Politics

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.

Nuclear Dreams

If you can stomach just a few more words about the State of the Union…

I have no intention here of analyzing Donald Trump’s speech—nor the First Lady’s clothes, the opposition’s behavior, or any of that nonsense. States of the Union are usually non-events, and this one was no different.

But there’s one part of his speech that chilled me to the bone, and in the newspapers and websites that I read, I didn’t see any particular mention of it.

He said:

As part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression. Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

On the page, those words are grotesque enough. But there was an insidiousness to how he said it—especially that last sentence, which had a sickly, condescending tone. It triggered some old, primal fears.

I was a teenager in the 1980s, at the height of U.S.-Soviet anxieties. I’m sure I’m not the only one of my generation who remembers waking in the middle of the night from nightmares about nuclear war. Our schools and popular culture scared the hell out of us with the prospect of the annihilation of the planet.

My memories of ‘80s pop culture echo the helpless fear that our leaders would be “forced” by our enemies to use nuclear weapons—the ultimate weapons of mass destruction. Like a lot of ‘80s detritus, much of it today seems campy and silly—but we took it very seriously. 

For instance, my favorite movie around the time of my Bar Mitzvah was WarGames, which imagined that two computer nerds (with their crackling antediluvian modems and monochrome computer screens) could inadvertently set off a chain of events that would lead to war. Today, we giggle at some of the dialogue:

 “Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?”
“Later. Let’s play global thermonuclear war.”

But back in 1983, it wasn’t so funny. It scared the hell out of us.

Pop music at the time got on the nuclear fear-stoking bandwagon, too. U2—when they were young, vaguely punky, and cutting-edge—recorded War and The Unforgettable Fire, which seemed to nod toward these themes. Pink Floyd released the vinyl quaalude The Final Cut, which droned on about nuclear apocalypse. Even a disposable act like Frankie Goes to Hollywood released a hit single called “Two Tribes” about the dangers of nuclear proliferation—this is what passed as dance music in those days!

In school, they gave us books like Alas, Babylon (a holdover of the previous generation’s atomic terror) which depicted the aftereffects of a nuclear war. But the worst, by far, was The Day After—a televised movie “event” that was considered so important that it was aired without any commercials! It was about the futility of survival after the nukes go off, because of the environmental cataclysm that comes afterwards, making the planet uninhabitable. By the end of the film, the blast’s survivors have succumbed to radiation poisoning, nuclear winter has started to settle in, and the extinction of the human race seemed assured. Everybody watched it; it was one of the highest-rated TV programs of all time.

This is what we were raised on. One night in June 1989 there was an explosion at the Hercules munitions plant in my hometown, shattering windows miles away. I remember falling out of my bed from the blast, but the worst part was the sheer terror that this was it:  it was so loud, surely that it meant that the Soviets had launched their nukes (and we all knew that Picatinny Arsenal, not far away, would be a primary target when doomsday actually came). I don’t think I’ve ever been so metaphysically terrified at any other time in my life.

Even as teens, we knew the numbers: that our nuclear arsenal was so large it could destroy the planet hundreds of times over. We couldn’t comprehend the logic: if we could only completely destroy the entire Soviet Union 178 times, was it really more of a deterrent to be able to wipe them out 212 times? 

Miraculously, the Soviet Union collapsed without any of these horrors coming to be, and the Doomsday Clock slipped backwards a few clicks from midnight. But I presume I’m not the only one who senses that keeping nukes out of the hands of terrorists and lunatics couldn’t be more important. It’s a big part of why I take Israel’s warnings about Iran’s nuclear threat so absolutely seriously: a nuclear weapon in the hands of an apocalyptic regime is the stuff of real nightmares.

So to hear the President speaking of the need to “rebuild” our nuclear arsenal triggers certain long-dormant reflexes in me. Conservatives and progressives alike should be able to find common cause in being able to restrain this insane return of a ghost that should be resting permanently in peace.

