Tag: Israel

Gilad Is Coming Home: A Bittersweet Victory?

Gilad Shalit is to be freed. A deal with Hamas, Israel’s terrorist neighbor, has been struck in which one Israeli soldier (held for 5 years without a Red Cross visit) is to be traded for 1,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

A bittersweet victory. Celebration mixes with worry.

We celebrate that Gilad is to be freed. We worry that such a trade will make it more likely that Hamas or others will try to kidnap other Israeli soldiers. We kvell that Israel will go to great lengths to bring their soldier-citizens home. We are made anxious that it might appear like Israel is negotiating with terrorists.

As Rabbi Josh Hammerman explains:

For Jews, this is a classic search for the lesser of the evils, a choice we’re quite experienced at making. The Talmud considers “Pidyon Shevuyim,” the rescue of captives, to be among the highest of priorities (Bava Batra 8b) and later legal authorities concur. Medieval Jewish communities often were called upon to pony up big bucks to redeem kidnapped kin. In contemporary Israel, it has become standard practice to swap busloads of prisoners for one captive soldier, or even for his remains.

How do we reconcile these complex feelings? The Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism released this statement which concludes:

The Book of Ecclesiastes, which we read on the festival of Sukkot, teaches us that “there is a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” The reality of life in Israel often requires us to laugh and cry at the same time; to dance while we are still mourning. We will continue to cherish the memory of the victims of terror even as our hearts fill with joy as God returns Gilad to his family. 

Here are a few thought-provoking articles:

  • Everyone’s Son (Gilad Shalit is Every Israeli’s Son) by Yossi Klein HaLevy in Tablet Magazine.  In opposing the mass release of terrorists in exchange for Gilad Shalit’s freedom, I felt as if I was betraying my own son.
  • A Thousand Terrorists for Shalit? Rabbi Joshua Hammerman in The Jewish Week.  Is the release of Gilad Shalit worth an exchange of a thousand Hamas prisoners, including some who have blood on their hands and could well kill more innocent Israelis (and others)?

We conclude with a Prayer from Rabbi Joel Simmonds:

M’kor Chayim (Source of Life), as we enter this holiday of Sukkot we are reminded of the command to be joyful.

As this festival is called Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our joy, we enter it with a cautious pinch of optimism.

As we welcome guests into our Sukkot we rejoice as Gilad Shalit will be welcomed back into the Sukkat Shalom of Eretz Yisrael.

Just as our Sukkot are temporary dwellings; fragile and vulnerable to the elements, so too is the hope for peace.

May our feet dance with added joy in our Sukkot this year and may the temporary joy spill into this new year as Gilad our son and brother is permanently home.

The Protests (in Israel): Plenty of Blame to Go Around

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, reflects upon the massive protests in Israel by people calling for social justice.  Focused on housing and more, these citizens of Israel are met not with bullets and firepower (like in many of the surrounding nations), but by conversation and hope. (See also the statement by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and the Council of Progressive Rabbis in Israel regarding the Current Social Protest in Israel). Rabbi Yoffie’s article appeared on the JPost blog, Reform Voices:

We have said it a thousand times: Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East. But citizens of democracies are often passive and apathetic. It is thrilling, therefore, to see so many young Israelis energized, engaged, and protesting for justice. These young people are bringing Israel’s democracy to life. 

The grievances must be very real because a passive citizenry is not easily aroused. Who is to blame for these grievances? Well, there is plenty of blame to go around. 

The political parties on the right have stressed the virtues of competition and the free market, but they have not delivered. Israel’s free market has not been free. A handful of “tycoons” have dominated the economy, and political paybacks to favored constituencies have hugely distorted the economic process. For example, invoking the sacred cow of “security,” the right has showered money on the settlements, but in fact, settlers have enjoyed government largesse to a degree that security concerns cannot possibly justify. 

Yet the left is hardly better. Those supposedly committed to social issues have allowed themselves to be distracted and co-opted by governments with no real social agenda. It is fine to believe in peace and the rights of others – and I do – but if you are not seriously devoted to the social welfare of your own people, you lack the credibility to accomplish anything. In the last quarter century, who are the major Israeli politicians who have been consistent advocates and true champions of justice and equality in Israeli society? Can you name five? Three? One?  

And where are the Chief Rabbinate and the Orthodox parties that profess to speak in the name of the Jewish tradition? Religious voices should be at the center of this maelstrom, but instead they are silent. Torah, after all, has much to say about the nitty-gritty matters of economic fairness in the everyday lives of Jews and their neighbors. And the rabbi’s role, according to the great Talmudist R. Hayyim of Brisk, is “to redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.” The problem is that Israel’s religious establishment obsesses about its own institutions and the minutiae of conversion laws but pays little attention to everyone else.  

(A word of praise for Ariel Atias of Shas, Minister of Housing, who said that what distresses him most about the protests, is that “they have forgotten the weakest strata of Israeli society, those whose problem isn’t finishing the month but beginning it.” Shas, it should be said, began as a movement of social protest, but – Atias notwithstanding – long ago lost its way.)  

And by the way, where is the American Jewish community – myself included – which talks of its commitment to Israel while saying little or nothing about the great social issues that will shape its future no less than security concerns? 

But there is no reason for despair. A new generation of Israelis is looking squarely at these problems and affirming the need for mutual responsibility, fairness, and social justice in the Jewish state. And what they do is a blessing for us all.

Why History Matters: The 1967 Six-Day War

If you only read one thing about the Middle East this week, read this. David Harris, Executive Director, AJC and Senior Associate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, reflects on the actual history of the war and its aftermath, as well as attempts to rewrite that history. [Originally published in Huffington Post]

Mention the word “history” and it can trigger a roll of the eyes. 

