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)

Rain and the Government


“May he come down like rain upon the mown grass, as showers that water the earth!” – Psalm 72:6

Psalm 72 is a Psalm attributed to Solomon. It begins, “Give the king Thy judgments, O God, and Thy righteousness unto the king’s son” and it continues with a list of things one hopes from a new government. I found it today when a brief sprinkle of rain sent me to the concordance looking for Bible verses having to do with rain.

Concordances are fun. We use them to find out how many times and where a particular word appears in the Bible. This is of greater utility if it is a Hebrew concordance, of course, since an English concordance only tells us about the English words that appear in a particular English translation. Still, the results can take us into parts of the text we failed to notice before.

In this verse “he” refers to the young prince, the future ruler of the kingdom. Yesterday we received the news that PM Netanyahu has been able to form a government for Israel. (Israel is a parliamentary democracy; for more about how it works, check out this article in the Virtual Jewish Library.)

Truth be told, were I Israeli I probably wouldn’t have voted for any of the people in the new government, but I wish them wisdom, virtue, and good common sense. May their government “come down like rain” upon the pressing issues facing the State of Israel, bringing vitality to the land and all its inhabitants.

5 Good Books on Israel and Zionism

Last night I had an hour and a half to cover “Zionism and the Modern State of Israel” with the Introduction to the Jewish Experience class. As I told them at the beginning, there’s no way that that is enough time to even scratch the surface of such a complex and important topic. What I hoped they would take away was a single sentence, “It’s complicated.”  I promised them a list for further reading, with my hope that they would avail themselves of at least one book on that list:

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Ari Shavit. When I heard voices both on the right and on the left complaining that Shavit’s book was too far to the left and too far to the right, I suspected it might be a really good book. What makes it so good is that it is personal, teasing out individual stories that illuminate the complexities of the land and its people. It does not claim to be a scholarly work.  Rather, it is a way to get to the emotions and human beings that too often get lost in talk about sides. Shavit is a journalist with HaAretz, the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times.

Israel is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and its History. By Rich Cohen. This is an informal history of Israel written by another journalist, this time, an American Jew who loves Israel. He makes a strong effort to be even-handed and mostly succeeds.

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert. This is a more scholarly work on Israeli history, written from a secular Jewish point of view.

A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time by Howard M. Sachar. This is one of the histories of Israel you might read if you were taking a college class on the subject. Not for light reading, but very thorough. 

The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict, 7th Edition by Walter Laqueur. As one reviewer wrote, this book will either seem like the most wonderful resource you’ve ever seen on the subject, or it will cure your insomnia. The editor has made an effort to collect all the documents you might ever need to see about the Israeli-Arab conflict. These are the raw documents.

Is there a book you particularly recommend on the subject of the history of Zionism, the Jewish State, Palestine, etc? Please add to this list in the comments!

A Matter of Great Urgency

(photo credit Associated Press)
(photo credit Associated Press)

There are many different things I want to write about tonight, but there’s an urgent matter I want to discuss with you.

Yesterday I re-posted Rabbi John Rosove’s article about voting in the World Zionist Congress Elections. He does an excellent job of explaining what it is about. I want to explain to you why this is important to me, and why I hope you will vote.

Jews everywhere in the world have a stake in Israel, not least because it is where Jews go when they can’t stay where they are. That was true in 1492, when Jews moved to the land of Israel after we were expelled from Spain. That was true when violent anti-Semitism wracked Russia and Eastern Europe, and the first modern settlers went to Israel. In the 20th century, when the Holy Land was ruled under the British Mandate, the British closed the area to Jewish immigration because “too many” Jews wanted to move there, fleeing Hitler.  The feeling grew among Jews that we needed a state of our own, under our own control, where we would not be persecuted or exterminated. That’s what the idea for an independent State of Israel is about.

(If you are thinking we could have gone to the UK, or to the USA, or to Canada, or to X, Y, or Z, know that all of those places had tiny quotas in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Check out the film Shanghai Ghetto to learn about the one place in the world where there were no quotas, and why it was a fluke.)

The State of Israel, as it exists today, is not a perfect place. (If any of you live in a perfect nation, please tell me about it in the comments!) Diaspora Jews do not get a vote in Knesset elections (nor should we!) However, we can influence how things go in Israel through the World Zionist Congress election, because this election influences how the funds controlled by the WZO are spent. When you register to vote, first you have to pay a small fee. That’s because these elections are self-funded – we pay the fee to make the election happen, so that WZO funds go only to WZO projects, not to the election itself. Then you are taken to the site for the election and you will be shown a slate of parties. Each of those parties has a platform – you can read them if you like. (And yes, Israelis get to vote for their own seats in the Congress.)

I voted for the ARZAUS slate because they stand for, and will fund, projects that I want Israel to have. They are “for” a democratic, pluralistic Israel. That means an Israel that respects all its citizens: Jewish, Arab, Druze, Bedouin and Christian. That means an Israel that recognizes and funds all expressions of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, and secular. It means an Israel with equal rights for women. It means an Israel that respects the rights of its LGBT citizens. These things are important to me.

Keep in mind that not voting is also a vote. Not voting gives more weight to the other slates, which means that if you are eligible and you don’t vote, you are one less vote for the Israel you would like to see, whatever that might be. In my case, that means if I didn’t vote, it would be more funding for the programs and policies that think I should ride in the back of the bus, and many other things I don’t want.

Voting is open now through April 30. To learn more, read Rabbi Rosove’s excellent piece, or go to the ReformJews4Israel site to read about it. (Note: Going to the website is not voting. You can go to the website just to learn. Nothing will happen if you just go and read. From there, you will follow a link to vote, and even then, you will vote for whomever you choose.)

If you care about Israel – even if there are things you don’t approve of right now – this is the appropriate way to voice your opinion, if you are a Jew. This is your right, as a Jew.

Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh – All Israel is responsible one for another. Be responsible. Vote.