Credible Narratives: Matot 5774 by Cantor Lipp

Mon, 07/21/2014 - 9:09am -- AJ Blog

Counterman by Paul Violi

What’ll it be?

Roast beef on rye, with tomato and mayo.

Whaddaya want on it?

A swipe of mayo.
Pepper but no salt.

You got it. Roast beef on rye.
You want lettuce on that?

No. Just tomato and mayo.

Tomato and mayo. You got it.
… Salt and pepper?

No salt, just a little pepper.

You got it. No salt.
You want tomato?

Yes. Tomato. No lettuce.

No lettuce. You got it.
… No salt, right?

Right. No salt.

You got it. Pickle?

No, no pickle. Just tomato and mayo.
And pepper.


Yes, a little pepper.

Right. A little pepper.
No pickle.

Right. No pickle.

You got it.

Roast beef on whole wheat, please,
With lettuce, mayonnaise and a center slice
Of beefsteak tomato,
The lettuce splayed, if you will,
In a Beaux Arts derivative of classical acanthus,
And the roast beef, thinly sliced, folded,
In a multi-foil arrangement
That eschews Bragdonian pretensions
Or any idea of divine geometric projection
For that matter, but simply provides
A setting for the tomato
To form a medallion with a dab
Of mayonnaise as a fleuron.
And – eclectic as this may sound –
If the mayonnaise can be applied
Along the crust in a Vitruvian scroll
And as a festoon below the medallion,
That would be swell.

You mean like the Cathedral St. Pierre in Geneva?

Yes, but the swag more like the one below the rosette
At the Royal Palace in Amsterdam.

You got it.


Every time I go on summer vacation, I’m concerned a war will break out in Israel. In 2006 when we were on a family bike trip some of the other participants urged us not to listen to the news. The 2nd Lebanon War had begun.

It would be the height of narcissism to ask Israel and Hamas to hold off until my vacation was over, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt that way. The number of Facebook posts flashing on my timeline from all sides these past two weeks was deafening. I think a psychiatrist would have diagnosed me with a cross between OCD & Masochistic Personality Disorder. I felt as though I had to read every word.

The poem I read by Paul Violi was about context. Try to make sense of an order based on mere details and one has to go over and over again to figure it out. Paint a picture and if your deli man has a PhD in Art History and Church Architecture, he won’t need much more instruction. 

I tried, in the tennis match of articles between right and left these past weeks, to try to discern the contexts within which each side lives, the assumptions they make, the questions they ask and those they intentionally leave unanswered.

My point isn’t to find a moral equivalency in the current ground war against Hamas but rather to better understand the background context against which people take sides for or against Israeli policies in general.

For the record, I do believe Israel has a right to defend itself against the Russian Roullette of missile attacks from Hamas, no matter how ineffectual; the fight of Hamas for pyrrhic relevance on the Palestinian street is highly cynical (something even Arab writers are coming not only to understand but to articulate publicly); and the comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany and the reintroduction of the blood libel in anti-Israel demonstrations -- even in this country -- are nothing short of obscene.

I’ve become interested in what causes some to accept certain positions and arguments as true and others as irrelevant. I’m not the first to say it, I probably read it in an article by David Brooks, but I sense the difference between right and left boils down to which stories make us feel good about ourselves. These narratives lead us to observe how the world works, how it should work, and how to overcome the gap between one and the other. 

As a self-described centrist, I’ve tried not to place myself in some mathematical-statistical-Nate-Silver-like mean between the two extremes, but rather I think I earn that designation because I seem equally capable of irritating friends on both sides. It’s more of an intuitive designation than a scientific one.

So here are my descriptions of the narratives of Jews who view Israel from the right and left: The inconvenient truths each side, in my view, should own; the implied associations each makes by being on either side and the questions we all need to ask ourselves.

