Lawrence Plus Three in Arabia

Anderson.LawrenceCurrently I’m reading Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson. The title is a little misleading; this book is not just a book about T.E. Lawrence, although his is the most completely fleshed out story. The book also deals with three other Europeans who shape the story of the Middle East in the early 20th century. By drawing back to focus on more than just the romantic figure of Lawrence, Anderson offers us a better understanding of the history and its consequences.

Anderson’s four figures:

T.E. Lawrence needs no introduction (surely) – Lawrence of Arabia? Peter O’Toole on a camel? He was a British archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat in the Middle East during WWI.

Aaron Aaronsohn was a Jewish agronomist and Zionist. He was born in Romania but moved at age 6 with his family to Ottoman Palestine. His father was one of the founders of Zichron Ya’acov, now a thriving city in Northern Israel. He would have been among the Founders of the State of Israel had he not been killed in an air crash over the English Channel in 1919.

William Yale was an American civil engineer and executive with the Standard Oil Company of New York, which sent him to Istanbul and then Cairo to explore for oil. In 1917, he was appointed special agent in Cairo for the U.S. Department of State, and the next year he was given a commission as Captain in the U.S. Army and was assigned as an advisor to British General Allenby in Palestine.

Curt Prüfer was a German diplomat from 1907 until 1945. He served primarily in the Middle East although he finished his career in WWII in Brazil. He was one of the architects of German policy towards the British in the Middle East, and thoroughgoing antisemite.


This history is mostly about the Great Powers of Europe, not the Turks or the Arabs or the Palestinians. I might argue for a different subtitle: How the European Powers Laid Waste to the Middle East with Some Help from Standard Oil.

I confess to reading about Aaronsohn with some special interest: only he, among the four, regarded the Middle East as his home. I was also curious because, frankly, I’d never heard of the guy and he’s important both as a Zionist and as an agronomist. He was one of the people who “made the desert bloom;” without his work, Israel today would look very different.

Another thing that interests me about this book is its account of the Armenian genocide. I had heard of it, of course, but now I can see how it happened. I now understand its connection to the Nazi Final Solution: Germans like Prüfer were watching very closely to the Turkish policies and to the inattention of the world.

I’m only about half way through the book, and I already feel that I understand more about the modern Middle East. If you have read it, or in future read it, I hope you’ll leave your impressions in the comments here.

Why Bernie Avishai winces at the term “radical Islam”

Image: Bernard Avishai, Photo by Neodbg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I hope that my readers will consider what Mr. Avishai has to say. The phrase “radical Islam” is useless. It plays into the fantasies of terrorists by elevating their status, when in fact they are merely murderers and thugs who find holy texts useful for justifying evil. Thank you, Rabbi John Rosove, for your thoughtful post which I have reposted here.

Rabbi John Rosove's Blog

I take seriously just about everything Bernard Avishai says and writes.

Bernie is an Adjunct Professor of Business at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has taught at Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Dartmouth College, and was director of the Zell Entrepreneurship Program at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. A Guggenheim Fellow, Bernie holds a doctorate in political economy from the University of Toronto. Before turning to management, he covered the Middle East as a journalist. He has written many articles and commentaries for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harvard Business Review, Harper’s Magazine and other publications. He is the author of three books on Israel, including the widely read The Tragedy of Zionism, and the 2008 The Hebrew Republic. He lives in both Jerusalem and the United States.

Bernie doesn’t shoot from the…

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Better than the Wall – Take Action!

Image: Women praying at the Kotel, early 20th century. Public Domain.

Longtime readers may remember that I was not thrilled about the plan announced last January for an egalitarian prayer space near the Kotel [Western Wall] in Jerusalem. It was hailed as a solution to the issue raised by the Women of the Wall: that because the Kotel was effectively run as a Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) synagogue, women were not allowed to pray aloud, lead prayers, wear the religious garb they would normally wear, or read from the Torah.

