Kuwait; I'm disappointed, I'm not getting the love for oil in this room," Al-Mutawa quips, and everyone laughs. He's father and step-father of seven children, all born in New York. Al-Mutawa's five boys (and his step-children from his wife's previous marriage) attend Camp Robin Hood, which is not far from here. His own parents sent him there in 1979. "Back then the best we could do for television in Kuwait was...maybe catching a glimpse of something from Baghdad." He had no idea what Fantasy Island was; other pop cultural references likewise went over his head. When he got home, he told his parents about his friends: Steinberg, Greenberg, Goldberg. His parents asked, where are they from? Kids at the camp had joked that these were nice Italian names, so that's what Al-Mutawa told his father!

The next year his parents sent him to a camp in Switzerland -- but within a year he was back at Camp Robin Hood. He went there for 10 years, and his sons go there now. "It was there that I started to navigate self and other, how I'm seen, how others see me." (You can read more of this story in Al-Mutawa's essay Concentration Camps and Comic Books.)

Continue reading "Naif Al-Mutawa brings multicultural superheroes to life" »


Marije Vogelzang brings a designer's eye to thinking about food

I'm tag-teaming today, as I did yesterday, with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

"To complete this trio of investigations into food, we're going to shift perspective," says Zolli. Marije Vogelzang "looks with an artist's eye at what it means to bring mindfulness and artfulness to the act of putting this wonderful stuff into our bodies."

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

Marije Vogelzang (Pop!Tech bio, homepage) is part of the Edible Futures module. She studied design at Eindhoven Design Academy in Holland, where she went to workshops in ceramics and plastic molding. "In the end, I find myself back in the kitchen -- I open my cupboards and say, wow, I have lots of materials here! I see my kitchen tools, these are my workshop tools. Food is a material to work with."

People think this means she's a food designer. She wondered: if she would be a food designer, would that imply that she designs food? Food is perfectly designed by nature. Imagine a red cabbage sliced in two: it's perfect. "I'm more interested in the verb of eating, what food does to your body, what food does to your mind, what food does to people in general." She wants to apply design ideas and creative thinking to these questions.

Continue reading "Marije Vogelzang brings a designer's eye to thinking about food" »


Michael Pollan's gospel of sustainable food

I'm tag-teaming today, as I did yesterday, with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

"This is one of the sessions I've been most looking forward to," says Andrew Zolli, calling it a session of "incredible bounty." (He adds that he is a "recovering hyperbolic," given how often he calls things here 'incredible' and 'wonderful' -- though it does seem to me that often as not, sessions here really do fit that bill.) "It's hard not to use those words when describing the impact that our next presenter has had on the world. Michael Pollan has changed, fundamentally, the way many of us understand what we eat, how it's made, how it gets to us." By the way, Pollan's book The Botany of Desire has been made into a PBS documentary which will air next week, on October 28th at 8pm Eastern, so if you don't know it, check it out on PBS.

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

Michael Pollan (Pop!Tech bio) appears as part of the Edible Futures module. "I brought us lunch as we approach the lunch hour," says Pollan, putting a McDonald's bag on the podium, "and like Chekhov's gun on the mantel, we'll see if it gets eaten."

A few years ago he set out to conduct an investigation and trace a McDonald's double quarter-pounder with cheese back to its origins. He bought a steer, Steer #534, in South Dakota and followed him to a feedlot. "I had never been to a feedlot." If we haven't been to see one of these, he says, we must go. "It's one of the most hideous landscapes in the 20th century." This is where our burgers come from.

But he realized when he was there that he had to go further still. Burgers come from corn and soyfields in the Midwest, where feed is grown. From ther ehe had to go further, to oilfields from the Middle East because feed is grown with petroleum-based pesticides. The burger can be traced all the way there.

The food chain is not only complex but implicated in three of the most serious problems we face: the energy crisis, the health care crisis, and the climate crisis. 20% of the fossil fuel we burn in this country goes to feed ourselves, to produce this processed food. Five hundred billion dollars of health care costs go to preventable chronic diseases linked to our diet. And a third of greenhouse gases are produced by the food system. This is "not a pretty picture or a happy meal."

Continue reading "Michael Pollan's gospel of sustainable food" »


Nicholas Felton wants to know what we are saying.

I'm tag-teaming today, as I did yesterday, with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

Nicholas Felton (Pop!Tech bio) "has been deeply categorizing his own life," says Andrew Zolli. "We started a conversation not only about his work but about how we react to all of these messages. We decided to work together on an interesting project, involving Nick's work, looking at the impact of these messages on our conversation -- which I'm excited for you to hear about."

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

"I've become fairly well known for the Feltron Personal Annual Report," Felton explains. (Find it at Feltron.com.) In 2005 he summarized his year in this document which appeared online -- where he'd gone, some of the food he'd eaten, the music he'd listened to. For some reason it traveled well beyond those circles; design bloggers were entertained, stock brokers found it amusing. The following year he created a print version, and started working harder at documentation. In 2007 he printed 2000 copies and found an audience willing to purchase it.

All the streets he'd traveled down in New York (taxi routes and so forth), eating and drinking and dining: all of these things are mapped-out. The report became increasingly elaborate in 2008: he chronicled everywhere he'd traveled that year. "My primary interest in 2008 was determining how far I'd traveled" -- walking, flights, a stray hayride, chairlifts (up and down.) "This has become increasingly popular," and it's since turned into a web application, Daytum.com.

Felton worked with Rob Deeming and Ken Reisman on a project called What we are saying. (Ken has created pluribo.com, which looks at Amazon reviews of products and summarizes them into something short and digestible.) The three of them decided to look at America over the course of a single week: July 27 through August 3, 2009. They analyzed NYTimes front pages, analyzing the Times and other sources for keywords. (Looking at a set of screencaps of those front pages, the prevalence of health care headlines is particularly noticeable.)

Continue reading "Nicholas Felton wants to know what we are saying." »