Add “Middle East” to the equation and folks might start running for the hills, unwilling to get caught up in the seemingly bottomless pit of details and disputes. 

But without an understanding of what happened, it’s impossible to grasp where we are — and where we are has profound relevance for the region and the world. 

Forty-four years ago this week, the Six-Day War broke out. 

While some wars fade into obscurity, this one remains as relevant today as in 1967. Many of its core issues remain unresolved and in the news. 

Politicians, diplomats, and journalists continue to grapple with the consequences of that war, but rarely provide context. Yet without context, some critically important things may not make sense. 

First, in June 1967, there was no state of Palestine. It didn’t exist and never had. Its creation, proposed by the UN in 1947, was rejected by the Arab world because it also meant the establishment of a Jewish state alongside. 

Second, the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem were in Jordanian hands. Violating solemn agreements, Jordan denied Jews access to their holiest places in eastern Jerusalem. To make matters still worse, they destroyed many of those sites. 

Meanwhile, the Gaza Strip was under Egyptian control, with harsh military rule imposed on local residents. 

And the Golan Heights, which were regularly used to shell Israeli communities far below, belonged to Syria. 

Third, the Arab world could have created a Palestinian state in the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip any day of the week. They didn’t. There wasn’t even discussion about it. And Arab leaders, who today profess such attachment to eastern Jerusalem, rarely, if ever, visited. It was viewed as an Arab backwater. 

Fourth, the 1967 boundary at the time of the war, so much in the news these days, was nothing more than an armistice line dating back to 1949 — familiarly known as the Green Line. That’s after five Arab armies attacked Israel in 1948 with the aim of destroying the embryonic Jewish state. They failed. Armistice lines were drawn, but they weren’t formal borders. They couldn’t be. The Arab world, even in defeat, refused to recognize Israel’s very right to exist. 

Fifth, the PLO, which supported the war effort, was established in 1964, three years before the conflict erupted. That’s important because it was created with the goal of obliterating Israel. Remember that in 1964 the only “settlements” were Israel itself. 

Sixth, in the weeks leading up to the Six-Day War, Egyptian and Syrian leaders repeatedly declared that war was coming and their objective was to wipe Israel off the map. There was no ambiguity. Twenty-two years after the Holocaust, another enemy spoke about the extermination of Jews. The record is well-documented. 

The record is equally well-documented that Israel, in the days leading up to the war, passed word to Jordan, via the UN and United States, urging Amman to stay out of any pending conflict. Jordan’s King Hussein ignored the Israeli plea and tied his fate to Egypt and Syria. His forces were defeated by Israel, and he lost control of the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. 

Seventh, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser demanded that UN peacekeeping forces in the area, in place for the previous decade to prevent conflict, be removed. Shamefully, the UN complied. That left no buffer between Arab armies being mobilized and deployed and Israeli forces in a country one-fiftieth the size of Egypt — and just nine miles wide at its narrowest point. 

Eighth, Egypt blocked Israeli shipping lanes in the Red Sea, Israel’s only maritime access to trading routes with Asia and Africa. This step was regarded as an act of war by Jerusalem. The United States spoke about joining with other countries to break the blockade, but did not act. 

Ninth, France, which had been Israel’s principal arms supplier, announced a ban on the sale of weapons on the eve of the June war. That left Israel in potentially grave danger if a war were to drag on and require the resupply of arms. It was not until the next year that the U.S. stepped into the breach and sold vital weapons systems to Israel. 

And finally, after winning the war of self-defense, Israel hoped that its newly-acquired territories, seized from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, would be the basis of a land-for-peace accord. Feelers were sent out. The formal response came on September 1, 1967, when the Arab Summit Conference famously declared in Khartoum “No peace, no recognition, no negotiations” with Israel. 

Today, there are those who wish to rewrite history. 

They want the world to believe there was once a Palestinian state. There was not. 

They want the world to believe there were fixed borders between that state and Israel. There was only an armistice line between Israel and the Jordanian-controlled West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. 

They want the world to believe the 1967 war was a bellicose act by Israel. It was an act of self-defense in the face of blood-curdling threats to vanquish the Jewish state, not to mention the maritime blockade of the Straits of Tiran, the abrupt withdrawal of UN peacekeeping forces, and the redeployment of Egyptian and Syrian troops. All wars have consequences; this one was no exception. But the Arab aggressors have failed to take responsibility for the actions they instigated. 

They want the world to believe post-1967 Israeli settlement-building is the key to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Six-Day War is proof positive that the core issue is, and always has been, whether the Arab world accepts the Jewish people’s right to a state of their own. If so, all other contentious issues, however difficult, have possible solutions. 

And they want the world to believe the Arab world had nothing against Jews per se, only Israel, yet trampled with abandon on sites of sacred meaning to the Jewish people. 

In other words, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, dismissing the past as if it were a minor irritant at best, irrelevant at worst, won’t work. 

Can history move forward? Absolutely. Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 prove the point. At the same time, though, the lessons of the Six-Day War illustrate just how tough and tortuous the path can be.

For more information, visit ajc.org.

7 Things about Israel All Reform Jews Should Be Able to Agree Upon

I have been thinking about Israel a lot, especially since the dust up (mostly manufactured) regarding President Obama’s speech and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speeches. It seems so easy to resort to slogans, to create controversy too, instead of facing the challenges and finding solutions.

