Paying the Piper

December 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

The Israeli government this week is debating making two sets of extraordinary payments to different groups. Both payments are in some part necessary, but the story they tell about Israel is not a hopeful one. Indeed, they are an encapsulation of why so many, both inside Israel and out, harbor immense frustration with Israel’s political leadership.

The first set of payments is in response to the fires that ravaged Haifa, Zichron Yaakov, and other pockets of Israel over the past week. The initial suspicion was that the primary cause of the fires was arson, and the Israeli government arrested thirty five suspects, a majority of whom were Arab citizens of Israel. Deliberately torching homes and forests for nationalist motives can certainly be considered terrorism, and the government moved quickly to treat it as such, with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan calling to demolish perpetrators’ homes and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri floating the idea that arsonists’ Israeli citizenship should be revoked. Of more immediate consequence, a number of ministers and MKs called for the government to compensate everyone whose homes and belongings were damaged by the fires, and the Israel Tax Authority on Tuesday ruled that the fires were universally the result of arson. The reason this is important is that the state only has to compensate citizens who suffered financial losses as a result of terrorism; if you lost your home due to wildfires, such as the ones that ravaged the Carmel forest in 2010, then you are covered by private insurance and not entitled to complete restitution from the state. In this case, despite the fact that the Fire and Rescue Authority deemed only 25 of the 1,773 fires to be arson and the Israeli police initially believe that the fires in Haifa – where the most damage occurred – were not arson-related, by moving to cover all losses the government is creating a narrative of Israel under assault from a terrorist fire intifada.

My objection to this is not because I have any desire to see Israelis who lost their homes in a terrible fire be abandoned by the state. It is also not because I think criminal arsonists acting out of nationalist motives are in any way justified or are anything but terrorists. It is because there is another and far more accurate story to tell here, and it is one that does not paint a picture of Israeli society breaking apart because Jews cannot trust Arabs not to burn their country to the ground. Leaving aside the fact that it now appears that deliberate arson was a drop in the bucket compared to weather and environmental factors, the real story of these fires is the cooperation that ensued between Israel and its neighbors and between different segments of Israeli society. The dominant theme is Jews and Arabs helping each other out, rather than Jews and Arabs at each other’s throats. The Palestinian Authority sent eight fire trucks and forty four firefighters to help bring the fires under control, prompting a thank you call from Prime Minister Netanyahu to President Abbas. Even more encouragingly, firefighters from Ramallah helped put out the fires in the West Bank settlement of Halamish, rather than limiting their assistance to fires inside the Green Line. Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey all sent personnel or equipment. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs crossed community lines to host their fellow citizens in their homes, regardless of religion or politics. Yes, there was deliberate arson. Yes, many people on social media were celebrating Jews being burned. These things should not be papered over as if they are irrelevant. But by rushing to declare the entirety of the fires as a terrorist attack that requires the state to compensate every effected Israeli, the government is elevating the smallest and most unsavory part of the story and making sure that it subsumes the far larger and more important part. Rather than seizing on hope, the government is seizing on fear, and guaranteeing that the 2016 fires will be remembered as the latest example of terrorism rather than as an encouraging example of true partnership and cooperation.

The second set of payments being debated this week involves another group that has been deliberately wronged, and in this case as well the government is rushing to pay compensation to people who should never have to be compensated. Despite the fact that Moshe Kahlon’s opposition temporarily derailed it yesterday, the bill to retroactively legalize settlements built on private Palestinian land and pay compensation to the Palestinian landowners is still moving forward, and will only be stopped by a High Court ruling or Netanyahu suddenly developing some political and moral courage on this issue. There is no question that if the government manages to legalize what is blatantly and indisputably illegal that the Palestinians affected need to be fairly compensated. But nobody should celebrate not stiffing the landowners outright as an example of Israeli justice or fair play. The juxtaposition of Israeli MKs who think that it is fine to take revenge on Palestinians who have rendered land uninhabitable for Jews – such as Oren Hazan, who actually held up a lighter in the Knesset and demanded “an eye for an eye” – against the majority of MKs who think that it is fine to render land uninhabitable for Palestinians by illegally taking it and then just paying for it afterwards is particularly jarring.

