How Can We Talk About Israel?

A reader asked, “How do you talk to non-Jews about an Israel that’s less than perfect?”

I live in the capital-L Liberal San Francisco Bay Area, just a few miles south of the University of California, Berkeley. I get the question on a regular basis: “How can you support Israel, and call yourself a decent person?”

In many ways I’m a typical resident of the “East Bay” – my politics are liberal. I didn’t start out that way, but various life experiences have made me into a definite social democrat.

I’m also a fervent Zionist, by which I mean that I believe there needs to be a place on the planet where Jews are in charge of our own fate. I think that because there’s a massive pile of evidence that when other people have power over us, especially if there is an established religion, they’ll treat us very badly. In the 20th century, nearly all the Jews of Europe were wiped out, and there are still people saying that that would have been a good thing.

So, the questioners ask, how do I resolve supporting Israel and being a decent person? Like a rabbi, I answer the question with a question: “Are you an American?” Usually the answer is yes, so I ask another question: “Do you approve of everything about America?” That brings a sputtering “No!” And then I can say, “Me, either,” which gives us some common ground.

I do not carry an Israeli passport, but I support Israel. Do I approve of everything about Israel? Heck no, any more than I approve of everything about America. Some things I disapprove of are common to both places!

I’m not going to give out a laundry list of things I would change about Israel any more than I would give a Russian newspaper a rundown of what I would change about America. However, I’ve got my list, and when I’m in a situation to act effectively upon it, I act. Right at the moment, there are so many people hating on Israel – saying that it has no right to exist whatsoever – that I prefer not to provide my words as ammunition for that chorus.

What bothers me most  is the attitude that Israel has no right to exist. I want to say, pray tell, where should the millions of Jews who live there go, if they are not to live in Israel? They were born there. It is their home. A few have been there since long before Zionism: that group was called The Old Yishuv. They’d been in Israel for a long, long time.

Note that I’m not talking about some kind of Biblical deed to the land. I base my understanding on the fact that the majority of Israelis today are the children of Jews who settled in the one place where they were allowed to go, in a place that as a group they had regarded as “home” for millennia. Others came by choice, most of them (admittedly not all) during periods when that choice was legal. Then, in 1948, the United Nations set an arbitrary line down what had been the British Mandate of Palestine and said, Jews on one side, Arabs on the other. The Jews promptly declared a state on their side of the land, and the next day armies from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq invaded, intent on killing the Jews. Too few people cared about the Palestinian inhabitants of the land and that was tragic.  I admit that they were badly treated – by ALL parties.

I would like to see peace with justice for all, which means that no side will get everything they want. Especially it means that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will suddenly disappear from the face of the earth, or fall into the sea, or otherwise just get out of the way. I don’t want an apartheid State of Israel, and I don’t want a Palestinian State that will bomb Israel forever with impunity.

What I want is for both sides to figure out a way to coexist. And maybe that isn’t possible, but I am unwilling to give up on it yet. I know for a fact that there are Israelis who want it, and Palestinians who want it, too.

What I know for certain is that there is no simple solution, and that anyone who uses the word “simple” in relationship to this problem is sadly misinformed or deluded.

In the meantime, I have millions of Jewish cousins in Israel. To me, that’s one thing being a Jew means:  that all the Jews in the world are my cousins.  I am going to worry about them, and be loyal to them, because we have this kinship. If I am upset with them, I’ll tell them privately, but I won’t hand the haters weapons to throw at them.

This may be more of an answer than my reader really wanted. It might be that all you need to do is ask the person you’re talking with, do they love everything about the country of which they are a citizen?  I guarantee you that there’s something they don’t like. Part of loving something – or someONE, for that matter – is knowing that they aren’t perfect. Either that, or you don’t know them well enough yet.

I would just caution you against trying to find agreement by listing all the things you don’t like about Israel. It will not persuade them. If they are antisemites, it will be ammunition. If, on the other hand, they are troubled by some of the choices Israel’s governments have made, a reminder that all governments fall short of the ideal may help them understand.

Media and the Middle East

Where do you get your news about the Middle East?

It’s an important question. Most of the media reporting on Israel and the Middle East have a definite anti-Israel slant. Even very respectable news organizations have been sloppy or downright biased in their reporting.

