Does the Outcome of the Election Even Matter for Israeli Foreign Policy?

March 17, 2015 § 3 Comments

I have a piece in Foreign Affairs today in which I argue that on foreign and security issues – Iran, the peace process, settlements, fighting with Hamas, etc. – a Herzog prime ministership will look very much like Netanyahu’s prime ministership has. Here is the setup to my argument:

These days, Israeli opposition leader Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog is on everyone’s mind, and for good reason. Herzog’s Zionist Camp electoral bloc is the clear leader in the last polls allowed to be published before Tuesday’s election, raising the prospect of an opposition candidate unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who is coming off two consecutive terms following his first term nearly two decades ago.

Herzog’s electoral prospects are not the only thing creating buzz, however. For those opposed to Netanyahu’s hawkish positions on Iran and the Palestinians—and his general worldview of an Israel beset on all sides by enemies (including, in some iterations, the Obama administration and the European Union), Herzog seems to represent the possibility of genuine change. He has been described as Netanyahu’s “polar opposite” and would be Israel’s first truly left-wing prime minister since Ehud Barak in 1999. Many thus hope that his election could bring a significant turn in Israeli foreign and defense policies, including an end to Israeli opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran and a renewed push toward Palestinian statehood.

Those hoping to see a momentous shift in Israeli foreign policy, however, will be disappointed. No matter who emerges as the prime minister following the election and the inevitable weeks of haggling and horse-trading that go into forming a coalition, Israel’s foreign policy on the big issues will be marked by consistency rather than transformation. Although no one should casually dismiss Herzog’s markedly different tone and approach to the world, his and Netanyahu’s areas of disagreement are not as large as one might think. Further, in office, both would be similarly boxed in by circumstances beyond their control.

It is no accident that Herzog’s campaign, like the previous Labor campaign in 2013, has been largely run on domestic issues. Not only are economic and social issues the most pressing items on voters’ minds, the space between Likud and Labor on foreign policy can be measured in inches rather than miles. The big foreign policy matter that Herzog has seized upon is the faltering relationship between the Untied States and Israel, which he vows to improve. There is no doubt that the White House would immediately warm to a Prime Minister Herzog, given that he is far less abrasive than Netanyahu and would work to ease tensions, but that would be the case with nearly any other candidate. The personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is so cold that an improvement in bilateral ties will be more about Netanyahu’s absence than about his replacement.

On the biggest policy issue dividing the United States and Israel, however, Netanyahu and Herzog speak with the same voice. Herzog’s denouncement of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress should not obscure the fact that, like Netanyahu, Herzog would never accept a nuclear Iran as a fait accompli and that Herzog’s perception of the Iranian threat is far more acute than Obama’s. The likelihood that Herzog would certainly work to keep his disagreements with the White House behind closed doors does not mean that there would be no disagreements and that Herzog would clear the path for a nuclear deal. In fact, he would not bring about a change in Israel’s fear of Iranian nuclear ambitions or the country’s correspondingly hawkish stance.

To read the rest of the price, please head over to Foreign Affairs.

Abandon The Peace Process To Save The Two State Solution

August 12, 2014 § 4 Comments

My friend Jordan Hirsch and I (follow him on Twitter @jordanchirsch if you aren’t already for brilliant commentary on a whole host of topics) argue in Foreign Affairs that the recent fighting in Gaza proves the wisdom of the 2005 disengagement, and that Israel needs to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank as well. The article can be found here and here’s the opening salvo.

As the latest battle between Israel and Hamas in Gaza wears on, there are two schools of thought — one on the right and one on the left — about what Israel should do next.

The first take, on the right, is that renewed fighting in Gaza proves that Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 was a mistake. According to this view, the withdrawal empowered Hamas, inviting rockets from above and tunneling terrorists from below, while earning Israel no international credit for having ended its occupation of the coastal strip. That pattern, the thinking goes, would repeat itself should Israel disengage from the West Bank. For that reason, any pullout now would be dangerously misguided.

The second argument, on the left, is that Israel’s mistake was not that it disengaged from Gaza, but that it did not sufficiently support the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, thereafter. By failing to reward Abbas’ nonviolent resistance, this theory suggests, Israel robbed Palestinians of the hope that anything but Hamas’ rockets could achieve their aims. The best means of countering Hamas in Gaza, then, is to present an alternative in the West Bank and immediately return to negotiations with Abbas to demonstrate the efficacy of a nonviolent approach.

