You might be interested in a recent podcast found on Rabbi Richard Address’s Jewish Sacred Aging website where Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin and I have a go at the Nation-State law and a few other related issues from the perspective of a couple of aging Reform rabbis. The podcast can be found if you scroll down at bit at jewishsacredaging.com.

You might also be interested in the October essay at Mosaic magazine, a thoroughgoing analysis of the Nation-State law. “Why All the Outrage Over the Nation-State Law?” by Moshe Koppel and Eugene Kontrovich takes a close look at the bill, its history and its purposes. One need not agree with their arguments, but I think anyone opposing the law has to be prepared to respond to their many well-considered points. Is it possible that the law is not a democracy-destroying, Bibi supporting, apartheid developing bill that leads Israel to the brink of autocracy? https://mail.aol.com/webmail-std/en-us/suiteShalom,
Rabbi Phil Cohen

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Dana Milbank in the WaPo

So let’s begin with the fact that Netanyahu’s not everyone’s favorite Israeli PM, that he’s done things that many liberal Israelis and liberal American Jews disapprove of. But let’s also note he’s been democratically elected and, with all the corruption swirling around him, polls consistently show he continues to have a high favorability rating. (I know that the counterargument might well be that all this indicates is an unsavory trend among Israelis, but I won’t entertain that at the moment.)

That said, in Saturday’s Washington Post, columnist Dana Milbank wrote an anti-Israel screed that begins with a YK sermon by Danny Zemel, Milbank’s rabbi. The article can be found here.


I try not to be a knee-jerk defender of the Israeli status quo, but I find pieces like utterly, and I mean utterly, devoid of proof, consisting entirely of a familiar laundry list of accusations against Netanyahu from the usual suspects, i..e, Haaretz and J Street. From this sloppy journalism Milbank attempts to draw apocalyptic conclusions regarding the Israel-Diaspora relationship. Apparently Milbank was not among the 18,000 folks at the AIPAC policy conference in March.

Here’s my response to the piece.


A close read of this article will reveal shabby reasoning, the kind I don’t expect from the WaPo in general and Mr. Milbank in particular.

His rabbi, Danny Zemel comes from Zionist royalty, adding rhetorical force to his words. Milbank then goes on to rehearse all the by-now familiar arguments, quoting Rabbi Zemel, an article from Haaretz, Israel’s far-left daily, which can always be counted on the criticize Netanyahu, and a university sociologist, again without any proof.

So, first note, none of the accusations is supported by any argument, only generalized quotes.

Second, note the accusation of alliances with unsavory governments. Hmm, isn’t the job of a government to make alliances when possible? The author fails to mention Russia and China, two other unsavory countries with which Israel has alliances. Why the ones he does mention? Doesn’t America have alliances with unsavory governments? Don’t governments ally with other governments?

And then, third, let’s drag John Hagee into the mix, a well-known evangelical, and let’s mention something stupid he’s said. But let’s not mention that he started a remarkable Israel advocacy group that works enormously hard on Israel’s behalf in Washington and around the US, regardless of who’s in charge in Jerusalem.

Fifth, let’s refer to Israel as an ultra-nationalist, apartheid state without one iota of proof.

Sixth, let’s wrap this up in the notion, again without any proof other than a rabbi’s Yom Kippur sermon, that American Jews are, as the title stipulates, watching Israel with horror.

Put it all together it spells utter nonsense.

Mr. Milbank should be ashamed, though I doubt that’s going to happen any time soon. Though he is to be congratulated on attending religious services on Yom Kippur. Good going Dana. Next YK come to my shul.

Rabbi Phil Cohen Ph.D.

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Professor Levine in the NYT

In today’s Times, a UMASS Amherst philosophy professor, Joseph Levine, an academic advisor to Jewish Voice for Peace, published an article arguing in favor of BDS.  You might wish to read the article:

Below is the response that I sent to Professor Levine. I hope you might forgive any excessive snark.

Dear Professor Levine,

Congratulations on authoring this week’s NYT anti-Israel article!!

You’re right on calling out Schumer for his Torah-based argument for Israel’s legitimacy. Happily, the Zionist project, for the most part, was anti-religious and therefore not Torah-based. (How the settlers use Torah is another story.) Mr. Schumer was either engaging in rhetoric knowing his AIPAC audience, or ignorant of Jewish history (no surprise, if so), or both. Your obligation, if you were being honest, would have been to make the point in your article that I just did. But instead, you, a philosopher, a man of reason, chose to hit below the belt because you could. (You’re a philosopher, not a historian, I know, so appeals to history are out of your ken.)

You, too, however, seem ignorant of Jewish history, it would appear. The Jewish presence in Palestine throughout the ages was constant, and the Arab presence, until the Jews began settling the land and produced employment opportunities, was fairly shallow (though always outnumbering the Jews). So the image of a mass of citizens being overwhelmed by rampant colonizers isn’t exactly in accord with reality. Your enthusiasm in making a (problematic) Rawlsian argument (and the likely ignorance of Rawls on the part of the editor you worked with) overshadowed your need to check out history.

You probably didn’t have space enough (though this did seem to be a longer than average op-ed) to point out the various attempts to accommodate the Jews or the Arabs. (No fewer than five serious peace offers over a span of nearly sixty years.)

Nor did you bother to point out the historical and sociological complexities of the Israeli Arab situation. But you might have pointed out that, in theory at least–as it is a firm principle of Israeli democracy, that Arabs in Israel possess equal rights.

