Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hey Dad, Why Do They Hate Us So Much?

We are near the end of our year here, and I can’t get Josh’s question out of my head. Why do they hate us so much? I think he asked this about six months ago. By then he had seen so much already, and this strange new life for him had become very normal. He was living in a community that reaches out to strangers, he saw and participated in tzedakah projects, he saw people of all ages striving to learn - both Torah and secular studies.

Life just appeared to be regular; neighborhood schools were filled with children, after-school activities of all kinds went on every day, carpools, teams, tutors, for a kid looked just like it always had. His parents went to the supermarket, to meetings, out with friends, welcoming guests into our house, and on vacation. Life for them looked normal too.

There were cars, highways, roads, businesses, large buildings, construction cranes everywhere. We saw busy cities, lovely suburbs, farms, beaches, mountains, sum, he saw the world looking very much like it always had to him. Yet here in the middle of the Jewish State, with all this normalcy surrounding us, he was brought to wonder; Why do they hate us so much?

I had a business dinner about 20 years ago with Shari Lewis (z”l). She became famous as a puppeteer whose character creation “Lamb Chop” had been one of my childhood favorites. Dating myself I know, but the memory returned to me this week as I thought about this note.

Her husband Jeremy was also at the dinner, and I learned, he was a very successful book publisher, writer and producer. As I remember our discussion, he was in the early stages of producing a television program. I decided this was my big opportunity to get into show business so I told him that I had a great idea for a show. I told him I couldn’t believe it wasn’t already on the air. He said, “ok, I give, what’s the show?” I said, “it’s a news show, it’s called “The Good News.” Every week the show would report on situations and people from all over the world who were doing good, who were making the world a better place, who were helping other people.” He laughed out loud and said to me rather matter of factly; “who would watch?”

Even after 20 years I am still a little sad that it was so easy for Jeremy to shoot me down. I lament that I am part of an age and culture which has taken critique, rebuke, and doubt to such heights.

My senses are particularly heightened as we speed toward the end of our year. I have so many emotions and thoughts about what is happening here, and what is happening around us. I think that is why Josh’s plaintive query hits me so hard right now. Hey dad, why do they hate us so much?

Like most towns, Ra’anana has a mall. Malls are very popular in Israel and they inject a western, modern sense of normalcy into life here. They are clean, bright, and some are even architecturally interesting. Both Israeli and global merchants are represented, offering every kind of shopping experience that the modern consumer demands.

And the customers. Ah, that’s “The Good News.” The customers speak volumes to the possibility of the Middle East. Friday’s are the perfect time to see it in action (though the most painfully busy if you need something!) Next to the orthodox man leaving the wine shop with his Shabbat purchases walk two chiloni (secular) young women wearing the latest fashions (which often looks like a skimpy clothing competition). Amidst this incongruous scene strolls the Muslim family; the father and son in front followed by the mother and two daughters, pushing another one in a baby carriage. The mother is wearing traditional Muslim attire and the older girls are wearing fashionable looking hijabs (headscarfs). They appear to be a modern though traditional family, probably not too different in many ways from the orthodox man’s family. They are clearly enjoying their time; shopping, browsing, eating snacks, living normally. And why not? I admit to a certain sense of pride when I see these scenes in the mall. Amid all the turmoil here, it is encouraging to see hope in two peoples shopping side-by-side.

Unfortunately, the good news is not universal in this neighborhood. In an article last week by historian Benny Morris in “The National Interest”, he wrote;

A well-known hadith (a saying of the Prophet Mohammed accepted by Muslims as canonical and weighty), relating to the prospective end-of-days battle between Muslims and Jews, states:

The Prophet … says: 'The hour of judgement shall not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, so that the Jews hide behind trees and stones, and each tree and stone will say: "Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him" …'

This hadith is approvingly quoted in the 1988 Charter (or constitution) of the Hamas, the fundamentalist Palestinian organization that controls the Gaza Strip and won the 2006 Palestinian general elections.

And last week it received the approval of 73 percent of Palestinians in a poll run by American pollster Stanley Greenberg, conducted jointly by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, based in Beit Sahur in the West Bank, and the Israel Project, a peace-promoting international nonprofit organization. The finding was based on lengthy interviews with 1,010 Palestinian adults in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. About 80 percent of those polled agreed that it was the duty of all Muslims to participate in jihad to eradicate Israel.

The poll also found that 61 percent of Palestinians rejected the American-Israeli formulation for a settlement of the conflict based on two states for two peoples, one for the Arabs and one for the Jews. Only 34 percent of Palestinians questioned supported a "two-states-for-two-peoples" solution.

The poll reflects the decades of Palestinian—PLO-Palestine National Authority and Hamas—education and incitement of the population of the territories against Israel and, more generally, the Jews. Fifty-three percent of those polled favored teaching in Palestinian schools songs promoting hatred of Jews. But 66 percent of those polled adopted the PLO-PNA gradualist approach of a two-stage "solution" to the problem of Israel, approving a first stage in which there would be two states before moving onto "stage two" with the establishment of one Palestinian Arab-majority state over all of Palestine.