Rabbi Fred Guttman, recently returning from AIPAC convention, suggests 7 things (I count 8) about Israel that all Reform Jews should be able to agree upon. His complete blogpost is worth the read; I excerpt much of it here:

  1. As American Reform Jews we support the Foreign Aid bill which contains more than 3 billion dollars in needed security assistance for Israel. This money is critical in helping Israel maintain its qualitative military edge. Much of this money is spent on military hardware in the United States and thus helps the American economy. We also support foreign aid to the other countries because we view it as a good investment for our country. Building schools and health clinics is good for America because it reflects the highest of humanitarian values.
  2. As American Jews, we are very concerned about Iran’s continued push towards the development of nuclear weapons. Therefore we support any act in Congress which will increase and strengthen the international sanctions again the regime in Teheran. We also would support measures directed especially at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps which has been so brutal in quashing all resistance to Ahmadinijad and the mullahs. Currently in both houses of Congress, there are bills which would do what I have just mentioned and we as American Jews support such efforts.
  3. We as American Reform Jews believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians can only be achieved through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Therefore we call upon the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table with Israel. We feel that while Mahmoud Abbas the Palestinian leader has been traveling all over the world talking with others about the future of the Palestinian nation, it has been tragic that he has not spoken directly to Israel.
  4. We also feel that unless Hamas recognizes Israel, renounces violence and agrees to abide by all previous agreements, Hamas has no place in these negotiations. Hamas currently seeks the total destruction of Israel. Of all the liberation movements in the world today, Hamas is alone in demanding the total annihilation of another country. Other national libration movements envision living side by side in peaceful coexistence with their foes, but not Hamas. As American Reform Jews, we feel that should an unrepentant Hamas become part of the Palestinian government, the United States should reexamine its relationship with the Palestinian Authority and suspend aid to it. As a matter of fact, such a suspension of aid is mandated by US law.
  5. We as American Reform Jews while passionately concerned about the security of Israel are also concerned and critical about decisions made by the Israeli government. We are opposed to building in settlements that clearly will be evacuated in some future peace deal. We are also concerned about elements of civil society in Israel. We feel that Israel can do more to advance the opportunities of Israel’s religious and ethnic minorities to be able to participate fully in all aspects of Israeli society. As American Reform Jews, we are deeply concerned about the lack of religious pluralism in Israel. Therefore particularly on these matters, we will not hesitate to be critical of Israel.
  6. As American Jews, we support ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, because ARZA is our way of supporting the cause of religious pluralism in Israel. In a recent article, Rabbi Daniel Allen, ARZA’s Executive Director wrote: “We must work to expand liberal Jewish religion. We can build an ever more inclusive democratic Israeli society if we marshal the human and financial resources. Israelis physically built a country, with significant assistance from world Jewry that most of us believe is here to stay. It was done through times of war while bringing in our exiles in massive numbers. Israel was built by people many of whom had broken lives before they arrived on its shores. Israel was assisted in physically building the state by a Jewish community that was not as affluent and capable of participating in building the soul of the society as it is today.” Rabbi Allen calls for increased support from American Reform Jews for the liberal or Reform congregations in Israel. He feels that such support could make a significant impact from within on the state of Israel and would strengthen the ties between Reform Jews and their brothers and sisters in Israel.
  7. We need to visit Israel. We need to encourage our congregations to take trips to Israel, to send their kids to Israel, to keep abreast of events happening in Israel and to make Israel part of our consciousness as Reform Jews. Too many of our members have never been to Israel. Too many have never seen a country which is so very different than they way it is portrayed in the media. Too many of our teens have never been in Israel, never had the opportunity to love it and appreciate it and as a result, are ill prepared to speak about Israel when they go to college. Perhaps the worst part of this is that too many young Reform Jews feel alienated from Israel, not in my opinion because they disagree with the policies of its government, but rather the only Israel which they know is that portrayed in the often sensationalist media. The chief cause of the alienation of young Reform Jews from Israel is due to the fact that so few of them have been there and as a result have no appreciation of a narrative as to why Israel is so important and precious to the Jewish people.
  8. My seventh and final point is that as American Reform Jews, we will not hesitate to express and teach our love for Israel; its land, people and its right of national determination. Yes, Israel has much wrong with it. There are many things which need to be improved in Israel. However, when teaching Israel, I want to teach first the narrative of love. I want to teach the story of the importance of Israel as a place for persecuted Jewry throughout the world and as the only place wherein the Jewish people have the right of self determination. I want to teach about the miracle of Jewish self defense in Israel and how Israel in 1976 flew 2500 miles to Entebbe to rescue Jews of various nationalities who had been on a hijacked plane. I want to teach to stories of commitment and heroism of people like Yoni Netanyahu, Alex Singer, Avigdor Kahalani and Michael Levin who make me so proud and inspire me so much. If you do not recognize these names, that it part of the problem! And I, as a rabbi, Zionist and Jewish educator, view it as my holy task to teach you about these heroes. Yes, I want to first teach you about the love of Israel. Once I have done this, I will teach you about all of the imperfections she has and the challenges she faces in making a more just society and in bringing peace to that part of the world. When we fall in love, we tend only to see the good aspects of our spouses. My feeling is that if we focused upon the imperfections of our spouses only, we would have never fallen in love in the first place. So I will teach you the narrative of love before the narrative of imperfection.

Rabbi Guttman concludes:

Yes, you may point out twenty five things wrong with Israel, but I will still love her. Israel is a part of my very neshamah, my very soul. It is a tremendous part of how I as a Jew define my Jewish identity.

So what do YOU think? Can we all agree on this? Is there more? Are some beyond the reach of agreement?

Can you share it without name-calling? Without resorting to sloganeering?

