Israel

One Good Legacy of 2018: Books about Israel

As 2018 slouches into history, I can think of one item of quality that this year produced: meaningful books about Israel.

Now, “the making of many books is without limit / and much study is wearying of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). That warning, tacked onto the end of Kohelet by a revisionist editor, could easily apply to contemporary books about the Middle East. After all, books about Israel that seemed so important just a few years ago have tended to quickly become dated.

Yet there are three books that appeared this year that I suspect will continue to be useful in five and even ten years to come. Each may even guide us on how to talk respectfully to each other again.

My friend Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor has a heartfelt mission: to cogently and concisely explain the narrative of Israel’s existence. Yossi is a pioneer in fostering Jewish-Muslim understanding, and, G-d willing, this book will contribute to that effort. It is a series of chapters directed to a fictional Palestinian neighbor who lives across the valley from the French Hill neighborhood in Jerusalem where he lives. And he has reinforced the message by publishing a free Arabic version of the manuscript on the internet with a heartfelt invitation for someone to write a “Letters to My Israeli Neighbor” in response.

Yet somehow I can’t shake the feeling that the format of the book is simply a device—its real aim is to make the case for Israel in a clear way to any audience needs it. A big part of that audience is the American Jewish community, which urgently needs to learn how to articulate the case for Israel without anger and defensiveness (despite that fact that we have real enemies on the right and the left who tend to elicit anger and defensiveness from us). In that sense, this book is enormously important—and it will continue to be valuable for years to come.

Also arriving in 2018 was Gil Troy’s anthology The Zionist Ideas, a re-visioning of Arthur Hertzberg’s essential book The Zionist Idea from 1959. Hertzberg was the first to collect primary sources, in English translation, of the great thinkers from the 19th and 20th century who built the intellectual foundations of the Jewish State. And what a diverse group they were! The book captured the dynamic array of thought that sparked the most important revolution in Jewish history since the days of the Talmud—a revolution to which we are the fortunate heirs.

And yet, for all its breadth, Troy’s rethinking of Hertzberg reaches even wider. His Zionist Idea 2.0 not only updates the original with more than half a century of thinkers and activists, it also incorporates non-Ashkenazi voices (still not enough), women (Hertzberg had none!), a great many Diaspora Zionists, and perspectives from across the Jewish religious spectrum. Today’s Zionist community is even more eclectic, diverse, and contentious than it was in Theodor Herzl’s day—and that is really saying something. 

To make room for all of these, Troy has dropped or abridged much that was in the previous volume. Therefore, instead of replacing Hertzberg, Troy’s book will sit neatly on the shelf next to the original. Together, they are the essential primary sources for understanding the complex foundations of Israel and its meaning in the 21st century. Students will be reaching for both of them for a long time to come.

Finally, 2018 saw the arrival of the English translation of Micah Goodman’s Catch-67, originally published in Hebrew in 2017. Milkud 67 was a runaway bestseller in Israel; it seemed like an entire country had become one big book group, debating Goodman’s analysis of why the country is so “stuck” in regard to the Palestinian land and people it conquered in a just, defensive war over 50 years ago.

The dilemma is well known. The right argues that ceding the West Bank would create an aggressive enemy state within spitting distance of Israel’s population centers; given the Palestinians’ history of implacability and terrorism, relinquishing the territories would be suicidal. The left argues that the occupation of a population that doesn’t want to be ruled by Israel is morally corrosive, drains Israel’s resources, and poisons Israel’s relationship with the rest of the world.

And both sides are correct. Thus, the “catch”, evoking Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Up to now, no one—certainly none of Israel’s current sorry crop of leaders—has envisioned a way out of this mess.

Goodman not only diagnoses the dilemma, he tentatively offers a third way forward. Rather than grasping for ultimate solutions, he asks: what can we do today that will reduce hostility, build trust, and make short term but immediate improvements to everyone’s lives, Palestinians and Israelis alike? It’s a refreshing way of looking at a situation that has become so stalemated that no one has been able to offer any new thinking on the subject in many years.

One other thing makes Goodman so compelling. In his opening chapters, he describes a syndrome that is commonplace in Israel—and in America; namely, the inability of people of good faith and differing opinions to engage in civilized debate. It wasn’t always like this. Once, not so very long ago, friends and neighbors who saw the world differently could have meaningful exchanges with one another. The problem is when ideology becomes an intractable part of one’s identity. When that happens, Goodman argues, our opponents are no longer attacking our ideas, they are attacking our very selves. At that point, we get defensive, angry, and nasty. (For proof, see the public “comments” section of any Jewish current events website. Or better yet—don’t, it’ll make you sick.) If he’s right, then the implications of his book are valid far beyond the confines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As 2018 draws to its miserable close, I expect that these three books will have legs. They should give readers concerned about Israel plenty to think about and inspiration to draw upon for years to come.

Twenty-Five Years Ago Today

Rabin Arafat Handshake.jpeg

25 years ago today. My G-d.

I was alone in my apartment in Jersey City, just days before Rosh Hashanah, watching the ceremony with tears streaming down my face. What killed me was when Rabin said, "Enough," and then went on to recite Oseh Shalom Bimeromav...

Even looking at this photo today, with Arafat's devilish grin, I can see Rabin's obvious reluctance. The old warrior had every reason to be reticent, and not to trust Arafat, the founder of suicide bombing and terrorism as a political tactic. But he did it. He did it because he knew the status quo was not acceptable, not tenable. The children of Israelis and the children of Palestinians had the right to a better future than the present.