This incitement is real, and its impact goes far beyond a simple listing of statistics. Last month the Jerusalem Post reported on the story of the delivery driver who took a wrong turn near Hebrew University in Jerusalem and nearly ended up lynched in the Arab town of Issawiya.

“It’s hard for me to understand how this could happen inside Jerusalem – inside my home,” said the driver Nir Nachson.

Nachson was going towards Ma’aleh Adumim to deliver a package for his delivery company, Cheetah, when he attempted to make a shortcut near the Hadassah Har Hatzofim Hospital to avoid traffic.

Near Hebrew University, his GPS advised him to turn onto the main road in Issawiya. When he made the turn, an 11-year-old boy saw his car and started yelling “Al-Yahud,” (Jew!) and a crowd of young people suddenly materialized and surrounded his vehicle, Nachson said in the interview.

“Dozens of people were throwing blocks and stones and pounding on the car, from what I remember from all directions,” he said, adding that he hadn’t even heard of the neighborhood before his ordeal.

Using rocks and heavy objects, the mob broke through the windows of the car, opened the doors, and started beating him.

“I didn’t have a lot of options until one of the residents there – a really righteous person, which I prayed for – decided to stop them and told me to come with him,” said Nachson. “I have to say at that moment going with him didn’t seem like the best idea, but I didn’t have any other options. If I had been there two more minutes we wouldn’t be talking now.”

The man, a mukhtar, or village head, named Darwish Darwish, rescued Nachson along with the help of his sons, Channel 2 reported.

So while I am still not sure how to answer Josh’s question, I am sure that I would rather live in an Israel where Muslims and Jews live and work and shop side-by-side. We were at lunch yesterday with an Israeli father who works in the construction industry. He related a story about his experience with the openness of Israeli society. He told us that every day Palestinians come from the West Bank to work on the many building projects going on in Israel. They come by the busload. In addition, other busses bring the mothers and kids to the parks, malls, and theaters that are all over Israel. He expressed a mixture of emotions remarking that they come and use Israeli facilities freely, paid for with Israeli taxes, but that it creates a positive experience both for Palestinians and Israelis. In short he said, “Israel has an open door.”

Sadly though it does not appear that the Palestinians plan on a similarly open society in any future Palestinian State. On May 30, the Jerusalem Post reported the following: At the Arab League meeting in Qatar on Saturday, PA President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinian state “will be free of all Jews.”

Unfortunately while Josh’s question is reasonable sounding, I have not found a reasonable sounding response. Instead, I tell him we must each seek to be part of the solution, to live our lives according to the Jewish values of b’tzelem elokhim (that we are each created in the image of God) and hachnasat orchim (welcoming the stranger). That way, in the long run hopefully they will stop hating us so much. And that will truly be “The Good News.”

Monday, March 14, 2011

Disasters - Natural and Otherwise

An earthquake and a tsunami hit Japan this past weekend and killed thousands of Japanese citizens. The world is reaching out to the Japanese people, helping to search for survivors and deliver aid in a global expression of empathy at the unexplainable loss of life and property from this natural disaster. Rightly so, people around the world feel sadness over the grief and shock that have overwhelmed the Japanese people.

In Israel, five members of the Fogel family were slaughtered while sleeping in their beds in the town of Itamar, a settlement deep in the West Bank this past weekend. The act was one of terrorists intent solely on murdering Jews. This (or those) subhuman monster(s) slaughtered Udi, 36, his wife Ruth, 35, and their children Yoav, 11, Elad, 4 and Hadas, 3 months. The Palestinian response to this unnatural disaster was telling:

From PA President Mahmoud Abbas:

In a statement released by his office, Abbas "stressed his rejection and condemnation of all violence directed against civilians, regardless of who was behind it or the reason for it.” Abbas added that "violence produces violence and what is needed is to speed up a just and comprehensive solution to the conflict.”

From the Editor-in-Chief of the official daily newspaper of the PA:

"I don't believe that the incident in Itamar is an act of resistance, but rather an act by individuals whom we condemn, in the event it was carried out by Palestinians. Stabbing children in their sleep is not a heroic act but rather that of the heartless, like some of the occupation soldiers and settlers, who murder children," Hafez Barghouti, editor-in-chief of Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, wrote on Sunday.He added that the "real murderers in Itamar are the zealous settlers and anyone who burned a tree, vandalized the cemetery in Awarta, forced out the residents of Khirbet Yanun, took control of a plot of land or robbed an olive harvest .... The act at Itamar was a message to the occupation and to the world ... whose meaning is clear - the occupation must go."

From Salam Fayyad, Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority:

We "clearly and firmly denounces the terror attack, just as I have denounced crimes against Palestinians. We are against all types of violence. Our position has not changed. As we have said many times before, we categorically oppose violence and terror, regardless of the identity of the victims or the perpetrators.”

From Hamas:

After arresting three of its activists near Qalqilya and Jenin in the West Bank, Hamas Spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said, "The report of five murdered Israelis is not enough to punish someone. However; we in Hamas completely support the resistance against settlers who murder and use crime and terror against the Palestinian people under the auspices of the Israeli occupation soldiers."