If the government is so intent on paying people to vacate land in the West Bank, it should move the settlers in places like Amona – who were encouraged by the government to go there and were led to believe that they would never have to pick up and leave – and compensate them for their detrimental reliance on explicit and implicit promises made by successive Israeli governments. Much like the compensation for people who lost everything to wildfires and arson, the government thinks that compensating Palestinians who lost their land puts Israel in a positive light when in fact it does the opposite. Rather than instill faith that the Israeli government will do the right thing, it instills faith that the Israeli government will take a bad situation and somehow make it even worse.

Structuring Conflict in the Trumpian World

November 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

In the decade before the unfortunately named Arab Spring uprisings, political science on the subject of the Middle East was largely consumed with explaining the region’s persistent and seemingly exceptional authoritarianism. One of the best treatments of the subject was Yale political scientist Ellen Lust-Okar’s 1995 book titled Structuring Conflict in the Arab World. Lust-Okar looked at why political opposition groups in some Middle Eastern states would mobilize popular protests during economic crises while in other states they wouldn’t, and she developed a handy theory to explain the variance in behavior despite similar circumstances. While at first glance this topic has nothing to do with American Jewry and the nascent Trump administration, Lust-Okar’s book was the first thing that came to my mind when thinking about the way different Jewish organizations are responding to the challenges that President-elect Trump is presenting.

Lust-Okar’s theory on what made opposition groups decide to mobilize or not was that it wasn’t a function of the groups themselves, but a function of how the regime manipulated them. Middle Eastern authoritarian governments establish different relationships between the state and the opposition, and between opposition groups themselves, by creating unified or divided structures of contestation. In plain English, the state (wittingly or unwittingly) determines how opposition groups behave based on whether it favors some groups over others or treats them all as equally illegitimate. If the regime grants some political parties or groups legal status while making others illegal, the legal ones become reluctant to protest or join with the “illegal” opposition since they will be putting their own status at risk. Having the regime’s favor carries with it benefits, including most basically not being arbitrarily thrown in jail, so by playing it safe and not challenging the regime, the legal groups ensure that they will not be repressed or excluded from the system no matter what abuses the state carries out against others. On the other side of the equation, the illegal parties or groups are constantly looking to have the legal parties or groups join their protests in order to give them the imprimatur of legality and the safety of numbers. When the legal parties inevitably choose not join in order to protect their own status, it allows the regime to portray the protests as illegitimate and carried out by outlaws and rabble-rousers with invalid grievances.

I’ve been thinking about this while observing the way American Jewish organizations are reacting to the goings on surrounding Trump, his appointments, and his policies that will most directly impact Israel and Jews themselves. To get one important thing out of the way up front, I am not arguing that Trump is planning on banning groups he doesn’t like or that we are dealing with an authoritarian regime that will imprison opponents. But looking at the dynamic of opposition in non-democracies helps to understand the dynamic emerging here.

To be sure, every White House has groups it favors and groups it doesn’t. Every White House uses the divisions within groups to its advantage. There is nothing illegal or untoward about this, but it influences group dynamics in a way that can be extremely damaging to group cohesiveness. To take a recent prominent example, the Iran deal was divisive enough within the American Jewish community without needing an extra boost from the Obama administration, but the White House unquestionably made things worse in its appeals to Jewish groups and making the “it will make Israel safer” argument a big part of the sell. This is not to absolve other actors or place the lion’s share of the blame on the White House, since there was nothing more ultimately damaging or divisive than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress, but the choice made by the administration played a part in fracturing the Jewish community as well.

