Sunday, December 25, 2011

Balancing Very Real External Threats with the Equally Real--and Destructive--Internal Threats: Daniel Gordis and the JPost on 'Gender Insanity' & Haredi Fanaticism

It's been said that the parts of the Arab/Persian world that wish for our destruction might do better to sip their tea and let us do the heavy lifting. Below, two pieces that point that to our own overly developed internecine tendencies.

Gender insanity


Discrimination and violence against women – purportedly motivated by religious sensibilities – have spiraled out of control.

In recent weeks, we have been witness to women attacked for refusing to move to the back of the bus to uphold a policy of gender segregation; women forced out of a venue where elections in a Jerusalem neighborhood were being held; women denied the right to come on stage to receive an official Health Ministry prize for research into the relationship between Halacha and medicine; women banned from a Jerusalem ad campaign to encourage organ donations; and women prevented from serving in key IDF positions due to the opposition of a growing, increasingly vocal group of religious male soldiers and officers. And this list is by no means exhaustive.

These incidents have generated a debate over what has been euphemistically referred to as the “banishing” of women from the public sphere. But chauvinism, discrimination or downright violence would more accurately describe this behavior.

On Saturday night, a young haredi man was arrested on suspicion of spitting at a woman helping girls onto a school bus at a religious-Zionist elementary school in Beit Shemesh.

The recent spate of incidents is so severe that it brought the issue of gender discrimination to the center of public discourse. Significantly, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who opened Sunday’s cabinet meeting by denouncing discrimination against women, has called on haredi legislators to speak out publicly against the phenomenon and ask their spiritual leaders to do so as well.

In recent years, a rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox community has adopted more extremist positions, especially with regard to questions of female modesty, known as tzniut in Hebrew. Women’s physical proximity, no matter how perfunctory, has been transformed by radical haredi men into an insurmountable hurdle.

The inner dynamics of the ultra-Orthodox community allow these men to leverage their influence. Moderation is viewed with disdain as a weakness. The result has been an unrivaled push for the radical revamping of the public domain.

Much has changed since Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895- 1986), the most important halachic authority in America, permitted men to commute to work on subways and buses because “unavoidable and unintentional physical contact is devoid of sexual connotations.”

Today, in contrast, where the zealots have a say, women simply do not exist. You can search in vain for a female presence in the ultra-Orthodox press. Pictures of women are taboo, even when the subject is an infant. If there is a doubt regarding the gender of a baby – say in a diaper ad – sidelocks or a kippa are added. Female names are even abbreviated.

This hyper-puritanical world view is, furthermore, being accommodated outside strictly ultra-Orthodox circles. As The Jerusalem Post’s health reporter Judy Siegel reports in today’s paper, at least two state-funded health funds – Clalit and Meuhedet – have published special brochures in deference to ultra-Orthodox sensitivities.

Neither “breast” nor “cancer” is mentioned in these brochures. Instead, code words are used. And even the most innocent photos of women or young girls are vigilantly removed. Faced with the prospect that segments of the ultra-Orthodox community would refuse to read these “sexy” brochures – and thus endanger women’s lives by failing to detect breast cancer early – the heads of the health funds apparently felt compelled to make these modifications.

Similarly, public bus companies, apparently motivated by economic considerations, have allowed haredi activists to enforce gender segregation. By caving in to these unreasonable demands, the bus companies and health funds are giving them legitimacy. And the inevitable side effect is a feeling of entitlement and self-righteousness that emboldens some particularly extreme haredi men to aggressively confront women – whether on the bus, in the streets of Beit Shemesh or elsewhere.

According to a recently released CBS report, by the year 2059, haredim – who currently make up 10 percent of the population – will grow by 580% and represent a third of Israelis. As it grows, the need for haredim to integrate into mainstream Israeli society and transform themselves from a parochial enclave to a full-fledged partner in the flourishing of a healthy Jewish state will grow as well.

What is desperately needed today in the ultra-Orthodox community is the sort of reasonable, pragmatic spiritual leadership personified by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein that would enable such integration. Otherwise, coexistence will inevitably become more and more difficult.

Before we preach to Israelis living abroad


Are we so desperately afraid of our external enemies that we’ll support at all costs a government that just watches as the country rots from within?

Kamal Subhi, formerly on the faculty of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University, recently joined other clerics in warning that if the Saudi ban on women driving is lifted, mixing of genders will increase and that, in turn, will encourage premarital relations. If women are allowed to drive, he said, in 10 years’ time the kingdom will have no virgins left. “The virgin dearth,” I guess we could call it. In Europe – and I’m not making this up – a Muslim cleric ruled that women should not touch or be proximate to bananas and cucumbers, in order to avoid “sexual thoughts.” Their fathers or husbands should chop them before they eat them, he suggested. Ouch.

It’s tempting to laugh, of course, to point to the absurdity that can result when a religious tradition develops thoroughly unfettered by any contact with or influence from the outside world, guided by clerics with the narrowest intellectual training imaginable. But before we point with derision to Saudi Arabia and some dark corners of Europe, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to look around and remind ourselves of what’s unfolding right here at home.

Israel, our perky start-up nation, now has another credit of which to boast. We have our very own Rosa Parks. Her name is Tania Rosenblit; she’s the young woman who refused to move to the back of the bus when instructed to do so by haredi passengers on a bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem. It’s almost 2012 – practically 99 years since Rosa Parks was born. But parts of the Jewish state are still struggling to enter the 20th century, which, of course, ended over a decade ago.

Thankfully, and none too soon, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, rushed to condemn the segregation of men and women on public buses. “We [the ultra-Orthodox] don’t have the authority to force our ideas on others,” he asserted. “This state does not belong to the haredi community.”

Ah, so there’s the problem. The issue is not that it’s wrong to relegate women to the back of the bus (why don’t the men go to the back of the bus and let the women sit up front if they’re so worried?) or that the segregation of men and women on buses is absurd (does insurmountable temptation really lurk at every stop?) but simply because the haredim don’t (yet?) have the political power they need to enforce this. Metzger’s concern was only tactical – the haredim were over-reaching. Not a word about the shamefulness of a society in which men and women cannot respectfully and properly occupy the same public space or how similar to Saudi Arabia we seem intent on becoming. Will there be a separate section on the bus for women carrying uncut fruit?

Buses are far from the full extent of it, of course. Now we learn that the Karmiel Employment Bureau has assigned different days for men and women seeking unemployment compensation. But lest we worry that this is fundamentalism-creep, rest assured, it’s only an administrative nicety. It is “more convenient” for men and women to use the office’s services on different days, the office explained to Ynet. “It prevents stress and chaos in the waiting room and is more aesthetic.” Aesthetic? How’s that, exactly?

And let’s not forget the still-simmering controversy over women singing at army ceremonies. Since halachic rulings are apparently immutable, Israel’s noble political leaders are resorting to – what else? – technology. That, after all, is where we Israelis shine. Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has a brilliant solution: he simply puts his fingers in his ears when women sing at army events. (I would pay for a photograph of that.)

Not to be outdone, and perhaps in order not to offend those singing young women (who are actually in the army serving their country – yes, some people still do that, apparently) who might find the sight of the state’s chief rabbi with his fingers stuck in his ears somewhat disconcerting or even offensive, Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev has a much better idea: religious men should simply use earplugs when women sing. Brilliant. One only hopes that they remember to remove them before heading into battle. I’m told that being able to hear your commander can increase effectiveness in combat. Unless you had no intention of obeying his orders in the first place, I guess.

And we have, infinitely worse, the burning of mosques, vicious and violent attacks on Israeli soldiers by radicalized settlers and an emerging national debate as to whether (or when) the army is going to have to start shooting them. And our government? It’s tiptoeing around, doing nothing and saying little, its only genuine concern that the coalition not be weakened.

AH, the joys of Jewish sovereignty, the nobility of Jewish independence. A.D. Gordon, Ahad Ha’am, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion may have all disagreed in life, but now they have one thing in common – they are undoubtedly turning in their graves. That, by the way, was the real absurdity of those much-discussed ads begging Israelis abroad to come home. Those pot-shots at Jewish life in America (gratuitous and simplistic, a bit offensive and not entirely wrong) utterly missed the point – maybe those Israelis live in America because what’s unfolding in Israel is so thoroughly unappealing to them. Maybe they’ve noticed that back “home” in Israel the pockets of outrage against all of this violence and medievalism are tiny, virtually muted.

It’s Hanukka, our collective reminder that in an era of darkness, Jews struggle to create more light. Do those of us unafraid of cucumbers or mixed buses, those of us who believe that women serving their country ought to be able to sing, those of us who are ashamed of a country that takes only the feeblest action against Jews who do to mosques what anti- Semites did to our synagogues not that long ago, possess the courage of which this holiday is a reminder? Will we, like the Maccabees, take our country back before it’s too late?
It’s hard to know. So far, it seems we are so desperately afraid of our external enemies that we’ll support at all costs a government that just watches as the country rots from within.

At moments like this, it’s hard not to think about the Altalena affair. Tragic though it was, it was the defining moment at which Ben-Gurion made it clear to all that there would be one central authority in the Jewish state. Those who sought to subvert it would be treated in accordance with what they were – threats to the state’s very existence. One prays that some progress can be made here without the use of force. But if it cannot, it’s worth remembering that we once had a prime minister who knew what had to be done.

But then, of course, it’s been a very long time since we’ve had a leader with that character, that confidence, those deeply held commitments. These days, with Hanukka reminding us of the enormous power of convictions, it would be nice to have some leadership with any principles at all.