From the unbelievable; “there’s no proof we did it” to the absurd; “you forced us to do it” to the horrifying; “we are justified,” these responses tell a story no human being should accept; that the lives of Jews are worth less than those of others. The PA’s unceasing policy of incitement of Jewish anti-semitism has generated its latest terrifying result. Five Jewish souls are gone, three little children, one just 3 months old.

Words matter, ceremonies matter, National honors matter. Naming streets and squares after murderers, encouraging public celebration at the news of Israeli deaths, teaching children from textbooks espousing Nazi ideology and denial of the Holocaust, sending children to summer camps endorsing suicide bombing, and on and on is a mark of shame on the Palestinians. From Israel National News:

On the day before the brutal slaying of the Fogel family, Sabri Saidam, adviser to Abbas and under-secretary of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, told PA Arabs in a speech that “the weapons must be turned towards the main enemy [Israel] and that internal differences of opinion must be set aside.” Saidam denounced the low monthly stipends to families of terrorists who murder Israelis. He also called for the naming of another public square in honor of Dalal Mughrabi, the bloodthirsty terrorist who led the 1978 Coastal Road massacre that left dozens of Israelis dead, including 13 children.

From Eli Hertz’s website, “Myths and Facts”:

Political and religious incitement plays a crucial role in mobilizing and motivating Palestinian terrorism. After the horrendous 2002 suicide bombing of a Passover Seder in a Netanya hotel, Fouad Ajami, a Middle East scholar at Johns Hopkins University, wrote:

"The suicide bomber of the Passover massacre did not descend from the sky; he walked straight out of the culture of incitement let loose on the land, a menace hovering over Israel, a great Palestinian and Arab refusal to let that country be, to cede it a place among the nations, he partook of the culture all around him - the glee [that] greets those brutal deeds of terror, the cult that rises around the martyrs and their families."

Despite pledges to renounce violence against Israel, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas continue to incite, inflame and encourage Palestinian Arabs to pin every problem they face as individuals and as a society on Israel. This strategy of channeling frustrations into hatred and the desire for revenge against Israel is adopted both by Israel 's immediate Palestinian neighbors and Arab leaders throughout the Muslim-Arab world. Arab leaders and the European Union [EU] lend support to the Palestinian cause with money and a combination of anti-Israeli and anti-American messages from government-controlled media outlets and educational systems. Sermons that legitimize violence in the name of Islam are encouraged, delivered by extremists throughout Muslim countries and in free countries in the West.

Absent from the texts, absent from the Palestinian media, absent from the PA spokespeople and leaders are the basic principles of normalization and co-existence with Israel. Israelis have made recognition of Israel as a Jewish State, in other words that there will be two States as envisioned in the original Balfour Declaration and UN vote, a prerequisite to an agreement. This weekend’s unnatural disaster is a reminder of the desperate need for these basic principles.

Sources for this post include:

Monday, March 7, 2011

אני ואתה נשנה את העולם
(Ani V’Atah L’Shaneh Et Ha-Olam)
You And I, We’ll Change The World

Arik Einstein, a beloved Israeli performer, sang these words some 20 years ago... They apply today as much as ever. After six months of living and being immersed in Israel and her culture, life and rhythms, I am intensely motivated to help be part of the effort to make this change, and I urge you to join me. Because it is true;
You and I, We'll Change the World.

The Lipseys are a little past the halfway point of our year in Israel, and as I have written (, the experience has been beyond anything we could have imagined.

One of the subjects about which I (along with many others) have written is the growing lack of religious freedom in Israel due to the mounting pressures from the Haredi / Ultra-Orthodox segment of society. This issue is tearing at the social fabric of the country, and left unchecked can easily result in Israel becoming a theocratic state; a place where none of our children, grandchildren, or beyond will be welcome.

I believe there is a moment of opportunity today, before the next round of elections, to impact the country on this issue. That is why I am writing this now, I believe Israel needs our help.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence, written May, 1948 says; “The State of Israel ... will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion ... it will guarantee freedom of religion and conscience.”

Sixty-two years later this expression of religious freedom is but a dream. The political system here has created a State-sanctioned religion now controlled completely by the Ultra-Orthodox, that by most estimates represents just 8% of Israelis. But, due to the vagaries of its political system, this group has taken advantage of its State granted religious monopoly and accepts far more of the country’s resources than their fair share.

It is hard to believe that some of the events that have occurred have happened in Israel, but they have; Separate city sidewalks for men and women; public buses where women must sit in a small designated section in the back of the bus, entering only through the rear door; women arrested for holding a Torah or wearing tefillin near the Kotel, Rabbis advocating for a law that exempts rabbis from civil law, ultra-orthodox schools knowingly submitting inflated student rolls to the State in order to collect millions in excess stipends...all of these have and are going on here.

The challenge is big. The Haredi (ultra-orthodox) community votes as one bloc and in a Parliamentary system like in Israel, this creates significant power. Allocation of public resources, control over conversion, marriage, divorce, burial, all of these fall under the control of the Haredi Chief Rabbi of Israel, which by the way is a creation / remnant of the Ottoman Empire, not a Jewish structure.

What can we do? There are Israelis who are seeking to cause this change. But as with many things they are understaffed and underfunded. The goal is to build a consortium of people representing Jews who are from reform, conservative and modern orthodox communities, and ultimately from the biggest segment of the Israeli population, the chilonim - secular Jews.

