Coming of Age

My eldest son’s bar mitzvah is coming up in less than a year. Unlike most synagogues in the United States, Israeli synagogues do not train children for their bar mitzvah. There is no “Hebrew school” connected with the synagogue since Jewish education is part of the public school curriculum be it in a religious, TALI (enriched Jewish studies) or secular framework – all of which are available as part of the public school system. Parents usually hire a bar mitzvah tutor who works with their child preparing him for his bar mitzvah.

This year, I am among a group of parents in my 150-family Conservative synagogue (this is considered large by Israeli standards) who got together to form a Bar Mitzvah Club for our children since there is a group of about half a dozen children who will celebrate their bar mitzvah in the coming year.

It is the goal of this group to go beyond prayer and synagogue practice and to impart to our children other Jewish values. When discussing the Tzedakah project we want the kids to take on, one parent said that for her, this was the highest priority because for her Bar Mitzvah is the time when our kids pass into adulthood which means the world stops centering around them and they begin to give back to the world around them.

Israel is far past its Bar Mitzvah year, having just celebrated its sixty-third birthday. Countries seem to mature slower than children, although I think we can be very proud of Israel’s accomplishments in this relatively short span of time.

To give some perspective, sixty-three years after the United States was born, in 1839, the United States had a lot of unrest and enforced policies which today we would find repulsive. It was in the 1830s that there had been several wars with native American tribes. (I am reminded of the famous cartoon which has the native American telling the Israeli “Ask me about Land for Peace.”) Within the 1830s the United States enacted the Indian Removal Act and the Department of Indian Affairs was established. It fought several wars against the native inhabitants including the Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War and the Creek War of 1836. It was also in this decade that the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from the southeastern U.S. leads to over 4,000 deaths in the infamous Trail of Tears.

The 1830s saw the first public debates regarding slavery which with hindsight indicates that the United States had only begun to address its most serious issue, having focused on outside issues before turning introspective and examining its own practices and populations. At that time, the original “Gag Rule” was imposed when the U.S. House of Representatives banned discussion of antislavery petitions. It would take about another twenty years before the Dred Scott case reached the Supreme Court ruling that Blacks are not citizens of the United States and before the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Looking from the outside to the United States today, I see how America has come of age, passed through a period of internal struggles and strife and now is giving back to the world.

It seems that Israel, like my son, is involved in a struggle with its own identity. Both are just starting the difficult work of self-discovery, of looking inward instead of blaming everyone around them.

The United States on the other hand recently had a great victory in the War on Terror. The mature nation has tuned outward once again, but this time they are doing the world favors. As in the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and many other battles, the US seeks to remove any obstacle, the world over – including people, in its self-proclaimed manifest destiny to better the world. The time has passed, but the methods seem not to have changed. As with his predecessors who dealt with the Indian nations, the current Commander of the US Armed Forces is judge, jury and executioner.

The microscopic and hubris view of the world blinds the United States from realizing that there are many among the world populace who do not count themselves among the United States’ friends. While the U.S. has tried in the past with other populations, it will be difficult to kill them all. Osama Bin Laden has been replaced and honored as a martyr. Violence will only bring more violence.

How can the United States call for peace when it can not control itself? How can the United States ask the Israelis and Palestinians to end the circle of violence when it justifies it’s own actions with the same logic? Where is the World Court and due process? Do I hear Americans respond with the answer familiar to my Israeli ears: “You can not negotiate with terrorists”; “There is no justice”; “You can not talk to these people”?

This time the tables are turned, and sitting in Jerusalem I ask you, other than vengeance, what has the United States achieved? Has it really changed anything for the better or has it escalated the situation? Is this how we should deal with our enemies?

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