A response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Call for Reparations” from within Judaism.

In the Hebrew tradition prophets cry out in the wilderness in part because their audience tends to be uninterested in the message. If the people were ready, after all, they wouldn’t need a prophet. “The prophet faces a coalition of callousness and established authority, and undertakes to stop a mighty stream with mere words,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote. “The purpose of prophecy is to conquer callousness, to change the inner man as well as to revolutionize history.”

Last week, The Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations,” a remarkable piece that in many ways calls to mind Rabbi Heschel’s portrayal of prophetic literature: Facing a coalition of callousness and established authority, Coates offers “mere words,” with the intent of revolutionizing history. How might an American Jew respond?

To keep reading, please go to The Forward.

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.

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

Coercive Shabbat enforcement in Tel Aviv?

I love Tel Aviv

It’s true.

Shabbat approaches and I make my plans. I’m more observant than the average American or Israeli Jew (more than my own husband, come to that, who is also both Israeli and American), but less observant than many. We’ll make Kiddush in a kitchen that’s strictly kosher, and I won’t do anything of a professional nature from 20 minutes before sunset until the third star can be seen in the sky; Havdalah, on the other hand, almost always gets forgotten in our house and, in the course of Shabbat, I’ll turn on lights and heat food as the need arises.

This is what religious observance looks like in a free society: Some do more, some do less (and inevitably, some judge more, some judge less). But ultimately it’s up to the individual to determine what his or her faith and level of observance must reflect.

And yet it was with real ambivalence that I greeted the news this week that Israel’s Supreme Court has instructed the Tel Aviv Municipality to either enforce its own by-laws forbidding certain businesses from functioning on Shabbat, or write new by-laws.

When I lived in Tel Aviv, Friday afternoon was by far the best part of the week. One by one the stores and cafes would close, there was always a street party or beach event somewhere, filled with lazy, end-of-week revelers, and as you walked home with a Shabbat’s worth of fresh fruit and roasted sunflower seeds, rest would descend on a city best known for its frenetic pace.  It was lovely. Except, of course, if you’d run out of eggs, or you needed aspirin and the only emergency pharmacy open was half-way across town.

Not to mention the coercion piece of it.

The stores in which I could not shop, the errands I could not run, these were all a result of laws, by-laws, rules, and regulations that exist all across Israel that serve to limit commerce and enforce religious compliance on customers, clients, and owners who simply have no say in the matter. Should business owners choose to flout those laws and the municipalities in which they function choose to enforce them, heavy fines are usually levied and owners have to consider what’s more costly: Paying the city every now and then, or closing down?

The real cost is higher than either of those, however. As much as I loved my quiet, lazy Friday afternoons, as much as I love Shabbat and believe that its observance is an act of worship, enforced religion has no place in a democratic society.

The Jewish national movement succeeded where many national movements have failed, and its proponents now have an actual state. The fuzzy lines that have always existed between what is Jewish “nationality” and what is Jewish “religion” are not made any less fuzzy by the fact of a state, but they are made more urgent.

Jews are both a people in the modern sense and a faith community in the ancient one, but it was for purely modern, political reasons that Israel’s early political leaders granted (some of) its early faith leaders wildly disproportionate power. Rabbis became kingmakers and acted to establish laws and policy regarding religious observance, and as a result, huge swathes of Israeli national life are run as if the country were not so much a nation-state as an Orthodox shul.

Which is a big enough problem for all Israeli Jews who happen to not be Orthodox, but there’s another side to the coin as well: Are there laws in place—or not? Are Israeli laws meant to be kept—or not?

Tel Aviv and much of Israel has managed to wedge itself into the worst of all possible worlds on the issue: Laws have been passed which are patently bad, because they’re not in keeping with a democratic ethos, and those laws are routinely broken, because too many people find them onerous and easy to break. Which is to say: The entire system manages to disrespect and damage Israel’s democracy and legal system about six ways to Sunday (or, you know: Shabbat).

I love Shabbat, but the way I observe it is my choice. If I choose to be an apikoros, that’s between me and my Maker, and no one sitting in a dusty office at any end of the earth should be able to tell me otherwise. Self-selecting Orthodox communities are free to self-select and keep the commerce at bay within those communities’ boundaries, but as tax-paying citizens, any Israeli who wants to pick up a liter of milk on Saturday morning should be able to do so.

