Why are Israelis tone deaf to incitement against Palestinians?

kahane posterThe Prime Minister of Israel has been known to angrily decry anti-Israel incitement among Palestinians, and he is right to do so. If there’s ever to be peace between the two nations, it will have to consist of more than negotiating terms and signing papers—the people involved will have to learn to see and treat each other as human beings, or the paperwork won’t last.

What, then, are we to make of two stories of incitement that came out of Israel just this week?

The first, reported by +972, reveals that posters lauding Meir Kahane have been appearing on the walls of Israeli military outposts. Meir Kahane was not only a racist ideologue of the worst stripe, he actively encouraged anti-Palestinian violence. Baruch Goldstein, the settler who massacred 29 praying Palestinians, was a member of Kahane’s Kach Movement; both the Israeli and American governments have designated Kach and its successor movements as terrorist organizations. The posters in question read “Kahane was right”; in one photo, a uniformed soldier can be seen casually leaning back against Kahane’s headshot, rifle in hand.

The second story emerged from an interview that Yediot Aharonot conducted with Israeli celebrity/fashionista Nicole Raidman.

Raidman told Yediot that she’s planning a new home in a small community on the Israeli border with Gaza, a house that will feature green construction and solar energy. Asked by the reporter what she plans to do there, Raidman responded:

I’ll sit on the roof with my daughter and an AK-47 and play Angry Birds: There’s an Arab! Shoot! More than that: I’ll buy a pink tank with Swarovski crystals. I’m a right-wing extremist because a friend of mine was killed in an attack when I was a girl, okay?

Fantasizing about randomly killing Palestinians with one’s daughter, a tricked-out tank at your side, is bad enough, as far as these things go. As to Raidman’s justification for her attitude, I’m sure that the Israelis involved with the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families Forum might have a different idea as to what she might do with her grief, but heaven knows Nicole Raidman isn’t the first person to respond to violence with revenge fantasies.

But then Raidman goes on to reveal just how blind she is to the implications of what she’s saying, shedding light not just on her own inner workings, but also on the enormous cognitive dissonance that exists for so many in Israeli Jewish society.

When the reporter asks her to clarify, Raidman helpfully adds: “I just mean terrorists”—and then, when told “but not all Arabs are terrorists,” replies:

I agree. I have Arab customers. One customer from Ramallah spends millions. What do I care. But their way of thinking, the way they raise their children with hate towards us, I can’t stand it. But if I see a 10 year old with a huge gun [totach —literally: cannon], I’ll shoot him!

Note that Raidman’s daughter—the child she is raising, educating, and wants to take up to the roof with an AK-47—was born in 2010. I can only imagine what Israeli officials would say if a Palestinian celebrity said anything similar.

This inability to see that something’s broken when a government can complain about incitement but isn’t much bothered by Kahane, or that cultivating murderous loathing among children is indefensible on either side of the border, is a kind of blindness that plagues Israeli Jewish society and shapes its relationship with all the Arab peoples among which it lives. And lest you be tempted to bring up textbooks: Sure, Palestinian textbooks have issues with hate-and-fear-mongering—and Israeli textbooks do, too.

Like any people, we Israelis tend to see our side’s flaws as unremarkable, and the other’s as unforgivable. We tell ourselves that a few posters don’t mean anything; that neither Raidman nor her toddler will be hauling a Kalashnikov up to the roof anytime soon. That our textbooks tell the truth.

When people kill each other for decades, though, the hate and the fear tend to flow both ways. Whether or not we want to talk about it, there exists mounds and mounds of evidence that Israelis are just as capable of hate and fear as anybody else.

Consider this: After hearing his interviewee fantasize about killing 10 year olds,Yediot’s reporter blithely changed the subject back to fashion. Violent xenophobia and bigotry are just part of the conversation.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Rick Perry announces Texas A&M campus in Nazareth.

TexasAMLogo1Former-and-current U.S. Presidential hopeful Rick Perry went to Israel this week to burnish his pro-Israel bona fides in advance of the 2016 campaign, and also to announce plans for Israel’s first non-Israeli institution of higher education. As The Texas Tribune reported ahead of the announcement:

On Wednesday in Jerusalem, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp are expected to announce plans to establish a Texas A&M campus in Nazareth. It will be called Texas A&M Peace University.

… “Our side of the equation is to locate and make available land, which is a scarce resource in Israel,” said [Manuel Trajtenberg, chair of Israel’s Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education].

Trajtenberg said he anticipates significant student interest. “Of course, we would appeal to potential students in the area, but also Jewish Israelis of all sorts…” he said. “I suspect there will be a strong demand for this institution from students who would prefer to study in English and are comfortable in a multicultural environment.”