The Narratives 

The right’s narrative is based on the idea that Israel is in a life or death struggle with extremists that want to destroy it and any Israeli answer to that challenge is defensible if not mandatory. The left’s narrative is that Israel has brought on much of the problems it faces by over-reaching, over-using its immense power and that a peaceful solution is possible, attainable and faces greater obstacles of Israeli intransigence than Palestinian obstructionism.

Again, sitting in the center, I think both sides need to own a few things that are inconvenient to their narratives. They need to incorporate some facts to make their narratives credible.

Let me start with the right. 

We are bringing Ari Shavit, the author of one of the most popular Israeli books written in the past year My Promised Land. There has been serious controversy about his claim that there was a massacre in a mosque in Lydda prior to the ejection of most of the Palestinian Arabs from the town during the War of Independence. It’s a fair criticism -- I read at least two of the articles and it’s likely that Shavit didn’t do his due diligence on this point. It’s likely the ‘massacre’ was a response to hand grenades thrown from that location and the attack on the structure was a reasonable war-appropriate reaction.

What no one has seriously argued is Shavit’s description of the exodus of the Palestinians from Lydda. Not, as I was taught as a child exclusively, that all the Palestinian refugees left because the Arab forces around them encouraged them to leave and return victorious but that they were, like many others, forced to leave by the Israeli military. Whether that forced exodus can be defended is another issue. In a life or death struggle for existence in war I think it can at least be understood. First it needs to be owned as a historical fact.

Further, I always liked to believe that the Occupation of the West Bank was ‘enlightened’. There is plenty of evidence of the unnecessary destruction of olive groves, the hassling of Palestinians who are not terrorists and the appropriation of land on the West Bank against ISRAELI law, not international law. At the very least, I would challenge the right to agree that Israel should enforce its own laws in Judea and Samaria.

Third, there really are Israeli racists and it shouldn’t require a 16 year old to be burned to death to acknowledge it. I was glad that Netanyahu condemned the murder in the harshest terms and seems to have caught the culprits quickly, promising to punish them as much as the law allows. But Jewish teenagers don’t burn an Islamic one to death in a moral vacuum. There is enough racism that is tolerated in enough of Israeli society that needs to be condemned far earlier and more extensively to avoid such acts in the future.

Finally, I’ve read that peaceful Israeli demonstrators against the war in Gaza have been attacked by thugs who disagree with them. We have to be able to say these things are not okay.

Now to the left. 

One would think from the way the left sometimes characterize the way Israel makes war, that Israel invented the worst form of it in the history of the universe. I don’t know whether war in Gaza is the only way to stop the rockets and infiltration tunnels but to object to it without acknowledging that Hamas’s charter commands the destruction of Israel is disingenuous. When Netanyahu says he can’t allow an independent Palestinian presence with full military sovereignty on the West Bank, the left needs to acknowledge that his argument about rockets and tunnels so much closer to Israeli population centers is not an illusion. Abbas may be a real partner for peace but there is little to reassure the average Israeli that he will be able to control the kinds of activity that have taken place in Gaza.

The left further needs to own that in the heady days of Oslo, when Israelis were flocking to the West Bank for gambling and great shabbat discount shopping and Palestinians were working throughout green line Israel for construction work, that Israelis put up with a huge amount of terrorist activity as a necessary evil towards a true and lasting peace. They need to own that we act as anti-Arab racists when we expect so little from their societies in good behavior while requiring such saintly behavior from our own. Israel simply can’t survive as a perfect, or as some have said, the only truly ‘Christian’ state in the world, the only one that actually ‘turns the other cheek’ when slapped.

In the history of the world and military conflict, Israel at its worst is far more careful than any analogous army including the United States, Britain and France. The civilian deaths in Iraq, Serbia and Algeria respectively from those countries’ conflicts, in wars that did not essentially threaten the existence of any, were far greater than those inflicted by Israel on Palestinians in the entire history of an existential conflict. I shouldn’t even have to mention Turkey against the Kurds, Russia against Chechneya or the Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian massacres of their own citizens and one another. Those bars are way too low. The left needs to own that at its worst, Israel behaves much more carefully than others in war contexts.

