Hunkering down

While I’m sure other stuff has been happening around the world, the last couple of weeks in Israel and the United States have been crazy.

IMG_20181117_183937

How we deal with it at my house

In the US, we had a blue wave in the House, more firings in the White House, CNN had a stand-off with the president, the president popped over to France, and major elections had recounts.

In Israel, the apathy of the citizens of Jerusalem was staggering – the new mayor won by about 6,500 votes in a city with a population of 865,000 with only 30% of eligible voters voting. Israel is defending its citizens against attacks by Gazan rockets (460 rockets over several days from Gaza into Israel), but now there is a cease-fire. However, the defense minister stepped down, which rocked the delicate coalition, and that may bring about national elections.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“Truth is stranger than fiction.”

Yeah? I’ll have some of that fiction now, please.

The nice thing about fiction is that it’s clean and all the boring unimportant bits are taken out. You don’t have to waste your time on details that don’t push the story along. Real life has just too much stuff going on and you don’t know what’s really important or which way to look.

I’m a fan of thrillers, mysteries, police procedurals, and I’m not averse to vigilantes with strict internal moral codes. At the moment, my fictional world is making a lot more sense than real life. But I do need fiction that makes me think. I need a theory or a particular worldview to chew on.

A few weeks ago, a British show called Strangers caught my attention. A few of the main characters are British, but it was filmed in Hong Kong with Chinese actors speaking Chinese (scenes with subtitles!). My original thought about reviewing this series was to point out that Britain is now getting in on the Asian drama wave. But I’m going to take it in a different direction.

What I loved about this show was that it was filled with twists and turns I didn’t see coming. I know the usual tropes, so I really appreciate a show that keeps you guessing. For instance, here is a synopsis of the first fifteen minutes: A woman is driving while crying on the phone. She’s hit by a truck. A self-satisfied professor starts his lecture and is pulled out of the lecture hall to be told his wife has died in a car accident. He’s afraid of flying, but goes to Hong Kong to identify his wife’s body and bring her back to England. He sees a man holding a picture of his wife. Who is this man? None other than her Chinese husband who she’s been married to for the past 20 years.

Say what? I’m hooked. And it goes on like that for eight episodes: an unexpected twist every fifteen minutes or so.

I won’t spoil it for you. The unraveling of the mystery is very well done; I enjoyed the meandering pace.

What made me think, though, was a nearly throwaway line in the first minutes of the show. The smug professor wrote a book called Do Nations Exist? The brown-nosing student says “Nations are imagined; they only exist in our minds.” The professor answers, “Surely a group of people claiming to be a cohesive whole is, at best, a lie agreed upon.”

You can watch the whole show without ever thinking about this line ever again. However, given the events of real life, you might see that the story shows you the answer. Our professor leaves his ivory tower and arrives in a dirty, dark, smoggy Hong Kong. He finds that everything he thinks is true is not, everything he expects in the world is upside-down, and all of his British cultural touchstones have no meaning in Hong Kong. He expects the police to help, they don’t. He expects the British consular officers to help, they don’t. He thinks the Chinese husband is working against him, he isn’t. Then there’s the journalist, the university friend, the activist, the refugee, the Triad gangster, the conglomerate owner, the British consul, the hotel manager – no one is who they appear to be. And what about the elections in Hong Kong? There are protests and the usual rumors and power plays. But how does it fit in? (As I mentioned, nothing is introduced that isn’t important. It’s clean and we know where to look, even if it might be misdirection on the part of the writer.)

It’s possible that the important bit of the line is “a lie agreed upon.” When you hold up the mirror of fiction to real life, you might find that everything you think is true isn’t. All your expectations are baseless. Your interactions in the world go awry because you are a stranger in a strange land.

But then why throw in nations at all? Do they exist? Well, I suppose it depends on who you ask. If you are inside, then they don’t – or don’t have to. If you are outside, then they most assuredly do.

As for me, for the moment, I prefer to stay in my fictional world that makes some kind of sense. Real life is just too crazy right now.

Here’s the opening of Strangers

And a quick teaser

“Won’t you be my neighbor?”