The Israelis working on this issue have a three-part plan:

1. Develop a serious ongoing national public relations and advertising campaign aimed at bringing this existential issue of inequity into the daily discourse in Israel.

2. Build an AIPAC-type organization aimed at tracking the voting record of the MK’s and then provide ongoing reporting of the results nationally.

3. Organize a face-to-face campaign to register voters for political parties so they can vote in the primaries to gain significant sway on the outcome of future elections.

Here is my thought; come to Israel for 3 - 4 days. Meet with major politicians, community leaders, rabbis, and lay people who are seeking to help effect change. We need to raise $1 million US to get this started. I believe we can do this, and we can do this now.

I tell my kids all the time that this country is theirs. I look forward to one day telling my grandchildren the same thing. This is where Jews have yearned to be and live for 2000 years. Finally we’re here. I want to help make sure that stays true for all Jews.

Thanks for “listening,” I look forward to doing this with you!

In the meantime, here is the link to hear Arik Einstein sing this beautiful and moving song:

Ani V’Atah
Ani ve'ata neshaneh et ha'olam
ani ve'ata az yavo'u kvar kulam
Amru et zeh kodem lefanai
lo meshaneh, ani ve'ata neshaneh et ha'olam.

Ani ve'ata nenaseh mehahatchalah
yiheyl lanu ra ein davar zeh lo nora.
Amru et zeh kodem lefanai
zeh lo meshaneh, ani ve'ata neshaneh et ha'olam.

You And I
You and I we'll change the world
you and I by then all will follow
Others have said it before me but
doesn't matter you and I we'll change the world.

You and I we'll try from the beginning
it will be tough for us, no matter, it's not too bad!
Others have said it before me but it
doesn't matter you and I we'll change the world.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Elephant in the Room

In so many ways, Israel is just like any other developed nation on the globe. Problems like traffic, jobs, wages, education, and housing are all part of life here too.

The difference in Israel is the elephant in the room. Whatever you call it; the peace process, the Middle East conflict, the Arab - Israeli conflict, it’s always there, no matter how quiet it is there waiting, taking up most of the space. Yet life goes on, for the most part seemingly undisturbed by this biggest of issues. While the press fills its pages with stories on the conflict, daily life in Israel is about life; the good, the bad, and the regular.

A longtime friend and his wife (non-Jews) recently visited Israel for the first time. Seasoned travelers, they came on a 12-day trip that included Israel, Amman, and Petra on their itinerary. Before their trip my friend had asked that I recommend some books that he might read to get a better perspective on the situation in Israel. I suggested the following three:

  1. Start-Up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer
  2. Saving Israel by Daniel Gordis
  3. Israel: Echo in Eternity by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Following their visit, I received an email from him with some comments and perceptions from a first-time visitor to Israel about the situation on the ground here. I have used some of his comments and questions to help describe how it feels here after four months on the ground; the good, the bad, and the regular; and of course, the elephant in the room. Here is my response (name changed...):

Hi Jerry,

I have so many thoughts about your questions and observations! As you note, many of the issues Israel faces are seemingly overwhelming. You started with an entirely rational observation; how is it possible for such a tiny country, home to approximately half of the world’s Jews, to have a policy inviting all the rest of us to enter as full citizens.

I am glad you opened with this issue because it is the foundation upon which Israel was created. In Psalm 137 it says, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither away...” These words, written following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, have nourished Jewish yearning for a return to their ancestral homeland for more than two millennia.

Being a Jew is more than being a member of a religious group. In my October blog I quoted one of my teachers who described what it is to be a Jew; “To be Jewish is to be part of a sacred religious community, to be Jewish is to live by, and share with the world, the ethical code bequeathed to us, and to be Jewish means to settle this particular land; Israel. To be Jewish is all of these things.” For two thousand years the ideal of settling this land was only a dream, now, in this moment in history that dream has become reality.

Consider some data. During each of the past 10 years the number of new immigrants to Israel from all countries ranged from 15,000 to approximately 50,000. At the same time the number of births among just the ultra-orthodox Jews currently living in Israel is approximately 50,000 per year. Thus most of the population growth in Israel comes from the current population. Yes, the immigration door is open. And I would describe this open door as crucial following the Holocaust when almost no country would let Jews in (including the US). Still, most Jews not currently in Israel are free, and are happy to be living in the Diaspora.

You raised a series of questions about the economy and the difficulties facing Israel. As one who travels a lot too, I would say by observation the economy in Israel is comparatively robust. The unemployment rate in Israel is just 6.6% (versus nearly 10% in the US, 8% in the UK and 9% in France). In addition, Israel was one of the only western economies in the world that avoided most of the global financial crisis. The Israeli banks never permitted the kind of crazy mortgage lending that became so prevalent in the US and elsewhere.

Still there are big problems here too. As you note, nearly a quarter of the country’s population is currently living below the poverty line. Most of these folks are either Israeli Arabs or Ultra-Orthodox Jews. As I described in my last blogpost, many of those Jews are electing to be on state welfare and subsist below the poverty line rather than seek employment. Many of the Arabs rely on construction jobs and while building activity is better here than in most places, it is still not high enough. Further, education achievement among Arab populations in Israel has been lower than that of Jews. No doubt there is shared responsibility for this, though solutions inevitably are long-term and require intense commitment by many.