For instance, a week ago the New York Times printed an article that cast considerable doubt that the Temple had ever stood on the Temple Mount. It noted that this is a “politically loaded question.” Then it proceeded to present the information in a politically slanted way. For a look at the problems with the original article, I recommend The New York Times Goes Truther on the Temple Mount in Tablet Magazine.

Last year the Atlantic printed an article by AP reporter Matti Friedman, What the Media Gets Wrong about Israel. In it he talks about the reasons for the reporting, and why “the pipeline of information from Israel is not just rusty and leaking, but intentionally plugged.” In another example, he notes that “the construction of 100 apartments in a Jewish settlement is always news; the smuggling of 100 rockets into Gaza by Hamas is, with rare exceptions, not news at all.”

So where do I get my news about Israel? Here are some (free) outlets that I follow:

The Times of Israel – A Jerusalem-based English language online newspaper. The founding editor is UK-born Israeli journalist David Horowitz.

The Mideast Reporter – Here’s how they describe themselves: “an independent nonprofit news organization with an ambitious purpose: to improve the standards of journalism on the Israeli-Palestinian and other Middle East conflicts, and a variety of related topics. Among them are Iran; the financing of global terrorism; Islamic extremism; and the boycott-Israel movement. We will accomplish our mission by producing groundbreaking investigative journalism on significant subjects that do not receive adequate attention, and by critiquing articles and broadcast segments that fail to meet professional standards.

The Jerusalem Post – The venerable JPost is a bit more political than the Times of Israel or the Mideast Reporter.  It has a distinct right-wing bent. However, for quick information about what’s happening, particularly in a crisis, it offers solid and local information.

Al Jazeera America – Just from the name and the logo, it’s clear that this is not an Israeli organization. My reason for choosing them as my non-Israeli source for news is that I know and trust John Michael Seigenthaler, their American news anchor. Al Jazeera America (as distinct from Al Jazeera) does its reporting with journalistic ethics.  I care about hearing both sides of every story – I just insist that the telling come from a place of journalism, not jingoism.

I also subscribe to, but it is behind a paywall. If you are serious about following Israeli news, you should consider a subscription.

Where do you get your news about the Middle East? How do you decide whom to trust?

CCAR Statement on the Situation in Israel

This is an official statement from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) on the situation in Israel.

The CCAR is the professional association of Reform rabbis in North America.

CCAR Deplores Terrorism, Denounces Abbas

Wednesday, October 7, 2015
The Central Conference of American Rabbis grieves the deaths of Naama and Eitam Henkin, brutally murdered in the sight of their four children; and of Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Banita, savagely stabbed to death in Jerusalem. All four were victims of Palestinian terrorists, with the Henkins’ murderers identified by Israel as members of Hamas and with Islamic Jihad claiming responsibility for its terrorist’s work in Jerusalem.

Terrorism will not bring the Palestinian people closer to the realization of their legitimate national aspirations.

Making matters worse, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has renounced existing agreements with Israel, leaving even West Bank security arrangements in question. In an Orwellian turn, Abbas then denounced Israeli security forces for killing the Islamic Jihad terrorist, even though he was killed by the force necessary to stop his rampage.

While responsibility for these deaths lies in the hands of terrorists, we are also appalled by some of the response coming from Israel’s Jewish community. We condemn right wing extremists who are inciting a violent response against Palestinians, terrorists and otherwise. Also, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a plan to accelerate demolitions of terrorists’ families’ homes and to increase extra-judicial detentions of terrorism suspects. These plans are cause for concern. As a democracy and civilized society, respectful of the rule of law, Israel must vigorously protect its citizens from terrorism while ensuring due process and civil rights for all who live under its rule.

Now is the time for terrorism to end. Now is the time for responsible Palestinian leadership. Now is the time for a strong, responsible Israeli response to terror, one that respects human rights and due process. Now is the time for renewed negotiations, leading to a two-state solution, with a Palestinian State and Israel living side by side at peace.

As rabbis, we continue to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem;” and we refuse to abandon hope, even at this dark hour.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger           Rabbi Steven A. Fox
President                            Chief Executive

Central Conference of American Rabbis

Lo Tirtzach: Do not murder.

Yesterday in synagogue we read the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-17.) Among them were the unequivocal words:

Lo Tirtzach.

Do not murder.

And yet twice in the hours before Shabbat, we learned about heinous acts by Israelis: one murder, and six attempted murders.