Though a first for Israel, Texas A&M has maintained a presence beyond American borders since 2003, with a branch campus in Qatar. The primary difference between the Qatar and Israel campuses is funding: The Qatar institution is supported entirely by the Qatar Foundation; the Israeli branch will depend on international donors. Fundraising help will come from (among others) Chancellor John Sharp, who is Catholic and told The New York Times that he’s wanted to take this step since taking his position in 2011: “I wanted a presence in Israel… I have felt a kinship with Israel.”

Also instrumental to the plan is the Texas-based evangelical power-pastor John Hagee:

When Mr. Sharp began exploring the idea, he sought the help of John C. Hagee… who has helped raise tens of millions of dollars for projects in Israel and for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In March 2012, Pastor Hagee told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel about Mr. Sharp’s plans and helped connect Mr. Sharp and other Texas A&M officials with Israeli leaders.

…“The things we have in common with Israel are much greater than anything that would be separating us,” [Hagee said].

You remember John Hagee—he’s the guy who thinks Hitler was sent by God to “chase the Jewish people back to the land.” I don’t know if he’s listed that idea on the “things in common” or the “things that separate us” side of his ledger, but neither that opinion nor Hagee’s theology have ever kept right-wing Jews in Israel or America from using his fundraising prowess for their own ends.

All of which leads me to instinctively wrinkle my nose. The tendency among Christian Zionists (and not a few Jewish Zionists) to treat the modern nation-state of Israel as a sort of Disney version of The Promised Land is not, to put it mildly, my favorite thing. It’s a real place, with a real culture, real joys and sorrows, and not some pie-in-the-sky fulfillment of ancient prophecy.

But on the other hand, there’s this:

As many as 5,000 students will study there, officials said, with most coming from the Arab communities in and around Nazareth. Arabs make up more than 20 percent of the population of Israel, but only 11 percent of the student body in the country’s higher-education system.

…“There’s no significant academic presence in Arab towns and cities in Israel,” Mr. Trajtenberg said. “It will have a symbolic impact beyond the academic impact.”

Now, it could be argued that if Israel’s Council for Higher Education is worried about the lack of academic opportunity in Arab-Israeli municipalities, it could use some of the national budget (into which the citizens who live in those places pay their taxes)to address the issue. Waiting for foreigners to solve the problem isn’t necessarily the most responsible option.

Yet the fact is that the State of Israel has not chosen to invest in higher education in Arab-Israeli (more properly: Palestinian-Israeli) locales, and along comes Texas A&M—hardly a slouch in the higher education department. English-language instruction is a frankly deft way around the political stink that would no doubt arise if Israel dared establish an Arabic-language university, and should also provide anyone graduating with a leg up in the global marketplace. In short: Who am I to begrudge the good people of Nazareth a world-class institution?

Of course, all of this remains in the wait-and-see stage—not only have planners not yet broken ground, they haven’t even bought land; the Times reports that fundraising should begin “within weeks.” Many a grand idea has come and gone without leaving so much as a ripple.

But ultimately, I think I can only wish this project well. Given that Israel’s government has typically treated its Palestinian-Israeli citizens as little but a demographic burden (at best), Texas A&M represents the possibility of genuine improvement. Here’s to hoping it works.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Palestinian parents to be allowed to accompany children under Israeli interrogation.

This is what occupation looks like:

An Israeli judge at a Jerusalem Magistrate’s court ruled [last] Wednesday that the parents of young Palestinian detainees can attend police interrogation sessions with their children, the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society said.

…Israeli police interrogate Palestinian children repeatedly without the presence of their parents and often force minors to confess to crimes using illegal methods, [Mufid al-Hajj, a lawyer with the Palestinian Prisoners Society], said.

The decision will be circulated to Israeli police stations in Jerusalem, the lawyer added.

Just in case it needs spelling out, what the foregoing means is that heretofore, Palestinian children have routinely not been allowed to have their parents with them when questioned by Israel’s security forces—and lest you think by “children,” I’m just talking about teenaged ruffians (who, it should be noted, also have a right to have their parents present when detained by police), I actually mean children as young as 12, 10, 8. Children as young as 5.

UNICEF reported last spring that

In the past 10 years, an estimated 7,000 children have been detained, interrogated, prosecuted and/or imprisoned within the Israeli military justice system – an average of two children each day.

…The common experience of many children is being aggressively awakened in the middle of the night by many armed soldiers and being forcibly brought to an interrogation center tied and blindfolded, sleep deprived and in a state of extreme fear. Few children are informed of their right to legal counsel…. Children are often prevented from saying goodbye to their parents and from putting on appropriate clothing for the journey.