Daniel Gordis is president of the Shalem Foundation and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His latest book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End (Wiley), won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. His next book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest Strength, will be published this August.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

The New York Times: All the News That's "Unfit" to Print about Israel: Why Bibi Declines to Pen an Op-Ed & Why Tom Friedman is Wrong: Again & Again & Again

A common refrain amongst New York Times cognoscenti (including a healthy smattering of liberal American Jewry): "Have you read Friedman's piece today in the Times?" The knowing smiles, cooing and then the tsk, tsking about how Israel is falling into the abyss of fascism, theocracy and how the settlements are the root of all evil. Followed by the obligatory Bibi-bashing. Except it turns out that Friedman is wrong in his presumptions, misreads Israel and the Middle East time and again, yet never tires of smugly "informing" Israelis about what's really best for them, and what they should do to achieve peace and save their soul.  Because that's what friends do for each other.
 He's been writing virtually the same article for several years now. Never mind that realities in the Middle East change on a dime. But for Friedman, time stands still. It's the settlements, Israeli intransigence, and of course, Bibi that is to blame for the ongoing impasse.
But Friedman reached a new low this week when he averred:

I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby. 

This now puts him somewhere between Patrick Buchanan:
"Capitol Hill is Israeli occupied territory."  1990

and Walt and Mearsheimer: The Israel Lobby  2006

The plainer, more mundane truth is that the U.S. Congress and the American people, support Israel by overwhelming majorities because of shared values like democracy and religious sensibilities and shared experiences like victimization by jihadist movements, including terrorism. See Walter Russell Mead: Why AIPAC Is Good For The Jews — and For Everyone Else & The Israel Lobby and Gentile Power

I’ve shared my opinion that AIPAC is powerful less because of the money and energy that its (mostly Jewish) members bring to the table than because of the widespread sense in Washington that being pro-Israel is the popular position in the United States, and that if AIPAC blasts you as anti-Israel, the charge tends to stick.  If you think US Middle Eastern policy should be less pro-Israel, attacking and bemoaning AIPAC won’t get you anywhere.  There’s not even much point in trying to persuade the Jews; American Jews tend to be more liberal on US-Israel policy than most gentiles already.  It’s the 98 percent of Americans who aren’t Jewish that you need to persuade; if the broad American majority ever decides that backing Israel as much as we do is a bad thing, then policy will gradually but decisively change — no matter what AIPAC does or how much money it works.

Of course, Friedman isn't the only Times journalist with a major ax to grind when it comes to Israel. Roger Cohen continues to pen articles lambasting the Jewish state: Israel Isolates Itself
 Nicholas Kristof keeps blaming Israel for its predicament: Is Israel Its Own Worst Enemy?
and the editorial board has turned Bibi-bashing into a spectator sport, making it unsurprising that

Also, see Herb Keinon's piece below
david in Seattle

His misunderstanding of Israel is evident in his underlying assumption that appears in his columns repeatedly: that were Israel to just leave the settlements, peace would flow like a river.

For the past several years, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, that guru for American Jewish liberals, has shown that he doesn’t really understand Israel or the region.
His misunderstanding of Israel is evident in his underlying assumption that appears in his columns repeatedly: that were Israel to just leave the settlements, peace would flow like a river.

Well, Israel uprooted all 21 settlements from Gaza in 2005, but instead of peace, received an unending barrage of missiles in return.
The settlements are a consequence of the conflict, not its cause. The PLO, if anyone has forgotten, was established in 1964, three years before the Six Day War and any thought of a West Bank settlement.

As for Friedman’s failure to understand the region, readers need look no further than his breathless “Postcard from Cairo” columns at the outset of the Arab Spring last February. To have read Friedman then was to believe this was 1989 all over again, and that Hosni Mubarak would be deposed and replaced by the Egyptian version of Vaclav Havel.

In one piece, he castigated Israel for not being more supportive of the protesters in Tahrir Square. “The children of Egypt were having their liberation moment,” he wrote, “and the children of Israel decided to side with Pharaoh – right to the very end.”

Wrong. Israel wasn’t supporting Pharaoh, but rather deeply concerned that following the Egyptian revolution, Sinai would turn into a terrorist base, the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline would be a constant target of attack, the Israeli Embassy in Cairo would be ransacked, and the Muslim Brotherhood – and Salafists to their right – would win the country’s parliamentary election.

Now, in his latest piece on Israel that appeared Wednesday entitled “Newt, Mitt, Bibi and Vladimir,” Friedman demonstrated that he also doesn’t know America.

In a line that could have come straight from the pens of AIPAC-bashers Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, Friedman wrote that he hoped Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whom he loathes, understood that the standing ovation he got in Congress earlier this year was not for his politics, but rather one that was “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”

That’s right – that wicked, despicable Israel lobby.

According to Friedman, anybody who supports Israel must be on the nefarious Jewish lobby’s payroll. Otherwise, how could they dare? Maybe Friedman should consider the possibility that the ovation was the result of America’s elected officials – in tune with the feelings of their constituents – seeing in Israel a plucky little country that shares their own basic values and is trying to survive in an awfully bad neighborhood.

Maybe Friedman should consider that the ovation was the result of politicians understanding that this conflict is not about one settlement, or one Jerusalem neighborhood, but rather over the Jewish people’s right to a homeland.

No, that can’t be. In fact, writes Friedman – always concerned about Israel’s soul – were Netanyahu to go to the University of Wisconsin, many students, including Jews, would stay away because they are confused by Israeli policies: the current spate of right-wing Knesset legislation, the segregation of women on buses, the settlements.

And then came the kicker. Friedman’s proof that Israel is merrily heading down the path toward the abyss is that radical left-wing Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy says so.
Dubbing Levy a “powerful liberal voice, writing in Haaretz,” Friedman quotes from a recent Levy column: “What we are witnessing is w-a-r. This fall a culture war, no less, broke out in Israel, and it is being waged on many more, and deeper, fronts than are apparent. It is not only the government, as important as that is, that hangs in the balance, but also the very character of the state.”

Friedman’s use of an extremist such as Levy to prove his point is akin to taking the writings of America-bashing left-wing linguist Noam Chomsky as proof that America is bad.

The problem with Friedman and those sharing his sentiments about Israel is that they take an exception and make it the rule.

This school of thought takes a sex-segregated bus in Mea She’arim and turns the whole country into Iran; takes rocks thrown by bad, misguided youth at an IDF base and turns Israel into a country on the brink of civil war; and takes the government’s refusal to bail out a failing commercial television station as putting Israel on the fast track to Soviet Russia.

What is needed is some proportion. The burning of mosques by Jewish hooligans is deplorable, but it is no more representative of the country – or the direction it is going – than Florida Pastor Terry Jones’ burning of a Koran in May was a reflection of America. Friedman should know this.

Netanyahu to ‘New York Times’: Take a hike

Prime minister "respectfully declines" to pen an op-ed piece for 'NYT' citing newspapers negative spin on Netanyahu government.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is refusing to pen an op-ed piece for The New York Times, signaling the degree to which he is fed up with the influential newspaper’s editorial policy on Israel.

In a letter to the Times obtained by The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, Netanyahu’s senior adviser Ron Dermer – in response to the paper’s request that Netanyahu write an op-ed – wrote that the prime minister would “respectfully decline.”

Dermer made clear that this had much to do with the fact that 19 of the paper’s 20 op-ed pieces on Israel since September were negative.
Ironically, the one positive piece was written by Richard Goldstone – chairman of the UN’s Goldstone Commission Report – defending Israel against charges of apartheid.

“We wouldn’t want to be seen as ‘Bibiwashing’ the op-ed page of The New York Times,” Dermer said, in reference to a piece called “Israel and Pinkwashing” from November. In that piece, a City University of New York humanities professor lambasted Israel for, as Dermer wrote, “having the temerity to champion its record on gay rights.”

That piece, he wrote, “set a new bar that will be hard for you to lower in the future.”

Dermer’s letter came a day after NYT columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that the resounding ovation Netanyahu received in Congress when he spoke there in May had been “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”

With Friedman clearly – but not solely – among those in mind, Dermer wrote that “the opinions of some of your regular columnists regarding Israel are well known. They constantly distort the positions of our government and ignore the steps it has taken to advance peace. They cavalierly defame our country by suggesting that marginal phenomena condemned by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and virtually every Israeli official, somehow reflect government policy or Israeli society as a whole.”

Dermer also took the paper to task for running an op-ed piece by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in May that asserted that shortly after the UN voted for the partition of Palestine in November 1947, “Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened. War and further expulsions ensued.”
Those lines, Dermer wrote, “effectively turn on its head an event within living memory in which the Palestinians rejected the UN partition plan accepted by the Jews, and then joined five Arab states in launching a war to annihilate the embryonic Jewish state. It should not have made it past the most rudimentary fact-checking.”

That it did find its way into the op-ed pages of the “paper of record,” he wrote, showed the degree to which the paper had not internalized former senator Daniel Moynihan’s admonition that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but... no one is entitled to their own facts.”

Furthermore, Dermer wrote, the paper’s sole positive piece about Israel since September – the Goldstone piece rejecting the apartheid charges – “came a few months after your paper reportedly rejected Goldstone’s previous submission. In that earlier piece, which was ultimately published in The Washington Post, the man who was quoted the world over for alleging that Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza fundamentally changed his position. According to The New York Times op-ed page, that was apparently news unfit to print.”

Dermer wrote that the paper’s refusal to run positive pieces about Israel was not because they were in short supply. In fact, he said he understood that in September the paper had turned down a piece cowritten by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), expressing bipartisan support for direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and opposition to the PA’s statehood gambit at the UN.

