Try this: debate Israel-Palestine with “Taboo” rules

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taboo cardsThe board game Taboo— is one of my favorites. The objective: get your teammates to guess the word at the top of each card but without relying on the related words listed at the bottom.

Related game, try this: “Israel-Palestine edition” Taboo for political debates. Prohibited words:

  • anti-Israel
  • pro-Israel
  • anti-Semitism
  • pro-Palestinian
  • support
  • Israel (alone as a noun)
  • Palestine
  • peace

Most conversations about the conflict use these words in abundance, none of which mean anything. If you’re going to say someone or some group is “anti-Israel,” you must highlight what behavior and specify how that behavior is bad. Similarly, qualify what you mean by “supporting” or being “pro” Israel.

#6 is the toughest but the most crucial. By avoiding Israel as a stand alone noun (“We should support Israel” or “Israel doesn’t want peace”) debaters are forced to specify if said behavior is bad for Israel as a state (meaning the health of her democratic institutions), bad for the Jewish state (meaning harmful to Israel’s majority Jewish status), or bad for her safety (meaning dangerous to the lives of her residents), and more.

My experience? Most people have no idea what they’re talking about and just recycle cliched phrases. And others have never had to parse “Israel” into its many components: the land, the government, the will of the Israeli electorate, a specific political party, a coalition of political parties, and so on.

Example:

The flotilla is anti-Israel.

What does that even mean? Likely it means that the flotilla is opposed to the Israeli government’s policy of blockading Gaza. But is the alleged “anti-Israel” element rooted in: (1) opposing just— the blockade, (2) opposing the Israeli government’s choices, (3) opposing Jewish aspirations to an independent state, (4) ignoring Hamas’ culpability and/or actively siding with Hamas, (5) passengers on board who commited some secondary “anti-Israel” qualifications, etc.

Another example:

Israel is opposed to peace.

Again, what does that mean? Who is— Israel: the Israeli public at large, the right-wing, the settler movement, the ruling coaltion, or the cabinet ministers? And what is “peace”: a cessation of violence, withdrawl from the territories, the establishment of two states, or a one-state solution? Each turn of definition expands the potential meanings by an entire dimension. Be specific.

Here’s the advanced edition for deeper conversations in perhaps more left-right polarized environments. Additionally prohibited words:

  • terrorism / terrorist
  • apartheid
  • Holocaust
  • genocide
  • ethnic cleansing
  • Zionism / Zionist
  • Any permutation of the phrase: “seeks Israel’s destruction”
  • Any permutation of the phrase: “plight of the Palestinians”

Each of these bear highly charged connotations to different audiences. Their use is typically to score guilt points, not to dialogue. But even if we’re debating, not dialoguing, these confuse more than they illuminate because of their multiple meanings.— These words each summarize an analysis which justifies their useage.— Unless you have all night and want to debate a tangent, ditch them.

One of the stupidest acts of slacktivism to me is fighting to change the meaning of words. Meet people where they are and not where you might like them to be. All the energy wasted on “reclaiming” or “reframing” could have been spent on clarifying shared values (and thus recruiting them to your side). “Zionist” is one of those words that the left and right seek to re-define, but which is not useful to meaningful debate. Its use is merely a loyalty signifier.

The point of these Israel-Palestine Taboo conventions is to escape ambiguity and debate with clarity. In dialogue speak, you are learning to build “bridge words.” I find that debate opponents are surprisingly closer in opinion than they realize, but speak past each other. And more importantly,— these enable you to escape fighting over words and, well, get into fighting over things that matter more: policies, values and solutions.

This is how I write and converse about this issue. Your feedback is warmly appreciated.

Parshat Chayei Sarah: Reconsecrating Hebron means giving it up

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(To better understand the Jewish scriptures cycle and my approach to my sermonizing versus my blogging, see my explanation. Genesis 23:1 – 25:18)

Hevron, the holy city. The city full of holiness and holes, birthrights and burials. The coins dropped by Abraham into the palms of the Hittites in this parsha echo down the halls of history; and we audit what he purchased for us. We inherit so much.

Hevron is one of the four Jewish holy cities, where legend has it Jews have lived continuously for our entire history. Adam and Eve are said to be buried there. All of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, except Rachel, are buried there. We don’t know what its name means. It could mean “four” after the four pairs of ancestors, or the fourth holy city, or the four other names its held. It could mean “unity” or “fellowship” for the partnership between Abraham and the Hittites. Or because estranged brothers of two generations – Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau – put aside their years of enmity in order to bury their fathers there. It is the reward that Caleb the spy requests for his truthful reporting. Under Joshua, Hevron is designated as one of six cities of refuge where those accused of murder could flee for asylum. It was the city assigned to the Cohanim and Aaron’s priestly descendants. It was King David’s first capital city and his parents are said to be buried there. In the Middle Ages, beautiful poems were composed to “sleepers of Hevron,” all those buried there, awaiting the day of redemption when they would awake, rise and join us in the Messianic Day. The Arabs call it Al-Halil – “the friend of God” – and we share with them the mosque built atop the cave, the Machpela.

