Rabbi Rick Block’s Address on Freedom of the Pulpit and Israel at CCAR 2014

Speaking of Israel: Rabbis and Freedom of the Pulpit

Sermon Delivered by Rabbi Richard A. Block

President, Central Conference of American Rabbis

At the CCAR’s 125th Annual Convention

Chicago, March 31, 2014

 

One Erev Shabbat, a rabbi and temple president stood in a receiving line to greet people after the service. Passing along, a congregant said, “Rabbi, that was the worst sermon I’ve ever heard.” As the man walked away, the president said to the crestfallen rabbi, “Don’t listen to him. He just repeats what everyone else is saying.”

 

As every rabbi discovers, people don’t always appreciate our sermonic offerings and sometimes object to them, mildly or vehemently. One congregant writes me whenever I address a social justice issue, objecting to what she calls “politics from the bima,” and admonishing me to stick to “religious” matters. Another objects to the term “social justice” altogether, claiming it is a synonym for the agenda of the Democratic Party. In election years, some try to discern from my sermons which candidate I support, then express approval or disapproval according to their personal predilections. I’m sure you have similar stories.

 

“Freedom of the pulpit” is a cherished value in Reform Judaism. A 1953 CCAR resolution proclaimed, “By the demands of prophetic precedent, [Rabbis have] the right, duty and obligation to express [themselves] on all matters which [they feel] involve moral and ethical issues. [They do] not necessarily [speak for their] individual congregations, but…for Judaism and its principles…” At the same time, the resolution asserts, “Every opportunity should be given to laymen to express publicly opinions and beliefs, which may not necessarily mirror those of the Rabbi.” That year, the UAHC also affirmed both free rabbinic expression and congregants’ right to disagree and dissent.

 

The invocation of “prophetic precedent” for sermonic autonomy reflects our sense of ourselves, that as Reform Jews, we are “heirs to the prophetic tradition.” We are moved by Isaiah’s summons to “unlock the shackles of injustice…[and] let the oppressed go free…” and by Micah’s vision, that “Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.” Like Amos, we feel called to “Let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing spring.”

 

That said, though our ancient prophets continue to inspire us, we would be wise to hesitate before claiming prophetic status. As Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us, “The prophet[s words] are often slashing, even horrid – designed to shock rather than edify…Exhibiting little understanding for human weakness…the prophet disdains those for whom God’s presence is comfort and security…The prophet is strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist.” Who would want to have or be such a rabbi?

 

Not surprisingly, prophets were rarely popular. Ahab called Elijah, “troubler of Israel” and his wife, Jezebel, had prophets of Adonai slaughtered wholesale. Jeremiah complained he had “become a constant laughingstock” at whom everyone jeered. Zedekiah had him thrown into a cistern, then jailed. One tradition claims Jeremiah fled to Egypt and was stoned to death. The Targum to Isaiah reports that after the prophet, fleeing pursuers, took refuge in a tree, Manasseh had it, and him, sawn in half.

 

The “prophetic precedent,” of course, is not the only paradigm of rabbinic leadership. Our tradition calls Moses, Rabbeinu, our Rabbi and Teacher par excellence, whose foremost characteristic was very non-prophetic: humility. Why was he called “Moshe Rabbeinu,” not “Moshe Navienu?” The reason, Leonard Kravitz taught, is that a prophet’s role is to speak the truth without regard for the consequences. Rabbis must move people.

 

Since, unlike prophets, rabbis cannot afford to ignore the consequences of our words, a more modest and pragmatic approach is to acknowledge openly, as we prepare to express profound convictions, that some will disagree, as will surely be the case with this sermon, and to admit, as I do freely, that we neither possess nor claim a monopoly on truth. As the Mishnah observes, Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim. Withderekh eretz, contradictory truths, and those who proclaim them, can coexist. And the quality of our civic discourse would be much improved if we prefaced even strongly held opinions with the words, “I may be wrong, but…” The CCAR, our congregations, communities, and Movement must be safe places to share diverse viewpoints and consider competing ideas with open minds and good will, even as we recognize that there must be boundaries and, like the cohanim of our parsha, we bear the burden of deciding who remains outside the camp and who may be admitted. If we preach and teach with humility, the Talmud assures us, “Words coming from the heart enter the heart.” I pray it will be so this morning.

 

I consider that approach wise, because even without the grandiose presumption of prophetic authority, every worthy rabbi occasionally provokes heated disagreement and bitter dissension. As Israel Salanter famously observed (in the gendered language of his era), “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no man.”

 

Rav Joseph Soloveitchik went even deeper in The Lonely Man of Faith, writing, “I am lonely…[T]hank God, [I] do enjoy the love and friendship of many…And yet,…I am alone because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my most intimate friends. The words of the psalmist, ‘My father and my mother have forsaken me’ often ring in my ears.”