Both positions are understandable. Israel has fought a string of wars with Hamas since leaving Gaza in 2005, each more threatening to its civilians than the last. For that reason, maintaining some control in the West Bank seems to be the most sensible option. On the other hand, those hoping for more Israeli support for the PA would like Israel to bolster the notion that Palestinians can succeed without resorting to armed resistance. Yet closer examination reveals that neither of these positions is tenable. And, in fact, there is a third option. Israel correctly, if not faultlessly, disengaged from Gaza. And now, to protect itself in the long run, it must do so again from the West Bank. Israel must abandon the peace process in order to save the two-state solution.

Read the rest here at Foreign Affairs.

Tom Friedman Dashes Any Hopes I Had For A Peace Deal

February 4, 2014 § 8 Comments

As regular readers know (although since I have been so neglectful about blogging, I’m not sure I can legitimately claim to have any regular readers anymore), I am never optimistic that a successful Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is on the horizon. For some reasons why not, you can read this or this or this or this. The two sides are way too far apart on core issues, don’t even necessarily agree about what the most important core issues are, make demands that the other side will not meet, and feel that they have better options available to them, not to mention the fact that the negotiations are designed to rectify the problems of 1967 when in reality the issue is 1948. There is no sense of urgency and the two sides are completely talking past each other. Despite all of this, the reports from the Kerry camp have been consistently optimistic, the team led by Martin Indyk has been beefing up staff, and it actually seems like maybe both sides will accept a framework agreement. So despite my conviction that none of this will lead to anything permanent or concrete, maybe it all demonstrates that there is some light at the end of a very far tunnel.

And then I read Tom Friedman’s column this week in the New York Times, and I am now even more pessimistic than before. Entitled “Abbas’s NATO Proposal,” it turns on the idea that NATO will have to keep troops in the West Bank indefinitely in order to have the security arrangements for a peace deal fulfilled. In Abbas’s words, NATO troops “can stay to reassure the Israelis, and to protect us. We will be demilitarized. … Do you think we have any illusion that we can have any security if the Israelis do not feel they have security?” Friedman argues that this is a suggestion worthy of consideration because it meets Israeli security needs and meets Palestinians needs to not have an Israeli military presence in the West Bank after an initial five year period, and presumably only NATO can bridge this gap.

It all sounds very nice, but the fact that Abbas is pushing it says to me that he is either fundamentally unserious or knows just how desperate the situation is, and neither of those possibilities is encouraging. None of the three constituencies involved in this scenario would ever actually accept the parameters as Friedman lays them out. Start with the Palestinians, for whom it would be a hard sell having some security force confined to the Jordan Valley, and then think about the idea of having foreign troops spread throughout an entire Palestinian state forever. It is one thing to have foreign troops confined to a very distinct area, as is the case with American troops in South Korea, and quite another to have them literally anywhere and everywhere. I find it hard to believe that Abbas speaks for his own constituency in opening up this possibility, let alone for groups like Hamas that don’t accept his authority at all. The loss of sovereignty that comes with a demilitarized state is a hard enough obstacle to overcome, and throwing this additional factor on top blows the whole thing up. Troops for a finite number of years, or confined to a specific location, or with limited authority; these are all things that are potentially workable from the perspective of what the Palestinian side might reasonably accept. What Abbas suggests is not, plain and simple, and it makes me wonder whether he has any credibility left on his own side.

Next come the Israelis, who as Abbas relayed via Friedman do not want to have any third party overseeing their own security, and rightly so. UN troops based in Sinai literally cleared out of the way in 1967 when Nasser ordered them out in preparation for a strike against Israel (a strike that the Israelis preempted with the Six Day War), and the UN force in Lebanon hasn’t exactly been effective at preventing Hizballah from shooting rockets across the border, abducting soldiers, or conducting sniper attacks. That Friedman brings these examples up as something that Israel has tolerated before is completely removed from the reality of what Israel will accept when it comes to territory right on Tel Aviv’s doorstep. In both of these instances, foreign forces meant to in some measure safeguard Israeli security have been complete and unmitigated failures. Furthermore, Friedman is talking about NATO troops, and in case you haven’t been paying attention, Israel and various European NATO countries aren’t always on the best of terms. Israel is convinced that Europe is out to get it and that Europeans side with the Palestinians over the Israelis in every instance – convictions, by the way, that are not entirely unrooted in fact – and accepting American troops as guarantors of Israeli security would maybe, maybe eventually be ok with the Israelis. But NATO troops as the first line of defense against Palestinian rockets? I find it very hard to see an Israeli government that can be elected in the current climate ever acceding to that condition.

