IPF Column: Why IPF Is Important

October 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ll be writing an Israel Policy Forum column every Thursday and cross-posting it here. The first one just went up and the original can be found here.

For my first column as IPF’s new policy director, I thought I’d explain why I decided to join IPF and what I hope to do with this space in the weeks and months ahead. Some readers may know me from my writing and analysis in other places, but for those who don’t, before coming to IPF I was the program director of the Israel Institute, an organization dedicated to expanding the study of Israel in universities and think tanks around the globe, and I have been writing about Israel in a variety of academic and policy journals, magazines, and blogs for years. Having seen the full array of research and approaches to analyzing Israel in both the academic and policy worlds, I have a strong sense of the diverse views people of all stripes have about Israel’s challenges, policies, and decision making. There is little question in my mind that we are at an enormously important moment for two crucial issues – the direction of Israel’s future identity and the direction of the U.S.-Israel relationship – and IPF is a perfect organization from which to explain and analyze these trends, and to influence the direction in which they head.

For years now there has been lots of overwrought analysis about the death of the two state solution. Each passing year brings new facts on the ground, new attacks on Israeli civilians from Gaza, newly expanded or constructed settlements, and newly hardened attitudes on both sides to compromise and empathy for the other party. We frequently hear about each ignominious milestone marking the last chance for two states and that Israel and the Palestinians are at the point of no return. I do not, and never have believed, that this is true, for the simple reason that as bad as things get – and I don’t mean to imply that the situation is not dire on many fronts – the two state solution is the only viable one that exists. A bi-national state would devolve instantly into civil war and mass violence, and a state in which Israel annexes the West Bank but does not grant full rights to its non-Jewish citizens will collapse under the weight of international sanctions and opprobrium. In the long term, the only possible path is separation from the Palestinians, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Nevertheless, the short term is still a frightening thing to ponder, and I am not nearly so confident about precisely how Israel manages to right the ship. Just because two states is the only viable solution does not automatically mean that it will come to pass. Taking stock of the current environment, Israel is becoming increasingly nervous about its regional security environment (in some ways that I think are justified and in others that I think are not) and thus more reluctant to make any concessions that upend the status quo; becoming more entrenched in the West Bank both physically and attitudinally; facing what looks to me to be the beginnings of a third intifada brewing in Jerusalem over the status of the Temple Mount, which is the most nightmarish of scenarios; experiencing more political gridlock with each successive election and attempt to build a sustainable coalition; undergoing largescale social changes that are transforming the makeup of the IDF and society at large and causing new conflicts over the religious-secular balance, military and national service, immigration, and what it means to be a Jewish state, among other things; and facing the most serious international push in Israel’s relatively brief history to delegitimize the state and turn Israel into a pariah subject to sanctions and boycotts in a variety of forums. Given all of these pressures and the multitude of responses from the Israeli government and different actors within the system, I don’t know anyone who can say with any definitive certainty what Israel will look like in ten years, and whether the balance of being a Jewish and democratic state will tilt in one direction or another. Israel’s very identity is in flux, and tracking where it goes is going to be one of the most engrossing issues of the next decade.

Not only is Israel at a crossroads internally, it is also in the midst of real upheaval regarding its ties with the United States. The U.S. has been Israel’s patron for decades and oftentimes seems like its only true friend in the international arena, and the relationship has been beneficial to both sides on a variety of fronts. The Obama-Netanyahu relationship has been rocky, to put it charitably, and it has influenced the ways in which political elites in both countries view bilateral ties, and the way in which American Jews view Israel. No serious observer without a partisan axe to grind believes that strong U.S.-Israel ties are going away anytime soon, but certainly there are different degrees of strength, and it is an open question as to what the future holds. While bad blood between the president and the prime minister is often blamed for the hiccups in the relationship, the truth is that there are real and serious policy differences between the two governments that transcend the current occupants of the White House and Beit Agion. What does the U.S.-Israel relationship look like if there is robust military and security cooperation but the political relationship suffers? What happens if Israel is subject to a sustained campaign of boycotts from the European Union? How are bilateral ties affected as Israel develops closer ties with China and as Russia increasingly becomes an assertive player in the Middle East? What will be the effect of Israel rapidly becoming a partisan issue in Congress? Most crucially and interestingly, what does the U.S.-Israel relationship look like as the relationship between Israel and American Jews is transformed? None of these questions are easy, and they are going to consume those who care about the U.S.-Israel alliance and those who have spent their lives both in and out of government sustaining it.