Jews, especially, should know that exponential power of nuclear weapons is a moral anathema. A tradition that demands that when you go to war, you must not destroy the fruit trees in enemy territory (Deuteronomy 20:19) should be appalled at the idea of devastating entire ecosystems with weapons of ghastly force.

Moreover, the standard interpretation of an obscure passage in the Talmud (Shevuot 35b) is that a war that would kill a massive number of civilians—a sixth of the population, an atomic proportion—is absolutely prohibited.

Furthermore… my God, do we have to do this? Do we really need religious prooftexts to say that we shouldn’t contemplate wreaking devastation on a planetary scale? Can we just call this one of those things that the Talmud considers סברא הוא, just plain common sense?

As Joshua said back in ’83—and everyone in Eisenhower Middle School in Roxbury, NJ could quote it—it is a strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

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.

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.

After Charlottesville

I’ve been reticent to write about the horrors of the past few days. Not because I haven’t been completely obsessed with it all; simply because I didn’t think I had anything new to contribute.

After all, when my family and neighbors and I were at our town’s rally against hate on Sunday night after Charlottesville, I was in kind of snarky mood. (It happens.) My overwhelming sense was: “Really? We still have to do this? We have to protest the KKK and American Nazis? In 2017?” What was running through my head that evening was the voice of John Belushi ז״ל: “I hate Illinois Nazis.”

And of course, I’m appalled by the moral black hole that is the Executive Branch of the government.

So I’ve read the articles (obsessively), and the op-eds, and the letters from rabbis to their communities, and the statements from community organizations—all of whom appropriately have expressed revulsion that Nazi slogans and symbols are resurging and that the White House can only muster half-hearted condemnation (at best; at worst, “they made me do it!”) of the most appalling people in America. The movement to normalize white supremacy in the highest level of governments is terrifying.  This meme by satirist Andy Borowitz kind of summed it up for me: “Man with Jewish Grandchildren Reluctant to Criticize Nazis.”

But it turns out that there are a couple of wrinkles I’d like to see get some more attention, so here goes:

(1)  The Jewish members of Trump’s inner circle—and I mean National Economic Council chairman Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin—what are they still doing there? They should follow the lead of the CEOs who resigned from presidential advisory councils and resign their posts. Collaborating with evil is evil; this is no time to say, “Well, maybe I can change things from the inside.” 

Just as it was the moral responsibility of Jewish board members to resign from the Carter Center when it became apparent that former President Jimmy Carter was irredeemably anti-Israel, there are bigger things at stake. You can’t say, “Well, in my little corner of the administration, we had a different agenda.” 

(2)  Domestic terrorism:  You don’t like American Nazis and the KKK? Great—that shouldn’t exactly be controversial.  But legislatively speaking:  Now we must be calling out the administration for its proposing to remove domestic groups from certain anti-terrorist organizations, in order to focus solely on Islamic terror. I don’t think this actually went into effect—this administration is insidiously non-transparent—but it did openly propose the idea. Reject it; make sure that lawmakers keep all these groups on domestic terror watchlists (and having the funding to do something about it).

(3)   Don’t change the subject. I was bemused to watch yesterday’s press conference with the President, where at the beginning, middle, and end of the questions-and-answers it was clear that he wanted to talk about anything other than Charlottesville. “How about a couple of infrastructure questions?” he kept asking to reporters who weren’t interested in discussing infrastructure while the residue of a Nazi march in Virginia lingered.

And kudos to right-wing pundits such as Charles Krauthammer, with whom I agree practically never.  But on Fox, Krauthammer wasn’t standing for any dissembling from Trump apologist Laura Ingraham:

Ms. Ingraham, a Trump supporter who has been courted by the White House, allowed that the president’s remarks might have hurt his agenda [my italics]. But she also offered a partial defense, saying of Mr. Trump, “He made some points that were factually right.”

Mr. Krauthammer retorted, “What Trump did today was a moral disgrace,” and said that the president had broken from his predecessors who recognized the history of civil rights.