 The majority of children prosecuted in the military courts are charged with throwing stones…. Data based on the work of organizations providing legal support to children show that children charged with throwing stones and prosecuted in the military courts are receiving prison sentences in the range of 2 weeks to 10 months.

Occasionally the children of Israeli settlers throw rocks at Palestinians. Earlier this month, a Palestinian six year old from the village of Umm al Ara’is approached a young settler boy, his hand outstretched—the two shook hands, and as the Palestinian boy walked away, the Israeli child bent down, picked up a rock, and threw it.

So, should the settler boy have been arrested by the many armed Israeli security personnel present at the time? On the other hand, if uniformed Israelis had not been present but Palestinian security forces had, should the Palestinians have arrested the Israeli child? And if either had happened—how would the world respond?

Currently there are some 30 Palestinian minors under the age of 16 in Israeli prisons. What if they were Israelis, in Palestinian prisons?

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

What do Jews lose when rabbis feel compelled to dissemble on Israel?

Earlier this week, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) issued the findings of a study it conducted among 552 American rabbis; in its report, JCPA found that “nearly half of the rabbis in this survey hold views on Israel that they won’t share publically, many for fear of endangering their reputation and their careers.” The report goes on:

The challenge is not only to sort out their own positions on complex Israel-related issues, but also to discern how to express views that may challenge, annoy, or even distress friends and people who hold influence over their careers and livelihood. They frequently find themselves fearful of or caught in the maelstrom of tension regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their personal views about it.

The bima at the Falmouth Jewish Congregation in East Falmouth, Massachusetts. source

The bima at the Falmouth Jewish Congregation in East Falmouth, Massachusetts. source

About 12 percent of the rabbis defined themselves as “closet hawks,” while some 18 percent could be called closet doves; less than a quarter of the hawks were found to be “very fearful” of expressing their opinions on Israel and the conflict, while 43 percent of the doves were “very fearful.” All told, in the last three years, nearly half of those surveyed reported having refrained from expressing themselves on the topic “for fear of offending” people with whom they were engaged in conversation, or anyone who might be listening.

Yet more interesting numbers emerge from more focused questions: When asked if Israel should freeze West Bank settlement expansion, a whopping 62 percent agreed “to a great extent,” while only 10 percent said “not at all.” The reports finds “some considerable doubts” among American rabbis over the idea that Israel is more invested in the peace process than its negotiating partners, “with even a majority of rabbis from the largest denomination demurring from the idea that Israel truly wants peace more than the Palestinians.” Fully 93 percent of those surveyed said they are “very attached” to Israel, “a figure about double that found in many studies of rank-and-file American Jews.”

Speaking with Dina Kraft at Haaretz, report co-author and newly-ordained rabbi Jason Gitlin said:

I saw many of my classmates and younger colleagues come under attack or question by the broader Jewish community about how important Israel was to them and where they stood. They are among the most informed and knowledgeable people, and to not have them serve in the most honest and engaging way is a loss to the community.

It’s important to note (as the JCPA report does) that the group surveyed doesn’t constitute a fully representative sample of American rabbis, if for no other reason than that Orthodox clergy are underrepresented.  As such, the authors warn that “the nature of the sample obviates strictly generalizing to the universe of American rabbis”—and yet, anyone who’s been involved with two-state advocacy over the past twenty years will not be at all surprised by the figures, which if not strictly representative, are broadly characteristic of anecdotal evidence that’s been building for years.

Moreover, the findings are entirely resonant with the experiences of rank-and-file Jews as well, and I would argue are a major reason why so many of the rank-and-file have chosen to remove themselves from communal life, or give up on caring about Israel at all.

I agree with the report’s authors that the fact that so many rabbis feel they can’t be honest with their parishioners is “a cause of concern for a community that champions open and free discourse on key issues affecting it”—but I also worry about another facet to all of this.

I don’t know a single Jew for whom questioning the conventional wisdom on Israel is easy. The path from consensus to questions is generally fraught, and often both emotionally and spiritually challenging.

I worry that a sizeable minority of our spiritual leaders are “very fearful” of telling their own truth about the Jewish people’s national and spiritual homeland (a homeland to which 93 percent of them are very attached) not just for the sake of the rabbis themselves, but also for our own sake, as a people.

What do we lose when our clergy feels they cannot be honest with us? What do we lose when political argument pushes out spiritual practice? And who have we lost along the way—which intellectual giants, which tziddikim, how many Arnold Jacob Wolfs and Abraham Joshua Heschels—have broken down and walked away because we wouldn’t let them engage honestly with the challenges presented by seemingly endless conflict and occupation?