Any limitations on that fact are to be protested and adjusted. Some of this is happening even under the Netanyahu administration. Meanwhile, it would certainly have been worthwhile to point out the rising standard of living of Israeli Arabs and the constancy of polling among them that shows a surprisingly high degree of satisfaction with their lives in Israel. But the fish you have to fry are too big for subtlety.

Meanwhile, I’ve recently been informed of a new BDS movement seeking to delegitimize a different government due to real genocide and radical displacement. A worldwide effort to force this country to disband due to its illegitimate founding is gaining traction, especially in Europe and Massachusetts. However, the United States of America is resisting this BDS movement with all its (considerable) strength, and the likelihood is that the US won’t return the country to its original owners. Obviously a fiction for a point, nonetheless, Professor, you might consider championing this far more legitimate cause. Might make it to the front pages of the NYT again.

How in Hades is it even possible to question the legitimacy of a reasonable democracy that has just passed its 70th anniversary? Do you actually believe it “reasonable” to imagine the dismantling of a thriving nation of 9 million people?

And although an argument from authority is one of the worst of the philosophical fallacies, I note that you are an academic advisor for Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that I and many of my rabbinic colleagues find utterly reprehensible in its irrational and angry views of the situation in Israel-Palestine. Your membership in this club betrays the innate unreasonableness of your thinking on these matters.

So, again,Professor, I congratulate you on your presence on the front page of the Newspaper of Record, (your mom’s kvelling, I’m sure) and wish you a happy and healthy new year.

Rabbi Phil Cohen Ph.D.

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A member of IfNotNow speaks

On Thursday, August 2, 2018, Tablet Magazine published an article by Amy Stein. Entitled “Losing Hope in Israel, Looking to Jordan,” it makes the outrageous claim (among others) that shimmers of democracy in Jordan compares favorably to Israel’s, whose government, the author argues, is in steep decline, this based on a two-day trip to Jordan She also spends time in this article defending the IfNotNow agenda.

I decided to annotate the article.

The article and my comments appear below.

ps I’ve been posting regularly lately and have received no response.  If you’re reading this and have a reaction, I’d love to hear from you



It was the second Friday night of July, my second Shabbat in Israel this summer. I had just finished services at Kol Haneshama, one of the only[1] Reform synagogues in Jerusalem. I was with a group of fellow rabbinical students, all of us studying at the Hartman Institute as part of the annual Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar (RTS), where 170 rabbis from all over the world gather for 10 days. We had taken to calling ourselves the “Young Girls Club,” three rabbinical students from different progressive schools in the United States, and myself—a half-Israeli, former Hasidic rabbi.[2]

As we walked down the street, someone with us mentioned one of her friends who was currently staffing a Birthright trip, and was having a hard time with a few participants who she said “kept on challenging her” with questions about Palestinians and the Israeli occupation. The consensus among us is that the Birthright guide’s “hard time” is clearly a result of what happened earlier that week: Eight Birthright participants walked off two different trips to meet with Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Five other Birthright participants had walked off their trip a few weeks earlier. We all agree that the credit for these walk-offs goes to IfNotNow.[3] My friend wondered out loud: “What do they want? What is their goal? This is not the way to go about it,” and so on. I’d heard these arguments dozens of times.

For the first time at Hartman I “outed” myself. I said: “Well, I am myself a part of IfNotNow.” I heard a silent gasp from a member of the group, but I continued, “I have followed this campaign since its inception. While I’m personally not as involved as I would like to be, I wholeheartedly support the Birthright: #NotJustAFreeTripcampaign.”

I went on to explain my position. Birthright simply cannot credibly claim to be an “apolitical” free trip to Israel while it shows its participants a whitewashed, sanitized version of Israel, erasing and avoiding the occupation. That is political. Our generation cannot afford to be silent.[4]

My friends were skeptical, but they listened, and nodded along as I said my piece. This is something I find more and more with rabbinical students in the United States: People who are not part of IfNotNow seem more and more open to our ideas.

That was one of many times throughout my 10 days at Hartman, and my month in Jerusalem, that IfNotNow was mentioned. Some rabbis agreed partially, some were terrified, some demonized us. But everyone agreed: The American Jewish landscape is changing.

It’s not hard to see the proof of that change from the leaders of the American Jewish establishment: Steve Wernick, the head of the Conservative Movement, compared Israel’s anti-Democratic actions to that of Saudi Arabia and Iran in a public statement about the “canyon” between Israel and the Diaspora. Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform Movement, feels so much accountability to millennials that he responded to an open letter from a 17-year-old Union for Reform Judaism member within 24 hours; and the theme for the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual conference—happening in Israel for the first time in five years—is, “We Need to Talk.”

I can talk more about all that is wrong with Birthright, with Israel’s increasingly right-wing government, the Jewish establishment approach, the occupation, and more. The amount of articles and op-eds written on that in the past few weeks and months and years are numerous. I am not one to follow the crowd, because if I was I would still be wearing a shtreimel today.

I want to share a more personal reflection.

Toward the end of my four weeks in the Middle East, I took a two-day tour of Jordan, which I call the only stable country in the Levant. I have been following Queen Rania of Jordan, and her work to advance the rights and lives of women and children, for a while. I have been reading about how a country that is an absolute monarchy—in a region where that is usually synonymous with theocracy and dictatorship—is moving toward democracy, led by an ambitious king and queen. I followed their de facto legalization of LGBQ relationships, and the rise of Jordan’s own LGBTQ publication, My.Kali.[5] There is one clear feeling that one gets from reading about and going to Jordan: The country is moving in the right direction. Far from perfect, but getting there.