“I’m not going to pass moral judgment on whether Donald Trump is morally on the same plane as you are, Charles,” Ms. Ingraham replied.

Don’t let them change the subject. That goes too for the likes of Rabbi Marvin Hier—whose moral blinders let him intone a bathetic prayer at the Inauguration—who this morning on CNN condemned Nazis, but tried as hard as he could to change the subject to Iran’s pursuit of nukes. Iran is a horror—but Hier's desire to talk about anything other than the topic at hand was pretty transparent.

We know what we have to do—stand with those of our neighbors who are most likely to be disenfranchised; have zero-tolerance for leaders’ racist dog whistles; sign petitions, attend rallies, write letters and op-eds. Remain aghast, don’t be silent. But I hope drawing out some of these points above is useful. 

And a reminder:  in this week’s Torah portion we read two seemingly contradictory verses:

אֶ֕פֶס כִּ֛י לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה־בְּךָ֖ אֶבְי֑וֹן
There shall be no needy among you (Deut. 15:4)

כִּ֛י לֹא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ
There will never cease to be needy ones in your land (Deut. 15:11).

Which is it? Will there be people in need in the future or not? 

Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman addressed this in his Torah commentary: Verse 11 doesn’t mean that there will always be people in desperate straits; the Hebrew word yehdal ("cease") means that it won’t come to a stop on its own. If you want suffering to disappear, you’ve got to do something about it, reaching out to hurting brothers and sisters.

So it is with extreme hate. It isn’t just going to go away—not unless people of good faith come together and clearly articulate our vision of a decent and just society, and demand that elected leaders make it so.

Why I Walked Out on Donald Trump at AIPAC

March 22, 2016

Just as Donald Trump has dominated the recent news cycle, so too did he overshadow all the nuanced presentations that took place at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, this week.

I was one of many who walked out on Monday evening when Mr. Trump, the Republican frontrunner, addressed the crowd of over 18,000 Israel supporters. I’d like to explain why.

AIPAC, the premier pro-Israel lobbying organization in America, has remained remarkably on-message over the years. The organization has a singular mission: to advance the security and well being of the State of Israel with the U.S. government. AIPAC does this in a disciplined bipartisan manner; it consistently balances its programs with Republicans and Democrats. During an election year like this one, its policy is to invite every candidate for President to address its annual forum. This year Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich spoke in addition to Mr. Trump. (Only Bernie Sanders did not accept the invitation to speak.)  AIPAC—quite correctly, in my opinion—believes that a secure, democratic State of Israel is consistent with American national security and foreign policy goals, and that those goals transcend partisan politics of left and right. Overwhelmingly, the U.S. Congress and the majority of the American people agree.

So Mr. Trump’s invitation was consistent with AIPAC’s agenda and past behavior. Still, I was compelled to leave when he came to the stage. Many others did likewise. We objectors gathered in the hallways of the Verizon Center to voice our spiritual protest by studying Jewish sacred texts on the themes of human dignity and derech eretz (kind and decent behavior towards others). 

“To walk out or not?” was the question Conference participants asked one another. I felt compelled to do so, for a variety of reasons. 

I walked out because this protest was about the tone and attitude of the campaign, not the content of Trump’s policies.  Again, AIPAC is a single-mission organization, and a remarkably consistent and effective one. Understanding their nonpartisan policy, I would not walk out on other candidates, even when I aggressively disagreed with their policy positions.

But Trump is different. He’s an outlier; a once-in-a-generation (God willing) phenomenon. He has injected overt racism, vile sexism, and the insinuation of violence into the Presidential campaign. (Other candidates, left and right, have played the race card in the past, but none with the overt bigotry that Trump and his supporters have displayed towards Mexicans, immigrants of many backgrounds, and Muslims. For that matter, his comments last fall at the Republican Jewish Coalition were also overtly anti-Semitic.)