While I have spent, and will continue to spend, much time writing about these issues as objectively as I can, I have always been open in my view that Israel must remain both democratic and Jewish, that the U.S.-Israel relationship must remain strong for both sides’ benefit, and that the only way to ensure these outcomes is via the two state solution. IPF is an organization that is dedicated to these principles and has advocated for them through educational initiatives and marshaling the American Jewish community to get behind them. I am excited to be part of an organization that has the ability to influence the direction of these issues about which I feel so strongly.

I hope to use this space going forward for a number of things, from arguing in favor of the solutions that I and IPF as an organization believe are the most viable, to opining on Israeli politics and the American Jewish scene, to analyzing American foreign policy in the Middle East. We will also be launching a blog that will be updated more frequently than this weekly column, and featuring voices that are newer and perhaps not as familiar to some, along with more timely posts on issues in the news. IPF has the infrastructure and resources to be a unique and credible source for information, analysis, and commentary on Israel, American Jewry, and the U.S.-Israel relationship, and I want to help strengthen and expand IPF’s reach and credibility. So if you’ve read this far and like what you’ve seen, please keep coming back and stay tuned for much more ahead.

Some Significant Home News

September 24, 2015 § 4 Comments

I know that I have been neglecting the blog lately in a serious way (some of which was for good reasons such as the birth of my daughter, and some of which was for not so good reasons such as having a lazy summer), but that is soon to be remedied due to some news on the professional front. As of last week, I am the new policy director for the Israel Policy Forum, an organization that will be familiar to regular readers as I have mentioned it before as one whose goals and motivations track very closely with my own. In IPF’s own words, “Israel Policy Forum is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that provides resources and advocacy for a strong, Jewish and democratic state at peace with its neighbors.  IPF convenes forums and publishes commentary and analysis that promote pragmatic strategies for achieving regional peace and security. IPF mobilizes policy experts and community leaders to build support for those ideas in the U.S. and Israel.” It’s a unique organization in many ways and difficult to pigeonhole, but think of it as a think tank with a dedicated policy mission that combines objective analysis with advocacy for its goals. I will be doing many things as policy director, but since IPF asked me to come on board to provide the organization with a clear voice and message, my primary task will be to establish IPF as (hopefully) an unparalleled source for analysis and commentary on Israeli politics and society, the internal politics of American Jewry, and the ways in which regional dynamics in the Middle East affect Israel. I will be writing a weekly column for IPF along with starting up a collaborative blog on IPF’s website, and so if you have enjoyed my writing in the past, there will now be lots more of it and more regularly than it has been for the past few months. For those of you who have been readers from the beginning and remember when I used to write a post every day, I shall be returning to a pace much closer to than than what it has been over the past year. So I hope that I still have some dedicated readers left after my months of neglect, and if you promise to keep coming back, I promise to have a lot more writing ahead.

What does this mean for O&Z? Good question. Any column I write for IPF about Israel will be cross-posted to this blog, so you need not worry about ever missing anything substantial I write on the subject if you are a regular O&Z reader or subscriber. Since the IPF blog is not my own proprietary piece of Internet realty and will feature other writers as well, however, I encourage everyone to check it out once it is up and running in the next month.