There is so much water under the bridge since then. There have been many failures, but I reject outright that the whole endeavor that reached a high point here was a failure. History is a flow, a dynamic movement of streams and eddies. This moment in time shows what is possible, what can happen, what can be striven for. I still find inspiration in it, and Rabin - the lifelong warrior who understood better than anyone Israel's security needs - remains my hero, precisely because his vision of peace wasn't a hands-across-the-water, pie-in-the-sky dream, but one born of painful reality. Rabin’s reluctance made him real. He know the blood toll that Israel had paid in its history; he knew what Arafat was. But he recognized that a moment had arrived that would not be available forever.

It was a recognition that pragmatic peace rooted in reality is the best promise of security for everyone. With every well-rehearsed caveat - I know them well - I still believe that to be true.

Broken Clocks (on the U.S. Embassy Opening in Jerusalem)

 Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounts from his horse and enters Jerusalem on foot, December, 1917.

Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounts from his horse and enters Jerusalem on foot, December, 1917.

I was wrong.

I was wrong in December when I wrote ambivalently about moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. At that time, I wrote that while of course Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, “sometimes it is better to be smart than to be right.”  It’s hard to admit being wrong, but I was.

And it’s even harder when the messenger is someone like President Donald Trump, who it seems is determined to wrap even the moments when he’s right with so much narcissism, abuse, and seventh-grade-bully smarminess that you just want to say, “what he’s for, I’m against.”

But you know the saying about broken clocks, and it is foolish to conclude that, just because another’s motives are suspect, they are actually wrong.

I was ambivalent about moving the embassy because I thought it was bad for Israel’s security, because I thought it would launch tirades of anti-Israel violence, and because I thought it would isolate American foreign policy as a broker in the Middle East.

I realize now that each of these premises was faulty. American isolation is following apace due to the Administration’s other “America First” policies and obnoxious diplomacy, not because of the embassy. But regarding Israel, in fact, a trickle of countries are tentatively indicating that they will follow the American lead and move their embassies as well (Guatemala, and possibly Honduras and Romania, although the Czechs seem to have changed their minds). This is a very good thing, and I hope we quickly reach a tipping-point of other countries following suit.

Further, the expected waves of violence in Arab countries did not follow. (The Hamas-inspired violence on Gaza’s border is not because of the embassy move. If anything, it is connected to the 70th anniversary of the Independence/Nakba, and the delusions that terrorism will reset the world’s clocks to a time when there was no Israel.) 

And I argued that moving the embassy was symbolic; no one’s life (except for the ambassador's) would be enhanced by moving it, so the risk of disaster outweighed the benefits of symbolism.

But symbols are important. Our religious and civic lives are full of symbolism. For instance, at the Brandeis graduation yesterday, I was struck again by how full of  “ancient” symbolism our academic exercises are (from caps and gowns—make sure your hood is the right color!—to the regalia that the university president wears, to the solemn intonation of an alma mater). Israelis understandably feel delegitimized by the refusal, even of allies, to acknowledge that Jerusalem is the authentic capital of the State—the place where, de facto, everyone knows the political and legal seats of government are.

The move really has nothing to do with Palestinians, and nothing to do with peace processes, or two states, or even preventing a future Palestinian state from having its capital in East Jerusalem.

So the administration was right—I daresay, even courageous in moving the embassy.

And I was wrong.  I just hope and pray that six months from now, I won’t be writing a blog that says, “I was wrong about being wrong.”

Because these people sure know how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead of approaching Jerusalem with modesty and humility, as when Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounted his horse and entered the City of Cities on foot in 1917, the embassy opened with triumphalism and backslapping. Instead of celebrating Jerusalem, they celebrate themselves.

“Modesty and humility” are incoherent to these people. (“When President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it,” said son-in-law Jared Kushner, the sort of sycophantic and self-serving comment we’ve come to expect in lieu of what could have been a moment of oratorical inspiration.) The presence of uber-racist pastors, the voices of the evangelical hard right, is obscene. So, too, was the presence of the pro-Israel but anti-Jewish millenialist reactionaries (hello, Michele Bachmann? Are these people really interested in reviving this lunatic’s career?).

Supporters of the Administration love quoting the Bible. Some of them even compare Donald Trump to a modern day Cyrus of Persia! (As if Zionist history never happened! As if we hadn’t already returned to the Land!)

They might consider other parts of the Bible, such as the words of Jeremiah. Over twenty-six hundred years ago, Jeremiah (7:1-15) warned about the hypocrisy of those who spend too much time mouthing praises of Jerusalem (“The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, The Temple of the Lord are these!!”, v.4) while simultaneously promoting injustice, moral perversion, and arrogance. Jerusalem demands morality, both personal and social. To behave otherwise is to mock its religious premise.

Moving the embassy is a very good thing. It should be accompanied by a set of moral values that represent city’s ancient heritage: a place for God to dwell among human beings, a place of seeking moral repair, and a place of yearning for real peace.

On Israel's 70th Independence Day

My prized possession:

Der Tog.jpg

The front page of the daily American Yiddish newspaper “Der Tog” ("The Day"), May 15, 1948, the day after Israel’s independence. On that day the paper was produced in blue ink. My grandfather saved it for me, giving it to me about five years after his death.

The large headline says, Iddishe Melukha: "Jewish State."

"Recognition from America"

“Ben Gurion proclaims Jewish State: 'Israel'”

Lower left corner: Truman, Herzl, and Ben Gurion


1,978 years after the destruction of Jerusalem.

