Monday, April 30, 2012

Yom ha-Atzmaut

Israeli flag hanging from my mirpeset (porch)
On Wednesday night, as I wrote in my last post, I was visiting friends in Tzur Hadassah and spent the end of Yom ha-Zikaron with them.

Yom ha-Atzmaut officially begins with a special national ceremony at 8:00 pm - the lighting of 12 torches at Har Herzl in Jerusalem. I watched part of the ceremony with my friends, something I hadn't done before during my previous visits to Israel. It was interesting. Apparently, every year there is a different theme and the organizers choose people connected to that theme to light the torches. The theme this year was water, so people from organizations that have something to do with water (like Mekorot, the national water carrier) or activists from groups that work for clean water (like the Society for the Protection of Nature) were chosen. Each person was introduced, then stepped forward, said a few words ending with "to the splendor of the state of Israel" (לתפארת מדינת ישראל), and then lit the torch.

After watching the torch-lighting, we went to the center of Tzur Hadassah and encountered the popular celebration of the day - complete with children spraying each other with shaving cream (fortunately not aiming mostly at adults), people wearing blinking glasses, headdresses, and even earrings, and holding enormous plastic hammers. (I remember, many years ago on Yom ha-Atzmaut going out to the center of town in Jerusalem and buying little plastic hammers that made a boink sound when you hit someone with them - they are apparently now passé, I didn't see any in Tzur Hadassah). There was entertainment - music and dance - and lots of people milling around. After a while the dance performances stopped, and there was another torch-lighting ceremony, this time by local people in education. And immediately afterward, fireworks!

 Little birds in the garden of my apartment building.
The next morning I got up relatively late and lazed around and took some photos of my garden.

Some of the beautiful roses in the garden.
Around 11 am I went to see other friends to have brunch with them on their porch. One of the great Israeli traditions on Yom ha-Atzmaut is to go out into the country and have a barbecue (or a mangal), but we didn't do that - we had bagels & lox.

Another traditional activity is a flyby by Israeli Air Force planes - we saw some big helicopters flying over the President's house (where there was a ceremony honoring the 100 best soldiers in the army), a formation of five planes together, and then some time later, a formation of four planes with exhaust trails making big circles in the sky (I didn't get any photos of them).

Three military helicopters flying over the President's Residence at the time of a ceremony honoring outstanding Israeli soldiers.
Five Israeli Air Force planes flying in formation over the skies of Jerusalem.
Then, later in the afternoon, we went out for our own visit to the countryside, for a hike and not a mangal. We went to a place called Hirbet Madras, which has several archaeological sites from the Second Temple period - first century BCE and CE, and into the early 2nd century. Below are photos of this beautiful area of the country and some of the archaeological sites.
Foothills of the Judean Hills, near Givat Yeshayahu, in the Adullam Park.

Looking across the Green Line, towards a large Jewish town/settlement, I don't know which one. The Green Line refers to the border between Israeli-held and Jordanian held areas of Palestine at the end of the 1948 War. Jordan named the area they occupied the West Bank (since Jordan was mostly on the east bank of the Jordan River, this was a way to integrate it into Jordan). In 1967 Israel conquered the West Bank.

Fig tree growing at the bottom of the entrance to caves where Jews hid from the Romans during the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century CE.

"Pyramid" over a Jewish burial cave, probably from the first century BC or CE

Cutting hay in the fields near Tzafririm.

The moshav of Zafririm.

Grasses drying in the late spring heat.

Looking towards fields from the Adullam Park.

Inside Jewish tomb from the end of the first century CE - on the right is an ossuary and its cover. An ossuary is a stone box where the bones were put a year after the burial in the cave, after the flesh had fallen off the bones.
Entrance of the Jewish burial cave - notice the round stone, which was rolled in front of the cave after burial. It was destroyed by vandals 15 years ago and recently restored.

Yom ha-Zikaron - Day of Remembrance

The day before Independence Day is Yom ha-Zikaron (יום הזיכרון) - Israel's day of remembrance for those who died in wars or terrorist attacks. It's a very somber day, in what felt like a more personal way than Yom ha-Shoah, which happened the previous week on Thursday. Beginning a few days beforehand, Israeli radio and television stations started to broadcast stories about fallen soldiers and those who died in terrorist attacks. On the day itself, that is all that was broadcast. I usually listen to Reshet Bet, which is the news station of Israel Radio (something like NPR in the US but more closely tied to the government), and from Tuesday afternoon onwards and throughout Wednesday they broadcast a series of stories about individuals and groups who had died, and interviewed survivors of various battles from the War of Independence onward, as well as families who had a relative who had died in battle or in a terrorist attack, and survivors of terrorist attacks. Sometimes I had to turn off the radio because it was simply too sad.

Yom ha-Zikaron began on Tuesday evening with a siren at 8:00 p.m., lasting for one minute. Immediately afterwards the official remembrance ceremony began at the Kotel (Western Wall). President Peres spoke, and I think Netanyahu did also. The El Malei Rahamim (God, full of compassion) prayer, with its mournful tune, was sung, as it always is during the remembrance of the dead.

The next morning when I got up I listened to more stories and then went out to do some shopping. As I was standing on Emek Refaim St. the morning siren went off at 11:00 a.m. Everything stopped - the cars in the street, pedestrians, people on bicycles. The cars stopped and the drivers got out and stood next to them. Pedestrians stopped in their tracks and from what I could see most people were bowing their heads. Oddly enough, two people continued - one a pedestrian, who was walking on the side of the street opposite from me. Then a motorbike appeared and kept weaving around all of the stopped cars as well as a bus and a big truck, and then disappearing north up the street. It's very unusual for that to happen, as far as I know, at least among most Israeli Jews - Arabs generally don't stop for the siren, nor do anti-Zionist haredi Jews, who don't respect the official celebration or commemorative days of the state, since they don't recognize its legitimacy. Nonetheless, it was very eerie to see all the people just stopped, without the usual traffic sounds, and the loud siren in our ears.