What is already going on before Trump has even taken office, however, is orders of magnitudes worse. For starters, no Jewish groups should even debate supporting the appointment of someone who runs a site that traffics in the worst sort of anti-Semitic and bigoted tropes as Trump’s most influential domestic policy advisor. As Bari Weiss correctly argues, whether Steve Bannon is personally anti-Semitic is irrelevant given how much anti-Semitic filth he is responsible for spreading and promoting. No Jewish groups should even debate supporting the appointment of someone who has retweeted anti-Semitic messages as Trump’s most influential foreign policy advisor. That Mike Flynn may want a closer relationship with Israel should not matter when he feels comfortably at home with people who view Jews as the source of the world’s ills. Yet whether to support, oppose, or remain neutral on these appointments has become a controversy within the American Jewish community despite the fact that it should be clear-cut that they are completely outside the boundary of what we should deem acceptable.

Say what you will about the Obama White House, but it listened to and talked with everyone without regard to politics. When the previous White House Jewish liaison Matt Nosanchuk stepped down, one of the most complimentary missives came from ZOA president Mort Klein, who heads a group that is hardly a supporter of the current administration. Is anyone confident that the next White House will behave the same way? Will it listen to or deal with groups that do not share its views? My fear is that the Trump administration will look at how it so easily divided Jewish groups over an issue that should not even be debatable, and make the divisions even worse by rewarding groups that it views as compliant and freezing out groups that it views as intransigent. Once this structure of contestation has been set up, opposing the administration on anything will become that much harder, including on issues that directly threaten American Jewish interests or Israel.

American Jewish groups are not going to see eye to eye or march in lockstep on every policy issue, nor should they. It was eminently reasonable that some groups dedicated almost all of their time and energies to opposing the Iran deal while other groups to supporting it. Policy differences are not themselves destructive. But blatant anti-Semitism is not a policy difference; it is the reddest of red lines. We are creating in-groups and out-groups over an issue where everyone needs to be on the same side. As someone whose natural inclination is to more often than not side with pragmatism over absolutist principles, I innately understand the argument of not doing something that will foreclose any ability to have the president’s ear. Influence is often a result of being inside the room rather than shouting from a bullhorn outside it. But just as the television executives who went to Trump Tower on Monday thought that they were there to have a conversation with the president-elect and were instead berated for over an hour, I fear that we are falling into the same trap over an issue that is mission-critical to any Jewish organization irrespective of the precise mission. Do not allow Steve Bannon to become a litmus test that the Trump White House uses to determine which groups are “good” and which are “bad.” There is going to be lots to fight over and argue about during the next four years, providing us all with many opportunities to engage in Jews’ favorite pastime. If we cannot stand together at the outset when given such a wide and obvious target, then it is not going to be long before the wide and obvious target is us.

Bibi’s Trump Dilemma

November 18, 2016 § 1 Comment

Natan Sachs and I argue today in Foreign Affairs that despite the jubilation on the Israeli right at Trump’s election, it actually creates some real political problems for Bibi Netanyahu.

On November 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated President-elect Donald Trump through a video message, in which the Israeli leader could barely contain his giddiness at the prospect of a friendlier White House. The ruling Israeli right-wing coalition, which sees Trump as a potential champion of Greater Israel, believes that the United States’ next president will finally remove any outside constraints on settlement construction in the West Bank or the legalization of already existing settlements built without governmental approval. Settlement-friendly politicians in Israel are already working hard on such moves; on Wednesday, a bill legalizing settlements built on private Palestinian land passed its first reading in the Knesset, despite the objections of the attorney general and a near certain rejection by Israel’s High Court of Justice. Some in Israel even view the next four years as an opportunity to annex the West Bank outright. This is a “tremendous opportunity to announce a renunciation of the idea of founding a Palestinian state in the heart of the land,” Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, stated. “The era of the Palestinian state is over.”

It’s not clear what Trump will do, of course, nor whether he even knows his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the campaign, he initially said that he would like to remain a “neutral guy”—a contrast to decades of U.S. policy that his tilted toward Israel—but he later shifted to a more traditional pro-Israel stance. To the delight of the Israeli right, the Republican platform omitted any mention of a two-state solution. And since the election, the co-chairs of Trump’s Israel advisory committee have reiterated controversial statements about Trump moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. They’ve also said that Trump does not view settlements as an obstacle to peace. At the same time, Trump himself told The Wall Street Journal of his desire to close the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. “As a dealmaker, I’d like to do … the deal that can’t be made,” he said. “And do it for humanity’s sake.”

