Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Birds, squirrels and the trouble in Israel

      Today's column has an unusual backstory. My former colleague at the Sun-Times, Rich Cahan, once a photo editor, now a busy publisher of books of historic photography, emailed me Monday to say that Wednesday his show of portraits taken in the West Bank opens in River North. 
     Suppressing my immediate reaction—"kinda short notice, huh?"—I told him sure, I'd be happy to meet him as he set up the exhibit at The Art Works Projects studio, an attractive little gallery tucked in the shadow of the expressway at 625 N. Kingsbury.
      Rich spent a week in the occupied territories last year, and took the portraits in the show on his final night, basically by knocking on doors and asking whoever answered if he could take their picture. 
Rich Cahan 
     In one sense, they are unexceptional photos of ordinary people. Though in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, ordinary people, who are neither soldiers nor protestors, leaders nor spokespeople, perpetrators nor victims, are exactly the individuals who are least noticed or heard. 
     Rich was obviously moved by what he had found during his stay, and focused on one aspect: raids by the Israeli military at night, because, he said, "it was as much as I could physically comprehend, night raids."
     We talked about the dilemma of being an American Jew, wanting to support Israel, but being uncertain where, if anywhere, the current Israeli policy is going. I told him that I try to begin slowly when attempting to converse with my unwaveringly what-Israel-does-is-by-definition-right friends, starting with something like, "The Palestinians, they're people too, right?" but even that tack usually doesn't get me far.
     Passions are high on this here as well as there. Rich went on the trip with 10 others, including Brant Rosen, the controversial Evanston rabbi who had to leave his congregation this year due to conflict over his impassioned support of the Palestinian cause. Myself, I find blindly boosting the Palestinians is as unsupportable as reflexively backing the Israelis. There's plenty of blame to go around.
       "We travelled all over," Rich said, "but spent most of our time in Bil'in"—a small town of about 1,800 people that gained notoriety because of its residents' resistance to Israel's security wall.
      "Because I took it in this town, there are people who say that gives it a particular political statement," he said. "But it could have been any town in the West Bank."
      I asked him if he was worried people will view him as a tool.
     "I don't know who I'm a tool of," he said. I also wondered whether, being Jewish, he had been scared spending a week in the West Bank. He said he certainly felt threatened, but not by Palestinians.
     "We did fear the IDF," he said, using the initials of the Israeli Army. "Our group was tear-gassed three times."
      Cahan's show "Night Raid in Bil'in" opens Wednesday, Nov. 19—there is a reception from 6:25 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the gallery at 625 N. Kingbury. It runs for a month, though the gallery keeps irregular hours, so you need an appointment to get in, though there are several scheduled events you can learn about on their web site. It is part of a program called "Occupied Territories/Contested Lands; Part 1," which strives for an encouraging, and rare, balance: another installation focuses on the difficulties Israelis face—there are photos of families gathered outside their rocket shelters, for instance. 
     I've never had anyone adequately explain to me why supporting Israel demands that I deny the humanity of the Palestinians, or how recognizing their tragic situation somehow is a betrayal of my own heritage. In my view, being Jewish, if it is to mean anything beyond blind team loyalty, demands it. 
     The column below was written Tuesday morning, while waiting to go to the gallery. I wrote it as a placer column—in case I got hit by a bus on the walk over, and assuming I'd scrap it after I talked to Rich and plug what I learned there into it. 
     But I decided to keep it as is.

