More on “Southern Exposure”

Readers of Gershom’s last post may be interested in an article I published in Nature last year on Elad’s role in running the site of the City of David excavations.

As I reported in the same journal earlier this month, a group of Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists recently unveiled a draft agreement about how archaeological sites and artifacts would be treated under a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

As Gershom notes, every historical or archaeological site can provide the basis for a variety of different stories. True, archaeological artifacts and sites provide hard facts that limit the kinds of stories you can tell. A Palestinian scholar who proclaimed that City of David structures dating from the eighth or ninth century BCE were actually from the early Islamic period would have a hard time getting anyone to take his case seriously because we know from other sites that buildings built in those periods have distinct styles and methods of construction. An Israeli who tried to argue that Arabs never ruled Jerusalem would run up against all those layers of Muslim and Arab remains that excavators have found all around the city.

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More on Misunderstanding Identity: A Response to Bernard Avishai

Dear Bernard,

I’m delighted that you found my previous post worth a response. If a little summary judgment (isn’t that what blogging is all about?) can promote a lively exchange of ideas, then I think it’s for the best. If we weren’t doing this at our keyboards, when would we have found time for this conversation?

I’ll look forward to reading your book and having my misconceptions corrected—although I’m not convinced by your response that I have misunderstood where you stand.

I’m posting this on Erev Pesach; I’ve burned my hametz and will soon be setting out with my family to celebrate the Seder with close friends in Zikhron Ya’akov. So let me here focus briefly on your view of religion. I’ll address the nature of national identity in a future post.

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Misunderstanding Identity: The Left and the Neocons Unite

America is the land of freedom. It is the world’s standard for democracy; its ideals of personal freedom and civil rights are the envy of all enlightened citizens of the world.

If you grew up in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, as I did, this is what you learned at school.

The myth of American freedom is a strong one, and one reason it’s strong is that it contains a lot of truth. But the democracy of the United States is hardly perfect and it does not necessarily produce enlightened governments, leaders, and policies.

Paradoxically, the myth of American freedom is strongest today in two groups that see themselves as negations of the other—the neoconservatives and that slice of the American left that might be best defined as subscribers to Harpers and The New York Review of Books. The neocons believe that the way to make the world a better place is for America to export its democracy forcefully—and with force, if necessary. The leftists wouldn’t force anything on anyone, but they do think that if other peoples would just be reasonable and adopt the U.S. constitution, war, conflict, and unreason would give way to well-mannered societies much like those in America’s great suburbs.

There’s a textbook example of this on display in the current issue of Commentary, where that magazine’s assistant editor, David Billet, reviews Bernard Avishai’s new book, The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise will Bring Israel Peace at Last.

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No Water, No Food: The Younger Dryas, Then and Now

About 12,800 years ago, the global climate suddenly cooled. Here in the Levant, the change also resulted in dry conditions that lasted for about 1,300 years.

I was reminded of this by two headlines today in one of the Levant’s leading newspapers: Israel Faces 350 Million Cubic Meter Shortage In Water Supply; The World Food Price Crisis Comes to Israel: Prices Rose 9% In The Past Year (that one’s only in the Hebrew edition, for some reason).

The cold, dry spell of the twelfth and thirteenth millennia BCE is called the Younger Dryas. Because the first evidence of human farming appears in the archaeological record at the same time (see my earlier post, Childe’s Play: Neolithic Revolution or Evolution), some scholars have hypothesized that, because of the drought of the Younger Dryas, the people living in the area stretching from present-day Israel up through southern Turkey could no longer obtain sufficient food by hunting and gathering and, as a result, had to turn to farming, and then to the establishment of settled, larger communities in order to ensure a more stable and abundant food supply.

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Rav and Shmuel at the Gym: How Should We Begin the Passover Seder?

Between sets of arm curls, Nahum walks over to me and says, “You’re familiar with the disagreement between Rav and Shmuel about the way the Seder should begin?”

Nahum doesn’t look like the kind who works on his biceps—he’s a slender guy in his mid-thirties who wears a black kipah and glasses. He resembles a teacher at a religious high school here in Jerusalem, which in fact he is.

But Nahum, like me, is a regular at the small weight room at the Jerusalem Pool on Emek Refa’im Street. We get a diverse crowd—men and women, jocks and schoolteachers, retired people and teenagers, Jews and Arabs, religious and non-religious; there’s even a macho ultra-Orthodox guy who lets out whoops when he lifts—but I’ll save him for another story.

The conversation, like the crowd, can come from all directions. Nahum is referring to the two leading Babylonian rabbis of the third century CE, whose disputes form part of the first layer of the Gemara, the Talmudic discussions of the laws laid down in the earlier Mishna. The Torah commands the Jews to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt at a discussion-meal conducted by families on the first night of Pesach (Passover). Rav and Shmuel disagreed on how to begin telling the story, and their disagreement is recorded in the Haggadah, the book forms the framework of the Seder night.

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Standing Between: Ilana M. Blumberg’s “Houses of Study”

Ever since Abraham stood in the middle of two rows of dismembered animals, waiting for God to speak, the archetypical Jew has been the one who stands between. Ruth between Moab and Israel, David between sin and repentance; Yohanan ben-Zakkai between the sacred past and the almost inconceivable project of creating a new Judaism without a Temple, Maimonides between the Torah and Aristotle, Moses Mendelssohn between the Torah and the Enlightenment, Gershom Scholem between Berlin and Jerusalem—walking a thin wire between two seeming opposites, and by walking, bringing them together, seems to encapsulate the essence of what it is to be a thinking, creative Jew.

Over the last three decades, the Jews who have stood most in the middle, the ones who have walked the most precarious wire, have been women committed both to Jewish heritage and to living full intellectual lives of a type that heritage long generally denied to females. By now a plethora of books about Jewish feminism, Orthodox feminism, and women in Judaism have been published, but Ilana M. Blumberg’s Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman Among Books stands out among them as the one that really enables the reader to experience what it feels like to be a committed religious Jewish woman caught between Jewish tradition and the modern, Western world.

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More on Gay Families: The Halachic Challenge

Thanks to Jeff Greer for responding to my post Gay Families: The Halachic Challenge and mentioning an important book for those interested in the subject, Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s “Wrestling with God and Man”. Greenberg is a gay Orthodox Jew who is doing important work to find a place for gay men and women in traditional … Read more

Myths in Collision: Velikovsky and the Zionist Narrative

Speaking of myths (see my previous post, Are the Palestinians Canaanites? Should We Care?), I received an e-mail today from a nice woman I’ve spoken to on the phone a few times, Shula Kogan. Kogan is the daughter of Immanuel Velikovsky, the psychiatrist and scholar famous for his theory that the historical account offered by the Bible is best understood if we assume that the planet Jupiter ejected what is now the planet Venus and Venus turned into a comet and swung by the earth a couple times, causing the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the descent of manna from heaven, and other supposed miracles.

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Are the Palestinians Canaanites? Should We Care?

You’ve perhaps heard that some Palestinian archaeologists and narrative-builders claim that the Palestinian Arabs of today are direct descendants of the Canaanites. The Canaanites, you may remember, are the people from whom, according to the Bible’s narrative, the Children of Israel conquered the Promised Land.

Should the Jews care?

A lot of supporters of Israel get very worked up about this (here’s one example). They believe—correctly—that Palestinian interest in the Canaanites is an attempt to construct a national narrative that gives today’s Palestinians first dibs on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

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Gay Families: The Halachic Challenge

Sick of hearing about settlements, human rights violations, and Jeremiah Wright? Want to read something happy for a change? Take a look at Caryn Aviv’s story about “My Big Fat Gay Jewish Family in yesterday’s Ha’aretz-English edition.

Loving, happy families with gay parents present a challenge—but a potentially productive one—for Orthodox Jewish halacha. As long as homosexuality was practiced in hiding, it could be dismissed as deviant, unhealthy, and incompatible with society’s vested interest in promoting strong families as the best environment for raising and educating children. Looking at families like Aviv’s, it’s hard to raise any rational objection to such non-traditional family structures. Objectively, many traditional, nuclear families fail to provide children with the emotional security they need; how can we condemn a non-traditional structure that does so provide?

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Cold Altruism: Cristian Mungiu’s “Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days”

Much has been written about the slow pace and the role of time in Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days. Less has been said about the societal decay it portrays.

This Romanian film, written directed by Cristian Mungiu, tells the story of an abortion. But it also depicts, intensely, the relationship between two women, and shows how an impersonal, heartless regime (Ceauescu’s Romania, in this case) can leave its citizens with nothing but impersonal, heartless relationships.

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Why Israel is Losing Its Green Spaces: The Pointed-Roof Hypothesis

A phone company commercial currently appearing incessantly on Israel’s channel 2 depicts a somewhat thickset, balding man in his fifties sitting in an armchair watching television. The television is situated in a family room and in the background of this open-plan ground floor you can see a large kitchen and living room. The man’s teenage son bounds down the stairs in shorts and a sleeveless sweatshirt, fake-tosses a basketball to his father, and heads out the door.

What’s wrong with this picture? And what does it have to do with the destruction of Israel’s countryside?

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