One of the articles on the left which I found most compelling was by Israeli best-selling novelist David Grossman. He wrote that Abbas is a partner for peace, the Arab Peace Initiative has been ignored by Israeli leadership and we shouldn’t lose hope and yield to despair.

For those of us living 3000 miles away, my answer is that Mr. Grossman doesn’t need to convince me to take risks for peace but more of his fellow citizens. The Israeli government is incredibly, some would say, overly democratic. Both he and Israelis who live on the front line, which is anywhere in Israel today, need to let their government know what risks they can, should or must take and when the time is right.


The cost one pays for being on the right is being associated, fairly or not, with people who espouse views that are patently racist. In order to counter such unfair association, we on the right need to confront and disagree with statements of that kind.

The cost one pays for being on the left is being associated, fairly or not, with people who don’t truly believe Israel has the right to exist or defend itself, with people who associate Israel with blood libels and Nazis. In order to counter such unfair association, we on the left need to confront and disagree with statements of that kind.


I want to leave you with a couple of questions depending on where you find yourself. In the center, I ask myself both sets constantly:

On the right: What would the Israeli Government have to do for you to say, that’s not acceptable? Is there anything?

On the left: What would the Palestinians have to do for you to say, the Israeli Government has the right or obligation to respond with military force? Is there anything?

Penultimate Humor

The advantage of reading everything is that some people respond to adversity with humor. This is by Omri Marcus: 17 things to do in 30 seconds from The World Post. Here are most of them:

• Get an MA degree from the University of Tijuana.

• Sing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. At least half of it.

• Play hide and seek with an ADHD kid.

• Send an error report to Microsoft.

• Take a "30 seconds result" pregnancy test. Even if you are a man, actually, especially if you are a man, maybe the rocket won't be the most significant event of your day.

• Cook "Minute Rice." (Warning: it will only be half cooked)

• Watch the all-time highlights of Israel's national soccer team. Twice.

• Quit smoking. Twice.

• Go to the window and shout, "I'm sorry I didn't spend more time at the office". It's always nice to refute a cliché before you die. 

• Watch 1/120 of CBS's "60 minutes."

• Swim 7 laps in an Olympic pool (only if you are Michael Phelps)

• Change your profile picture on Facebook and then change it back.

• Write a nasty comment about someone's piece on the Huffington Post without really reading the article.

• Watch the most watched clip on "YouTube." (Only if you want to spend your last moments watching an angry squirrel turn his head) 

• Learn all the names of the moderate non-violent ministers in the Hamas government by heart - and you'll still have 29 seconds left.

A Rhetorical Question

But seriously. 

I often hear from both the right and the left the following question: What choice do they have?

From the left, I hear ‘What choice do the Palestinians have but to reject unfair offers of subjection, to resist nonviolently or, in the case of Hamas, to hide their weapons and build tunnels? They already are so much less powerful than Israel, if they were out in the open, they’d lose! What choice do they have?’

From the right, I hear ‘What choice does Israel have but to bomb and root out the weapons of Hamas when they are disrupting Israelis’ sense of security and normalcy? What choice do they have?’

My only request is that anyone who asks such a question, make it a REAL question and not a rhetorical one, one that has the potential to lead to better strategic, moral and imaginative results.

In our Torah portion, God tells Moses to take Israelite vengeance on the Midianites. Moses turns around and says the Israelites are to take God’s vengeance on the Midianites. One could say it’s mere semantics. After all, the command came from God.

I recently saw the production in the park of Shakespeare’s Henry V, a theatrical meditation on power. Numerous times, King Hank describes the victories against the French as being ordained by God.

I’d like to believe that whether we are left, right or center, that we can agree that war may be necessary but it’s never holy.

Shabbat Shalom.

David Lipp