If so, I look forward to your thoughts.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie: The Impact of Storms at Home and in Israel

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote to leaders of all our congregations to share perspectives on The Impact of Storms at Home and in Israel. He addresses the devastating weather, as well as the damaging political fights erupting over President Obama’s speech and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response. Please take a moment to read and reflect upon this important perspective:

Dear Friend:

These past few weeks have been trying ones, here at home and in Israel.

Many of our North American communities have been battered by devastating weather. Our thoughts are with the victims and we continue to work closely with our congregations in the affected regions. Please check the URJ Disaster Relief page for updates and, if you wish, to make a donation. Together, the entire Reform Movement prays for the welfare of all those impacted by these terrible tragedies. May God grant them comfort and healing in the days, weeks and months to come.

And while some of our communities in North America fight physical storms, our brothers and sisters in Israel fight political ones. Despite its military strength, Israel is a small and vulnerable state, and is now facing especially difficult times. The United Nations will vote in September on whether or not to recognize Palestinian statehood, and if the resolution passes, it will be a distressing sign of Israel’s isolation on the international stage. Uprisings throughout the Arab world create hope for democracy and change, but could also pose serious threats to Israel’s security. And Iran continues its efforts to develop nuclear weapons that will threaten Israel and the world.

Against this backdrop, we have had five tumultuous days of meetings and speeches from President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on issues related to Israeli-Palestinian peace. President Obama spoke once to the State Department and once to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby; Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to AIPAC and before a joint session of Congress; and the President and Prime Minister met in the White House last Friday.

(Prime Minister Netanyahu also met with a small group of Jewish leaders during the AIPAC Conference, a meeting attended by the Union’s President-designate Rabbi Rick Jacobs.)

There have been no end of commentaries on these developments, but I would like to offer a few reactions of my own.

In his two speeches, the President expressed in the clearest possible terms the unshakable support of the United States government for the State of Israel (and in some cases went well beyond what had previously been said by him or previous administrations). He said for the first time that a Palestinian state must be a demilitarized state. He insisted that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people. He warned the Palestinians against bringing their statehood resolution to the UN. He expressed deep concern about the Hamas-Fatah pact. He affirmed that peace could not be imposed from the outside but must be agreed upon by the parties.

It is difficult to imagine, in fact, a more ringing endorsement by the President of America’s traditional support for Israel. This support was obscured, in some measure, by the bizarre claim that the President had called for a return to 1967 borders; such a step would indeed be impossible and unacceptable, but the President said no such thing, as was clear from his call for secure and recognized borders arrived at through negotiation and mutually agreed exchanges of land. As noted by Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defense Minister, a statement that negotiations start with discussions of the 1967 borders is very different from saying that that is where they end up.

The central premise of the President’s message was that if peace is to come, it will be through the establishment of a Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside a Jewish state. The principle of a two-state solution, of course, has been supported by the last three U.S. administrations and by both major parties; it is also the policy of the State of Israel. The Reform Movement has supported a two-state solution since the early 1990s.

The President also deserves our appreciation for his current efforts to convince our European allies to oppose the UN resolution on Palestinian statehood. Both of his speeches, which affirmed Palestinian rights to a state of their own, have been well received by our allies and should assist in these efforts. As noted, passage of the statehood resolution could seriously undermine Israel’s diplomatic standing.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s powerful statement to Congress expressed gratitude to the United States government for its support and promised painful compromises for peace. The Prime Minister reviewed the policies of his government and gave special emphasis to security threats that Israel is now confronting. He spoke of Hamas’ commitment to terror and to Israel’s destruction; of the need to confront the dangers posed by Iran to the international community; and of the possibility that democratic stirrings in the Arab world could, if they take a wrong turn, lead to hostile governments rather than democratic ones. These threats are real and deeply troubling. The need for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not less important on their account but more important; still, they remind us that true security must be an essential component of any peace agreement.

Is there a possibility now of genuine negotiations and progress toward peace? I am far from certain. I believe that the current leadership of the Palestinian Authority is generally moderate in outlook, but is surrounded by mostly unreasonable voices; the presence of Hamas makes progress far more doubtful still. Nonetheless, we know that every effort must be made. Israel has pledged yet again to do its part, and the Administration has pledged to help move the process forward. We are thankful for these efforts because President Obama is surely right that the current situation is unsustainable, and if peace does not come, Israel’s situation will be more grave 5 years from now than it is today. For that reason, my hope is that if the Palestinian Authority is not forthcoming, Israel’s leaders will take what steps they can take to separate themselves from the Palestinians in order to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.

In the meantime, our task as North American Jews is to offer Israel our love and support; to do everything possible to deepen the friendship between Israel and her most important ally, the United States of America, keeping in mind always that the goal of Israel advocacy is for American – and Canadian – support of Israel to be broad, inclusive, and bi-partisan; and to send the message that Israel’s fate rests not only in the hands of her citizens but in the hands of Jews everywhere.

As I wrote on Yom Ha’atzma’ut, let us pray, today and everyday, that peace and redemption will come to Israel’s borders and that harmony will hallow Jerusalem’s gates, bi’meheira u’viyameinu—speedily, and in our day.


Eric H. Yoffie

Blasphemers No More: Parashat Emor Commentary

Published in the Jewish Journal of Greater LA.

My sister just touched down in Israel. I can feel her elation way over here in California. Time stood still; there was silence. The land and the woman were one. She had returned home.

My sister made aliyah 22 years ago, with her then-husband and 1-year-old daughter. After building a life and birthing three more kids, they followed his dream and returned to America.

Fast forward 10 years, and after healing from the divorce and the bittersweet return of her two older children to Israel, my sister has returned to the Holy Land, if only for an extended Pesach pilgrimage.