In the afternoon I went with a friend to Tzur Hadassah, which is a small community in the Judean hills not far from Jerusalem. I spent the evening with them, first celebrating their son's sixth birthday, and then going to a special service for the end of Yom ha-Zikaron. It was held at the house of Rabbi Levi Cooper, who is the rabbi of the small Orthodox synagogue Ha-Tzur ve-ha-Tzohar (the link is to an article in Hebrew on Ynet). The service is based on one written for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for Yom Ha-Atzmaut, but it had definitely had some non-traditional aspects. We began by singing sad songs, which was followed by a brief video interview of the widow of a soldier who had died in the second Lebanon War in 2006 - he threw himself on a grenade to save the lives of his men. The songs then became happier as we approached Yom ha-Atzmaut. This part of the service ended with the recital of several psalms. For the first one, each congregant, first the men and then the women, recited the verses in turn. (Since this is an Orthodox shul, I hadn't expected the women to be asked!). Then the rabbi blew the shofar, and began the evening service (Ma'ariv). Prayers were sung with tunes from celebratory Israeli songs. It was a very moving service. I hadn't known what to expect at all, since I've never been to one of these services.

Life in Israel

I just got home from having a very nice dinner with a friend, turned on the radio to listen to a news-talk program, and then at 9:30 there was a brief interruption - "Color Red alarm in Sderot, Color Red alarm in Sderot." "Color Red" (צבע אדום) is the name for the warning system that sounds when a rocket is launched towards one of the southern communities from Gaza. I haven't heard anything more, if there was a rocket or not. (Sderot is very close to the border with Gaza).

Friday, April 27, 2012

More on British POWs at Auschwitz, including the father of Shimon Peres

The Jewish Chronicle has another article about the British soldiers held near Auschwitz:

As many as 1,400 British prisoners arrived at Auschwitz towards the end of 1943 and hundreds were forced to work at the IG Farben chemical factory....
In mid-1944, the POW camp was moved directly adjacent to the plant and was therefore in direct view of Auschwitz III (Buna-Monowitz). British prisoners therefore witnessed the routine brutality meted out to the Jewish slave labourers including those hanged from the gates of the camp as an example to others. At times the "kriegies", as the POWs were known, and the "stripies", as they called the Jewish prisoners, worked together, formed friendships and exchanged information. Thus it was that the British soldiers discovered the source of the sickly-sweet burning smell that hung over the camp. 
Another amazing piece of information revealed by the JC:
Yitzhak Persky, the father of Israeli President Shimon Peres, was held at Camp E715, as the British camp at Auschwitz was known. 
From another article at the JC:
Mr Persky joined the British army on the outbreak of war as a combat engineer or "sapper". He was first captured in Greece, but escaped and spent a year alone hiding in monasteries. The Greek underground later led him to other escaped British prisoners, reported to include Sergeant-Major Charlie Coward, an escape specialist whose exploits were later celebrated in the film The Password is Courage. A failed attempt to reach the Turkish coast led to a further capture and after serving time in a series of POW war camps, Mr Persky found himself in E715.
Another article tells more about the British POWs - 
The British prisoners of war (POWs) who were housed in the E715 prisoner of war camp at Auschwitz between September 1943 and January 1945 were forced to work at the I.G. Farben construction site. According to the Geneva Convention, it was not acceptable to have them produce war materiel. When that led some to protest their use in gasoline production, the I.G. Farben camp manager in charge, Gerhard Ritter, made it clear to them with his pistol that it was he who decided how the Geneva Convention was interpreted in Auschwitz.

The British POWs had to work about 12 hours a day, and days off work were few in number. They were deployed in a wide variety of work detachments, in some cases also as skilled workers. Many British POWs sabotaged the German war efforts as they worked. For example, they improperly laid cables or pipelines for the power plant of I.G. Auschwitz, and they damaged freight cars when working in the freight depot. The extent to which the British sabotage actions succeeded in delaying the building of the plant is unclear, however....

In general, the British POWs received better treatment than all the other groups of forced laborers of I.G. Auschwitz. Since the Germans treated Allied servicemen in accordance with the Geneva Convention, the British POWs had a right to receive food parcels from the Red Cross, correspond with their family members, and have visits from Red Cross representatives. Thanks to the food parcels, the British POWs had a relatively good diet. Thus they could forego the soup they received in I.G. Auschwitz and give it to individual concentration camp inmates.
Another longer article gives more information - The British Connection to Auschwitz.

British prisoners of war were imprisoned at Auschwitz and were visited by the Red Cross

Martin Bright, of the Jewish Chronicle (UK), has written an article about British POWs imprisoned at Auschwitz during WWII. The POW camp was called E715 and housed about 1,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers. They were not treated like the Jews - they received Red Cross food packages and were protected by the Geneva Conventions. (Soldiers from Western armies were generally treated this way by the Germans when they were captured - Soviet POWs on the other hand were starved to death and worked as slave laborers, and more than 3 million of them died at the hands of the Nazis). Another POW camp was at Teschen, about fifty miles away from Auschwitz. (For more on the British POWs, see a January 14, 2010 article in the JC by Simon Round - "Revealed: The British Troops Imprisoned at Auschwitz").

The most amazing fact in this article, in my opinion, is this:
The Red Cross visited Auschwitz in the summer of 1944 and in September reported the concerns of Sergeant-Major Lowe, the British camp leader - or "Man of Confidence" - at Teschen.
"Spontaneously, the principal Man of Confidence at Teschen asked us if we were well-informed about the 'shower room'. Indeed the rumour runs that in [Auschwitz] a very modern shower room exists where the detainees will be gassed in series... This was impossible to prove. The detainees themselves did not talk about it."
The Red Cross visited Auschwitz in the summer of 1944?! I presume he means they visited the E715 POW camp, not the extermination camp itself. Nonetheless, they were quite close to the extermination camp, as is apparent from Bright's article. Bright writes about the British POWs:
They knew about the summary executions, they could hear the sounds of mistreatment and see the physical condition of the "stripeys", as the Jewish inmates were known to them. They could also smell the burning flesh from the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau and those who did manage to speak to Jewish prisoners heard about the "showers".
And if the POWs could hear the sounds and see the physical conditions of the Jewish inmates, and smell the burningn flesh, so could the Red Cross visitors. Did they make this information known publicly? Did they press the Nazis to visit the extermination camp itself? Their record is otherwise not very good, as is shown by the evidence of the Red Cross visit to Theresienstadt also in the summer of 1944.

The Danish Red Cross and the International Red Cross sent 3 delegates to Theresienstadt to examine the camp on June 23, 1944. They were allowed in at the insistence of the Danish government, which wanted the Red Cross to gather information about Danish Jewish prisoners in the camp (they had been sent there in October 1943). The Nazis prepared the camp before they arrived and created an elaborate Potemkin village, presenting it as a model village where a soccer game was being played and the children's opera Brundibar was presented. The International Red Cross inspectors were taken in and did not report anything untoward at the camp. (Information from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website - Theresienstadt: Red Cross Visit).