“Mom, can I go visit with Mr. Rogers?”

Taking her 5-year-old’s request very seriously, she asked, “Well, how long will you be gone?”

“Oh, about a half an hour.”

“Ok. Have a good time.”

And I plunked myself down in front of the television and had an undisturbed visit with Mr. Rogers.

***

This Google Doodle is only in the United States and I know Mister Rogers is more or less an American phenomenon. I wish it was global.

There is only one person in the whole world like you, and people can like you just because you’re you.”

A great message to give to children.

You are special and so is everyone else in this world.”

A reminder that we should not only value ourselves, but that each person has value.

“Childhood lies at the very heart of who we are and who we become.”

Our childhoods don’t have to be perfect, but if we are allowed to use the tools to learn and grow from our experiences, then we can make ourselves and the world around us better.

***

All of Mr. Rogers’ messages fit in with the Jewish value of choosing life.

And where there is life, there is hope.

Perhaps this Google Doodle will remind people, especially people in power, of a few simple truths:

“I feel that those of us in television are chosen to be servants. It doesn’t matter what our particular job, we are chosen to help meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen – day and night!”

“I’d like to be remembered for being a compassionate human being who happened to be fortunate enough to be born at a time when there was a fabulous thing called television that could allow me to use all the talents that I had been given.”

So now, in the New Year, and a day before my birthday (my own new year), I wish you all a life of purpose and meaning, doing the things that you love that make you, your families, and the world around you better.

And if you need a little inspiration, go have a visit with Mr. Rogers. It is surely time well spent.

“True”

The news has taken a lot of my attention this week and I want to share a thought about the controversial book, Fire and Fury. There was this quote (image from the Kindle preview and full disclosure, I haven’t read the book)

fire and fury

It sounds like what he’s saying is that untruth is part of this book. So then what do you believe? This is something that has been touched on in different reports, but is not explored in depth.

It reminded me about biased journalism against Israel that reporters often deny. One well-known example of this is the battle in Jenin in 2002. Journalists faithfully and accurately quoted the residents of Jenin and Palestinian spokespeople who said that 400-500 Palestinians were massacred in Jenin and that the Israelis committed war crimes. These allegations spread throughout all the news outlets because they were indeed accurately reported. It’s just that what was said was not at all true. In fact, 52-54 Palestinians and 23 IDF soldiers were killed in the fighting. By the time that came out, no one was listening and so when people think of Jenin, the first thing they usually think is “massacre.” (It’s also true that Israel did not handle the media properly at the time and restricted their access.)

I’m not defending the Trump White House here, but Michael Wolff has basically done the same thing. He has faithfully and accurately reported things that were said to him, but he has no way of knowing which parts are true unless he was a witness. Does DT go to bed at 6:30pm with a cheeseburger? Who knows? Did all those people call him different variations of stupid? Only if Michael Wolff heard it with his own ears. Did he not want to win the presidency? Unknown.

questions-1328466_1920

Some in the media think that it’s enough to say that what they are reporting is “true” simply because it is exactly what someone said. They need to also check that what is being said is objectively true. When Sean Spicer said that the crowd was the biggest that there had ever been for an inauguration, the media did their due diligence and showed that this was objectively untrue. They need to apply the same standards across the board to all their news stories. They need to remember that they are not just reporters of statements (or tweets), but investigative journalists who have a responsibility as the Fourth Estate to find out what is true, and not limit their investigations to what fits their own personal agendas and the story they want to tell. That means that whether a journalist is pro or anti Trump or pro or anti Israel, their first responsibility is to get as close to the objective truth as they can.

I saw an interesting piece about journalists in the Netherlands grilling US Ambassador to the Netherlands Pete Hoekstra about false statements he made about Dutch politicians being burned and “no-go zones” taken over by Muslim extremists. The Dutch journalists banded together and no one asked any other question except if he would give an example or retract his statements. They asked quietly and respectfully, but did not back down.

question-2309040_1920

If we can get the media to investigate something, what I’d like to know is: If the president is playing golf and cutting back on his schedule (starting his day at 11am and scheduling “executive time” for hours every day), then who is picking up the slack? I can imagine that the ship of government continues to sail without a strong rudder, but shouldn’t someone be at the helm? Is there an autopilot? Can the ship run aground? And if so, what happens then? Or, and I may be veering into conspiracy theory territory here, perhaps there is someone in the background (who did not run for president) who is actually steering the ship? Is the apparent chaos in the White House a distraction?