The Supreme Court is right: Either Tel Aviv should enforce its own by-laws, or change them. As it stands, everyone—the state, its citizens, democracy, and (I would argue) Judaism itself—loses.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Shas warns against assimilation – in Israel.

If one lives in the Jewish State, carries a state-issued ID that identifies one as “Jewish,” and keeps the customs of the Jewish people, one might be forgiven for thinking that assimilation is not much of a threat. If, however, one is to believe the election campaign of Shas, Israel’s Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, one would be mistaken.

In a series of ads intended to send the message that voting for Shas is the only way to temper all that’s wrong with the party widely expected to win the upcoming elections—Netanyahu and Lieberman’s Likud Beitenu—Shas sets itself up as both coalition partner and savior: “Only a strong Shas will take care of the weak,” reads one ad, alongside a picture of Netanyahu. Alongside a picture of Lieberman wearing, rather startlingly, given his antipathy towards the religious parties, a black kippa, we read: “Only a strong Shas will prevent assimilation.”

shas assimilation

“Assimilation.” Not even—I don’t know—“a watering down of the faith,” but: “Assimilation.” If you are not Jewish like Shas is Jewish, you are in danger of assimilating—even if you live in the Jewish State, carry a Jewish ID, and keep Jewish customs.

Because you see, there is only one right way to be Jewish. And ultra-Orthodox kingmakers have been given free reign on Israel’s domestic scene for 64 years to determine what that is. (Which is why, among other things, the only way for a Jew to get married or buried in the Jewish State is with an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, following ultra-Orthodox custom, your own beliefs be damned.)

This sad truth was given full expression last week when Emily Wolfson and Rhiannon Humphreys, young Jewish women from Great Britain, had the temerity to try to daven at the Western Wall in the custom in which they have been raised: Wrapped in a tallit.

Last Friday, the women—both 18 and participants in RSY-Netzer’s Shnat gap year program—were detained for several hours by Israel Police after wrapping themselves in tallitot, or prayer shawls, at the Western Wall. The women were taking part in a monthly service organized by the group Women of the Wall.

… Wolfson said she wore the tallit that her grandfather presented to her at her bat mitzvah.

You can see why wearing a tallit presented to one by one’s grandfather might signal assimilation. But don’t worry! The ultra-Orthodox in Israel’s political system are doing all they can to protect us from that scourge:  “Under a new decree by religious authorities, women cannot enter the Western Wall plaza with Jewish ritual objects.”

Shas wants to make sure Israeli voters know: they are here to protect Israel from that sort of calamity. Otherwise, Israeli Jews might assimilate—into something that looks very much like American Jews.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

About that Jew-finding app…

Dear American Jews,

I know we’re worried about assimilation. I know it can be hard to find fellow members of the tribe who like long walks on the beach and headbanging to classic Beastie Boys. I understand the limitations of minority life and the imperative of “l’dor ve’dor”—“from generation unto generation.”

But please. Let’s not be reduced to this:

App finds you a Jew

Yenta, a new iPhone application that connects Jewish singles based on their location, debuted about a month ago, the latest in niche matchmaking.

Somewhat similar to the gay application Grindr [note: an app generally described by users in rather graphic sexual terms], the free mobile dating service uses GPS technology to allow users to peruse the profiles of nearby Jews.

…“You can walk into a coffee shop and you can find out who’s Jewish and single around you,” said creator Luba Tolkachyov.

Am I the only one totally creeped out by this? The only one whose very first reaction to technology that literally uncovers Jews in your immediate vicinity was to think about where I could hide them if need be?

I have two kids, and please God, they should enter the Torah, the chuppa (gay or straight, I don’t care), and good deeds. I genuinely—really and truly—want my kids to marry Jews and even (in the fullness of time, and only if they want to!) bring me Jewish grandbabies. They’re both too young to date yet, but not too young for me to start dreaming.

But the idea of them finding partners (for whatever…) via what amounts to (IMHO) a stalking app…? She’lo neda me’tsarot—we shouldn’t know from such troubles!

Aside from anything else, can you imagine the conversation?

“Hi, my phone tells me you’re Jewish! Is anyone sitting here?”

Let’s just, I don’t know, build some more Gaga pits and maybe host another Kiddush or two, instead. Ask my friends—I’m good for the kugel.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

And there was bloggingheads!

Oh and hey, the other day I did the bloggingheads with Sarah Posner again! And I keep not having time to post the video!