 

The words of these distinguished rabbis came to mind when I read Steven Cohen’s report for the JCPA entitled “Reluctant or Repressed? Aversion to Expressing Views on Israel Among American Rabbis.” Of 552 rabbis surveyed, mostly Reform and Conservative, 39% reported they sometimes or often avoid expressing their true feelings about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians for fear of offending listeners. 18% said their private views were more dovish than their public ones. 12% were “closet hawks.” One in five reported being strongly criticized for views they voiced or feared significant professional repercussions if they were to express their honest opinions. While those ordained since 2000 and the “dovish” were more likely to be afraid than rabbis ordained earlier, moderates or hawks, fear was not confined to any one demographic.

 

Should we celebrate that most rabbis feel free to express their beliefs without fear, be alarmed that a meaningful number do not, or both? Do the data illustrate the inherent hazards of the rabbinate that Soloveitchik, Salanter, and Kravitz described? Or do they suggest something more ominous? Frankly, I’m not sure. Impassioned disagreement has been a prominent feature of Jewish religion and culture from our earliest days and is, arguably, a manifestation of their dynamism. The creation of the modern State of Israel was neither the beginning nor the end of such arguments. But given the powerful emotions evoked by the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in our People’s ancient homeland after two millennia, in the wake of the Holocaust, and by the triumphs and traumas that followed, our pronouncements naturally evoke strong and divergent reactions.

 

It has long been so. In 1943, Houston’s Beth Israel announced that Zionists could not be members, spawning the creation of Emanu-El. In the 50’s, alienated by Abba Hillel Silver’s sermons on Zionism and Hebrew’s inclusion in his, now my Temple’s curriculum, some five hundred prominent members, including the son of Silver’s predecessor, Moses Gries, broke away to form a new congregation. Such schisms make today’s pushback seem mild by comparison.

 

The Pew Survey of U.S. Jews also stirred controversy last year. It found that a vast majority of American Jews of all backgrounds believe that “caring about Israel” is an essential or important part of being Jewish. At the same time, Reform Jews are much less likely than Orthodox and Conservative Jews to feel “very attached” to Israel or to have travelled there. While a clear majority of Jews believe it is possible to achieve a two-state solution, few believe the Palestinian leadership is making a sincere effort. Many, including a disproportionate percentage of Reform Jews, are also unconvinced of Israel’s sincerity and believe that settlements undermine its security.

 

Is there a causal connection between critical views of Israeli government policies and weaker attachment to Israel? For some, there may be. But the survey found that Reform Jews are also significantly less attached to holiday observance, synagogue attendance, Hebrew fluency, belief in God, and the importance of religion in their lives. Israel is just one of a broader set of concerns that we, as Reform rabbis, and as a Movement, must address.

 

And clearly, criticism and attachment are not necessarily incompatible. After 45 years of marriage, I am certain of Susie’s love for me, certainty undiminished by her well-justified assessments of my imperfections. As an American, I am profoundly aware of this country’s flaws and critical of policies and decisions of the current and prior administrations. Nonetheless, I love America whole-heartedly. I believe in its uniqueness and essential goodness. I served in its Navy and as a Special Assistant US Attorney. Lee Greenwood’s hokey patriotic song, I’m Proud to Be An American, moves me to tears. Notwithstanding this country’s shortcomings, I am profoundly attached.

 

I feel the same way about Israel, of which Susie and I are also citizens. There are aspects of Israel I find annoying, demoralizing, even horrifying. I support ARZA, IRAC, IMPJ, and the World Union, and I urge you, especially, to promote and campaign actively for the ARZA slate in the forthcoming WZO elections, because our Movement’s funding in Israel depends on it, and because there are things about Israeli law and society that absolutely must change. However, these feelings are manifestations of my bond with Israel, not impediments to it, and they are overwhelmed by the pride I feel at what is admirable, exemplary, even miraculous about the Jewish state. When I have a quarrel with Israel, it is a lover’s quarrel.

 

But while criticism and attachment can surely co-exist, there are proper and improper times, places, and ways to critique others, if we want our admonitions to be heard and to do more good than harm. The Torah commands, “Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of him.” Rashi explains: Rebuke him, but do not shame him publically. Going further, the Talmud likens those who embarrass others in public to shedders of blood.

 

Israel needs a many things, but one thing it does not need is more public criticism, which is ubiquitous. Some is legitimate, but lacks context. Much of it is exaggerated, unfair, uninformed, or plainly wrong. Increasingly, it lurches from offensive to anti-Semitic, rationalizing the shortcomings of Israel’s adversaries and ignoring the worst abuses of others, focusing exclusively and obsessively on the Jewish State. This willful blindness finds expression in such ways as a blatantly anti-Semitic study guide circulated by the Presbyterian Church, and the immoral, hypocritical, and pernicious BDS Movement, which denies the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.

 

Thus, although I am a lifelong Democrat and a political liberal in both American and Israeli terms, I cannot, in good conscience, associate with organizations on the left, even those defining themselves as pro-Israel, that welcome and provide a forum to supporters of BDS, engage in public criticism of Israel heedless of how that criticism is exploited by her adversaries, prescribe policies its government should follow, and urge the US to pressure Israel to adopt them. I am utterly repelled by organizations on the right that profess to support Israel but oppose compromises that its government is prepared to make for peace and agitate against such measures.