“In an age of intense partisanship, one would have thought that strong bipartisan support for Israel on such a timely issue would have made your cut,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Rothman (D-New Jersey) called on Friedman to apologize for saying the congressional ovation Netanyahu received in May was “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”
Rothman said he gave Netanyahu a standing ovation not because of “any nefarious lobby,” but because it is in the US’s vital strategic interest to support Israel.

“Thomas Friedman’s defamation against the vast majority of Americans who support the Jewish state of Israel is scurrilous, destructive and harmful to Israel and her advocates in the US,” Rothman said. “Friedman is not only wrong, but he’s aiding and abetting a dangerous narrative about the US-Israel relationship and its American supporters.”

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Robert Satloff's Astute Observations on the Implications of the Arab "Intifadat" (the more apt term than either 'Arab Spring' or 'Arab Awakening')

The Arab uprisings, one year on

Several dictators deposed in 2011, but much remains the same in the Arab world.

It is now commonplace to note that, like 1948, 1967 and 1979, the year that was – 2011 – will go down as a year of seismic change in the Middle East. But what sort of change will it leave in its wake?

The term most often associated with the events of the last year – the “Arab Spring” – provides virtually no clue. That phrase, borrowed from a hopeful moment in Prague that was crushed by Soviet tanks more than a generation ago, was first used in the Middle East context in 2005. That was when the assassination of Rafik Hariri triggered an outpouring of Lebanese “people power” that drove Syrian troops out of that country and raised hopes of a truly new dawn in Lebanon after its bloody 30-year war.

In retrospect, its usage was tragically apt, in that Hezbollah – like the Soviets – eventually triumphed, putting off until another day the potential for truly positive change. One doubts that the Facebookers and Twitterati who celebrate the Arab Spring of 2011 recall this unhappy history.

“Arab Awakening” is the second term whose use is increasing – not least because commentators have been told that many Middle Eastern countries, especially Egypt, have only two real seasons, neither of which is spring. News outlets as disparate as The Economist and Al Jazeera have begun to use “Arab Awakening” to describe the volcanic eruptions across the region sparked by the iconic selfimmolation of a Tunisian street vendor last December.

This term, too, has an historical antecedent, one that is actually rooted in the Middle East, which is a plus. It harkens back to the landmark 1938 book of the same title by George Antonius, a Greek Orthodox Lebanese and onetime British mandatory official in Palestine who extolled the rising of a renewed pan-Arab political and cultural consciousness after decades of European, principally British, machination and domination. But setting aside the ahistorical elements of Antonius’ original work, “Arab awakening” conjures up precisely the wrong imagery for what has been happening in Arab countries over the past year.
First, Antonius’ book was designed, in large part, to rally Arabs to the Palestine cause. In contrast, the changes of 2011 were, at their core, a sharp riposte to ideologues who contend that Arabs only, principally or even mostly care about Palestine. And second, while Antonius’ Arab Awakening was a clarion call for pan-Arab nationalism – the idea that Arabs from the Atlantic to the Gulf share a linguistic, cultural, social and even political patrimony – the events of 2011 have been national, not pan-Arab, phenomena, with Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis, Syrians and others celebrating their specific local nationalisms, not some abstract trans-regional ideology. So, like the romantic term “Arab Spring,” the equally romantic term “Arab Awakening” obscures more than it explains.

There is, in my view, a widely used Arabic term of recent vintage that comes closer than either of these more popular phrases to capturing the explosiveness, the challenge and the uncertainty of what has occurred across the region over the past year. While this term is most closely associated with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the fact that it is linked in political consciousness to a single national experience makes it appropriate to use, in its plural form, to apply to the variety of national experiences witnessed in 2011.

The word is “intifada,” whose Arabic original meaning is “shaking off” and has come to be used as the Arabic translation of “uprising.” What the world has seen over the past year is a series of “Arab uprisings,” i.e., popular efforts – some more peaceful than others – to shake off traditional authority. Like their Palestinian namesakes, these uprising reminded the world that mass action can sometimes play as important a role in Arab politics as elite behavior. And like those earlier “intifadat” – plural of intifada – the outcome of these uprisings is decidedly uncertain.

HAVING DECIDED the “what” (what to call the events of the past year) the next task is to determine the “so what” (what do these events really mean). This is even trickier. Identifying winners (Sunni Islamists) and losers (Israel and Iran) of these uprisings has become a favorite parlor game, but after just one year, it is far too early to judge if the events of 2011 will have truly lasting impact, where that lasting impact will be felt most, and how will it affect issues of strategic import, such as whether Iran will persist with slow-motion development of a nuclear weapon capability or jump to a breakout strategy.

Indeed, while leaders have been driven from power in four Arab countries – Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya – only in one of these (Libya) can one say conclusively that the regimes they led have been driven from power, too. In Tunisia and Egypt, the key institution that facilitated the original transfer of power – the army – remains intact; in Yemen, the deposed leader has not really even gone away.

One additional Arab republic, Syria, teeters on the brink of all-out civil war; while four-and-a-half others – Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority – have barely been touched by the “uprising” tsunami. Elsewhere, one monarchy fought back against its uprising and appears to have triumphed (Bahrain) while other monarchies employed a rope-adope strategy of reform to absorb the challenge of uprising and have, so far, avoided any significant unrest. The variety of national experience is itself the dominant motif.

Despite all this, the events of the past year – no matter how they ultimately turn out – have already had a profound impact, not so much in shaping a new Middle East but in demolishing several long-held assumptions about the old Middle East. Here are five.

FIRST, NO longer valid is the idea that competition among elites, rather than the influence of popular will, determines the rise and fall of Arab regimes. For four decades – from the mass outpouring of Egyptians who rejected Gamal Abdel Nasser’s resignation in the wake of the catastrophic 1967 war to the mass outpouring of Egyptians who demanded Mubarak’s resignation after 30 years of peace with Israel – the Arab street was largely irrelevant to assessments of the region’s politics. Tahrir Square brought that chapter to a close. This does not mean the mob will always determine the fate of Arab nations but it is an actor on the Arab stage once again.

SECOND, NO longer valid is the idea that authoritarian regimes can and will use the full power of the state to retain their control. For two generations, the spectre of the omnipotent state cast a dark shadow across the region’s politics, stifling the development of any real opposition worthy of the name. The might and power of these regimes grew meteorically in recent decades, as many leaders looked at the frightening collapse of the Shah of Iran and decided to pour every marginal dollar (or pound, lira or riyal) into their manifold security and intelligence apparatuses.
Over time, however, the rot of corruption and a preening sense of invincibility ate away at these regimes from within. The result was that the former commander of the Egyptian Air Force, a hero of the Suez crossing against mighty Israel, was forced to dispatch machete-armed camel riders in a last-ditch effort to salvage his rule. This decrepitude has not been the case everywhere, of course, as the brutality of the Libyan and Syrian sagas shows, but the rapid demise of authoritarianism in Tunisia and Egypt underscores the limits of presumed omnipotence.

THIRD, NO longer valid is the idea that the main threat to moderate, pro- West regimes across the Levant emanates from the emergence of an Iran-dominated “Shi’ite crescent.” In its place is the potentially greater fear that a “Sunni crescent” of regimes led or influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood – regimes that espouse Osama bin Ladin’s anti-American, anti-Western and anti-Israel objectives without his radically violent and urgent means – will stretch from Morocco to the Gulf.
Already, Ikhwan-related prime ministers are or are poised to be in office from Rabat to Gaza, with the exception of Algiers, and they are likely to be joined by colleagues in Damascus and perhaps Amman before 2012 is over.
Some will see in this an antidote to the destructive message of al-Qaida and welcome this as a more evolutionary and authentic trend, but their optimism is almost surely misplaced. (The canary in the Islamist coalmine will be the local Christian communities. The pace of Christian, especially Coptic, emigration, will be an especially useful bellwether. After two millennia, predictions that half of the current Arab Christian population will be gone within the next decade are not fantastical.)

FOURTH, NO longer valid is the idea that the Saudi gerontocracy lacks the energy and vision to do anything but pay off enemies or count on America for its preservation. To the contrary, the year of “Arab uprisings” – which has paralleled a year of unusual travails for the Saudi royal family – has witnessed an unusually bold and assertive Saudi penchant for self-preservation, exemplified by the deployment of Saudi and other Gulf forces in Bahrain. This even led to the enunciation of Riyadh’s version of the Monroe Doctrine, i.e., that no neighboring monarchy should be permitted to experiment with, let alone succumb to the allures of, liberal democracy. The Wahhabis of the Nejd, it seems, aren’t going down without a fight – and aren’t about to let their royalist neighbors go down either.

FIFTH, NO longer valid is the idea that the United States will always prioritize preservation of “the devil we know” over the uncertainty and inherent instability of “the devil we don’t.” To be sure, official Washington believed that the intercession of the Egyptian army to ease transition to a post-Mubarak future was a way to safeguard its diminishing equities, not a way to throw its lot in with the throngs of street protestors.

But in less than a year, an administration consumed with domestic woes and eager to shed foreign entanglements has already begun to reconcile itself to a new, Islamist-dominated Middle East. While neither unchangeable nor irretrievable, the speed with which America made a strategic pivot in the Middle East, in the process making peace with the idea that elections, not institutions, build democracy, is nothing short of astounding.

It is too early to define a new set of assumptions that will explain the ways of the Middle East in the next few decades with as much acuity and precision as the old assumptions helpfully guided us through the last half century. But we begin 2012 much as Middle Easterners began 1949, 1968 and 1980 – confident only that uncertainty is the new norm.

