The Damage of Seeing

While impeachment hearings have consumed the attention of the nation, the Senate this week held an inquiry into a possible new law on privacy. The inspiration for the bill is the California Consumer Privacy Act, which was passed last year and is set to go into effect January 1, 2020. While the California law will only cover companies doing business in that state (which of course includes many large tech firms), the Senate bill would bring uniformity to how our personal data is handled nationally.

The new federal bill may incorporate elements from the California act as well as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which went into effect in 2018. In the digital world, information about us is portable anywhere on the globe, so the rules written in Brussels or Sacramento may affect me here in New Jersey.

Data privacy is a major issue in all of our lives as our phones, computers and credit cards record each and every action we take. Maybe you have felt the creepiness of a company targeting you based on your location or past behavior. One of the craziest stories is that of how Target found out a teenage girl was pregnant before her father.

As human beings, we have always been concerned about our privacy, but in the past it was a more personal issue. Rabbi David Golinkin writes about the Jewish sources on the privacy by looking to neighbor relations. He notes that there is a concept called “’hezek r’iyah’ or damage caused by looking”. One is not allowed to build a window in your house that will look into the window of someone else’s home.

The idea of hezek r’iyah implies that even if you don’t do anything with personal information obtained about someone else, there is a problem merely with seeing something private. No one wants to feel as if they are being watched without their consent. A company with access to my data may not sell it to others or use it to market to me, but just having it in the first place may be harmful.

The rabbis in the Talmud were so concerned about privacy that they advised people to announce themselves when they walk into another person’s home. They even go so far as to instruct us to provide a warning when entering our own home. Perhaps the sages had teenagers who needed privacy from their parents too.

In ancient times our concern may have been nosy neighbors, not companies with algorithms that analyze our data, but the affect was the same. As human beings we want to feel comfortable in our private space, and as technology continues to advance, perhaps we can look to old wisdom to help find ways to keep us secure in the digital age.

Timeless, but Invented

Thanksgiving is a holiday that brings us together, something we celebrate each year in Lawrenceville with our annual interfaith service. This year our gathering was held at the Islamic Circle of Mercer County, and it was a wonderful chance for people of many faiths and backgrounds to celebrate American values.

But what are those values we celebrate on Thanksgiving? The story that we commemorate is that of the Pilgrims and American Indians joining together for a meal of thanks and unity. Its a holiday that Jews can get behind because it makes scant reference to Christianity or other religious traditions.

The funny thing about holidays and their customs is that they feel timeless, yet they were all invented at one point. Thanksgiving was created specifically to bind the country together. It was championed by a woman named Sarah Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, who in the 19th century wanted a holiday that celebrated hearth and home, the domestic sphere of food and family.

Thanksgiving was also designed to reinforce the Protestant heritage of America at a time of intense immigration of Jews and Catholics from Europe, who may not have shared the same values as native born citizens. The brilliance of the holiday is that it could be embraced by the newcomers who might add a lasagna or latkes to the meal, but were willing to adopt the ethos of Thanksgiving.

Of course, the Protestants were once newcomers to this land too, which makes the history of Thanksgiving problematic. That first gathering in 1621 was not, in fact, a celebration of giving thanks. The Puritans actually gave thanks through fasting and prayer. Instead, on that fall day when the Wampanoag tribe came to visit, the two groups were celebrating a mutual self-defense pact, which would soon be broken as the European settlers eventually killed or drove out the native population of New England.

How can we be honest about our history as a nation and still celebrate Thanksgiving? Perhaps we should do away with the kids’ pageants full of tall pilgrim hats and Indian headdresses. Instead we can tell the complicated story of our nation’s founding, and connect students to the living Native American community, including the Wampanoag tribe, which is still around today.

After all, Thanksgiving has been reinvented often over the years, each time to fill a need. There was the Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade, a celebration of American commerce, and the introduction of football into the traditionally feminine holiday. Who knows what Thanksgiving will look like in a hundred years. It will be different, but no doubt relevant to the needs of times.

For Your Own Good

In September 1974 President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor, Richard Nixon, for any crimes he may have committed during the Watergate scandal. The decision was controversial, with some raising the possibility that Nixon had resigned only on the condition that his successor, Ford, would grant him a pardon (the 1970s version of the quid pro quo). Many felt that Ford had short circuited the course of justice.

Ford himself felt that he was doing the right thing for the country, that America was being torn apart by the Watergate scandal, and he was in a position to put an end to the strife. The dilemma before Ford was an interesting one because it may have cost him the election of 1976. His initial popularity for not being Nixon plummeted after the pardon. One could argue that Ford put what he felt was the good of the country above his own political future.

I thought about this political moment from history as I learned that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be tried for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases. Netanyahu was defiant in the face of the indictment and refused to resign. Obviously, he believes his decision is in the best interest of Israel, but not all agree.

David Horovitz, the founding editor of The Times of Israel, argues in an op-ed that Netanyahu should resign for the good of the country. Such a resignation would serve another purpose as well. Without Netanyahu as head of the Likud party, there is a stronger chance of a national unity government, which would avoid an insane third national election in less than a year.

