Saying No to the Neturei Karta of the Left

 ?הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי.?וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי? וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָ

Hillel would say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?  (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

When it comes to Hillel’s famous quote, selective memories prevail. The Jewish left has a tendency to forget the first clause—if we don’t stand up for ourselves, no one else will. And the right tends to ignore the second—if we’re only concerned about our own needs, what happened to our essential human empathy? Hillel knew that living in tension with these two values was the jumping-off point for much of Jewish ethics.

This tension surfaced on Thursday evening, as the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston voted to prohibit Council member-organizations from partnering with or co-sponsoring events with “self-identified Jewish organizations...that declare themselves to be anti-Zionist”. This is a good and proper decision.

Some people may not think so. Some inside-the-tent groups on the Jewish left opposed the measure, arguing that we need to expand the Council, to be inclusive of the widest possibly array of voices that are found in the Jewish community. That dilemma—one which progressive minded people are especially sensitive to—was widely felt at the JCRC meeting.

The JCRC vote became a necessity when one of the Council’s constituent organizations—Boston Workmen’s Circle—suggested that its occasional partnering with anti-Israel groups, such as the Jewish Voice for Peace, might mean that they are not in compliance with JCRC’s membership requirements. This prompted a close look at what, precisely, membership in JCRC means.

The JCRC was founded in Boston in 1944 as a coalition of organizations to act as a unified voice for Jewish concerns. First and foremost among those concerns was combating antisemitism. But JCRC also became the leading Jewish voice in New England for progressive causes, such as the labor movement, civil rights, women’s rights, etc. And fighting for a secure, Jewish, democratic, and peaceful State of Israel—which was a progressive cause then, and, for many of us, remains so today.

Thursday’s discussion was absolutely civil and occasionally emotional. Workmen’s Circle, with its Yiddish-socialist early 20th century roots, was a founding member of the Boston JCRC. Its representative, urging the Council to reject the measure, argued that if some groups haven’t found a place at the Jewish “table”, we should “make a bigger table.”  As JCRC Executive Director Jeremy Burton pointed out, there was an appropriate sadness in the room—because it would be sad to lose organizations of good people, committed to righteous causes, over this issue.

Further, it’s terribly sad when Israel—which once was the great unifier of the Jewish people—becomes the thing that divides.

And it’s sadder still when the State of Israel behaves in such reprehensible ways (not only towards Palestinians, but also towards large swaths of American Jews) that some Jews feel that they have no choice but to abandon the Zionist enterprise altogether.

I felt all those things at the meeting—and I also felt a surging sense of pride to raise my card and vote in favor of the resolution.

Because, as Jeremy also pointed out, boundaries in fact mean something. They don’t merely exclude. They also define: what, precisely, do we stand for?

Granting legitimacy to anti-Zionist voices (which, noisy as they may be, are a microscopic constituency among American Jews) would be a disaster.

After all, among the greatest gifts that Zionism brought was the invigorated notion that the Jews are a people; that we are a cantankerous, often dysfunctional, but nonetheless-in-the-same-boat family wherever we are found.  The State of Israel became the greatest expression of this, and the ultimate experiment in putting Jewish ideas into action (a government, a university, a military, a culture, a society) in two thousand years.

Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace jettison all that. They made explicit last week what has been obvious for much longer, when they issued a defining statement affirming that they are opposed to Zionism in all its forms. Let’s be clear: this isn’t an academic exercise. If that point of view gains traction in the American mainstream, the direct result will be the killing of more Jews.

It’s difficult to make those boundaries. Progressive-minded people quite appropriately want to be inclusive of as many others as possible; indeed, we are often stronger together.

But there are boundaries. For instance, most Jews recognize that the group known as Neturei Karta—an arm of the ultra-extremist Satmar Hasidic sect—are beyond the pale of mainstream Jewry. They’re the ones who show up and picket community Israel celebrations, or who meet with the most implacable leaders of Israel’s enemy nations to offer their friendship and support. They call Zionism a demonic abomination (and worse) and insist that it delays, rather than hastens, the world’s redemption.

Well, last week the JVP made it official: they are the Neturei Karta of the left. They chose the side of the Jewish people’s enemies, abandoned the notion of Jewish peoplehood, and rejected any awe of being part of a generation for which our ancestors desperately yearned (and often died). Their argument completely misunderstands or ignores history, utterly abandons the work of the Zionist left, and in fact strengthens those who oppose any vision of a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.

They inhabit that strange parallel universe where the fringiest extremes of the left and right bend around so far that they become ideologically rather close. It’s the sort of place where tiki-torch bearing MAGA extremists dovetail with the antisemitic extreme of elements of the Women’s March leaders, who somehow find it so difficult to disassociate from Farrakhan.