You’ve covered the Zionists; how about the Ottomans? Rest assured that I have no intention of neglecting my writing on Turkey. As even casual observers of the news are aware, Turkey is going through serious political and social upheaval, with another election coming on November 1 and constant developments related to the Syrian civil war. I will continue to opine on Turkey as I always have, and for those who doubt my commitment, I have a new piece in the American Interest – at 6000 words the longest piece I have published to date, I believe – on the past, present, and future of U.S.-Turkey relations, and how the U.S. should best view Turkey going forward if it is to maintain any type of productive strategic and tactical bilateral relationship. Please go over to the American Interest and check it out, and as usual, here is a taste to whet your appetite:

On June 7, Turkish voters went to the polls to decide the makeup of their next government. When Turkey last held legislative elections in 2011, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was riding high on a decade of record economic growth, newfound influence in the Middle East, and an international consensus that Turkey was more democratic than it had been at any time since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Four years later, that narrative had soured on nearly every front. The economy had slowed considerably, Turkish foreign policy had become bogged down in a Syrian quagmire partially of Ankara’s own making, and the government had launched any number of assaults on Turkish liberties and Turkish citizens in response to threats real and imagined. On top of this, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had turned an election in which he ostensibly was not participating into a referendum on his ambition to transform Turkey’s political system into one with a super-empowered presidency. The AKP entered the election with its past record in question and its future plans—including its very hold on a majority of the seats in the Grand National Assembly—in flux for the first time since coming to power 13 years before.

The relationship between Turkey’s ruling party and its citizens is not the only one that is highly volatile these days. Much as the AKP has suffered a bumpy ride domestically over the past few years, so has Turkey’s relationship with the United States. The “model partnership” that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu used to wax so eloquently about—established during the heyday of relations between President Obama and Erdoğan, when Obama listed the Turkish leader as one of his five closest foreign confidantes—has given way to a far different reality. Erdoğan and other Turkish officials now regularly take potshots at the United States, accusing President Obama of not caring about his own Muslim citizens and American news organizations of inappropriately meddling in Turkish affairs and seeking to “bring down” the “New Turkey.” On the U.S. side, former ambassadors to Ankara have called for the U.S. government to take a tougher approach toward Turkey rather than treat the government with kid gloves, and it has become accepted wisdom in Washington that the U.S.-Turkey relationship is so broken and dysfunctional as to be nearly unsalvageable.Despite the unpleasantness on both sides, U.S.-Turkey ties are far from dead and buried. While the Obama Administration has become disappointed with the limits of what Turkey can and will do to further American interests in the region, it continues to hope for greater Turkish buy-in on a range of policy issues. This delicate tightrope walk has entailed abandoning grand plans that involve an over-reliance on Turkey while avoiding too much public criticism of Ankara so as not to drive the Turks away. Rather than assume that Turkey is a consistent partner, the White House has adopted more of an a la carte approach, working with the Turkish government on issues that are of mutual interest and papering over any clashes on issues that aren’t.

Israeli Rays of Light

August 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

Dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians was dealt a big blow yesterday with the announcement that bitterlemons.org was shutting down after twelve years. For those who aren’t familiar with Bitter Lemons, it is a website that publishes Israeli and Palestinian views across the spectrum on the peace process and wider Middle East issues, and it was founded and run by Yossi Alpher and Ghassan Khatib. In explaining why they are ending their website, Alpher and Khatib both emphasized that dialogue and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians are at their lowest ever point, and that not only is there no peace process at the moment but there is not even a prospect for one to emerge. More disturbingly, both asserted that this freeze at the top has filtered down to society. Khatib informed us that in the past, “despite the feeling among many in the Arab world that contact with Israelis is tantamount to accepting Israel’s occupation, seldom did authors decline an invitation. Lately, we have observed that this has changed, that even once-forthcoming Palestinians are less interested in sharing ideas with Israelis just across the way.” Alpher echoed this theme, writing, “Here and there, writers from the region who used to favor us with their ideas and articles are now begging off, undoubtedly deterred by the revolutionary rise of intolerant political forces in their countries or neighborhood.” When an outlet dedicated to advancing a wide and diverse array of ideas and perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feels like it has reached a dead end, it is a terrible sign of things to come.