Refuge, city for priests, meeting ground of reconciliation, family ties, reward for truthfulness, seat of authority. Not so bad for four hundred silver shekels.

It is because Hevron is so holy place that we are so disappointed in it. A legacy as rich as this in shining precepts is despoiled by its recent history and present-day morass.

How should one behave in a holy place?

In holy places, we speak quietly, respectfully, in hushed voices, awed and appreciative. We listen for the whisper of the still, small voice against stones ancient and strong. And we hear It.

On August 24, 1929, Hevron was anything but quiet as nationalist tensions erupted in Hevron’s most infamous massacre. In the words of Aharon Rueven Bemzweig, who survived that night, “Right after 8 in the morning, we heard screams. Arabs had begun breaking into Jewish homes. The screams pierced the heart of the heavens. They were going from door to door, slaughtering everyone inside…The screams and moans were terrible. People were crying Help! Help! …As we lay on the floor of the cellar, we heard the screams as Arabs were slaughtering Jews. It was unbearable.” 67 were killed, 60 wounded.

On February 28, 1994, who could have heard the still, small voice in the cave of the Patriarchs as the mosque filled with the sound of automatic gunfire, which Dr. Baruch Goldstein unleashed on Muslim worshippers. As the New York Times reported of survivor Katem Kafisha, “When I saw Goldstein, he was running toward the hall where everyone was saying prayers. I was taking off my shoes by the door. He could have shot any one of us who was outside, but it was clear he only wanted to open fire on the worshippers so he could hit as many people as possible. He didn’t say a word.” The IDF reported that Goldstein emptied 111 rounds from 3 —½ clips in two minutes, killing between 39 and 52 and wounding 125.

In holy places, pilgrims bustle and bring in bushels their hopes, reverence, faith, and search for wonder. From all over the world a holy place collects more holiness, layers of it like the sedimentary record.

There are few pilgrims in Hevron today. A trickle. Within its center, a diehard cluster of 300 Israeli settlers sit protected by 1,500 Israeli soldiers. Some 20% of it is under near-constant curfew and military patrol, shops are shuttered and sniper lookouts dot the rooftops. It is a ghost town, closed off and shut down. The most recent layers here are laid by the mountain wind swirling desert dust in empty marketplaces.

In holy places, witnesses are inspired to holiness themselves – a welling up within, an electrifying of expectation, a surge of hope, the feeling that God really stands just barely concealed beyond the curtain of reality. A battery sizzling with Divine renewal.

We fear in Hevron that God has abandoned earth, thrown up His hands and found more fertile soil for cultivation. Walking the empty streets or meeting wary-eyed settler devotees or wary-eyed Palestinian residents, you feel not a welling up within but weight, hallowed out, lonely.

Hevron is deep in the West Bank, recognized in every negotiation iteration as a city that will not be kept by Israel. Whether Israeli citizens – or Jews at all – will be able to visit this fourth of our holiest cities is not certain. But it must happen or there will be no democratic Jewish state at all.

How then – after all of this history – can we give up this city? Charged with meaning and power and symbolism, how can we hand over this tiny plot of land and risk never seeing it again? (It’s not so much we hand over really, barely the side of this shul! [Congregation Beth Elohim])

Because if Hevron is a “holy city,” it was once a holier city. Exactly because today it is so hard to feel the layers of holiness buried beneath still-fresh layers of pain, we must act as if it still inspired us to the strength, the charity, the hope and generosity, the reverence and the spirit of rapprochement. We must summon those feelings from our texts and our experience of sacred spaces elsewhere if we are to reconsecrate this city as holy.

Giving away what is valuable to our people is not easy. But we want Hevron to be holy once again. Of all the acts of repairing the world that are possible to us, this act of dusting off the soot and revealing the shine beneath – surely there are fewer more sacred acts! If all of Jewish law is to bring out the holy sparks in every movement and act, how great this mitzvah is! We relinquish because we revitalize. Solomon built sacred space; the Maccabees rededicated sacred space; now it is our turn.

We must see making peace, and its hard, hard compromises, as part of the most powerful act of creating holiness our people has ever endeavored. We will infuse our kavannah, we will invite God back amongst us, we will inspire pilgrims. And when it is done we will inhale the silent, awed, hushed aura of a city of holiness, of refuge, of priestly acts, of bearing truth, of reconciliation. Hevron has so much possibility.

I wish you a Shabbat shalom and hope soon, despite all the politics, to consider the hope still latent in dire situations. We have only up to go from here. If you’e interested in investing a little time in this issue, then some of us are working very very hard, very very seriously on that future day in Hevron.

11/14/09