 

As I see it, all such entities, left and right, exhibit implicit disrespect for Israel as a democracy. They believe they understand Israel’s best interests better than Israel does, that Israel can’t be trusted to do the right thing absent outside influence, and that they know best what risks Israel should take and sacrifices it must make, even though they, themselves, will not have to face or bear them. I choose, instead, to heed the CCAR’s Centenary Platform on Reform Judaism & Zionism, which lists “political support” as the first of “our obligations to Israel.” I elect to make common cause with others who believe that Israel’s security depends on broad bipartisan political support for the US-Israel alliance, regardless which party controls Congress, the White House, and the Knesset.

 

Though essential at all times, that is all the more urgent when the leaders of Iran, the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, deny the Holocaust and quite evidently seek the capacity to threaten or perpetrate another. And when the latest round of US-sponsored, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks teeters on the brink in the face of President Abbas’ updated version of Khartoum’s three No’s: no recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; no compromise on the claimed “right of return;” no commitment that a peace agreement would end the conflict. If that failure occurs, many will reflexively blame Israel, even if Palestinian intransigence is again the cause, and the next phase of the invidious international campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state will begin in earnest.

 

I am not suggesting we pretend Israel is perfect, ignore the complex moral challenges it faces, disregard its occasional failures or excesses in the exercise of power, or encourage unquestioning approval of whatever its government does. Ardent support for Israel does not permit us to deny that Palestinians, too, have rights that deserve acknowledgment and suffer hardships no one would willingly bear. But, for example, when Israel’s security barrier is described with preposterous obscenities like “apartheid wall,” we must make sure people know the facts: that 96% of it is a fence, that there are Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Christians and Muslims on both sides of it, that it was erected as a last resort by a prime minister long opposed to doing so, after more than a thousand Israeli women, men, and children were murdered by suicide bombers in cafes, malls, buses, and Passover seders, and that Israel’s Supreme Court has ordered it moved when it caused unjustified privation. Whatever our views on the security barrier, settlements, and “the occupation,” we are morally obliged to make it clear: that Palestinian terrorism preceded them; they were not its cause; that they are not the conflict’s origins, but its manifestations; and that they will not be resolved by boycotts, denunciations, or unilateral measures, but only by a permanent peace agreement that the parties alone can achieve.

 

Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is…a time for silence and a time for speaking.” The challenge for us as rabbis, individually and collectively, is determining which time it is, and when the time comes for words, to choose them with utmost care. Thankfully, I do not fear professional repercussions or criticism for sharing my true views about Israel. Nonetheless, I exercise discretion as to which truths I speak, and to whom, where, when, and how I do so. We have precious few opportunities to address our entire congregation or community on matters of paramount concern. To me, it feels unconscionably self-indulgent to squander them criticizing Israel, even when it may be deserved. Inevitably, despite the disclaimers we offer, some who lack a strong attachment to Israel will hear only the negatives and be alienated from her. And when we address a wider public, the danger and need for care are exponentially greater.

 

Where Israel is concerned, rabbis have a primary duty: to nurture ahavat Yisrael - love for, identification with, and attachment, loyalty and commitment to the Jewish state, its imperfections notwithstanding. The highest and best use of our pulpits and voices is not to focus on Israel’s flaws, but on its virtues, to rebut distortions, oversimplifications, and falsehoods, to provide context and perspective, to inoculate those who will study on campuses rife with anti-Israel hostility and to support them once they get there. It is to acquaint people with Israel the vibrant democracy, that guarantees freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly, where relentless self-scrutiny is the national pastime, and women, Arabs, religious minorities and gay and lesbian persons enjoy rights, protections, and opportunities unknown elsewhere in the region and most other places, the Israel that has sent humanitarian aid and emergency relief missions to more than 140 countries and provided medical care to more than 700 Syrians wounded in a genocide to the world seems mainly indifferent, the Israel that rescued tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, the only time in history that white people took black people out of Africa to free them, rather than enslave them, the Israel whose arts and culture are as rich as its geography is various and its beauty is breathtaking, the Israel whose myriad innovations in science, medicine, and technology are contributing so much to humanity, the Israel that is infinitely more than the sum of its conflicts.

 

It is also the Israel of my favorite poet, Yehuda Amichai, who wrote HaMakom SheBo Anu Tzodkim: The Place Where We Are Right.

 

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

 

Cherished colleagues and friends, it is beyond the power of words to express the depth of my gratitude for the privilege of sharing my truths, doubts and loves with you, of partnering with you in the sacred endeavor of our rabbinic calling, and of listening, together with you, for the whisper of the wings of Shekhinah. In this, as in all else, now and always, I pray that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts will find favor with the Holy One of Blessing, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

[Reprinted with Permission]

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Jew-Free Palestine

Associated Press quotes an official in the Prime Minister’s office as observing that Benjamin Netanyahu believes that all Jewish settlers should have the right to remain in their homes in a future Palestinian state.