Despite the myriad conflicting signals, it is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu will now have a freer hand to implement the policies he desires with regard to settlements and negotiations with the Palestinians. Politically speaking, he may no longer have to run the gauntlet between a coalition that demands more building in the West Bank and a White House that insists on less.

But Netanyahu may soon find out that he needs to be careful with what he wishes for. Freedom from U.S. pressure would be a mixed blessing. Rather than solving his problems, it could cost him his political leverage, his ability to play two-level games.

Head over to Foreign Affairs to read the rest of the piece.

Trump and the Virtues of Israeli Caution

November 17, 2016 § 2 Comments

The Israeli right has embraced Donald Trump’s election as if the country has been granted a new lease on life. Naftali Bennett has declared the end of the era of the Palestinian state and shared his view that Trump’s election is an opportunity to restructure the entire region. Ofir Akunis has called for a new round of settlement construction. Yoav Kish has said that it is time to stop talking about two states. In general, there is a mood of exhilaration on the right driven by a sense that come January 20, President Trump will give Israel leeway to anything it pleases.

For a government that has been frustrated by President Obama for eight years, it is easy to understand the temptation to throw caution to the wind and move full steam ahead on settlement building and creating a new paradigm vis-à-vis the Palestinians. If yesterday’s preliminary approval of the bill legalizing settlements built on private Palestinian land is an indication of what’s to come, Israel is about to embark on a path that eliminates any ambiguity about its intentions. The government of Israel has every right to do what it pleases, of course. But doing so would be an enormous mistake. Taking a myopic approach and racking up as many short term wins as possible before the winds shift will only harm Israel in the long term, and would be a continuation of allowing tactics to win out over strategy.

For starters, assuming that Trump does indeed give Israel an unencumbered hand to deal with the West Bank and the Palestinians (more on this assumption in a moment), the United States is not the only relevant actor in this drama. Israel has spent years fending off sanctions from Europe over settlement activity, and the labeling controversy of earlier this year will seem like child’s play compared to what will come if Israel does indeed annex part of the West Bank. Israel has touted its improving ties with Sunni Arab states, but as tenuous as these relationships already are, they will disappear completely if Israel is viewed as destroying any chances of Palestinian sovereignty once and for all. Russia, which has enormous leverage over Israel at the moment given its role in Syria and its willingness to look the other way when Israel targets Hizballah weapons shipments, is also unlikely to respond well to Israel formally ending a two-state policy. In short, while any American administration will always be Israel’s top concern, it is never the only one.

And even if it were, the fact is that nobody – neither in Israel nor here – actually has any concrete idea what a Trump administration’s Israel policy will be. The panoply of conflicting signals and statements from Trump and his advisers on topics such as the wisdom of pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, whether the American embassy will be moved to Jerusalem, or if Israel is at fault for the current impasse or if it is only the Palestinians, means that predictions about what Trump will support or tolerate are speculative at best. While I’d say that he will take more rightwing positions on Israel were I forced to bet, I also think it is safe to say that he does not have deeply held ideological beliefs on the subject. If, for instance, Trump wants to get Sunni buy-in on a Syria policy that effectively strengthens Iran and the price in return is cracking down on Israeli building over the Green Line (an unlikely but not impossible scenario), is anyone confident that he won’t sacrifice his Israel policy for a more pressing regional priority? If Israel commits itself to a policy in the West Bank that is even more encouraging of building anywhere and everywhere – or moves toward outright annexation – on the assumption that Trump will not pose an obstacle, it may find itself in a deep hole with no way out. Avigdor Lieberman seems to recognize the potential danger, urging his government to strike a deal with Trump that allows building inside the blocs while freezing it everywhere else rather than build everywhere with abandon, but there is no indication that any other coalition members have the same presence of mind.