The 24-hour news cycle and ratings/clicks-driven stories don’t necessarily leave a lot of time for journalistic integrity and investigation. But maybe we as consumers need to demand more, demand better, and demand verifiable and objective truths.

“Alternative Facts”? Sure, I’ve heard of those!

alt-factsI just liked this headline from The Guardian

When Kellyanne Conway used this phrase this week, my first thought was that if she had any sense she would have said that it was a “different interpretation of facts.”  And then it occurred to me, “Hey, we have plenty of ‘alternative facts’ reported about us in Israel.”

A few weeks ago 4 soldiers were run over by a truck driver on purpose in a targeted attack.  Here’s what the BBC first reported.

bbcScreenshot from my computer

There is actually nothing untrue in this headline.  A truck driver was shot.  It happened in Jerusalem.  There were allegations that he hit people and injured them.  And the Israeli media reported it.

But do you see the problem here?  It’s the arrangement and presentation of the facts.

Does it feel different when you see the headline this way?  Here’s their later post.

bbc3
Screenshot from my computer

Still true, but now you understand who the victims are and who the perpetrator is and that it was an attack – not an alleged attack according to others.

I’m an editor.  I work with words for a living and it matters how facts are framed.  For instance:

Four young soldiers murdered in vicious truck ramming attack.

Four killed by truck.

Truck driver runs over four soldiers.

Terrorist shot in his truck after he killed four soldiers.

Truck driver shot after fatal accident kills four.

All of these sentences have the same facts, but you feel differently about each because of how those interpretations are framed.  And yet none of them is a lie.

The most shocking example of different interpretations of facts I’ve heard of was in 2007 when a master’s student won an award for a research thesis that looked into the question of why IDF soldiers don’t rape Palestinian women.  Her conclusion – hold on to your socks – it’s because IDF soldiers are racists and dehumanize Palestinian women so they wouldn’t even want to rape them.  Let me repeat.  She WON AN AWARD for this work and Hebrew University stood behind the decision.  (Here’s an analysis of the paper done by a professor at Haifa University. Here’s a shorter article about it.)

That’s an alternative fact if ever I’ve heard one.

I’m not defending Kellyanne Conway.  I’m not defending journalists who write news stories with their own biases and agendas.  And I’m not defending the academic world.

I’m appealing to you, dear reader, to be aware.  Read multiple news sources.  Read news you don’t agree with (in moderation if you have high blood pressure).  Watch out for fake news.  Analyze and deconstruct what you read and hear.  More than anything else, hold people accountable for the words they use and how they use them.

More on history and truth from my blog:

The truth about history.

How history will remember.

UNESCO rewrites history.

UNESCO Rewrites History

Mom told me a story once about her mother and how she had once been a history teacher in the Soviet Union.  She was helping her students prepare for a big exam and reminding them how a certain general was a “hero of the people.”  During the week of preparations, this general became an “enemy of the people,” so all the questions about him were changed to reflect his new status.  Grandma was disillusioned and changed careers to become an accountant.

That was the Soviet Union then.  This is now.

This week a UNESCO resolution is trying to rewrite history and suggest that Jews and Christians have no connection to the Old City of Jerusalem.  I mentioned the resolution in a blog post in July and discussed very briefly the postmodern idea of “narratives of history” in May.

The main problem (among many others) with the resolution is that it purposely eliminates or minimizes the Jewish names of the holy sites:  Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif is never referred to as the Temple Mount and Buraq Plaza is the name for the “Western Wall Plaza” (quotation marks in original).  Full text is reprinted here.

The “Buraq Plaza” of 1916-1917 – not much of a plaza and not a Muslim site.

nsw-aussie-soldiers-at-kotel

Source

The Office of Foreign Affairs posted this on their Facebook page to highlight the changing of history aspect of the purposeful elimination of names.