Now it seems that the plan is falling apart. Many key players among the haredim who are influential in the current government regard Reform and Conservative Jews as heretics.

I just learned from my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, that one of the original Women of the Wall, Shulamit Magnus, wrote an opinion piece for the Jerusalem Post. In it, she outlines an alternative plan that is much more savvy to Israeli politics, that will make a much more lasting change for the better for women in Israel, and that seems to me to be totally workable.

Dr. Magnus also shared the piece on her Facebook wall, with directions on how to advocate for this plan, if readers choose to do so. I share her Facebook post here with permission. The bolded font and the links in it are mine.

I have already followed Dr. Magnes’s suggestion and written to all those leaders. If this issue speaks to you, I encourage you to do so as well.

From Shulamit S. Magnes:

Dear Friends, Below, please see my Op Ed in today’s Jerusalem Post. In it I call on the Reform and Conservative movements to let go of this terrible deal to make the Kotel an official haredi shul and do something significant that would build the grounds for real progressive religious influence here– not flash-in-the-pan but largely meaningless symbolism, but real impact in Israeli society (I know this deal, given how it’s been peddled, has great resonance in North America but I assure you, that is not how it plays here. Other, smarter priorities, and real financial backing of them, could meet the aspirations of North American Jews AND do real good here).

Please send the Op Ed on to the heads of the movements and of Federation. This should not be a moment of perceived win (the haredim)-lose (these movements), but of real smarts about how to make a real difference going forward– one that would unite broad segments of disadvantaged and largely religiously and politically right-wing Israeli society and largely middle-class and religiously and politically progressive Jews in North America. Win-win!

This needs thousands of letters. Please send it yourself– and encourage others to do the same via your facebook pages and other media.

Please send to:

Rabbi Steven Wernick –
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld –
Rabbi Rick Jacobs –
Rabbi Deborah Waxman –

In Israel
Yizhar Hess –
Rabbi Gilad Kariv –

Jerusalem Post

An appeal from an Original Woman of the Wall



(in case the link does not work, here’s the piece):

Shulamit S. Magnus

To the Reform and Conservative Movements from An Original Woman of the Wall: An Appeal

We have just marked yom yerushalayim, the anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem in 1967. Much in this city is fraught. Among the unresolved issues is the deal for State recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism at Robinson’s Arch in exchange for changing the status of the Kotel.

Under the deal, the Kotel, the national holy site of the Jewish people, not now a synagogue, would be made officially a haredi synagogue. This is the tradeoff for making Robinson’s Arch, already a site of egalitarian prayer, a Reform and Conservative site. The haredi authorities would ban women’s group prayer at the Kotel, every aspect of which has Supreme Court recognition as legal, and which a District Court pronounced also in accord with local custom there. Women who will not move to Robinson’s Arch would be arrested. This aspect of the deal is deliberately obscured by its backers, who trumpet the deal as enlightened and progressive, without mentioning the coercive, misogynistic aspect at its core.

The empowerment of the haredi establishment in this deal is the reason that establishment agreed to it, until the fury of their street about recognition of movements they systematically demonize drew them back. The haredi establishment is now making demands for fundamental revision of the deal, which the Reform and Conservative movements say they will reject, threatening to take the matter to the Supreme Court, where they will demand accommodation at the Kotel itself. We seem poised for bitter, quite possibly violent, confrontation.

There is another way, and I ask the movements to take a step back and consider.

It is easy to understand the appeal of recognition at Robinson’s Arch. But there are tangible, powerful, facts-on-the-ground changes that the movements could set in motion if they go another way with the clout, and the money, the deal they negotiated would give them.