On the way back from Jordan, I told my friends, the same ones from above: It feels like Jordan is moving toward more democracy, while its neighbor Israel is moving further and further away from it.[6] This time, even they agreed in dismay. Israel is on the wrong track. The effect of years of discrimination against Palestinians—51 years of military occupation—is slowly making its way inside the Green Line.

I would have loved to love Israel.

I might not be religious, but I love Judaism. I love our culture and spiritual traditions. I love our foods and languages. And I really wish that I could love the country where all of this is visible on the streets.[7]

I am angry at the Israeli government for not allowing me, and us, to love the country.[8]

I am half Israeli. My father was born in Jerusalem, my grandmother was born in Jerusalem. My family’s roots in the city go back to my great-great-great-grandmother who lived in Jerusalem and is buried on the Mount of Olives. Several of my direct ancestors going back to the 17th century—whom I can trace my lineage to in my sleep; I grew up hearing their names—lived, and are buried in the Galilee. My family’s connection to the land predates Zionism by many years.

A few people told me I shouldn’t get into Israel-Palestine-related activism, because it would hurt the work I am trying to do to advance LGBTQ rights. But I can’t be silent while Israeli democracy is dying[9] and the occupation grows ever more entrenched. [10]Not because I hate the land, but because I love it and the people that live there.[11]

There are those who claim other countries in the region are worse, who talk about how Hamas and Iran kill LGBTQ people. There are those who say the leaders in China, Russia, and North Korea are all more oppressive than Netanyahu. [12]I agree, there is injustice everywhere, and I speak out against these abuses—even as I roll my eyes at the comparison and how low it sets the bar for Israel, often referred to as the only democracy in the Middle East.[13] But I have no personal relationship to those other countries.

I call out abuse wherever I see it, but I will fight most fiercely when it is my own home.

I used to have hope in coexistence between all the people who have righteous claims to the land: Jews and Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians. Israel was never a utopia, but now I am losing hope.

And for that, I mourn. [14]


[1] “One of the only”…How many are there? And “only” seems to imply a lack of them, as if there’s a clamoring for more and, what? the state prevents them from happening? I am not fully knowledgeable of the number of liberal synagogues live in Jerusalem, but I know of “only” five, but I suspect there are several more.

[2] Okay, so the article’s not about the journey from Hasidic rabbi to one of the “Young Girls Club,” but, c’mon, don’t you think we ought to know something about who the author is?

[3] This is the heart of the article, that Birthright Israel, according to the author, does not adequately address the totality of the Situation, and this summer some thirteen Birthright participants made some appropriate noise about it. After all, we deservedly claim to be askers of questions. This might become a more interesting problem for Birthright, but thirteen out of many tens of thousands hardly seems noteworthy.

[4] So how does she know that it’s a whitewashed, sanitized trip? I suppose a problem inherent in an article with likely a severe word limit is that the author cannot explain all claims. But somehow she knows, and doesn’t share, that the standard Birthright itinerary allows no opportunity to ask the difficult questions. The implication is, of course, that the trip is largely a propaganda arm of the “establishment” Jewish community.


Very nice, and good for Jordan. Do you think what’s happening there regarding LGBTQ rights has any relationship in reality to gay rights in Israel? Was there a Gay Rights parade in Amman I didn’t hear about? What? One magazine of gay interest?

[6] Come on. Are you telling me that Jordan, with a hereditary king as benevolent as he may be, is yielding to democracy? This is a clear setup. A rising of some democratic elements in Jordan, does this make Jordan the only democracy in the Middle East. Meanwhile, where’s the decrease in Israeli democracy?

[7] Perhaps you’ve visited the Israel in an alternate universe, or perhaps you’re in the habit of making unsubstantiated claims.

[8] Does this mean someone representing the Israeli government came to you and ordered you not to love Israel?

[9] So here we go again. This latest round of criticism of Israel that asserts self-evidently and unequivocally that democracy in Israel is going downhill. But, and, again, this may be a consequence of a word limit, where is there evidence of this occurring? The fact that a democratically elected legislature passes laws one doesn’t like does not mean democracy is dying. It means that a law YOU don’t like has been passed by, ahem, a democratically elected legislature. You don’t like Bibi? Okay, then, he’s a right-wing fanatic and he does no good. But show me how. You don’t like the territories? Okay, get in line, but while you’re at it show me how Israeli democracy within the Green Line at least has been impacted, apparently in recent times quite severely.

[10] Like the occupation or not, I don’t see how it could become “more” entrenched.

[11] Hold on, now. Didn’t you just say you’re not allowed to love Israel? Which one is it?

[12] Well, yeah. Last I heard Bibi was, umm, democratically elected. Just because you don’t like the guy doesn’t mean his role in Israel compares in any way to dictators.

[13] Which as far as I know remains true, unless you’re going to count Jordan for reasons I can’t comprehend

[14] Okay, but at the risk of being repetitive, I haven’t seen why you’re in mourning. All you’ve managed are several somewhat repetitive assertions with no proof of any of them.