Voices like these are active opponents of the values inherent in the mainstream Jewish community, especially its civil rights elements—the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Jewish Committee, Jewish Labor Committee, etc. Not to mention the wonderful Zioness Movement—“unabashedly progressive, unquestionably Zionist.”

And then there’s Boston’s JCRC itself:  historically standing for decency, justice, human rights, and peace for all. “For all” includes us, too, you know. Our opposition to Trumpism in all of its grotesque forms does not mean we have to join together with other kinds of haters, including antisemites.

Hillel himself would have appreciated the irony.


Dreams Deferred: The Resource We've Been Waiting for to Combat BDS

For all the talk about Israel being the “third rail” of Jewish life—and there is no denying that its politics can be divisive—in truth there is a lot of common ground communities can find. Most American Jews occupy the spacious center located between the poles of the extreme right, with its ideology of “Greater Israel,” and the extreme left, which rejects the very foundations of Israel’s right to exist.

Despite the well-publicized divisions among us, I suspect a large swath of American Zionists would be located in the “sweet spot” of the pro-Israel center that embraces these principles:

·      Israel has a right to exist and a moral responsibility to defend itself against aggressive enemies.

·      Being a Jewish state and a democracy are not inherently contradictory.

·      The double standard with which Israel is treated in the United Nations and the media is repulsive.

·      Supporting Israel does not mean having to justify every action of a particular Israeli administration.

·      The status quo with the Palestinians is untenable.

·      On occasion Israel has committed excesses, and worse, in the name of security.

·      A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the only feasible path forward.

·      Most American Jews support a two-state solution, but we have qualms: What about Palestinian terrorism? What about Hamas and Hezbollah? Are we positioning a militant enemy army on the precipice of Israel’s population centers? Why have the Palestinians historically rejected every peace proposal going back to 1947?

·      We have profound reservations about Israeli settlements, largely because they make a two-state solution less feasible every day. Yet we recognize that when it comes to “settlements,” there are nuances between, say, large suburban communities that are attached to the sprawl of Jerusalem and lone outposts deep in the heart of the West Bank.

·      We reject the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), which is especially prominent in Europe, on American campuses, and in a handful of liberal Protestant churches, because of its failure to recognize the complexity of the situation and for its singling out of Israel for its venom. We sense that at its core the movement is anti-Semitic.

I suspect a great number of us, with political positions from the left to right, in Israel and America, can locate their Zionism amidst these principles. Perhaps you do, too?

If you find yourself nodding with these bullet points, especially the final one, then the new book Dreams Deferred is for you. It is an articulate, nuanced guide to debunking the myths of the BDS movement, and it does so with the reasoned voice of the political center. It is not extremist; rather, it reminds us that it is the BDS supporters who are the extremists.

In 60 short essays, most of which are 3-4 pages long, Cary Nelson, Professor of English at the University of Illinois and a respected reformer in academia, has assembled an array of writers who meet the BDS challenge head-on. The contributors come from different realms of academic life, but all share a crucial postulate:  “[They] are unequivocally opposed to the effort to boycott and eliminate the state of Israel, and [support] a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” 

BDS is no benign peace faction, despite the illusions of many an impressionable college freshman. It is not a nonviolent civil rights movement designed to bring about “two states for two peoples.” Its ambition, to quote BDS founder Omar Barghouti, is “euthanasia” for the State of Israel. 

The roots of BDS spring from the 2001 United Nations World Conference on Racism in Durban, which memorably devolved an orgy of anti-Israel rhetoric. The movement gained momentum by launching boycotts against Israeli scholars in Great Britain and urging American universities to divest from companies that did business with Israel.  Concomitantly, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) was established at the University of California, Berkeley, to organize anti-Israel rallies and to disrupt pro-Israel events on college campuses. Since then BDS activism has spread, often with violent confrontations at cynical events such as “Israeli Apartheid Weeks.” Even though hundreds of universities have issued statements opposing divestment campaigns, the movement often gets a tacit nod of encouragement from faculty.

BDS leaves no room for complex analysis to complex problems, where both sides have valid narratives and both have contributed to the stalemate. In its view, Israel is the criminal; the Palestinians are the exclusive victims; and the solution is the eradication of the Jewish State.

