Sunday, December 12, 2021

The Kotel: The deal that wouldn't happen

 Just after Prime Minister Bennett and other members of his government repeated what has become a mantra for them—how Israel is for all Jews, how they want all streams of Judaism to feel welcome, equal and appreciated, etc. etc.—and not long after pledging once again that they would pass the long-delayed Kotel agreement negotiated during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s tenure, a deal Netanyahu reneged on under pressure, the Bennett government demonstrated  a similar modicum of backbone when it comes to keeping its pledges and backing up its lovely words about Israel’s approach to non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews:  It announced that it was breaking its pledge.

Bennett and several of his coalition partners, as well as President Herzog, have put relations with Diaspora Jewry, and particularly with American Jewry, at the top of their stated priority list.  If they do not already know, they will soon learn what anyone familiar with non-Orthodox American Jews knows:  that for a large majority of the 90% of American Jews who are not Orthodox, feeling that they are not treated as equals by Israel will forever be an obstacle to them identifying with and feeling as close as they might to Israel.

To a great majority of that majority, the Kotel represents a tangible and visible sign of the lack of equal treatment and equal status.  While they may not visit Israel often, and while many never visit, for those that do come the Kotel is at the top of their list, and it is often among the most meaningful and emotional stops on their visit.

In case someone is tempted to disregard these Jews as alienated malcontent lefties marching with IfNotNow as they shout anti-Zionist slogans, I suggest counting the number of AIPAC conference attendees not wearing kippot.  On second thought, it will be easier to count those wearing kipot.

I’ve spent a decent number of hours explaining to Israelis why the Kotel, a wall seldom if ever visited by a great number of American Jews, located in a country seldom if ever visited by them, is such a lightening rod, such an important symbol of acceptance, equality, and appreciation to those Jews.

As mentioned above, the Kotel and, specifically, the Kotel deal, has become a symbol of how Israel looks upon and treats non-Orthodox Jews.  And, for those Jews who look further, the problems they see with the symbol reflect reality:  rabbis not recognized, marriages not recognized, funding not equal by a long shot.  And the list goes on.

I’ve spent an equal number of hours explaining to American Jews why, despite the fact that there are so many non-Orthodox “secular” Israelis (a very misleading term—see Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuch’s “#IsraeliJudaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution” for a picture of how Israelis do their Judaism), they are not demonstrating about and voting on this issue.

For most of these non-Orthodox Israelis, it is an occasional irritant:  weddings, divorces, and death.  Security, education, economics, transportation are the issues that stare them in the face daily.  Many of them seldom if ever visit the Kotel, viewing it as an Orthodox synagogue.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Their house burning, American Jews take a hose to Israel?

A relative (I’ll call her Melanie) recently asked me what I thought about a notice from her Reform Synagogue in the Western U.S. announcing a program exploring the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The program promised to hear all voices, get new perspectives, not place blame, discover creative solutions, and other well-intentioned platitudes comfortingly explored thousands of miles away from the scene.

After responding to Melanie’s question with some platitudes of my own about the benefits of gaining more knowledge and hearing from a variety of perspectives, as well as something about the need to understand history and context, I then wrote much more than Melanie asked for:

On a more general note, the program raised something I have been thinking a lot about lately: When we first started coming to Israel frequently, I would often bring up my concerns about how Israel related to and was perceived by the American Jewish community. I did this because I recognize the importance of that community to Israel and to the future of the Jewish people.

Many of the Israelis I met, including people who made Aliyah from the U.S. and other countries years ago, would often just shrug in seeming resignation, or they would make some dismissive comment.

They seemed to be resigned to American Jews having problems with and not understanding Israel, and to being unable to convince American Jews of Israel’s positions and concerns. Some even seemed to be contemptuous of the American Jews expressing their concerns about Israel’s actions or positions. I could not understand how they could be so dismissive.

Now, after having lived here in Israel a good part of the last decade, I am more understanding. People living here, including me, my wife, and our daughter, have dealt with periodic wars, taking shelter from missiles, sending kids off to battle, cars and trucks driving into bus stops, knifings, and other life-threatening and certainly traumatic events.

In between these “incidents,” people here are living lives just like others in the world: Putting kids through school, dealing with elderly parents, fighting traffic, doing their jobs, trying to afford apartments, shopping for groceries, complaining about prices, enjoying good wine, booking weekends at hotels, listening to music, dealing with Covid, and even, occasionally, arguing and complaining about politics.