Finally comes NATO itself. Think about the reaction the vast majority of Americans have right now to sending U.S. troops to another location overseas in order to fight a war or safeguard vital American interests. Then think about the reaction people will have to sending U.S. troops to police a political and territorial dispute in which we are not involved in any way. Then realize that nearly every other NATO country is even more reticent than we are to put troops into harm’s way, particularly when it will involve those troops being stationed in a Muslim-majority country. I could keep going, but it seems unnecessary at this point. No elected politician will be able to justify any type of real commitment to such an operation, and quite frankly, why would they even if they could get away with it politically? I care about Israeli-Palestinian peace as much as anyone, but this is not something that NATO countries will be eagerly signing up for, not to mention that it is well, well beyond NATO’s mandate. Is Abbas or Friedman suggesting that a NATO country is at risk, necessitating placing NATO troops inside the West Bank? Or that NATO has somehow evolved into an organization that is willing to send its resources anywhere in the world for the sake of peace?

The bottom line is that if this proposal is what a peace agreement will hinge upon, you can forget seeing anything resembling a permanent agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians for decades. I hope Abbas has something else up his sleeve.

Abuse Of The Press And Press Abuse

April 5, 2013 § 2 Comments

While the large number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey is getting increasing attention in the Western media and from press NGOs, an even more widespread – and in some ways more insidious –  problem is press intimidation. Journalists in Turkey are under all sorts of pressure not to criticize the government, and end up engaging in self-censorship or are forced to limit what they write by their editors, who are themselves squeezed by the government. This pressure comes in the form of overt intimidation, such as when Prime Minister Erdoğan publicly attacks the press collectively or even singles out individuals for criticism, and comes in the form of de facto bills of attainder, such as when the Doğan Group was fined nearly $3.8 billion in taxes following an investigation into charity fraud that implicated government officials. Reporters and columnists are afraid to write anything about the government, the AKP, or Erdoğan that will be perceived as too harsh, and so much goes unsaid.

In this week’s Economist, Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman details how this process works by relaying how advisers to the prime minister will call an editor to complain about a columnist’s work, that columnist will be asked to tone things down, and will be then fired if he or she does not comply. Zaman notes that anything that has a whiff of scandal about the government gets buried, as do stories about Turkish support for Syrian rebels and Turkey’s role in transferring arms shipments to Syrian groups from the Gulf. None of this is new ground, but Zaman’s piece is especially notable for its timing: after starting to write her essay but before it was published, she was fired from her job as a columnist at Turkish newspaper HaberTürk for – you guessed it – being overly critical of the government. It will be interesting to see if the issue of journalist intimidation gets more traction now outside of Turkey given that Zaman is the Economist’s Turkey correspondent and frequently writes for other American and British publications. In any event, this type of behavior is enormously damaging to Turkey and is bound to backfire. By doing everything it can to protect its reputation at home by staunching criticism, the government is only ensuring that its reputation abroad takes a hit, and government officials’ loud proclamations about Turkish democracy ring hollow as long as reporters and editorialists do not feel free to speak their minds because they are constantly worrying about their job security.

On the flip side, Israel this week provided a good example of why sometimes journalists who are free to write whatever pops into their heads might sometimes want to think before putting down something particularly egregious. Amira Hass, a columnist for Ha’aretz, wrote an ode to Palestinian stone throwing on Wednesday, opening her column with, “Throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule. Throwing stones is an action as well as a metaphor of resistance.” In advising that some guidelines be developed, she wrote that limitations “could include” – rather than should include – throwing rocks at civilians or at children, although Hass naturally does not want to dictate to Palestinian stone throwers who their targets should be. She went on to make some actually positive and useful suggestions on how Palestinians might implement classes on civil non-violent disobedience and better educate themselves to document Israeli military abuses, but when that stuff comes after you have laid out the divine right of violent stone throwing, it tends to get lost in the ensuing maelstrom. The Yesha Council has accused Hass of inciting violence and filed a police complaint and lodged another complaint with the attorney-general, which will undoubtedly lead to Hass being seen in some quarters as a martyr for press freedom and journalistic integrity.