!חג שמח

The Stranger Who Resides with Us

I wrote this in 2016 for ARZA's commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Given the Netanyahu government's efforts to expel African refugees--and the massive demonstrations to protect them--it seems timely. I think it still holds up:

A walk through South Tel Aviv is not generally on the itinerary of a regular trip to Israel. It may as well be another planet from the all-night clubs, fancy restaurants, soaring hotels, and refined art galleries of what was once known as the White City. Most tourists have no idea that the place exists—and they certainly do not know about Holot.

South Tel Aviv in the flesh can break the heart of any thinking Zionist. It houses the largest concentration of Israel’s oft-hidden underclass: Africans from Eritrea and Sudan who have fled some of the world’s most vicious regimes. Any Jew who experiences the reality of South Tel Aviv—its appalling living conditions, overcrowded housing, and air of desperation—must ask, is this the best the Jewish state can muster?

Over 45,000 Eritreans and Sudanese currently reside in Israel, but the government’s treatment of them is nowhere near what we might consider the “Torah standard.”

“Refugee” and “asylum seeker” are legal terms; if these labels were applied to Israel’s African residents, a host of legal protections would kick in. Therefore, the government employs different language: a policy of “temporary protection” or “delay of removal” is in effect. In other words, desperate people who have fled to Israel find themselves in limbo: they cannot legally work or apply for citizenship; they cannot be deported back to where they came from; they have nowhere else to go. The vast majority want “asylum seeker” status, but Israel has granted that status to fewer than 1% of them; it is the lowest rate of recognition in the western world. Some activists accuse government officials of waging a racist campaign of incitement against the Africans, calling them insidious “infiltrators.”

And then there’s Holot. Located in the remote Negev near the Egyptian border, Holot is a detention facility—it’s hard to differentiate it from a prison—where Africans streaming into the country are held without trial. Over the past few years, the Knesset has tried to detain migrants for years on end; the High Court of Justice called the government’s policy “a grave and disproportionate abuse of the right to personal freedom.” As of December 2015, there were 3,300 people in Holot where they may remain up to twelve months. Its capacity is “full” according to the Israeli Immigration Authority.

While Europe dominates headlines with the refugee disaster pouring out of Syria, this subversive crisis to Israel’s soul shamefully has been absent from the American Jewish agenda.

It is difficult to read Parashat Kedoshim and not think of South Tel Aviv or Holot:

וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃ כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ 
כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens;
you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt:
I, Adonai, am your God.
(Leviticus 19:33-34)

These verses are directed towards a Jewish community that is a majority culture, self-assured and established in its own land. The Torah warns that the Jews, when they have become that majority, will have a minority community of non-Jews living among them—and they must assiduously protect the rights of that minority.

To understand this passage requires a better grasp of three familiar concepts: the “stranger,” “do not wrong,” and “you shall love.” Each of these ideas is more nuanced than may appear at first glance.

Who is the ger?

In the Tanakh, the meaning of the word ger is very specific: a minority group dwelling among a native majority. The ger is someone who has been transplanted from his native home. In contrast, the word for “native citizen” (“the ger… shall be to you as one of your citizens”) is ezrach. Biblical scholar Baruch Levine suggests that the term ezrach is connected to the linguistic root of a tree firmly rooted in its soil: “…well-rooted, like a robust native tree” (Psalm 37:35). He writes, “If this derivation is correct, an ezrach/citizen is one whose lineage has ‘roots’ in the land, one who belongs to the group that possesses the land.” The ger is the outsider, the stranger in the midst.

Thus the Torah frequently reminds Israel that we know the feelings of the ger, because we’ve had that status before. This is precisely the situation the Jewish people knew in Egypt; a displaced minority among an indigenous majority culture.

What does the Torah mean what it says “you shall not wrong” the ger?

In context, the verb lo tonu / “you shall not wrong” comes from the noun ona’ah, which refers specifically to economic deprivation, manipulation, and taking advantage of another who is in a weaker position. For instance, Leviticus 25:14-17 opens and closes with an injunction not to “wrong” one another, and in between it illustrates this “wronging” as a matter of economic injustice:

When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.
In buying from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years:
the more such years, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years, the lower the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests. Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I Adonai am your God.

We can conclude that from a p’shat point of view, ona’ah in Leviticus 19 means unfairly leveraging an economic situation where the other person—namely, the ger—is relatively defenseless.

The Mishnah takes this idea one step further: “Just as there is ona’ah in buying and selling, so too is there ona’ah in words.” For the Rabbis, ona’ah—the very acts which are prohibited against the ger and others—is expanded to mean “oppression, wrongdoing, or causing shame.”

Finally, we need to ask: What does it mean “to love the ger as yourself”?

Many have asked how the Torah can command love, the deepest of human emotions. Earlier in Kedoshim we were commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself”; elsewhere the Torah command us to love God (who reciprocally loves us) and, here, to love the stranger.