While the Israeli-Palestinian front grows increasingly dire, there are a couple of encouraging reasons for optimism when it comes to the polarized environment that exists between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Following the attempted lynching of Jamal Julani, an Israeli Arab teenager, last week, eight suspects have been indicted for racially motivated aggravated assault and a ninth suspect has been indicted for inciting violence. The indictments and investigations are important but are also the ordinary course of the justice system at work, so this is neither uncommon nor unprecedented. What is, however, is that Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar ordered all Israeli junior high schools and high schools to dedicate a special lesson on the first day of school yesterday to the Julani beating and to discuss racism and violence in Israeli society. The treatment of Israeli Arabs is an uncomfortable topic in Israel, as they enjoy full citizenship rights but are routinely discriminated against, and the attack on Julani in the heart of Jerusalem exposed a dark undercurrent of racial violence that exists in some quarters. Ordering a national discussion in schools about the incident is a small step but an important step nonetheless, and it shows a heartening willingness on the part of the Israeli state and society for introspection. Certainly this will not heal all wounds or eliminate the problem of racism and violence toward Israeli Arabs, but it is a start toward building a more tolerant and aware Israeli polity.

In this vein, a friend directed me toward this remarkable interview with Forsan Hussein, an Israeli Arab who is currently the CEO of the Jerusalem YMCA. Hussein grew up in Sha’ab a small Arab village near Acco, managed to win a full scholarship to Brandeis (where he was two years ahead of me, although I didn’t know him), and later got a masters from SAIS and an MBA from Harvard. It is mind-boggling that he accomplished all this despite the fact that Sha’ab had no high school and Hussein spoke almost no English when he came to the U.S. to start college, but that is not what is most remarkable. What is most remarkable is that despite growing up in Israel as a clearly disadvantaged minority and in a community that feels very little connection to the state, Hussein spent his teenage summers establishing and running a peace camp for Jews and Arabs and then returned to Israel after working for an investment fund in the U.S. and is emphatic about the need for Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs to work together to improve their country. Despite his background and growing up with what he describes as a one-sided narrative, he is proud to be an Israeli and wants to improve Israel rather than tear it down. He ends the interview as follows: “My dream and vision is to work on the business side of peace — to be an ambassador for Israel in the Arab countries, and for the Arab countries in Israel. One day.” That someone like this exists provides me with hope that Israel is not as lost as its detractors claim,  and that there are many more Forsan Husseins out there who embrace their country despite its faults and are able to overcome their understandable resentments in working toward building a stronger and more integrated Israel.

The Best of Israel and the Worst of Israel

August 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

Following the disgusting and abominable attack on Arab teenagers in Jerusalem’s Kikar Tzion last week – which, for those of you keeping track at home, Emergency Committee for Israel executive director Noah Pollak referred to as a “late-night scuffle” – Israel’s leaders have been unsparing in their condemnation of the incident. Shimon Peres declared himself ashamed at what happened and stated the obvious, which is that the Arab teens were attacked for no reason other than the fact that they are Arabs. While this is not surprising coming from Peres, Israeli rightwing politicians have been just as harsh in their denunciations. Bibi Netanyahu described the attack as racist to its core, and former IDF chief of staff and current vice PM Boogie Ya’alon called it an “act of terror” which left no ambiguity into how serious Israeli leaders view what has been accurately described as a lynching. Going further, Knesset speaker and Likud MK Reuven Rivlin visited one of the victims in the hospital yesterday and apologized, noting that racist anti-Arab sentiment is clearly not just on the fringe of Israeli society and that the attack is a “microcosm of a national problem that could endanger Israeli democracy.” Daniel Seidemann, writing on Jeffrey Goldberg’s blog, noted that the discourse from Likud politicians on this is significant because it is not being done with public opinion in mind (it will not help Bibi or anyone else in the Likud primaries) and indicates that rightwing politicians are genuinely worried that this is a serious and growing problem.

This is the way democracies are supposed to work, and it is heartening that for all of the criticism of Israel, both legitimate and illegitimate, over its treatment of Palestinians, things are operating in the aftermath of this attack exactly as they should. The government is not trying to explain it away or call it anything other than racism and terrorism, and Rivlin’s acknowledgment that this kind of behavior is becoming endemic and is a problem for a democratic society is the type of soul-searching that any democracy needs to go through in order to remain strong and vibrant. As I’ve noted before, for someone like me who is not shy about calling out Israeli misbehavior, it is important to also praise the things that demonstrate the strength of Israeli democracy and Israeli character, and the response to the Kikar Tzion attack across the political spectrum deserves to be praised. For all of the talk that Israel is content to keep the status quo and has no interest in introspection when it comes to treatment of Palestinians or Israeli Arabs, the political response so far is encouraging, and perhaps the worst of Israel encapsulated by the Kikar Tzion beating will now bring out the best of Israel.

