President Obama’s itinerary for his upcoming visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank contains messages both direct and subtle. And one of the subtler messages seems to be embedded in his decision to visit the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit in Jerusalem.
In case the intended message passes you by: When President Obama spoke to the Arab world in his June 2009 Cairo speech, Jewish leaders watched warily, and then issued their complaints. Most had to do with the fact that Obama chose to give his first major international speech in Egypt and did not make a stop in Jerusalem while in the region. Others took issue with the President’s strong language against Israel’s settlement activity, and some were bothered by what they saw as Obama’s attempt to ignore Jewish historical ties to the Holy Land.
This argument was based on Obama’s reference, in his speech, to U.S.-Israel ties being cultural and historical in nature and on Obama’s recognition “that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”
By invoking the Holocaust as the root rationale for Israel’s creation, argued Obama’s critics, the president ignored the claims of the Jewish people to the land as something going back to the time of Abraham. Some even claimed that by not mentioning this historical tie, Obama was, in fact, supporting the anti-Zionist narrative, which views the Jews as outsiders who came to Palestine after being chased out of Europe only to make the Palestinians pay for the crimes of the Nazis.
The lede, as we call it in the journalism biz, sat there silently on the computer screen, like an IED waiting to explode:
“… or as he put it, ‘a shvartze,’” it said at the end.
The phrase reported accurately the word Rabbi Hershel Schachter used to describe the reason he resisted the idea of rabbis reporting cases of child sexual abuse within the Jewish community to the police. It was not, he said, that reporting such cases — after some rabbis judge them genuine — violated Talmudic strictures against turning a Jew over to secular authorities. But even if the accused Jew is guilty, said Schachter, he could end up in jail with a black man — “a shvartze.”
Forward staff reporter Paul Berger and I knew what kind of outrage would ensue once Forward web editor Dave Goldiner pressed the button sending this story out into the Internet. And we’d already been arguing over the wording of that lede sentence for something like an hour. It was getting late. We both had to go home. But as the Forward’s news editor, I knew that in its compression of the full quotation given in the story, this lede was missing something, and I couldn’t put my finger on what.
As a college student in the early 1970’s, I had lived for a year in Mississippi working for civil rights organizations. I learned a lot about racism then. I knew it came in many different flavors, even there. While arguing with Paul, I thought about how a few years before I arrived in Jackson, there were gargantuan battles there over the integration of municipal swimming pools. This was the fear of black people as contagion.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu party announced Friday afternoon Israel-time that the coalition negotiations are complete, and the government will be presented to President Shimon Peres on Saturday night. Expect a swearing in on Monday (just don’t ask what Sara Netanyahu will be wearing for this swearing in).
There was a last-minute hitch last-night which saw Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett going of in a huff over Netanyahu’s refusal to make him and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid vice prime ministers. But today, Bennett backed down, and the path is clear for the new government.
The debacle over the vice prime ministers title is indicative of just how much the final phase of the negotiations turned out to be about one thing — honor — and not about policies or ideals. The vice prime ministers is basically honorific, and means very little in day-to-day political life. But it’s become a staple of the Israeli scene.
Netanyahu doesn’t seeme to have had any desire to dispense with the vice PM roles before the election. After all, why would it matter to the invincible Bibi at a time when nobody could even conceive of anyone else as PM? But after his battering at the ballot box, and loss of face in coalition negotiations faced with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home’s stubborn refusal to do as he said and sit with Haredim, he was on the look out for ways to claw back some respect and impression of control. And so, after a chaotic coalition negotiation, he got in one final snub for Bennett, and in true Bibi style ensured that he got the last word.
I admit I was a tad nervous today walking into the Congregation Sons of Israel, in Cherry Hill, N.J. Though a warm and nurturing synagogue and community — this being a Torah reading day — I was wondering whether the gabai, the coordinator, would call me up with the formulaic “Ya’amod, haRav Francis.”