Just as there is no way of knowing what comes with Trump, there is no way of knowing what comes after Trump. Given the radical departure that President Obama represented from the Bush era, and the radical departure that President-elect Trump represents from the Obama era, and the seemingly permanent hunger of the American electorate for change from whatever currently reigns in Washington, it is reasonable to assume that the 46th president will have very different views from the 45th. If Israel builds so much in the West Bank over the next four – or possibly eight – years to destroy any possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state, it might find itself under fire from the next president from day one. Shutting off the possibility of changing course when there is a new administration is foolhardy.

Then there’s the inconvenient fact that the majority of American Jews are rigidly opposed to Trump, and it creates an awkward situation if the Israeli government treats Trump as its long-awaited savior when most American Jews view him with extreme distaste. This is not to say that Israel should exhibit any disdain for Trump; it must have the best relationship with any U.S. president that it can. But there is a difference between staying on Trump’s good side and anointing him as the second coming of Cyrus the Great. If Israel cares a lick about the opinions of the 76% of American Jews who did not vote for Trump and views American Jews as an important national security asset for Israel, it will not embrace Trump in a bear hug.

Were I the Israeli prime minister, I would use Trump’s ascent to the presidency as an opportunity to reset the foundation of the relationship with my most important and only irreplaceable ally. The Netanyahu government should make the most out of the fact that there will certainly be less public conflict and disagreement with Trump than there has been with Obama to reinforce how valuable Israel is as an intelligence and military partner, and to reinforce to American Jews that the U.S.-Israel alliance rests on democratic values and ideological affinity above all else. Seizing on Trump’s willingness to look the other way on settlements and thus plowing ahead with a narrow domestic political agenda will be squandering a larger space to think strategically about Israel’s geostrategic position, and will inevitably lead to negative consequences down the road.

Nobody should be naïve about what is likely to happen next. Talking about two states, the peace process, and a resumption of negotiations as remotely imminent given the two governments about to be in place borders on delusion. It is also important to note that this is not solely a Trump-related phenomenon; measures such as the Amona-related settlement legalization bill, despite the Washington Post’s strange framing of it as being spurred directly by the election, have been in the works for months. This does not mean giving up making the case again and again for why two states are necessary, but expectations have to be properly calibrated. Nevertheless, the Israeli government should think long and hard before taking the plunge toward using a Trump presidency to kill two states for good. Things that seem too good to be true almost always are.

What To Do Next

November 9, 2016 § 5 Comments

I am as disappointed and angry, and frankly shaken to my core, about what happened yesterday as anyone out there. That Trump is now the president-elect does not change the fact that he is uniquely unqualified to serve in the office by dint of his temperament, intellectual vapidity, lack of any relevant experience, terrible judgement, willingness to display and countenance all manner of bigoted and misogynistic behavior, and most crucially his clear admiration for authoritarian norms and prerogatives. I feel a mortifying sense of embarrassment that he is now the face of our country and what we offer up as a representative example of America. I am repulsed by his dark vision of our current state of affairs, and terrified for what will happen when those who have placed their sincere hopes in his ability to deliver all sorts of undeliverable promises realize that he cannot do so. Well aware of how overwrought this will sound, when I stood in front of Kira’s door this morning for thirty seconds before going in because I wasn’t sure what to tell her and because I wanted to put off for just one more minute shattering her sweet innocence about the world, it transported me back to how I felt on the terrible afternoon that my mom died and I had to call my brother and my aunts and uncles to let them know. I stand second to none in my conviction that four years from now we will be picking up the wreckage of geopolitical upheaval unlike anything seen since WWII.

But despite all of this, there is one – and only one – appropriate response. The United States of America only works if we all accept that we belong to a single political community and that the legitimacy of our political system is above question. I never had any patience for those who treated President Bush as illegitimate because he lost the popular vote; we have an electoral system that gives the presidency to the winner in the Electoral College, and unless you want to throw out the entirety of the Constitution, you don’t get to pick and choose which parts you want to abide by and which parts you want to ignore. Similarly, I had even less patience for those who treated and still treat President Obama as illegitimate based on debunked and puerile conspiracy theories about his citizenship, allegiances, or his alleged un-Americanness. There is nothing more disgusting to me than Americans who derogatorily refer to their elected chief executive as “your president” because they didn’t vote for him or don’t support him. If you are an American citizen, the person who takes the oath of office on January 20 is our president whether you like him or not. Them’s the facts, and there is literally nothing less American or more unpatriotic than behaving otherwise. Those of you who could not grasp this very simple principle during the past eight years should hang your heads in shame and should have the decency and self-awareness not to lecture anyone about it now that you have a president you like, and those who will not be able to grasp this very simple principle for the next four years will forfeit the right to complain about how President Obama was treated during the past eight.