Inflation and cost of living are issues here too. It is expensive to live here, though not extreme. As a measure, about a month ago the United Nations (an organization not prone to emphasize the positive aspects of Israel) released their annual Human Development Report, The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development. The UN Development Program’s rankings depend on a number of factors: life expectancy, mean years of schooling, and gross national income per capita. Development is defined as freedom for people to engage in a long, prosperous, and above all else, creative life. This year, Israel is again ranked number 15 in the world, sandwiched nicely between Finland and France.

There are some basic quality of life issues here too. You mentioned the painful traffic conditions in and around Jerusalem. This is a two-sided coin...It’s a problem, but on many levels a good one. Tourism in Israel is at an all-time high right now. No doubt this creates some frustration for travelers, and I hope traffic did not mar your experience here. Jerusalem presents some unique traffic challenges. Perched high atop a hill, with many winding old streets, the city simply is not well-suited for the modern tour bus. However, there is a long-planned and “nearly completed” light rail system that should help reduce local traffic in the city. Still this is one of those issues that I think Israelis are comfortable enduring.

Last but not least, you asked about the issue of safety and security and the sense of relentless pressure from hostile neighbors.

Jews have been residents of this particular place dating back to Abraham for more than 3500 years. Unfortunately, the modern State of Israel has never been accepted by most of the Arabs living in the neighborhood. The West Bank Fatah-led Palestinians have never changed their charter to acknowledge the right of the Jewish State of Israel to exist. In Gaza, the Hamas charter vows the destruction of the State of Israel and the elimination of Jews from its land. Kind of hard to see a path to peace with these “partners.”

In 1917 the Balfour Declaration stated; “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object...”

In 1922 the British Mandate for Palestine was unanimously approved by the Council of the League of Nations, which stated, “Whereas recognition has been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”

In May 1948, the UN announced their partition plan drastically reducing the territory originally set-out for Jewish Palestine in the Mandate. Coming on the heels of the Holocaust, the Jewish leadership accepted the UN plan. The Arabs did not. On May 14, 1948 the day Israel declared its independence and the end of the British Mandate, Arab armies from five countries invaded the brand new State.

In 1956, in 1967, in 1973, in 1981...wars were waged against the Jewish State of Israel. Each time the State survived because of its independence and because of its friendship with other democratic nations, most notably the US and in 1956 France.

Israel has unilaterally withdrawn from Palestinian and Arab territory twice. In Lebanon and in Gaza. In return, the Jewish State was rewarded with attacks and more wars. The second intifada with its homicide bombers led to the building of a separation fence and checkpoints at crossings between Israel and Palestinian territories. The bombings stopped. The death stopped.

Of course, this is not the ideal. Someone once said; consider what would happen if either the Jews or the Palestinians agreed to a total cessation of war or hostility and agreed to dismantle their armies. In the case of Israel disarming, the result would immediate and complete annihilation. The end of the Jewish State and the death of many of its citizens. In the case of the Palestinian / Arab agreement to cease violence, there would be immediate and massive investment in the future of the region and the opportunities to combine the power of oil and technology.

So when you ask whether this state can exist given the pressures it faces from so many hostile parties, I can only answer that this State must do everything it can to protect its citizens from the stated deadly intentions of too many of its neighbors. Peace is a dream that Jews (and many Arabs) pray for, yet peace will only be possible when true partners accept that the Jewish State of Israel is a reality and will always be so.

Sources for this blog include the following:

Sunday, November 14, 2010

It’s Complicated

This is the reply to nearly every question asked here that begins with, “How is,” or “Why is.” In Hebrew they say; זה מסובך (zeh misubach), it’s complicated!

“Truth and simplicity do not always overlap” wrote Daniel Gordis in his recent book, SAVING ISRAEL: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End. He used this phrase to describe the seemingly endless fencing match between peace and hostility being contested by the Israelis and the Palestinians.

On October 20, Thomas Friedman wrote a column in the New York Times titled; “Just Knock It Off; Will the Israelis and Palestinians Get Serious Already?” While Mr. Friedman’s many admirers describe his willingness to admonish his fellow Jews about Israel’s errors dealing with the conflict as evidence of his evenhandedness, articles like this recent one are troubling. Perhaps it was merely the voice of frustration pouring out from one who has yearned for peace in this land for so many years. Or, perhaps it was a bit of journalistic hubris from one who “knows better.” Either way, it’s VERY complicated, and the suggestion that everyone should “just knock it off” seems out of place for an observer as seasoned as Friedman.

As for my own complications, four weeks into ulpan (intensive Hebrew language immersion class), and I love being a student again. Of course, there is frustration, there is the painful reality of the difficulty of the task, and there is a very big time commitment. But there is more than enough genuine excitement at my progress to offset any pain. My repertoire includes upwards of 60 verbs from three “binyanim” (literally translates as “buildings” but in this case refers to categories of verbs). I can adequately conjugate between present and past tense. So linguistically, I am stuck in a live-for-the-moment by understanding the past orientation. (Not a bad perspective from which to view the world, though I am looking forward to developing even a rudimentary sense of the possibilities of the future!)