And I don’t have time right now, either, at least not the time I need to re-figure out how to embed, because it’s all complicated n’ stuff on free WordPress platforms. So, for the time being, here’s a link to the whole thing; and here’s a link to a much shorter bit (watch me not say the word “balls”!).

Hopefully I’ll get a clip up at some point in the next few days, but who can tell?

Strangers in a strange land.

Eritrean refugees on Israel’s border.

After a week of living beneath scraps of fabric on a scrap of land between two metal fences, hoping to be given asylum in a country established by refugees, 21 Eritrean refugees have gotten their answer from the Jewish State:

Israel has granted entry to two Eritrean women and a 14-year-old boy who were stuck on the Israel-Egypt border for eight days. The remaining 18 men were ordered to return to Egypt. The three Eritreans who were granted entry into Israel were immediately transferred to the Saharonim detention facility.

Lest we be tempted to believe that the decision to allow in three of these poor souls is an act deserving of praise, however,

Israeli experts on international law warn that stopping asylum seekers from entering the country and making their claim for asylum is a breach of binding treaties to which Israel is a signatory.

Moreover, according to William Tall, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel,

The most worrying thing to me is the discussion of pushing them back into Egypt, which is highly irresponsible, because if they go back to Egypt there is a high risk these people will fall in the hands of human smugglers, and it is well known, it is all documented, that many of these people have been abused, there are cases of torture or rape, and if you send them back you are sending them to a situation with a very high degree of insecurity.

Furthermore, while the refugees were awaiting this extraordinarily hard-hearted response from Israel’s authorities, those same authorities instructed the soldiers standing guard over them to provide the Eritreans with as little water as possible. The soldiers also acted to prevent human rights activists from bringing them food, and doctors from examining them. One of the women in question is reported to have miscarried over the course of the week.

Why didn’t the refugees give up and leave? Well, as my colleague Raphael Magarikwrote yesterday, refugees from Eritrea are often so desperate that

they will jump off trucks, to their deaths, rather than face repatriation….[and] Eritreans who go back report imprisonment, torture, and abuse. That’s why the United States, Canada, and Western Europe don’t deport Eritreans.

Indeed, according to +972 magazine, fully 93% of Eritreans seeking asylum elsewhere are granted official refugee status.

So, in short: Israel’s decision to ignore international treaties in order to send three people to a detention center and 18 to the gentle mercies of human traffickers and/or a government happy to whip them is hardly a grand compromise.

It’s more along the lines of a shanda—and forget fur die goyim. This is a shame for the Jews. To the extent that we identify with and support the Jewish state, to the extent that we choose to share in the collective experience of Jewish peoplehood, the treatment these human beings have received at Jewish hands should shame us to our very core.

There is simply no excuse for this. None. Not security, not the logic of borders, not the fact of laws recently passed. Nothing.

One more quote:

[The LORD] upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Deut 10:18-19

If we can sit idly by as the Jewish State behaves in this fashion, I’m forced to ask: What, exactly, do we want the words “Jewish state” to mean?

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Reform and Conservative Jews = “Haters of the Lord.” FYI.

My latest at Open Zion/The Daily Beast:

The notion of ahavat yisrael, “love for the Jewish people,” is lovely, but let’s be frank: As a people, we Jews haven’t all loved each other since roughly the Golden Calf.

We’re a people like any other. We split along ideological lines, family lines, class lines—witness the anger emanating from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox over the possibility of state recognition for a small number of non-Orthodox rabbis, or the mere vision of women praying in public (or even riding the bus with men).

And you know what? That’s cool—I don’t much like ultra-Orthodoxy either. I have a lot of very powerful opinions about how that community interprets Scripture and what those interpretations ultimately mean for many of their number. I don’t need them to like me and mine, and I certainly don’t need their approval to know that I’m a good Jew.

What’s not cool, however, is that unlike any other Jews, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox actually have the power to legislate and enforce their value judgments. The problem isn’t the Jewish people’s fissures, or the opprobrium of one side for another—the problem is that in the Jewish state, one very narrowly defined community of Jews is paid out of state coffers to lord their version of Judaism over everyone else.

For instance: Israeli ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Amar is sufficiently rude and ignorant to have recently written the following about Reform and Conservative Jews:

…to read the rest and get to the “haters of the Lord” part, you’ll just have to click here

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