Worshiping Lisa, and a little sympathy for “natural growth”


Eight years ago, when my older son started worshiping Lisa, we decided it was time for a sacrifice.

I live in Arlington, Va.; at the time, there were no Jewish pre-schools in the county – the closest was five miles away in the wrong direction (away from D.C.). My wife was re-entering the work force. My (saintly) mother-in-law was happy to care for both my 2.5-year-old son and his year-old brother, but we thought it was a bit much for us to take for granted.

We tried the (very) limited number of pre-schools unaffiliated with churches, and hit a brick wall. These were either booked years in advance or unappealing.

So we swallowed hard and believed the claim of a pre-school associated with a Baptist church that they were "ecumenical" and Jewish sensibilities would remain intact.

We bought that until the evening he insisted on blessing the meal "in Lisa’s name." Who was this Lisa? What hold did she have on my family?

It took a minute or so to realize he was referring to a kind-of-homonymic savior.

We swallowed hard again and made the complicated arrangements to drive the boys five miles the other way. I’m happy to report that my older son scored high marks in Hebrew school this year for explaining Maimonides’ principles of charitable giving. Lisa, at least I think, is long forgotten.

I bring Lisa up because, while I love telling this story now, at the time (as I think a lot of parents can sympathize) it was a problem of the nailbiting kind. Both of us needed to work to get by in the D.C.-area economy. We needed to leave our children in the charge of folks we could trust. Not earth-shattering stuff, but enough to keep us yabbering away into the night about what to do.

Occasionally, we thought about moving to a cheaper corner of the planet — but we came here for family reasons and it wasn’t an option.

This is my way of getting around to a piece by Gershom Gorenberg at the American Prospect that’s gone kind of viral: It’s about "natural growth" in the settlements.

Let me say at the outset that Gorenberg is right to say that the lack of a settlement freeze has become a major hurdle to advancing talks. First — and I have this on the best authority — because the Americans simply do not trust Israel on settlements any longer. The feeling in the Obama administration is that Israel has turned "natural growth" into a "loophole you could drive an elephant through," someone involved in the talks told me. Not only that, the mistrust is institutional — it has accumulated over the years and throughout the Bush administration. Without adding anything further, I can say my informant in this case would be in a position to know this at the highest levels.

More importantly, the settlements and their expansion are at the crux of mistrust of Israel among even those Palestinians ommitted to two states and co-existence. The settlements have squeezed Palestinians off of their farm land, out of their livelihoods and have made getting around the West Bank a chore at best, a nightmare at worst. Nothing would signal goodwill more emphatically than an earthmover or two left to rust.

What is counterproductive and gratuitous is Gorenberg’s sarcastic tone. He calls the settlers liars. So does Josh Marshall in this post.

There is lying and there is self-delusion. There is a coordinated effort to deceive and there is the all-too-human tendency to focus on instances in a conflict where you are genuinely aggrieved as opposed to those where you know you really want to get away with something.

It is a twist and a stretch to say that a settlement freeze would inhibit women from having babies. But it is also true that Israeli authorities are turning down applications to expand pre-schools in settlements that have naturally grown — where, instead of the usual 10 kids starting in gan (kindergarten), 14 or 15 are expected to start this year. It’s also true that some settlers wishing to add rooms to their homes for expanding families are being turned down. Others are getting the permits.

Who knows why this is — the Israeli bureaucracy has never been known for its transparency. Maybe it’s political, as the settlers I’ve spoken to believe it is. Maybe it’s personal vendettas. Maybe it’s the affair the sweaty guy on the third floor of the ministry is having with the receptionist on the second floor, and the requests are piling up on his desk, while on her desk… you get the picture. And meantime the diligent, energetic guy down the hall is approving all the expansions in the settlements in his bailiwick…

Which is to say, no, it’s not just about some God-given right to have your grandkids a walk away to enjoy, as Gorenberg posits.

But about those grandkids and that walk — it’s not made up. Israelis, culturally, tend to live within short-drive distance of extended family. I’ve seen this in my own extended family and among others. It’s more acute in the West Bank where transportation is more fraught. The folks pooh-poohing this as some made-up custom defend (and with justification) those Arab families who, without permission, add rooms to their house so grown married kids can move in.

Now, the genuineness of these plaints in no way mitigates the fact that some expansions are simply land-grabs — witness the outposts, for the most egregious examples, but others are more subtle, and Peace Now has documented how much of the settlement enterprise was built on illegally appropriated private land.

And the genuine plaints are still not going to keep the freeze from happening, as genuine as they are. The damage expansion is doing to the peace process — and the suffering it causes Palestinians — substantially outweighs the inconvenience to settlers.

But here’s the thing: In real time, as you’re trying to make your kids a little less crazy by building the oldest one a bedroom, as you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to do next year when your boss won’t be as sympathetic to your pleas to make it home on time to relieve the babysitter, it doesn’t feel like an inconvenience. It feels a little like a nightmare.

And tone really, really matters. There are close to 300,000 settlers. About 70,000 of them, at least, will be asked to move, if this process works out. And I just don’t believe that when they are preoccupied with what to do about their kids, Naomi Shemer’s "Al Kol Eleh" is drumming insistently inside their heads.

There will be dead-enders who will make it ugly, if and when it happens, just as there were in 2005 in Gaza. Getting the rest to cooperate will mean speaking to them civilly.

Calling them liars isn’t the place to start.

(And what is that weird violent porn thing going on in the right margin on the Prospect’s Web site?)

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