Predictably the idea has been dismissed in two quarters. Naftali Bennett of the Habayit Hayehudi party, who was previously quoted as stating that there was no place for Palestine in God’s country, has protested at the very idea, saying that it calls into question our right to live in Tel Aviv.

However, Bennett has no need to be concerned. Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat has made it perfectly clear that “no settler will be allowed to stay in the Palestinian state, not even a single one.”

It is indeed strange that Israel of whom twenty per cent of its citizens are Arabs is slurred as being “an apartheid state” but no one protests at the prospect of Palestine being Judenrein (Jew-free).

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Prime Minister Harper’s Speech to the Knesset

This past Monday, January 20, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed the Knesset in Jerusalem. His speech was a remarkable statement of support for the Jewish State.

“We refuse to single out Israel for criticism on the international stage.

“Now I understand, in the world of diplomacy, with one, solitary, Jewish state and scores of others, it is all too easy “to go along to get along” and single out Israel. But such “going along to get along,” is not a “balanced” approach, nor a sophisticated” one. It is, quite simply, weak and wrong.

“Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, we live in a world where that kind of moral relativism runs rampant. And in the garden of such moral relativism, the seeds of much more sinister notions can be easily planted.

“And so we have witnessed, in recent years, the mutation of the old disease of anti-Semitism and the emergence of a new strain. We all know about the old anti-Semitism. It was crude and ignorant, and it led to the horrors of the death camps.

“Of course, in many dark corners, it is still with us. But, in much of the western world, the old hatred has been translated into more sophisticated language for use in polite society.

People who would never say they hate and blame the Jews for their own failings or the problems of the world, instead declare their hatred of Israel and blame the only Jewish state for the problems of the Middle East.

“As once Jewish businesses were boycotted, some civil-society leaders today call for a boycott of Israel. On some campuses, intellectualized arguments against Israeli policies thinly mask the underlying realities, such as the shunning of Israeli academics and the harassment of Jewish students.

“Most disgracefully of all, some openly call Israel an apartheid state. Think about that. Think about the twisted logic and outright malice behind that: a state, based on freedom, democracy and the rule of law, that was founded so Jews can flourish as Jews, and seek shelter from the shadow of the worst racist experiment in history. That is condemned, and that condemnation is masked in the language of anti-racism. It is nothing short of sickening.

But, this is the face of the new anti-Semitism. It targets the Jewish people by targeting Israel and attempts to make the old bigotry acceptable for a new generation. Of course, criticism of Israeli government policy is not in and of itself necessarily anti-Semitic. But what else can we call criticism that selectively condemns only the Jewish state and effectively denies its right to defend itself, while systematically ignoring – or excusing – the violence and oppression all around it?

“What else can we call it when Israel is routinely targeted at the United Nations? And when Israel remains the only country to be the subject of a permanent agenda item at the regular sessions of its Human Rights Council?

“Ladies and gentlemen, any assessment – any judgment – of Israel’s actions must start with this understanding: In the sixty-five years that modern Israel has been a nation, Israelis have endured attacks and slanders beyond counting and have never known a day of true peace.

“And we understand that Israelis live with this, impossible calculus: If you act to defend yourselves, you will suffer widespread condemnation, over and over again. But, should you fail to act, you alone will suffer the consequence of your inaction, and that consequence will be final, your destruction.

“The truth, that Canada understands, is that many of the hostile forces Israel faces, are faced by all western nations. And Israel faces them for many of the same reasons we face them. You just happen to be a lot closer to them.

“Of course, no nation is perfect. But neither Israel’s existence nor its policies are responsible for the instability in the Middle East today. One must look beyond Israel’s borders to find the causes of the relentless oppression, poverty and violence in much of the region, of the heartbreaking suffering of Syrian refugees, of sectarian violence and the fears of religious minorities, especially Christians, and of the current domestic turmoil in so many states….

“For too many nations, it is still easier to scapegoat Israel than to emulate your success. It is easier to foster resentment and hatred of Israel’s democracy than it is to provide the same rights and freedoms to their own people.

“I believe that a Palestinian state will come, and one thing that will make it come is when the regimes that bankroll terrorism realise that the path to peace is accommodation, not violence….

“I believe the story of Israel is a great example to the world. It is a story, essentially, of a people whose response to suffering has been to move beyond resentment and build a most extraordinary society, a vibrant democracy, a freedom-loving country with an independent and rights-affirming judiciary, an innovative, world-leading “start-up” nation.

You have taken the collective memory of death and persecution to build an optimistic, forward-looking land one that so values life, you will sometimes release a thousand criminals and terrorists, to save one of your own. In the democratic family of nations, Israel represents values which our government takes as articles of faith, and principles to drive our national life.

“And therefore, through fire and water, Canada will stand with you….

“Thank you for having us, and may peace be upon Israel.”

Posted in Apartheid Accusation, Boycott, Boycott of Israel, Divestment, International Criticism, We Are For Israel | 3 Comments

Questions and Answers

(Some responses to questions arising from Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land”) 

Was it necessary to remove dozens of Arab villages to make room for a Jewish state? Is his account of the expulsion of Arabs from Lydda correct? Were Arabs expelled as a matter of state policy or did they leave to avoid being caught in the fighting?