When I visited Theresienstadt in the summer of 2005, I was taken aback to see that at the Small Fortress, which was used by the Gestapo for political prisoners as well as Jews, that the slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" had been painted at the entrance of the prison. Did the Red Cross not see this part of the camp? If they did go there, did they wonder about the strange slogan?

New Review of the Jewish Annotated New Testament

How Jewish Is the New Testament?

Review is by James D. G. Gunn, who is an Emeritus professor at Durham in England.

A tale of two protests on Israel Independence Day, 2012

Can someone tell me why one of these protests was allowed to happen while the other was suppressed by the police? The violent one was not suppressed, while the peaceful one was prevented by the police, who kept the activists from leaving their office, and arrested three of them.

Neturei Karta 

Members of radical anti-Zionist sect take to streets in Bnei Brak, torch Israeli flags while country celebrates 64th Independence Day
Kobi Nahshoni
While the State of Israel celebrated 64 years of independence, a group of Neturei Karta demonstrators burned Israeli flags in Bnei Brak.

An eyewitness told Ynet that several members of the anti-Zionist Jewish sect rioted in front of the Lithuanian Yeshiva and set Israeli flags on fire, while calling out slogans against Israel. According to the eyewitness, dozens of Bnei Brak residents gathered around the demonstrators and protested against their anti-Israel behavior.

Neturei Karta demonstrators burn Israeli flags (Photo: Yisrael Cohen)
Several of the Yeshiva students confronted the protesters until they eventually left the premises.

One radical haredi activist told Ynet that he and his friends have been trying to expand their protest outside of Jerusalem. He expressed his satisfaction with the groups' protest in Bnei Brak.
"We will continue to express our anti-Zionist and anti-Israel views. It is our truth," he said.


Jack Khoury
Members of the leftist organization Zochrot were attempting to distribute flyers containing the names of Palestinian villages that were evacuated or destroyed in 1948, when they were held indoors by Tel Aviv police for almost four hours.
Israel Police prohibited members of a left-wing NGO from exiting a Tel Aviv building on the eve of Israel's Independence Day, activists said, claiming that the lockdown was meant to prevent them from distributing postcards concerning the displacement of Palestinians during the War of Independence in 1948.

According to the report, members of Zochrot – an NGO working to inform the Israeli public of what the Palestinians call the Nakba, or, the Palestinian disaster in 1948 – police officers surrounded the group's offices, and barred the doors for four hours on Wednesday.

The activists planned to hand out postcards in Hebrew, Arabic, and English during Independence Day celebrations in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, which cite the names of villages from which Palestinians were uprooted and which were destroyed in 1948.

Liat Rosenberg, the NGO's director general, said that "as we were about to step out of the offices, at around 10:30 P.M., we discovered, to our dismay, that the police were already surrounding the building and had closed all the exits."

"The senior police staff at the scene made it clear that they were determined not to allow us to 'disrupt public order,' and so did not permit us to leave the premises," Rosenberg added.

According to the head of Zochrot, the 15 activists were trapped inside the buildings for close to four hours, with police officials indicating that they would allow them to leave if they agreed to hand over the materials, presented their identification, and agree to being questioned and searched.

"At the corner of Ibn Gabirol and Mane streets tonight, silencing entered a whole new realm, with a bitter taste of dark regimes," Rosenberg said.

An attorney present at the scene told the police officers that they had no cause to ask the activists to identify themselves, and warned that she could file a complaint for false imprisonment.

During a verbal exchange between activists and police, three NGO members were arrested, including Yuval Halprin, who wasn't inside the building, but who chose to read out the names of Palestinian villages in central Israel from outside the offices.

Eitan Bornstein, Zochrot's spokesman, told Haaretz that the incident represented a severe aggravation of the police's and the establishment in general, saying: "What we sought to do was to hand out postcards, not anything violent. There were people threatening to beat us, and they weren’t arrested."

Zochrot announced that the NGO would file a suit against the police for false imprisoning on Sunday.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) called the incident political persecution with the aid of the police, adding that, "needless to say, the police's activities had no legal grounds."

"Freedom of speech isn't suspected for Independence Day," ACRI spokesman Hagai Elad said.

Tel Aviv District police responded, calling the events an “illegal protest that was not authorized by the police.” Police representatives stated: “The police did not allow the protesters to reach the central event, display signs and create provocation, but did allow them to protest in an area far away from the central Independence Day event. Three protesters that caused a disturbance were arrested on suspicion for disrupting the peace.”

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Israel Independence Day

Apparently for the last several years Google has made a doodle for Israel Independence Day - and this is this year's doodle - children stringing up flags in honor of the day.

Later this morning I'm going over to friends for a brunch, and then in the afternoon we're going on a hike to a beautiful place, which are plentiful in Israel.

Yesterday was Yom Ha-Zikkaron (Israel's remembrance day for those killed in war and terrorist attacks), and Independence Day started last night at 8 pm.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Israeli Conservative Movement finally approves ordination of gay rabbis

Finally - the Israeli Conservative Movement approves ordination of gay rabbis
Israel's Masorti (Conservative) Movement decided to approve the ordination of homosexual rabbis, in a dramatic vote on Thursday. The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, affiliated with the movement, will admit gay and lesbian students for training as spiritual leaders as of the upcoming school year.

In doing so the Israeli Conservative Movement is joining the American branch of the movement, whose rabbinical seminaries have been admitting gay students for some years.

The question whether or not to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis has been rattling the Conservative Movement in Israel and the U.S. for the past decade. Unlike the Reform movement that took to the question with ease, deciding firmly on the acceptance of gay rabbis. The Conservative Movement, whose rabbis see themselves bound to Jewish law, has been caught up in heated debate over the subject.

Years of discussion led to two contradictory religious rulings in 2006, one requiring the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and another banning any such act. The two rabbinical seminaries affiliated with the movement in the U.S. move the ruling allowing the ordination, while the seminaries in Jerusalem and Buenos Aires adopted the ban on ordination. The issue nearly caused a rift in the movement.