The writer is the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Two Perspectives on the West's Myopia when it Comes to All Things Israel: Gil Troy on Hilary's 'Iraneous/Erroneous POV and Mamet on Israel as the West's Modern Sacrifice

You'd think that the worldly, sophisticated U.S. Secretary of State would know better than to compare democratic Israel, for all its imperfections, to theocratic Iran. Apparently, you'd be wrong. Of course, you'd also expect that a Pulitzer Prize winning (twice) journalist for the Times, Nicholas Kristof, would dig a little deeper than sipping tea with some apparently moderate spokespeople for the Muslim Brotherhood before he blithely gives the Islamist group his hopeful seal of approval.
When it comes to the Middle East in general and Israel in particular, it seems all bets are off. The only surety is that when it comes to Israel, the West is ready to sacrifice Israel, under the illusion that if you feed the beast what it wants, you'll be spared. Of course, it only means you'll be eaten last.
david in Seattle

Hillary’s Iraneous/Erroneous View of Israel: Undiplomatic and Offensive

Last week, rather than mounting some constructive diplomatic offensive, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton simply was undiplomatic and offensive. In the Obama Administration’s latest insult to the Jewish State, Clinton compared democratic Israel to theocratic Iran and the segregated South. Secretary Clinton claimed the walkout of some Israeli male soldiers when some female soldiers started singing paralleled life in Iran. She also claimed the informal, illegal, gender segregation on some Jerusalem buses evoked Rosa Parks, who refused to sit in the back of the bus. Beyond confusing individual lapses with state practices, Clinton demonstrated Middle East discourse’s broken barometer. Somehow, when talking about Israel, too many people exaggerate wildly, caricaturing Israel crudely – and delighting the delegitimizers.

Even sophisticated players like Hillary Clinton only see Israel through hysterical headlines; they have no clue what really happens. When she visits, Clinton and other dignitaries should go beyond the usual Y2K package – Yad Vashem, the Knesset, and the Kotel, the Western Wall -- to experience the real Israel, a dynamic, chaotic, pluralistic, modern democracy which is no Iran.

Had Clinton visited Israel last week, she would have witnessed the intense debate surrounding the latest round of proposed Knesset laws. She would have heard Attorney General Yehudah Weinstein vow that, even if it passed, he would never defend the law limiting foreign government donations to NGOs before the Supreme Court. Golda Meir’s spirit lives: Israel’s incredibly activist Supreme Court is headed by a woman, as are the Kadima and Labor opposition parties. Hearing the din, Clinton could give Israeli democracy the highest grade in Natan Sharansky’s public square test – Israelis denounce the government publicly, shrilly, very regularly, without suffering government harassment.

Last week, Clinton also would have read about Israel’s former President Moshe Katsav going to jail. Beyond learning that in this democracy no one is above the law, she could compare the punishment Israel’s president received for imposing himself criminally on women, with the way a recent American president she knows well dodged punishment for similar crimes – although I doubt she would “go there,” as they say in shrink-speak. As a social reformer before she became an undiplomatic diplomat, she would be more likely to take interest in the “Torani” block where Israel’s most famous new convict now lives. Inmates wake up at 4:30 AM to study Jewish texts all day. These Jewish jailbirds are participating in a fascinating experiment to fight recidivism with Judaism. This is the kind of old-new, Jewish-modern synergy that characterizes life in the Jewish state.

Two nights later, Hillary Clinton could have heard the Israeli pop icon David Broza in concert. Even a casual listener could discern the symphony of sounds and influences – the echoes of bluegrass and salsa, of rock and folk – blended into his uniquely Israeli beat. Broza – who days later was in Dohar attending a UN Alliance of Civilizations Forum with 2500 other civil society activists – told me from Qatar that this Jewish cosmopolitan mix is what makes Israel so artistically exciting for him. “It’s like eating kabob with ketchup,” Broza exclaimed, “Israel is the most cosmopolitan young, vibrant, and open-minded society I have ever seen. We can dance the debka while [the American blues legend] John Lee Hooker is playing in the background.”

Broza believes that “because it’s bizarre it’s often misunderstood.” Israelis are “somebody.” They instinctively understand that “without an identity they are lost. Historically, in the Diaspora, we Jews always maintained our identity, our rituals, our tradition, our learning – that was our strength.” And now, “When you reinvent yourself you put all the elements in the pot and what you get is a new persona.”

“I don’t think Hillary Clinton sees this Israel,” Broza speculated. “All she meets is the political box, and the rhetoric. She misses the light side of people.”

The week ended with an Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman collecting his Nobel Prize for Chemistry in Stockholm. When Shechtman discovered quasicrystals in 1982, the famous scientist Linus Pauling scoffed: “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” Those of us who know the rich, complex truth about Israel are equally isolated, often similarly mocked. We may not get Nobel Prizes for sticking to the truth, but we will enjoy other, sublime awards: the ability to delight in Israel’s cultural cosmopolitanism, as David Broza does; the opportunity to pioneer old-new expressions of Judaism, Zionism, democracy, as the Schechterites do, and the satisfaction of being right, even if it makes us unpopular.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

Israel, Isaac and the Return of Human Sacrifice

Why have liberal Westerners turned their backs on the Jewish state?.

As Iran races toward the bomb, many observers seem to think the greater threat is the possibility that Israel might act against its nuclear program. Which raises the question: What should it mean if, God forbid, militant Islam through force of arms, and with the supine permission of the West, succeeds in the destruction of the Jewish State?

1) That the Jewish People would no longer have their ancestral home;
2) That they should have no home.

At the Versailles Peace Conference, Woodrow Wilson stated as an evident moral proposition that each people should have the right to national self-determination. The West, thereafter, fought not for empire, nor national expansion, but in self-defense, or in defense of this proposition. But, for the Jewish State, the Liberal West puts the proposition aside.

Since its foundation Israel has turned the other cheek. Eric Hoffer wrote that Israel is the only country the world expects to act like Christians. Some Jews say that the Arabs have a better public relations apparatus. They do not need one. For the Liberal West does not need convincing. It is thrilled merely to accept an excuse to rescind what it regards as a colossal error.

The Liberal West has, for decades, indulged itself in an orgy of self-flagellation. We have enjoyed comfort and security, but these, in the absence of gratitude and patriotism, cause insecurity. This attempted cure for insecurity can be seen in protestations of our worthlessness, and the indictment of private property.

But no one in the affluent West and no one among the various protesters of various supposed injustices is prepared to act in accordance with his protestations. The opponent of "The Corporation" is still going to use the iPhone which permits him to mass with his like. The celebrities acting out at Occupy meetings will still invest their surplus capital, and the supposed champion of the dispossessed in the Levant will not only scoff at American Indian claims to land he has come to understand as his—he will lobby the City Council to have the homeless shelter built anywhere but on his block.
The brave preceptors who would like to end Poverty, War, Exploitation, Colonialism, Inequality and so on, stop at the proclamation. How may they synchronize their wise fervor with their inaction?

How may they still the resultant anxiety? The Left's answer is the oldest in the world: by appeal to The Gods. But how may The Gods be appeased? The immemorial answer is: By human sacrifice.

What is the essence of the Torah? It is not the Ten Commandments, these were known, and the practice of most aspired to by every civilization. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches they are merely a Calling Card; to wit: "remember me . . . ?"

The essence of the Torah is the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. The God of Hosts spoke to Abraham, as the various desert gods had spoken to the nomads for thousands of years: "If you wish me to relieve your anxiety, give me the most precious thing you have."

So God's call to Abraham was neither unusual nor, perhaps, unexpected. God had told Abraham to leave his people and his home, and go to the place which God would point out to him. And God told Abraham to take his son up the mountain and kill him, as humans had done for tens of thousands of years.

Now, however, for the first time in history, the narrative changed. The sacrifice, Isaac, spoke back. He asked his father, "Where is the Goat we are to sacrifice?" This was the voice of conscience, and Abraham's hand, as it descended with the knife, was stayed. This was the Birth of the West, and the birth of the West's burden, which is conscience.

Previously the anxiety and fear attendant upon all human life was understood as Fear of the Gods, and dealt with by propitiation, which is to say by sacrifice. Now, however, the human burden was not to give The Gods what one imagined, in one's fear, that they might want, but do, in conscience, those things one understood God to require.

In abandonment of the state of Israel, the West reverts to pagan sacrifice, once again, making a burnt offering not of that which one possesses, but of that which is another's. As Realpolitik, the Liberal West's anti-Semitism can be understood as like Chamberlain's offering of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, a sop thrown to terrorism. On the level of conscience, it is a renewal of the debate on human sacrifice.
Mr. Mamet is a playwright and screenwriter.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Yossi Klein Halevi on the Challenge of Delegitimization & Tal Becker on Rabin's Legacy and the Trouble with "Peace"

Halevi gives a stirring talk at the David Project, tackling the existential challenges of delegitimization, articulating our right to Defend and Define ourselves, the importance of strengthening Israeli institutions of democracy as a powerful weapon against delegitimizers, refreshes our memories about the collective "amnesia" surrounding the 2nd Intifada (more aptly understood as The Terror War), challenges the NIF to better define and enforce red lines against delegitimizers, and identifies our strengths and why we will ultimately prevail.
Most worthy of listening to the full 50 minutes...