There is no doubt that a number of Palestinian villages were erased when the Jewish State was created. Some of those who left did so out of fear while others were encouraged by the Arab world to do so under the understanding that they would be able to return when the Israelis had been defeated. Such things happen in wars and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is no exception. In the same context, however, we should also recall the Hebron massacre of 1929, which brought the centuries old Jewish presence in that town to an end and the Arab destruction of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Do the Palestinians want a state on the West Bank or do they want all of Israel?

In addressing the ultimate goal of the Palestinians, there is no doubt that Hamas wants the whole of Israel. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the position of the Palestinian Authority is no different. One has only to look at their school textbooks. Their stubborn insistence on the right of return for the descendants of the refugees of the 1948 war is clearly intended to upset the Jewish demographic balance of the State of Israel.

Is the view that there was no such thing as a Temple widespread among Arabs?

It is difficult to know how widespread the belief is. However, when an educated man like Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the Palestinian Authority, consistently expresses such a view, it is reasonable to assume that his opinion is shared by others

How widespread is the notion Shavit reports that some of the settlers want to “encourage” the Arabs on the West Bank to move, look forward to a Jewish monarchy and want to remove the mosques from the Temple Mount? 

Of course there are some settlers who hold such a view. However, this is the objective of a right-wing fringe, which is not shared by most Israelis irrespective of their religious or political identification.

Do you think there would be a civil war if the Israeli government tried to remove some of the settlements?

Were some isolated settlements to be removed in the framework of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, I doubt that it would lead to a civil war. We have removed settlements in the past in the name of peace both in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip and it could be done again.

What do you think of the dilemma (also expressed by David Brooks in the NY Times) that Israel faces: If Israel keeps the West Bank, it cannot be a democratic state and if it gives it up, it is in danger of a Hamas or Hezbollah takeover?

The dilemma is a real one. West Bank Palestinians living in areas controlled by Israel are not citizens of the Jewish State. That is, of course, a blot on our democracy. On the other hand, there seems little doubt that, were those areas to be relinquished, they would be taken over by Hamas in precisely the same way as happened in the Gaza Strip.

Israel finds itself between a rock and a hard place. However, we are a strong and a resilient people. Visit Israel and sense the vibrancy of its society.

What is more troubling to my mind is the success of the Palestinian propaganda machine in presenting an entirely one-sided and distorted picture. As leaders we have a duty to inform people, so that they have a better understanding of where the truth lies and of the complexity of the situation.

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Asylum Seekers in Israel

The situation of African Asylum seekers in Israel is of great concern and is generating awful press coverage for Israel. Well over 50,000 African refugees currently seek asylum in Israel, the vast majority from Eritrea with a substantial number from Sudan. Over the past few weeks they have marched in protest about their treatment and lack of recognition as asylum seekers. The African asylum seekers are among nearly half a million residents of Israel who do not have legal status in the country, a number which includes large numbers of Chinese, Filipino, and Thai agricultural and construction workers. The vast majority of these residents without status are resident in Israel because of the possibility of financial gain.

While there have been many concerns expressed over the years about foreign workers in general and their impact on Israeli society and Israel’s economy, concerns about African residents without status have become acute in recent years particularly because they seek the ability to work and asylum status, something that would require Israel to grant them long term residency rights and meet a host of other obligations. Israel’s government has been reluctant to process any claims for asylum to this point and views all of the African asylum seekers as job seekers, much like those from southeast Asia, except that it has treated them differently, singling them out for arrest and detention, actively preventing their working to support themselves, creating a detention facility for them in Holot in the Negev, currently housing nearly 2,000 people, and striving to encourage their repatriation.

The Holot facility is 50 miles from the nearest city, Be’er Sheva, and residents must check in three times a day or be arrested, meaning that they are completely isolated. From a Times of Israel article published last week:

The camp is surrounded by a double fence, topped with barbed wire and patrolled by security guards. The winters are bitter cold, and summer temperatures can soar to 40 degrees (100 degrees Fahrenheit.) Inmates sleep 10 people to a room, all sharing a single bathroom. Anybody who violates the rules gets sent to the Saharonim prison, where conditions are even harsher.

Prior to 2008, Israel would refer applications for asylum to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR. Since that time, however, Israel has retained approval of asylum status and has created a mechanism through the Interior Ministry to put it into practice. The Interior Minister, currently Gideon Sa’ar, has repeatedly put forth the view that all of the African migrants should be treated as economic refugees, job seekers, not people deserving of asylum status. Several thousand applications for asylum status have been submitted, few have been reviewed, and none have been approved. Israel’s clear policy has been to encourage emigration by limiting the African immigrants’ quality of life. Israel has even offered to pay for repatriation flights and no few have accepted the offer, some even returning to Sudan where their lives and certainly their liberty were and remain endangered.