Moving from the best of Israel to the other end of the spectrum, the political leaders who have not exactly covered themselves in glory this week are the two Yisrael Beiteinu members who run the Israeli Foreign Ministry, FM Avigdor Lieberman and deputy FM Danny Ayalon. Lieberman has apparently decided to take it upon himself to wage political guerilla warfare against Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, writing a letter to the Quartet calling for new Palestinian elections with the aim of ousting Abbas as Palestinian president and then saying today that Abbas is a greater threat to Israel than Hamas. Netanyahu’s office distanced itself from Lieberman immediately, saying that his letter does not reflect the position of either Bibi or the government, and Ehud Barak slammed Lieberman for harming Israeli interests and for basically being a dolt in believing that it would be better for Israel were Hamas to take over control of the PA. Lieberman told a group of Israel ambassadors that he wrote the letter because the Israeli government is not heeding his advice and relaying his views on the Palestinians to the West, which is just the latest piece of evidence that the government sees Lieberman as the embarrassment that he is. That Israel does not have a professional, or even competent, foreign minister is a serious problem, and that Lieberman is in the post for political reasons is not an excuse. Israel has so many experienced and talented ambassadors and diplomats, and it discredits the entire enterprise to have Lieberman as the front man, even if he is not taken seriously by anyone inside or outside his government.

Not to be outdone by his boss, Ayalon resumed his spate of strange and embarrassing behavior by saying that South Africa remains an apartheid state in response to South Africa’s decision to label goods made in the West Bank as made in “occupied Palestinian territory.” Ayalon is rightly upset about what this will do to Israeli business interests, particularly if it ends up starting a trend that is picked up by other countries, but instead of responding with a measured argument, he chose to make a completely unsubstantiated (and incorrect) charge about South African politics and society. Not only won’t this change the South African government’s mind and will probably lead to an even further worsening of ties between the two countries, Ayalon did the exact thing that he and other Israel diplomats correctly rail against, which is recklessly tossing around the charge of apartheid in places to which it does not apply. How is Ayalon supposed to protest the next time some politician or celebrity stupidly refers to Israel as an apartheid state when he has just done the exact same thing? Ayalon was for years a respected diplomat and served as an able foreign policy advisor to Likud politicians and as ambassador to the U.S., but has seen his reputation take a serious turn for the worse under Lieberman. Between things like this and his ridiculous attempt at humiliating the Turkish ambassador by making him sit on a low chair in front of television cameras (for which Ayalon was forced to apologize), it’s tough to conclude anything other than that Lieberman’s corrosive influence is having a negative impact on Ayalon’s common sense. As well as the response to the attempted lynching of Arab teens by Jews has reflected on Israel’s politicians, its diplomats’ puerile actions this week have demonstrated the exact opposite.


A Tale of Two Letters

July 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Two letters were issued this week that tell very different stories about where Israel is going. The first was from the Shomron Residents Council and it was addressed to Shimon Peres. The settlement movement has never been in love with Peres, but they are particularly outraged at him at the moment following Peres’s comments last week about the need to take Israel’s demographic challenges into account and end the settlement project. The letter, which was also published as an ad in today’s Ha’aretz, calls for Peres to step down after accusing him of being a Palestinian agent working against Israeli and Jewish interests. It also states that Peres should join Meretz, Balad, or Kadima, but that he cannot continue serving as the president of the state.