It is a conundrum if the Hebrew word for love, ahava, simply means deep emotion. However, biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom explains that “love” in the Torah is much more than sentiment; love necessarily entails action:

How can love be commanded? The answer simply is that the verb ahav signifies not only an emotion or attitude, but also deeds. This is especially true in Deuteronomy, which speaks of covenantal love. The ger is “loved” by providing him with food and shelter (Deut. 10:18-19). God is “loved” by observing his commandments (Deut. 11:1), and God in turn “loves” Israel by subduing its enemies (Deut. 7:8).[1]

Thus, to “love” the ger and to “not wrong him” are inverses of one another. The fulfillment of this Mitzvah means not only not to exploit a person who is politically weaker, but also to support him, to include him in festival celebrations, to allow him to rest on Shabbat, and to provide him with appropriate safety.[2]

It is hard to read these words at the culmination of our Torah portion and, again, not to reflect on our reality. Certainly, “real life” occasionally intrudes on idealism and mitigates our ability to behave according to our highest standards. But still, we have to ask: are we fulfilling what the Torah demands of us?

The words of a modern commentator are jarring:

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966) was a major figure in 20th Century Orthodoxy. Rabbi Sorotzkin was born in Belarus, served as the Rabbi of Lutsk in Ukraine, and ultimately fled to Palestine during World War II. There he became the vice chairman of Agudat Yisrael (the main Ashkenazi Orthodox party in Israel at the time); he was certainly not a “liberal” figure by any means. Which makes his comment on this verse particularly compelling:

“In your land” (Leviticus 19:33):  You should not say [to the ger] that Eretz Yisrael is just for Jews, as extremists [!!] everywhere claim that their land is just for their own people and minorities have no part in it. For the Land was given to Abraham, who was called “the father of a multitude of nations,” and each nation that believes in the God of Abraham and who clings to his descendants should not be considered a “foreigner” in the land that was promised to him. And this is the lesson of the verse, you shall not wrong him (Lev.19:33): with your ona’at devarim [wronging someone with words, above], as if to deceive him into thinking that he dwells in your land, in a land that is not his.[3]

What would Rabbi Sorotzkin say if he were to observe the plight of the Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel today?

The Torah commands us to protect the rights and dignity of the stranger no less than 36 times (and some authorities say 46 times)—it is repeated more than any other Mitzvah in the Torah. When you go home, the text implies, you have an enormous responsibility to care for those who are vulnerable. This injunction is, in fact, the moral barometer of any society. This is one of the resounding lessons of Jewish history: we know the heart of the stranger, because we’ve been that stranger many times: in Egypt, but also in Babylonia, Morocco, Ukraine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Ellis Island, and Poland. Woe to those of us who are so estranged from our past that we can’t look into the eyes of the African refugees and see the reflection of our own living history.

For more information about supporting African migrants in Israel: 
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, http://hotline.org.il/en/main/

[1] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, The Anchor Bible, 2000, p.1653.

[2] Milgrom, p.1706.

[3]R. Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznaim LaTorah, in Itturei Torah on Leviticus 19:33.

Of Course Jerusalem is Israel's Capital...

…but sometimes it’s better to be smart than right.

The Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a cynical political maneuver—but there are plenty of good, historical reasons why Jews may feel torn. Here’s my attempt to sort through the issues and to explain why something that should seem obvious on one hand is so profoundly disturbing on the other.

Plenty of people may find themselves saying, “Isn’t Jerusalem already Israel’s capital?”  And of course it is. All of Israel’s government offices are in Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city. So, too, are the Knesset and the Supreme Court. So is Hebrew University, the national university of Israel, founded in 1918. The office of the Chief Rabbinate, a reprehensible institution but a significant national one nonetheless, is likewise in Jerusalem.

Furthermore, spiritually speaking, there has never been any doubt in the Jewish mind about Jerusalem's status. Since the days of King David some 3,000 years ago, Jerusalem has been the earthly capital of Jewish worship. Of no other city did the Psalmist cry:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither
Let my tongue cleave to my palate if I cease to think of you,
If I do not keep Jerusalem in mind even at my happiest hour.
(Ps. 137:5-6)

For the Jewish soul, Jerusalem is home.

In a perfect world—of course the U.S. embassy should be in Jerusalem, the only capital of Israel.

So what’s the controversy?

When the United Nations in November 1947 voted to partition British Mandate Palestine into two states, a Jewish one and an Arab one, Jerusalem was considered too contested; it was to be internationalized. After the 33-13 U.N. vote passed, the Zionists accepted the plan and the Arab nations rejected it. (There were some enraged voices, especially from far-right nationalist corners of the Zionist movement, to reject the U.N. plan on the grounds that there could be no Jewish state without Jerusalem as its capital. David Ben Gurion sagely chose otherwise.)

When Ben Gurion and the Zionist leaders signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, it was an endorsement of the U.N. plan—the Declaration was signed in Tel Aviv, and the understanding was that Jerusalem would, indeed, be internationalized.

But the U.N.’s proposed boundaries never came to fruition. Within hours of Israel’s independence, she was attacked simultaneously by the surrounding Arab nations. When an armistice was reached the following year, Israel’s precipitous borders were somewhat expanded—and a foothold was established in Jerusalem, a lifeline to the thousands of Jews who lived there (and who were isolated, endangered, and on a few occasions, massacred during the War of Independence). Jerusalem was a divided city: the Old City and eastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem were under Jordanian rule; the western part of the city was Israeli. Into those western neighborhoods, the apparatus of the government moved.

After Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War in 1967, all of Jerusalem came under Israeli control. While the Muslim holy sites were handed over to the waqf—the Jordanian-controlled Islamic religious authority—both East and West Jerusalem became one Israeli municipality. Everywhere in the Jewish world, souls were stirred. The new anthem of the Jewish people became Naomi Shemer's Yerushalayim shel Zahav / "Jerusalem of Gold." 