Hass’s column is largely reprehensible. Not to disturb the righteous indignation of Hass and her supporters, but throwing stones at civilians is inexcusable violence under any guise, and Israel’s military and settler presence in the West Bank does not justify using potentially deadly force against Israeli civilians. Lest you think this is hyperbole, stones thrown at cars in the West Bank in the last two years have killed Asher and Yonatan Palmer – the latter an 11 month old infant – and put 2 year old Adele Bitton in critical condition, in addition to causing numerous other civilian injuries. Calling out stone throwing does not mean that I condone abusive Israeli military behavior in the West Bank, of which there is plenty, since anyone who reads me knows that I do not. But aren’t most of us taught at a very early age the simple maxim that two wrongs does not make a right? In what world is serious violence a “birthright” or a “duty” except to a seriously fevered mind? Just as the attempted lynching of Jamal Joulani for no other reason than his being an Arab hanging out in West Jerusalem was odiously inexcusable, so is throwing rocks at Israelis for no other reason than them being Jews daring to set foot in the West Bank. It would be great if Palestinians lit upon a successful strategy for non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation, and a mass movement along those lines would force the Israeli government to actually change course. In contrast, continuing to advocate violence against Israelis based on the logic that stone throwing is a pittance compared to Israeli machine gun fire is guaranteed to be a losing strategy that perpetuates Israeli control of the West Bank forever. It is wonderful that Hass is free to say whatever she pleases, and it is one of the ways in which Israel’s system of government is far more advanced than Turkey’s, but let’s not pretend that Hass’s abuse of her freedom of speech is a courageous act when it is nothing more than advocacy of violence hiding behind a morally superior attitude and haughty anti-imperialist mask.

The Year Of The Settlement

January 14, 2013 § 2 Comments

We are only two weeks into the new year, but if these two weeks are any indication of what is yet to come, then 2013 is going to mark a large shift from 2012. If 2012 was dominated by talk of Iran, 2013 is going to be dominated by talk of settlements. While the constant worries over what the government would do about bombing Iran did not always resound to Israel’s benefit, it was a conversation that at least focused on Israel’s security and the proper response for Israel to take against threats from Iran. The conversation about settlements, however, is not one that is going to focus on threats to Israel or Israeli security, but rather on Israel’s problematic behavior in the West Bank, and it is an issue that is bound to be a losing one for Israel.

Much of last year was filled with speculation about whether Israel would strike Iran until Bibi Netanyahu put an end to that with his speech at the United Nations. Lots of ink was spilled both trying to predict what would happen and analyzing whether bombing Iranian nuclear facilities would be a smart move or not. All of this undoubtedly caused some degree of negativity toward Israel because many folks – including the bulk of the Israeli defense establishment – felt that bombing Iran would be reckless and unnecessary, and in the end this pressure was at least partially responsible for derailing Netanyahu’s evident plans to do just that. Nevertheless, keeping the focus of the discussion surrounding Israel on the potential bombing of Iranian nuclear sites was in other ways good strategy, which is why Netanyahu kept on stoking the fires. Yes, it entailed observers railing against Israel for contemplating setting the region on fire with a strike on Iran, but it also forced people to think about Israel’s security, the threats that it faces, and the virulent hatred of Israel and Jews – no, not Zionists, but Jews – expressed by the Iranian government.

When it comes to settlements, Israel gains no such benefits. Despite the fact that the Israeli government claims that settlements are a security issue, nobody really buys this excuse. A bunch of settlers armed with rifles along with their families are simply not going to serve as the last line of defense against a horde of Arab tank battalions rolling over the border from Jordan, not to mention that such an assault is not coming. 350,000 Israelis scattered around the West Bank are also not a defense against Palestinian rockets, which don’t come from the West Bank because Fatah is not yet in the rocket shooting business and because the IDF – rather than settlers – is also currently positioned to stop them. In the 21st century, the line that settlements are a defense against anything is just not credible or believable. When settlements become the main issue that people focus on when it comes to Israel, the spotlight is trained not on threats to Israel but on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and desire to hang on to the West Bank. Literally nothing good comes out of this conversation for Israel, and all it does is highlight the worst possible side of Israel and its government. For an extremely small subset of people it serves as a reminder that Israel has a strong historical and cultural heritage in the West Bank, which is after all the land of the Bible, but for most people it serves as a reminder that Israel is militarily occupying the West Bank and that this situation is looking more and more permanent every day.