With all that said, I am going to do anything and everything I can to oppose what I believe will be a disastrous Trump presidency, but I will do it based on disagreements with his policies and his behavior and not based on any questions about his legitimacy. I suspect that many of you will do the same, and I welcome any and all thoughts about productive ways to limit the policy fallout that is coming. Spare me your pablum about coming together. We do not have to unify as a country, heal the political divisions, just accept the inevitable, or treat this as anything but a dark day, and I hope that we don’t. The consequences of this election cannot possibly be overstated, particularly if – like me – you care first and foremost about foreign policy and America’s place in the world. Stop making idle threats about making aliyah or moving to Canada, and instead fight tooth and nail to ensure that the United States remains the greatest country on earth. Be the loyal opposition. Be an American by conviction and not by convenience.

But we absolutely must be unwaveringly unified as a polity, which means that on January 20, Donald Trump becomes OUR president. It means sincerely wishing and praying for his success as a president and as the leader of our country, even and especially if you think, as I do, that he will be a historically, disastrously, abysmal failure. Lead by example in fearing and preparing for the worst but hoping for the best. Be an American first.

Go Vote

November 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

On Election Day four years ago, I wrote about the following scenario, which is worth recounting again this year. There was a leader of a country who was in power for over a decade and was forced out of office before he was ready to step down. The leader’s bitter rival, who had spent months painstakingly turning elites and the general population against the country’s ruler, took over power and embarked on a crusade to cement his own hold over the country. After nearly a decade marked by scandal and recriminations, the current leader was retiring and the first leader’s son, who had a severe alcohol problem, a string of failed business ventures to his name, and was chased by allegations of drug use, decided that he wanted to run the country. He challenged the current president’s hand-picked successor, accusing him of being involved in scandals and misusing the military and vowing to avenge his father’s loss. A vote was held that was marked by all sorts of irregularities and accusations of fraud, with the most troubling irregularities occurring in territory controlled by the challenger’s brother, and when the dust cleared it turned out that the current president’s successor had won the most votes.

The challenger was not willing to accept his loss though, and being stymied by the results of the election, he approached the country’s constitutional court, a majority of whose judges were appointed by his father when he had been in power, and convinced the judges to declare him the winner through a technicality and order the current president’s government to step down and cede power. Knowing that there was a genuine sense of anger among the former president’s powerful supporters and that he was facing a crisis of legitimacy that would hamper his rule, and perhaps even in an effort to make sure that he had the army on his side, he then appointed popular military officials from his father’s government, including the former commanding general of the country’s army and the former defense minister, to high ministerial posts in his own government. After seeing to it that his troops had placed the outgoing president on a military helicopter and sent him out of the capital, he then proceeded to organize a parade through the streets that literally brought him to the steps of the presidential palace.

The question is, what happens next? Is this country going to be stable, or is it likely to go through years of repression and civil war? Based on this set of facts, this country is likely going to experience an outbreak of violence, if not armed civil conflict, and authoritarian rule is almost certainly going to prevail. Fortunately, we do not have to guess the trajectory of this country’s future because this series of events actually occurred somewhere relatively recently, but the country in question was not Yemen, Zimbabwe, or Syria. As many of you have already realized, the country I have described is the United States under Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush. There was simply no question that once the Supreme Court ended the recount, effectively making Bush the president, there would be no violence or rioting, no military coup, no measures to prevent the new president from moving into the White House, and that the Clinton administration would stand aside for the Bush administration. As Americans we take this for granted, because this is the way our country works and has always worked (save for that pesky Civil War), but in the grand sweep of history it is nothing short of remarkable. Not only do we get the opportunity every fourth year to decide who will be president, but when the incumbent is voted out or must step down after two terms, the most powerful person in the world and commander-in-chief of the most awesome fighting force in the history of mankind unfailingly vacates his post peacefully and makes no move to hang on to the trappings of absolute power. Just take a minute to reflect on how improbable this would be were it to happen once, let alone routinely as a matter of course for over two centuries. Take a minute to reflect on what an incredible country this is and how lucky we are to be living in it.