The debate continued to wage at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, with two female rabbis quitting the institute, one in opposition to the ordination of gay rabbis; the other over the hesitation shown by the organization in accepting gay and lesbian students into its ranks.
I don't know who the rabbi was who quit over the hesitation of Schechter to ordain openly gay students, but I think the rabbi who resigned was Einat Ramon, who opposed the ordination of openly gay and lesbian students, and who even thought that there was no place for gay and lesbian Jews in the Masorti movement in Israel.
On Thursday, the institute’s general council held another vote on the subject. Out of the 18 rabbis that attended, all voted to admit homosexual students, with one rabbi abstaining.

Rabbi Mauricio Balter, President of the Israeli Conservative Movement Rabbinical Assembly expressed his support of the move.

“I see it as a very important development in Jewish law,” Rabbi Balter told Haaretz, adding: “It is the right thing to do. We were all made in the image of God, and as such we are all made equal. For me this is a very important value. I always said we should admit gay and lesbians into our ranks.”

“I’m glad we had the vote and that it went the way it did,” Rabbi Balter continued. “The decision to hold a vote was correct as can be seen by the fact that there wasn’t a single dissenting vote,” he said....

People working at the seminary admitted that over the years, members of the American Conservative Movement have been applying pressure to accept gay and lesbian students, as the American seminaries have been doing for some years now.

The institute also stressed that the decision was mostly a formality since it had never checked for the sexual orientation of its applicants.
When Einat Ramon was dean of the rabbinical school, I have my doubts that Schechter didn't check people's sexual orientation. Her opposition to the ordination of gay and lesbian students was loud and clear. When she was dean, in 2007, she wrote in an article in the Washington Jewish Week (April 12, 2007):
As dean of the Schechter (Masorti) Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, I recently announced my decision to accept only students who believe in the importance of the intimate relationship between a man and a woman in the confines of the Jewish institution of marriage and to serve, to the best of their ability, as role models in that regard.
Ynet also reports about the policy statement she made in March, 2007, forbidding the ordination of openly gay students:
Rabbi Einat Ramon, Dean of the Conservative Movement's Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, announced that there will be no change in the admissions policy of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in response to a recent decision by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly in New York that would permit the ordination of practicing gay and lesbian rabbis and pave the way for the sanctification of same-sex commitment ceremonies.

The CJLS, the Conservative Movement's North American halachic authority, voted to endorse two proposals on this issue in December 2006: The decision that ordination of practicing gay and lesbian rabbis is not permitted by Jewish Law (Rabbi Joel Roth,), and the decision permitting the ordination of practicing gay and lesbian rabbis (Rabbi Elliot Dorff and two colleagues).

Since Conservative Judaism is a pluralistic movement, when the CJLS votes to approve two conflicting opinions in this way, each local rabbi is authorized to choose which opinion to follow.

Although the Israel branch of the Conservative Movement has long asserted its independence in matters of Jewish Law, Rabbi Ramon felt that in light of the discussions in North America generated by the split CJLS decision, it was important to clarify the policy of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.

In doing so, she was acting on the authority vested in her by the school's Executive Committee, chaired by Rabbi Hanan Alexander, Professor and Chair of the Department of Education at the University of Haifa. In upholding the status quo, Ramon is in agreement with Rabbi Roth's opinion, which was also endorsed by Rabbi David Golinkin, President and Professor of Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

In a position paper that Rabbi Ramon distributed to the Executive Committee, she called attention to the historic centrality of heterosexual marriage in Jewish life.

“Jewish theology regards the union between a man a woman who are sexually and emotionally different from one another as a complementary covenant of friendship and intimacy, which forms the basis for procreation and childrearing. This is why Jewish law has so fervently opposed sexual relations between members of the same sex”, she explained, “and why the heterosexual family has played such a vital role throughout the ages in the transmission of Jewish values and the survival of the Jewish people.”

"I have great respect for Conservative rabbis who have chosen to follow a different opinion," said Rabbi Ramon, "and for the Reform Movement in Judaism which has long admitted candidates to its rabbinical schools who are practicing gays and lesbians or who favor same-sex commitment ceremonies. However, Jewish Law has traditionally prohibited homosexuality and only sanctifies sexual relations between members of the opposite sex."
I wonder if Rabbi Golinkin (with whom I studied Talmud in the late 1980s at Midreshet Yerushalayim, housed at Schechter) has changed his mind, or if he was the one person who voted to abstain in the vote that just happened this last Thursday.

In an article in the Forward, December 7, 2009, "Uncertain Territory: Conservative Movement's Pioneering Gay Rabbinical Students Tread Carefully in Israel," two students from JTS are quoted about their nervousness at having to go to Schechter for their third year of rabbinical studies.
Chesir-Teran, a former attorney who entered the seminary at the age of 36, recalled one meeting that he, Weininger and Nevins had in New York with Rabbi Einat Ramon, then dean of Machon Schechter’s Rabbinical School. Upon being assured gay students would be treated equally when they came to Schechter, Chesir-Teran said he told Ramon, “I’m assuming that means we’re going to be allowed to lead services and read from the Torah like everyone else,” Her answer, he recalled, was, “I don’t know. I have to get back to you.”

Ramon later confirmed in an email to Nevins that the gay students would, indeed, be allowed to do so. But the equivocation, said Chesir-Teran, was another “red flag” that made him leery about going there.

Ramon’s public pronouncements against gay ordination also stoked the two students’ concerns. In a Washington Jewish Week opinion piece shortly after the committee’s historic vote, Ramon, explaining her opposition to the change, avowed, “Judaism has always been clear and unambivalent toward the centrality of the heterosexual family.” And in a September 2007 policy statement, Ramon wrote, “If we permit [gay marriage and ordination of gay rabbis], we should, in all intellectual fairness, permit also all other forms of prohibited sexual activity and allow the marriage of brothers to their sisters.”

Ramon, who still teaches at Schechter, left her position as dean this past September. And though no one claims the move was connected to her pronouncements on gay ordination, supporters of the historic change say Ramon’s departure has eased the atmosphere for gay and lesbian students at Schechter considerably.

Ramon declined to comment for this article. “I have written and said what I had to say,” she told the Forward.

Nevertheless, during her tenure, the relationship between the two schools was sometimes strained. For example, Schechter put its foot down in March 2008, when several JTS students studying there sought to mark the one-year anniversary of the change in JTS’s admissions policy. The students invited Yonatan Gher, then the incoming director of the gay community center Jerusalem Open House, to speak about his experience as a gay man in the Israeli Conservative movement. But after a dispute with Ramon and others in the administration, the students were forced to hold the event off campus.