But for most of the nations of the world, including the U.S., Jerusalem never gained its status as Israel’s capital, because they continued to cling to the 1947 U.N. Resolution 181 rather than comprehending that the status quo had irrevocably changed. 70 years later, that’s still the case.

The problem is precisely this: everything about Jerusalem causes passions to be inflamed. Even though many Jewish residents of the city have never stepped foot in the Palestinian neighborhoods such as Beit Safafa, Silwan, or Shuafat, there is a strong sense that Jerusalem can “never be divided again.”  And for Palestinians, Jerusalem is the inevitable capital of their state-in-waiting.

So there are threats. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated that if the Trump Administration makes this move, it will pull the plug from the barely-on-life-support peace process. Worse, the implied threat is that the Palestinian street will go ballistic, launching, G-d forbid, a Third Intifada and new wave of violence and terror. That violence could easily spread beyond Israel.

On one hand, some supporters of Israel will understandably say—why should we allow the threat of terror to stop us from pursuing a goal that is ultimately right? Why would we cave in to that sort of blackmail?

But on the other hand—often it is better to be smart than to be right. What, really, is to be gained by this move, besides a sense of historic injustice corrected?

The danger of this spiraling out of control is real. No one’s life would be changed or improved by this symbolic U.S. recognition—but a lot of people’s lives could be devastated by the eruption of tensions. That is why one pro-Israel U.S. administration after another—Republican and Democrat alike—has put off making such a move as this. (I suspect that behind the scenes, the Israelis were nodding in assent. You really don’t hear about the Israelis making a big deal that U.S. embassy is not in Jerusalem—and for good reason.)

As scholar Micah Goodman has written in his important book Catch-67, the United States could be using its power to ease tension between Israelis and Palestinians, taking short-term incremental steps to build trust (rather than trying to force final stages of a peace process at this time). His book—a bestseller in Israel—offers concrete examples steps about how to do just that.

We should question the timing of this move:  Does it have anything to do with distracting attention from Donald Trump’s growing panic over the Justice Department investigation of possible collusion with Russia? Or with the increasing momentum in Israel of corruption charges against Prime Minister Netanyahu? And in a time of great tension between Israel and American Jews, over the Western Wall and pluralism issues in general, doesn’t the timing seem just a little self-serving for these politicians?

Whether or not the announcement is self-serving for the embattled politicos, all of us should pause to think about whether we want to be smart or right at this particular juncture.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b) maintains that one aspect of King David’s leadership was that he was mavin davar mitoch davar: that he could anticipate how one thing causally leads to another. Thoughtful leaders should know that their actions have consequences, both intended and unintended.

That is what this moment calls for. Sadly, tragically, we are not currently blessed with leaders who have this sense of foresight.

Writing Roundup: A Few Recent Books with Writings of Mine

November was a prolific month. I have articles in three recent books which you may be interested in:

Fragile Dialogue.jpeg

First, THE FRAGILE DIALOGUE: NEW VOICES OF LIBERAL ZIONISM, edited by Stanley Davids and Larry Englander, is a collection of essays about Reform Zionism in America, Israel, and elsewhere. I contributed a transatlantic dialogue with Rabbi Charley Baginsky comparing the history and nature of Zionism in the liberal Jewish movements of America and the U.K.

Cover.jpeg

A LIFE OF MEANING, edited by Dana Evan Kaplan, discusses Jewish spiritual practices. I wrote an essay on “Creating a Life of Meaning by Caring for Others,” which includes some reflections on the inspiration of my teacher, the Rabbanit Kapach.

 

Book Cover.jpeg

Finally, NAVIGATING THE JOURNEY: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO THE JEWISH LIFE CYCLE, edited by Peter Knobel, includes an article of mine about integrating Tzedakah into the practice of daily living.

 

Check ‘em out!

The Balfour Centennial—A Time of Reflection & Introspection

November 2, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. But past anniversaries of this moment have been controversial, and the centennial is proving to be no exception.

In 1917, at the height of World War I but with an eye to the new world order that would come at the war’s end, the British Foreign Office issued a proclamation to the English Zionist leadership:  “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…”  With the tacit support of the U.S., Russia, France, Italy, and even the Vatican, the British offered the first international political recognition of the Zionist movement that had been catalyzed by Theodor Herzl and the First Zionist Congress twenty years earlier.

But should we care? From a certain Zionist perspective, celebrating Balfour is the epitome of “golus mentality” (i.e., thinking like you’re still in the ghetto). In other words, why should Jews need foreign validation for their own liberation movement? Zionism was supposed to free us from that sort of thinking!

And from an anti-Zionist perspective, Balfour was cynical to say the least. Zionist opponents like MP Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in the British cabinet in 1917, insisted that a Jew who longed for Zion had “admitted that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain, or to be treated as an Englishman.”  This idea, that Jews in emancipated Western Europe and America had left Exile behind for modern Promised Lands, was already passé by 1917, but it endured in many entrenched Jewish establishments.

But to understand what Balfour meant to those who celebrated Jewish peoplehood—and Zionism was, first and foremost, an acknowledgment that there were national ties that bound Jews around the world to one another—we can find a profound illustration in the books of Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935).

Hirschensohn was an Orthodox rabbi, born in Safed and raised in Jerusalem. He cultivated a friendship with the fervently secular and nationalistic Eliezer ben Yehuda, the key proponent of Hebrew as a modern, living language of the Jewish nation. For his efforts—and in a dark foreshadowing of today—Hirschensohn was excommunicated by the Orthodox rabbinate in Jerusalem for daring to propose that halakha and modernity could co-exist. He left Palestine in 1901, never to return. He landed in, of all places, Hoboken, New Jersey, where he spent the rest of his life.