     Let’s see if we can solve the Israeli/Palestinian problem right now, shall we?
     The Palestinians want Israel, their former home, to be their home again. While waiting, they dwell in misery in the occupied territories, passing the time by lobbing rockets and committing various atrocities, like Tuesday’s slaughter of four Jews in a Jerusalem synagogue. They call it self-defense.
     The Israelis, meanwhile, aren’t about to give up their land to the Palestinians and are content to keep them under guard — not without reason, given the facts outlined above—responding to their attacks with devastating force. Meanwhile, the years click by and the Israelis, not realizing it, grow nearly as divided, angry and extreme as their enemies, as David Remnick grimly describes in a recent New Yorker.
     Have I plainly stated the situation? Good. Now, on to the solution.
     The Palestinians could have their state, but not the state they want. And the Israelis could allow the Palestinians back into their country, but then it wouldn’t be a Jewish country. Plus there’s no reason to think Palestinians would give up the killing that has been their central mode of self-expression.
     The solution, therefore, clearly is ... umm.
     This direct approach isn’t working.
     Let’s try a metaphor. Maybe that’ll help.
     I love birds, and for the usual reasons. They fly. They sing. They’re beautiful.
     I hit upon the strategy of attracting birds by feeding them, and I stuck a wrought-iron pole in the backyard, hung a feeder off it, kept it stocked with seed. It worked. Blue jays and red-winged blackbirds, yellow swallows and brown robins flock to it, to my joy.
     And squirrels.
     The squirrels ruin everything. I hate squirrels. They dart. They twitch. They have, in the past, attacked my home, in the city, trying to chew through the accordion slide next to a window air conditioner, my wife shrieking while I mobilized to our defense.
    Squirrels have the run of my backyard. They are interlopers and don't belong. I'm willing to cede the trees to them; what choice is there? But I've tried to keep them off the feeder. That's the birds' food they're gobbling up. At first greasing the iron pole worked - not so much making them slide, as they're loath to get coated in the stuff.
     But the grease weathers away and is overcome by the squirrel onslaught. Before I know it the iron pole is thick with fur, and the squirrels are gobbling the seed again. They chewed apart my previous feeder, so I bought a sturdier, caged model. I've tried a wide, anti-squirrel baffle, but they just leap upon that and use it as a base. I suppose a 10-foot pole with a baffle might work, but then filling the feeder would be a chore, which it already is, with squirrels that can easily eat three pounds of birdseed a day.
     At the back door, watching twitchy squirrels knock seed down to their grinning confederates, I've had dark thoughts, considered installing spikes or razors. I could buy a .22, shoot a few, nail their limp bodies around the feeder as a caution to others. I know of guys on my block who do that. It might not work, but it would make me feel better. Although it is against the law - the shooting guns in Northbrook part.
     And I measured the impulse to shoot the squirrels and nail up their bloody carcasses against the philosophy I was supposedly acting under—my love of birds—and found it lacking. Killing squirrels would be unworthy of bird love, would diminish it. Remembering what started all this, I had an epiphany.
     The squirrels actually belong in the yard. They've always been there. My not liking them doesn't change that and says much more about me than it does about them.
     Maybe I could learn to like squirrels. Say this for them: The squirrels don't eat the birds; rather they all peck away at the seed fallen to the ground, oblivious to each other.
     It might be easier, I realized, instead of constructing lethal feeders or attacking the squirrels, to simply accept that they are here to stay and try to find value in them. True, doing so will incur more expense (a lot more seed). But so would buying a .22.
     To circle back on the subject at hand. I hope the metaphor doesn't elude you ("Steinberg says Palestinians are squirrels! Calls Jews birds!"). The only solution is a shift in mindset, on both sides. If the Jewish aspect of Israel is merely another brutal faith oppressing those who don't fit, what's the point? If Palestinians really want to go back to Israel, what's their plan for accepting the Jews who have always been there?
     This is a realm where humans fall far short of squirrels which, despite all their shortcomings, coexist with birds just fine.


  1. Neil, my humanity looks at this column with sympathy but it is quickly diminished when I compare it to carnage at the Jerusalem Synagogue. The media is very biased when it comes to Israel and it is about time the should change. It would be a miracle if a column and exhibit would appear either in a Palestinian or Arab newspaper or venue. Here we have two Jewish people representing the other side. Sol Bleiweis


    1. So when you see the carnage, your sympathy for other people diminishes ... why exactly? Because you absorb a bit of the morality of the people who commit carnage, and want to respond in kind? Not exactly something to be proud of, which, given the tone of your remark, I believe you understand, at least on some level.

  2. I'm from a Jewish family, and I support the Palestinians, completely, absolutely, unconditionally, and oppose Israel. Zionism is the Nazism of today. Victory to the Palestinian people, not just by any means necessary, but by any means possible. Yes I am a distinct minority, but we're growing. Palestine will win.

    1. Unfortunately Clark St. they exist - e.g., those rabid anti-Zionist Jews date back to the 40s - they see any return to Israel by Jews not brought about by the Messiah as sacriligous and don't hesitate to pull the Nazi analogy - that's why they are so beloved by the hard liners in Iran and other anti-Semites: useful idiot "good Jews" to show they aren't anti-semitic, just anti-Zionist. There are others as well (is it so hard to believe radicalized American Jews exist out there)?