They live in a country which, like many other countries, has challenges and things to complain about. But, overall, given the history of the country and the neighborhood we are in, Israelis live in a rich, resourceful, fun, rewarding, meaningful country. They (or we) have much to be proud of.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

My arteries and the territories--The Ben & Jerry's boycott

While my arteries may be happy, it pains me to say this:  I will be boycotting Ben & Jerry's and, to the extent I can keep track of their myriad holdings, the ice cream company's parent company, Unilever. I will be urging others to do the same.  (Ben & Jerry's is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Unilever.  In an unusual arrangement, Ben & Jerry's is run by its own "independent" board.)

Ben & Jerry's announced that it is boycotting the "Occupied Palestinian Territories."   It's announcement is vague and confusing, which probably reflects the lack of in-depth knowledge and the confusion of those making this ill-advised decision.

Does the announcement apply to every inch of the land beyond the 1949 armistice lines, including Jewish neighborhoods and communities that, until the Obama Administration referred to everything beyond those lines as "settlements," everyone, including the Palestinian Authority, understood would be included in Israel under any two-state agreement?

Does it include Jerusalem neighborhoods to the north and south of the city center that straddle the "Green Line" and that were established to provide a buffer after travelers on the road into Jerusalem were constantly harassed and bombarded by Jordanian forces when they controlled the hilltops surrounding the narrow corridor pre-1967?

Does it include Gaza, the territory Israel withdrew from in 2005 but which the anti-Israel/pro-boycott choirs now applauding still refer to as "occupied?"

Does it refer to all of eastern Jerusalem, or just the shops and apartments with mezuzahs?

Does it mean that the shops in that part of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor that are on the west side of the 1949 armistice lines (which no one recognized as a final border) go on selling Ben & Jerry's while those on the east side of the line do not?   Same question regarding Beit Safafa and Talpiot and a host of other neighborhoods.

If so, watch out for a Saturday night stampede. Funny--I can continue to buy my car tires in Beit Safafa, but not my Ben & Jerry's sugar rush.

Does it mean that all of the Palestinian neighborhoods, towns and shops, and millions of Palestinians, the great majority of whom are under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, will no longer be able to buy Chubby Hubby and Chunky Monkey?

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The election: relief, hope, and realism

 Friends keep asking:  How do you feel?  What do you think?

Me: I feel relief.  I’ve got some hope.  I’m sober and realistic.


That Bibi Netanyahu is no longer Prime Minister.  Despite what many in liberal quarters think, he did some good things.  He kept Israel relatively safe.  He resisted pressure and temptation when Israel could have acted militarily more aggressively and, perhaps, recklessly.  He made diplomatic inroads around the world.  He solidified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  He kept Israel economically healthy and vibrant.  He vanquished a deathly virus.

He even was the first right-wing Prime Minister to say, albeit with not unreasonable caveats, that Israel would accept a two-state solution.  Yes, he later backed away from that for political reasons.  But, if the Palestinians had grabbed the opening and worked to build a state, Netanyahu may have had no opportunity or reason to back away from his statement.

Despite that record, Netanyahu could not put together a 61 member coalition over the course of four elections in two years.  Why?

Because he became poison.  He became destructive.  He alienated allies who he felt might compete for leadership of Likud.  He broke promises left and right.  He and his family began to think of themselves as entitled to the position.  One post-election symptom of that feeling of entitlement:  they apparently don’t have plans to immediately vacate the Prime Minister’s residence.

Politicians who largely agree with his policies refused to join a coalition with him because he either lied to them, excluded them, or plotted against them.   They opted for the “change” coalition despite serious ideological differences with several of its members.

Indicted for serious crimes from trading government policy for favorable press treatment to just feeling entitled to receive expensive wine and cigars, he attacked law enforcement and the judiciary, including his own appointees.  He attacked the institutions of a democratic and free society.  At the very end he wasn’t even original, throwing about completely bogus charges of election fraud and the deep state.

He made alliances with or appointed unqualified lackeys to important positions, several of whom have been indicted or are under investigation for various crimes.  He held up budgets so as to invalidate an agreement to transfer the prime ministership to a colleague as promised.  In the interest of staying in power, he legitimized racist individuals and parties long persona non grata in Israel’s politics and society.

The Knesset session during which the new government was elected illustrates the level of conduct to which Netanyahu’s supporters and associates stooped.  Rather than respectfully listen to the speech by the soon-to-be elected Naftali Bennett, they deliberately disrupted the proceedings, interrupting repeatedly with demeaning and disturbing charges.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Musings and questions

Now that we have a ceasefire, I've just been thinking.  So far, I've come up with this:

If Israel's (and Egypt's) "siege" on Gaza has been so airtight, how the hell did Hamas get 4,000 missiles, or the materials and machinery to make them, as well as the weaponry needed to shoot them?  And, as a friend asked me, if Netanyahu is so good on security, how did he let that happen?