Nobody who is thinking clearly would actually accuse Peres, the last remaining politically active member of Israel’s founding generation and literally one of the fathers of the state, of acting against Israel’s interests, so in that respect this is a fundamentally unserious letter. It does, however, tell us something serious about a significant portion of Israeli citizens, which is that they view Israel in a disturbingly parochial and sectarian manner. Calling for Peres to step down for crossing the settlers is rather unremarkable, but calling for him to join Meretz or Balad or Kadima is a statement that speaks volumes. First, it suggests that the settler leadership does not view those parties as legitimate, since it is apparently acceptable for Peres to be a member of Kadima despite not acting in the interests of the Israeli public or the Jewish public. Second, it implies that in order to serve as president of Israel, you must adhere to a certain line with regard to the settlements, and anyone that crosses this line also crosses the boundary of being unfit for office. This is a revolutionary view of citizenship, political participation, and public service. It imagines an Israel that is not simply split between citizens and non-citizens, or even Jews and non-Jews, but one that is officially and legally further fragmented along lines that delineate between acceptable viewpoints and unacceptable viewpoints. Peres is free to join Meretz or Kadima in the eyes of the settlement leadership since these parties, in their view, do not act in the state’s interests and are thus illegitimate.

The second letter was from the Israel Policy Forum and it was addressed to Prime Minister Netanyahu. The IPF letter was a response to the Levy Report, and it expressed the fear that adopting Levy’s recommendations will lead to the end of the two state solution. It referred to the importance of maintaining Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state, and stated that the Levy Report will actually weaken Israel’s hand in its conflict with the Palestinians by providing fodder to the delegitimization crowd. The letter was then signed by 41 leaders of the American Jewish community.

The letter itself was smartly worded with its acknowledgement that the Palestinian Authority has “abdicated leadership by not returning to the negotiating table” and thus negating any warrantless accusations that the letter is an effort to place all blame on Israel, and as I wrote last week, I think that framing the issue of settlements strategically by referencing the serious threat to Israel’s future is the way to go. What is more encouraging though is the list of signatories. Nobody will be surprised that the letter was signed by Charles Bronfman or Rabbi Eric Yoffie, people with a reputation for being in the center or the left on Israel issues. It was also signed by Rabbi Daniel Gordis, who is at the Shalem Center and recently held a well-publicized debate with Peter Beinart, and by Thomas Dine, who used to head up AIPAC. It suggests a different vision of Israel, one in which leaders from all sides of the spectrum are able to cooperate and come to an agreement on the big issues facing the Jewish state. Rather than viewing everything through a narrow prism, folks like Gordis and Dine, who might have very different views on settlements generally than someone like Yoffie, are able to recognize the unique problem that the Levy Report poses. In fact, Gordis wrote in Ha’aretz that he does not necessarily disagree with Levy’s legal reasoning, but that adopting the report would signal an annexation of the West Bank and the official abandonment of the two state solution. The letter represents a hopeful trend of moving away from political and ideological sectarianism and viewing Israel not as a disparate collection of tribal groups but as a whole. Quite frankly, it represents a more hopeful vision than the one displayed just yesterday by Bibi Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, who could not maintain a unity government in the face of some tough decisions over whether Israelis should equally share in the burden of service or not. Let’s hope that going forward, the vision contained in the IPF missive trumps the that contained in the Shomrom Residents Council’s one.

Cracks Appearing In All Sorts Of Coalitions

June 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Apparently Bibi Netanyahu’s strategy of expanding his governing coalition in an effort to deal with the crisis precipitated by the Tal Law’s expiration didn’t solve the problem but only kicked it down the road. Following the news that the Plesner Committee, which was charged with coming up with a viable plan to rectify the military and national service exemptions for Haredim and Israeli Arabs, has decided to essentially give Israeli Arabs a free pass, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party quit the committee. The news that Haredim were going to be treated differently than Israeli Arabs obviously did not sit well with Shas and UTJ either, who were already upset that Shaul Mofaz and Kadima are insisting on severe penalties for draft dodgers that are squarely aimed at the Haredi sector. So in a nutshell, the two sides that were pulling on Netanyahu from opposite ends during the last coalition crisis are now both angry again, and this is all being driven by Kadima, Netanyahu’s new coalition partner that was supposed to give him room to maneuver and put an end to the constant worrying about the coalition breaking apart.

Netanyahu and Mofaz are meeting today in an effort to try and resolve the impasse after the prime minister made clear that he was not ok with the Plesner Committee plan (which is being pushed, if not outright dictated, by Mofaz), but this is just a reminder that Israeli coalitions are never fully stable no matter how large they are. This is not going to bring down the government, but if forced to choose between Mofaz and Kadima on the one hand and Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu on the other, Netanyahu is going to go with Mofaz, which will set off all sorts of problems with the settler community at the worst possible time for Bibi given that the Ulpana evacuation just went off shockingly smoothly.

