Exploring the Universal In The Israeli Particular

From Council Member Stephen Stern:

As we pivot this week to the opening of Race and the discussions it already is stimulating, I want to add a reflection on Boged and the last week of its issue-centered talkbacks and panels. Theater J is dedicated to focusing artistic lenses on public discussion of dramatic and societal passions. The urgency of the particular in our dramas — here in a town on Israel’s desert “periphery’ — evokes expressions of the universal through its vivid portrayal of the local. On the Boged “Social Protest in Israel” panel, Anton Goodman outlined an inward-looking period in a society that grew a movement seeking a values-based (“we are all in this together”) assertion of the meaning of Jewish sovereignty. Anton saw the universal quest of the “little guy’s” aspirations being buffeted by the accumulated force of money and power. Alison Hoffman saw, in both the play and her reporting on that 2011 summer sweeping Israel, an artistic expression — a re-imagining of what could be. Yoram Peri reported back from his experiences of the play and his encouragement to playwright Boaz Gaon (as social protest leader) and disappointment on the recent election’s lack of taking on an under-articulated element of the movement – engagement in resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict which continues to impose crippling costs on the aspirations of Israeli society.

Panelists on the New Israel Fund co-sponsored discussion on “environmental justice” expressed through their ideas and life’s work an ability to take on core human and planetary needs through environmental actions, Jewish understanding and interfaith coalitions. Environmental planner Stephanie Firestone, reflected on work in Israel and the US — and the poisonous status quo that was shaken but not shattered by the actions in the play. Looking at this drama from the periphery, she posed a key universal question on who is “at the table” and who is not — as decisions are made. Rabbi Larry Troster spoke of the poor especially as bearing the brunt of environmental degradation, and the resulting environmental justice movement in the US was started by African-American communities living under toxic pressure from industrial wastes. Environmentalism is not fundamentally a luxury for well-off consumers, but a place for distributive justice where the risks and rewards of actions on the environment bring a measure of equity – tzedek (a concept of righteousness) where those who suffer most, don’t get the least.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb spoke of the Jewish prophetic tradition as a key to environmental inter-generational conservation and restoration. He saw this in the Hebrew names of those in the play struggling for that future — Tomi and his daughter. Tomer, related to the name tamar – the palm tree that endures strong and righteous — and Yarden – the garden, the river, the ever-flowing fresh waters that give life. I loved both rabbinical responses to one of the many sharp questions from the audience, “how do you answer that worker who sees his job threatened by environmental slow-down” or my perpetual query about the Samson-like destructiveness of the characters driven by such a pure and uncompromising vision. The economic trade-off is a false dichotomy, we need here a realistic long-term thinking that looks at health and degradation costs and uses the best of Abrahamic religious inspiration to outline hope and a sense of redemption. It’s not Samson bringing the house down, but Jeremiah who took his stands under threat for the benefit of grand-children and generations beyond and Eldad and Medad who iconoclastically prophesied within the tent of meeting — giving rise to what can be an activist, participatory prophesy by all of us.

So for those in the audience that stay on for our discussions, the human dramas on our stage continue to leap into human discourse. We often leap very far into a subject, maybe even far afield. Join as we turn to the subject of “Race: Where are We Now?” in the American context– and we’ll be back with stories and reflections from a changing Middle East soon.

Blair Bowers, Michael Tolaydo and Nadia Mahdi

Blair Bowers, Michael Tolaydo and Nadia Mahdi