In moments, my sister felt it again. She e-mailed: “… this so feels like home and I haven’t even arrived in my Israeli hometown of Karmiel. The smells of the bakeries, the sea, the air, the oranges. The taste of the food and coffee. Speaking Hebrew — it’s flowing well already. And soon, hugs of my dearest friends. I’ve made a life for myself on America’s East Coast … but it will never feel like home the way that Israel does.”

What is it about Israel that makes us feel so connected? Might it be a special spice or something in the air? Perhaps walking the stone pathways that our biblical ancestors traversed or witnessing the renewal of a once-lost nation? Or sensing the Holy One in the Holy Land. Or the way that kodesh v’chol (holy and regular), historical and contemporary, coexist everywhere.

This week, my sister enjoys Israel yom-yomi (day-to-day). Next week, Pesach. By the time you read this, she will be back in the States, connecting from afar with the land we love so much. Like the rest of us, she will wrestle with simplistic black-and-white portrayals of Israel in the press and in the Jewish world, and grapple with the urge to both kvell (praise) and kvetch (complain) about our beloved homeland.

Conveniently, America hosts a variety of organizations, each speaking about Israel, its status as an American ally and its place within the Jewish heart. Still, any oheiv Yisrael (lover of Israel) must tread carefully, because American Jews are a vociferous bunch, quick to declare this or that opinion to be kosher or, heaven forbid, to be anti-Zionist or worse, chillul HaShem, a blasphemy before God.

Once, arguments about how to relate to the Land were machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven. Today, in America, many have forgotten that eilu v’eilu divray Elohim chayim — this and that opinion are both the words of the living God. The self-appointed arbiters of Jewish truth condemn opinions about Israel that diverge from their own. They implicitly reference this week’s parasha, Emor: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and all who heard [his blasphemy] shall lean their hands on his head. And the entire community shall stone him” (Leviticus 24:14). Then they act dumbfounded when a Jew picks up a gun to kill the prime minister, or they remain silent when an Arab picks up a gun and kills a Jewish family just over the Green Line.

It is high time we American Jews take a “chill pill” and, while remaining unwaveringly committed to Israel’s security and safety, become very slow to invoke Torah’s condemnation of “blasphemer.” Israeli newspapers host a robust debate about everything imaginable. Israeli journalists and bloggers — not to mention Yosi Yisraeli on the Midrachov, Jerusalem’s outdoor pedestrian mall — argue vociferously, offering opinions that are quickly reviled here.

Our Israel is beautiful, precious and perfectly imperfect. It exists in a dangerous neighborhood. But we need to remember that most American Jews are cross-addicted to Israel. Some are AIPAC supporters out of a desire to ensure Israel’s close relations with our government even as they donate to the New Israel Fund to help Israel remain true to her Jewish and democratic ideals. Others invest heavily in Israeli technology while supporting J Street, one of the few places that openly and honestly talks about the plight of the Palestinians. Some enjoy Shabbat at the Kotel, davening with the various minyanim, while also finding inspiration in Israel’s 85+ Progressive and Masorti communities. Let us become more like most Israelis, accepting that an oheiv Yisrael can disagree profoundly without being among Emor’s blasphemers.

Remember, the love of Israel easily inflames our hearts and souls. My sister wrote: “We ate at a restaurant right on the beach. Mushroom and green olive pizza for my son; grilled cheese on a bagel for the youngest. I enjoyed the most delicious hummus I’ve had in a long time. That stuff from Whole Foods may be healthy, and Sabra hummus is closer, but nothing compares to the smooth, almost white creaminess of Israeli hummus with whole chickpeas, tehina, olive oil, lemon, and parsley on thick warm pita. That and a café hafuch, and I was one happy woman.”

May our love for Israel entice us to put away our sticks and stones, to kvell more, kvetch with compassion, and to treat both the kvellers and kvetchers with kavod (honor).

Urging our Members of Congress to Support Foreign Aid to Israel

I joined the leaders of the major denominations of Judaism to urge our members of Congress to support Foreign Aid to Israel.  The letter read:

Dear Senator/Representative:

As Rabbis in the American Jewish community we write today to express our unified support for the State of Israel and to underscore the vital importance of U.S. foreign aid to Israel. It is essential that foreign aid to Israel, America’s strongest ally in the Middle East, continue as part of a strong far-reaching foreign aid package that allows nations to address poverty, global warming, democracy building, human rights and disease prevention.

Aid to Israel is an investment in U.S. security and Israel’s security. President Obama’s proposed FY2012 budget includes an increase in foreign aid to Israel to $3.075 billion as part of the 10-year agreement signed in 2007. This aid is essential to Israel, which spends a higher percentage of its gross domestic product on its own defense than any other industrialized country in the world. U.S. foreign aid reaffirms our commitment to a democratic ally in the Middle East and gives Israel the military edge to maintain its security and the economic stability to pursue peace. Furthermore, U.S. foreign aid to Israel represents a strong investment in the American economy; Israel spends over 75% of its aid in the United States supporting American jobs.

It is essential that foreign aid to Israel not be separated from the rest of the foreign aid package. Aid to Israel, like foreign aid in general, is an investment in the future. The United States spends just over one penny of every federal dollar on foreign aid, a small price to pay for a world-wide investment in democracy, economic development and political stability, increasing the quality of life for millions of people outside the United States. As Jews, we insist that the U.S. do all that it can to continue to be a leader in the world supporting basic human rights and we are unwilling to compromise this for aid to Israel or vice versa.

As Jews we are committed to the vision of the Prophets and Jewish sages who considered the pursuit of peace a religious obligation. Foreign Aid to Israel is an essential way that we can fulfill our obligation to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15).