Speaking of Ulpana, the events there this week revealed another important split, but this one has nothing to do with coalition politics. Instead, there seems to be a growing divide between the camp containing the majority of the settlement movement and the more extreme militant wing (often referred to by the shorthand “hilltop youth”), with some in the settler leadership waking up to the fact that violence turned outward almost always inevitably migrates inward as well. It began when Ze’ev Hever, who is in charge of the settlement movement’s building and construction, found his car tires slashed, prompting a set of mea culpas from him and from Yesha head Danny Dayan, who both admitted that they have stayed silent for years in the face of settler violence against Arabs. This acknowledgement and promise to begin cracking down on the violent extremists within their midst unfortunately came too late for the Defense Ministry subcontractors visiting Ulpana earlier this month in preparation for the evacuation who were pelted with rocks for their efforts to ensure that Ulpana’s residents would be moved out as painlessly and seamlessly as possible. Then if that weren’t enough, the Ulpana families – who were fully cooperative and left peacefully – had to spend their time skirmishing with hilltop youths who were trying to prevent those very families from evacuating by barring their way and then barricading themselves in one of the vacated apartments. If it wasn’t clear to the settler leadership that they have a serious problem within their midst while violent settler extremists were torching mosques and carrying out odious “price tag” attacks in the West Bank, it has become abundantly clear now. All of this is a useful reminder that, as Jeremy Pressman aptly put it yesterday, the term “settler” papers over the fact that settlers are not a monolithic group and the settlement movement is not a unified whole marching in lockstep. These divisions within Israeli politics and Israeli society bear close watching over the next few months as tensions that have been buried are now starting to bubble up to the surface.

The Problem With Religious Monopolies

June 22, 2012 § 4 Comments

Since Israel’s founding, the Orthodox movement has had a monopoly on the official practice of Judaism in the state. Gershom Gorenberg’s superb book The Unmaking of Israel goes into the way this came about and the problems with it in great detail, but the short summary is that the Orthodox chief rabbinate controls marriage, divorce, and conversion, giving it absolute power over who is considered a Jew and of the largest personal milestones in the Jewish life cycle. The monopoly that Orthodox Judaism has is so absolute that Israel does not even recognize Conservative and Reform rabbis as being rabbis, and instead categorizes them as community leaders. This would not matter in practice except for the fact that the state pays the salaries of Orthodox rabbis to provide religious services to municipalities and communities, and does not do so for non-Orthodox leaders as they are not recognized as having rabbinical authority.

In May, the Israeli government announced that it was going to correct this imbalance and begin recognizing Conservative and Reform rabbis and pay their salaries as well. The financing is slated to come from the Culture and Sports Ministry rather than the Religious Services Ministry, and the Conservative and Reform leaders are to be called “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” so as to effectively put an asterisk by their names, but this is undoubtedly an important progressive step nonetheless, especially given the fact that the majority of Israelis are not Orthodox and this in no way infringes upon Orthodox Judaism’s own practices and strictures that it sets up for itself.

Sadly predictably, however, there has been a huge backlash from Orthodox rabbis against the government’s plan. This week, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar sent a letter to hundreds of Orthodox rabbis in which he called for them to fight the government’s plan and reimpose the absolute religious monopoly that he and his compatriots have enjoyed. He also made his pernicious views on non-Orthodox rabbis crystal clear, expressing his “sorrow and terrible pain” over the recognition of “uprooters and destroyers of Judaism who have already wrought horrible destruction upon the People of Israel in the Diaspora.” Rabbi Amar and the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger have called a strategy meeting for Tuesday and declared rabbinical attendance to be mandatory, and no doubt both of them will have some more unpleasant words for those with whom they disagree. Israel now faces the specter of one arm of the state – the Chief Rabbinate, which is an official state office – actively working to subvert the government and the High Court, and having its chief rabbis openly call for the attorney-general to consult with them before issuing legal directives. This is, of course, completely outrageous, particularly since the decision to recognize Conservative and Reform rabbis does not affect the Orthodox in any meaningful way other than diluting their political power and hold over the 70% of Israeli Jews who are not Orthodox, and the Chief Rabbinate is marshaling all of its resources in an effort to maintain rank state discrimination in an area in which the state should not be choosing sides. All of this is a sad consequence of the religious monopoly that Orthodoxy was granted at the state’s founding, since over decades this monopoly over religious ceremony has been internalized in a way that has led many Orthodox rabbis in Israel to believe that no other branch of Judaism is even legitimate.