I know of one such refugee from the Nuba Mountains of Sudan who lived in Israel but was unable to work to support his family because of governmental policy and who then accepted a repatriation flight out of hopelessness. Once back in Sudan, the father was harassed, arrested, and detained for a time. Fearing for his safety the family fled to Ethiopia where they are struggling to get by in Addis. Going home is not an option for the Sudanese refugees.

Israel finds itself caught in a difficult situation. On the one hand, Israel cannot reasonably be expected to accept 50,000 Eritrean immigrants for the long term even if they are to be considered threatened at home, but certainly not if they are to be considered primarily or solely economic refugees seeking jobs. It is certainly true that in Eritrea people face hardship, a relative lack of liberty, and even possible human rights abuses at home. That is true for residents of a huge portion of the African continent as well as Asia. It would be true of Chinese workers resident in Israel for example.

The UN could potentially help to find other places of residence for the Eritreans in the long term but Israel would have to take responsibility for them upon declaring them refugees. There is no expectation that would actually happen at all and Israel would then become responsible to grant them residency for the indefinite future. Furthermore, the entire population is very young and could see rapid population growth, so 50,000 could become over 100,000 within a matter of a few years through childbirth alone.

Eritrean refugees are overwhelmingly Christian and do face religious oppression at home. To an extent this is true for Christians throughout much of Africa, the Middle East, and certainly China. Many see Israel as a haven for Christians to escape religious oppression and the persecution of Christians in the region is something that is often overlooked by a media that too often prefers to demonize Israel.

The situation of the Sudanese immigrants in Israel is different. They are certainly seeking the ability to work in Israel, but they are refugees from genocide in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. Can Israel reasonably repatriate people who will face persecution and even genocide at home? Former Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who is no big supporter of welcoming the migrants, said in 2012 that “whoever is considered a refugee, and there are few, can stay.” Why is even that not happening?

The answer in part is that there has been concern that a welcoming attitude by Israel will encourage a flood of immigration. That fear has been significantly allayed by the sealing of the Sinai border. However, if people hear that life can be dramatically better in Israel, the number of people who will try to cross the border will increase dramatically and they will take greater risks to do so.

To an extent Israel finds itself facing a situation in which it must balance one of our highest directives, “Remember you were a stranger,” with the ultimate Toraitic directive, “Chai bahem,” as the rabbis say, “Live by them, do not die by them.” This means that while we should follow the Torah’s directives, we should not follow them if they are going to do us grave harm. So long as Israel can preserve its essential Jewish nature and not take on enough population that such a population constitutes a threat to the nature or well-being of the nation, Chai Bahem would not take precedence.

Israel should certainly do what it must do to maintain its security and strive to maintain the Jewish nature of the state, knowing that it was not as the Yom Hazikaron reading states, “handed to us on a silver platter,” but is the result of generations of blood, sweat, and tears. But it must also reflect Judaism’s sense of compassion and understanding, especially toward those fleeing genocidal regimes at home.

Last week, Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein prevented their entrance. Today, for the first time, asylum seekers entered the Knesset, having been invited by Members of Knesset from Meretz, Hadash, and Yesh Atid and spoke with the Committee on Foreign Workers. Also today hundreds of women and children marched in Tel Aviv to the office of the UNHCR in the hope of gaining recognition.

Thus far, the Israeli government has said that its policy of not recognizing the asylum status of African migrants and encouraging emigration instead will not change. It is likely that opposition protests to that policy will remain ongoing as well.

The Mishnah (Pesachim 10:5) tells us that:

In every generation, a person is obligated to see him or herself as though he or she came forth from Egypt.

Some of us take on that obligation every day and live by its meaning. It seems that many perhaps see themselves this way only during the Passover Seder and then do not see themselves as like those who quite literally came forth from Egypt into the land of promise.

Posted in We Are For Israel | 2 Comments

Ariel Sharon 1928-2014

Red_Sea_Summit_in_Aqaba Sharon Bush Abbas

PM Ariel Sharon shaking hands with Pres. Mahmoud Abbas in the presence of Pres. George Bush at the Red Sea Summit in 2003

Former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, died today. He was one of the most controversial figures in Israeli politics. There are many organizations and news outlets offering descriptions of his life. Of these, the best that I have seen so far are these and I share them in the hope that they will help in your own understanding of Ariel Sharon as well as aid you in discussing his life and legacy with others.

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The Fallacy of Linkage

In April of 2010, I published on my personal blog an article entitled, “The Linkage Theory.” Very little has changed since the article was published except that Iran is much further along the way to acquiring nuclear weapons capability and the Arab nations are even more in favor of action to prevent that from happening. I have made made a few updates to account for developments in recent years in the article which follows.

The Linkage Theory

The linkage theory contends that moving the peace process toward Palestinian goals in order to appease the Arab League would then encourage or enable Arab states to stand up against Iran and its nuclear ambitions. This theory makes no sense for many reasons. At the most basic level, it benefits the United States, Israel, and the Arab nations for Iran not to have nuclear weapons. This is something the Arab nations uniformly wish to avoid. They are not on the other side of the issue. They do not need to be convinced to oppose Iranian nuclear weapons.