Take the money, take the political payoff the State “owes” you for being unwilling to implement the deal against haredi demands, and invest it in schools that teach your version of Torah. This has none of the blaze of glory that accompanied your announcement of the deal a few months ago. But the long-term payoff will be far greater and will move you far closer to what you really want here: real impact on Israeli society. Take that money and invest it in schools—not in the comfortable middle class locations in which you currently have them, serving your current constituents, but in “the periphery,” among the have-nots of Israel, who have never heard of your movements or have only negative associations with them. Build schools—in Yeruham, Dimona, Sderot, Afula. Give hard-pressed Israelis a robust alternative to 40-student classrooms in schools that do not offer afternoon clubs, enrichment which wealthy schools, or well-established parents give their children and which afford parents full work days and children inestimable advantages that play out generationally. Intervene in this dynamic, is which privilege begets privilege and disadvantage, likewise, is passed on, perpetuating the social divide that plagues Israeli society and feeds right-wing politics and religion. In fifteen years you will begin to see cohorts who repay you and all of society with better education, broader horizons, and deeply embedded commitment to pluralism and respect for others. Not a symbolic site, but real social change. And votes.

Get your constituents in North America charged up about partnering with Israelis to open minds and hearts from the “bottom” up and changing Israeli society for the better, based on shared values and language. They can have egalitarian events right now at Robinson’s.

Let this deal, any version of it, pass away. It was a mistake. This is a Ben Gurion moment, no less than the one in which that Prime Minister shrugged off the consequences of granting haredi exemption from national service. Empowering the fundamentalist haredi establishment; supporting banishment of the one non-haredi custom—women’s group tefilla– which has been established at the Kotel– is the last thing you should be doing. Duking it out in the Kotel plaza between vastly more retrograde custom at the Kotel and progressive practice at Robinson’s, for which proponents of the deal have thrown down the gauntlet, is puerile. Defer gratification. Think Yavneh—go for deep cultural change, and the time and hard work to bring that about. Send your young people and rabbis on hachshara to these schools. Forge deep ties; build broad, societal loyalty to your movements. Forego the show.

I recall in this connection the remark which the previous Lubavitcher rebbe made in the 1920s, while on a visit to the US from Europe. Taking in the US Jewish scene, he noted, “They will build Temples, and they will be empty. We will build schools, and they will be full.”

Take a page from Habad, Shas: invest in school systems.

Go to the Supreme Court, by all means. But as a veteran of time in the latter, where a case to enforce Jewish women’s already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel languishes while the State wins delay after delay, any notion that you will get swift justice there is sadly mistaken. In the meantime, sow real change.

Having just celebrated Shavuot, commemorating the bringing of First Fruits to the Temple and the giving of Torah, please think about those fruits your labors can ripen, and about the transformative power of Torah. Invest in those.


Torah Schedule Mysteries Revealed!

Some of you have noticed that there is disagreement at the moment about which is the proper Torah reading for the week right now. The calendar from the Jewish funeral home says one thing, the weekly email from a Reform synagogue says another! Let me try and unravel this for you.

The Torah is divided into 54 parshiot [weekly readings.] The Mamre Institute website has an excellent table listing all the regular weekly Torah readings, along with their haftarah readings and the special holiday Torah readings. (Their website is also my go-to Hebrew Bible online. The translation is a bit archaic in some ways, but you can set it up so that both the Hebrew and English are visible at the same time.)


Every year, we read the Torah once through, beginning and ending on Simchat Torah. On leap years, like this year, we adjust the calendar by adding an additional month of Adar – four more weeks! In those years, every Torah portion gets a Shabbat all to itself.

On “regular” years, when there is only one month of Adar, some of the portions are doubled onto a single Shabbat. In those years, you get combined portions, like Veyakhel-Pekudei, Tazria-Metzora, or Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.

Add to that that sometimes a holiday falls on Shabbat, crowding the Torah portion onto another week. Again, when that happens, we normally double things up with another portion.

All of this is generally transparent to most Jews, because we just look at the calendar and it tells us what to do. “Read Parashat Behar this week!” or “Read the Torah portion for Shabbat during Passover this week!”