If the AP has such reliable and thorough reporters, how did they not know that there were Hamas operations in their building?  Pretty much everybody else knew.

If AP, CNN, seemingly millions of others, and/or you are in a fit over Israel destroying a building (!) after giving an hour's notice (!) to get out but fail to mention that 4,000 missiles are being fired at innocent kids, women, and men, there is a moral screw loose somewhere.

"Proportionality" has got to be the most misused word in the English language right now.  Contrary to what John Oliver and Bernie Sanders might think, it does not mean that an equal number of Jews (and their fellow Arab Israeli citizens) must be injured or killed.

It also does not mean that Israel has to use the same amount of force as Hamas.  (e.g. see the U.S. v. Taliban in Afghanistan or the Allies v. Dresden in WWII).  It means there must be a legitimate military objective and that the force must be appropriate to achieving the objective.

While the Sheikh Jarrah dispute and the Damascus Gate and Al-Aqsa Mosque tensions were an opportunity that Hamas exploited, they were not the reason Hamas started the war.  They were a pretense.  But assuming they were the cause, and assuming the commonly misused definition of proportionality, how the hell do those issues justify 4,000 missiles fired at civilians??!!

The war was used by many American leftists to attack Israel's very existence.  According to them, we are a bunch of people who, without any connection to the land, recently randomly decided to settle in the only place in the Middle East (about one and a half percent of the total land mass) without water, oil, or much else, and we proceeded to kick all of the natives out.

Never mind that Jews have a connection to Israel, and a continuous presence, going back thousands of years. Never mind that there are 1.9 million Israeli Arabs living within the 1948 armistice lines and millions more in the territories captured in 1967.  And never mind that about 45% of Israel's Jews are from Arab nations, many of them or their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, having been among the 850,000 Jews forced to leave Arab nations in 1948.

But, let's assume that we all just got over here in the last few years.  Do these people berating us as colonial usurpers with no ties to the land realize that many Israelis have been here longer than many of their families, have been in North America, a land to which their families have exactly zero ancestral ties?

Many Israeli families have been here 80 or 90 or 100 years.  How many of the families of the critics came to America prior to 1920?  The family of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who happens to speak fluent Arabic, has been in Jerusalem since 1809.  How many families of those characterizing Israel as a bunch of interlopers have been in the New World since 1809?

And, by the way, do those geniuses think that North America was just a depopulated barren wasteland when their families arrived?  Do the names Pontiac, Seattle, Malibu, Manhattan, Miami, Mississippi,  and Chicago just come from a screwed-up game of Scrabble?  Did American sports teams just dream up offensive names?

And then there was President Polk's little escapade into Mexico.

Are these ignorant, hypocritical critics of our oppressive colonial usurper regime packing up and going back to Europe anytime soon?

And, can somebody tell me when the far left became anti-immigrant?  Or does that only apply to Jews immigrating to their ancestral homeland?

Just some thoughts that come to mind.

(Originally published in The Times of Israel)


Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Remember this moment

 A few years ago I was a guest at a meeting in the U.S. of some lay and professional Jewish community leaders.  In some concluding remarks, the chairwoman of the meeting made a passing comment about how the Israeli government paid no mind to the opinions and sensitivities of the American Jewish community, and that hopefully someday it will.

Most of the attendees either nodded their heads in silent agreement or did nothing at all.  No one objected.

While no fan of the then-current Israeli government, or of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, I nonetheless could not let this off-the-cuff, almost flippant comment go by.  As the chair was about to close the meeting, I raised my hand and said "excuse me."  I then went onto say something like this:

"This is a two-way street.  While American Jews may feel that Israelis are insensitive to them and ignore their views, Israelis have similar feelings.  They feel American Jews are not there for them when it really counts.  Two examples:

"1)  During the Second Intifada that started in 2000, after Arafat's rejection of the Clinton/Barak proposals for a Palestinian state and the resort to violence, American Jews were a rare site in Israel.  The busloads of Christians kept coming, but the Jews?  To the Bahamas and Hawaii, one might speculate.  Certainly not to Israel.

"2)  Israelis saw the Iran deal as an existential threat.  Yes, Prime Minister Netanyahu was the face of the opposition to the world, and, yes, one can certainly argue with his approach.  But the view that the deal presented a serious, life-and-death threat to Israelis and their children was a position held across the political spectrum.

"Israelis were up against a popular American President, President Obama, whose Administration resorted to less than admirable strategies to paint those opposing the deal as warmongers.  On occasion, they hearkened back to thinly disguised, old tropes used against Jews for centuries.