This past week in class we read a paragraph by one of Israel’s most beloved authors; Amos Oz. In the story, Oz depicts wisdom as an old man, a new immigrant to Israel. Sitting in the park, decked out in his suit and tie, he is met by a young Israeli who depicts the passion and fire of youth. “It’s boiling hot, the weather is always hard here in Israel” says the young man. The old man says he has moved here from Romania and now lives in Ashdod (a southern Israeli town near the sea). Asked how he likes life in Ashdod, the old man says, “It’s wonderful. I think Israel is like the Garden of Eden.” This statement inflames the young man, and he cannot help himself, exclaiming; “How can this be the Garden of Eden?! We have wars, internal strife, cultural dilemmas between people of different origins, problems between the religious and the secular, etc., etc.”

Unfazed, the old man sighs and says, “כן, גן–עדן עם צרות” (“you’re right, it’s the Garden of Eden (but) with troubles.”)

Each day the local Israeli papers are filled with stories about these troubles. The peace process or lack thereof; the status of Israel's relationship with the US, with Europe, and with her Arab neighbors; the scandals of this or that’s all very complicated. But maybe the most troubling and perhaps the most complicated of all is the real and growing wedge that exists between the Haredim (the Ultra-Orthodox) and everyone else.

A little historical background is useful here. In 1947, in recognition of the need to address the complex nature of the legal status of religion in the coming state, a letter was sent by the Jewish Agency - the primary Zionist institution then - to the ultra-Orthodox community. This letter became known as the “status quo agreement,” and has become the precedent upon which the preservation of the religious character of the Jewish State has been built.

The letter dealt with many issues, including; Shabbat, kashrut, education, marriage and divorce. Interestingly though, neither this letter nor the Defense Service Law of 1949 addressed the issue of exemption from military service for Yeshiva students (religious men who study Torah in traditional religious institutions). In 1948, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, agreed to postpone military service of 400 Yeshiva students. On the eve of independence, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog wrote a formal request to the first Chief of Staff, Gen. Ya’acov Dori: “The holy Yeshivas in Israel deserve special treatment because, after the destruction of the Diaspora, they are the remnant of the Torah institutions and their students are a small minority. . . Requiring them to enlist, even if partially, could undermine them, and Heaven forbid that we should do that.”

These several hundred deferments have swelled to more than 50,000 today, representing over 14% of the country’s 18-year old men eligible for the military that evade service by studying in Ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. Given current population size and birth rates, that number is expected to rise to 25% within 10 years. Unchanged, within 30 years more than 50% of the army-eligible population will avoid entering the military this way. In a country in which military service is a defining cultural marker, this separation has created a dangerous social chasm.

The wedge goes beyond military service though. Approximately two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox men do not participate in the workforce, compared to one-third of non-Haredi men. It is estimated that underemployment of Haredi men costs the Israeli economy NIS 5-15 billion ($1-4 billion) per year. Further, the hottest political topic in Israel today is that the Israeli Government funds the studies of some 90,000 adult yeshiva students, for as long as they continue to study; the vast majority of whom do not work at all.

In addition, since the late 1970s (beginning with Prime Minister Menachem Begin), the Israeli government has provided a child allowance subsidy to all citizens that increases with each subsequent child. For two children a family receives NIS 360 per month, for four children the monthly subsidy is NIS 1090, and for six children the stipend reaches NIS 1822 per month. Given high birth rates among Haredi families, this policy adds to the tension.

Now layer on top of these socio-economic factors the emotionally and politically charged dialogue surrounding what are euphemistically referred to as issues of personal status; conversions, marriage and divorce. Let me start with a real and unfortunately typical story. Two weeks ago Michal, a daughter of our friends Emily and Jack, was married. Michal grew up in the Masorti movement in Israel. She and her new spouse Aryeh decided to enter the chuppah using a Masorti rabbi. She enjoyed a wonderful wedding, a beautiful Shabbat and weekend with family and friends celebrating the simcha of this happy, young Jewish couple. Yet in the eyes of the State of Israel, they are not married! If she had been married by a Masorti rabbi outside Israel, there would be no problem, they would be considered legally married. But here in Israel, unless one is married under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi’s office, they are not considered married. Thus to become legally married according to the State, these young couples must leave Israel and get married בחוץ לארץ (b’chutz l’aretz) outside the land of Israel!

And then there are the conversions. This past spring and summer we witnessed the reopening of the “Who is a Jew” wound due to the so-called “Rotem Bill.” The response by Diaspora Jews was dramatic; more than 60,000 emails were sent from US Jews to Prime Minister Netanyahu imploring him not to make a bad situation worse by codifying the power of personal status into the hands of the Chief Rabbi (which by the way is a creation / remnant of the Ottoman Empire, not a Jewish structure). In part because of this pressure, the bill was temporarily set aside. But the Chief Rabbi’s office remains undeterred. This summer the Chief Rabbi’s office decided to call into question the conversions of several thousand IDF soldiers that the Chief Rabbi had previously approved. These converts, mostly consisting of Russian immigrants, went through the strict halakhic process of conversion while serving the country in the military. Now these conversions are being threatened with reversal by the same Chief Rabbi that approved them!