We urge you to vote for continued U.S. foreign aid to Israel and to support foreign aid broadly as a means of advancing American leadership and interests around the world. For a full list of Rabbis that signed this letter nationally, visit www.rac.org.

The letter was also signed by:

Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Union for Reform Judaism

Rabbi Steven C. Wernick
Executive Vice President and CEO
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

Rabbi Steven Weil
Executive Vice President
Orthodox Union

Rabbi Fredi Cooper
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association

Rabbi Jonathan Stein
Central Conference of American Rabbis

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld
Executive Vice President
Rabbinical Assembly

Rabbi Basil Herring
Executive Vice President
Rabbinical Council of America

Rabbi David Saperstein
Director and Counsel
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Israel first to set up field hospital in Japan

Or Ami congregant Robert Grossman passed along this news of Israel’s continued humanitarian aid worldwide:

The JERUSALEM POST reports (3/21/2011) that surgery has been established at Minamisanriko, a fishing city devastated by quake; Israel is also providing aid for the homeless.

The field hospital Israel is establishing in Japan is the first to be set up by any nation offering outside assistance, Israel’s Ambassador to Japan Nissim Ben Shitrit said Monday, and the Japanese are extremely appreciative.

Ben Shitrit said the hospital was being established at Minamisanriko, a fishing city 290 miles north of Tokyo, that was utterly overwhelmed by the quake and tsunami and where some 10,000 people are dead or missing. A five-strong Israeli team “is setting up the surgery right now,” the ambassador said. “They are evaluating the needs today, so that a larger team can be dispatched.”

He confirmed Israel was also providing tons of aid assistance – including mattresses, blankets, coats, gloves and chemical toilets — for some of the half-a-million people who are homeless, many of whom are now living in public facilities.

“I don’t know how or why it is that our field hospital is the first,” the ambassador said. “Maybe we moved faster. Maybe it’s because of our experience.” 

He said the medical crisis would take a long time to resolve, but that he believed the Japanese government would bring the situation under control in the coming weeks. Appreciation for Israel’s help, he said, was clear in the reporting in the Japanese media and in the grateful response of people in the field. 

Asked whether Israel had provided any assistance in grappling with the difficulties affecting Japanese nuclear facilities, Ben Shitrit said no. “That’s an issue for the Japanese and the Americans only,” he said.

A Jewish Response to the Rabbis Defending former Israeli President Moshe Katsav

On December 30, 2010, a three-judge panel unanimously found former Israeli President Moshe Katsav guilty of “rape, sexual harassment, committing an indecent act while using force, harassing a witness and obstruction of justice.”

Indeed, Mr. Katsav’s many offenses directly hurt not only the citizens he assaulted and demeaned, but, as a leading representative of the state, his actions harmed the government and people of Israel, whose principles, trust, and international image he egregiously violated. Against this shocking and depressing reality, however, the Israeli courts and the media restored a measure of dignity and hope by doggedly pursuing justice and fearlessly speaking truth to power.

Instead of being appalled by Mr. Katsav’s actions and expressing sympathy for his victims, a group of his political supporters comprised of dozens of community rabbis, heads of yeshivot, and other religious educators rushed to his defense following his conviction.

Today, I signed onto this letter by an international group of Rabbis and Jewish religious leaders which opposes the ridiculous and religiously indefensible letter by a small group of Israeli rabbis to support Mr. Katsav.  I – and we – affirm our Jewish commitment and support for women’s rights in Israel and around the world.  I thank Rabbis for Human Rights – North America for organizing this response.

Raping Our Faith, Assaulting Our Society: A Jewish Response to the Rabbis Defending Katsav 

As rabbis and other Jewish leaders, we agree with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who said that the conviction of former President Moshe Katsav for rape and other crimes was a “sad day for Israel,” but one which showed that in Israel “all are equal before the law, and that every woman has exclusive rights to her body.”

As rabbis and religious leaders ourselves, we are horrified that dozens of Israeli community rabbis, heads of yeshivot, and other Jewish educators came to the defense of Mr. Katsav following his conviction. In a public letter to the former president, these leading Israeli rabbis slammed the “poisonous media,” urged Mr. Katsav to “be strong and continue to insist on the truth uncompromisingly” and closed their letter by saying “Respectfully yours and with deep appreciation as before.”

We find this rabbinical defense of a violent criminal to be shocking. It is shameful that these religious leaders staked their position in the name of Zionism and Judaism. To speak in this manner, as rabbis, is a hillul haShem, leading to a public denigration of Torah and Jewish tradition. Underlying their letter is a total disregard for the Israeli system of justice, a dismissal of a serious investigation, a willful rejection of a fair and careful trial process.

It may be that the rabbis who rallied to Mr. Katsav’s support have high regard for some of his positive accomplishments. But he has no claim to honor, certainly not to rabbinic praise. “Who is honored?” our tradition teaches, “The one who honors other human beings.” (Pirke Avot 4:1)

We stand united in our support for women’s rights in Israel and around the world. As we learn from the Torah, both male and female were created in the divine image, b’tzelem elohim (Genesis 1:27). It is this shared human expression of the divine image that is both the foundation of equality of all gender expressions and of the Jewish understanding of human rights.

The Tasty Fruits of Israeli Innovation

Did you know that:

  • Amazon’s Kindle was made in Israel?!
  • A World Autism Center is being build in Israel?!
  • Israel’s have discovered how to float solar panels on water?!
  • A bracelet made in Israel can tell caretakers when an epileptic seizure is happening?!
  • The Mideast’s first synchrotron is being built in Israel with researchers from across the Mideast?!