About six months ago I wrote that Israel and America are in similar situations, with leaders facing charges of corruption and asked the question, “What is the remedy when the leader of the nation uses his office for personal political gain?” The president or prime minister is the chief law enforcement officer of the country. Whether guilty or innocence, when he disparages the judicial system as engaging in an attempted coup and asks his supporters to choose him over the state, everyone suffers.

Nations are simply not equipped to easily deal with a head of government who thinks the government is out to get him. The ancient rabbis, in Pirkei Avot (1:8), their collection of advice to future rabbinic leaders, they caution the judge not to “play the part of an advocate”, that is, stay in your lane. The leader must be above reproach, not one who takes sides, and certainly not one who puts his hands on the scales for his own gain.

It may not have been the smartest decision, or even the correct one for the country, but I hope that these thoughts are what entered Ford’s head 45 years ago when he pardoned Nixon. In times like these, when the fate of democracy hangs in the balance, we need leaders who choose the good of the nation over their own.

The Enemy of My Enemy

My son is in Israel right now, studying at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel as part of his curriculum at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. For most of the last three months we have gotten reports of hikes, field trips and other amazing experiences. Unfortunately, this week he received a first-hand understanding of a reality of Israeli life – the threat of rocket attack from Gaza.

Fortunately no one has been killed in Israel by the hundreds of missiles launched into the country by the Islamic Jihad terrorist group. My son’s program did have to cancel a planned trip to Tel Aviv because of the threat which had reached all the way to the center of the country. Usually rockets only reach communities in the south.

While Ronen only felt inconvenience at a schedule change, Israelis were reminded of the constant threat that exists at their border. At any moment, terrorists can rain down rockets, and while the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system has been effective, there is always the chance that a stray projectile will make it through and do major damage.

Palestinian civilians too felt the danger as Israeli air strikes retaliated against the rocket barrage. Fortunately a cease fire seems to be holding, and the region has gone back to relative quiet after a round of fighting that began after Israel killed a senior leader of Islamic Jihad.

From the outside, these bursts of conflict all seem the same. Some event lights the match, and the fighting burns as each side reacts to the other. It doesn’t matter which terrorist organization is involved, the cycle seems to repeat itself. How many of us can really distinguish between Hamas, Islamic Jihad or Fatah?

Avi Issacharoff argues, however, that this time there is a key difference. Usually when Islamic Jihad fires rockets, Israel responds by striking Hamas targets, since as the rulers of Gaza they have responsibility for keeping their rival group in line. The problem is that Hamas is then drawn into the conflict because they feel they must respond in kind.

This week, Israel only struck Islamic Jihad targets and Hamas stayed out of the fray, leading to a fairly quick ceasefire. Issacharoff suggests that Hamas was happy to have Israel eliminate a trouble-making leader of a rival organization, and that there was even “indications of cooperation between Israel and Hamas”.

Who knows what these developments may mean since neither Israel nor Hamas have ever acknowledged working together; no one wants to admit to talking to the enemy. Perhaps there will be avenues for overtures in the future between Hamas and Israel. At the very least, Israel may have found a successful method of dealing with at least one adversary. Sometimes, even temporarily, the enemy of my enemy can be my friend.

Planting for My Descendants

Intergenerational conflict has been the hallmark of American life for the last hundred years or so. Each generation rebels against the one before it. Children resent their parents and try to strike out on a new course that challenges old assumptions while parents scoff at young people who dismiss tried and true values.

Today these struggles manifest in the latest Internet meme where members of Generation Z, those born in the late 1990s and after, respond to complaints by older people with the phrase “OK boomer”, the equivalent of the exasperated eye roll, a dismissive “whatever” to the disapproval of their elders.

While generations have always been in opposition, the “OK boomer” phenomenon has a distinct political context. It is a response to criticism that Generation Z has unrealistic expectations about the future of the country and the planet. When older people complain that teenagers naively think they can solve the climate crises, income inequality and massive student loan debt with sweeping revolutionary reforms, the response is often a dismissive “OK boomer”.

Many in Generation Z are not only looking to make their own way and create distance between themselves and their elders. They also blame those older than themselves for a bleak state of affairs that requires massive repair. The irony is that the Boomer Generation, which is now seen as out of touch, was likely the most revolutionary age group in American history, one that broke countless social norms.

Some young people are uninterested in hearing the advice of their elders because they believe previous generations are responsible for our current situation, echoing the phrase from the 1960s, “don’t trust anyone over 30”. While it is certainly true that we live in chaotic and alienating political times when polarization seems to make any real change next to impossible, we would do well to contemplate Judaism’s teaching on intergenerational conflict.

Rabbinic tradition places a great deal of emphasis on respecting ones elders. Young students are recognized as the future, but they were expected to serve their teachers, whom they referred to as masters, in order to gain wisdom. The older generation has deep experience that it can impart to youth.

At the same time, the elders are expected to focus their efforts on those who will ultimately inherit the world. The Talmud (Ta’anit 23a) tells the tale of Honi HaMe’aggel, who was walking on the road and met a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man when the tree would bear fruit and was told, “Not for another 70 years.” So Honi asked him, “Why bother planting it since you can’t possibly benefit from it?” The man answered “[I myself] found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.”