And Tal Becker offers a thoughtful analysis of the lack of present prospects for an authentic peace, but makes the case for accepting current limitations as what sovereign states do to shape their destinies, rather than living in the exilic language of Messianic pretension. By invoking the pragmatic, yet visionary approach of Rabin, z"l, Becker offers a window into the possible. To see how "the perfect can be the enemy of the good, but also because the good can be the enemy of the simply preferable," read his insightful essay below.
david in Seattle

The Delegitimization Challenge
Yossi Klein Halevi at the David Project

Rabin’s Legacy and the Trouble with “Peace”

Yitzhak Rabin, z”l, whose assassination we commemorate this week, was a reluctant peacemaker. The image of his grudging, almost pained, handshake with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 said much about the man. Many attribute to him larger than life qualities, and are convinced that but for his death we would now be living in a new, peaceful Middle East. But I am not sure Rabin would have shared that conviction.

What was apparent, to me at least, about Rabin as a man was precisely his rootedness in Middle East reality, and his suspicion for that brand of breathless optimism that imagines that the region can be transformed instantly. What was most striking about Rabin as a leader was that his realism and hard experience as a military man was not a barrier to diplomatic action and decision; it was almost an impetus for it. For him, the determined pursuit of negotiated agreements seemed to have more to do with better positioning Israel for the rise of Iran and extremism, than with a deeply held belief in the prospect of coexistence.

I connect with this side of Rabin because - though this is one of the less popular things for an Israeli to admit - I sometimes find the word “peace” quite irritating. It seems to conjure up a vision in people’s minds of a reality that for the foreseeable future may just not be within reach. As much as we may wish it to be different, it is difficult to read the headlines about Iran and terrorism, the empowerment of extremists and zero-sum diplomacy, and sustain the belief that true peace will break out any time soon. And this idea that a document on paper, however well-crafted, will usher in some utopian era in practice seems fanciful.

We live in a region with powerful militant actors, dysfunctional governments, and deep, systemic problems. To speak of a “peace agreement” as a kind of cure-all is to create expectations that cannot be met. If there is a case to be made for agreements with our neighbors - and there is - it is unfortunately not because it will produce the kind of peace enjoyed on the U.S.-Canadian border. It can only be because - assuming the right agreement can be reached - it offers a chance for a reality, and a future, better than the one we know.

In fact, most “peace agreements” do not really presume to establish peace in its broader sense. They do not try to reconcile grand historical narratives or produce deep bonds of friendship and cooperation between erstwhile warring peoples. Generally, they are technical documents. They focus on things like the military redeployment of troops, the composition of constituent assemblies, or the demarcation of a border. Even when done right, they tend to be less like exhilarating marriage ceremonies than unsatisfying divorce agreements, where bitter and scarred parents try, against odds, to make things less painful for their children.

We place too much weight on these negotiated agreements, and on the shoulders of the negotiators themselves, if we expect some form of words on paper to deliver salvation. Even at best, an agreement does not create peace; it creates the space for peace to grow. It creates a framework for the real potential engineers of peace - the teachers, the parents, the spiritual leaders, the children - to fashion a new reality and mindset over time; and for the extremists to gradually become unappealing and marginalized.

This is, of course, not the way leaders generally talk about negotiated settlements. More often than not, we are promised the dawn of some new age. The disillusionment associated with what can actually be reached and the rejection of what is on offer often follows.

Rabin’s legacy suggests that we may do well to shed this Messianic pretension. This language belongs to the age of Exile. When shaping your destiny is out of your hands, you can allow for the comfort of grand, unreachable visions to ease the long dull ache of your current predicament. But the real work of a sovereign State has more to do with improving the lot of its people than with revolutionizing it. And an imagination that is not grounded in reality can act as an obstacle to quality decisions, not just because the perfect can be the enemy of the good, but also because the good can be the enemy of the simply preferable.

This is not to say that agreements we reach with our neighbors should not bring real dividends. These agreements must produce, and must be seen to produce, a net advance in our interests and values (relative to the status quo). They must link somehow to our higher aspirations and our long-term prayers for a true peace. But they need not be all things to all people. They need not live up to some Romantic ideal that dreams can become realities overnight. They can and will be messy and sub-optimal even when they are the best alternative available.

It is said that at the conclusion of the Dayton Accords that brought an end to the war in Yugoslavia, the Bosnian leader, Alija Izetbegović, gave a speech in which he sought to justify the agreement to his people. But he did not try to convince them that some epic peace had been achieved. “This may not be a just peace”, he conceded, “but it is more just than the continuation of war.” In this same spirit, Rabin’s legacy suggests both that we must believe in the promise of peace, but also that we must make that promise believable. In honoring his memory, and advancing Israel’s interests, we could do worse than give more space for this kind of sentiment in our discourse and our decisions.

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Rediscovered Abundance of Goodness & Living with Missiles: The Complexities & Challenges of Aspirational Zionism

Two powerful articles by two leading rabbis and important voices in modern Israel.
Daniel Gordis exhorts the Prime Minister to seize the moment and exploit Gilad Schalit's release to unleash all the good (and stamp out much of the evil) bubbling under the surface of a hardened Israeli society.
Donniel Hartman encourages us to meet the challenges of living in an abnormal world (and neighborhood) by aspiring to the best of Jewish values, Jewish intelligence, and Jewish humanity.

"We defeat terror when we continue to build a society of values, when we not only worry about whether we will be, but about who we will be. When issues of social justice, loyalty, and kindness, democracy, and Jewish identity reverberate throughout our public conversation and policies we are building foundations of strength which no terrorist can destroy."
Donniel Hartman

A rediscovered abundance of goodness

A letter to the Prime Minister regarding Schalit's release.

Mr. Prime Minister, Before the Schalit deal fades entirely from view, many of us are hoping that you have noticed what you unwittingly unleashed. I don’t mean the next wave of terror or the terrible decisions that Israel must make before the next kidnapping. We knew about those even before last week. But last Tuesday, all of us – those opposed as well as those in favor (and there were persuasive arguments on both sides) – rediscovered something magnificent about this country.

It would be tragic if we returned to business as usual without pausing to take note.

In addition to Gilad Schalit, we received one more thing that few of us could have expected; we got a reminder of the abundant goodness that still resides at the very core of this society. It could be seen everywhere.

Compare the speeches on our side, celebrating life and freedom, to the bloodthirsty Palestinian harangues calling for renewed terror and additional kidnappings.

Compare the respectful restraint of our press to newscaster Shahira Amin’s immoral and abusive interview in Egypt. But more than anything, we saw this reservoir of goodness in the streets – in the people so moved that they could hide neither the tears in their eyes nor the lumps in their throats. We saw it in the throngs in the streets, people who wanted Schalit to know that they, too, celebrated his long overdue freedom. And we saw it in the hundreds of people in his hometown of Mitzpe Hila who continued dancing long after he’d entered his house and closed the door.

We all felt it. It was innocent, pure and thoroughly decent. We were witness that day to an entire country believing in something again. Those young people outside the Schalit home were singing not only about Schalit, but about this land, this people and about a future in which they still believe. Did you see them? Women and men, religious and secular dancing with abandon in celebration of freedom? Did you hear them singing “Anahnu Ma’aminim Bnei Ma’aminim…” “We are believers, the children of believers, and we have no one on whom to depend other than our Father in heaven”? You didn’t miss it, did you? Hundreds of people from all walks of Israeli life, proclaiming without hesitation their belief in something bigger than themselves? The reason that the prisoner trade was so wildly popular, Mr. Prime Minister, wasn’t ultimately about Gilad Schalit. It was about Israel. About a country desperate to transcend the cynicism, that still wants to believe that it’s worth believing. Shouldn’t we – and you – therefore ask ourselves what can we do next to justify people’s belief in this place? What will it take to make this a country that its citizens can love even when we’re not freeing a captive?

How about if we start by eradicating evil? Take but one example and deal with it.

There’s a small but vicious group of kids living over the Green Line who bring inestimable shame on the Jewish people. They burn mosques, tear down olive trees and sow fear everywhere – all with the implicit support of their rabbis. And they make many young Israelis deeply ashamed of this entire enterprise. Last week you showed us that you know how to take decisive action. So do it again. Rein them in. Arrest them. Cut off funding to their yeshivot. If you show this generation of Israelis that your government stands for goodness even when that means making tough domestic decisions, you’ll unleash a wave of Zionist passion like we haven’t felt here for a generation. It wouldn’t be any harder to do than what you just did, and it would do even more good for Israel than getting one soldier back.

And beyond goodness, there’s also Jewishness. No, we shouldn’t make too much of that “Anahnu Ma’aminim Bnei Ma’aminim” song, but admit – it’s not what you expect to see lots of secular people singing. Yet they did. Because this is a strange and wondrous country; not so deep down, even “non-religious” people aren’t “non-religious.” Just like their observant counterparts, they’re searching, struggling, yearning – and at moments like that, they know that the well from which they hope to draw their nourishment is a Jewish well.

That’s why it was wonderful that you quoted from Isaiah in your speech. It was your suggestion, I hope, that at its core, this society must be decent, but it must also be Jewish. You know what the main problem with the summer’s social justice protests was? It wasn’t the naïve embrace of high school socialism or the utter incoherence of the demands. It was the fact that there was simply nothing Jewish about their vision for Israel. Daphni Leef and her comrades could have given the same vacuous speeches at Occupy Wall Street. Or in Sweden, for that matter. Those inane speeches were testimony to the failure of our educational system and of Israel’s religious leadership.

The Yoram Kaniuk affair and the court’s willingness to let him declare himself “without religion” is a reflection not on him, but on the appallingly uninteresting variety of Judaism that the state has come to represent. Can you – or anyone else – name even one single powerful idea that’s come from any of Israel’s chief rabbis in the past decade or two? Me neither.