Hirschensohn never relinquished his belief in Zionism or his dedication to the Jewish people. He composed, among other books, a multi-volume work called Malki Bakodesh, which analyzed modern questions (such as women’s suffrage) through the lens of halakha. And on the title page of Malki Bakodesh, beneath the biblical epigrams, is the date of publication. It reads :

5679 [= 1919] 
The Second Year since the recognition of the British Kingdom

to our right in the Land of Israel

In other words, Hirschensohn was embracing two timelines. 5679, in the traditional Jewish counting. And—Year 2, since the Jewish nation leapt back into history!

That is the profound meaning of Balfour. For people like Hirschensohn, watching events unfold from New Jersey with his heart in Jerusalem, time was starting anew. And Jews around the world, for whom the luster of modernity had tarnished with the devastation of World War I and the sadism of pogroms in Eastern Europe, saw themselves validated as a legitimate people with a past and a future.

Since then, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration has been marked with peaks of joy and valleys of disinterest.

On the 10th anniversary, Zionist leader Berl Katznelson was (already!) scolding the halutzim for forgetting their history. The anniversary was passing virtually unnoticed. In an editorial in Davar, in the preeminent newspaper of the Yishuv, Katznelson argued: “On this day, a day of memory and reckoning, those at the helm should stand proudly and count everything that has been done and achieved.… They will learn how to accept the days of the future, if they be difficult, with mental fortitude and courage.”

On the 25th anniversary, the Jewish world was a more sober place. Knowing full well of the Nazi atrocities that were occurring, David Ben Gurion reminded the nation that the anniversary of Balfour was not a celebration—but a solemn reminder of precisely why Jewish autonomy was a necessity.

Subsequent anniversaries of Balfour were often completely neglected, due to a variety of factors. These include the priorities of building the State—but also a considered ambivalence about the British, who subsequent to Balfour had often opposed Jewish expansion in the land.

Balfour - Israeli Stamp.jpeg

On the 50th anniversary, less than five months after the victory of the Six Day War, Israelis were ready to embrace their past—and the legitimacy that it bestowed in the community of nations. The headiness of those days promised that peace and normalization were at hand. And that was a process that had been sparked by Balfour.

Balfour - Israeli Stamp2.jpeg

So postage stamps were issued of Lord Balfour and the Declaration’s architect, Chaim Weizmann. Each stamp carried not only an image of the man, but also a biblical reference. Balfour’s portrait was enhanced by Jeremiah 31:17, translated in this way: “Your children shall come back to their own country.”  Weizmann’s picture included the word yovel, the biblical Jubilee, when ancient Israel was commanded to “proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” That is to say, Israel was the latest chapter of the ancient saga of the Jewish people—interrupted by a 2000-year exile.

Today's centennial brings out all these complexities. In 2016, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a U.N. called for the British to mark the anniversary with “an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes, miseries, and injustices that it created.” British Prime Minister Theresa May, to her great credit, will ignore that call and celebrate the milestone with Prime Minister Netanyahu in London. (UK Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has a problem with confronting antisemitism in his party, announced that he would not be attending the celebrations.)

For the rest of us, this centennial could be a time for reflection about the meaning of Israel in our lives. We live in an extraordinary generation in Jewish history: a generation that knows a state of Israel. And the Balfour Declaration was a key moment in bringing that remarkable reality to fruition.

On the other hand, Jewish peoplehood is being torn and tattered by its leaders. The Prime Minister of Israel has proven himself to be an adversary to the unity of the Jewish people, by creating a cabinet of reactionary zealots and jettisoning large swaths of the world’s Jews for the sake of holding on to political power. The crisis at the Western Wall—in which the government forged a remarkable compromise and then abandoned it after pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties—is a symbolic illustration of this behavior. American Zionist leadership has shown itself to be unwilling or unable push the issue of religious pluralism in Israel as a fundamental priority.

There is much to be worried about in regard to Israel’s future. But milestone anniversaries such as this one—a forshpeis to the 70th anniversary celebration of Israel’s Independence next May—remind us of the incredible story that is modern Israel.

And it should compel each of us to explore our own responsibilities to make sure that Israel remains true to its founding principles, to be a democratic “national home” to every Jew.

Rain (I Don't Mind) - For Shemini Atzeret

 

שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים תַּקְרִ֥יבוּ אִשֶּׁ֖ה לַה' בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֡י מִקְרָא־קֹדֶשׁ֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם
וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֨ם אִשֶּׁ֤ה לַֽה' עֲצֶ֣רֶת הִ֔וא כָּל־מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשֽׂוּ׃

Seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to Adonai. On the eighth (ha-shemini) day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to Adonai; it is a solemn gathering (atzeret) you shall not work at your occupations. (Leviticus 23:36)


The holiday called Shemini Atzeret (literally, “the gathering on the eighth day”) is for many people the phantom, forgotten festival in Jewish life. Even Jews who determinedly spend their week in the Sukkah might be hard-pressed to say what, exactly, that eighth day is all about.

The 23rd day of the seventh month is the culmination of a three-and-half week period full of holidays: Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot have all preceded it. It arrives eight days after Sukkot begins, the final punctuation mark on this festival-rich season.