Everyone for whom Israeli-Palestinian peace is of vital importance is already aligned against Iranian nuclear weapons.

The L.I.E. from 2007, excuse me the NIE or National (Lack of) Intelligence Estimate, concerning the Iranian nuclear program bolstered opponents of action against Iran. I wrote about the NIE with unfortunately too much accuracy in December of 2007. The 2012 NIE recognized failures in the 2007 NIE, but failed to recognize that slow but steady progress was being made on all fronts and that enrichment was proceeding apace. Israel strongly disagreed with both assessments, believing each to have been based on misinformation and incorrect information. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s own report from this year stated the following:

Since 2002, the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.

On October 28, 2013 an article was published in the Times of Israel that suggested that Iran’s enrichment program had reached a level that would enable Iran to obtain enough fully enriched uranium necessary to create a bomb in a matter of two weeks time, though it would take several months to a year more to create an actual bomb. That said, Israel is right be be concerned about the expansion of Iranian enrichment capability.

Professor Oli Heinonen of Harvard said that:

Once Iran produces weapons-grade uranium and already has 20% enriched uranium, 90% of the work is already done. It is incorrect to refer to 20% enriched uranium as “medium-enriched uranium,” because “the cup is not half-full or half-empty, it’s a cup 90% full, because you need to do only that tiny, small additional 10% of effort to produce highly enriched uranium.”

So relatively swift action regarding Iran’s nuclear program is essential, not just optional.

Another major problem for the Linkage Theory is that Iran is a major supplier of weaponry to Hizballah, the Assad Regime in Syria, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. One of the most basic principles of the peace process is that it must result in security for Israel. It would make far more sense first to address Iranian weapons distribution to Palestinian and anti-Israel forces and the Iranian nuclear issue which threatens to dramatically worsen the problem. Ensuring Israel’s security as the process moves forward is perhaps the top priority of the peace process.

If there is a linkage between action against the Iranian nuclear program and progress in the peace process, it is precisely the reverse of what is regularly proposed. The real linkage, if there is any at all, is that peace between Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arab nations necessitates the elimination of the Iranian nuclear threat.

The obvious fact that the broader conflicts in the Middle East have nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict further weakens linkage as well. The Sunni – Shia conflict and conflicts between Nationalists and Islamists in Muslim nations as well as conflicts among those who would create Islamic law based states dwarf the impact what happens in the sliver of land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

This is all by no means to say that Israeli-Palestinian peace is unimportant. It is certainly that for the future of Israel, the well-being of both peoples, and for the well-being of the region. Yet it is important to note that the world must address the Iranian nuclear issue first and foremost, not only because resolving that issue will help to enable Israel to move forward in negotiations with those with whom it has been at war for decades with a stronger sense of security, but because it is in America’s naked self interest to stop Iran from becoming a regional hegemon and a world wide threat to our interests in possession of nuclear weapons.

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Tune in for Rabbi Kaufman’s – Understanding the World from 2-3 pm Central every Thursday on www.12Talk2.com for the most in depth analysis of issues relating to Israel, the Middle East, and Foreign Policy as well as general Jewish issues and interfaith issues.

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The Biggest Loser in the Arab Spring? By Joel Schwartzman

A recent article in the Tower Magazine puts the lie to the claim that Israel was/is the big loser in the Arab Spring. Once Mohammed Morsi’s regime fell in Egypt, Israel’s strategic situation improved markedly in the Middle East. Hamas has been rocked back on its heels. The Egyptian army has bounded into the Sinai desert in an attempt to rid itself of Hamas fed terrorists who were well armed with sophisticated weaponry that had flowed out of post- Gaddafi Libya. In Israel’s north, Syrian power has been greatly decreased in a civil war which plods along day after blood filled day. The Iranians have poured their treasure and troops (read the New Yorker article on the Al Quds leader, Sulimane) into propping up their ally, Bashar al Assad, using currency that could have strengthened Hezbollah and made them an even greater threat to Israel. Hezbollah, in its own right, has been revealed to be the sectarian army that it is, no longer the entity which, to establish its Lebanese bona fides, swore that its sole purpose was to wipe the Jewish state off the map. It now has been unmasked as the Iranian lackey that it is, promoter of worldwide terrorism, and purveyor of death and destruction for Syrian civilians and insurgents alike. King Abdullah of Jordan is breathing easier now that its own Muslim Brotherhood has been forced back into the background.

Couple this with the statistics which show that Israel isn’t being overtaken, population wise, by its Arab population, and the strategic picture for Israel looks altogether brighter than “blue bird,” misinformed pundits had claimed it was.

Several other conclusions and questions have arisen. American policy toward Egypt is a conundrum. We seem to have sided with the Muslim Brotherhood, no friend of Israel and even less so, it appeared, to freedom, democracy and good governance. We continued our support even as Morsi was falling, alienating every segment of Egyptian society and frustrating our Israeli ally. The Army in Egypt is certainly no institution of demonstrated, democratic directions. However, who is to say that it will not move in the direction of a more stable country, allowing and eventually encouraging the rise of new political parties, ones which will be more representative of the full spectrum of the Egyptian society? If the U.S. were wise, it would be encouraging such a path rather than announcing cut backs in military aid which only serves to anger the Egyptian people.