Each generation has its own unique qualities, experiences and needs, but we all live on the same earth together. Young people would do well to listen to the wisdom of their elders, while the old would do well to consider how their actions have affected, and will continue to affect, the future of the young.

Loyal to a Fault

The Jewish people just can’t get away from the accusations of dual loyalty. A few months ago it was a Democratic congresswoman implying that Jews were more interested in serving Israel’s interests than America’s. Today it is the right accusing a decorated Army officer of allegiance to his homeland. Except this time the homeland is not the Jewish state, but rather, implausibly, Ukraine.

The disparaging of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman is not only baseless; it also betrays a complete ignorance of the Soviet Jewish émigré community in America. The ridiculous charge is that Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union in the 1970s, is somehow serving the interests of Ukraine against the president.

As Alex Zeldin, whose family also emigrated from the Soviet Union, explains in an article in the Washington Post, Vindman’s father came to the US in order to flee the a society that that treated Jews as second class citizens whose loyalty to the state must always be in question.

Zeldin sketches the history of the Soviet Jewish community, which was much more assimilated than the community before the 1917 Revolution. American Jews whose ancestors can from Russia think of shtetl life and Yiddish when they think of the old country, but as the 20th century progressed, Soviet Jews moved to the cities and abandoned the mamaloshen.

These Soviet Jews tried to integrate as much as possible into the wider society, just like their coreligionists in America, but while anti-Semitism decreased over time in the US, it became semi-official policy in the USSR. Vindman’s father brought his children to this country so they could have a better life and pursue any opportunity, even one like a national security career normally closed to Soviet Jews.

The irony is that the people in the country opening its doors to Jewish refugees often don’t understand the complexities of identity in Europe. Lt. Col. Vindman may have come from Ukraine, but it would be more accurate to describe him as Jewish than Ukrainian in the same way that it was odd when the Bernie Sanders campaign emphasized his “Polish” background.

My maternal grandfather was a refugee from Vienna, having been arrested during Kristallnacht and imprisoned in Dachau. When he came to the Kitchener Camp for Refugees in England in 1939 he was told to limit his use of the German language when outside the facility. The camp authorities knew that anti-German sentiment was high and locals might not realize that two people speaking German on the street are actually refugees fleeing the Nazis rather than enemy spies.

Unfortunately then, as now, ignorance and deliberate deception fuels our politics, and Jews are often an easy scapegoat. When you can’t refute the substance of someone’s argument it’s simpler to smear their reputation and identity, even if the line of attack is absurd.

Context is Everything

The Jewish world just completed one of our three pilgrimage holidays, Sukkot, called by the ancient rabbis “the Festival”. It was a time when, according to tradition, all of Israel would assemble at the Temple in Jerusalem for the observance of the holiday. Underneath the streets of modern Jerusalem, archeologists have uncovered a street that may have been the path used by Jews to get to that most holy place.

Like everything in Israel, unearthing an ancient street there is complicated. It lies below an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, and the project is sponsored by a right-wing organization whose mission it is to expand the Jewish presence in the city. I have seen part of this road, called either the “Stepped Street” or the “Pilgrim’s Path”, and it is quite something to lay eyes on buried flagstones that haven’t seen the light of day since the destruction of the Temple and which were perhaps used in ceremonies described in the Talmud.

The excavations raise difficult questions. In Israel, archeology has always be used for ideological ends. In the 19th century Christian scholars flocked to the land to discover the roots of their faith. In the 20th and 21st centuries Israeli scholars have searched for proof of the Bible and evidence of the Jewish people’s connection to the land. At the same time, the field of archeology has grown as a science, committed to dispassionate inquiry and discovery.

Should an archeologist go looking to find evidence which proves his or her beliefs? This question crops up in a number of different ways. How should we name the various periods of history? For example, should we call it the early Biblical period or the Iron Age? Since archeology works in layers, should we focus on the strata of Jewish history and ignore the rest?

In fact, one of the controversies of the Stepped Street dig is that the layers are not being examined in the most optimal form. Normally a dig is conducted by removing strata one by one, working from the top down so that the archeologist can study the finds in their proper context. Since the Stepped Street is under a living neighborhood, the researchers have to use a reinforced tunnel and dig horizontally, which may impede the ability of scholars to place pieces in their correct time period.

In archeology, as in life, context is critical. To pull something out of the earth, without knowing where it came from and when it was placed there, is of little use to science. I recently read an article about the ancient epic poem “Gilgamesh”, which is a very old work, but was pulled out of the ground only a few hundred years ago. In that sense it is actually very new, without a tradition of interpretation like the Bible. Scholars are still not quite sure what “Gilgamesh” means because it came to use mostly out of context.

The Bible, on the other hand, is itself the basis of our religious tradition. It is the context for so much of our culture, which is why Biblical archeology so fascinates us. Each time an exciting new discovery is found in the dust of the land of Israel, the text seems to come alive, lending more contour to a work that has shaped our world.