This prompts the Rabbis to ruminate about how Sukkot in the autumn complements Pesach in the spring: just as Pesach is the 7-day pilgrimage festival celebrating the spring planting, Sukkot is the 7-day pilgrimage which rejoices in the fall harvest. Passover is “capped” after 50 days by a holiday that is called Atzeret (we call that early-summer holiday Shavuot). So, for the sake of symmetry, Sukkot should also be “capped” by an Atzeret.  (But why isn’t it 50 days later? The midrash answers: because winter is coming, and a pilgrimage in the middle of winter’s rain and snow would be too arduous for the Jews.) (Midrash Tanchuma, Pinchas 15)

But the special identity of this day is far from clear, and the Torah doesn’t make it much clearer when it discusses ancient Israel’s festivals. In Leviticus, the Atzeret sounds like the capstone to the seven days of Sukkot, and is a holiday in its own right (“you shall not work at your occupations”). In Numbers, a large numbers of sacrifices are made on each day of Sukkot; on the eighth day, a more modest offering is prescribed, indicating that the eighth day was connected to Sukkot, and yet separate and distinct from it (Numbers 29: 35-38). And in Deuteronomy, there is no mention of an eighth-day assembly after the seven days of Sukkot (Deut. 16:13-15)!

Later in the Bible, we read of the enormous Sukkot celebrations that took place in Jerusalem. When King Solomon dedicated the Temple on the Sukkot holiday, Shemini Atzeret is the “one more day,” for the king (and the King of Kings) to spend together with the people of Israel; a little more time to linger together before everyone trudges home to face the approaching winter (I Kings 8:66).

Consider at what a sweet image that is. Long before rabbis griped and groaned about Jews who couldn’t be bothered to show up to synagogue more than twice a year, the Bible was imagining God, surveying the Sukkot masses in Jerusalem, saying, “This time we’ve had together during the holidays has been so special—for Me! Stay just a little longer, just one day, so we can savor it just a little more.” That was Shemini Atzeret.

By the generations of the Talmud, Shemini Atzeret (like many of the Torah’s holidays) had acquired some new features. It developed one overarching theme: water.

Shemini Atzeret became the time when the Rabbis would pray that life-giving rains would soak the land of Israel. They (as do we) begin to insert the words “you cause the wind to blow and the rains to fall” in the second blessing of the Amidah on Shemini Atzeret. And one of the key features of the liturgy on this day is an elaborate piyyut called Geshem (“Rain”).

Water is a historical worry for the dwellers of the Land of Israel. Diaspora-dwellers might find this hard to understand. In North America, rain can fall pretty much any time in the calendar year. Not so for Israel; almost all the annual rainfall comes down during a five-month rainy season from November to March. An ancient farmer, dependent on winter rains for a successful sowing season in the spring, would be very much aware if the rain was even just a few weeks late. Thus we can understand their fear and trepidation when rain had yet to arrive. An entire tractate of the Mishnah, Ta’anit, is devoted to the prayers and fasts that are prescribed for the community when the rain has failed to come.

The Torah testified that the Land of Israel was dependent on the rain. By contrast, the land of Egypt did not rely on rain; rather, the irrigation of Egyptian fields came from the overflowing waters of the Nile River. The 3rd-century apocalyptic prophet Zechariah knew this; as he called upon God to punish the oppressive nations of the world with drought, he acknowledged that drought will not be much of a punishment against Egypt. Don’t worry, the prophet says; Egypt will get its own special, appropriate form of discipline! (Zechariah 14:18).

But the Land of Israel is different. Israel depends on God’s mercies, expressed through rainfall:

כִּ֣י הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתָּ֤ה בָא־שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ לֹ֣א כְאֶ֤רֶץ מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הִ֔וא אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְצָאתֶ֖ם מִשָּׁ֑ם
אֲשֶׁ֤ר תִּזְרַע֙ אֶֽת־זַרְעֲךָ֔ וְהִשְׁקִ֥יתָ בְרַגְלְךָ֖ כְּגַ֥ן הַיָּרָֽק׃
הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתֶּ֜ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ אֶ֥רֶץ הָרִ֖ים וּבְקָעֹ֑ת לִמְטַ֥ר הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם תִּשְׁתֶּה־מָּֽיִם׃

For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heavens. (Deut. 11:10-11)

Worrying about water is still the case today. A visitor to the Dead Sea cannot help but notice that this marvel is rapidly dissipating; it recedes a few dozen meters each year. The water level of the Kinneret precipitously rises and falls. And the battle over control of aquifers and water-sources is part of the realpolitik between Israel and her neighbors.

Today, Israel is the world’s greatest water innovator. It has successfully deployed technology, conservation, and good management to meet the water needs of its citizens and its crops—with enough left over that it even exports water to its neighbors! (In the Boston suburbs, by contrast, it seems like every summer there is a drought and the towns rush into panic-mode, limiting the amount of water that people can use.)  The themes of water scarcity and how Israel has addressed it are discussed in the recent book Let There Be Water by Seth M. Siegel.

The Sages of the Talmud, as was their wont, took these themes and spiritualized them. In Babylonia, drought was less of a worry than it was in the Land of Israel. So for the Rabbis, rain became a symbol of God’s benevolence and spiritual openness. (The Beatles knew this too.)  אין מים אלא תורה says the Talmud (Bava Kamma 17a); “Wherever the Torah mentions ‘water,’ read ‘Torah’ instead.”  They make a comparison: Just as rain delivers physical sustenance, Torah brings spiritual sustenance.

