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Jacob Dared To Dream


So there I was, standing in a very long queue waiting to enter Sadler's Wells to attend this past week's performance of the Batsheva ensemble dance company. The queue was a result of the enhanced security needed for this particular performance of an Israeli dance troupe coming in the wake of renewed conflict between Israel and Gaza. It always seems to bring out any and every anti-Israeli protest group. In this case, I believe I saw a good variety of signs accusing Israel of all manner of human rights abuse, genocide, ethnic cleansing. Just for good measure, I think I even saw a token one accusing it of women's rights abuses. It seems that now that a good momentum is established, and any type of accusation is acceptable, it also becomes routine and therefore acceptable to say just about anything heinous and untrue about the state of Israel without fear of the repercussions of any one calling you on the gross distortion, inaccuracy and outright lie of the accusation that you are making. Among those I read just this past week are that “.....approximately 750,000 non-Jews.... were ethnically cleansed in 1947-9 in order to ensure a Jewish majority in the new Jewish state.” That, “This group is dispersed around the world, mostly in refugee camps in the territories occupied in 1967 and the neighbouring states. Israel has persistently denied them their internationally recognized legal right to return.” By the way, this supposedly “true” statement was made by an Israeli teaching law in the U.K., as if by having those credentials it makes the unfounded claims he is making more legitimate. As we all know, terms like “ethnic cleansing” are highly evocative, and now, it seems, completely accepted when it comes to speaking about Israeli relations with Palestinians. Any one without a background in law will probably not have the tools to understand that there is no “internationally recognized legal right to return” in the case he is speaking about. In fact, most people do not understand the legal notion and definition of a right to return at all. But if it is claimed by a law professor, particularly one who claims to be Israeli, then I suppose it magically becomes a true statement.

In any case, I took the decision not to accept any of the leaflets being handed out by the polite, well-dressed men going up and down the queue, with the idea that accepting them would show tacit agreement with whatever ridiculous claims were contained in them. Ultimately, I could not help my curiosity and I took one of the more well laid out leaflets that seemed to have longer, and therefore I thought, more well reasoned arguments for why the people handing them out had such an opposition to a dance company going on tour to perform. The main objection seemed to be that Batsheva was a cynical tool of the government to put a “pretty face” on the ugly human rights abuses of Israel and that it was an instrument of, I guess, a kind of world conspiracy, to present “Brand Israel”. In other words, the real substance of the accusation seemed to be that Israel had a kind of gall, a chutzpah even, to have, well, ….culture. How outrageous of the Zionist State to have culture!

In this week's parashah of Vayeitze the story begins with Jacob fleeing the wrath of his brother Esau. Having stolen Esau's birthright and blessing, Esau was understandably enraged with his brother to the point where Jacob feared for his life. Lost, afraid, he flees his family and his home, alone for the first time. As night falls he finds himself terrified and tired, and with nowhere but the ground and some rocks for his bed and pillow. And in this terrifying darkness and the fitful sleep of the scared, tired, hungry and guilty, he has a dream that figuratively and perhaps even literally opens up the heavens for him to experience a revelation from God. In the dream he sees angels ascending and descending a ladder, God speaks to him and promises to be with him and his descendants. What's more, the earth itself will be blessed by the existence of him and his descendants. Jacob wakes up and suddenly knows that God is in this place and God is with him on his terrifying journey. As one commentator puts it, “The story of Jacob's dream has inspired countless paintings and poems over the millennia. What is it about this passage which has made it so personal for so many throughout the ages? Is it the dream itself (something which every person does)? Or perhaps it is the angels (which provide a source of comfort)? Is it the image of God as an imminent force so near to us and watching over us wherever we may be? Or is it the promise of redemption and blessing for all humankind?”

The inspiration for paintings and poems, and as we know, movies, plays and even dance – this story is one of our greatest inspirations for culture. What is culture? One definition says it is “the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively....” In other words, it seems to be something unique to human beings, to be related to the imagination, to creativity, to the capacity to dream itself. Imagine my delight to discover in a little potted history of Batsheva, that the driving force behind the company, that is, its artistic director Ohad Naharin, had been plucked from obscurity and encouraged and groomed for his great role in the development of Batsheva, by being cast by the company's first artistic director Martha Graham as Esau in a 1974 production of Jacob's Dream. I'm unfamiliar with that dance but it does seem to indicate the continued and unabated fascination with this story that grabs and captures the imagination, and which is about a scared, terrified young man on a journey who encounters God when he least expects it. As one commentator put it, “...out of nowhere into a troubled mind comes a vision of God and the angels and a stairway connecting heaven and earth. Jacob is completely unprepared for it.”

Why do so many people seem to disproportionately hate Israel and why is it such an acceptable hatred among the intellectual class of the so-called Western democracies? If you don't believe me then please look at the various youtube videos of even that one evening of protests in front of Sadler's Wells. I defy you to find any logic or reason in the arguments of the interviewed protestors. At the risk of sounding overly psychological, what could be more galling to those that hate, than Israel and Israelis daring to hope and dream, to remain creative and create, well, culture? – something evolved, imaginative? Something beautiful and universal? Something that touches people's hearts and gives them a sense and feeling of the sublime? Something that catches us unaware, that creeps up on us and makes us suddenly realize that God is in this place and we did not know it? For what is the human creative spirit if not a manifestation of our nature as beings created in the image of God?

It does seem that these moments of revelation often happen when we are “...alone, afraid, vulnerable, close to despair. It is then that, when we least expect it, we can find our lives flooded by the radiance of the divine. Suddenly, with a certainty that is unmistakable, we know that we are not alone, that God is there and has been all along but that we were too preoccupied by our own concerns to notice Him. That is how Jacob found God.... in the midst of fear and isolation. Jacob, in flight, trips and falls – and finds he has fallen into the waiting arms of God.”Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

I suppose, at the very least, this may help explain why there would be such angry, ugly and irrational hatred aimed at a dance ensemble. What better way to dehumanize a perceived enemy than to deny them the right to dream?

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