January 2, 2013 § 2 Comments
During the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s ambassadors conference on Monday, the assembled diplomats were given a tongue lashing by Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, who took exception to a question posed by UN Ambassador Ron Prosor about the decision to start the zoning and planning process for E1. After Prosor asked why the government decided to make the E1 announcement and received a round of applause from the room, Amidror responded by saying that American and British diplomats would never applaud someone who criticized the policy of their own government, and that ambassadors are merely clerks tasked with carrying out rather than questioning the government’s directives. He further suggested that any diplomats unhappy with this should either go into politics themselves or resign.
As the various anonymous quotes in the papers make abundantly clear, Israel’s ambassadors were not happy with Amidror’s reaction to Prosor’s question. They feel as if they are being thrown into the spotlight to defend unpopular policies without much assistance or explanation, and Prosor’s question was aimed at getting an idea as to why the government decided to announce building in E1 at that particular time. Divulging plans for E1 the very day of the UN Palestinian statehood vote put Israeli diplomats in a very hard position, as they now not only had to defend a policy that the U.S. and the EU had previously communicated was a redline not to be crossed, but had to do so in the context of it being viewed as a retaliatory move meant to punish the Palestinians, which made them look petulant. As someone who used to train U.S. Foreign Service Officers on how to deal with tough questioning, I know firsthand that diplomats posted overseas have about the toughest job in the world. They don’t get to shut down when they leave the office at the end of the day like most people do, since literally everywhere they go – bars, restaurants, parties, small gatherings with friends – they are representing their country, and they need to watch everything they say since a stray off-message comment might be overheard and repeated as the official position of their government. Israeli ambassadors and chiefs of mission have to deal with this problem in an even more acute way, because they are the top diplomats in their host countries representing a state that is often a target of extra scrutiny. They have a difficult enough job as it is explaining and defending Israeli policies without the added burden of dealing with surprise building announcements and not getting enough direction from the Foreign Ministry on the rationale behind certain decisions.
The additional problem in this case is that despite the Foreign Ministry’s recommendation that the government not take any actions that would be explicitly viewed as retaliation for the Palestinian statehood gambit at the UN, the government ignored this advice and did exactly that. The ambassadors’ protest on Monday reflects frustration on the part of the professionals that the politicians are doing things that are not necessarily well thought out, and that are being driven by heated emotions rather than cool analysis. It is the hallmark of a government thinking about the politics of a situation rather than the policy implications, and understandably Israeli diplomats are frustrated. I do not mean to suggest that Israel’s diplomatic corps is universally leftist and that they uniformly disagree with settlement expansion or building in E1, since I am sure that is not the case. Not having a coherent strategy that is communicated to them beforehand makes their lives a lot more difficult irrespective of whether or not they support the underlying decision, and that is what Prosor’s question and his colleagues’ applause.
There are two things that should be taken away from this incident. First, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Netanyahu government to shove aside any and all criticism of Israeli actions as motivated by hatred for Israel or closet anti-Semitism. A lot of what Israel deals with definitely does fall into this category, but not all, and when you have a senior official upbraiding Israel’s ambassadors for criticizing the government and insisting that dissent will not be tolerated, you know that there is a much larger problem at hand. The official government line has been that Israel’s image problem stems from a failure of public relations rather than a failure of policy, but this is simply not credible when it comes to complaints from your own diplomats. It is one thing to dismiss criticism from Europe or the UN as biased, but quite another to dismiss complaints from the people manning your own diplomatic front lines. This should be a serious wakeup call to Netanyahu that things are off the rails, and that policy is going to have to be recalibrated.
Second, Amidror’s response to Prosor was a real overreaction, and all the more surprising given that he was not speaking to a group that could in any way be deemed a hostile audience. One of two things, and possibly both simultaneously, are going on here. Either the government is actually feeling a lot more pressure on settlements and E1 than it lets on, which would explain Amidror’s hair triggered short temper, or the government is feeling a lot more pressure over its declining pre-election poll numbers than it lets on and was willing to use a clash with its ambassadors to score political points. My hunch is that it is the former, and I certainly hope that it is the former, but one never knows with Israeli politics. If Netanyahu and his advisers are indeed feeling squeezed on the E1 issue, hopefully it will forestall greater settlement activity and push the government back to a serious negotiating posture once the elections are over. Either way, berating your top diplomat when he asks for some clarification on a policy that he is tasked with publicly and privately defending is probably not a great way to inspire confidence in your policy planning and implementation process.