In short: When we force our rabbis to lie to us—what are we doing to ourselves?

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Between J Street and the Pew survey.

J Street logoI spoke with many (many) people at the recent J Street conference; middle-aged activists, rabbis of various ages and stages, college-aged-or-just-barely-not-college-aged young men and women of exceeding intelligence and remarkable vision. One of the topics to which many conversations turned, again and again, was the question of Jewish identity.

While not a perfect metric (and it’s important to remember that anecdotes are no replacement for research) it’s worth noting that there were far more kipot in the crowd this time than at any other J Street gathering I’ve ever attended. There were more tziziot. A few speakers even went beyond passing reference to tikkun olam (which, nothing against tikkun olam, but settlers think they’re doing tikkun olam, too). And I was told by people from all over the religious spectrum (as I have been in the past) that the very fact of J Street (or, before it, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom) allowed them to revisit and re-engage with their Judaism.

Which brings us, a little circuitously, to the recent Pew Research poll.

According to Pew, 73 percent of American Jews say that “remembering the Holocaust” is “an essential part of what being Jewish means to them,” whereas only 28 percent can say the same about “being part of a Jewish community.”

Though I hold Pew Research Center in high regard, my sense is that the construction of this survey is not without problems (for instance: What’s the difference between having “an emotional attachment” to Israel and “caring” about Israel? Why was the only question about settlements linked to security?)—but even if we posit the poll as an imperfect tool, imperfection can only go so far in explaining the vastly greater import Jews appear to grant Holocaust remembrance over involvement with other Jews. Forty-five percent is not a small number. We can’t even chalk it up to generational differences: Among 18-29 year olds, the stats stand at 69 percent vs. 26 percent.

Let me be perfectly clear: Holocaust remembrance is a critical Jewish act. It’s a critical human act. The calculated, mechanized effort to rid the world of an entire race of people—man, woman, and infant—because of the blood in their veins is not something that we may ever pass over lightly. We must study the events of the Nazis’ rise and rule, as well as the ideas behind the Final Solution, and we must honor the six million by recalling their lives and their culture. This is part of how we ensure the promise we make every time we say “never again.”

And yet surely it matters that we not only remember dead Jews, but also get to know some living ones. Even if our main goal is to “remember the Holocaust,” surely it matters that we find personally meaningful ways to engage with the very culture that the six million were slaughtered for.

They weren’t all religiously observant; some rather famously didn’t believe in God. I don’t know how many actually understood the language of our prayers, but I’ll bet a fair number didn’t. They argued over theology and how to stage a play and what a good education entailed and whether or not that one guy’s jokes were funny. The six million and their various communities were, in short, like any other modern people: Vastly different from one another, yet also bound by something real, however difficult to quantify.

Ever since sometime in the 1950s, however, when it became popular across much of American society to be suspicious of anything that was difficult to quantify, the Jewish community has emphasized “Holocaust remembrance” over and above almost anything else (with the possible exception of “caring about Israel”). The late, great scholar Peter Novick explained and sliced through the Holocaust rhetoric, but few really listened; it was easier, I suspect, to teach solidarity based on horrifying memory than on the ineffable nature of culture or faith. The kids in Hebrew school might not buy your whole “God” schtick, but show them a picture from Dachau and you’re in.

Quite aside from the dishonor this brings to all we lost, there’s the simple fact that horror is not culture. “Remembering” is not heritage. And the Jewish people—those rich in Torah and those rich in good deeds, believers and unbelievers, prophetic comic artists and hip hop poets, not to mention folks just getting by—have so much more to offer.

Which brings us back around to the J Street conference. The rabbis, the J Street U enthusiasts, the parents sharing tales of synagogue preschool, they all remember the Holocaust, they all care about Israel—and they all care about what being a Jew entails. All of that brought them to the conference in the first place. All of that is why they risk identifying with an organization that cares enough to question institutional Judaism’s long-held conventional wisdom on what being a good Jew means.

Every person with whom I spoke about re-engaging with their Judaism had something different in mind. Maybe they meant focusing on spiritual practice rather than on the brinksmanship of a particular set of politicians in a modern-day nation-state. Maybe they’re writing a dissertation on the impact of Jewish culture on American music. Maybe they’re reading this blog because Open Zion strives to advance the kind of open debate that was once a hallmark of Jewish thought. Maybe they decided to spend a weekend with other Jews in the Washington Convention Center and act for peace with the Palestinians.