You see, I made a bold, albeit an elegantly crafted and prima facie cogent, argument that the name of Pope Benedict XVI’s successor would be John.
But was I really wrong? The eponym, the inspiration for Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s new papal name, was Francis of Assisi. Francis was born circa 1181, at a time when his father, a successful textile merchant, was traveling to France for business. It was his mother, Pica, who baptized the newborn. And what name was this child given?
What was his official, authentic baptized name? Giovanni.
You don’t have to be an expert in the field of onomastics — the origins and meanings of names — to be able to deduce that Giovanni in English is John. (Both, by the way, come from the Hebrew yochanan, meaning, “G-d has been gracious.”) It was his father who, upon his return from France, nicknamed the child, Francesco.
So I ask you, fair- and open-minded readers: Was I really wrong?
So far, one cannot help but be impressed with the new pontiff. His first words were gracious and touching. He offered a prayer for his predecessor, Benedict XVI. When he asked the assembled in the square to share a prayer and blessing for him, I thought that was an extraordinary gesture of humility. And so we wish the new pontiff well. Indeed, we share a blessing of mazel tov.
The Forward looks today at some of the winners in Israel’s new coalition deal, but who are the losers?
Apart from the obvious answer which is the Haredi parties, who were left out in the cold, Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz is one of the biggest losers. His party has just two seats in the new Knesset, and it is difficult bit to conclude that it will disappear in the next elections — if it survives that long.
Mofaz could have negotiated a coalition spot with a half-decent ministry to salvage at least his own political prospects if not those of his party. But instead of cutting a deal with Prime Minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu he tried to align himself with Jewish Home and Yesh Atid when they were in their hard-bargaining phase. So he got snubbed by Bibi.
Also punished by Bibi was Reuven Rivlin, who has been critical of what he regards as his autocratic and pushy leadership style. Rivlin, who belongs to Likud, has questioned Bibi’s commitment to democratic principles. He has been replaced as Knesset speaker by Yuli Edelstein and left without a ministry — despite the fact that he won seventh spot in Likud’s primaries back in November.
A third loser is Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar, who had the humiliation of having his ministry, Education, given away to Yesh Atid. Though many educationalists regard him as a reactionary, he was keen to stay in the Education Ministry, where he claims he is making positive changes. He may become Interior Minister, though it is currently unclear if he will receive a ministerial appointment at all.
A LETTER FROM THE WALDORF-ASTORIA
For defenders of Israel, danger is everywhere — even in New York City, even on Park Avenue, even once they’ve passed a metal detector on the second story of the Waldorf Astoria hotel.
Such was the conceit of the organizers of the Friends of the IDF gala, who posted two additional layers of security between the cocktail room and the ballroom at their March 12 event.
The dubious security precautions didn’t end there.
As the 1,400 attendees settled down in front of their $1,000 plates of chicken and short ribs, an announcer warned that “reasons of security” precluded the taking of photos. Those reasons were not further explained.
Later, Fox News contributor and event MC Monica Crowley repeated the warning in more stark terms: “Do not even think about uploading anything, anywhere, at any time,” she threatened, as a live satellite feed from what was said to be a secure Israeli intelligence facility in Jerusalem appeared on screens throughout the ballroom. On the screen, a bald, bespectacled soldier described how his unit eavesdrops on Palestinian phone calls, though this practice was hardly a state secret.
As he spoke, a young female Arabic expert walked on-screen next to the intelligence officer. “You’re so adorable,” Crowley told her.
The black tie affair had started nearly two hours earlier with an extended cocktail hour. There were lamb chops and sushi and turkey slices and wine, and a waiter circulating with smoked salmon. Young uniformed Israeli officers worked the crowd, taking pictures with donors in suits and gowns.