"Where did most American Jews come down?  With President Obama, not Israel.  From the perspective of many Israelis, these two incidents told them American Jews are fair-weather friends.  When the going gets rough,  American Jews aren't there."

The meeting adjourned.  I saw one or two faces with indicating appreciation, nodding understanding.  

The rest: silence.

Here in Jerusalem we can see the demonstrations in the U.S. by those that would love for Israel to disappear. But we do not see the demonstrations of years gone by, of proud, public, unafraid Jews in places like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco.

Yes, there are a few brave, lonely, determined voices.  But nothing organized by the major American Jewish organizations.  Nothing like the tens and hundreds of thousands of years gone by.

It seems like American Jews have become timid, without confidence, when it comes to supporting the only Jewish-majority nation in the world, a nation that has its challenges and that makes mistakes, but that has been miraculous in what it has accomplished and, under extraordinarily trying conditions, is generous in its conduct towards its enemies.

A nation that seeks peace but refuses to not defend itself in the face of rampant aggression against its people. A country that changed the perception of all Jews in the world, and that made Jews strong and proud.

In the face of that nation suffering over 3,100 missiles fired at its civilian population, a population that would have been devastated but for its defensive systems and its shelters, American Jews are, as my former rabbi in Sacramento put it, the Jews of silence.  

We've seen this movie before.  We saw the Pittsburgh Platform, wherein the budding Reform Movement rejected Zionism and the concept of the Jews as a nation and asserted that Judaism was simply another religion whose adherents would meld comfortably into the countries of which they were citizens, in this case the United States, the Promised Land, the Golden Medina.

We saw the timid, silent American Jews of the 1930's and 1940's, those that counseled against demanding strong measures to rescue the condemned, to not rock the boat, to not  pressure, all out of fear of irritating the Roosevelt Administration and of calling into question their loyalties.

We saw major American Jewish organizations and so-called leaders of the American Jewish community cringe and criticize as Hillel Kook (a.k.a. Peter Bergson, Revisionist Israeli leader) who organized loud and very public rallies and marches and pageants demanding American action aimed at saving Europe's Jews, to little avail.

We saw the early days of the Soviet Jewry Movement, when the Jewish "establishment" warned that protestors were upsetting the Nixon Administration's rapprochement with the Soviet dictators, assured us that they knew how to get the job done quietly and diplomatically, when in reality they were fearful of being charged with putting Jews before America and with losing their invitations to Washington dinner parties.

We know who in these instances have been judged heroic and who have been judged cowardly.  We know who we now admire and who we do not respect.

We know who stood proudly when the lives and limbs of their brothers and sisters were under dire threat, and who were concerned for their status with those they look to in the general community for acceptance and legitimacy.

American Jews and American Jewish organizations will not be proud of this moment in Jewish history or in Israel-American Jewish relations.

The next time American Jews complain that Israelis are not considering their feelings and taking into account their opinions and needs, remember this moment. Be assured that Israelis will.

(Originally published in The Times of Israel)

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

A night at the concert

Since Monday night Hamas has fired over 1,000 missiles at Israel, all aimed at civilians.  For some inexplicable reason, the authorities allowed an outdoor concert to take place last night at the Israel Museum here in Jerusalem, usually a beautiful night time venue. And for some stupid reason, my wife and I went.

In the middle of the concert, we could see a couple of the ushers looking toward the west, the Tel Aviv area. Those of us in the back seats stood up and could see fire, lights, etc. in the sky. I checked the alert app on my phone. Missiles in Rishon LeZion, just southeast of Tel Aviv.

Our daughter lives in Tel Aviv. She checked in on us and we on her. After a few minutes, we decided our 1950's apartment with no shelter was still better than the Israel Museum outdoor theater. So we left.

On the 10 minute drive home, the radio station kept interrupting with a siren sound and a monotone voice saying a city, and then "take shelter" (my interpretation, which is not perfect).

City after city: Rishon LeZion, Herzliya, Holon (bus hit), Ramat Hasharon, Tel Aviv, Jaffa. It just kept going on and on. Every announcement my wife and I shuttered, paralyzed. Checked with our daughter again.

I've heard no condemnations from Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, the Squad, et. al. We are now hitting back hard. But, we're polite.  We give out warnings before we target a building so that the "innocent civilians" can leave.  My question:  do the bad guys stay put so that they look like good sports?

Once the body count on the other side gets up there, we'll start hearing about proportionality (a much misunderstood and misused military doctrine), the  cycle of violence, restraint, and a host of other meaningless platitudes.

We'll hear about how so many more Palestinians than Israelis have died. This basically sounds like our critics would be happier if only more Israelis were killed.  If only we wouldn't use our resources and concern for life to build shelters and defenses, they'd feel better.