Nevins cringed when asked about this event. “That was an incident where no one was at their best,” he acknowledged. “It was a very painful moment.”
Ynet wrote about the March 2008 incident:
A group of 10 visiting American rabbinical students studying at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies (SIJS) in Jerusalem asked to hold a special event marking the one-year anniversary of the groundbreaking decision by the Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement's flagship rabbinic school in New York, to accept gay and lesbian rabbinical and cantorial students.

Israeli students at the school objected, however, noting that holding such an event would contradict a halachic ruling stipulated by the Conservative movement in Israel. Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon, dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, met with the students and asked that the event also be sensitive to the Israeli Conservative movement’s point of view.

The American students refused, however, and ultimately a decision was reached to hold the event outside the school. Ramon assured the students that no other school activities would take place at the same time.

The anniversary ceremony eventually took place last Wednesday at the Valley of Rehavya in Jerusalem, and included not only the American students but some of their Israeli counterparts as well. Also attending the event were the director-general of the Jerusalem Open House For Pride and Tolerance, and member of Kehillat Tiferet Shalom, affiliated with the Masorti movement, Yonatan Gher, who spoke about the unique problems faced by Conservative gays and lesbians.

Gher viewed the Schechter’s Institute’s insistence in presenting both the viewpoints of the American and Israeli contingents of the conservative movement during the ceremony as utterly preposterous. “`Would one invite the (vehemently anti-Zionist) Satmar Hasidism to a ceremony marking Israel’s 60th anniversary?” he mused.

Some, however, harbor a far more positive view of the compromise offered by the institute.

“The Schechter Institute, its leadership and most of its student body adamantly object, purely from a halachic point of view, to the ordination of gays and lesbians,” said Dubi Hayun, one of the teachers at the school. “The American students' request is thus utterly disrespectful. It is tantamount to coming to a vegetarian’s home and eating a big, fat steak.”

Hayun also stated that he has nothing against gays and lesbians, and objects to their ordination purely from a halachic point of view. “Gays should, and must, receive equal rights from the state, it is wrong not to do so. However, one cannot circumvent halacha, or Jewish law, as painful as that decision may be.”

The SIJS noted put out a press release stating that “the institute decided to grant equal forum to the perspectives prevalent within the Conservative movement in the true spirit of the school, and our Jewish sages who respected each other’s rulings and opinions in spite of conflicts and disagreements.

"The Schechter Institute wants to provide a warm and welcoming environment for all of its students, but also adheres to the moral-halachic principle of 'a person should not deviate from the set ways of a place because of argument' (Mishna Pesachim 4:1). This means that one is obligated to respect the religious customs of a place that hosts him in order to preserve peace and harmony.”

Although Schechter has now voted to ordain gay students, I wonder if there will still be problems with faculty members or fellow students who still oppose it. (Although I suppose the same issue might have arisen at the other rabbinical schools that have begun to admit gay students - JTS and the Ziegler School in Los Angeles).

In any case - Kol ha-Kavod!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Yom ha-Shoah - יום השואה

Today is Yom HaShoah - the day in commemoration of the Holocaust, which is observed very solemnly in Israel. This morning, at 10 am, the siren went off for two minutes of silent contemplation. Last night all restaurants and other places of entertainment were closed, and the official state observance was held at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke.

Last night I went to a memorial and discussion at Kehillat Yedidya that was dedicated to Raoul Wallenburg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews in Budapest from destruction in 1944. He himself was arrested by the Russians when they conquered the city and was never heard from again. The Swedish consul-general, Professor Shlomo Stern, who was saved from death by Wallenburg, and Eli Yosef, who works for the international foundation for the memory of Wallenburg, all spoke. Stern's talk was the most moving, since he spoke personally about how he and his family were saved by Wallenburg.

Today members of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) read aloud the names of family members or people from their communities who perished in the Holocaust.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, ministers, MKs and other government officials read names of those who perished in the Holocaust during the Knesset's memorial ceremony on Thursday.

The ceremony is called "Every Man Has a Name" (לא כל איש יש שם) after a poem by Zelda that was inspired by the Holocaust. Twelfth Knesset speaker Dov Shilanksy, a Holocaust survivor, initiated the ceremony in 1989.

Peres told the story of his birthplace, Vishniev, which was then part of Poland but is now Belarus. His mother had five siblings, all of whom moved to Israel, except for her brother Michael Meltzer, who stayed behind to take care of his parents. All three were killed, along with the rest of the town's residents, who Nazis locked in a wooden synagogue, which they then burned down. Anyone who tried to escape the synagogue was shot.

"No house, no school, no cemetery remained in Vishniev," Peres said. "Nothing was left."

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin pointed out that the name-reading ceremony "becomes more important every year as the amount of witnesses among us becomes less and less." Rivlin read the names of the Jews from the town of Shklov, Belarus, from which his mother's family hales, that were murdered by the Nazis. He explained that the Jewish community in Shklov was established in the 16th century, and on the evening following Yom Kippur 1941, residents of the Shklov Ghetto were taken to concentration camps.

The Knesset Speaker pointed out that there are victims of the Nazis whose names will never be known, such as the infant son of Aharon and Ivgenya Kapsitzky and other young children from Shklov.

Netanyahu said that this year's ceremony was the first that his father-in-law, Shmuel Ben-Artzi, who passed away in November, did not attend.

"He would listen closely, because he thought this was a way to give expression to the souls that were lost," Netanyahu said. "He saw the loss as something both personal and national, in dimensions that cannot be described."

The prime minister read a poem Ben-Artzi wrote in memory of his hometown, Bilgoraj, in which he "expressed his pain over the Holocaust."

Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz read names of Jews killed in the Farhoud, a Nazi-inspired pogrom in Baghdad in 1941, adding that "the State of Israel must do everything to make sure the events of the Holocaust, the genocide, do not repeat themselves."

Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein read names of his family members, as did Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, Justice Minister Ya'akov Neeman and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. Deputy Education Minister Menahem Eliezer Moses choked back tears as he read the names of 70 members of his father's family who perished in Auschwitz.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar honored Janusz Korczak, the Polish-Jewish educator who directed an orphanage and stayed with the orphans when they were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp.

Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon and Deputy Minister for the Advancement of Youth, Women and Students Gila Gamliel read names of those who perished in concentration camps in Libya, where their families come from.