The response to the Bab al-Shams outpost in E1 is a perfect example of why the Israeli government is destined to lose when the focus is all settlements, all the time. After the outpost was illegally erected, the government evicted the Palestinians who had set up camp there and claimed that this was a necessary security measure and that the area was now a closed military zone. Nobody really believes that this is a security issue, and the glaring double standard in which illegal Israeli outposts are left to stand for months and years or even retroactively legalized has been noted far and wide. The domestic politics aside, this is an unambiguous losing issue for Israel, but because it has proved an effective tactic for the Palestinians, it is guaranteed to play out over and over, with Israel looking increasingly inept and even foolish in the process.

Lest you think that settlements are not going to be the talk of 2013, just take a look around. Bab al-Shams and E1 have taken on a life of their own, Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi – advocating an annexation policy – are a near lock to be in the next coalition, future Likud MK Moshe Feiglin has called for paying Palestinians to leave the West Bank, a significant swathe of Likud MKs favor annexing Area C or permanently maintaining the current status quo, and settlements and the settlement budget are expanding rather than slowing down. The craziest part about this is that on the right there is a desire to have settlements become even more of an issue rather than tamp down the settlement talk, as they see it as good politics and as a way of putting a dagger through the heart of the peace process for good.

It doesn’t matter that settlements are not the original cause of Palestinian discontent, or that there are larger obstacles to an effective two-state solution. The focus on settlements is very bad for Israel, and the longer it goes on the worse off Israel becomes. This is not an issue of public relations but of policy, and the Israeli government needs to understand that sooner rather than later. 2013 is well on its way to being a year in which the world, American Jewry, and Western policymakers hear a lot more about Israel creating a situation in which there is no Palestinian map than about Iran threatening to wipe Israel off it.

Wieseltier Is Right About The Lost Cause That Is The Peace Process

December 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

Leon Wieseltier has penned a eulogy for peace between Israel and the Palestinians in his lifetime, and while this is not going to surprise anyone save the most Pollyannaish dead-enders, it is difficult to conclude that he is wrong. I’ll take it even further and say that absent armed U.S. intervention with the purpose of imposing a solution on the two parties, or concurrent Israeli and Palestinian civil wars, it is unlikely to happen in my lifetime either (and Wieseltier has almost three decades on me). Wieseltier describes peace between Israelis and Palestinians as a lost cause, and he refers to a number of recent events that bolster his case – Hamas rockets, Mahmoud Abbas’s overheated rhetoric at the UN, the E1 settlement announcement, and the alliance between Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, among others. There is no doubt that the particulars of the last few years, or even the last few months, provide little reason for optimism, and Wieseltier recounts, “People assure me that all this can change if there is the political will to change it; but I do not detect the political will.” This is actually where I disagree with Wieseltier, because he frames the issue as a lack of will or courage, but I think it runs much deeper. We are rapidly getting to the point, if we have not passed it already, where structural conditions make a genuine peace between Israelis and Palestinians impossible without an outside shock to the system, irrespective of who each side’s leaders are and whether they have the will of Rabin, Ghandi, and the Dalai Lama rolled into one.