The reason that transfer of power here is so routine is because we vote. If you ask most people why voting is important, they will say it is because it allows the people to decide who their leaders will be, but I don’t think that is correct. Choosing our leaders is the outcome, but not the biggest reason it matters. It matters because the simple act of voting protects our freedom and our political system, without which it won’t much matter who our leaders are. One of the ironies of our unparalleled democracy is that the right to vote allows people to purposely not exercise that right if they choose not to do so, but that is the wrong way to look at things. Being a citizen of a democracy gives us rights, but it also comes with responsibilities and obligations, and expecting to keep those rights without taking the responsibilities and obligations seriously is the best and fastest way to see those rights disappear. Voting is the ultimate responsibility and obligation, and if you choose to stay home today, not only do you forfeit your right to complain about the outcome when you inevitably don’t like it, but you risk losing the freedom to stay home next time.

Voter apathy seems higher this year than it has ever been, but no matter how you feel about this election, go vote. Want to make America great again? Go vote. Think America is already great and has to be protected from someone who doesn’t understand that? Go vote. Hate both candidates and bemoan the state of our politics that has produced two historically unpopular nominees? Go vote. Think that voting doesn’t matter because there is no real difference between the candidates and their policies, and the system is rigged anyway? You’re wrong, and go vote. No matter what your preferences or political proclivities, go vote. Whoever wins at the end of this day, there is no scenario in which not exercising your ability to protect our system of government is the right decision. Demonstrate that the awesome power of the American electorate is something that can never be trifled with or taken away, and make sure that the story that I told above never unfolds in this country with a different ending. Go vote and celebrate what makes this country unique in the history of the world, and happy Election Day to all.

A Western Wall For All

November 3, 2016 § Leave a comment

When I was fifteen, my family went to Israel for Passover in order to celebrate my younger brother’s bar mitzvah, and like many bar mitzvah-celebrating American families in Israel, we did it at the Western Wall. While walking toward the plaza next to a secular Israeli relative a couple of decades my senior, I asked him when he had last been to the Western Wall. I could barely comprehend it when he told me that this was his first time, and that he had never had any interest in visiting the site because he had no emotional or religious reason to do so. I was then bowled over when this same leftwing Tel Aviv-dwelling secular Israeli artist cousin immediately expressed his unalloyed view (during the very height of the debate over the Oslo process) that sovereignty over the Temple Mount could never be ceded to any other country or group because the site represented the core of Israeli identity. Here I was, an American Jewish teenager who had been brought up to revere the Western Wall for its religious significance and spiritual power and viewed praying there as a holy obligation but had never considered it in any way as a political symbol, and my Israeli cousin cared so little about the Wall’s religious significance that he had never even bothered to see it in person but was adamant that Israel must always control its environs. The ways we related to the Western Wall were about as far apart as they could be, and that anyone could view the site in the way he did was something that I had never considered or even encountered.

I recount this story in light of yesterday’s clash at the Western Wall between activists seeking to make the site more religiously pluralistic and (mostly) ultra-Orthodox worshippers seeking to maintain the site’s Orthodox status quo. It is helpful to me in framing and understanding the enormous gap that appears to exist between American and Israeli Jews over the importance of this issue, and the reactions by some on the left to whether the energy that liberal American and Israeli Jews are expending on this issue wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere on what they view as more pressing human rights violations.