Yes, that’s complicated. But that’s not all. Jews have historically followed a practice in which chagim (holidays mandating no work) are observed for one day inside the Land of Israel and for two days outside the Land of Israel, in the Diaspora. The reason for this was communication technology: when holidays were set by moon observations from the Temple Mount, and word of them was communicated by signal fires, Diaspora communities had to estimate the day of the holiday and then adjust when they finally received the word. To safeguard against mistakes, they took to observing all the chagim for TWO days (for instance, the first and last days of Passover are a single day inside Israel, but are doubled in the Diaspora.)  Holidays that aren’t work-is-forbidden days (Chanukah, the middle days of Sukkot, etc.) were never doubled.

Many Reform congregations in the United States follow the Israeli calendar, because Hillel II came up with a calendar in the 4th century that made worries about communication obsolete. Reform Jews observe one day of each chag, just as Israeli Jews do. Rather, I should say some Reform Jews do – some Reform synagogues observe only one day of chagim but follow the Diaspora calendar of Torah readings.

This year (5776) (aka 2015-2016) we have a leap year, so no combined parashiot. However, in the Diaspora calendar, the second day of the end of Passover fell on Shabbat, so that had a Passover reading instead of Acharei Mot, which Israeli and some Reform Jews were reading. The two schedules will not come back together until the Diaspora calendar doubles a Torah portion on August 6, Matot-Masei. Then the discrepancy will end.

I wish I could have made this simpler for you. The real rule, as with so many other things, is to follow the minhag [custom] of your community. If your rabbi is following a particular schedule of Torah readings, that’s the right one for your synagogue.

In my weekly listings, I’m following the Diaspora schedule of readings, even though I’m a Reform rabbi who doesn’t celebrate double chagim. Or, if you prefer, because I decided to do it that way!

SIMPLE SUMMARY: The schedule for reading Torah portions is the subject of disagreement at the moment. Consult your rabbi for what to read this week. Whatever’s going on, it will resolve itself after August 6, 2016. Welcome to Judaism!


Now It’s My Fault Too

This is such a wonderful post that I would like to share it so my students and readers can read it, too.

Fendel Family in Israel

It’s Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s independence day!  Flags are flying, music is playing.  It’s not the first time I’ve celebrated this holiday, but it’s the first time I’ve been able to do so as an Israeli.

Many people have expressed surprise that we decided to become Israeli citizens as part of this one-year adventure.  There were many practical reasons for doing so, which I won’t get into with this post.  I’d rather talk about what it means to me to be an Israeli.


Whenever I encounter one of these surprised individuals, my stock response is to show them my new Israeli ID card while saying,

“.עכשיו זה גם אשמתי

“Now it’s my fault too.”

It usually gets the laugh I’m looking for, because Israelis are perpetually unsatisfied with this incredibly miraculous project that has been undertaken here to rebuild an ancient country in a modern world.  Israel, they feel…

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Yom Ha-WHAT?

Image: The signing of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948. Public Domain.

This week we celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.

First, here’s how to say it: yohm hah-ahtz-mah-OOT. 

Yes, it’s a mouthful. If you repeat it ten times, you’ll have it.

We celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut on the fifth of Iyar (ee-YAHR), so it’s another Jewish holiday that appears to move around on the Gregorian calendar. It falls sometime in April or May every year.

It marks the day in May 1948 when the Jewish leadership, led by David Ben-Gurion signed the Israeli Declaration of Independence, eight hours before the end of the British Mandate of Palestine. Four hours after the signing, Egypt bombed Tel Aviv and Israel’s War of Independence began. Within hours the armies of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq invaded.

The text of the Declaration of Independence is available on the website of the State of Israel. Every Jew should read it.

  • In 2016, Yom Ha’atzmaut begins at sundown on May 11.
  • In 2017, Yom Ha’atzmaut begins at sundown on May 2.
  • In 2018, Yom Ha’atzmaut begins at sundown on April 19.

