Last week I saw a news item that caught my curiosity. A group, calling itself 15 Minutes, published a report claiming that “Israel’s public transport failing to meet passenger needs”. Being involved in bus planning myself (in the Golan Heights) I read the article with a bit more knowledge than the average news consumer. The claims seemed exaggerated, but then, if there were not, it is probable that they wouldn’t have been published in the first place.
Here, just two weeks ago, there was an op-ed about Ethiopian Jewry “Ethiopian Israelis: Separate and Unequal” which ended with this paragraph:
Sadly, the JDC continues to be part of the separation policies exemplifying the government absorption authorities, according to which Ethiopian Israelis continue to be treated as immigrants even though most came to Israel over 20 years ago or were born in Israel.
Now, I have little knowledge of all the travails of the Ethiopian community, but there is a large community of immigrants in Ofra and since I have been here the last 35 years I definitely remember the excitement I felt when I first heard of Operation Shlomo. “Separation polices”?. Seems a bit harsh considering the efforts made first to bring so many immigrants at once and the continuing efforts to absorb and to bring more. Perhaps the criticism, while based on facts, was made more pointed in order to draw our attention?
Last week in Parshat Beha’alotcha demonstrates that exaggerated complaints are nothing new to us Jews. Walking to the Land of Israel? ” Not so fast”, we complained, “give us a break”. A steady diet of manna and water? “Where’s the Beef” , we cried. Cried indeed with entire families kvetching about for a cholesterol enriched diet saying ” we remember the fish that we ate for free in Egypt, the squashes, melons, leeks, onions and garlic”. Here the Rashi gets interesting. Complainers? Rashi says the purpose of their complaints is to slander or besmirch , and as for the “free fish” , Rashi asks sarcastically that if the Egyptians wouldn’t provide straw for the quota of mud bricks that the Children of Israel had to produce, then why should we believe that they were provided with a free meal?
So, I ask, why did we complain in the desert?
The desert is a rather monotonous place with few amenities and no luxuries. Wandering in the desert all of the People of Israel were (excluding the Levis with their responsibilities to carrying parts of the Tabernacle) basically equal. Food and water were perhaps provided but they were equally distributed. Clothes and shoes didn’t wear out and material possessions lost all meaning. So why complain? People complained in order to be heard. They complained in order to win their 15 minutes of fame.
This weeks Torah portion, Parshat Shelach, deals with the “spies” sent to tour the Land of Israel and here the exaggerations run wild. Grapes are not just grapes, but rather it takes two men to carry a bunch suspended on a pole between them. Figs are so large that it is one to a customer. And when the spies declare that the Land is unconquerable, the inhabitants become fearsome giants so that in comparison, the spies seem as if they were grasshoppers. Where is the truth?
The Torah says that the spies “slandered” the Land. Afraid of the task ahead they preferred to cause the People to revolt and to reject the Land of Israel, even to the point to returning to Egypt. Different motives can be ascribed to these fallen leaders, but not to their tactics. Exaggerate the bad, belittle the positive and you too can become a leader. As for Caleb Ben Yefuna and Joshua, they too exaggerate, but their intentions are different. “The Land is good” they say. “The Land is very, very good”.
Why two ” very” s? There was a sale? One isn’t enough? The Land is very good because it is a pleasant Land, with good produce, but the other “very” is there because the Land is also good for us. Just like those ads for organic vegetables, the Land of Israel is not only good tasting, but it is good for our health. Unlike Egypt where the water is supplied from canals, in Israel we are dependent on rain, and for it to rain, we must first pray and work for a just society. The real beauty of the Land is in the effort we must make to live in it and the connection to our Creator that results from living here.
Unfortunately the People did not listen to Caleb and Joshua and only divine intervention prevented them from being stoned by an angry mob. The result was a “crying of generations” as tradition holds that the night the People cried to return to Egypt was the evening of the Ninth of Av and was a sign that, in the future, Jews would mourn the loss of their Land and the bitterness of their Exile.
What do I learn from this? That it is good to be a bit circumscribed when airing our gripes. I will give Gil Yaakov and Shula Mola the benefit of the doubt: there are real problems in Israel and there is much we can improve upon , but the exaggeration is uncalled for. Racism? Unfortunately it does exist to some extent, although I can argue that (and excuse me, Malynnda Littky ) there is no comparing a stupid gaffe like that of Oded Tira to the institutionalized discrimination that existed in the USA 60 years ago. But just as 15 Minutes would not laud Mussolini for making the trains run on time, I’d keep my distance from the types like Richard Silverstein who slander Israel not in order to improve it, but rather in order to destroy it. There is constructive criticism and there is destructive criticism.
There may be no be absolute rules, but in my preference criticism should be in context and include recognition of efforts made to correct the “problem” when relevant. Another aspect is whether the complaints come from “professional critics” who not only get a salary to complain but are paid by the complaint. Worse, when such bodies get most of their budgets from outside of Israel then a case can be made that the complaints are a way to change Israel from without. After checking, I saw that Gil Yaakov was once active in Green Course, a New Israel Fund recipient, and 15 Minutes has a connection with Shatil. Shula Mola is chairwoman of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, which is also a NIF grantee, and of course so is Breaking the Silence. Is there a pattern here?
In this week’s Torah portion, G-d declares that all the blasphemers ( the Onkelos calls them “annoyers”) will not see the Land of Israel. My take on that is that when critics of Israel are so categorical that they can say nothing good, then they also can not “see” the real Israel. So blinded by hate, self interest and ulterior motives the real Israel, warts and all, becomes only a blight to be removed. Those are the Richard Silversteins of the world and from them we should keep our distance.