MKs from Likud, Kadima, Labor, National Union and Shas read names. MKs Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) and Avraham Michaeli (Shas) told of family members from Georgia who were forced to fight in the Red Army, and never returned. MK Amir Peretz (Labor) honored Jews from Morocco who perished in Europe.

MK Ronnie Bar-On (Kadima) concluded his name-reading with a quote from Deuteronomy: "Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt…that he struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at the rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God…God gives you rest from all your enemies around, in the Land that God gives you as an inheritance to possess it…you shall not forget."

At the beginning of the ceremony, the IDF rabbinical chorus sang Zelda's poem "Every Man Has a Name," followed by the lighting of six candles by survivors, the heads of the Knesset Caucus for Holocaust Survivors MKs Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi) and Ze'ev Bielski (Kadima), as well as MK Ruhama Avrahal-Balila (Kadima) and her son, an IDF officer. Then, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and IDF Chief Cantor Shai Abramson read psalms and prayers.

Monday, April 09, 2012

More on Günter Grass

The invaluable website Sign and Sight, which is unfortunately closing down, has a very good survey of the various responses to Grass's revelation in 2006 that he had served in the Waffen-SS in 1944-45, when he was 17. One very interesting response is from Rudolf Ungvary in a Hungarian newspaper, who mentions Grass's lack of condemnation of Ahmadinejad's attacks upon Israel at that time:
Hungary - Elet es Irodalom. Rudolf Ungvary is critical of Günter Grass, who blinded out the every day persecution of Jews in the 1940s and refuses to condemn contemporary dictators today. "Before 1945, it was clear to all contemporaries of Grass – and not just the members of the SS – that there were Nuremberg Laws, that many Jews were disappearing. They heard clearly how Hitler hollered out his speeches. They knew that only representatives of one political camp were allowed to express their opinions. Was that not enough to wish for a defeat of fascism (independently of whether one had volunteered to be member of the party or a military organisation)?... Grass condemned America but had nothing to say to the threats of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Prior to 1945, he could know that something terrible was happening to the German Jews. And even now, he must be aware of what the Iranian president is demanding, namely that Israel be erased from the map of the world."
CiF Watch has a good article about Grass, and they put up a incriminating document from 1945 - a registration form as a POW which testifies to his service in the Waffen-SS.

Under "branch of service" it lists W-SS (Waffen-SS), with the date 10-11-1944. Above that, as "unit," it lists SS-Pz-Div. Frundsberg - SS Tank Division Frundsberg.


Tom Segev interviewed Grass and wrote an article about him in Haaretz in 2006 - "The German who needed a fig-leaf." In this interview Grass commits quite a howler:
"Also. But the madness and the crime were not expressed only in the Holocaust and did not stop at the end of the war. Of eight million German soldiers who were captured by the Russians, perhaps two million survived and all the rest were liquidated. There were about 14 million refugees in Germany; half the country went directly from Nazi tyranny to communist tyranny. I am not saying this to diminish the gravity of the crime against the Jews, but the Holocaust was not the only crime. We bear responsibility for the Nazis' crimes. But the crimes inflicted serious disasters on the Germans and thus they became victims."
As has been made clear by many writers, three million German soldiers were taken prisoner by the Russians, and about one million died. The Germans, on the other hand, murdered three million Russian prisoners of war. In this paragraph Grass is doing his best to present the Germans as equal victims with the Jews.

Segev was just interviewed by Der Spiegel, the German magazine, about Grass, and has some interesting things to say about him.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was your first impression when you read Günter Grass's poem?
Segev: That Günter Grass is more concerned about his own silence than, as he claims, the future of humanity. He's acting as if he is saying something that nobody else has said. I find it a little pathetic when he writes "my silence." I believe he is still thinking about his SS silence. 
 SPIEGEL ONLINE: You're referring to the fact that Grass first revealed the fact that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS in his 2006 autobiography "Peeling the Onion". But what he means this time is another silence: the silence about Israel's nuclear policy.

Segev: But this silence doesn't exist. The whole world is talking about it -- even in Israel. That's why my second reaction to the poem was that Günter Grass has no clue about Iran, nuclear weapons or strategy. He's acting as if he had a conversation yesterday with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu -- or with both.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is being discussed in Israel about the possibility of an attack on Iran?

Segev: Former Mossad director Meir Dagan, for example, shares the same opinion as Günter Grass. He is also opposed to an Israeli attack on Iran. He talks about it almost every day. There is a very lively discussion about this issue in Israel.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Grass also names a reason for his silence: the threat of being accused of anti-Semitism.

Segev: Meir Dagan has never been accused by anyone in Israel of being an anti-Semite. And it has been a long time since people in Germany were not able to criticize Israel -- even if some in the Israeli government might regret that fact. Grass's argumentation is very apolitical. If Dagan were to publish a poem, I would find it just as embarrassing as when Grass publishes a nuclear analysis. I don't think one can take it very seriously. I would have preferred it if he had saved his "last ink," as he puts it, for a beautiful novel.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Grass writes that the Iranian people are at risk of being annihilated by a nuclear strike.

Segev: I do not understand at all how he came up with this idea. He is placing Israel and Iran on the same level. But the difference is that Israel, in contrast to Iran, has never declared that it wants to wipe some country off the map, whereas Iran promises day in, day out, that it wants to eliminate Israel. So what is this stuff about the annihilation of the Iranian people supposed to mean?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you saying that Grass is twisting the facts?

Segev: So far, the talk has only been of targeted Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities -- not a nuclear attack against the entire country.  
SPIEGEL ONLINE: It wasn't so long ago that you interviewed Günter Grass for an Israeli newspaper. You later defended him when he was accused of equating the dead German Wehrmacht soldiers with those killed in the Holocaust.

Segev: The whole scandal was based on a misunderstanding. Grass never compared the Nazi crimes to German suffering. He is truly a great writer, but being a great writer doesn't mean that he also understands nuclear strategy. Besides, the problem cannot just be limited to Israel: A nuclear Iran would be dangerous for the entire world. Incidentally, I personally believe that most Israelis would prefer to see the US, rather than Israel, take action against Iran. And it is not as if there is incitement against Iran in Israel. There is even a peace campaign on Facebook. President Shimon Peres even greeted the Iranian people on television on the occasion of the Persian new year. There is in no way enmity towards the Iranian people. Nevertheless, in Israel there is still a kind of fear of (another) Holocaust. That is all much more serious than the question of whether Günter Grass should remain silent or not.