I have Muslim friends.  How could I look them in the eye by attending an event where Trump was celebrated and applauded—this man who grotesquely has called for banning Muslims from our shores and monitoring those who are our neighbors?

Likewise, there is the tone of violence that he has injected into the campaign. Fierce words unsurprisingly spilled over into physical violence at Trump rallies in recent weeks, and the candidate not only refuses to condemn it, but winks and encourages it, saying, “I’ll pay the legal fees” of his supporters who assault protesters.

I walked out because Donald Trump is bad for Israel. Unquestioned, uncontested association with Mr. Trump is bad news for Israel, no matter how vociferously he proclaims that he will be “the best friend Israel ever had.”  So-called friends (earlier in the campaign declared his “neutrality” on Israel’s conflicts) who are thugs and bigots do not promote Israel’s cause. Mr. Trump’s slow disavowal of the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, only benefits those who cling to slander that “Zionism is racism.” Israel’s democracy is vigorous, but her political enemies would love nothing more than to link Trump-style demagoguery with the Jewish State.

Ultimately, I walked out because I needed to walk out—for me. Watching our politics ossify into hyperbolic displays of idiocracy should be distressing to Americans of every ideological persuasion. There’s a coarsening of the national soul taking place—and I don’t want my soul succumb to it.  Moreover, I don’t want my community or my country to succumb to it, either.

The electoral process should be an impassioned, vigorous, and freewheeling debate about differing visions of our mutual future. American democracy is built upon that principle and so is Jewish tradition. “Both these and these are the words of the Living G-d,” says the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) about the virulent debates that took place 2,000 years ago between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Judaism holds a healthy reverence for argument, as well as recognition that the other person is entitled to their point of view. But yesh g’vul: there is a limit. Mr. Trump and his followers, with their coarse rhetoric and propensity towards violence, must be held accountable.

The politics of vitriol, of scapegoating and shaming, of bigotry and violence, should have no place in our discourse. It’s the responsibility of all of us to get up and turn our backs on it.

Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Dan Ephron

Twenty years after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, a horrible question arises: Was the murder a complete and unmitigated success?

I remember exactly where I was on November 4, 1995:  dozing with family on a lazy Shabbat afternoon. The TV was on, and it grabbed our attention when the program cut to breaking news. Rabin had just been shot, and was later confirmed killed, on his way toward the parking garage after a big peace rally in Tel Aviv.

It pains me even now, two decades later, to write the next sentence. But I knew in my kishkes right away that it was not a Palestinian terrorist who had murdered Rabin. I knew this was the work of a Jew. I doubted an Arab attacker would infiltrate a Tel Aviv rally of hundreds of thousands of Jews and be able to get to the Prime Minister. A Jewish terrorist, on the other hand, would slide through the crowd with ease. 

And I had seen firsthand the underbelly of violence fomenting in the Jewish community. The opposition (Mr. Netanyahu) had no problem, in the months prior to the murder, rallying beneath images portraying Rabin in an Arab kaffiyeh or with a Hitler mustache. Rabin, who had dared propose peace, was vilified among the Jewish right.

But worse than that: there were code words. Rabin, they insisted, was a boged (traitor), a rodef (one who is in active pursuit of a potential victim), and a moser (one who informs against Jews to non-Jewish authorities). Those are loaded terms, because in the Halachic world they could be interpreted to mean: Such a person could legally and morally be killed in order to halt his treachery. This was gasoline being poured on smoldering embers, waiting for the right fanatic to spark the flames of violence.

The publication of Dan Ephron’s Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel is timely, coinciding not only with the ugly anniversary, but also with waves of violence in Israel from the hands of Jewish extremists. 