The Tower article seemed to rejoice over Israel’s having come through the Arab Spring strategically sounder, its economy streaming along, its society intact and relatively unscathed. To some who will read this posting, this may rankle and disturb. This certainly isn’t the news that will push Israel to make dire concessions to the Palestinians. It is up to each reader to determine whether Israel either is or isn’t dedicated to making peace with their PA neighbors, although as I and others have maintained all along, Israel seems more eager than do their counterparts to bring their conflict to an end. Regardless of where one might line up along the lines of a two state solution and what might get the parties there, to see Israel as the big loser of the Arab Spring and of the “population wars” seems a flawed understanding of what is occurring in the Middle East. Would that players in our own government might also take note.

Joel

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Misunderstanding History

I wish that I could say that I was inspired by the words of Mahmoud Abbas at the UN General Assembly to believe that peace may be achieved soon. I cannot. The problem begins with a wanton disregard of history by the Palestinians and therefore a lack of understanding of the lessons taught by history. Here is an example. Abbas stated that:

The goal of peace… is embodied in redressing the historic, unprecedented injustice that has befallen the Palestinian people in Al-Nakba of 1948, and the realization of a just peace, the fruits of which can be enjoyed by the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, as well as by all the peoples of our region.

In what reality could one argue, even from the perspective of an occupied people, that what happened in 1948 to the Palestinians is an “unprecedented injustice?” In what reality is that the case? Certainly not in a reality in which for the last 2,700 plus years the very land in question has been repeatedly occupied. Certainly not in a world where nations have been overrun and destroyed time and again, populations exiled. Certainly not speaking of the Jewish people, a people whose Tikvah, whose hope, was the return to our native land. This is a historian? Unprecedented? Not even close.

Abbas went on to represent the peace process as functionally a negotiation of Israel’s surrender in the 1967 war and the Palestinian acceptance of what might have been in 1948:

The objective of the negotiations is to secure a lasting peace accord that leads immediately to the establishment of the independence of a fully sovereign State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on all of the Palestinian lands occupied in 1967, so that it may live in peace and security alongside the State of Israel, and the resolution of the plight of Palestine refugees in a just agreed upon solution, according to United Nations resolution 194, as called for by the Arab Peace Initiative.

Finally, rather than understanding that the promotion of the creation of a Palestinian state today, based upon 65 years of hostility to the existence of Israel, must include incremental steps, Abbas said:

Here, we reaffirm that we refuse to enter into a vortex of a new interim agreement that becomes eternalized, or to enter into transitional arrangements that will become a fixed rule rather than an urgent exception.

Abbas actually stated that:

What is required is to stop relying on exaggerated security pretexts and obsessions in order to consecrate occupation.

Again, in what reality does this man live? Not the one in which Israel has fought multiple wars and faces a multitude of threats from across its borders. Not one in which foreign jihadis fight in Syria and would in a moment fight in the Palestinian state. Not one in which the Holocaust was real. Of course, Abbas, as people too often ignore, does not believe that the Holocaust really happened the way that history records it and wrote his doctoral dissertation about that in fact.

Is it possible that negotiations will bear some fruit? Yes. It is just that after hearing Mahmoud Abbas clearly continuing to fight the decades old war through diplomatic means that his people has failed to win through violent ones, I just do not see it.

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September 11 America First

It is now two years since this latest European war began. From that day in September, 1939, until the present moment, there has been an ever-increasing effort to force the United States into the conflict.

That effort has been carried on by foreign interests, and by a small minority of our own people; but it has been so successful that, today, our country stands on the verge of war.

These were words spoken by Charles Lindbergh in Des Moines, Iowa on September 11, 1941 during his famous, “America First,” speech.

The same wrongheaded opinion is today being broadcast throughout the world. Americans once again have a justifiable fear of war and it is, just as it was in September of 1941, a potential war against a power spreading evil throughout its region, against our allies, and against our own forces, in this case Iran and its ally Syria.

In that same speech, Charles Lindbergh spoke of the Jewish agitators for war and his words are also all too closely connected to sentiments that we are all hearing and seeing expressed about Israel and Jewish organizations today. Lindbergh said:

No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany [ignore the threat posed to Israel (or to America) by Iran, Syria, etc...]. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastations. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not.

I think we can safely say that the sentiments expressed in this paragraph have been simply altered and applied to Syria and Iran in precisely the way that I did above by countless pundits and politicians, religious organizations, and many others over the past few weeks regarding Syria and the past years regarding Iran.

While it may well be best for us not to involve ourselves in settling the civil war in Syria, to act as if what happens there will not affect us is wrongheaded. While it may be that action taken to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons would have severe consequences, the failure to stop Iran’s progression toward nuclear weapons capability will have as bad or worse ones. Thinking “America first” and burying our heads in the sand will almost surely result someday in another December 7 or September 11 or in something worse. Those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it.

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