Shemini Atzeret, then, has a symbolic and deeply powerful meaning to those who are open to it. On Sukkot, we expressed our gratitude for the harvest of blessings with which we are surrounded. As the holiday concludes, we pray for life-giving waters that will sustain us and create a fertile environment for blessings yet to come. If this can happen, then we know that we can find the resources and strength to face the long cold winter ahead.     

Pluralism in Israel – Our Facts on the Ground

It’s almost Shabbat in Netanya, a coastal town in central Israel, and I’m with Rabbi Edgar Nof, the Energizer-bunny of Mitzvahs and inclusion.

The synagogue where Edgar works—we joke that the founders didn’t try very hard when they named it “Natan-Ya”—is a small boxy building that was once Haganah headquarters in the days before the Independence. Next door is a school that, in those pre-state days, was occupied by the radical Zionist organization Lehi.  Edgar points out the tower from where, in those revolutionary times, they sent signals to the illegal aliyah boats that were shut out from the ports of Haifa and Akko by the British. 

The mainstream Haganah and the extremist Lehi were bitter rivals. Edgar smiles: “Even then, left and right were fighting each other.” 

________________

Netanya doesn’t seem like the cutting-edge of progressive Judaism. It doesn’t feel like the cutting-edge of anything; it’s more like an Israeli version of a beach town from a Bruce Springsteen song whose glory days are past. Historically it has drawn large numbers of immigrants from Russia and, more recently, France. Natan-Ya—the only liberal shul in the city—feels far from the pulse of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. 

But spend a Shabbat with Edgar and his community and you’ll see precisely what Reform Judaism’s “facts on the ground” look like, and why their growth is such an imperative in Israel.

Friday afternoon commences with two classes that Edgar teaches to various constituencies in his shul—one is a class of conversion students, a richly multiethnic gathering. Plus there’s time for a Tefillin-wrapping ceremony for a boy who will become a Bar Mitzvah in the day ahead. He’s one of two bar mitzvah boys over the next 24 hours.

At Kabbalat Shabbat services, a woman who has been part of the community for years is celebrated: She has finally finished the process of conversion to Judaism, and Edgar immersed her in the Mediterranean earlier in the week. On Shabbat morning, she is called to the Torah for the first time after three decades of life in Israel. The congregation sings to her and embraces her.

On Saturday, there are two bar mitzvah celebrations; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The first—the tefillin-wrapping boy’s—is a family where the father is Sefardi-Moroccan and the mother is Filipino. They exude such genuine joy. They may have thought that they never would have had a moment like this, as a secular family for whom the doors of the Orthodox establishment must have seemed quite shut. But Edgar and the shul make it happen; as parents and grandfather are called to the Torah, the emotion of generations of Jewish history swells in the room.  I ask the bar mitzvah boy’s two younger sisters if they’ll each become bat mitzvah with Rabbi Edgar when they’re old enough; they answer, “Of course!”

The second bar mitzvah boy, in the afternoon, is also a sweet soul. The family is decidedly secular and the boy himself has his sharing of learning issues. Edgar described to me the work it took to get him to this moment. Nonetheless, for Israelis who perhaps have never set foot inside of a shul, there is a sublime moment of joy and connection, as they pass the Torah from generation to generation and then process around the room with it, kissing it as it comes near. Without a doubt, the extended family members in the room had never been in a Reform synagogue before. What did they see? Tradition, inclusion, warmth, song, Shabbat delight, and embracing smiles. 

Edgar Nof, like other Reform rabbis in Israel, does hundreds of these ceremonies per year, often with constituencies that otherwise would be left behind: new immigrants; disabled kids; families with a parent whose status is disputed.

Here’s the scorecard for one 24-hour period in Netanya:  2 Torah classes; spirited Shabbat services; one conversion; one tefillin ceremony; two bar mitzvah families; guests welcomed. 

This is liberal Judaism on the edge: Flinging doors open wide to those who would otherwise be left behind. Providing authentic Jewish experiences for people who otherwise would have opted out; a genuine alternative to closed orthodoxy and sheer secularism. And it’s not Tel Aviv, Haifa, or Jerusalem, but here, away from the throngs of Anglo tourists, where Edgar Nof does his work of kiruv. The community is a great voice of Judaism that is open to all who seek it. 

Look: religious pluralism, like all of Israel’s civic battles, will be fought with “facts on the ground.” The Kotel is important, as are all of our legislative fights for recognition. But it is also our responsibility to invest in the Israel that we want to see emerge—and that means investing in communities like Natan-Ya, to make the case for a thriving non-Orthodox alternative for Israelis. It can't just be about legislative battles: we have to build the Jewish alternative that we want to see.

___________

It’s all pretty intense, so on Shabbat afternoon I take a break and head down to the beach. Netanya’s sands are enveloped by tall cliffs that remind me of Jurassic Coast of southern England. Surfers are riding the modest Mediterranean waves and you can see all of secular Israel here, in all its ethnic variety and fun. (Also some of the world’s smallest bikinis.)

It all seems so damn normal.

When I’ve had enough Middle Eastern sun, I walk back up King David Street. Suddenly I’m standing in front of the Park Hotel. The hotel has seen better days and its prominent rooftop sign is dilapidated. This was the site of the Passover massacre in 2002, where on the night of the seder a Hamas suicide bomber, disguised as a woman, murdered 28 people and injured 140 others.

It’s not normal, it’s Israel. Where exaltation and horror too often reside next door to each other. And Israel’s enemies don’t discriminate among their victims; they are utterly pluralistic.