I’m a woman of faith; I speak and read Hebrew. It’s easy for me to be active in a Conservative synagogue. But for many, many Jews, that’s neither easy nor even appealing. Nor, would I argue, does it have to be.

But being with Jews, building something of meaning based in our past with an eye on our future—that’s essential. Whether it be J Street, or Jewish poetry slams, or something like LABA, New York’s non-religious house of study, we need to find, foster, and encourage all that will help us remember not just horror, but also joy.

Basing our identity in dreadful narratives of death and survival, and/or an amorphous “caring” about a country that’s an ocean away (essential to 53 percent of Jews aged 65 and up, and only 32 percent of 18-29 year olds) is a path to failure. Indeed, if that’s all we care about, I’d say it already has failed.

But basing our identity in each other? That could actually work.

Israel mocks Iranian leader in undiplomatic Tweet.

I’m on record as thinking that the current Prime Minister of Israel tends to overstate his country’s case against Iran—that while official Israel’s long-standing concern regarding the possibility of Iran achieving nuclear capability is surely understandable (particularly considering the latter’s oft-stated hostility to the existence of a Jewish State), we mustn’t forget that Israel itself has nuclear weapons (yes, it does), that not everything’s another Holocaust, and that furthermore, if your government has spent more or less the last decade claiming with tones of urgency that we’ve only got six months, a year, two years in which to prevent calamity—your government might be overstating its case.

But you know what? Israel’s long-standing concern regarding the possibility of Iran achieving nuclear capability is surely understandable, particularly considering the latter’s oft-stated hostility to the existence of a Jewish State. If I were an Israeli official, I, too, would want to make sure that the U.S. government was not messing around and that whatever precautions being taken to protect my people were good and solid. That seems only reasonable, and certainly to be expected. Overstating a case doesn’t mean that the case doesn’t actually exist.

And yet.

And yet, there is asking the President of the United States to dot his I’s and cross his T’s; there’s making sure your concerns are heard; there’s even pressuring your allies and asking your friends to do the same because this is actually kind of a big deal and you’re truly alarmed.

And then there’s this nonsense.

Israel embassy tweet Rouhani 9 23 13


Rather than treat the rolling tide of news regarding a possible thaw in relations between the U.S. and Iran as the serious matter that it is, rather than take into consideration all that’s at stake, rather than—oh, I don’t know—consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, if the Obama Administration manages to achieve an agreement with Iran, it might actually meet Israel’s security needs and improve the lives of everyone in the Jewish State—the Israeli Embassy in the U.S. decided to try its hand at biting social media wit, by way of fifth grade level sarcasm. Creating a false LinkedIn account for your country’s arch-nemesis carries about as much gravitas as does poking your friend at lunch and saying: “Hunh-hunh! Let’s give Hassan devil’s horns in the yearbook!”

And then Israel’s UN Mission re-tweeted it. Because why not.

Are these people professionals? Are they seriously concerned about Iran? Do they honestly believe that no one in the Islamic Republic can ever be safely trusted—or, alternatively, are they genuinely concerned that Iran’s leadership change its ways and be brought back into the community of nations? If the answer to any of those questions is “yes”—then what on earth were they thinking?

This kind of amateur hour performance is an embarrassment, pure and simple—and it does little but strengthen the impression shared by many across the globe (including many Jews both inside and out of Israel) that the fear-mongering has always been more about distracting the world from the occupation of Palestinian lands than it has been about Iran.

Else the Israeli government might be just a little more interested in seeing it resolved.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Oops: Bennett and I don’t agree. But migrants find justice in Israel’s courts.

Naftali Bennett

Naftali Bennett

Alas, it was too good to last. As, perhaps, we could have predicted.

On Thursday, I wrote that I rather surprisingly found myself in agreement with Israel’s Minister of the Economy, Nafatali Bennett—a far-right politician with whom I am typically at ideological loggerheads on all matters political, cultural, and religious. Bennett had launched an investigation of businesses that employ migrant workers; he was reported to have said: “We are doing right by exploited workers [working] under substandard conditions.” I suggested that this was a good start to dealing with enormous labor problems that include not just migrant workers (legal or otherwise), but also Palestinian laborers (legal or otherwise), and Israeli citizens. I even quoted Yom Kippur-specific Scripture in which the prophet Isaiah calls on us to “untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free.”


On Sunday, writer and filmmaker David Sheen reached out to me to suggest I watch a segment about Bennett’s initiative produced by Israeli Channel Two News, in which the minister explains his motivations to both ministry employees and Channel Two’s reporter—and (sadly if unsurprisingly) his motivations are in fact entirely in-line with the government’s ongoing efforts to demonize and dehumanize African migrants (many of whom are actually refugees) and free Israel of the inconvenience of dealing with them at all (in contravention of both international law and agreements to which Israel is a signatory).