I recently rediscovered a fabulous website about Israel: Israel21c.org.  It is well worth a look or two or three.

Israel, to the extent that it is understood by Americans at all, is generally seen as a place of war; a place that is characterized by virtually nothing but the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. So often we focus on the conflict in the Mideast.

Yet, Israel is regularly is having a major impact on our world in very positive ways.  Israel and Israelis are having an impact on individual lives through their efforts in health, technology, culture, democracy and clean tech.

Israel21c, a non-profit educational foundation with a mission to focus media and public attention on the 21st century Israel that exists beyond the conflict, identifies, researches and reports on how Israelis create, innovate, improve and add value to the world.

Studies substantiate that when Americans learn about the ways in which Israel adds value to their lives, their affinity and respect for Israel increases. We improve Israel’s image around the world by allowing people to understand the reality; Israel is seen through the lenses of its humanness, its diversity and all that it contributes through medical advances, technological innovation, art, culture and acts of human kindness.

Check out these innovations that Israel21C is bringing to light:

  • Amazon’s Kindle: A Made-in-Israel story: They made Java “cool” again by using it to develop a device for reading the Kindle, and once again a major tech invention emanates from Israel.
  • World autism center in Jerusalem: At the first global research and education center for autism, to be built in Jerusalem, the plan is to integrate all the systems that work.
  • Solar energy that floats on water: Award winning Israeli company Solaris Synergy has designed solar energy grids that can float on water, reducing energy production costs, and preventing water loss.
  • Swift help for epilepsy: The new electronic EpiLert bracelet under development in Israel will signal caregivers when the wearer begins to suffer a dangerous seizure.
  • Open SESAME – building the MidEast’s first synchrotron: Politics aside, researchers from across the Middle East are working together in the name of science on a futuristic project that will enable scientists to study everything from proteins to archaeological…

Israelis Tackle … American Football

Hut 1, hut 2, hike, hike…

In Israel, there are two main sports: soccer and basketball.  Over the past years, groups of American olim (immigrants) have made attempts – some more successful than others – to bring baseball to the Holy Land

Recently, Israelis are flirting with football – American tackle football.  And, under the auspices of the Israel Football League, it looks like American football just might catch on.  The Tel Aviv-Yafo Sabras, Jerusalem Lions, Herzliya Hammers, the Beer Sheva Black Swarm and others scrimmage, run, pass and tackle.  As the New York Times video reports:

Loyalty Oath in Israel: Reform Movement Condemns It

Israeli leaders are engaged in a discussion about a loyalty oath. Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition and Kadima chairwoman condemned loyalty oath amendment is ‘politics at its worst‘).  Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israeli Religious Action Center (IRAC), wrote this on the recently Loyalty Oath Bill that was approved by Israel’s Cabinet:

Yesterday, IRAC as a leader in the Coalition Against Racism co-signed a press release with nearly twenty other organizations condemning the Loyalty Oath Bill that was approved by the Cabinet and will be voted on by the Knesset in the upcoming session.

We condemn the oath because we take seriously the Declaration of Independence in Israel, a document with which I identify so strongly. During the painful birth of the State of Israel, our nation’s founders signed on IRAC’s core values.

[The State of Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…

Unfortunately, its message is an endangered species in today’s Israel.

The Israeli Cabinet announced yesterday that non-Jews wishing to become Israeli citizens must take a loyalty oath to the Jewishness of the State of Israel. This dangerous piece of legislation adds the language “as a democratic and Jewish state” to the pre-existing oath. The Jewish immigrants wouldn’t have to swear anything if this discriminatory bill makes it through the Knesset in the upcoming session.

We are told by the bill’s creators that this amendment was proposed to defend the Jewish character of Israel. But what about the democratic character of the state? There are those among Israeli society who are willing to sacrifice democracy for security, those who insist that Torah Law trumps the legitimacy of the Basic Laws. This bill was not presented in order to defend from these communities, rather it was written to affirm the dominance of the Jewish character of Israel over its other characteristics—otherwise, every Israeli would be required to say and mean this declaration.

How do I know the undemocratic spirit behind this bill? Let’s look at it in context. This bill is being approved to go to Knesset along with several other bills that promote discrimination. For example, there is a proposal to legalize committees that accept people to private communities. It’s a lot like a board that rules a condominium or a homeowners association, except that it rules an entire town and the wording is vague enough so that it would be a platform for ethnic, political and religious discrimination. Also, the same legislators proposed a bill that would legalize revoking citizenship as punishment. Served on the same plate, it is clear that the Loyalty Oath Bill is a sour scoop of racism for members of Israel’s non-Jewish communities.

I feel as though my country is breaking a promise to me. Whether this bill passes or not, it is clear that it exists purely as a message to Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, a provocative reminder of Jewish dominance. Well over one million citizens in this country are not Jewish. The Cabinet’s vote yesterday insulted the Israeli identity of all of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, a majority of whom are Arab.

Israeli studies and research show that Arab citizens of Israel suffer discrimination by the state despite the Declaration of Independence’s guarantee for “full and equal citizenship.”
According to the Dovrat Commission, Arab schools receive only 60% of the funding per student that Jewish schools receive. Most Arab villages and cities do not have public transportation and lack basic medical services, which are often very far distances from these areas. These are just a few examples of the existing inequality in Israeli society for the Arab community.

The amendment to the Loyalty Oath would place a major hurdle in the way of the fight for equality, setting in stone the gentleman’s agreement to uphold the second-class status of Arabs in Israel. How do we expect to overcome the barriers between different fragments of Israeli society when this bill is just another brick in the wall that divides us?