Nelson, et al, debunk the myths of all the different manifestations of BDS. A sampling of chapter headings: “Academic Boycotts,” “Divestment Campaigns,” “‘From Ferguson to Palestine’,” “Holocaust Inversion,” “Pinkwashing (LGBTQ),” “The Iron Dome,” “Cultural Boycotts,” “The Intifadas,” “BDS and Christian Churches,” “The Nakba,” “Jewish History Before Zionism.” Each essay describes the manipulative distortions that are employed by the anti-Israel movement, and offers a sober, centrist guide about how to respond. 

It is too simplistic to say: just purchase Dreams Deferred for all incoming college freshmen. In truth, high school students need a serious curriculum about the hows and whys of Zionist history and the complexity of modern Israel. Still, a friend might want to contribute a number of copies to the local Hillel—or to the library of a neighboring minister. 

Dreams Deferred will be a tremendous resource for anyone who is upset by slanders against Israel, who shudders for the present reality of Israelis and Palestinians, and who yearns for a better future. That is to say: for all of us who make up the sensible center.

Neil Young, Dylan, Stones, McCartney: Divest from Roger Waters!

Over the past few weeks, several of the world’s most venerable rock and roll acts—Neil Young, The Who, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan—posted vaguely enigmatic videos on their social media pages, culminating with the single word:  “OCTOBER.”

I couldn’t help but be reminded of the enigmatic teasers that came after the credits of many Marvel superhero movies—Captain America, Thor, Iron Man—in recent years; quirky epilogues that announced The Avengers, the blockbuster that would gather all these good guys together.

Well, the rock enigma wasn’t hidden for long. Quicker than you can say, “Old white guys, assemble!” it was revealed that in October rock’s Avengers will appear at a three day festival in Indio, California, on the same site where the annual Coachella Festival takes place. The organizers are calling the festival “Desert Trip,” although wags in the media have dubbed it “Oldchella.”  Unlike Coachella, which generally promotes artists who haven’t been featured on the cover of AARP Magazine, this festival will star six artists (all male, all white) who have been around since rock’s early days: The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, The Who (well, two of ‘em), Neil Young, and Roger Waters.

Which of these is not like the others? Clearly, it’s Waters, the former member of Pink Floyd who for the past 20 years has made headlines for two things: endlessly recycling his morose 1979 album The Wall and his visceral hatred for the State of Israel.

The five other acts all have Israel connections. Dylan, most notably, has sung of Israel’s challenges (“Neighborhood Bully”) and performed there on several occasions (I saw him on a soccer field in Beersheva in 1993!). McCartney defied BDS threats and played Israel in 2008. Neil Young performed in Israel in 1993, and was scheduled to play in the summer of 2014, before Operation Protective Edge made unfeasible the idea of a large outdoor rock concert in the shadow of Hamas missiles. He regretfully cancelled and promised he’d be back.

The Stones played a triumphant show in 2014, with Mick Jagger spouting Hebrew phrases to the crowd, including, “Chag Shavuot Samayach!” (The festival of Shavuot had ended at sundown the night of the concert.) According to their guitarist Ronnie Wood, the inspiration to perform in Israel came from Dylan himself, who gushed about how much he enjoyed playing there.

The Who never performed in Israel, but Pete Townshend visited the country in 1966, and apparently it made a deep impact on him. The experience inspired him to compose a dense allegory called “Rael” for The Who’s third album, and in the recent past Townshend has made clear his support for the Jewish State. 

Then there’s Roger Waters. While the others vie for the throne of King of Rock and Roll, he seems to want to be its Grand Wizard. For years, Waters has been at the forefront of the BDS movement, the pernicious anti-Israel crusade that urges cultural, academic, and business boycotts of Israel exclusively. Waters does not make the case for a just reconciliation of Israelis and Palestinians nor does he argue for a two-state solution. He has not articulated what the endgame of divestment from Israel should be.  (In fairness, Waters did perform a concert at Neve Shalom in 2006. Since then, however, he has exclusively attacked Israel for the conflict.)

Waters—and BDS in general—is notorious for failing to see any nuance in the incredibly complex Israeli-Palestinian situation. Especially in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, and an ever-growing list of Western cities, one might think that people could empathize with Israel’s challenges on her own borders. But if anything, Waters’s obsession with Israel as the world’s ultimate human rights abuser has ossified.

Nuance is the key. Is it impossible—especially for an artist—to recognize that there are two conflicting narratives? Is it incomprehensible for Roger Waters, whose English childhood was devastated by World War II, to sympathize with the Jewish need for a safe haven in their historical home? I, for one, believe in the just cause of a two-state solution and I can hear the authentic narrative of the Palestinian people… but, Roger, what about Hamas and Hezbollah?

Although Waters, like other BDS activists, protests that he’s not an anti-Semite, the evidence seems to indicate otherwise. For instance, when he toured The Wall in Europe and North America in 2010-2011, an animated film accompanying the song “Goodbye Blue Sky” showed Jewish stars morphing into dollar signs—one of the most constant and established stereotypes against Jews. And on his otherwise forgotten 1992 album Amused to Death, Waters compared Jews (Jews, not Israelis—not that it matters) to Nazis.

This is not a voice of peace. It’s a voice that guarantees future cycles of hatred, violence, and war.

Messrs. Young, McCartney, Dylan, Jagger, Richards, Townshend, and Daltrey: Divest from Roger Waters! He doesn’t belong on your stage! And I’m sure there are plenty of dad-rock performers who would be thrilled to fill in for him:

How about Bruce? He’ll fit in perfectly with your demographic—and he’s rumored to be playing in Israel this summer. (You can compare your favorite falafel joints!)

Or maybe Bobby Weir and whichever incarnation of the Dead he’s got touring this fall? You know that they’ll bring their own audience with them. (I’ve got a vinyl copy of Blues for Allah with lyrics in Hebrew, English, Arabic, and Farsi, a nice gesture towards peace.)

Or how about Eric Clapton—surely his number is in your contacts? (He played Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem in 1989.)

Any of these alter rockers play the sort of music that will bring out the dads and their Platinum Cards in throngs—and without the anti-Semitism! Please: you can perform this gig without Roger Waters, who clearly stands for very different values than you do.

And if you can’t ditch him… how about adding a second series of shows in Park HaYarkon?

G-d Bless the Rolling Stones

June 17, 2014

After the Rolling Stones packed up from their performance in Tel Aviv last week, I found myself wondering:  Is it possible to separate the artist from the art?  Is it possible not to?

That’s a classic conundrum, and most of the time we have to agree that we’d have to make such a separation. We can’t expect moral perfection from the artists, musicians, and writers who touch us, and why should we? If we did, we’d have a very short list of pretty much zero entertainment that we could enjoy guilt-free. Further, who would want to do an entire biographical vetting of every new performer we discover, just to make sure she or he was “clean”? 

But that said, I have to tell you:  I can’t listen to my old Pink Floyd albums anymore.

Pink Floyd was one of the first rock bands that ever really touched me. I was 13 when I got The Wall, and although I haven’t played it in 20 years (it could be the most depressing music ever made) it led me on to their earlier records which had a lot more staying-power on my sound system: Meddle, Animals, “Cymbaline,” “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

But for the past few years, Pink Floyd’s bassist and primary songwriter Roger Waters has emerged as the most crass and vehement support of the BDS (“boycott, divestment, & sanctions”) movement to marginalize the State of Israel. He’s missed no opportunity to name Israel as the primary villain in the Middle East and the sole source of the conflict with the Palestinians. When confronted by well-meaning people who have criticized the coarseness of his arguments, he hasn’t mitigated them a bit.

Let’s be clear: the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is a disaster; the world needs moral leadership to broker a just two-state solution that will ensure Palestinian dignity and Israel’s right to live in terror-free safety and security. There are people of good faith working every day to build those bridges and bring that about.  And the BDS supporters are not among them.The BDS campaign is a vile attempt to stigmatize the world’s only Jewish state, to make it a pariah in the world community, and, I believe, to delegitimize it to the point of its erasure from the community of nations. It is anti-Semitism – because no other nation in the world, including ones with genuinely horrific human rights records, is targeted for such bile. It completely ignores the fear and suffering of the Israelis, the astonishing racism that is taught from official Palestinian literature in their schools, and the unapologetic and unabated terrorism from the likes of Hamas, who have recently been legitimized in a unity government with the PLO. 

And that is the movement that Roger Waters and his ignoble ilk align themselves with. Thus they encourage other rock artists to boycott Israel as part of their campaign of pressure until Israel… does what, exactly? 

So as much as I may appreciate “Echoes” as a really terrific piece of progressive rock, I find that it makes me sick these days. Ditto the music of Elvis Costello, who never meant much to me.

On the other hand, the cultural boycott that Waters promotes is pretty leaky; there are far more performers who are saying yes to performing in Israel. Neil Young (hooray!), Paul McCartney, Radiohead, The Pixies, Lady Gaga, and others have recently appeared or will be performing in Israel – which isn’t so easy, when you consider how much money and energy it takes to shlep a modern day rock crew to Tel Aviv for a single show. (After all, where else in “the neighborhood” are these artists going to play?)