    2. Well, first, technically you said "no Jew," but more to the point, is it that impossible to envision a rebellious Jewish young person, or one who came from a mixed-faith or unobservant home and fell under the siren song of radical politics (probably far left)? I work downtown and see some of these rallies and they have lots of college kids with those kinds of beliefs - I'll bet some are Jewish, if not practising.

    3. But those Jews still aren't comparing Israel to the Nazis.
      The the speakers, who aren't Jews might be doing that.

  3. Being a member of a Jewish family buys you nothing. You support the Palestinians and condemn the Israelis -- why? What makes their claim any stronger than the Jews? You've commented before, but only in blurts. Now is a good time for you to explain what reasoning, if any, is behind your remarks.

    1. I would just like to hear what he means by "Palestine will win." Does he imagine that the State of Israel will be vanquished and all Jews expelled? It's been done before of course, but I for one find it impossible to imagine how such a thing could happen again. If victory means something less than this, then Israel and Palestine will have to learn to live together somehow, even if imperfectly. And every effort, however feeble, towards mutual understanding is a step, however small, in the direction of victory.


    2. I'm not expecting a reply from him Tate. He's probably 14. Or 20, which is about the same nowadays. He's been blurting that, out of context, for months. I leave it up for its amusement value.

    3. I've noticed: rhetoric divorced from reason.

      In reference to your dark thoughts of killing squirrels and posting their bodies as warnings, it seems that both sides are guilty of that kind of thinking: the Palestinians dream that their murders will deter Israel, which in turn supposes that retribution will deter further murders, whereas both are deterred about as much as your squirrels would be.

  4. Neil, here's the fallacy contained in your column -- birds cannot change. Squirrels cannot change.

  5. Nice use of metaphore Neil. Besides squirrels I have chipmunks and, in winter, herds of deer from the nearby seminary grounds, Long ago gave up trying to defend avian interests. It must be something of a bore being a Jew in the public eye, having to weigh in at every fresh atrocity -- as if I were continually subjected to that old libel "Paddy was a Welshman, Paddy was a thief." and was called upond to respond.

    Some press commentary concerning the recent killings in a Jerusalem Synagog has it that desecration of a holy place is a particularly Palestinian form of evil. As if they had never heard of Baruch Goldstein. It brings to mind something written by the Israeli journalist Amos Alon: "In Jerusalem the religious hatred called odium theologicum has often been an instrument for gaining power, whether in local politics or in real estate speculation." It makes me grateful to those 18th Century gentlemen who erected a wall of separation between church and state. Woudn't like to live in a Jewish state...or a Presbyterian state...or, Jefferson forbid, in a Moslem one.

    1. Thomas - the problem with the Baruch Golstein analogy is that he was widely condemned at the time of his terrorism. Maybe today that wouldn't be the case, but it was then. In contrast, the recent attack was met with celbration from "the street."

    2. Thomas—as so happens with assumptions, you are mistaken. If you recall the chronology, I agreed to go to Rich's show the day before the attack. I don't feel obligated to "weigh in on each fresh atrocity" and indeed don't. Were I reacting to the West Jerusalem attack, I don't think I would have offered up birds and squirrels. To the contrary, I considered holding it back, but decided it wasn't necessary.

  6. It's not a betrayal to acknowledge the Palestinians plight. I think Christians are guilty of betrayal in not acknowledging the plight of Christians in Muslim-majority nations and Arab nations in particular. At best they are granted a Jim Crow existence. At worse they are persecuted in every way. The question nobody has answered to my satisfaction is what is going to happen if this conflict isn't settled before technology spirals out of control (think things like micronized anthrax attached to those missiles flying out of Gaza)? The world needs to impose a settlement - and everyone knows what that settlement generally looks like - to provide political cover for both sides against their extremists (and no, Jewish settlers are not the moral equivalent to Hamas, but they're nearly as intractable about their demands for territory). Would peace take root? I don't know, but it's better than where the parties appear to be heading.

  7. Re Goldstein, he killed and injured a lot more people than did the recent murderers. And he wore the uniform of the IDF while doing it. I'm not in touch with "the street," and so can't comment on what they might celebrate, but Mr. Google informs me that Goldstein and his "gesture" are revered by at least some Israelis. His grave has become a shrine, where you can go and contemplate an inscription that reads "To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the people of Israel, its Torah and land."


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