In the voice-over just before we see Bennett himself, we learn that

At the Ministry of the Economy, they believe that if employing an infiltrator costs as much as employing an Israeli, the infiltrators won’t be able to find work, and will return to Africa. [Note that “infiltrator” is the government’s official term for African migrants and refugees in or on their way to Israel, a term which in Hebrew is historically rooted in the Israeli-Arab conflict and thus trades in an existential fear]

The report then cuts to footage of Bennett himself speaking with ministry employees who we’ve been watching going from business to business with clipboards and a translator. Bennett:

Whoever knows that if he comes here, he won’t find work, because it won’t be worth anyone’s while to hire him, they’ll stop coming—which has already started to happen—but those who are already here will gradually leave.

Reporter Gilad Shalmor notes that Bennett’s comments actually contradict police recommendations that the migrants be allowed to find work as a crime preventative, and poses the question: “What happens when [the migrant] doesn’t find work—he’ll be on the street and then what?” Bennett replies:

In the very short term, there might be a certain [problem] in that regard, but in the medium and long term, the entire phenomenon will decrease.

As Open Zion has repeatedly reported, these migrants have not randomly and lazily wandered across a border in search of an easy income: These are people who have crossed literal wilderness and often survived gangs of smugglers who rape and torture them in order to escape governments that have violently oppressed them in the past and frequently threaten them with death should they ever return. Some who have been forced to return anyway have literally jumped off trucks to their deathsrather than risk their chances back “home.” I’m not sure how powerful Naftali Bennett thinks he is, but the likelihood that he will be able to put a full stop that sort of desperation—or that, indeed, visiting 160 places of business in Tel Aviv will convince all of the nation’s employers (who are, it transpires, among the worst in the Western world with regard to minimum-wage violations even when the workers are fellow citizens) to stop exploiting such a vulnerable community—seems slight.

There is some good news out of Israel regarding the African migrants, however: On Monday, the High Court ruled unanimously to overturn the government’s recently crafted policy allowing authorities to arrest and detain migrants for up to three years without a trial. As the Jerusalem Post reports:

Justice Edna Arbel said Monday that detaining the African migrants rather than making a decision about whether they should be legally deported or granted asylum, “violated their fundamental constitutional rights to human dignity [that] is the basis for Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state.”

As a result and rather suddenly, the state may have to offer permanent residence to the migrants inside 90 days.

The ruling certainly doesn’t end the desperation, or provide work or food, or even do anything about Bennett’s own attitude (which, if history is a guide, will likely harden in response to the High Court).

But it provides a real measure of justice for those who have been illegally detained, and serves as a potent reminder that many in official Israel still recognize the Jewish State’s commitment to a foundational basis of “freedom, justice and peace… [and to be] faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Even if Minister Bennett himself has forgotten.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Foreign workers in Israel: In which Naftali Bennett and I agree.

Naftali Bennett

Naftali Bennett

Here’s a thing that doesn’t often happen: I find myself agreeing with, and grateful to, Naftali Bennett.

Among the portfolios held by Bennett in Israel’s government is that of the Ministry of the Economy, and in that capacity, he’s ordered a broad campaign to investigate the exploitation of migrant workers. Already, the results are shocking: The ministry reported on Wednesday that 90 percent of businesses investigated have been found to be in violation of their workers’ legal rights:

The suspicions included failure to pay minimum wage, failure to pay overtime compensation, delaying payment, excessive work hours and failure to provide vacation time. Fifty inspectors took part in the sweep.

“We are doing right by exploited workers [working] under substandard conditions,” said Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. “We will continue to be on the ground. We will not allow [businesses] to treat the law as just some sort of recommendation.”

Moreover, Haaretz reports, the ministry has been responding directly to workers’ complaints (though it’s not clear if these complaints have come from Israelis, foreigners, or both), opening more than 1,700 investigations so far this year, 60 percent of them in response to information from laborers. “Close to 5,000 workers have been questioned in enforcement activities since the beginning of the year, including 700 foreign workers.”

The importance of such efforts cannot be overstated, and they are long overdue. As much as I may criticize Bennett on other fronts, he deserves real credit for taking action to help Israel’s vulnerable residents, whether citizens or not.

