Category: Israel

The Clerical Capriciousness of the Israeli Rabbanut

Back when I was a pulpit rabbi in New York, I used to write letters of Jewishness for congregants and friends about to make aliyah under the law of return. There had been no issues with the letters I had written, so it was a bit of a surprise when I made aliyah in 2014 that the letter that was written on my behalf was initially rejected.

I joked at the time that it was a conspiracy, but in truth, I assumed it was more of a bureaucratic paperwork problem1 and something I’d have to get used to once I got to Israel.2

For a few years, this made for a funny story I’d share from time to time about the quirks of the aliyah process and the bureaucracy of the Israeli government. But on June 15th, 2020, I received a phone call that was far less amusing.

Why the Israel/Diaspora Division Runs Deeper than People Realize

Even from my distant vantage point of living in Israel, I believe it is obvious that the Trump presidency has either created new divisions within the Jewish community or at least expanded the existing ones. One of the biggest points of divergence is over policies pertaining to Israel, where divisions have been growing steadily for decades. A recent poll by the American Jewish Committee helpfully quantifies the current extent.

The gap between American Jews and Israelis regarding President Trump’s approach to Israel is profound. While 77% of Israeli Jews approve of how the president is handling U.S.-Israel relations, only 34% of American Jews do. A majority, 57%, of U.S. Jews disapprove, while only 10% of Israelis do.

On the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there, 85% of Israeli Jews, compared with 46% of U.S. Jews, support the decision, while 7% of Israelis and 47% of U.S. Jews oppose it.

Single-issue voters may continue to support Trump if they view him favorably on that single issue despite deep disagreements over any (or all) other policies. This single-mindedness may seem incomprehensible to others considering how much else needs to be overlooked or dismissed.

I noticed some examples of this tension coming to bear in the aftermath of the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Many in the media explicitly blame Trump for his incendiary rhetoric and Trump had been previously criticized for normalizing white supremacy.

Journalist Julia Ioffe not only blamed Trump for the attack, but also called out American Jews.

The implication here is that supporting a president for policy in one area may have disastrous consequences for people in another area. In this case, support for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem comes at the cost of American Jewish lives.

Writing in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer calls for a variant of excommunication of Trump supporting Jews because their doing so puts other Jews at risk.

Any strategy for enhancing the security of American Jewry should involve shunning Trump’s Jewish enablers. Their money should be refused, their presence in synagogues not welcome. They have placed their community in danger.

Can Jews really be this apathetic or willfully blind towards the physical danger of fellow Jews? I suggest the answer is sadly yes, with ample evidence from Israel.

Many readers may be familiar with Shira Banki, the sixteen-year-old who was murdered at the Jerusalem Pride Parade in 2015. Her murder was met with an outpouring of support and tributes not only in Israel but in the US as well (one person I knew even wrote a song dedicated to her). 

In contrast, I suspect few will recognize the name of Hallel Yaffa Ariel, a thirteen-year-old who was murdered in her home in 2016. But because Hallel was a “settler” even those who bothered to acknowledge her death felt the need to include qualifiers and disclaimers.

The reality is that even if we recognize that all human lives are of value, certain deaths or tragedies affect us emotionally more than others. But I suspect that people notice whose deaths are mourned, or more precisely, those who are worthy of mourning, and those whose are not.

Similarly, many of those who are currently appalled at the rising fascism in the United States have also supported a Palestinian state in which the current constitution, makes Islam the official religion, derives legislation, from Shari’a, imposes a death penalty on selling land to Jews, and currently pays people to murder Jews

For as complicated as Israeli/Palestinian politics may be, if we are going by Foer’s criteria for exclusion that, “They have placed their community in danger” then it would not be surprising for Israelis on the ground to be less sympathetic to those who have pushed for a Palestinian state as currently constructed (as opposed to a liberal democratic Palestinian state). Those who have excused totalitarianism when others are threatened should not be surprised when those same others are less than sympathetic to their moral alarmism.

In other words, when you see comments that certain Jews only care about their ideology even as other Jews are living under attack, consider that maybe this has been going on for a while now with the roles reversed. This should not be taken as a justification, but I believe how people have reacted to drastically different lived experiences may explain much about why the Israel/Diaspora relationship is as strained as it is.

Does Anti-Israel Mean Anti-Semitic? An Answer From Liberal Logic

With the current violence in Israel continuing without a clear end in sight, Israel is once again receiving support and criticism for its policies. One common refrain found among Israel’s supporters is that the inordinate amount of criticism levied against Israel is actually a form of anti-Semitism. When “anti-Israel” protesters reportedly shout “Kill the Jews” while looting Jewish businesses, it is easy to reach this conclusion. But aside from these violent outbreaks, is there any validity to the argument that the more civil rhetorical attacks against Israel are rooted in anti-Semitism? In her Remarks Before 2010 Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal offers criteria for distinction:

Our State Department uses Natan Sharansky’s framework for identifying when someone or a government crosses the line – when Israel is demonized, when Israel is held to different standards than the rest of the countries, and when Israel is delegitimized. These cases are not disagreements with a policy of Israel, this is anti-Semitism.[Emphasis added]

Writing for the New York Times in 2002, Thomas Friedman offered a similar contrast:

Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction — out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East — is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.

There are no doubt other opinions and qualifications which answer this question, but I believe that for the Liberal Left – whose members tend to be some of Israel’s most vocal and vitriolic critics – the definitions cited above are justifiable based on how it views discrimination in other contexts, particularly regarding the US criminal justice system.

The “Defensible Border” Fallacy

The past two weeks have renewed global interest in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. Between President Obama’s original reference to the 1967 borders, a modification of sorts to the AIPAC convention, and a response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jewish and political communities have been arguing over how to make sense of the policies.

One recurring theme has been the repeated call of defensible borders. Under the assumption that peace in Israel must consist of land swap with a forthcoming Palestinian state, parties on all sides have repeated that the border between the two states be “defensible,” without further clarification as to what that would mean in terms of specific borders.

However, a more significant question regarding the “defensible border” requirement is why would it be necessary. The “land for peace” mantra assumes that the Palestinian people are really interested in peace, but are oppressed by their Israeli occupiers. Logically then, if the Palestinians were to form their own nation, then it would be as Mahmoud Abbas stated, “a peace-loving nation, committed to human rights, democracy, the rule of law and the principles of the United Nations Charter.”

But if we were to take Abbas at his word, then why would Israel’s borders need to be defensible. From whom would Israel need defending if not the “peace-loving” nation? For comparison’s sake, the US / Canadian Border is 5,525miles, and yet despite this extremely long border, US is more concerned with illegal border crossings than military attacks. The reason is obvious; the United States is not concerned with having “defensible” borders with Canada because there is no risk of military attack and there is no risk of military attack because the United States is actually at peace with Canada.

The fact that “defensible borders” is still employed in Israeli / Palestinian rhetoric demonstrates that even proponents of a Palestinian state are not fully convinced by the “peace-loving” intentions. Any call for “land for peace” based on “defensible borders” is thus paradoxical to the point of dishonest for it assumes that Israel would still face a military threat despite acquiescing territory.

While I do not have a solution to the conflict, the process would probably be helped if people were more honest about their positions, intentions, and true motivations.