Chicken Little vs. Mr. Blue Bird

Chicken Little vs. Mr. Blue Bird

Every week after Shabbat services, our congregation adjourns to a festive kiddush luncheon.

Inevitably, there are two people who come and talk to me in between my bites of sponge cake and tuna fish. I have given both of them nicknames; they are terms of affection.

The first is Chicken Little. He is a distinguished man with salt and pepper hair, somewhere, I am guessing, in his mid 60s. He earns a nice living, and his children are grown. I call him Chicken Little because every week he tells me that the sky is falling. It might be because of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, which will be achieved by this Thursday, or because a terrorist cell that infiltrated the United States and will strike Jewish targets any minute, or perhaps the result of a grand scheme, engineered by our government, that soon will deport all Jews from our homes. No matter which one seems most urgent at the time, he is convinced that the good days for the Jewish people are not so good. No, our sky is falling.

His counterpart is known (only to me) as Mr. Blue Bird. He is the optimistic fowl who sits on the shoulder of the person singing Zippity Doo Dah; he symbolizes cheer and hope. He is in his mid 40s, and his kids are in high school. He has a few streaks of gray in his moustache, and his hair is thinning. Each week, he finds me as I socialize during our post-service lunch, and he shares with me the latest and most advanced discovery in the world and tells me how the Jews are a critical ingredient in its arrival. From the RE-Walk, which helps people who are paralyzed to walk again, to the pill-cam, to the story of a shul that feeds police officers and firefighters on Christmas, he inevitably highlights some story that underscores the significant contribution made by Jews in general or Israelis in particular.

I am not sure if Chicken Little and Mr. Blue Bird have ever broken challah together. I would love to be a fly on the wall during that conversation. I imagine that it would be tantamount to a human being having a dialogue with an Anglo-Martian – a shared language but no shared understanding of how to see the world.

Rabbi Danny Gordis once said that there are two narratives of the Jewish people today, symbolized through two distinctive images. One is the boy in the Warsaw ghetto, with a yellow star stitched to his tattered jacket and his hands in the air. Fear is painted on his face as he stares down a rifle. His eyes beg for his life. The other is a picture of young Israeli men praying atop an Israeli made tank. One picture is the narrative of imminent doom and the other is a picture of invincibility. Chicken Little and Mr. Blue Bird.

We live in an era where the awareness and simultaneous delta between these two camps has never been more present. The latest episode from the American Studies Association highlights this divide perfectly.

Less than two weeks ago, the ASA chose, for the very first time ever, to boycott a country and cease academic relationship with it. The country they chose to boycott was Israel. Their reasoning was to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and what it described as the involvement of Israeli universities in supporting government policy. The leader of the ASA was asked why, for its very first academic boycott, it chose Israel, a country that educates men and women, people of all religious and political stripes, a country where openly gay people can serve in the military. Why choose the only democracy in the Middle East?

His response?

“We have to start somewhere.”

It isn’t hard to strip this down to what it is – anti-Semitism, clear and simple. Countries that surround Israel violate countless human rights that the ASA holds dear. Nations like China, North Korea, and Afghanistan violate such rights daily. But the ASA did not choose to boycott any of those countries. Instead, it singled out Israel.

Chicken Little has plenty to bring up this Shabbat.

But the ASA never predicted that scores of universities would reject the boycott outright, and even consider leaving the association in reaction to its decision. Ivy League, Big Ten, Division AA and countless other schools, led by presidents and board chairs, have stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel and vociferously denounced this boycott. Whether it is stifling academic freedom or whitewashing anti-Semitism, the hypocrisy is thick, and the tolerance for unfounded discrimination is thin.

So far, four universities have withdrawn from the ASA and 81 schools have excluded themselves from this action. The list is growing by the day. In short, the boycott seems to hurt the ASA much more than Israel. Mr. Blue Bird has a file full of evidence too.

Today we are at the crossroads, where two narratives of the Jewish people collide and we do not always know which one to follow: “The anti-Semites are gaining on us and we are victims” story or the “we are strong and we stand together” account. The latest episode of the ASA showcases a world where both influences and storylines rise to the top.

Who will you be sitting with during kiddush this Shabbat? Chicken Little or Mr. Blue Bird?