There is, of course, much more to do. The new campaign only covered Tel Aviv, and only took in 160 businesses. There still remains the excruciating issue of the deportation of migrants workers’ children, many of whom were born in Israel; in one case in 2012, at least seven children died of malaria as a direct result of their deportation. There are the stomach-turning conditions under which many migrant workers are forced to live. There are the tales—far too many tales—of brutal arrests and expulsions suffered by workers who have arrived illegally, including shackling the legs of children and the forced return to regions in which the migrants’ lives are in clear and undeniable danger.

And then there’s the case of Palestinian laborers, who are often prey to Israeli contractors who extract exorbitant fees for legal work permits yet still leave anyone arriving from the West Bank to the mercies of the military’s sporadic enforcement of the Security Barrier (involving everything from attack dogs to rubber bullets). Palestinians who don’t cross the Green Line but rather work within settlements are legally entitled to the same benefits as any Israeli worker, but frequently work under dangerous conditions and for less than half of Israel’s minimum wage—not to mention the billions of shekels deducted from Palestinians workers’ wages to pay for social benefits that they do not receive.

Israeli citizens also have much to complain about: Some 11 or 12 percent of Israeli businesses regularly violate the country’s minimum wage law, a problem that Haaretz recently reported is “more common in Israel than in most other Western countries.”

Unsurprisingly, those who suffer the most minimum wage violations are the poor: 39 percent of workers in the lowest economic decile earn less than the minimum wage…. But minimum wage violations also affected middle-class workers, including 16 percent of those in the fourth decile.

Attorney Gal Gorodeisky, who specializes in labor law, said many employers aren’t afraid to break the law because they think workers will be either too afraid or too ignorant of the law to sue them.

It’s good that Naftali Bennett has begun to tackle one of these many shameful problems—I can only hope that he’s willing to continue the work that he’s started, and remember all the weak and vulnerable: Israeli, Palestinian, and foreign alike. As an Orthodox man, Bennett is probably intimately familiar with the Scripture that will be read in all synagogues around the world as we fast in atonement for our misdeeds on Yom Kippur:

They ask Me for the right way, they are eager for the nearness of God: “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers!… Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?… No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Syrian refugees – actually a lot more than two million.

Last week the world reeled as we learned that the number of Syrian refugees had passed the two million mark.

Which is to say: Two million people—the equivalent of the combined populations of Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco—have fled their homes and country to what can only be called an uncertain fate in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and North Africa, with no idea whatsoever when or if they might ever return. Many refugees actually depend on the kindness of family and friends and never register with humanitarian aid organizations, so it’s likely that “two million” is, in fact, a low estimate.

Yet as horrifying as that is, as heartbreaking as the needs of the people fleeing and the people receiving them are, we must remember that those two million actually represent less than a third of all who have run for their lives in the course of this war.

The European Commission Humanitarian Office reports that an estimated 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced persons—people forced out of their homes and communities by the violence, but who haven’t yet made it across a border. Thus, a total of 6.25 million Syrians—fully one third of the country’s population of 21 million—are, in fact, wandering.

The implications of this are staggering. As the region’s nations face historic internal turmoil and grapple with the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of strangers—sometimes at a rate of thousands a day—the social and cultural fabric of Syrian life has been shredded beyond recognition beneath bombs and chemical weapons.

Consider a life: Parents, grandparents, growing children. Income is earned, homes are built, marriages celebrated and babies welcomed. You shop for your daily needs, come home along familiar paths, make holiday plans and hope your aunt makes enough of her signature dish. Your father falls ill, your daughter outgrows her shoes, you bring a present to the neighbors. At every turn, your life is woven tightly into the garment of the lives around you, and whether any given day brings sorrow or joy, you know where to find solace, support, or someone with whom to share your good fortune.

Now it’s gone.

It’s gone, and you don’t know if you’ll ever get it back. It’s gone, not just for you and your family and your community, and not even “just” for the two million people who have (at the very least) found a way out of the country and away from the killing. It’s true for six and a quarter million people—the equivalent of nearly the entire population of Israel.

The Jewish people knows what this chaos looks like. We see it in the eyes of survivors; many can still feel it in their flesh. We are a people that until very recently knew little but the hurriedly packed bag, the abandoned home, the loved one lost forever. Whatever Jews and Arabs may have done to or said about each other in the 20th and 21st centuries, surely when we see a father gather a dead child in his arms, our arms must ache, too.

And as the heart cries out, the mind must also be honest about the horror’s further ramifications. It might be possible to imagine that the strife in Egypt won’t spread beyond its borders; it might be possible to hope that Jordan’s King will work with his opposition toward democracy and stability. It’s possible. But there’s simply no way to see the massive, violent movement of 6.25 million people just beyond and all around Israel’s borders as an event that might leave anyone in the region untouched. At a certain point, likely at many points, chaos tips over in ways that cannot be predicted and whoever is within shouting distance finds themselves in the path of the consequences.