The twin Pew surveys of American and Israeli Jews highlighted a number of clear distinctions between the two communities, with the most glaring one being that Americans view their Judaism as being more culturally universal and Israelis view theirs as being more religiously particularistic. This explains why despite the fact that Women of the Wall and the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel are the groups at the vanguard of religious pluralism at the Western Wall, this issue has been embraced far more strongly and widely by Diaspora Jews than by Israelis. Israelis, whether religious or secular, view Judaism through a more traditional religious lens that leads them to see religious observance as the Orthodox path, whether or not they are Orthodox. My secular Israeli cousin could not have been more indifferent to the Wall’s religious value and saw it as a political and nationalist symbol instead, but the fact that prayer there is regulated according to Orthodox custom also did not seem to bother him at all. The thorough dominance of traditional Orthodox Judaism over religion in Israel means that most Israelis do not see anything irregular about treating religion traditionally. This is particularly the case when it comes to purely religious activities, such as prayer, versus areas like marriage and divorce that are governed by religious law and custom despite being social institutions.

Speaking at the Zionism 3.0 conference in Palo Alto in September, the prominent American-Israeli writer and public intellectual Yossi Klein Halevi took exception with the American Jewish community for its support of the Iran deal. Speaking of his feelings in the aftermath of the agreement, Halevi said, “I wasn’t disappointed in the administration, I was disappointed in the American Jewish community. I felt deeply let down. Ninety percent of Israelis, according to polls, opposed that deal. For many of us, this was an existential threat. And I always felt that at an existential moment, for all of the differences between us, I could depend on the American Jewry….And the American Jewish community as a whole, I feel let down by them.” For many American Jews, the lack of religious pluralism in Israel – perfectly encapsulated by the government not implementing an agreement from January that creates a completely separate pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall – is a source of equivalent disappointment. Given the enormous premium placed on support for Israel in American Jewish synagogues, communities, and institutions, American Jews see the rejection of their Jewish observance and the denial of their religious rights at the Western Wall as a devastating insight into how the Israeli government views them, and exhortations for them to be more patient or to express their hurt more quietly add insult to injury. Very few people in the Israeli government understand what a big deal it is and just how much it imperils support from the overwhelming majority of American Jews who do not pray or observe in the Orthodox tradition, and who are not accustomed to being told that they must simply acquiesce to the situation. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rebuke of American Jewish leaders and his appeals to the maintenance of a religious status quo to which they never agreed or accepted is as tone deaf and short-sighted as it comes, ignoring Israel’s critical need for Diaspora Jewish support in order to lock in some illusory domestic political gains by mollifying his Haredi coalition partners.

Of course, it is not only those on the traditional right who don’t grasp what the fuss is about. Many prominent and well-known liberal Israeli activists and writers took to social media yesterday to question why those on the left are wasting their time and effort on the Western Wall issue when the far graver human rights violations against Palestinians must be battled. The irony here is that it is the same argument that many on the right use against anyone who criticizes Israel, since there are always other countries that act far worse and commit actual genocidal atrocities; after all, spending time highlighting Israel’s misbehavior when Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons and barrel bombs on his own people right next door seems like gravely misdirected energy. The obvious response to this is that humans are thankfully pretty capable beings who can focus on more than one thing at one time, but the deeper reason is that people tend to get worked about the things that are meaningful to them. I spill far more critical ink on Israeli illegal outposts than I do on Iranian executions of dissidents because Israel is much closer to my heart and has a special emotional and cultural resonance for me that is central to who I am. Similarly, for American Jews who view their Judaism not simply as an expression of universal values but as an expression of their religion, the discrimination at the Western Wall is as important as any other issue because it strikes directly at the core of their identity. Criticizing activists fighting for the Western Wall because they should instead be fighting separation walls misunderstands the fundamental thinking motivating those whose animating liberal passion is a more pluralistic Judaism in the Jewish state.

Like my cousin who didn’t see why he should pay the Western Wall any heed, these critics find it hard to see why this is a pressing civil rights issue. But if they don’t do a better job of understanding why this is important to American Jews, they will be sorely disappointed when American Jews become less receptive to the issues important to them.

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