December 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
I wrote a piece for the Atlantic yesterday about how Israel’s recent announcements on settlements in the West Bank and building in East Jerusalem is widely viewed as an effort to punish the Palestinians in the wake of their statehood bid at the UN, but that’s not the only thing driving Israeli policy. The sudden emergence of serious competitors on Bibi Netanyahu’s right flank accounts for much of what is going on as well. Here’s a teaser:
Over the past few weeks, the Israeli government has been on a building spree. First came word that planning and zoning would begin for E1, a controversial move that would further encircle East Jerusalem with settlements — cutting off from the West Bank the part of the city Palestinians demand to be the capital of their future state. As part of the same announcement, Israel said that it was going to build more housing in other parts of the West Bank as well.
This week, the government approved 1500 new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem — the same housing units whose initial announcement in 2010 during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel caused a temporary rift between the United States and Israel and Hilary Clinton’s chewing-out of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The Interior Ministry and the Jerusalem Local Committee are also expected to approve plans to build in Givat Hamatos and Gilo this week, both of which are new Jerusalem neighborhoods that are also across the 1967 armistice line that divides East and West Jerusalem.
This is all taking place despite enormous pressure and condemnation from Western countries, who are not happy with the escalation of Israeli plans to expand settlements or to build up Jerusalem neighborhoods that challenge the viability of a future Palestinian state. Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal are about to formally condemn Israel over its East Jerusalem building plans, and the 14 non-American members of the United Nations Security Council are going to do the same. Even the United States seems to have lost its usual patience with the Israeli government, deeming the new building announcements part of a “pattern of provocative action” that endangers the peace process and the two-state solution. Israel seems hell-bent on isolating itself over the settlement issue, and appears determined to move ahead with plans for both the West Bank and East Jerusalem no matter the cost.
It is easy to chalk this up to Israel’s fury with the Palestinian Authority’s statehood bid at the United Nations, as the E1 announcement came the day after the vote, amidst stated determination on Israel’s part to punish the Palestinians for pursuing unilateral moves outside of the Oslo framework. “We felt if the Palestinians were taking unilateral action in the UN, we had to also send the message that we could take unilateral actions,” Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren said this week, making the connection explicit.
Yet, this does not account for the scope of the recent Israeli announcements, or for the seeming recklessness of drawing real anger and censure from Israel’s Western allies immediately following American and EU support during Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza. There is indeed something else going on here, and it has nothing to do with the Palestinians and everything to do with the political jockeying taking place on the right of Israel’s political spectrum before Israelis go to the polls on January 22 to elect their next government.
To read the article in its entirety, please click over to the Atlantic’s website.
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.
December 4, 2012 § 9 Comments
Last night Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted an apt point that all supporters of Israel should think about very hard. He wrote, “Two things can be true at the same time: Israel is judged more harshly than any other nation–and, Netanyahu is behaving terribly.” Israel is subjected to double standards to which no other country is held, and if you think that isn’t true, consider the nearly single-minded focus on Israel that is the hallmark of the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council, or the harsh spotlight trained upon Israel over civilian casualties relative to other countries. Israel behaves badly on plenty of occasions, but so do other countries with far less complex challenges, and yet a visitor from another planet encountering Earth for the first time would lump Israel together with North Korea based on the media coverage (and if you think that is a fair comparison, please just stop reading now since you’ll be wasting your time). Israel always starts off in any situation at a complete disadvantage, and this is something that no other country deals with on a similar scale. Yet, this does not mean that Israel is a completely blameless actor in every instance, and none of the above obviates the fact that not all criticism of the Netanyahu government is a result of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, dislike of Netanyahu personally, or driven by a hidden agenda. To take the case in point, Netanyahu’s actions since last Thursday are not only childish and puerile, they are weakening Israel to an immeasurable degree.