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What Ben Gurion Said

I imagine we’ve all heard that great line attributed to David Ben Gurion upon the surprising conclusion of the Six Day War, something to the effect that, “We have to give all of the territories back, save for Jerusalem.  Retaining them will be disastrous for Israel.”  Something like that.
The sentiment lying behind the quote has historically provided ammunition to those believing the territories have had a negative effect upon the Jewish state: If our greatest Israeli leader believed that holding on to the territories is a bad thing, that’s one more for our side.
But what if that quote is one of our great urban myths, that Ben Gurion never said anything of the sort?
According to Martin Kramer of the Shalem Center, that’s exactly the case.  Tracing the origin of the story to Arthur Hertzberg and a talk given by Ben Gurion to a group of Conservative rabbis not long after the conclusion of the war, the speech, exists in a transcript and on audio tape.  And nowhere in that speech does B-G utter that famous line.
Beyond the assertion that nowhere in that speech does Bv-G make such an assertion, Kramer shows that nowhere in subsequent policy statements does he make any claim remotely resembling what Hertzberg alleges.
What this says about Hertzberg, who was a pretty fair historian, I am not certain, but it sure don’t sound good.
This link will get you to Kramer’s piece. To my mind, by the way, although the research required to learn what Kramer discovered was not terribly complicated, nonetheless I’m impressed by the work Kramer did to learn what he learned about the famous (nonexistent) quote.
Shalom u’v’racha,
Rabbi Phil Cohen
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Gray Lady Down

In today’s NY Times there appeared an article by Omri Boehm, who’s identified a philosopher, who teaches at the New School and is a specialist in early modern philosophy. Entitled “Did Israel Just Stop Trying to Be a Democracy?”Boehm argues that the primary function of the new Nation-State law “is to build a formal foundation for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank — and for a Jewish state eventually to stretch over the whole of Palestine.”

About this, I wish to make two points, one about the law itself, the other about the New York Times and the letters that follow upon any Israel article.

In my last post, I quoted Professor Emmanuel Navon who teaches at Tel Aviv University. In an article in the JPost, he argues that the main reason for the law is to balance the dialectic between the “Jewish” aspect of Israel and the “Democratic” part. In his article he notes that in 1992, the Israeli High Court under Aharon Barak made a decision regarding the use of the term “Jewish” in adjudicating cases brought before the Court, “In case of a conflict, the word “Jewish” shall be interpreted by the court “with the highest level of abstraction.” In other words, it shall be ignored.”


I couldn’t immediately see how the phrase “with the highest level of abstraction” could mean ignoring the Jewishness side of any equation. So I wrote to Prof. Navon and this is how he answered me (knowing I would quote him):  “My point is that Barak tried to solve cases of contradiction between Jewish and democratic values by interpreting the word “Jewish” so as to make democratic values always prevail.  “The most abstract” level of interpretation is, in fact, a way of having democratic values always prevail over Jewish ones and, thefore (sic), to ignore the latter.”


This seems eminently arguable, and, indeed, is likely the divide between left and right on this matter in Israel. The framers of the law feared the diminution of the “Jewish” side of the equation in the Jewish-democracy dialectic that Israel has always faced, and the Nation-State law wrote in protections against that possibility. How the law can be used to prepare the ground for eventual annexation of the West Bank and Gaza is unclear to me. I am not persuaded by Boehm’s argument. How this law unpacks in the near and more remote future, we can only wait and see. But as I wrote in my last post, it’s difficult for me to see in the wording of the law itself all of those claims about the erosion of democracy, racism, and now final conquest emerges immediately from the actual text.

But I have another fish in the frying pan I wish to serve up.

When an article about Israel appears in the Times it is predictably followed by a swamp load of letters, all vetted. (By contrast, the Wall Street Journal does not vet letters.) And, indeed, there is at the very least a modicum of civility in these letters I presume assured by the vetters. Alas, “modicum” cannot be applied to the intelligence of so many of the authors whose letters accompany an Israel article. Terms and ideas get tossed about that indicate the writer is thoroughly ignorant of the country they are loudly complaining about. I have four examples.

One Gordon Hall wrote, “Thank you for writing this! As an American Jew I am so ashamed of what has become of the state of Israel. The victims have become the perpetrators and the world is right to shame them for it.” (100 recommendations)

Kirk writes, ”You can’t be a democracy and a theocracy. Israel used to brag about being the only democracy in the Middle East. Now that they’ve given up on that why should we keep paying their bills?” (112 recommendations)

Jason Shapiro receives 51 recommendations for his comment, “When you cut through all the verbiage and rhetoric one is left with an inescapable conclusion. Israel can do whatever it wants because it has Nukes and the full backing of the United States.”

Pilot receives 51 recommendations with his comment, “I never understood why America openly supports a “nation” that derides all other faiths and proudly discriminates against those same people within and outside its borders. Isolation through hubris and perceived superiority will simply hasten one’s humbling.”

I could comment endlessly, but I’ll restrict myself to a few sentences. Clearly, these authors know little about the status of religion in Israel. (Not a theocracy). Or international relations (that Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons somehow permits Israel to make its internal laws as it wishes. Or freedom of religion in Israel (with whatever religious issues obtain, Israel is a pluralist’s dream come true concerning religion).