14633363_10154057522256317_3844728892048890717_o
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a statement that said:

To say Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the pyramids. With this absurd decision, UNESCO has lost the modicum of legitimacy it had left.

And he followed it up with this tweet.

tweet
In my opinion, the most worrisome thing is the vote.  The resolution was approved in committee 24 for and 6 against, with 26 abstentions.  The countries that stood up to vote against this resolution were: Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States.  I applaud their strength!  I wonder about the countries that abstained.  They chose not to vote yes, but could not bring themselves to vote no.  Abstaining doesn’t mean they get to pretend this resolution didn’t happen.

UNESCO’s Director-General issued a lukewarm statement mentioning that all three monotheistic religions have a connection to the Old City, but did not cancel or condemn the resolution.

In response, Israel’s government has suspended cooperation with UNESCO at this time.  And rightly so.

Being a UNESCO Heritage Site used to be a badge of honor.  But if UNESCO can vote on and pass resolutions that skew and twist history to suit a particular agenda, doesn’t it call into question all of UNESCO’s decisions and resolutions?  Is UNESCO a new totalitarian regime telling us what history is?

Legends of the Ari: Truth and faith

This story has many versions, but the basic outline is generally the same.

There once was a rabbi in Tzfat (Safed) who gave a sermon about the loaves of bread in the tabernacle.  A baker was so inspired by this that he went home and baked additional loaves of Shabbat challah and put them in the Aron Kodesh (the cupboard where the Torah scrolls are kept) as a gift to God.

challah-bread-1215013_1280

A poor man who helped clean the synagogue came to sweep after prayers and stood before the Aron Kodesh and prayed to God for help to feed his family for Shabbat.  He opened the Aron Kodesh and found the bread inside.  It was a miracle!

The next morning when the Aron Kodesh was opened at services, the baker saw that the loaves had been taken and he was overjoyed.  God accepted his gift!

This went on week after week for many years.

Finally, the rabbi saw the baker put the loaves in the Aron Kodesh and shouted at him: “Why are you putting bread in there?”  The baker answered, “I’ve been doing this for many years and God accepts my gift every week.”  “You’re an idiot!  Do you think God eats challah?”  The baker was embarrassed, but they decided to hide and see what happened.

The poor man came to clean and then stood before the Aron Kodesh praying.  He opened it and took the loaves.  The rabbi popped out and said, “Aha!  What are you doing?”  The poor man said, “I’m taking the challah that God has provided for me.”  “You’re an idiot!  Do you think God bakes?”

The Ari heard the story and gave his ruling:  The rabbi was in the wrong.  The two men did what they did with pure and loving faith and the rabbi destroyed it.  He asked the two men to continue the tradition – the baker would provide the bread to honor God and the poor man would accept it with gratitude to God.  The rabbi had been ill at the time of his original sermon, but had been given a reprieve because he had inspired such faith in the two men.  Now that he had broken their faith, his illness was returned to him.

Usually this story is told to inspire faith, to suggest divine intervention, and to reveal the wisdom of the Ari.  I’m going to turn that interpretation sideways to link this story with last week’s post.

We need to have facts and objective truths (the rabbi), otherwise “history” becomes story, legend, or myth (the two men’s narratives of weekly miracles).  External recorded facts (the bread was provided by the baker and taken by the poor man) provide the framework to question or confirm our narratives and this eventually brings us to a deeper and more profound understanding (our paths cross for a reason and we should continue to do good even if the reason is human and not divine).  Then we can truly learn from history and will not be doomed to repeat it.

Why bring up the Ari this week?

This week we celebrated Lag B’Omer.  Most Israelis don’t really know the history of the holiday, but what they do know is that one of the traditions is to light bonfires and celebrate into the night.

fire-432478_1280

Hundreds of thousands of people travel to Mt. Meron near Tzfat to participate in a huge bonfire at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar.  The Zohar is the primary text for the study of the Kabbalah.  The Ari (the Lion) is the nickname for Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the greatest Kabbalist scholars of all time.