Let’s zoom out for a minute and look at the long term picture. Israel is now perhaps more isolated than it has ever been on a number of levels, and certainly the most isolated it has been since 1975 during the Arab oil boycotts and the falling out with the Ford administration. Looking at Israel’s traditional regional allies, Israel’s relationship with Turkey is at an all-time low, its ties with Egypt are the most strained they have been in the post-Camp David era, and Jordan is too preoccupied with its own internal problems and the wave of refugees coming over the border from Syria to give Israel much cover on anything. While Israel does not have to worry about military threats from Arab states, it is looking at a long-term stream of diplomatic pressure from Islamist governments and less cooperation from Arab states on repressing non-state actors who threaten Israel.
In Europe, Israel faces an uphill battle as well. There is generally a lot of sympathy in European capitals for the Palestinians, but Europe’s indignation over settlements is real as well. This was driven home by the lopsided UN vote on Palestinian statehood, in which the Czech Republic was the only European country to vote with Israel. New allies Cyprus and Greece, to whom Israel has pinned such high hopes, both voted to grant Palestine non-member state observer status, and stalwart Israeli ally Germany abstained due to its anger over repeatedly being dismissed by Israel over the issue of settlement expansion. This all comes on the heels of the surprising European support for Operation Pillar of Cloud, which indicates that while Israel faces a tough audience in Europe, it has some wiggle room.
Then there is the United States, which has given Israel military aid for Iron Dome, constantly goes to bat for it in the UN including last week, was unwavering in its rhetorical support during military operations in Gaza, and also has been pleading with Israel to halt settlement expansion. The U.S. is unlikely to put heat on Israel like Europe does, but it has repeatedly expressed its displeasure with settlements and is very clear that it sees settlement growth as an obstacle to peace.
Given all of this, what is Israel’s most sensible course of action? Is it to loudly announce that it is going to “punish” the Palestinians for going to the UN by building thousands of more homes in the West Bank? Or is it to look at the big picture, realize that settlements are not just an excuse trotted out by anti-Semitic Europeans and Israel-hating leftists but are actually causing Israel all sorts of problems, and come up with some other way to deal with what it views as Palestinian intransigence? Israel went in the span of weeks from being viewed sympathetically due to Palestinian rockets indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians to being denounced and having its ambassadors hauled in on the carpet over settlement expansion and being threatened with all sorts of countermeasures by the West. Please, someone make a cogent argument for me how this is somehow a brilliant strategy and how Netanyahu is ensuring Israel’s future existence, because from where I am sitting it is counterproductive, dangerous, and unwaveringly stupid. It’s all fine and good to constantly claim that Western views don’t matter and that Israel has the right to do what it wants, but that is the equivalent to burying your head in the sand. The fact is that Israel cannot exist on its own, it needs allies given the neighborhood in which it lives, and settlements are actually a problem for Israel’s allies. That’s the truth, and pretending otherwise is fiddling while Rome burns.
It has become clear to me over the past few years that contrary to the popular myth that the problems between Israel and the Palestinians stem from 1967, the parties are still fighting over 1948. Significant segments of Palestinians, with Hamas leading the way, simply will not concede the legitimacy of Israel, plain and simple. Concurrently, the constant refrains from the right about Palestinians not needing a state of their own because they have Jordan or the tired old canard that there is no land to give back to the Palestinians because it belonged to Jordan and to Egypt (always smugly spouted as if this is some brilliantly clever argument) is a vestige of 1948. Everyone loves to point out that Hamas doesn’t care about settlements, and that the PLO was founded in 1964, and both of these things are true and speak to the challenges that Israel faces that have absolutely nothing to do with settlements. But – and this a big one – settlements exacerbate the situation enormously, particularly with Western countries. Even ceding the argument that Palestinians of all stripes are never going to accept Israel in the pre-1967 borders and that Arab states will never want to make peace with Israel, Israel should then be doing everything it can to make sure it has the West on its side. You want to know what the best way to foul that up is? Proudly declaring that you don’t care what anyone else thinks and that you are going to build settlements wherever and whenever you like, and that doing so is not in any way an obstacle to a two-state solution and that in fact the blame rests solely with the other side. I am sick and tired of watching Israel’s supporters, of whom I am most definitely one, ignore the glaringly obvious facts that are right in front of their faces. Settlements are a huge problem, case closed. If you think that the benefit to expanding Israel’s presence in the West Bank outweighs everything else, then I respect your argument and at least you are going into this with eyes wide open. Pretending that settlements are an ancillary side issue though is willful blindness, and if that’s what you really think, then your powers of observation and analysis are sorely lacking.