Not only is the peace process stagnant, the situation is actually getting worse by the day rather than just cruising in a holding pattern. The reason for this is that each side’s position is hardening, but in different ways. On the Israeli side, the problem is literally a structural one, in that Israel is too intertwined in the West Bank to be able to exit it in any comprehensive manner. Let’s say the Israeli government struck a deal tomorrow and agreed to keep a few of the largest settlement blocs in return for proportional land swaps within Israel, and all that needed to be done was to evacuate the rest of the settlements (and to figure out the precise parameters of such a deal, check out this amazing new tool from the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and the Atlantic that lets you draw borders and see the precise implications in terms of population and percentage of the West Bank). There is just no way that the government could ever carry this out anymore. Gaza was a cakewalk compared to what will be when Israel orders settlers to pick up their stakes and move, and partially this is because the promises that Israel made to Gaza’s settlers on compensation and resettlement have gone unfulfilled. Just look at what happened with Migron, which is a tiny outpost, or the gnashing of teeth over settlers having to evacuate the neighborhood of Ulpana and literally move just down the street. The idea that Israel will be able to just pick up and leave when it finds a suitable negotiating partner on the other side would be a joke if people didn’t actually think it was true. Furthermore, the argument that Israel was able to pull out of Gaza or Yamit and so it will be able to pull out of the West Bank when push comes to shove is at this point hopelessly naive, as if those instances have any real bearing on the situation in the West Bank, or as if Israeli politics and public opinion can just be overcome with a government order to evacuate. This is not a question of political will in the near horizon, but one of whether a certain action can ever be accomplished under any circumstances. I hate to say that I don’t think it can, and trying to do so would ignite a full blown civil war in Israel, with settlers fighting the IDF tooth and nail and a significant portion of Israelis sympathizing with the settlers who were urged and incentivized by their government for decades to go put down roots in the West Bank.

On the Palestinian side, what is being hardened is not necessarily the physical situation on the ground but the ideological situation. For every poll showing a majority of Palestinians supporting peace negotiations there is a poll showing a majority rejecting a two state solution. More worrying than any specific poll is that Hamas now controls Gaza, is making inroads in the West Bank, and smart money is that ten years from now Hamas will be the face of the Palestinians rather than Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (unless Hamas comes to control the PA). Lest you think that Hamas’s views toward Israel and accepting Israel inside the 1967 borders are moderating, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal wants to make sure that you are aware that Hamas is as radical as ever, as he reiterated to hundreds of thousands of cheering Gazans over the weekend that Hamas will literally fight to the death until Israel is gone. In addition, the apparent decision on the part of Sunni states such as Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey to prop up Hamas and the trend of emerging Islamist governments in the region means that Hamas is only going to grow stronger and be seen as more legitimate, and it follows that the same will happen to its views on negotiating a real two-state solution. Make no mistake, this is even more of a problem – and one that is just as intractable – as the problem I highlighted on the Israeli side, and once again making the problem disappear probably requires a Palestinian civil war, in which a Palestinian Authority led by a committed two-stater like Salam Fayyad defeats Hamas in open warfare.

So, is Wieseltier’s recent essay a depressing one? It is, and not just because one man has decided that the peace process is an irrevocably lost cause. It is depressing because it might be even more of a lost cause than Wieseltier acknowledges, and from where I’m sitting, I don’t see a good way out of the morass absent some terrible infighting and bloodshed on both sides. Ehud Olmert might have convinced some people that all he needed was a few more months and everything would have been solved, but a more realistic assessment suggests otherwise. That doesn’t mean that anyone should stop trying to work toward a two-state solution but it is as much of an uphill battle as exists anywhere.

Guest Post: Should Rabbis Be Political?

December 7, 2012 § 3 Comments

After the controversy that erupted this week over the email sent by the rabbis of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun to their congregants celebrating the Palestinian statehood vote at the United Nations and their subsequent apology for the email’s tone, I was talking about it with my close friend and college roommate Ephraim Pelcovits and I asked him to write a guest post for me on the proper role of rabbis in politics. Ephraim is uniquely qualified to speak on this issue since not only is he one of the smartest and most erudite people I know, he is also the rabbi of the East 55th Street Conservative Synagogue in Manhattan, and so this is an issue with which he grapples on a daily basis. He has an interesting take on the larger picture at play here, and so without further ado here is Ephraim:

Behind my desk in my synagogue study sit three photographs: The first is of my two little boys, three year old Alexander giving his infant brother Lev a kiss on the cheek. That picture reminds me to hurry up and get my work done at the synagogue so that I can spend time with the two of them.  The second photo on that shelf is of the sanctuary of a tiny, but wonderfully warm, Buffalo synagogue – Congregation B’nai Shalom – where I served as student rabbi my senior year of rabbinical school, and it reminds me of the enormous potential for rich communal life with incredibly limited resources. And finally, there is a third photograph, of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – the great 20th century theologian and activist – marching in Arlington National Cemetery in 1968 together with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath. While many American Jews recognize the famous photograph of Heschel and King marching arm in arm during the Selma-Montgomery March in 1965, I have deliberately chosen to display a more obscure photograph of these American heroes, protesting yet again, this time against the Vietnam War.