Worst was the murder of Ali Dawabsha, an 18 month old child who was burned to death in an arson attack on her home in the village of Duma in the West Bank. The house was tagged in Hebrew with the words “Revenge” and “Long live the messiah” and four people were seen fleeing towards the settlement of Ma’aleh Efraim. Ali’s family are in hospital now, grievously wounded in the fire set by a Molotov cocktail thrown through their window. They were asleep in their own home. Their baby has been burnt to death, murdered horribly.

The other murderous act was only better because it was unsuccessful. (Not any more, see update below.) Yishai Schlissel managed to stab six marchers in the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade before he was overpowered by onlookers and police. This was the second time Mr. Schlissel has attempted to murder participants in the parade. He was released from prison for his first attack only a month ago.

In both cases, the murderers used Jewish religious language to justify their behavior.

There is nothing that justifies this behavior; it is chillul Hashem, a desecration of the name of God. It is of course a violation of the commandment, “Do not murder.” Anyone who makes excuses for this behavior, for burning little children to death, for stabbing citizens in the street, participates in the chillul Hashem.

I have no words for the depth of my disgust at these actions.

It is not enough for the Israeli government to wring its hands and say that this is bad behavior. While its labeling of the attack in Duma as terrorism is accurate and laudable, too often the perpetrators of “price tagging” attacks and other attacks on Palestinians are left unsolved and the perpetrators go free. Too many will shrug and say, well, Schlissel is ultra-Orthodox, what can we do, beyond jailing him?

Israeli law enforcement needs to treat these terrorist attacks with the same rigor they treat terrorism by Palestinians or anyone else. Nothing less will do. “Price tagging” should always get more than a wink, even when no one is hurt. Security at that parade was too lax, if a known threat like Schlissel was able to penetrate it. Israeli security is famous, some would say infamous, but Jews need to begin demanding that it defend equally all lives, not just some.

Crime is crime, terror is terror, whoever is responsible.

What can an American Jew do in the face of such things? Ask tough questions about where your dollars go before you give them! Be clear with any Israel organizations you support that you are gravely concerned about lawless behavior by zealots. Support organizations that defend democratic ideals in Israel, for instance, the Israel Religious Action Center or Rabbis for Human Rights.

Update: Sunday morning, one of the stabbing victims died of her wounds. 16 year old Shira Banki died at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. I am speechless, heartbroken. Baruch Dayan emet.

May the day come, and soon, when a news stories like these are completely unknown.

Geopolitics and “New PhD Disease”

My father-in-law, a very wise man, often used to say with some amusement, “So-and-so is suffering from ‘New PhD disease.'”  New PhD disease had one major symptom: the person suffering from it had the delusion that because he had become a bona fide expert in one field, he had magically become an expert in every field. A New PhD in mechanical engineering might lecture at length on a question of theology. His cousin, the New PhD in Physics, might consider herself an expert on finance. And of course, their friend the New PhD in History knows everything there is to know about child development!

(Jim holds a doctorate in metallurgical engineering and had a long career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since his PhD is no longer new, he claims expertise only on matters of metallurgy, fishing, and the vagaries of new PhD’s.)

I’ve been watching the debates about the Iran treaty, thinking that there certainly are a lot of New PhD’s in the world lately.

I am not going to tell you what to think about that treaty. I have some private opinions, but they are not of a quality that provides merit to my opinions. There are some subjects on which I feel I can say more than a bit: I have both academic and practical experience with economics and finance, and I know a thing or two about Jewish ethics, Biblical and rabbinic literature. What I know about geopolitics, nuclear weapons, and treaty compliance verification wouldn’t get me out of a wet paper bag.

The same is true for a lot of the people holding forth about this treaty. Even the people who might count as experts were spouting opinions long before they had a copy of the document in hand to read, which worries me. Personally, I like to check out the data before I offer an educated opinion on anything.

Here’s what I’m doing about this treaty: I’m praying. I’m praying that all those who vote on it will remember that the stakes are very high, far too high for this to be about personal likes or dislikes, or any petty consideration. I’m praying that however it comes out, the result in the long run will be peace. If there is some way to bring Iran back into the fold of respectable nations, to step back from bankrolling terrorism, that would be very good.