Unfortunately this very complicated problem that began with the founding of the State has worsened. Israel’s Declaration of Independence, written May, 1948 says; “The State of Israel ... will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion ... it will guarantee freedom of religion and conscience.”

Sixty-two years later this expression of religious freedom is but a dream. To fix the problem? No doubt, it’s complicated. The political system here has created a State-sanctioned religion (ultra-Orthodoxy) that by most estimates represents approximately 15% of Israelis. But, due to the vagaries of its political system this group has taken advantage of its State granted license and accepts far more of the country’s resources than their fair share.

Consider what to do at the store when a cashier hands us change from a $20 bill when we only gave a $10. Our sages are clear on this; to retain the extra change knowingly is theft. Unfortunately the cashier in Israel is the State, and the customer is accepting $100s of millions of extra change not $10 worth. To fix this inequity is very complicated, and perhaps will be painful for many. But to avoid fixing it because of the extreme challenge is even worse.

Sources for this post include:

An article from Daphne Bark-Erez - visiting professor at Columbia University Law School:

Hiddush - For Religious Freedom and Equality:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Our Name is Israel

Great teachers challenge our perceptions. As the Chagim (the holidays) have closed, and after two months here in Israel, I found myself reflecting on a class I took almost 20 years ago. “The question is not who is a Jew?” said Rabbi Herb Friedman in his booming bass voice with characteristic intensity, “the question is What is a Jew?” Herb was an impassioned teacher and Jewish leader. He was the inspiration for, and the founding President of, the Wexner Heritage Foundation - a two-year program of rigorous Jewish learning for community leaders that has had a major impact on Jewish communal life in the Diaspora and in Israel.

What is a Jew? I remember wondering as I sat in that class. Who asks such a thing. It’s obvious isn’t it?! But it is not obvious. Like most things important; it is complex, it is subtle and it is a question with which we must wrestle.

As Rabbi Friedman fielded the Wexner students’ responses, his goal and the answer became clearer. One said, being Jewish means practicing Judaism, it is participation in a religious community. Another said, being a Jew means belonging to a cultural community, a people that has contributed the Torah and the ethical precepts that have been taught by our rabbis over the millennia. Still another said, it means being permanently connected to the land of Israel as a kind of biblical inheritance. “You’re all right,” he said with emphasis, “to be Jewish is to be part of a sacred religious community, to be Jewish is to live by, and share with the world, the ethical code bequeathed to us, and to be Jewish means to settle this particular land; Israel. To be Jewish is all of these things.”

Living in Israel for the Jewish Holidays, the feeling of “being Jewish” in all three respects could not be more powerful. No matter where we are, Kol Nidre is an evening of intensity. The sea of people. The dominance of the color white in our clothes; kippot, tallitot (prayer shawls), dresses, and kittels (white robes). The seriousness of the prayers. Here in Israel everything felt magnified.

Then we left shul and began our walk home. The real power of Yom Kippur for me this year happened outside shul, after the services were over. We had been advised that no one drives on Yom Kippur, not even the most secular person, but we could not have prepared for the experience of walking home that evening. On Kol Nidre, all of Israel celebrates together. And I mean all of Israel.

Walking home we took the long way; through the adjacent town of Kfar Saba and then through Ra’anana. People poured out of their homes, out of their apartments and into the city streets, into the town squares and parks. Kids riding their bicycles and tricycles, teens walking and laughing together as if they had just completed the last day of school, adults smiling, talking, and greeting one another as if at a giant family reunion. There was a buzz of unrestrained joy in the air, coupled with an absolute sense of quiet and peace. I know it sounds like an odd juxtaposition, but it was real.

Road 4, one of the main north-south highways in the center of the country, was a perfect setting for a stroll, a bike ride, or an impromptu soccer game. Yet the absence of automation produced a natural quiet. Israel’s democracy was on full display that evening. Each individual was welcoming the New Year with the sense of hope, renewal and opportunity that each year offers, in a way most meaningful to them.

Then came Sukkot; always my favorite holiday. The physical and the spiritual seem perfectly blended on Sukkot. We build little huts in our yards, decorate them brightly, invite our friends and family over to share meals, and at times even sleep in them. This precarious little structure, physically reminding us of the uncertain nature of our lives, imploring us to look for meaning inside the sukkah; to our friends, to our family, and to God.

Sukkot started differently this year. We went to the Ra’anana Sukkot Street Market (shuk) to buy the necessary items for the holiday; the four minim (species) made up of palm, myrtle, willow, and etrog (a cousin of the lemon). The town square was alive with lulav and etrog salesmen, each offering us stories of why their table of goods was the best. Josh, Amy and I went with our neighbors and new friends the Maimon family. Josh and his buddy JoJo each received 100 shekels (about $25). Their mission was made clear to them; purchase your 4 species for less than 100 shekel and you can use the remainder to buy candies and goodies, also on sale in the square. It was a memorable evening, and Josh was proud to have completed his goal with plenty of cotton candy to spare! For Amy and me it was a wonderful first taste of Sukkot in the Jewish State.