But lo and behold, it turns out that Israel’s young people still want to believe in something. We haven’t given them the tools to articulate it, but they still intuit that whatever we become, it’s got to be Jewish. So ride that wave, too, Mr. Prime Minister.

What would it take to shape a country where the profundity at the core of Jewish tradition became once again the subject of discourse in our public square? Does Judaism in the 21st century suddenly have to become dull and backward, or can we restore the intellectual and moral excellence that once characterized it? Can you take this on, too? Appoint the right people? Build the right schools? Can you help make this a country that encourages those young people now searching for Jewish moral moorings? For or against the swap, hardly a single one of us is not thrilled that Gilad Schalit is home. He deserved his life back. But so, too, does this country. Schalit, hopefully, will now get better and stronger with each passing day. Israel must do the same. It needs to get better – we need to be honest about the evils lurking in our midst and we must exorcise them. And we must become stronger, which we can do only by engaging with the roots that brought us back home in the first place.

Can you do this? Many of us hope so. Because if this fails, it will in the long run have made no difference that Gilad Schalit came home. But if it succeeds, we might just come to see his liberation as the turning point in our collective return to believing in ourselves.

The writer is president of the Shalem Foundation and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His latest book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End (Wiley), won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He is now writing a book on the defense of Israel and the nation-state, and blogs at

Living with Miissiles

It’s a strange thing, having to live with missiles. Even though it has happened so often, it just doesn’t feel normal. One would not expect that the citizens of a normal country would be subjected from time to time to a barrage of missiles which terrorize, maim, and sometimes kill. One would not expect that a country with Israel’s power would find its hands tied and unable to provide for its citizens the security that is their inalienable right.

Terror has become “normal,” and when kept to a certain degree, tolerable, in modern society. We have come to learn that there are evil and deranged people and groups walking in our midst for whom the language of ethics and sanctity of life are meaningless. But we tolerate them mostly because we don’t know where they are. They emerge and inflict their harm, and what we tolerate is not so much them, but the price they extract from us.

The case of the missiles being fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip has a bizarre twist, for the terrorists are neither hidden nor unknown. They hide in plain sight in the midst of a civilian population and cloak their evil under the mantle of the generic Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ongoing “cycle of violence.” They roam free, openly declare their intent, and from time to time, on the basis of a schedule known only to them, decide to spend a few hours terrorizing southern Israel.

It’s not normal, and the situation is profoundly intolerable. How should we - the sovereign Jewish State of Israel - respond to this abnormality? On the one hand, sovereignty entails the acquiring of power and both the ability and right to exercise it in self-defense. Sovereignty provides us with a military option. The challenge of a sovereign people, however, is to distinguish between the right to use this option and when it is right to do so.

The nature of asymmetrical war and a conflict not merely with a terrorist organization but also with a population which embraces terrorism is that one’s options are profoundly limited. Neither political overtures nor concessions, or conversely, sanctions will transform the population of Gaza from foe to friend. They have fed themselves a steady diet of evil ideology from which only they can free themselves. At the same time, a reoccupation of Gaza will not alter the reality on the ground but at best merely freeze it for a short time. When one has the power and confronts a situation in which one has the right to use it, it takes great strength to avoid the temptation of succumbing to the short-term comfort associated with using it and the just feeling of revenge which it provides. We come from a tradition
which has taught that true strength is sometimes to be found in self-control.

So, where does that leave us, we the sovereign Jewish State, with our powerful army and a just cause?

I don’t know. But what I do know is that when one doesn’t know, it’s best not to pretend that one does. This has been the policy of the Israeli government over the last number of years, and despite my frustration, I commend it for having the ongoing wisdom that it has exhibited in not pretending that it possesses a magic bullet.

While I don’t know, I wonder whether a policy of targeted assassinations of leadership would not move the status quo slightly in our favor. I mention this consideration only because it is self-evident that neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad, nor other rogue terrorist groups that call Gaza their home, are potential peace partners. The same logic, which guides the United States policy against al-Qaeda, should be assessed as to whether it would be constructive here.

Israeli society must double and triple its efforts to ensure that those in harm’s way feel that their danger and pain is shared by us all. The citizens of the south do not need empty gestures of solidarity but the real allocation of all the resources necessary in order to ensure their safety to the best of our ability and significant financial compensation to offset the hazard under which they find themselves on an ongoing basis. If life in the south is precarious, then those living in the south must be treated as the pioneers and heroes that they are.

If we cannot destroy our enemy, let’s isolate them. An Israel which initiates peace discussions with those Palestinians who can be peace partners strengthens them, marginalizes the terrorists, and creates a political environment in which Israel has more resources at its disposal to protect itself. Allowing the terrorist reality which is Gaza to define our perspective on our neighborhood is to give them a victory they neither deserve nor warrant.

We need to learn to live in an abnormal world. Our people’s embracing of sovereignty entails a willingness to live within the realities of realpolitik and alas, terror is a part of this reality. To be either passive on the one hand, or to succumb to the fantasy that for every problem there is a military solution, is to perpetuate the childlike naivete of our pre-sovereign existence. Sovereignty has its gifts and its challenges, and as a mature people we have to embrace both.

We need to learn to live in the Middle East. By live, I mean that we cannot allow our neighborhood to define or control our world. While we must learn to respond to their dictates, our priorities and values cannot be exhausted by them. We prevent terror every time our technology knocks one of the missiles out of the sky. We defeat terror when we continue to build a society of values, when we not only worry about whether we will be, but about who we will be. When issues of social justice, loyalty, and kindness, democracy, and Jewish identity reverberate throughout our public conversation and policies we are building foundations of strength which no terrorist can destroy.

It’s a strange thing, having to live with missiles, but live we will.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

The Gilad Shalit Dilemma: Two Moving Pieces that Epitomize the Ambivalent Sentiments of Israelis, and Why We Should be Proud

This will be a glorious holiday for the Shalit family, and for all of us, all around the world, who have worked so hard with this family on behalf of their son.Let us rejoice in his return, and let us pray with all our hearts that this glorious day not be spoiled by future heartaches. Let us be proud of Israel for having gambled on the side of compassion this time. Let us be proud of Israel which values every human life so much, as it has demonstrated this week. And let us hope and pray that the gamble does not turn out--- God forbid, God forbid, God forbid---to be wrong. --Rabbi Jack Riemer

Two moving, thoughtful pieces that express the profundity of the dilemma Israel faced regarding Gilad Shalit, and why, despite any well-founded misgivings we may have about the decision, we can and should all be immensely proud and grateful to be part of a people that places such a premium on the ultimate sanctity of life!

Chag Sameach

david in Seattle

Everyone’s Son
In opposing the mass release of terrorists in exchange for Gilad Shalit’s freedom, I felt as if I was betraying my own son

By Yossi Klein Halevi

For the last five years I have tried not to think of Gilad Shalit. I avoided the newspaper photographs of his first months as an Israel Defense Forces draftee, a boy playing soldier in an ill-fitting uniform. Sometimes, despite myself, I’d imagine him in a Gaza cellar, bound, perhaps wired with explosives to thwart a rescue attempt. And then I would force myself to turn away.

I tried not to think of Gilad because I felt guilty. Not only was I doing nothing to help the campaign to free him, I opposed its implicit demand that the Israeli government release as many terrorists as it takes to bring him home. Israel has no death penalty, and now we would lose the deterrence of prison: If the deal went through, any potential terrorist would know it was just a matter of time before he’d be freed in the next deal for the next kidnapped Israeli.

But the argument could never be so neatly resolved. Each side was affirming a profound Jewish value: ransom the kidnapped, resist blackmail. And so any position one took was undermined by angst. What would you do, campaign activists challenged opponents, if he were your son? “He’s everyone’s son,” sang rocker Aviv Gefen.

One day I passed a rally for Gilad in a park in downtown Jerusalem. Several counter-demonstrators were holding signs opposing surrender to terrorism. “I happen to agree with you,” I said to one of them. “But don’t you feel uneasy protesting against the Shalit family?”

“We’re not protesting against the Shalit family,” he replied. “We’re protesting to save future victims of freed terrorists. Those victims don’t have names yet. But they could be my son or your son.”

Every debate over Gilad ended at the same point: your son.

We never referred to him as “Shalit,” always “Gilad.” The Gilad dilemma set our parental responsibilities against our responsibilities as Israelis—one protective instinct against another. The prime minister’s job is to resist emotional pressure and ensure the nation’s security; a father’s job is to try to save his son, regardless of the consequences.

And so I tried, too, not to think of Gilad’s extraordinary parents, Noam and Aviva. Even when denouncing the government they spoke quietly, incapable of indignity. The best of Israel, as we say here, reminding ourselves that the best of Israel is the best of anywhere.

For more than a year the Shalits have lived in a tent near the prime minister’s office. When I walked nearby I would avoid the protest encampment, ashamed to be opposing the campaign. This past Israeli Independence Day, though, I saw a crowd gathered around the tent, and wandered over. “GILAD IS STILL ALIVE,” banners reminded: It’s not too late to save him. Inside the tent, Noam and Aviva were sitting with family and friends, singing the old Zionist songs. I wanted to shake Noam’s hand, tell him to be strong, but I resisted the urge. I didn’t deserve the privilege of comforting him.

I wanted to tell Noam what we shared. As it happens, my son served in the same tank unit as Gilad, two years after he was kidnapped. I wanted to tell Noam that that was the real reason I couldn’t bear thinking about his family. That in opposing the mass release of terrorists for Gilad, it was my son I was betraying.