The bill is not democratic in nature and it is certainly not Jewish. In a Jewish state that upholds “justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel,” we should be focusing on our values and not on dominance and imposition. In Isaiah 1:17 we read, “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.” We as Jews have been in this place; we too have struggled as a minority. In a society of high ethnic tensions, why would we fan the flames?

A democracy that renders some citizens as second-rate is a second-rate democracy.


Anat Hoffman

The Israel Religious Action Center is a department of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.

Gaza Flotilla and Israel #2: Choose Life

Our Torah teaches that placed before each of us at every moment is a choice. Life or death, blessing or curse. At every moment, with every step we take, we must choose. And those choices determine, literally, whether we, our children, our people and our values will live on.
U’vacharta bachaim – choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19). Each of us, listening to our intellect and our conscience, determines what we do when we face each choice. Whether we go left or go right; whether we seek blessing or face curses. So it is with people. So it is with nations.

But what if you are a nation that whenever you think you are choosing life, all you seem to ever receive back are curses?  Such is the situation of Israel today.

Israel has a right, guaranteed by international law, to blockade an enemy sworn to its destruction. Routine checks may legally be made of boats coming toward the land of it’s enemy.  They are checking for missiles and weapons and goods that could be used to build bunkers and fortifications. Remember, Israel withdrew from Gaza only to face eight years of constant missile attacks on civilian populations. Now Israel expects only what every other nation at war demands: that it gets to choose life. 

Thus Israel boarded five “peace activist” ships in a supposed humanitarian flotilla, brought them to Israel’s port, checked out the goods and people, and delivered the goods to non-Hamas-controlled Gazans. Remember that Israel daily sends into Gaza huge amounts of goods, food
and water into Gaza. 

But on the sixth ship, Israel faced organized mob of people who were filmed on Al Jezeera, a day earlier, calling for martyrdom. This mob was committed to beating and harming, anything but life. This ship’s humanitarian mission – a guise really for an attempt to undermine the blockade – was taken over by individuals committed to cursing and harming Israelis at every turn. And the result was mayhem. Soldiers were injured and people were killed. We mourn every death.
U’vacharta bachaim – choose life.

There is a concerted effort to shackle Israel’s ability to make choices, to defend itself.  It’s hypocritical.

  • When North Korea sinks a South Korean ship, bringing a very tense region close to war footing, there is narry a blip in the world’s attention.
  • When Egypt imposes the same blockade on Gaza, fearful of an Iranian style theocracy on it’s borders, few raise concern.
  • But when Israel expects the right to ensure life for it’s people in the face of enemy enmity, Israel faces only curses from every direction.
It is so exhausting to listen to these curses again and again.  How does one respond?

When Spanish politician/journalist of the far left Pilar Rahola heard
the curses of Israel, she responded with incredulity. Read this.

When US Vice President Joe Biden was asked about the critique of Israel, he responded with forthrightness. “So what’s the big deal here? What’s the big deal of insisting it not go straight to Gaza? Well, it’s legitimate for Israel to say, ‘I don’t know what’s on that ship. These guys are dropping… 3,000 rockets on my people…. You can argue whether Israel should have dropped people onto that ship or not — but the truth of the matter is, Israel has a right to know — they’re at war with Hamas — has a right to know whether or not arms are being smuggled in.” Watch this from 33:09 forward (Or read this).

When you are asked about your reaction to the flotilla, what will you say?

  • Perhaps you will explain Israel’s right to defend itself by boarding ships. Read this
  • Perhaps you will remember the video that shows a crowd violently attacking those seeking to inspect the ship, proving that this was anything but a ship of peace. Watch this.
  • Perhaps you will think about the message of American-born Israeli Rabbi Daniel Gordis who said “Israel’s geographic vulnerability means that we do not have the luxury of caving in to the world’s condemnation. We will have to gird ourselves for the long, dangerous and lonely road ahead, buoyed by hope that what ultimately prevails will be not what is momentarily popular, but rather what is just.” Read more
  • Perhaps you will attend a rally this Sunday at 2:00 pm outside the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles. Info here.

There is much to criticize about Israel. Criticize the way that the army should have better prepared its troops for a more violent response. Criticize the way that Israel should have more quickly released videos and information in the post-operation diplomacy to more quickly to counter the easily anticipated onslaught of curses and criticism. Surely these bear critique. Israelis on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Ramat Eshkol will argue privately and publicly about this more than you and I will ever imagine.

But don’t accept the world’s cry for an international tribunal to review it. Because those only curse Israel no matter what she does.

And don’t accept the critique of the UN Human Rights Council which never fails to ignore its member states’ actions (Iran, Syria, Libya) yet equally never fails to find the opportunity to single out Israel for condemnation.  

And don’t accept the discomfort, embarrassment, or self-loathing  that overtakes some of us – Jews, Americans, Israelis – whenever Israel’s decisions are met with world disdain, complaint and critique.

Israel is far from perfect. You may love its current government or disdain it. (This government is far from my favorite.) You may find much to criticize about its settlements, the coercive power of ultra-orthodox groups, the way this government drags its feet sometimes at solving the conflict with the Palestinians. (I criticize Israel regularly on all these issues!)

Yet existing in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world, Israel makes choices few of us can imagine. Often those choices lead to results that make us squeamish.

But choices had to be made. Those ships had to be turned aside. Israel felt it had to act. Why?
U’vacharta bachaim. For life. For security. For safety. To uphold the blockade against hidden missiles and weapons.

But for now choose quickly to educate yourself. So that when you are asked what you think, you won’t fall into the trap of self-loathing.  Instead, head held high, demand that like every other nation, Israel gets the right u’vacharta bachaim, to choose life.