And looking back now, Sukkot was my favorite Holiday again, fulfilling that emotional and spiritual need at the close of Yom Kippur. We were joined by both new and longtime friends in our sukkah. We were welcomed as guests by others. And, by the end of the week, we felt that the community we have entered is but a continuation of the one we have always been in.

The closing of Sukkot comes with Simchat Torah (literally; Rejoicing of the Torah). As Jews, we complete the annual cycle of reading the Torah in celebration, just as we begin the New Year with a renewed sense of purpose and hope that we can improve upon ourselves. We will read the same stories in the Torah again in the coming year, and we celebrate; hoping that we will glean just a little more in the coming year both from the Torah and from our lives. So as we danced with Torahs in one shul near our house, we went outside and danced in the street, meeting the community from another shul dancing in the streets.

The Holidays in Israel are a remarkable time. Life’s rhythms are altered, offering us space to engage ourselves and each other on a more spiritual plane, giving us a chance to remeasure and re-gauge. Looking back, I think we timed coming to Israel perfectly, arriving here just before the beginning, giving us a chance to engage in our own remeasuring and re-gauging.

In a little over a month we will read Parashat Va-Yishlach, during which we will read about Jacob wrestling with an angel and because he does so his name is changed to Israel, “for (he has) striven with beings divine and human, and has prevailed.” (Gen. 32:29) As I remember Rabbi Friedman’s class, now I understand even better his question, “What is a Jew?” Yes it is the religion, yes it is the culture and values, and yes it is the geography, but even more so, it is the engagement in all of it that makes us Jews. We wrestle with it all and because of that our name is Israel.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Where Else?

I had an “aha” experience last week. I think I finally get it. Having just spent Rosh Hashanah in Israel for the first time, I can better appreciate the Christmas experience most Americans enjoy. For me Christmas has always seemed a time of pretty lights, nice music, and commercial scenes of Clydesdale horses pulling sleighs filled with laughing people on a sparkling winter day along a rural picket-fence lined road. People greeting each other during this season with the warmth and niceness typically reserved exclusively for Disney World; with “Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas” completing each conversation. But I was never really a part of it. I never felt like I was in the club.

In Israel I am a charter member. Walking down the street a young man is hurrying someplace, as he passes he looks at me and smiles saying “shanah tovah” wishing me a “good year” as he races on. In the shopping mall the security guard at the supermarket, typically a pretty surly sort of guy, greets each incoming and outgoing customer with a steady stream; “shanah tovah,” and “chag sameach (happy holiday).” At the Druze village in the north we stop for lunch at the hummus restaurant, “shanah tovah u’metukah” (a good and sweet year) says the owner and his wife as our meal is delivered. Every conversation, every advertisement, every interaction is laced with the sentiment of the possibility and opportunity that new years bring.

My dad turns 80 in a couple of weeks. He likes to tell a story about me as a kid growing up in suburban Chicago. The way he tells it, he and I were taking a walk around our neighborhood on an unusually warm December day when I was 4 or 5. As we walked past houses decked out in Christmas splendor, I am said to have remarked; “we’re Hanukah people, aren’t we daddy?” In Israel, Hanukkah people are everywhere, and during the High Holiday season there is a sense of connectedness that I have never felt before.

For the past 15 years at Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, the High Holidays found us in the choir, on the bimah, in the pews, walking through the neighborhoods on breaks, sharing dinners and break-fasts with friends. We’re not only members of a shul, we are part of a community. We know most people and most people know us and it feels comfortable and nice and like home.

So when people asked me “aren’t you excited to be spending the Holidays in Israel this year” my reply was simple, “I am thrilled about the prospect of spending a year in Israel, but I think I will miss being at home at Agudath for the Holidays.” So after Rosh Hashanah I can say I was right and I was wrong.

I was right because it is true, I do miss being at Agudath. I miss knowing everyone, and sharing the experience with people I have known for a long time. I miss my Rabbi’s sermons, my Cantor’s melodies, the familiarity of our space, and my seat in the choir.

But I was wrong, I am part of a community. Four Rosh Hashanah meals, eight invitations to people’s homes for our family. Attending services in an intimate setting where for the first time in my life, I understood the power of the shofar. I had always experienced the shofar from afar, and from a sort of anachronistic perspective. The ancient Jews blew the shofar from mountain to mountain to alert those in the neighboring towns of the coming holiday. I know it sounds a little hokey, but this year, the shofar sounds felt like they were aimed at me, calling me personally to heed the messages of renewal and selflessness that are thematic of the High Holidays.

As we prepare for Kol Nidre tonight I am filled with awe of the opportunity and blessing our family has been given to experience living in Israel. As we meet people who are here from America, the UK, South Africa, most of whom came on a six-month or one-year adventure five to fifteen years ago, I ask them all the same question; “why did you decide to come here?” The answers are all so similar and all so powerful:

“We have had a Jewish homeland for only the past 62 years after more than 2000 years without one. Given those odds where else would I be.”

I am grateful to be here in Israel this year, experiencing the adventure and possibility that is the Jewish homeland. I wish everyone who reads this a Shanah Tovah U’Metukah (May We Each Have a Good and Sweet New Year), and G’mar Chatimah Tovah (May We Each be Inscribed for Blessing in the Book of Life).