Ephron begins the saga with the events leading up to the historic peace signing on the White House lawn in September 13, 1993. On that day Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and PLO President Yasser Arafat signed the historic peace accords that set in motion a dizzying new direction for the Middle East. Suddenly, nations around the world were making diplomatic overtures to Israel. It sparked a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994 (the first Arab state to do so since the treaty with Egypt in 1979). Rabin, Peres, and Arafat were all awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But the peace process also triggered more insidious responses. A wave of terrorism was launched against Israel. Hamas rose to power in Gaza, positioning itself as a more radical voice of the Palestinian street. And right-wing Jewish radicals seethed. On Purim 1995, Baruch Goldstein (yimach sh’mo—may his name be blotted out), a 38 year-old doctor and captain in the army reserve, walked into the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron and massacred 29 Muslims at prayer and wounded 100 others. In some religious quarters, rabbis and students debated—in an ostensibly theoretical way—whether or not Jewish law mandated that Rabin should be put to death.

Ephron tells two distinct narratives (distinct, that is, until they come together at the denouement). One is Rabin, the unsentimental, battle-hardened leader, who had doubts but still concluded that peace with the Palestinians was pragmatic, strategic, and sensible.

The other narrative is of a young Yemeni Jew, Yigal Amir. Amir did not grow up in what was considered Israel’s incubators for radicals, the remote settlements in Judea and Samaria; he was from Herzliya, a small Mediterranean city north of Tel Aviv. He was a student at Bar Ilan University, than (and now) a mainstream Orthodox college for Jewish and secular studies.

The story of Amir’s radicalization is sobering. Amir spoke openly about killing Rabin to a circle of peers and family. He and his brother gradually accumulated an arsenal of weapons hidden in their family home. Yet somehow on that tragic night he was able to enter the garage where Rabin’s car was parked and loiter there for the better part of an hour. 

One astonishing detail is Amir’s utter remorselessness. Aviv was his third attempt to murder the Prime Minister. In early 1995, he attempted to get close to Rabin at Yad Vashem, at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (can you imagine if the Prime Minister of Israel was assassinated by a Jew at such an event at such a place?). In April, he tried again to get close to Rabin at a Mimouna celebration in Jerusalem. He had been a known quantity to Shabak, Israel’s security services. And after Amir was in police custody, he acknowledged what he had done and why. He even returned to the square in Tel Aviv and walked police through the series of events, explaining exactly how he shot Rabin.

In the weeks after the assassination, there was some genuine hand wringing from the right wing religious Zionist camp. There seemed to be an acknowledgment that a virus was replicating itself in certain yeshivot and in the settlements: a virus that was radical, violent, and placed its loyalty in extremist rabbis rather than in the laws and institutions of the State of Israel. There seemed to be a spirit of honest Teshuvah.

But that self-reflection faded. Amir became a hero to many. (I recently argued with an Israeli friend about whether or not Amir would be paroled in his lifetime. He is convinced that one day it could be politically prudent for a Prime Minister to pardon Amir. I disagree, but the prospect chills me to the bone.) And conspiracy theories began to flourish among those who would exonerate Amir. Was the murder an inside job with Amir as the fall guy? Who yelled “They’re blanks!” when Amir fired his gun, causing confusion among the bodyguards and secret service agents? And what was the role of an embarrassing rogue Shabak informant, Avishai Raviv?

Ephron strikes a proper balance: He dismantles the conspiracy theories in a few pages without granting them too much legitimacy.

Today, the lessons of 20 years ago seem forgotten. Israel is currently governed by its most right-wing coalition in history. Recent months have seen a proliferation of “price-tag” attacks on Palestinians. So-called “hilltop youth” have become folk heroes of a sort among elements of Israeli society. Reclaiming the Temple Mount for Jewish prayer—once considered to be an extremely radical and inflammatory position—has gained traction this season as political wedge issue.

And certain settler rabbis continue to preach hatred and armed conflict in the name of G-d.  I have no doubt that behind closed doors, there are many Israelis who say, “You know, Rabin was a boged. He deserved to be killed.” 