One of my closest friends and college roommate, Ephraim Pelcovits, is the rabbi of the East 55th Street Conservative Synagogue in New York. Ephraim is an astoundingly deep thinker on all issues under the sun but particularly on the role of religion in Israel and Jewish communal issues more broadly. Over too many hours-long conversations throughout the past 15 years to even count, he has been a major influence on my thinking on Israel, Israeli politics, and Judaism. Since this appears to be guest posting week on O&Z, and since he is uniquely qualified to speak on this topic having grown up in the Orthodox community in the U.S. and spent a year of his rabbinical training in Israel, I present to you Ephraim’s thoughts on Rabbi Amar:


This Saturday, Jews all over the world will read the Bible portion dealing with the rebellion against Moses’ leadership, led by a party so uninterested in dialogue or reconciliation that it was designated as “evil” by God for its constancy in conflict, and was later held up by the Jewish tradition as the paradigm of senseless infighting.

Earlier this week – just as world Jewry was about to get its annual reminder about the dangers of senseless conflict – Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, decided to designate me – and all my colleagues in the liberal rabbinate– with that same moniker in a letter he distributed on his official government stationary. We – Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Rabbis – were disparaged as “…enemies of God, wicked people who are like the turbulent sea that cannot be quieted, their entire aim being to do harm to the sanctity and purity of the Torah in our Holy Land…”

The cause of this vituperative rant? A decision by the Attorney General of Israel’s Office to begin paying the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis who serve in Regional Councils or in Agricultural Settlements, just as it has always done for their Orthodox counterparts.

Obviously it is inappropriate for a State employee – like Rabbi Amar – to use the trappings of his office to lobby for a personal initiative – in this case the overturning of a new State Law which begins to allow for religious pluralism in Israel.  Yet what really terrified me as a religious leader was reading the fierce and dehumanizing tone of his letter, including the highly incendiary language Amar uses to describe the non-Orthodox movements and their leadership.

For the rabbis of the classical period, God’s designation of the rebels against Moses as evil opens a broader discussion of other villains marked with the same moniker, a list which includes those who seeks to do physical harm to their peers as well as those who borrow money and refuse to repay their loans.

It seems to me that Rabbi Amar misses the entire point of the classical rabbinic teaching on this week’s Torah portion. What I believe the ancient rabbis were teaching by connecting the ills of physical violence and shirking loans with the theme of provoking conflict is that all three will lead to the crumbling of society.

Let me explain that connection.  In a culture like that of Traditional Judaism, which forbids interest paying loans between community members, the presence of even one shirking borrower threatens the ability of all those in need from receiving money from their more fortunate brethren. The resulting freezing of credit parallels the power of the violent and of the provocateur to rip apart a tight knit community. All of these actions – which tear tenuous human connections apart – are designated as evil.

This Saturday, in my synagogue, we’ll take a stand for community and join together with our brethren the world over to hear the traditional narrative read from them Bible. When we finish hearing the story of a rabble rouser from Biblical history, I will tell my congregants about a contemporary thug – Rabbi Shlomo Amar – who is using his government office and it’s powers to tear our people apart, and to label us – members of a Conservative Synagogue – as “uprooters of the faith.” I will then encourage those in attendance to take a stand against incendiary speech, and to make connections and open dialogue with people – Jews and non-Jews – who live religious lives that look different than ours. Israeli society and democracy is too precious – and too precariously held together – for Rabbi Amar’s fear driven brand of Judaism to hold a monopoly on Israeli religious expression!

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