It’s Mr. Gordon’s contribution, the Jew who’s ashamed of Israel for becoming powerful, that bothers me the most. Not knowing this fellow, I cannot claim to understand the deeper source of his shame regarding Israel. I am always wary of someone who in print purports to have had an Israel conversion experience. Nevertheless, that a Jew (another one, if not this Gordon fellow) can declare from these shores that he or she is ashamed of what’s become of the Jewish state these 70 plus years bespeaks an ignorance that is distressing.

Now I suppose one can sigh and say that this is the level of discourse in this country on most matters among most people. We live with tweets, talking points, inaccuracies, fake new (the real fake news), and that no one reads anymore (if they ever did). Or one can sigh and remind oneself of the numbers of folks who gathered at the AIPAC meeting in March or the recent Christians United for Israel meeting, or that polls continually show significant support for Israel among Americans, and relax knowing that a mass of cranky letters in the Gray Lady doesn’t amount to anything worth more than a blog post.

Or one can do what Jews have done from time immemorial, viz, worry. That’s what I choose to do, worry that this is all going somewhere not good. In particular, I am concerned about those who purport to represent Liberal Zionism and what they have to say about that status quo.

But that’s another post.



Rabbi Phil Cohen









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The Nation State Law and its Detractors

The Liberal Zionist/Jewish world is outraged by the passage of the Nation State law last week in the Knesset.

Rick Jacobs released a statement, immediately after its passage it seemed, as if someone at the URJ had their hand on the “send” button directly after the bill’s passage late into the evening. His statement reads in part, “This is a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy. The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic—and Jewish—nation is enormous.

“The Israeli nation is deeply divided. But, there are millions of us who are united in our opposition to this new law and fortified in our determination to continue to fight for an Israel that will be true to its own founding declaration of equality for all within its land, with the freedom to worship and to live with true hope for the future.”

J Street’s lengthy response reads in part: “A woman must not be forced to the back of a bus anywhere in a democratic Israel. An LGBT Israeli must not be excluded from any part of public life or barred from living or working where they please. A Mizrahi Jew must not be denied housing because she is “incompatible” with the ethnic identity of a village. Any Jew must be allowed to pray at all of Judaism’s holiest sites, regardless of her adherence to Orthodoxy. A Palestinian citizen must be respected and acknowledged as a minority nationality in the state, including respect for her native Arabic language. Muslims, Druze, Christians, and other religious minorities must not know exclusion and discrimination unbefitting a modern, democratic state.”

Joshua Weinberg, head of Arza, wrote in his weekly blog, “Jewish Nationalism was meant to be a beacon, a source of pride, and a foundation through which we join our tradition with modernity to create an enlightened and ideal Jewish society. It was not designed to shove our Nationalism down the throats of others, or to create a selectively democratic State.”

Saeb Erekat, long-time and well-known player among Palestinians said, “”The ‘Jewish Nation-State’ [law] officially legalizes apartheid and legally defines Israel as an apartheid system,” Erekat tweeted from the PLO Negotiation Affairs Department account. “[It is] a dangerous and racist law par excellence. It denies the Arab citizens their right to self-determination to instead be determined by the Jewish population.”

Okay, so a couple of initial observations.

From Erekat we would expect even a law regulating changing oil in falafel fryers to be viewed as contributing to apartheid, a racist law par excellence. His grave concern for his fellow Arabs living on the other side of the Green Line who now live in an Apartheid state is laudable.

Rick Jacobs’s statement suggests that this law finds Israel “deeply divided”, the Zionist enterprise itself in mortal danger. Millions, he says, millions of people oppose this law and the effort to rescind it is already underway.

The J Street comment suggests that of all of those elements mentioned is its statement, things that characterize a robust democracy, all of them, each and every one of them, are now endangered by this law. Gays, Mizrachim, women, Arabs, Christians, well, just about everybody who’s not a male Ashkenazi Jew, is about to be written out of the Israeli common weal.

Joshua Weinberg’s brief criticism would have it that very original, idealistic purpose of Jewish Nationalism (sic) is now at the precipice of collapse due to the passage of this law, which has been shoved down the throats of the population of Israel, this latter despite that the law was passed by a majority in the Knesset.

These statements all assume a powerful, innate anti-democratic, hence anti-Arab, anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-liberal Judaism, a right-wing Israeli prejudice that presages the onset of a disaster for the Jewish state has now been implemented.

However, though all of these statements’ prediction of what is to come, not one of them goes behind the inflammatory rhetoric to explain what in fact is so calamitous in this addition to Israel’s Basic Laws.

So I had a look at the law (https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Read-the-full-Jewish-Nation-State-Law-562923) to see what’s so horrifically objectionable and perilous to the very existence of the Jewish state.

The law consists of twelve rubrics, too many to parse entirely in a short blog post. Let me focus, then, on what I think may have gotten the world of Liberal Zionism up into such a grand lather.

To begin #2 of the law, that asserts specific national symbols, the flag, the Menorah, Hatikvah as being fixed in the Israeli constellation, seems reasonable. But one senses the rumblings of dissatisfaction with assuring, e.g., that Hatikvah, which speaks specifically of Jewish millennial yearnings may somehow threaten a democracy of many different peoples.

Perhaps #3, that declares the unified city of Jerusalem Israel’s capital, raises a problem. Yes, it’s possible to see how those advocating East Jerusalem as a future capital of Palestine might be upset by a law claiming Jerusalem to be undivided and Israeli. To that possibility, I acquiesce, save to point out that should the day ever arrive when reasonable Palestinians willing to enter into a full peace agreement emerge from the current morass that this would have to be negotiated. Meanwhile, I cannot see how declaring Jerusalem the undivided capital of Israel leads to anything remotely threatening to democracy.