The reason that lesser known photograph speaks to me is because it shows these great religious leaders willing to speak out a second time – breaking with some of their closest allies – when their consciences told them that their country faced a second moral crisis. While many of Rabbi Heschel’s colleague’s supported his heroic efforts on behalf of the Civil Rights movement, quite a few of them – including his disciple and right hand man on his trip to Selma in 1965, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman –  disagreed vehemently and publicly with his opposition to Vietnam. Heschel’s appearance at that rally in Arlington in Febuary of 1968 caused an uproar, when photographs of his Reform colleague Rabbi Eisendrath holding a Torah scroll in a cemetery, in contravention of Jewish religious law, appeared in the press. Heschel did not cower from these attacks, and instead argued that under these circumstances a Torah most certainly belonged in Arlington National Cemetery. In response, Heschel quoted a noted 18th century rabbi who had argued that, “a Torah should be taken by the community to the cemetery to pray…to stop a plague.” For King too, opposition to Vietnam was not easy, and he waited until his famous “A Time to Break the Silence” address at Riverside Church on April 1, 1967 to speak out against the war. That public attack on the Johnson administration tore apart his alliance with a president who had worked so hard to pass the Civil and Voting Rights Acts through Congress just a few years before. But as King put it in that address, “Men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy… We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

Last Friday, my esteemed colleagues, the rabbinic leadership of New York’s second oldest congregation, B’nai Jeshurun (BJ) issued a letter in support of the Palestinian Authorities approved bid for enhanced status at the United Nations. My own feelings about the Palestinian delegation’s status change are more subdued and less celebratory then theirs were, but I certainly followed this vote with hopes and prayers that this latest diplomatic gesture would, against the odds, advance the cause of a peaceful Palestinian state for its people in the West Bank and Gaza, alongside the Jewish people’s homeland, the State of Israel. While neither the BJ letter nor the excitement about it in the press were particularly surprising to me, I was surprised at the reaction of my own congregants and family to the coverage of the letter in the New York Times. What I heard from them was dismay that these rabbis had spoken out on what they dubbed a “political” issue, one which they argued was beyond the purview of clergy. That repeated theme left me pondering Heschel and King, and why and whether their support for civil rights or Vietnam might be different than this situation? Was this rabbinic stance any different?

The US Tax code allows a far wider range of political activity by houses of worship than many people understand, including speaking out on specific social issues and organizing congregants to vote. But synagogues, churches and mosques may not endorse specific candidates nor engage in partisan advocacy, or risk losing their 501(c)(3) charitable status. Clearly the statement by BJ rabbis will not affect their synagogue’s tax status, yet there are several other questions, more important (or at least interesting to me) than parsing the intricacies of our tax code, which I try to consider before taking such a public stand on a controversial moral issue.

1. “Do I have a broad and deep understanding of the issue I wish to comment upon, and can I clearly filter my thinking about the issue through the prism of traditional Jewish study – which is my specialty as a religious leader?”

Here I look to Heschel’s example yet again, this time in his essay explaining his involvement in the anti-war movement, which he carefully grounds in Biblical and Rabbinic text. “There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.”

2. After considering this first question, I then ponder, “Will I be able to best address this issue via a public statement – a community letter or sermon – or might I do a better job of persuasion by discussing the problem with a smaller, more informal group, or simply by setting an example of the conduct I think is best?” Most of the time this is the course that makes the most sense to me, and which I choose to pursue

3. Finally, and this is most critical as I consider a thorny issue like Israel and Palestine, I ask myself, “Am I getting too far ahead of my community?” As a mentor once pointed out to me, “A rabbi should always be one or two steps ahead of his or her community – to keep pulling them forward – but if he or she gets further ahead than that, the community will be left behind.  They’ll never be able to catch up with you.”

The rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun are deep thinkers whom I have no doubt asked these, or similar, questions of themselves before writing their letter to their community. While it is not a letter I could or would have chosen to sign and send to my community, I have no doubt that they wrote that letter with the same conviction that Dr. King had when he decided to speak out against the Vietnam War, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” May the hopes and aspirations that were expressed in that letter for peace and prosperity for all of the inhabitants of the Holy Land be speedily accomplished.

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