Interview conducted by Sebastian Hammelehle.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Günter Grass's wretched poem

I'm now finally reading Günter Grass's wretched poem itself, in English translation, kindly provided by the Atlantic. This is what the translator wrote about it:
His poem, "What Must Be Said," is overtly and boldly political. It is not exactly the prettiest prose in its original German, and the English doesn't read much better. Translating it below, I've tried to untangle some of the needlessly Teutonic constructions where it doesn't undo the deliberately winding and parenthetical tone too much. Even more concise German can sound circuitous to an English ear, but Grass's writing here is an extreme example. The poem is, from a purely communicative standpoint, a relatively inefficient denunciation - akin to writing up a paragraph of solid reasoning and then cutting it up and sticking little bits in fortune cookies.
Following are my comments on some of the poem:
It is the alleged right to first strike
That could annihilate the Iranian people--
Enslaved by a loud-mouth
And guided to organized jubilation--
Because in their territory,
It is suspected, a bomb is being built.
"The alleged right to first strike" - if Israel does in fact attack Iran (which I very much hope it does not!), it will not be attacking with nuclear weapons (which is what a "first strike" refers to) - it will be attacking the sites in Iran where the uranium is being enriched to weapons level (Natanz, Fordow) and where, according to some intelligence reports, a nuclear trigger was being tested (Parchin). It will not be bombing Iran with atomic bombs. Israel's goal is not to annihilate the Iranian people, it is to stop Iran's nuclear program.

The "loud mouth," I presume, is Ahmedinejad - but he is not the true leader of the country (although he is a loud mouth) - that honor goes to Khamenei, the supreme Ayatollah and heir to Khomeini.

It's true that a bomb is suspected of being built - and most intelligence services (including the US and Israel) don't think the Iranians have yet decided actually to build the bomb.
Yet why do I forbid myself
To name that other country
In which, for years, even if secretly,
There has been a growing nuclear potential at hand
But beyond control, because no inspection is available?
Indeed, why is he forbidding himself to name that country? It's common knowledge (according to foreign sources) that Israel has nuclear weapons. Mordechai Vanunu spent eighteen years in prison for revealing secret information and photographs of the program for the Sunday Times newspaper in 1986. He was released from prison in 2004. Several books have been written on the Israeli nuclear program, including two by Avner Cohen - The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb (2012) and Israel and the Bomb (1999).
The universal concealment of these facts,
To which my silence subordinated itself,
I sense as incriminating lies
And force - the punishment is promised
As soon as it is ignored;
The verdict of "anti-Semitism" is familiar.
Again, I don't understand why Grass refers to "universal concealment." There is no universal concealment of the existence of an Israeli nuclear program. The Israeli press writes about it, always preceding its reports with the phrase "according to foreign sources," since the Israeli government maintains a policy of "nuclear ambiguity," refusing to confirm that it has a program. There has been a lot of discussion about the existence of the program outside Israel as well, even by the Iranians!

This appears to be part of the false meme that somehow it is forbidden to criticize Israel out of fear of antisemitism, when there is widespread criticism of Israel in many countries from both the left and the right. In the US we find this criticism from people on the paleoconservative right (Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan) and the far left (Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, Alice Walker, etc.), and the criticism is far more extensive in European countries, like Britain and Germany itself.
Now, though, because in my country
Which from time to time has sought and confronted
Its very own crime
That is without compare
In turn on a purely commercial basis, if also
With nimble lips calling it a reparation, declares
A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel,
Whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence
Of a single atomic bomb is unproven,
But as a fear wishes to be conclusive,
I say what must be said.
I don't understand, again, why he is now upset about the fact that Germany is selling submarines to Israel - Israel already owns several of them. The first two were given to Israel by Germany after the Gulf War, the cost of the third one was split between Israel and Germany, two are currently being built, and Germany just agreed to sell Israel another submarine at a discounted price. A Deutsche Welle article of March 20, 2012 says that "Experts say the latest order from Israel is capable of carrying nuclear-capable, mid-range rockets, although this has not been confirmed." An article from the Jerusalem Post of December 19, 2011 reports about the submarines: "Widely believed to be Israel’s second-strike capability with their reported ability to launch cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, the Navy’s submarines are shrouded in an aura of mystery and prestige." If this is true, then nuclear missiles on the submarines are intended not for a first strike, but for a second strike, after Israel has been attacked by nuclear weapons - that is to say, the weapons on the submarines, if indeed they exist, are intended to retaliate against an attack by another country. Their purpose is, therefore, deterrent - to prevent another country from attacking Israel out of the knowledge that it would also suffer terrible losses.
Why though have I stayed silent until now?
Because I thought my origin,
Afflicted by a stain never to be expunged
Kept the state of Israel, to which I am bound
And wish to stay bound,
From accepting this fact as pronounced truth.
If he means by the "stain never to be expunged" his service in the Waffen-SS, he had the right impulse to keep silent! He's right, in my opinion, that he is the wrong person to hector Israel, in an inaccurate way, against attacking Iran, especially since he implies that an Israeli strike would annihilate Iran. If he had written a reasoned article on the dangers of Israel attacking Iran, the possibility of a terrible war breaking out as a result of the attack, his wish that Germany not supply submarines that might be used for nuclear missiles - then we wouldn't be having this conversation about him.

I'm glad that he feels "bound" to Israel and that he wishes to "stay bound" - and that "binding" certainly doesn't exclude thoughtful, even harsh criticism of Israel and its leadership - but this foolish poem is not that useful criticism.
Why do I say only now,
Aged and with my last ink,
That the nuclear power of Israel endangers
The already fragile world peace?
Because it must be said
What even tomorrow may be too late to say;
Also because we--as Germans burdened enough--
Could be the suppliers to a crime
That is foreseeable, wherefore our complicity
Could not be redeemed through any of the usual excuses.
So what he's worried about is that because Germany is selling this submarine to Israel, that could possibly carry nuclear missiles, which might be used during a second strike by Israel after the country has suffered a nuclear first strike (which would probably kill most Israelis) - that Germany would then be responsible for the deaths of the people who are killed in that second strike. His concern seems to be all for the country that might be hit by that second strike, after it has done its best to destroy Israel!