The issue of the status of Hebrew and Arabic in #4 distresses the law’s opponents. In it, Arabic is changed from being an official Israeli language (apparently a remnant from the British Mandate era) to a language with “special status.” The prolixity of this rubric bears all the hallmarks of a law written by an overwrought committee. For this reason, I quote this entire section:

The Language of the State of Israel
a) Hebrew is the language of the state.
b) The Arabic language has a special status in the state; the regulation of the Arab language in state institutions or when facing them will be regulated by law.
c) This clause does not change the status given to the Arabic language before the basic law was created.

The second two-thirds of section (b) are incoherent. I haven’t consulted the Hebrew original where it may be clearer, but as translated, I cannot understand what it means. And section (c) appears to obviate the first part of (b). For if (b) is not changed by the status of Arabic through history (“does not change the status given to the Arabic language before the basic law was created”), then what’s the point of the “special status?”

Meanwhile, how many Israelis speak Arabic? Between Arabs and Mizrachim, quite a few, I would reckon. Consider Spanish in the US, or Catalon or Basque, or the innumerable languages spoken in China. The speakers of these languages have to be accommodated. Though the alteration of the status of Arabic might conceivably lead to policy complications, but I don’t see how. That is might be insulting to Arabs is clear. But what, practically, could happen under this new position. Can one imagine street signs no longer in Arabic, or the banning of Arabic on Israeli media, the cessation of the publication of books in Arabic? In the event, it’s impossible to see how this alteration in the status of Arabic can remotely be characterized as destructive.

For purposes here, this leaves #7, the one about settlement, which I also quote in full. “The state views Jewish settlement as a national value and will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.” Now, it’s possible to see something insidious in this, a veiled support of THE settlements, which I imagine is how the many perturbed opponents of this bill likely see it. But its ambiguity is too, well, ambiguous. Another possible reading would have it that the old Zionist dream of settling the land is now instantiated in law, and no court could deny Jews’ rights of settlement, as has in fact happened.

It’s difficult to see how the collectivity of these parts of the law lead directly to a drastic an erosion of Israeli democracy so dire that the law’s detractors can make the frenzied statements quoted above, much less Erekat’s hysterical claims. Still, I have wondered what brought this law about, why, over the course of so many years, versions of this law have been bandied about until this, by all accounts, watered-down version finally came to pass last week. What were the issues that concerned this law’s framers and supporters?

Thanks to a piece in the JPost by Emmanuel Navon (https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/The-case-for-Israels-Jewish-state-law-562869), I now have a better idea.

As much press about this law has indicated, Israel has from its beginning struggled with the following dialectic: how to be simultaneously Jewish and democratic. There is a delicate balance between the two. Navon argues that, due to judicial activism on the part of Israel’s High Court going back to the end of the 20th century, there had arisen serious concerns that various provisions of Israel’s Jewish self-understanding might be endangered. Navon writes:

“[Certain] laws and symbols related to Israel’s Jewish identity are not immune from petitions at the High Court of Justice. The “law of return”… might one day be struck down for being discriminatory; Israel’s national anthem…and flag… could be challenged in court for ignoring the feelings of the Arab minority; and taxpayers could petition the court against the spending of their money on the preservation of Jewish identity in the Diaspora. Until the passing of the basic law on Israel as a nation-state, the court had no constitutional basis to reject such petitions and to protect Israel’s Jewishness. Now it does.”

That is the nub of the issue the Knesset faced last week: Protecting the Jewishness of Israeli institutions in the face of very real situations that might be brought to the High Court. To guard against, e.g., Hatikvah being removed as Israel’s national anthem, the Knesset passed the nation-state law.

The provisions of this law are a far cry from provoking the ending Israeli democracy. There may be good reasons to dispute this law. But if so, the law must be debated on the rather subtle dialectical balance between “Jewish” and “democratic”, not according to a series of simplistic and frequently distorted talking points that are shared in common by the so-called Liberal Zionist world that apparently has failed to give the law itself even a simple read. Instead, as shown, we’ve witnessed an avalanche of superficiality, some of it hateful. Have a look at Ira Stoll’s article in a recent Algemeiner on the New York Times’s treatment of this story. https://www.algemeiner.com/2018/07/22/new-york-times-loses-it-over-israels-incendiary-nation-state-law/?utm_content=opinion1&utm_medium=daily_email&utm_campaign=email&utm_source=internal/

The Nation State law has now become the sixteenth of Israel’s Basic Laws. Whether its provisions protect Israel’s Jewish character only time will tell. The end of the Zionist dream, much less the onset of Apartheid are clearly hyperbolic. Meanwhile, it would behoove the opposition to address the law’s meaning and implications with a greater degree of thoughtfulness than we have thus far witnessed.

Posted in We Are For Israel | Leave a comment

IfNotNow – Who and What are You?

IfNotNow is an enigma. Who leads them? Who provides the funding for their orientation training sessions across North America? Their website does not provide any answers to these questions.

They claim to be idealists and I don’t question their fervor. They tell us “We are building a world in which American Jews use our unique position to fight for the liberation of all people”, but there is no reference on their website to any cause other than “end(ing) our community’s support for the occupation”.

Let me put my cards on the table. I too would like to see an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and control over the lives of Gaza’s Palestinians. However, I have a problem. Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal was reported as having stated last year: “Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project, not with the Jews because of their religion”.

Put simply, Hamas does not recognize the right of the State of Israel to exist. As Meshaal explained: “Hamas … wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine” and does not envision “any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea”.

There is not a hint of a two-state solution, or of the right of nearly nine million Israelis to an independent state of their own alongside Palestine.

Article 2 in the Palestinian National Charter states that “Palestine, with the boundaries it had during the British Mandate, is an indivisible territorial unit”.

Article 6 adds: “The Jews who had normally resided in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion will be considered Palestinians”.

Those who argue that the Charter, which was adopted in 1964, has since been amended need to recognize that Palestinian officials including Azzam al-Ahmad and Nabil Shaath have stated categorically that the Charter remains unchanged.

IfNotNow‘s assertion that its strategy is “inspired by a long legacy of social movements in this country — from the Labor Movement to the Civil Rights Movement to Occupy to Black Lives Matter” is both incorrect and misleading.

Those who support them are not latter-day Martin Luther Kings or Alicia Garzas, but people who appear not to recognize that the Israel/Palestinian conflict is not a struggle for civil rights, but rather a territorial dispute between two peoples with competing claims over the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.

The fact that IfNotNow states on its website that it “do(es) not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of statehood” is the clearest possible indication that they do not necessarily recognize Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state. With such friends….

Close to 50% of world Jewry live in Israel today. One would have expected IfNotNow to make a categorical statement in support of Jewish statehood. Their inability to do so places them in the worst possible position in terms of arguing for an end to the occupation. If we cannot rely upon them to support Israel’s very right to exist, why would we possibly listen to them?

Israeli soldiers are not manning check posts on the West Bank or lining our border with the Gaza Strip for fun. We know only too well that, if they weren’t there, Israel would be overrun by Palestinians, Iranians and Jihadists seeking to dismantle the Jewish State.

Now that may just be IfNotNow‘s endgame. If it is not, then they need to step forward with an imaginative and implementable solution as to how to bring this tragic conflict to a resolution rather than simply calling to “end American Jewish support for the occupation” (presumably they mean “for Israel”).

The best thing that those who support IfNotNow could do as an expression of their idealism would be to make Aliyah and make their contribution both to Israel and to the lively political debate within our country, but that just may be asking too much.

Posted in Boycott of Israel, Divestment, International Criticism, Pressuring Israel | Leave a comment

A Message to the IfNotNow Folk

Hi there. I understand that you distributed granola to Birthright participants at JFK airport last week and then presented them with material criticizing Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank.

The purpose of Birthright is to encourage young people to find new meaning in their Jewish identity and strengthen their connection with Jewish history and our shared culture. While they were at the airport excited about their forthcoming trip to Israel, you took advantage of the opportunity to dampen their enthusiasm and advance a political agenda.

Now it’s not that we are really that far apart. I know you also care about Israel. I too am unhappy that we have had to build walls and erect fences and security barriers to protect ourselves from Palestinians intent on murdering us. There are unfortunately too many examples to explain why we have needed to do that to defend ourselves from an implacable enemy. (The mother and twin sister of a good friend of mine were blown up by a Palestinian terrorist while out shopping at the Dizengoff Center.)

Of course, you can support the Palestinian argument that the West Bank is occupied territory and that Gaza is a prison, but remember that Hamas and Hezbollah, who propagate that message, are funded, trained and armed by Iran and are committed to the destruction of Israel. So whose side are you on?

I have a great idea. Why don’t you leave your homes and make Aliyah as many of us have done? Put your lives on the line. That way you can take part in the political process in Israel and strengthen the Left rather than dispensing the propaganda of our enemies from afar.

We in Israel badly need the support of people like you against those who believe in a Greater Israel and are not interested in a two-state solution. That way you could participate in the struggle for Palestinian rights. People like my colleague Arik Ascherman are doing important work in that field. Perhaps you’ll be prime minister one day, and then we’ll see if you are more successful than Yitzhak Rabin z”l was in making a deal with the Palestinians – and believe me, he tried.

Maybe you are too young to remember what happened back in 1967. East Jerusalem and the West Bank were under Jordanian jurisdiction and the Gaza Strip was under Egyptian control. Prior to WW1 they were both part of the Turkish Empire. There never was a Palestinian state and no one talked about occupation in those days.

As you may know, Israel did not enter the 6 Day War of its own choosing. Egypt had blockaded the Straits of Tiran thereby denying the passage of shipping to and from the port of Eilat, and five Arab nations combined forces to destroy the Jewish State. The then prime minister, Levi Eshkol, pleaded with King Hussein of Jordan to stay out of the war, but he wouldn’t listen.

Attempts by Israel immediately following the war to reach a peace agreement with our Arab neighbours were rebuffed. Maybe you haven’t heard of the Khartoum Resolution. Google that and understand what really happened.

I know history can be boring. You may say: “Don’t confuse me with facts. My mind is made up”, but that’s how we ended up controlling territory that many Israelis didn’t and still don’t want. We evicted thousands of our fellow Jews by force from their homes in the Gaza Strip back in 2005 in the hope of making some progress towards peace, but Hamas took control of the territory and fired rockets at people living in Sederot. We have tried repeatedly to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority and its leaders, but they have never been prepared to pay the ultimate price of recognizing Israel.

Have you ever thought of the fact that there are nearly two million Arabs who live in Israel as full citizens, but Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, insists that there not be a single Jew in a future Palestinian state?

Now you can, of course, choose to back their narrative of events. They even go so far as to suggest that there was never a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem! The truth is that they don’t want us in Israel and argue that we have no historical justification for being here. Do you support that view?

Maybe, instead of criticizing your fellow Jews in Israel, you could encourage your Palestinian friends to urge their leaders to return to the peace table. At the same time, you may want to ask them whether they believe that an independent Jewish state has the right to exist in the Middle East.

Israel is by no means perfect, but neither are the Palestinians. You know that. They can’t even make peace amongst themselves. It is a tragedy that we should end up controlling the lives of millions of people who are not Israeli citizens. But be careful not to swallow their propaganda line as though they were the innocent victims of Israeli aggression. It really isn’t that simple. And if we were to withdraw our forces from the West Bank, would you be here to defend us should things go wrong?


Posted in Hamas, Peace Negotiations, Pressuring Israel | 4 Comments

The Gaza Quagmire

Sitting in my comfortable home in North Carolina, I can only think about and comment on the current situation from a great remove.  I can only think about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the current altercation between Israel and Hamas.  I can only read about it and look at photos.

Thus, I can only imagine what an Israeli Jew with even the barest modicum of empathy for the nearly two million people in the Gaza Strip feels about the situation. Gaza is right there, a territory Israel knows well, having occupied it from 1967 until 2005.

Part of me wants to give in to the image of a place ruled by fanatics whose obsession with Israel permits them to divert significant amounts of aid for the purposes of building sophisticated tunnels that run under the Israel-Gaza border. Hamas receives millions of dollars from Iran, another sworn enemy of Israel.  And by the way, Iran’s willingness to support a Sunni group for the sake of injuring Israel, I think, identifies Iran’s own obsession with Israel.

Part of me sits back in wonder as Gazans destroy, twice, the Kerem Shalom crossing, delaying the delivery of food, medical equipment, and building materials and causing millions of dollars of damage. What purpose, I wonder, is served by such self-destructive activity?

Part of me sits back and wonders about the extent to which the humanitarian crisis is caused by the extremely bad blood between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which has stopped payment of Gazan civil servants, among other things.

Part of me sits back and wonders about the extent to which the humanitarian crisis has been caused by Hamas aggression toward Israel, with missiles and terrorism, that forced Israel to impose a partial blockade, which, among other things, limits the entry of Gazans into Israel to work.

Part of me wonders about a Hamas leadership that lives in luxury outside of the Strip.

Part of me wonders about clergy and perhaps even parents who incite children to attack Israel’s border welcoming the possibility of martyrdom.

But I also wonder about the disproportionate nature of the current situation.  How can Israel with its sophisticated army take so many lives, when so many of the dead are ordinary citizens, many unarmed?  Though, apparently, Hamas claims many of the dead were actually Hamas members.

Part of me wonders at the what I can only conclude is the intentional sloppiness of the press in accepting as fact Hamas reports of the dead and wounded without some other means of fact checking. How can the press be so accepting of the Hamas narrative?

Part of me wonders about Israel living with an enemy on its border sworn to its destruction.  Israel, a victim of so much terrorism, has to be vigilant to prevent any terrorism.  No sovereign nation should be expected to relax its vigilance and allow even one incident to occur. It may be that Hamas has the well-being of its own citizens at heart. From the outside, however, it looks as if Hamas’s prime raison d’etre is Israel’s destruction and the re-occupation of Jaffa, among other places, and spends its monetary and human capital in the attempt to accomplish this goal.

A part of me is astounded at the cleverness of the Hamas strategy of gathering thousands of Gazans and delivering them to several border points to create the illusion of massive civil disobedience, when in fact this is warfare in a new guise.  It’s a strategy that depends upon at least two things: 1) The continuing willingness of the international press to perpetuate the David and Goliath narrative, this time with Goliath mowing down innocent civilians as they engage in civil disobedience; and 2) The continuing willingness of the citizens of Gaza to sacrifice themselves to the cause of the unending war against Israel.

Is the Israeli reaction disproportionate? I am no military strategist, and cannot suggest an alternative, save the unacceptable one of allowing thousands of Gazans to enter Israel and wreak whatever havoc they might.

However, the goal of entering Israel was never realistic, never intended.  If any Gazan actually believed he’d succeed in breaching the border, that man is deluded beyond help.  Hamas’s goal was to do precisely what it did: create havoc, bad international press, and keep the Hamas version of reality on the minds of those who can’t see through the smokescreen.  Brilliant in its way, it depends upon Hamas’s control of Gaza, and the willingness of many to get shot, perhaps killed.

By the way, the highest estimate of attendees at this black soiree comes in at around 50,000.  If the population of the Gaza Strip numbers just under just two million, that leaves a significant number who did not avail themselves of the opportunity to picnic and then meet an Israeli bullet.

So what to do?  Sitting here in my North Carolina home, it seems to me that the situation is a royal bollocks.  Israel evacuates Gaza and it gets turned into a Hamas prison, and Israel imposes a blockade, including limits to fishing rights. Hamas fires missiles and courts war, and Gazans die. Now Hamas runs a peaceful protest that’s actually a war, and Gazans die. Hamas builds tunnels, and Gazans die.

So what’s Israel to do?

I don’t know.

Posted in Gaza | Leave a comment