This is the time in the Jewish year in which we straddle the universal and the personal at once: Last week we celebrated harat olam, the world’s creation; this week, we stand before the Divine and weigh our most intimate behavior. We do each while surrounded by our community and all we hold dear. We are reminded, at every holiday table and with every blow of the shofar, that our destiny as individuals and as a community is bound in a spiral of mutuality that turns and returns, endlessly.

The Syrian people are not my people. Some of them have killed some of mine; some of mine have killed some of theirs.

And yet they are my people, because they, too, were created b’tselem Elohim, in God’s image. They are my people because they suffer untold terrors. They are my people because wherever their calamity leads, it will brush against or crash into my people and my home. We cannot yet begin to guess the outcome of the shattering of Syria and its people, but lines drawn on maps will not keep the disaster neat and tidy.

I stand before my Creator this week devastated by what humanity has wrought, and not a little frightened of what is to come—frightened for Israel, frightened for everyone in the region, but mostly frightened for the mothers and fathers grasping little hands in the night, and trembling.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast

Israel’s seemingly contradictory attitude toward separating religion and state.

Naftali Bennett

Naftali Bennett

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, two bits of seemingly contradictory news emerged from the Jewish State.

On the one hand, a new poll shows that 61 percent of Israeli Jews favor separating religion and state, a hefty nine percent rise over last year. Eighty-three percent of those with an opinion said Israel should grant its citizens freedom of religion and conscience, and 62 percent think any kind of wedding, religious or civil, should be recognized by state authorities (currently, unless held overseas, only wedding ceremonies conducted by Orthodox rabbis are). Perhaps the most remarkable (and telling) figure is this: 51 percent of those surveyed said that the relationship between Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews “is the most difficult conflict in the Israeli society,” with right-left political tensions coming in at a distant second (23 percent).

On the other hand, we have this:

The government on Sunday gave the go-ahead to the Religious Services Ministry to establish the “Jewish Identity Administration,” an ambitious new initiative meant to foster a stronger connection to national Jewish heritage among Israelis.

The new, 5-million-shekel ($1.4-million) initiative was one of Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett’s demands for joining the government coalition.

That is, even as Israel’s Jews are becoming more comfortable with the notion of letting folks decide for themselves just what being a Jew means, Israel’s government is investing what little money it has in teaching Israelis how to be Jews.

But of course, these things are not so much contradictory as joined at the hip.

The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have always held a monopoly on official Jewish expression in Israel—how to get married, how to get buried, and which rabbis are paid from state coffers—but for the most part, when faced with a monolith that didn’t offer meaning to the average secular Israeli life, secular Israelis have accepted the rabbinate’s power as something beyond their ken. You brush elbows with the black hats when you get married, and bemoan your cousin’s decision to become religious and join them, but other than that, hadati’im hardly touch your life.

Or so it would seem, but in recent years, secular Israelis have gotten something of a crash course in just how much the Orthodox do, in fact, touch the lives of all Israeli Jews, because those in positions of power have either tried to extend that power, or have impinged on the rights of the non-Orthodox with impunity.

Suddenly, the papers were full of stories about little girls facing a barrage of spittle on their way to school; contretemps over where non-Jewish soldiers may be buried in military cemeteries; images of women literally forced to the back of the bus—not to mention the growing ultra-Orthodox population, and associated increase in government budgets allotted to support a community that doesn’t serve in the military, or, indeed, have almost anything to do with the rest of Israel.

Secular Israel—the Israel that looks to Europe and America for its cultural clues, the Israel that can read the siddur but doesn’t know what it says—might not like to think about it, but the undue power and unremitting mutual hostility are actually a result of political decisions that it signed off on, from the state’s earliest days. When Israel was first established, most of the pioneers believed that ultra-Orthodox expressions of faith would go the way of the dinosaur, and that handing out special privileges for political gain didn’t pose any threat.

Sixty-five years later, though, with Israel’s religious right going from strength to political strength and nationalist Orthodoxy at the heart of both the military and state leadership, the tension has become more and more apparent, in no small part because nationalist Orthodox politicians like Naftali Bennett continue to make efforts to codify an ever-narrower definition of who may count themselves a member of the Jewish national home.

Under the circumstances, I’m not surprised that a growing number of Israelis (secular and otherwise) would like to see a little more daylight between the Orthodox religious establishment and the daily lives of the country’s Jewish citizens.

But they, in turn, had better not be surprised that Bennett wants to teach them a thing or two—if Israelis really want freedom of conscience, they may have to fight for it.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast

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