Ephron’s gut-wrenching book deserves to be widely discussed in the pro-Israel community. Frankly, it’s haunted me since I read it. Somewhere tonight Yigal Amir sits in prison, aware that the modern Middle East is different because of him. Somewhere there are people who still drink L’chayim! to Amir as a hero. Somewhere, radical rabbis are giving drashot inciting their followers to embrace their hate—and their guns.

Killing a King reminds us that hateful words erupt into hateful deeds. If it inspires us to be counterpoints to Amir and his ilk—to elucidate a Judaism and a Zionism based on mutual respect and peace—then it will be more than just a timely reminder. It will be a Mitzvah.

Marriage Isn't Sacred

Holy Moly! The Supreme Court's smackdown of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act is so very sweet, because it reminds us that sometimes love wins the day. I support marriage equality because it is right, it is just, and it is overdue. 

I also support it because it is American. After all, marriage isn't sacred. 

Let me explain. As a rabbi, I officiate at many weddings and every one of them fills me with awe and delight. Each even gives me a profound sense of G-d's presence. 

So how can I say there is "nothing sacred about marriage"? Of course marriage can and should be sacred. My relationship with my wife is sacred. Sacred, meaning infused with holiness; the very word for marriage in Jewish life is kiddushin, or "a holy relationship." 

When I officiate at a wedding, I actually perform two weddings. One wedding is, to quote the Jewish liturgy, "according to the law of Moses and Israel." It uses the symbolism of centuries of Jewish life: wine, chuppah, ketubah, rings, a smashed glass. It celebrates the Jewish home that this couple will establish. It rejoices in the perpetuation of Jewish life from one generation to the next. And it marks the new family line and the new intimate domain that this couple will share with one another and with no one else (G-d willing). These things conform to my understanding of the sacred. 

However, there is also a second wedding that occurs simultaneously. Before witnesses sign the ketubah, we sign a document issued by the state. This civil marriage license is valid according to the law of the United States of America. And there isn't a thing that is sacred about it because our government shouldn't be in the business of sacredness. The sacred is the realm of religion and the First Amendment to our Constitution protects us from the establishment of official religions. The marriages that the Supreme Court is addressing and the only marriages that the government should be preoccupied with are the civil marriages that occur in the eyes of Uncle Sam, not the laws of (in my case) Moses and the people Israel. 

By "not sacred" I don't mean that civil marriage is not meaningful or profound; of course it is. But from the perspective of our government, marriage should be a relationship that is protected by laws and rights. People who have entered into this legal arrangement with one another are entitled to certain rights and privileges: inheritance, hospital visitation, joint tax returns, veterans' benefits, conflict of interest protections, and 1,133 other rights that heterosexual couples automatically receive when they are wed. None of those rights are inherently Christian. They are secular rights conveyed by our civil system. 

Our society has reached the tipping-point of acknowledging that same-sex marriages are equally entitled to these rights and privileges. All the arguments to the contrary inevitably resort to religious and biblical language but the Bible isn't the law of the land, something for which all Sabbath-violators and cheeseburger-eaters should be grateful. 

Furthermore, despite the hyperbole of the religious right, same-sex marriage is no slippery slope towards permitting every conceivable sort of union. The government retains the right to prohibit any relationship that is inherently abusive, such as incest or polygamy. But no longer can it deny the evidence that is, and has been, perfectly obvious for so long: that same-sex relationships are infused with the same potential for commitment, stability, and love that any straight relationship is capable of. 

That is why same-sex marriage in America is a matter of basic human rights. The astoundingly cynically-named "Defense of Marriage Act" was always a farce, and even its supporters knew it. The sacredness of my marriage was never in need of defending by denying someone else's right to marry. 

If you believe that homosexuality cannot convey sacredness, you have the right to your belief. So does your house of worship, and so does your pastor. America's blessed Bill of Rights will ensure that you never have to enter into a marriage you find morally objectionable, and your clergyperson will never be forced to officiate at such a union against his will. But on Wednesday the Supreme Court affirmed that your pursuit of sacredness does not trump mine or our neighbor's. 

Thank G-d!