Mostly, I’m praying that whatever is decided, it does not lead to an escalation of woe in the region, because all the regular people there (Iranian, Iraqi, Israeli, Syrian, etc.) are suffering too much already. Sim shalom, Hashem – bring peace, God, and let it begin soon.

And please, God, help the New PhD’s stick to their dissertation topics!

For the Mothers and the Fathers, the Sisters and the Brothers

It’s Memorial Day here in the USA, and I am cranky.

This is the day we remember our brothers and sisters who died in the wars. And I honor every one of them. I am grateful that of those I have loved who have served our country, all came home in one piece – well, in more or less one piece. As my better half, Linda, said this morning, no one who sees combat is ever really the same again.

She should know. She served in the Navy during Vietnam as a drug and alcohol counselor. She was a sailor on a landlocked base (how surreal is that?) trying to help those who returned stateside with a problem.

Our son joined the Navy on his 21st birthday. I was on the other side of the world, in Jerusalem, and called to wish him a happy birthday. He was all excited about his news, and I kept my voice as calm as I could. This was during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and the writing was pretty much on the wall. The idea of my baby in a war, in a stupid, stupid war, was almost more than I could bear. As things worked out, he didn’t go to war, but as far as I knew that day, he was headed straight into it. I was proud of him and I was terrified.

All soldiers in every war are somebody’s baby. They might be big and strong and capable with weapons, but they are each beloved of someone. My heart today, Memorial Day, aches for the mamas and the fathers and the sisters and the brothers. I ache for the girlfriends and the boyfriends and the family pets. I ache for everyone who remembers someone they loved who will never grow older.

And I am angry – deeply angry – at anyone who dares to sell those precious lives  cheaply. Saying “I support the troops” is nothing; it’s lip service. Sending other people’s children into war when yours aren’t going is about as low a thing as anyone ever did. And yes, I know, great men have done it: Abraham Lincoln tried to keep his son out of the Civil War, to name just one. That doesn’t make it right.

I don’t want to hear about how “they are all volunteers, so it’s OK.” Aaron was, yes, but the vast majority of young men and women who go into the military in this country do so because it’s their best option, because college has been priced out of their means. The only way I will accept that our Congress and the Executive Branch can send our young people to war will be if all their kids have to go, too.

That was part of my experience in Israel: when I was completely shaken by Aaron’s news, Israeli parents would put an arm around me and hug me. They told me to be proud, that I had raised a good man. And I knew those weren’t cheap words, because they had served, and their children would serve. And I was consoled, not because some idiot in a suit “supported the troops” but because those men and women understood.

Today, Linda and I remembered those who died. It’s not a weekend for barbecues and celebration at our house; it’s quiet. It’s the day I count my blessings, because all my loved ones are home. It’s the day I think of all those who miss someone who will never come home again.

It’s the day I pray that Isaiah’s vision will someday come true:

[God] shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. – Isaiah 2:4

Yom Yerushalayim

L’Shana haba’a birushalayim!
Next year in Jerusalem!

We had been saying those words for 1,897 years, ever since the Romans smashed our Temple and banished us from the Holy City. In all that time, other people controlled our holiest shrine, other people told us when and how we could pray there or even walk there. Other people desecrated our cemeteries there and built latrines out of our ancestors’ gravestones. And then, in 1967, after a war we didn’t start and didn’t want, suddenly we had access, we were in charge, we had control. It was a miracle.

Stop for a moment and consider that: for 1,897 years, we were denied free access to our holiest shrine. Imagine Catholics shut out of Rome. Imagine Muslims told that they could not visit Mecca. Unthinkable!

I am a liberal Jew who prays for and works for a two-state solution. I donate regularly to Rabbis for Human Rights. But I am also a trust-but-verify Jew who has seen that when Jerusalem was an “international city” Jews had no access to our holy places. I prayed and studied in a rabbinical school building that had slit windows, for when it was built, it looked out upon the Jordanian army, there to keep Jews away from places they longed to visit.

So I hope that you will forgive me if I say that I do not want Jerusalem to be an “international city” with someone else in charge. It may have to be a divided city, divided in complex ways. But in truth it has been a divided city ever since 1948.

May Jerusalem soon come to be again the city of peace, a city where justice pours down like a mighty stream, where all can come and worship as they wish, and none hinder or harm them when they do.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, 
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy! – Psalm 137:5-6

 (Image of the Western Wall licensed under by Marek69 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons)