Michelle Alexander and the Old Gray Lady and the misuse of Dr. King

I’m long past feeling any surprise at NY Times reports and columns about Israel that find truth to be a flexible commodity. Still, on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, Times columnist Michelle Alexander gives us a pot of whoppers in her “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine” January 19, 2019.


Using MLK as a model for what she argues ought to be a newly voluble American response to the cause of the Palestinians, she speculates first on what Dr. King’s response might be to the current situation in the West Bank. However, Dr. King, assassinated on April 4, 1968, did not live even a full year after the Six Day War, and could not have had any reasoned perspective on that situation.

But her main point in raising Dr. King (other than to join him to her) is more to reflect about the great heat Dr. King took when he spoke out against the Vietnam War, which at the time took great courage in the face of the criticism he received from the media. In light of his moral courage, Alexander says, it’s time for her to break her silence “on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the crisis in Israel-Palestine.”

Let me be among those welcoming her to the fight and ask, well, where have you been the last several decades? It’s about time someone of your obvious moral and intellectual caliber stepped into the fray and helped clarify matters so to help bring a speedy resolution to this seemingly intractable conflict.

Perhaps you can help persuade Mahmoud Abbas to take negotiating seriously, and, while you’re at it, convince him it’s time to call elections, now overdue by more than a decade.

Perhaps your powers of moral persuasion can have some luck altering the vitriolic blind hatred of the leadership of Hamas so as to bring relief to the suffering population of the residents of the Gaza Strip and the endless hatred of Israel.

Perhaps you might find the ability to contain the UN General Assembly’s obsession with Israel and press that august body focus to focus on actual murderous regimes well worthy of UN censure.

But no. Ms. Alexander’s silence breaking aims to address some well-worn complaints.

For example, that “Our elected representatives, who operate in a political environment where Israel’s political lobby holds well-documented power, have consistently minimized and deflected criticism of the State of Israel…” Wow, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s rehearse that old one that says Israel controls American foreign policy.

Other examples of breaking the silence include:

Citing the highly disreputable Jewish Voice for Peace as her source, Ms. Alexander credits JVP with “aim[ing] to educate the American public about “the forced displacement of approximately 750,000 Palestinians that began with Israel’s establishment and that continues to this day.””

My Lord. Yes, let’s say whatever we want from whatever source we wish, and publish it in the Times.

The argument goes that the Palestinian refugee problem lies entirely in Israel’s hands, whose soldiers during the War of Independence expelled all of those Arabs living in the newly declared state. Right? Wrong. No responsible historian cites that figure as the number forcibly expelled. No responsible journalist cites JVP as a legitimate source. But let’s pick something from JVP’s website and publish it in an op-ed in the Times, and it becomes a claim apparently immune from fact-checking, and gives overtly anti-Israel nonsense the patina of truth.

Ms. Alexander further states, “We must not tolerate Israel’s refusal even to discuss the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.”

Without being too obtuse about this matter (for surely she refers to what she believes is a tendency to refuse to discuss the issue of the refugees’ right of return, not a total abstaining from discussion), how in the world does she know Israel fails to engage in such a conversation? I doubt she’s literate in Hebrew, so perhaps she’s employed a team of Hebrew readers to scour the Hebrew press and has learned, to a reasonable extent, there exists a broad refusal to raise this topic among thoughtful Israelis?

Or, to the contrary, and more likely, perhaps she’s repeating something someone said somewhere and, truth being a flexible commodity in the Times, she feels free to say whatever pops on her computer screen. She’s an op-ed writer for the NY Times, where a statement is true because it’s on pages of the Times.

Or, for another example, let’s flagellate Israel’s new Nation-State law yet again by citing it as an example of, supposedly, some 50 Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinians. This Nation-State Law, one of those fifty, she claims, “says explicitly that only Jewish Israelis have the right of self-determination in Israel, ignoring the rights of the Arab minority that makes up 21 percent of the population.” Ms. Alexander fails to quote that part of the Nation-State Law that proves her claim that the law explicitly denies Arabs that right. Because it’s not there.

The complexity of Israel-Palestine is abundantly clear to anyone who bothers to open a book or two and bothers to examine reality. The extent of the debate in Israel about these issues is clear to anyone who eyes the Israeli press. The so-called silence in America about these matters is actually a roaring, bellicose shout, if only one knows where to look.

But this is not the way of the Gray Lady, nor, quite obviously Michelle Alexander. America’s most respected newspaper publishes muddled hash about Israel with such regularity that readers devoted to its pages, such as myself, have long grown accustomed to one area of its coverage of the world that is lazy and ignorant and thereby willingly sacrifices a value that responsible journalism eternally stands for, namely the truth. Ms. Alexander’s column, dressed in the nobility of Dr. Martin Luther King, bent and twisted with ignorance, becomes another example of the Times’ growing armory of appalling non-sense.

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What Messy Breakup? A messy piece by a respected NY Times Journalist

By Phil Cohen

My first reaction to Jonathan Weisman’s “American Jews and Israeli Jews are Headed for a Messy Breakup,” (Jan. 4, 2019) was, if this were handed to me as a paper in an undergraduate college class it would receive, at best, a C-. Its argument is so filled with holes, inconsistencies, and at least one major error, that, well, a C- would be a gift.

American and Israeli Jews may be heading for some kind of breakup (though this seems to me way too strong a term), but this is not the article that shows the way.

The first part of Weisman’s article is taken up with differing perceptions of President Trump by Israelis and Americans. This newsflash has long faded into the dust, but Weisman feels compelled to rehearse it once again.

Israelis appreciate Trump’s moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and his abrogating the Iran agreement. Most American Jews support the Iran agreement (though hardly monolithically), and are mixed on the embassy, many wishing, as I’ve read, that the move had been accompanied by some grand peace gesture toward the Palestinians.

Note that the reverse obtained when Barak Obama was president; Israeli Jews felt uncomfortable with Obama, while American Jews supported him, certainly on the matter of the Iran agreement, as well as other actions by our last president that did not sit well with Israelis. I don’t recall hearing the sounds of funeral bells then.

It’s difficult to understand how the two Jewish communities will rise or fall on the basis of support or not for Donald Trump. He’s a temporary phenomenon, in office for a maximum of six more years. It’s difficult to see how conflicting perceptions of Trump form the harbinger of a breakup.

His next argument concerns discomfort with Netanyahu’s growing relationship with certain world leaders, such as Hungary’s Victor Orban. The reasoning goes that in Israel’s developing relationships with countries whose governments are not shining examples of democracy, we can see, somehow, a diminution of democracy in Israel, an unsavory mix that somehow will impact Israel badly, something with which American Jews disapprove, because, of course, we American Jews never have to deal directly in the messy world of international diplomacy.

By this reasoning, world leaders ought only develop relationships with governments that are pristine as a spring water, right? This foolishness is so dumb that I cringe every time I hear the argument. America, for example, should have no relations with China (Nixon should have never gone there), or Saudi Arabia, or Poland, or Cuba, or (for that matter) Hungary. Yet America has such relationships, with embassies and everything.

Israel should develop diplomatic relations with most any country wanting to have relations with Israel (maybe not North Korea), such as, lately, Oman and (possibly) Iraq. Any American Jew upset with Bibi in Hungary, he or she ought to shout to the rooftops the same discomfort with what the US does. But it’s what nations do. (Weisman fails to mention an interesting developing united relationship between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, perhaps because those two other countries are democracies.)

His next argument has to do with the upcoming Israeli elections, which, “if past is prologues, his election campaign will again challenge American Jewry’s values.” He cites Bibi’s unfortunate statement in the 2015 elections that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves…”

Now let’s agree that Bibi’s statement, which received more than ample press, constituted a healthy bit of fear-mongering. We must also agree, however, that it did not have an effect on the elections. More, the statement in question does not appear to form a continuing Netanyahu trope—some version of that statement did not form a continuing presence in the 2015 election. Once may have been enough, but one statement does not a racist or a racist government make. How an unfortunate statement in 2015 will “challenge American Jewry’s values” in this election is far from clear.

Then he makes the curious statement that BDS is growing stronger on campus, and new voices from within the Democratic party are “speaking openly about Palestinian rights.” Well, okay, perhaps (though I’m unaware of BDS growth on campus). But what do these facts have to do with American Jews and the supposed growing rift that is the focus of the article? Nothing.

Then out of nowhere and at some length, he cites the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 (!). “American Jewish leaders gathered in Pittsburgh to produce what is known at the Pittsburgh Platform, a new theology for an American Judaism, less focused on a Messianic return to the land of Israel and more on fixing a broken world, the concept of Tikkun Olam, Jews, the rabbi behind the platform urged, must achieve God’s purpose by “living and working in and with the world.””

Well, the nonsense here flies high and wide. Never mind that the term Tikkun Olam appears nowhere in the document, or that in any intelligent sense that a platform of nine planks forms a theology. He fails to mention that there were only thirteen American Jewish leaders present at this conference, and that they were all Reform rabbis. This conference intended to define Reform Judaism in America in the face of millions of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, whose Judaism would be more traditional, not create a great statement about a new Diaspora Judaism.

The author cites the Pittsburgh Platform as though it was authoritative at the time and continues resonating throughout America 133 years later, failing to mention that four other Reform platforms came after this one.

For the author, the Pittsburgh Platform lays the groundwork for a Judaism that is universalist and innately hostile to Israel as a particular Jewish state, that because of the influence of a nineteenth century document, American Jews “now accepted as a tenet of their religion: building a better, more equal, more tolerant world now, where they live.”

Then he cites a quote from Rabbi Daniel Zemel’s Kol Nidre sermon. Israeli Yaniv Sagee says, “For the first time in my life I feel a genuine threat to my life in Israel. This is not an external threat. It is an internal threat from nationalists and racists.” He goes on to say that Rabbi Zemel (who must be shepping great nachas, having that same sermon also cited by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post) “implored his congregation to act before it is too late, to save Israel from itself.”

Gottenu! This Yaniv Sagee lives in fear for his life. Where does this Sagee live? Who’s going to beat him up, or, God forbid, kill him? Is the rule of law in Israel gone so totally awry? How can American Jews save Israel from itself? As a side issue, by the way, if we are to task ourselves with saving Israel from itself, then it stands to reason that the gap between us and them can’t exist, for if it does, how in the world are we going to save them from themselves?
This article’s a rubbish can full of arguments that neither make sense in themselves, much less do they cohere as an arsenal of arguments that lead to any serious conclusion that the Eschaton has arrived, that the long goodbye is upon us.

As I said at the beginning, there are issues between American and Israeli Jews, but this piece, by a respected NY Times journalist no less, is not the case upon which the wall are going to rise.

Mr. Weisman’s article can be seen here:

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My Visit to the Bialik House, Tel Aviv

by Phil Cohen

I’m in Israel for a kind of classical tourist visit. My daughter Talia and I will truck around, visiting Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Tsfat, the Golan and Haifa. We’ve identified a couple of sites we haven’t seen before, like the newly opened Ein Keshatot, a renovated Byzantine era synagogue in the Golan, and Agamon HaHula, one of the largest bird migration sites in the world with a six mile hike.

Talia lived in Tel Aviv for the better part of a year and knows the city well. She’s been a terrific guide, due partly to the powerful memories of her time here, partly due to the infallibility of Google Maps which gets us everywhere. She has a yen to visit Ramallah, and so we will. Israelis to whom we mention this part of our trip seem bemused, but I’d visited the city a few years ago and it was interesting.

Okay, not doubt news of my travels will not rivet you to this page, but I do have a small observation based on an experience I’d like to share.
This morning we visited the Bialik House, a fairly modest museum devoted to the great Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934). Not that the house itself, which belonged to Bialik, as houses go, is modest. Quite the contrary. It’s large and beautiful and sits in a terrific neighborhood in Tel Aviv. It’s all the more impressive, considering it was the home of a poet, never among the best paying of professions.

I looking at the room that served as his study, when I overheard a conversation between an employee and a newly employed guide as to the particulars of this room. At a certain point I stuck my nose into the conversation and asked why, on the wall next to the famous painting of Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitsky (1859-1944) collaborating on their masterwork, Sefer HaAggadah, there hangs a photo of Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927). I knew that Bialik and Ahad Ha’am, who were acquainted with each other. I just wanted to know why in a room with the aforementioned painting and a photo of Bialik’s wife, Dineh-Priveh, the only other image was that of the creator of cultural Zionism.

My interlocutor, named Netta, averred that Ahad Ha’am hung there as a paean to someone who’d had an extraordinary influence on his world view. That being? That in the modern world, the Jewish people’s survival depended on the preservation of its texts and the values to be derived from them, even if religious observance was diminishing among some. (Ahad Ha’am was certainly one of those, as was Bialik.) This cultural expression of Zionism strove to create a world thick with Jewish values even as the religious basis of Judaism was eroding. With cultural continuity there would remain a common ground for conversation among the diversity of the Jewish people all over the world. (Recall that Ahad Ha’am, who died well before the Shoah, did not call for a mass immigration to Israel.)

Then Netta suggested that the task of finding and living by those shared values that people like Bialik and Ahad Ha’am initiated, continues today. I nodded as sagely as I could, but wondered at her remark.

Where does this kind of thinking take place today in America? Who among American Jews strives to fulfill that old mission laid down by those two men, as well as the likes of A.D. Gordon and Mordecai Kaplan? More, who among the Jews of America is sweating over creating an intentional effort of define and clarify a Jewish culture that has both meaning and strives to hold us all together as one people?

In America, for those who even consider the matter, it has become easier and easier to declare that the notion of Jewish peoplehood is a construct, one that has seen its day. Once upheld as an unbreakable the dogma that, despite all appearances to the contrary, all Jews are one people, the notion has sunk with the last sunset. And, the truth is, who could deny that a Satmar Hasid and a Humanistic Jew would have little if anything to say to each other, especially if the Humanistic Jew’s mother isn’t Jewish? Not that long ago, some among us would attempt to make that argument.

One of my visits in Jerusalem will be with Eliezer Schweid. Schweid is the great contemporary Jewish philosopher who devoted a great deal of his intellectual bolstering the ideas of Ahad Ha’am and A.D. Gordon. His was a great effort to build an intentional and sustainable Jewish intellectual culture that would articulate serious text-based Jewish values for the world of secular Israelis.

In contemporary Israel, as Schweid himself admits, this may a difficult ideal to achieve; all the more so in America, where, I suspect, the very notion does not rise to the level of consideration for too many. But as I sit in a coffeehouse on Rehov Dr. Borgrashov Street, where behind me a party of twelve is celebrating someone’s birthday in Hebrew, I have to think that some small measure at least of Jewishness is innate.

I recall a conversation in Israel years ago, long before the floodgates of the Former Soviet Union opened wide and Israel became the home to over a million Jews. If you recall, in the old days, when a Soviet Jew received an exist visa, it was always for Israel. When that person arrived in Vienna, he or she would then declare his or her actual destination, more often the US than Israel. Israelis weren’t happy with that state of affairs. Israelis reasoned that at least in Israel a Soviet Jew would remain a Jew simply through Israeli osmosis of land, language, shared politics and destiny.

I’ve always believed there was something to that argument, complex (like all important arguments) though it may be. The struggle to define a values-laden Jewish identity in Israel surely persists, but the substrate grants the Israeli Jewish identity a strength that the American Jewish identity, I would argue, cannot.

Be all of that as it may, at least in the Bialik House, in the work of keeping the legacy of one of Israel’s greatest poets alive, there survives the vision that struggling for Jewish unity and Jewish ideas remains alive and well.
Tomorrow, Jerusalem.

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An Error in Israel Advocacy Reasoning by Phil Cohen

I’m writing this post in response to a piece written by a Swarthmore student that appeared in yesterday’s Algemeiner regarding the arrival on the Swarthmore campus of a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine that launched a BDS campaign.

The student, Matthew Stein, identified as a CAMERA fellow, writes passionately and impressively about the errors of the SJP reasoning in favor of BDS. But in his argumentation Mr. Stein himself commits an error which leaves his argument open to a powerful rebuttal, and it’s his error I wish to focus on.

This is not because I wish to duel with an undergraduate who wrote well enough for his piece to be accepted by the Algemeiner, but because the error is characteristic of a certain fallacy among Israel advocates’ reasoning when defending the Jewish state. I am also writing this piece to elicit responses, as what I am about to discuss is, as one hears about Israel-Palestine all the time, complicated.

Mr. Stein writes, “Many speakers repeatedly slandered Israel as an “apartheid state.” This claim was made dozens of times, and its total lack of veracity becomes apparent with the most cursory attempt to investigate it. Israeli Arabs, the supposed victims of “apartheid,” have a political party called the Joint List that is the third-largest in the Knesset. They also have full and equal legal rights — the same rights as all Jews. Furthermore, an Arab judge sits on the Israeli Supreme Court, and Arabs and Jews interact with each other every day, side by side, as equals.”


Good enough as far as it goes. Anyone acquainted with of the lives of Israeli Arabs knows well how there remain serious inequities between Jews and Arabs on most societal levels, though there have been important, positive changes in the lives of Israeli Arabs in recent years. It doesn’t do much good to paint the picture as rosy as Mr. Stein does, as if full equality between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis has been achieved. Nonetheless, Israeli Arabs are Israeli citizens who do sit in the Kenesset, on the High Court, who work in the professions and study in Israeli universities, and so forth. One can envision a day when full equality will be achieved.

The real issue between Jews and Arabs lies beyond the Green Line and into the world of settlements and Palestinian towns and villages on the West Bank. There, the picture of Arabs and Israelis is muddy, and it is there that the argument of Israel as an Apartheid state might gain traction and therefore it is on those grounds that Mr. Stein’s interlocutors need to be met with a solid argument.

As I say, the picture is muddy. We all know stories of Israelis abusing Palestinians, taking land, destroying olive groves, creating difficulties at checkpoints, committing occasional acts of physical violence with impunity, and more.

Were Mr. Stein to address that situation and come away with the quite possible but nuanced conclusion that Arab and Jewish life on the West Bank does not constitute a case similar to South African Apartheid, he would do the cause of Israel advocacy a terriric service. But since he did not, since he chose instread, to focus on the lives of those Arabs who live in Israel proper he’s left himself open to a mighty rebuttal by his SJP interlocutors. Fortunately for him, such an attack is unlikely to come from an Algemeiner reader.

I conclude by sincerely congratulating Matthew Stein for his thankless labors as a CAMERA fellow on the Swarthmore campus, and wish him all the best in his future writings.

My question to the readers of this blog is: How best to respond to the Apartheid claim? Perhaps we can generate some conversation on the matter.


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The Old Double Standard Argument by Phil Cohen

You’ve probably heard that some 200 Airbnb spaces that lie west of the Green Line can no longer be part of the wildly successful international lodging company. The good folks at Arbnb Central have excluded the West Bank.

This doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea. The action is a political statement that gives both sides another reason to become self-righteous. Apparently, Airbnb faced intense lobbying that forced the company to make this decision. The good folks at Airbnb capitulated to pressures from the BDS folks or some other types and now no one requiring lodging beyond the Green Line can avail themselves of and Airbnb space. Anyway, what’s 200 units, management thought, compared to whatever boycott-type threats were leveled against the company. Airbnb issued the following statement justifying their action: “Companies should not profit from lands where people have been displaced.” https://www.algemeiner.com/2018/11/20/northern-cyprus-western-sahara-tibet-the-occupied-territories-still-available-on-airbnb/?utm_content=news1&utm_medium=daily_email&utm_campaign=email&utm_source=internal/

So in a recent Algemeiner article cited above, Ben Cohen proffers an analysis of the type quite common when someone criticizes some aspect of the Israel-Palestine situation.

Essentially, his argument goes like this: Airbnb Central has not dismissed Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus, and everyone knows how terrible the Turks have been in Occupied Northern Cyprus. When Turkey invaded the northern part of the island, women were raped, people displaced, thousands of Turks moved from the mainland and settled there. Yet one can find Airbnb rentals available in Northern Cyprus. Also, Airbnbs can be rented in Tibet and Western Sahara, too, terrible places these, no doubt, with the deep taint of being occupied.

The nub of the current argument is: Why doesn’t Airbnb Central not cut out these terrible places (along with likely dozens of other countries) along with their dismissal of their franchisees on the West Bank? There are places that do awful things, yet Airbnb is available.

In this Algemeiner article, Ben Cohen is arguing, yeah, there are controversial things about the Israeli presence on the West Bank, but Israeli behavior is nothing compared to those awful Turks in Northern Cyrus. If they’re gonna ban rentals on the West Bank, they gotta do it over there, too, or else it’s just not fair. It’s a double standard, yo.

Thing is, it’s a terrible argument, some version of which is trotted out regularly whenever Israel is criticized for something, asserting that another country does more of or worse of than Israel. Israel’s bad, the argument implies, just not as bad as this other guy, and he’s getting away with it, so why can’t Israel? It’s the old double standard argument. If so and so can do it, why can’t Israel get away with it, too? It’s very eight years old and should be banned from the realm of Israel advocacy forthwith.

I’m not suggesting anything at all about the West Bank. I am suggesting that the argument carries with it the aroma of guilt. We’re guilty, but they’re a lot guiltier than Israel. Forget about Northern Cyprus and the Sahara. The ban on Airbnb on the West Bank is wrong and, simply, a bad business decision made due to what was likely unremitting political pressure.

Happy Thanksgiving

ps An article in today’s The Times of Israel quotes several members of the Israeli cabinet to the effect that Israel is close to taking strong action on Gaza by either assassinating Hamas leadership or invading Gaza and remaining in it until Hamas can be neutralized.

I have no idea if this is serious or is a carefully orchestrated warning to Hamas that Israel is prepared to take drastic action if the current ceasefire does not hold; or if it’s a public announcement prior to action that is certain to take place; or if it’s an announcement intended to gauge Israeli public opinion on the matter. One way or another, this announcement is an expression of the extraordinarily deep frustration in Israel as to how to resolve matters with Gaza.

One way or another, stay tuned.

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The Bewilderment of Gaza by Phil Cohen

I confess to a cavernous bewilderment at the events in and around the Gaza Strip. The Great March of Return has succeeded in shining a light on Gaza and bringing opprobrium on Israel. It’s also resulted in 200 dead Gazans and an intensification of the misery that already afflicts the place. They reached an apparent crescendo in these past two days with an exposed Israeli mission deep into the Strip that resulted in the death of one Israeli solider and seven Palestinians, one of them a Hamas leader. This resulted in Hamas retaliation.

Over the weekend the Netanyahu administration was instrumental in facilitating the delivery of $15 million in cash to Gaza from Qatar to pay workers who haven’t seen a salary check since the PA shut off the spigot some time ago with promises of more. This transfer of funds was supposed to have been accompanied by a ceasefire. But the IDF mission into Gaza precipitously ended the ceasefire and resulted in the release of hundreds of Hamas missiles into Israel. Israel responded by firing upon scores of specific Gazan targets.

Today, November 13, another ceasefire has been announced, which has been met by fury among Israeli residents of towns near the Gaza Strip.

Hamas can continuously claim victory over Israel, since the terror organization succeeds in keeping Israel on edge, burning cropland, frightening residents of nearby Israeli towns, in this instance killing two people (one of whom turns out to be a Palestinian from a village near Hebron), and injuring several more. But this victory Gaza continually touts would seem the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory. The gains in optics, one would think, are more than overwhelmed by the destruction and death wrought by the Israeli response to Hamas’s missiles. As long at there’s no war, it seems, Hamas believes it can claim victory.

Netanyahu declared this week in Paris that this situation beggars solution, and it would seem so.

Yet Israel has no stomach for a full scale invasion to recapture the Gaza Strip. It has little stomach for another short-term war, either. However, in the face of today’s ceasefire, with residents of Sderot angrily protesting, replete with burning tires (I never understand the utility of burning tires), we know what their choice of action would be were they asked.

A full-court invasion would force Israel to govern two million hostile residents. A war like Protective Edge (2014) would stave things off for a while, but only for a while. Beside the optics of such a war, a few Israelis killed against hundreds, perhaps thousands of Palestinian dead, not to mention the material damage such a war always brings–it’s war, stupid. Everybody loses something in a war.

Still, it’s a dreadful situation, which, to repeat, beggars a solution that Israel could tolerate.

How long will the current ceasefire last? How many more flaming kites and assaults on the border can Israel tolerate?

What about the residents of what’s commonly called the largest open air prison in the world? The residents of Gaza themselves seem able to endure the humanitarian crisis that is their daily existence: poor sewage, a few hours a day of electricity, an enormously high unemployment, undrinkable water, and God knows what else. Endure? What other choice do they have? But how long can such a condition be tolerated?

My bewilderment is genuine. Hamas’s radical neglect of the people it purports to govern is bewildering. My mind is bewildered by a mindset that believes hatred of Israel trumps everything else, that the wellbeing of their citizens is at best a second thought, that fighting Israel always unsuccessfully by any rational objective measure is nonetheless a victory. For this latter, the word “Orwellian” was invented. Defeat is always victory.
Yesterday in The Times of Israel David Horovitz wrote of the situation with Gaza, “Sooner or later, he said, “Hamas must be faced down. And in the battle between a sovereign state that is obligated to ensure security for its citizens, and a ruthless, cynical terrorist organization… committed to Israel’s destruction, there can and must be only one winner.”

Horovitz’s anger and frustration hang over the piece like fetid air. But it appears that that face-down is not happening today, perhaps not in the near future. Today this absurd and destructive status quo remains, a ceasefire almost certainly to be broken in a day, a week, a month, and more people killed, more crops burned, more destruction, more evacuations, more misery. It’s bewildering.


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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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