Now, inevitably, the government has given in to the emotional pressure. Inevitably, because we all knew it would—must—end this way. A few months ago, as part of its psychological war against the Israeli public, Hamas released an animated film depicting Gilad as an elderly gray-haired man, still a prisoner in Gaza. No image tormented us more.

Still, there are few celebrations here today. Even those who supported the campaign to free Gilad must be sobered by the erosion of Israeli deterrence. And those who opposed the campaign are grieving for Gilad’s lost years. All of us share the same unspoken fear: In what condition will he be returned to us? What have these years done to him?

Hamas leaders are boasting of victory. If so, it is a victory of shame. Hamas is celebrating the release of symbols of “resistance,” not of human beings. Hamas’ victory is an expression of the Arab crisis. The Arab world’s challenge is to shift from a culture that sanctifies honor to a culture that sanctifies dignity. Honor is about pride; dignity is about human value. Hamas may have upheld its honor; but Israel affirmed the dignity of a solitary human life.

In recent months the campaign to free Gilad demanded that the government worsen conditions for convicted terrorists in Israeli jails, to psychologically pressure the Palestinian public. So long as Gilad was being held incommunicado, activists argued, Palestinian families should be barred from visiting their imprisoned sons. While Gilad’s youth was wasting away, terrorists shouldn’t be allowed to study for college degrees.

The government promised to oblige. But as it turned out, there were legal complications. A newspaper article the other day noted the results of the government’s get-tough policy: Imprisoned terrorists would no longer be provided with the Middle Eastern delicacy of stuffed vegetables.

How is it possible, Israelis ask themselves, that so-called progressives around the world champion Hamas and Hezbollah against the Jewish state? Perhaps it’s because we’re too complicated, too messy: a democracy that is also an occupier, a consumerist society living under a permanent death sentence. Perhaps those pure progressives fear a contagion of Israeli ambivalence.

For all my anxieties about the deal, I feel no ambivalence at this moment, only gratitude and relief. Gratitude that I live in a country whose hard leaders cannot resist the emotional pressure of a soldier’s parents. And relief that I no longer have to choose between the well-being of my country and the well-being of my son.


Some Reflections as we await the return of Gilad Shalit and As We Celebrate the Holiday of Our Joy

Rabbi Jack Riemer

There is a strange mood in our hearts and in the hearts of the people of Israel today. On the one hand, we are ecstatic at the news that Gilad Shalit is coming home at last. For more than five and a half long years, this brave young man has rotted somewhere in Gaza. His parents have moved heaven and earth in an effort to bring him home. They set up a tent at the entrance to the Prime Ministers home in Jerusalem so that anyone and everyone who entered that home would be reminded at his coming in and at his going out that their child was a prisoner in Gaza.

They went to Europe and knocked on the doors of every head of state there, begging them to intercede on behalf of their child. They went to America; they went to the United Nations; they went anywhere and everywhere they could in the hope of arousing world public opinion on behalf of their son. And all of us who watched them work so passionately and so patiently had to be moved by their determination and their devotion. How could you not feel for these parents?

And yet, happy as we are to see him coming home at last, part of us worries that the price that Israel has had to pay for rescuing him may be too high. The details of the agreement have not yet been released. They may never be released in their entirety. But preliminary reports indicate that approximately a thousand terrorists, killers who have the blood of innocent people on their hands, are being released by Israel in exchange for Gilad Shalit.

I believe that one of them is the terrorist who entered the home of an Israeli family in the middle of the night, and killed the father, and then the mother, and then took his rifle and smashed it over the head of their young, innocent child, and killed her too. Israelis shiver to think that this person was first on the list of those that Hamas demanded be released, and that, the Israeli government evidentially agreed to let him go, in order to get Gilad Shalit back.

Israelis worry---and understandably so---about what these thousand murderers will do when they get back to Gaza. They will be given a heros welcome, and they will be praised for the acts of brutality that they committed. And then what? Will they go back to killing innocent Jews once again? And if they do, then will the price that Israel has paid for getting Gilad Shalit back end up being too high?

Prime Minister Netanyahu put it very simply in the announcement that he made on television this week. He told the people of Israel that the price that the government of Israel has agreed to pay in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit was a high one, a very high one. But he said it was the best deal we could get, and that, if we did not agree to it, if we let the deal fall through, there was no way of knowing whether the opportunity to save Gilad Shalit would ever come back again.

I ask you: What would you have done if you were in Prime Minister Netanyahus shoes this week?

I can only say that I am glad that I was not him, for how do you make such an awfully difficult decision? How do you decide to save one lifewhen Judaism teaches that he who saves one life, it is as if you have saved a whole world---How do you save one life at the cost of risking many, many lives? How would you feel if you were him and you refused to accept these terms, and you went to sleep each night, knowing that, by your decision, you had condemned Gilat Shalit to another night in Hell? And how would you feel if you were him, and you accepted these terms in order to win his freedom, and you went to sleep each night knowing that by your decision, you had endangered every other Jewish soldier who may now become a tempting target for kidnapping, and that, by your decision, you had endangered every single Israeli who may now become the target of these murderers?

I dont envy the prime minister who had to make this decision, and I am glad that I was not him, for pick a side, and I can give you the arguments for the other side.

I can tell you, for example, about the long and the sacred Jewish tradition of Pidyon Shvuim, of rescuing hostages. I think that you know how precious and how sacred the Torah Scroll is to Jews, and yet the law provides that, if you need money with which to rescue a hostage, you are permitted---no, I said that wrong---you are REQUIRED to sell a Sefer Torah in order to raise the money with which to rescue a hostage.

And therefore, judging by this law, you could say that Judaism teaches that whatever the cost, whatever the price that must be paid, no matter what, the government of Israel did right in rescuing Gilad Shalit. They carried out the mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuim, which is one of the most important mitsvot in our religion. They demonstrated the core Jewish value of compassion. They sent a message to their soldiers that, if they are ever captured, they will not be forgotten or abandoned, but that their government will do whatever it has to do to bring them back.

But that is only part of the Jewish tradition. If I am to be honest with you, I must also tell you the story of Rabbi Meir of Rothenerg. Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg was one of the great scholars and teachers and leaders of the Jewish community in the Middle Ages. And therefore, the duke of the area in which he lived arrested him and put him into a dungeon. He did so, because he figured that the Jewish people would pay any price he demanded in order to rescue their teacher. And they would have---had Rabbi Meir not sent them a message from prison, FORBIDDING them to rescue him. He told them that if they paid an exorbitant figure to save him, then no rabbi and no leader and no teacher in the land would ever be safe. Whenever a cruel monarch needed funds, he would simply kidnap a Jewish leader and the Jews would pay any price to get him back.

Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg was imprisoned for many years. The only humane condition that he was given was that once a month he was allowed a visitor. And so Jews would turn to him and ask him questions of Jewish Law while he was in prison, as they had done before. They gave their questions to the appointed visitor, who delivered them, and then a month later, when the visitor returned, Rabbi Meir would give him his decisions on these questions of Jewish Law. Working from his cell, and without the help of his books, Rabbi Meir answered complex questions of Jewish Law that came to him from many corners of the Jewish world during those years of his imprisonment.

And during those years, he also wrote poems and prayers of great beauty, some of which are included in the High Holy Day Prayerbook, and which are recited to this day.

When Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg died, the Jewish people of his community finally broke with his decision and they paid money so they could redeem his body and give it a proper burial.

I ask you: Who was right---those like the Sages of the Talmud who taught us the importance of Pidyon Shvuim, or those like Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg who insisted that you do not do business with monsters or with greedy thugs, because if you do, you only encourage them to continue kidnapping and holding innocent people for hostage?

Who was right---the Sages of the Talmud or Rabbi Meir?

And who is right today---those who fought to rescue Gilad Shalit at any cost, or those who held to the belief that you dare not encourage murderers by giving in to their demands, and that, if you do, you encourage them to continue doing horriblel things?

Let me give you my answer in three simple words: I DONT KNOW.

I really dont. You are playing God either way. You are either endangering the life of one Jewish soldier if you decide one way or you are endangering the lives of who-knows-how-many Jews if you decide the other way. So how can any mortal, how can any human being, take the responsibility of making such an awesome decision?

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, is a person whom I turn to for advice and counsel many times during the year, for he is a very wise man. He is a person who is totally devoted to the welfare of Israel and of the Jewish people. And he is also a person who has enormous compassion and kindness for individual human beings who are in trouble. And so, I thought he would be a good one to ask for advice on this question. And so I called him and asked him where he stood on this question---were the rescuers right or were those who did not want to trade murderers in order to rescue Gilad Shalit right---he answered me in a very surprising and unexpected way.

He said to me: The holiday of Sukkot is coming in just a day or two. And on this holiday, what do we do? We take the Lulav, this tall, straight plant, and we take the etrog, this round yellow plant, and we hold them together as we recite a bracha. The Lulav represents strength; it is shaped like a backbone. And the Etrog represents compassion. It is shaped like a heart.

Most years we hold the two of them, the Lulav and the Etrog, together; we hold them side by side as we make the blessing, as if to say that we hope to be able to live our lives with courage and with compassion, with justice and with mercy. And very often, we can. The Israeli army has fought its wars with an incredible combination of these two values. It has shown strength, and, at the same time, it has shown compassion. That is our glory.

But what do you do---Rabbi Potasnik said to me---on those rare occasions when you cannot hold the two together? What do you do on those rare occasions in your life as an individual or in the life of your people when you must choose between the Etrog and the Lulav, between strength and compassion? This, he said to me, is such a moment.