Why not be concerned for the survival of Israel? It seems to me that if he feels a moral commitment to Israel, which in the previous stanza he asserts that he feels, that commitment should be expressed here. His fear is all for what Israel might do in retaliation, not for what might first be done to Israel. Is he deliberately misunderstanding why Israel would want a second strike capability? In this section of the poem he is taking the side of Iran entirely, without acknowledging the threats emanating from its leaders.
And granted: I am silent no longer
Because I am tired of the hypocrisy
Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped
That this will free many from silence,
That they may prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger
To renounce violence and
Likewise insist
That an unhindered and permanent control
Of the Israeli nuclear potential
And the Iranian nuclear sites
Be authorized through an international agency
By the governments of both countries.
"The perpetrator of the recognized danger" is apparently Israel - which has not yet done anything except issue verbal threats against Iran's nuclear program, and has possibly killed some Iranian scientists and launched the Stuxnet virus against Iranian computers. Iran, on the other hand, has supported both Hezbollah and Hamas which have already perpetrated attacks against Israelis and Jews in other countries, and Iran on its part threatens to launch hundreds of long-range missiles against Israeli targets in the event of an Israeli attack upon its nuclear program. Why shouldn't Iran "renounce violence" if Israel must do the same?

In this stanza he finally admits the existence of "Iranian nuclear sites" - good for recognizing reality.

Iran doesn't seem particularly interested in having its nuclear sites controlled or inspected by an international agency - it has most recently refused to let the IAEA inspect the Parchin military base, where the work on a nuclear trigger has been suspected to occur.

Again he talks about how his being "silent no longer" is supposed to "free many from silence" - where is this alleged silence occurring? Plenty of people over the years have criticized Israel for its (alleged) possession of nuclear weapons, and have also insisted that Iran isn't developing nuclear weapons. I do not hear this silence that he claims has existed until he decided to write this rather badly-written poem.
Only this way are all, the Israelis and Palestinians,
Even more, all people, that in this
Region occupied by mania
Live cheek by jowl among enemies,
And also us, to be helped.
Why does he now mention "Israelis and Palestinians"? I thought this poem was about Iran and Israel! What has the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians have to do with the threat of an Israeli attack upon Iran, or the threat of an Iranian development of a nuclear bomb?

I occasionally write poems, and even more occasionally publish them on this blog. Even my poor efforts are better written that this piece of tendentious drivel! This is not a poem, it is a really bad example of agitprop.

Don't keep Günter Grass out of Israel

I'm no fan of Günter Grass, after his recent poem about Iran and Israel and nuclear weapons, but I think this is ridiculous -  Israel Interior Minister Yishai declares Grass persona non grata. For heaven's sake, he wrote a poem, he didn't launch a missile at Israel. I think it would actually be good for him to visit here and talk to some ordinary Israelis about their fears - he might come to have a better understanding of why some support an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations.

I do not think that Israel should attack Iran, because of the potentially terrible effects on Israeli and Iranian civilians if a full-scale war breaks out. I believe that there should be secret talks between Israel and Iran to address the threats that each utters towards the other in public, just as there were secret talks between the US and the USSR during the cold war. There should be a secret method of communication to prevent the verbal threats from turning into actual war - something that is not in the interest of either nation.

I'm now actually reading his wretched, ridiculous poem, and my next post will be my attempt at a fisking of it.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The wicked child at the Passover seder

I'm sitting in my sunny Jerusalem apartment on the first day of Pesach. The neighborhood kids are playing soccer in the playground across the street. It's a quiet Shabbat in Katamon.

Last night I had a great seder with a friend of mine, A., and various family members and other friends. It was a lot of work getting ready for it, but it was definitely worth it. We had some really good discussions about deep moral issues - one of which was sparked by a question about the four types of children who are mentioned in the haggadah: the wise one (חכם), the wicked one (רשע), the simple one (תם) and the one who does not know enough to ask (שאינו יודע לשאול).

The question was - with which child do you identify? We began to talk about what is the nature of the רשע (rasha, the wicked child) - is this someone who is really wicked or is called wicked for other reasons? A.'s mother said yes, the rasha really is wicked - he separates himself from the community and scorns its values. This follows what the traditional haggadah text says of the wicked child (my translation):
The wicked child, what does he say? "What does this service mean to you?"
"To you and not to himself," because he has removed himself from the community and denied the essential truth (כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר).
You should set his teeth on edge and say to him: "Because of what YHWH did for me when I went out of Egypt." Me and not him. If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.
My friend's mother saw the wicked child as the person who has entirely removed him or herself from the community and rebelled against it.

My friend's 14 year old daughter, S., had a different perspective. She asked: Is anybody ever really wicked? What about the circumstances that might have led someone to do something evil? What if that person is poor and deprived of the good things in life? Maybe that's why someone committed a crime.

Another person, T.,  at the seder replied rather sharply to her: What about serial murderers, like the man in Toulouse who just murdered seven people, including three children? Can't you say of a person like that that he really is evil? Some people are just evil.

My friend's daughter, S. replied: But he wasn't born that way. Babies aren't born evil.

T.  said: Right, babies aren't born evil, but after a certain age, people are responsible for their own actions. They can't blame their parents or society any more when they commit wicked acts.

My friend, A., then asked: what if two people committed the identical crime, and one was from a poor family where he was hit every day and always went to bed hungry, and the other was from a well-established family where the child was very loved - should they receive the identical legal judgement?

S. said: Of course they should be treated the same way.

My friend then said: You know that the symbol for justice is a woman who has on a blindfold - so that she can't see who stands before her. The judge isn't supposed to pay attention to whether the defendant is rich or poor - the judgement should be made regardless of the condition of the defendant.

The conversation then became a bit more lighthearted - we went back to the original question of which child we identified with, and it turned out that most people, for various reasons, identified with the wise child.

I thought about this discussion in comparison with other seder discussions I've had, especially with children present (there was also another boy there of about 11, who didn't say much during this part of the discussion but was definitely following what was being said). I've been at other seders where parents of children have changed the subject abruptly because they didn't want their children to be exposed to talk about violence and murder (even though both are part of the biblical Passover story). But at this seder no one shrank from discussing the moral issues raised by violence. I can't help but think that our being in Israel helped to shape this discussion. Here, children are aware of violence from an early age, and the parents I know have not tried to shield their children from knowledge of it. They talk to their children about it and do their best to prevent them from being governed by fear - but they don't try to pretend that it doesn't exist.