Shalom, Salam: A Listening Tour of Twitter

Image: An Israeli-Palestinian peace poster. By I, Makaristos [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

I follow a lot of people on Twitter. Many of them are people whose beliefs challenge me. By following them on Twitter, I get leads on readings that sometimes will lead to a shift in my thinking. It’s a great way to learn, if you’ve got the stomach for it.

Recently I decided that I needed to review my thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so I began following people on both sides, from the far left to the far right. My Twitter feed filled up with voices like @naomi_dann and @j_t_rex on the left, members of Jewish Voice for Peace, and voices like @GushEtzion and @GolanShahar on the right. I followed Palestinian voices like that of @AliAbunimah. I tried to find individuals as well as organizations. I subscribed and I listened, and I read articles the twitterers suggested.

Unfortunately, I had to un-follow a lot of people, too. If someone indulged in name-calling or demonizing people they didn’t like, I unfollowed immediately, because on Twitter, followers are prized. I did not want to encourage bad behavior. I was interested in learning, not in filling my mind with sewage.

What did I learn? I learned that I have very little taste for either the far right or the far left on this subject, because both of them seem to have lost all compassion for one side of the dreadful situation in the region. People on the far left seem to have lost track of the fact that generations of Israelis were born in Israel and it is their home. People on the far right seem to have lost track of the fact that not every Palestinian is a terrorist, and that they have a right to live in peace. I don’t see qualifiers on either side that suggest that ordinary people on both sides are suffering in the present situation.

Torah demands that we see “the Other” with compassion. The Haggadah reminds us of this when we spill ten drops of wine at the seder in memory of the Egyptians who suffered from the plagues. The Jewish philosopher and Talmudist Emanuel Levinas built his entire philosophy around his experiences during the Holocaust, and he writes again and again that there is an ethical imperative to choose compassion in our treatment of the Other.

Just as God is called compassionate and gracious, so you too must be compassionate and gracious. – Sifre Deuteronomy 49

Some attempt to justify hatred of Palestinians by citing the case of Amalek. Amalek was an ancient tribe who attacked the weakest of the Hebrews as they traveled through the wilderness at Riphidim, and God decreed their destruction by Israel. (Num. 24:20; Exod. 17:8-16; Deut. 25:17-19) However, they reappeared in the Books of Judges and of 1 Samuel. The Book of Chronicles says that the last of them were destroyed by the tribe of Simeon during the reign of King Hezekiah. (1 Chr. 4:42, 43)

Still, there are clues in the name of Haman the Aggagite in the Book of Esther that he was a descendant of Amalek, and the legend has persisted that every time there is a great enemy of the Jews, it is a reappearance of Amalek. So in modern Israel even 13 years ago, I saw bumper stickers suggesting that Palestinians are Amalek. Some of the people I followed on Twitter made the same claim, and cited the commandment to “blot out Amalek” (Deut. 25:19) as a justification for violence against Palestinians as a group.

I have absolutely no difficulty with the rule of law, holding individuals responsible for their actions by way of a legal system. However, I reject the idea that every enemy faced by the Jewish people is “Amalek” and therefore anything goes.

Both sides of the dispute over the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River are suffering. In any given incident, there may be more wrong on one side or the other, but it does not justify the demonization of either group. Nor does it justify the teaching of hatred to children, whether they are Palestinian children or the children of Israelis living in the West Bank.

After all my Twitter reading and listening, I came back to my uncomfortable seat as a moderate. I reject the anti-Zionist position as a vicious fantasy based in antisemitism. I reject the far-right position that fantasizes about a “Greater Israel” in which Palestinians would be second-class citizens and that seeks to realize that fantasy via the establishment of more settlements. I reject both positions because they are both based in an utter lack of compassion for the situation of the other side.

May the day come soon when both sides choose to sit at the table at one time to find a genuine solution to a situation which is a nightmare for both.