Strength says that making this trade is sentimental foolishness. Are you really willing to let a thousand killers go free, are you really willing to endanger every single person in Israel by letting these murderers loose so that they can kill and rape and pillage again?

Strength says that this is a foolish and a dangerous trade, and that it should not be done.

And can you fault its logic? I cant.

But compassion makes a good case too. Are you really going to let a good young man stay in the hands of his captors forever? Is not the more than five years that he has already endured not enough? Are you really going to let his parents suffer forever, waiting and worrying and working to gain his release in vain? It seems to me that compassion makes a good case, a case as cogent as strength does.

So what do you do when strength and compassion conflict, what do you do when the Lulav and the Etrog that usually stand together are unable to stand together?

When that happens, you learn the hard and painful truth that there are some situations in life when there simply is no right answer. There are some hard and painful moments in life in which you simply must make a decision, knowing as you do that there is no decision available that can be upheld as clear and right.

Who knows? Perhaps if the nations of the world had spoken up and said to the Palestinian Authority or to Hamas that this kind of kidnapping is simply intolerable in the civilized world, that, if you want to be heard at the United Nations, and if you want to be considered for membership in the United Nations, you must first remove the evil from your hands, and you must release this innocent young man at once. Who can say for sure? Perhaps if the nations of the world had spoken up that way, if they had spoken up with one voice, and said this, we might not be in the difficult situation we are in today. But they didnt. And so we must make a decision---an impossible decision---a decision between strength and compassiona decision between what the Lulav stands for and what the Etrog stands for---and that is what the government of Israel has done.

And we can only pray that the decision that they have made, the decision to save the life of Gilad Shalit with all the risks that that entails will turn out to be a blessing for him, for his family, for all the soldiers who serve with the faith that their government will never abandon them, and for the people of the State of Israel. God, we await the arrival of Gilad Shalit back to his home. If he comes home during Sukkot, we will sing the words of the Hallel, the Psalms of Thanksgiving and Rejoicing, with great fervor and with great joy in our hearts. And God, we pray: May this Hallel never have to be followed by a Kaddish, and may no one else in Israel ever be endangered because of this decision. Please God, may this not be!

When the service is over, we will go out into the Sukkah to make Kiddush. Look around at this Sukkah when you go in. It is such a frail building. It barely has three walls. It has flowers and pictures in it which will probably not last the week, which will fall down and be spoiled by the first rain we get. Look at the Sukkah and you will learn a fundamental law of life---which is that some things in this world are frail and fragile, and that there is nothing we can do about that, except learn to live with that fact. The Sukkah teaches us that some lives are frail and fragile structures, and that we cannot count on them lasting forever. That is just the way it is. That is the human situation.

There are questions that have no answers. There are situations that have no solutions. There are structures that are frail and fragile and liable to the howling wind. And it is our task, not to trade these huts in for sturdier buildings, but to learn how to live inside them, and to do the best we can within them.

This will be a glorious holiday for the Shalit family, and for all of us, all around the world, who have worked so hard with this family on behalf of their son.Let us rejoice in his return, and let us pray with all our hearts that this glorious day not be spoiled by future heartaches. Let us be proud of Israel for having gambled on the side of compassion this time. Let us be proud of Israel which values every human life so much, as it has demonstrated this week. And let us hope and pray that the gamble does not turn out--- God forbid, God forbid, God forbid---to be wrong.

And to this, let us all say---perhaps with a divided heart---but nevertheless, with as much hope and trust as we can muster---to this, let us all say: amen.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Liberal's Take on the Need for Pulpit Rabbis to Give Sermons on Israel

Gil Troy eloquently demonstrates the importance of reminding us of Israel's centrality to the Jewish experience; during the High Holy Days and throughout the year. Israel is so much more than HaMatzav or The Situation; our history and the miracle of our re-emergence in our historical homeland, the heart of Zionism, transcends the politics of the day. We must reject being defined by the conflict with the Palestinians and instead give voice to Aspirational Zionism; redefining the ever evolving, organic nature of Zionism and how that dynamic manifests itself through the creativity, innovation, hope and optimism of our People, both within Israel and in the Diaspora. And let us remember the importance of Ahavot Yisrael during this sacred time of the Days of Awe.
G'mar Chatimah Tovah
david in Seattle

This Year, Any Rabbis Afraid to Talk About Israel to their Congregations – Should Quit
Gil Troy

Word on the American Jewish street is that Israel has become such a divisive topic that some rabbis stopped giving sermons about Israel. A rabbi who avoids talking about Israel is like a presidential candidate who ignores the economy; dodging such a central issue eventually drains credibility regarding all subjects. Any rabbis afraid to talk about Israel to their congregations should quit – and retreat to the university which appreciates tunnel vision.

When a rabbi avoids “Israel” as a topic, the delegitimizing forces who oppose the Jewish state’s existence win. Israel – they rarely say “Israeli politics” – is divisive when it becomes compulsively politicized. Reducing every conversation about Israel to the Palestinian issue is not just a distortion but a perversion. It internalizes the systematic campaign to delegitimize Israel, ignoring the many spiritual, ethical, ideological, intellectual, philosophical, and personal dimensions one can bring to a discussion about Israel without mentioning Bibi Netanyahu or the Palestinians.

The politicization of Israel has become so obsessive, so ubiquitous, that many dismiss conversations about these other dimensions or about Identity Zionism as attempts to evade the “real” issues. Left and right are equally guilty of overly politicizing the Israel conversation. Too many of the Israel-right-or-wrong, love-it-or-leave it crowd seem addicted to crisis, unable to talk about Israel without clamoring about the latest threat to Israel, the Jewish people, and Western civilization itself – we being, of course, the canaries in the coal mine. On the left, too many of the Israel’s-right-is-all-wrong crowd seem equally addicted to crisis, unable to talk about Israel without bemoaning Israel’s latest misstep – and Israel’s alleged original sin in being born. Viewing Israel through a radical Palestinian lens is like only seeing the US in black and white, as one big racial injustice. Decades of disproportionate attacks against Israel and Zionism have caused this damage, as the unreasonable, one-sided charges eclipse everything else.

Rabbis are teachers. They should educate their congregations about the Land of Israel’s centrality in traditional Judaism as well as the State of Israel’s centrality in Jewish life today. This mission does not require stump speeches for Likud or J Street. As one who opposed “Rabbis for Obama” for unnecessarily politicizing their pulpits, I want rabbis who engage Israel, talking knowledgeably and passionately about the Jewish state and its potential without dictating their particular peace plan from their plush suburban podiums.

Rabbis are also leaders. Too many complacent, careerist CEO rabbis forget to lead, fearing – as I heard one rabbi admit at a rabbinic convention – that every interaction they have with a congregant might be that Jew’s last interaction with a rabbi. You cannot lead if you constantly seek applause or fear being fired. The great Mussar moralist, Rabbi Israel Salanter taught: A rabbi who they don’t want to drive out of town deserves no respect; and a rabbi who lets himself be driven out has no self-respect.

Rabbis today must push their congregations toward civility, carving out safe space for fellow Jews to discuss controversial matters, including Israeli politics. The first step toward civility is fostering humility – especially regarding Israel. So many Diaspora Jews are so sure they know what Israel should do. Admitting uncertainty, acknowledging complexity, approaching Israeli politics modestly while being more open to learning other ideas from Israel could cool tempers, nurture civility and educate effectively.

This new year, as Jews gather in synagogues and look to their rabbis for guidance, I hope the rabbis lead, reframing the conversation about Israel. Rabbis should champion Identity Zionism, explaining that Zionism is Jewish nationalism, a unifying peoplehood platform that can serve as a touchstone for a scattered people with diverse beliefs who remain bonded by a common heritage, homeland, and high ideals.
They should learn from a recent Wesleyan graduate, Zoe Jick, that “pro-Israel” is a political term more emphasizing Israel’s actions, while “Zionism” – a term many Americans Jews dislike because it has been delegitimized – is the broader term denoting “belief in the Jewish national movement.”

We need a Zionist conversation, unafraid of the topic – or the label – exploring the meaning of our dual religious-national base, appreciating the opportunity Jewish sovereignty gives us to live our ideals and build what we at Hartman’s Engaging Israel project call “Values Nation,” pondering the delights and challenges of living 24/7 Judaism in our old-new land. Let’s discuss the social protests –to learn how Judaism balances communal needs with individual prerogative, then apply that knowledge to every Western country’s socioeconomic dilemmas. Let’s analyze the Jewishness of the Jewish state, asking how we moderns express communal values and find meaning in a soul-crushing age. And let’s articulate that sense of familiarity and family many of us feel when wandering around Jerusalem, asking what existential need that satisfies.

I recently asked some fellow Zionists what Zionist message they wish rabbis would give their congregants this Rosh Hashanah. Yoav Schaefer, an American-born former-IDF soldier studying at Harvard, suggested: “Zionism is not a noun. It is a verb—a living ideal constantly being redefined and re-imagined, an ever-evolving pursuit toward perfection. It symbolizes optimism and potential, a hope for a better and more just society, the dream of a country that exemplifies the values and aspirations of the Jewish people. “ Iri Kassel, an Israeli who directs the Ben Gurion Heritage Institute, emphasized the inspiring Zionist story of rebuilding the land which instills basic values of belonging, mutual responsibility and activism. (For more see www.zionistsforzionism [2]).

Zionism has always been a movement of bold moves and high aspirations. How tragic that Israel, Zionism’s creation, would turn some rabbis into meek Galut Jews, cowering from conflict. This year, let us hope for more daring vision and bolder challenges from our rabbis – on Israel and other important issues.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

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