But this year’s gold star has to go to the Stones. The Stones acknowledged from the moment they announced they were going to be playing in Tel Aviv on June 4, that the BDS crowd was pressuring them to cancel. They refused. (Didn’t those haters read Keith’s autobiography?  No one tells him to do anything!) They arrived in Israel a few days early and took plenty of photo-ops: Ron Wood and Charlie Watts at the Western Wall; Mick Jagger, more in character, in the high-end Tel Aviv nightlife.                               

There was even in-house controversy: The concert was scheduled to start before the Jewish festival of Shavuot was officially over, which would have prevented observant fans from attending. Yet the Stones graciously delayed the start of the concert. 

And onstage, the real fun began. Mick’s patter between songs was full of Hebrew, from his opening “Chag Shavuot Samayach!” (“Happy Shavuot!”), to teasing Ronnie about whether the guitarist had purchased his ugly shoes in the shuk. I’m not a sucker; I presume a smart p.r. staffer was feeding Mick his lines. Who cares? The effort means so much to a community that has been called a pariah by lesser stars!

So G-d Bless the Rolling Stones. And Paul McCartney. And Johnny Rotten. And Madonna. And Metallica. And Dylan (saw him in ’93 on a soccer field in Beersheva!). And so many others who have defied racist boycotts, and brought a real message of peace: one that says we’re not going to demonize anybody, and that music can build bridges, not burn them.

The Black Hole of Antisemitism

May 12, 2013
I hope it’s not too churlish to repost this piece from 2013. Stephen Hawking's contributions to our understanding of the universe entitle him, years from now, to be recalled in the pantheon of Copernicus, Galileo, and Einstein. Deservedly so. And A Brief History of Time continues to impact me as it did when I first read it. But brilliant minds can also be morally flawed, and his blind spot on Israel is a blemish on his public career.

Sad to see that Stephen Hawking has fallen into the black hole of anti-Semitism.

Apparently, Hawking is boycotting an academic conference in Tel Aviv as a vague political statement against the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. How, exactly, his refusal to come to the Jewish state will improve the lot of the Palestinian people is hard to define. But Hawking, who more than any other physicist of the generation has helped refine Einstein's ideas about relativity, apparent cannot view the complexity of the tragic Israeli-Palestinian situation with any sense of relativity or subtlety. It is simple and narrow: It's all Israel's fault.

Today the Boston Globe chimed in in support of Hawking, in a soporific editorial celebrating his boycott as some sort of victory for non-violent freedom of speech. Well, sure Hawking and anyone else have the right to refuse any invitation anywhere. But every action has a reaction: a basic principle of physics.

First, Hawking's decision to make a science colloquium a political event is disgraceful, because as he surely knows, this one of the primary loci where modern anti-Semitism is playing itself out, especially in Europe. Israeli scholars in many scientific fields including Nobel laureates are often shunned and banned from scientific forums because of their nationality.

But more importantly, Hawking is on the wrong side. Everyone knows that the world's greatest physicist is even more remarkable because of his devastating disabilities from ALS. It might be self-serving, but where exactly does he think the cure for ALS is going to come from? Gaza? Tehran?

How about this: A January 2013 article from the MDA/ALS Newsmagazine that reports an exciting stem cell therapy for ALS treatment is being accelerated by an Israeli biotech company. It was first pioneered at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, as reported in this article, "Israeli Clinical Study Offers Hope to ALS Patients."

The high-tech miracle that is unfolding in Israel right now includes some of the world's most cutting-edge medical innovations—the sort of scientific discoveries that improve the lives of billions of people, everywhere in the world. Israel's hospitals are noted for treating everybody Jew and Arab alike with some of the most sophisticated medical programs anywhere. Peruse this list of 64 astounding innovations and see the breathtaking research that is coming out of Israeli labs every day:

·      The discovery of a gene responsible for liver disease;
·      Incredible strides towards understanding Parkinson’s Disease;
·      A "robotic exoskeleton" that is literally transitioning people from wheelchairs to         walking, as seen on the TV show Glee! name three revelations at random.

Isn’t it ironic that an intellectual icon like Stephen Hawking would promote a world where these programs are diminished and curtailed, in the name of a superficial and bigoted understanding of a complex political problem? Naïve to say it, I know, but science should be a realm where politics falls by the wayside and the true betterment of all humankind is the prime directive.

Advocates for a two-state SOLUTION to the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma should know better than to stigmatize one side or the other. There are those of good faith out there who genuinely seek to build bridges, promote human rights for all, and to bring real and enduring peace to all the children of the region. These are the people who should be celebrated and promoted and encouraged.

But they’ll have to do their work without the bigoted opinions of the author of A Brief History of Time and certainly without the schmucks on the Globe editorial page.