With Prime Minister Netanyahu just days away from his final deadline to install a new government or lose the option, observers on all sides have their own ways of explaining what’s holding things up. Most of them are correct, but there’s a larger truth that overshadow them all: The Likud hasn’t internalized the fact that it lost the last election, and can’t retain all the goodies in the next coalition that it enjoyed in the last one.
The other explanations are worth reviewing, as they provide the background for Bibi’s current dilemma. One theory is that Bibi stalled until the last minute—that is, until Friday, March 8—before beginning earnest negotiations, in hopes of breaking up the Yair Lapid-Naftali Bennett alliance, bypassing Lapid and bringing in his old ultra-Orthodox Shas allies into a coalition alongside Bennett and Tzipi Livni. Another theory is that Lapid and his chief negotiator, businessman and onetime Ariel Sharon aide Uri Shani, are dragging the current, bare-knuckled negotiations until a minute before midnight—that would be Thursday, March 14—in order to force Bibi to accept their demands.
The bottom line, though, is that the second-tier Likud leaders on Bibi’s bench haven’t yet internalized the fact that they lost the January 22 election and can’t keep what they had in the last election. Accordingly, they’re making it impossible for Bibi to give Lapid what he earned from the voters. Unfortunately for them, Lapid isn’t ready to fold. He’s already given up too much.
Lapid’s reasoning is that he effectively leads a bloc of 33 seats in the 120-member Knesset, including his own Yesh Atid party (19 seats), Bennett’s Jewish Home (12) and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima (2). That makes his bloc larger than Bibi’s 31-seat Likud-Beiteinu bloc (which is not a party but rather an alliance of Likud, with 20, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, with 11). Following that logic, Lapid spent days insisting on receiving two of the four senior ministries in the new government: foreign affairs for himself and finance for Bennett. Bibi would keep the prime ministry for himself and the defense ministry for his number 2 (more on that later).
Bibi couldn’t do that, ostensibly because he had promised to keep the foreign ministry open for Lieberman, who had to resign to face trial on corruption charges but is hoping to return after an acquittal or misdemeanor conviction. In fact, keeping promises has never been Netanyahu’s signature issue, but he had two other, more compelling considerations:
Akiva Freidlin’s maternal grandparents came from Warsaw and most of their family was killed in the Holocaust.
So when the 30-year-old non-profit staffer saw subway posters “demonizing” Muslims last December, his “historical memory” kicked in. Alongside an image of the blazing Twin Towers, the ads attributed this quote to the Koran: “Soon shall we cast terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers.”
Freidlin’s response to the controversial anti-Islam campaign from the Jewish-led American Freedom Defense Initiative: “Talk Back to Hate”, an advertising effort aimed at countering AFDI’s “craven and cynical” message.
The inaugural Talk Back to Hate ad is a stylized apple bearing the inscription, “Hatred Is Easy. It Is Love That Requires True Strength and Courage.” The line came from Dorothy Zink, a volunteer from Huntington Beach, Calif.
Entirely crowdfunded, Freidlin’s campaign has raised more than $10,000 from as far as Dubai. Much of the funding paid for the first ten “Talk Back to Hate” ads in high-traffic New York City subway stations like Times Square and Rockefeller Center (for ad locations, see here). The ads will appear throughout New York until March 24.
Freidlin’s now raising money for another flight. “Don’t let hate get the last word,” implores the Talk Back to Hate site. “If you chip in, we’ll buy our own ads — and run them in as many stations as we can.”
New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced she was running for mayor Sunday, making official what had been all but acknowledged for months.
In a whistle-stop tour of the city and a new campaign video, Quinn touted her middle-class roots and a campaign agenda that emphasizes housing and education.
If she wins, Quinn would be the first female and also the first gay person to occupy Gracie Mansion.
Quinn has long been considered a frontrunners in the 2013 mayoral race. Yet she faces stiff competition from a large field of Democratic and Republican rivals, many of whom have made strong plays for Jewish votes in a field without a major Jewish candidate.
As City Council speaker, Quinn has opposed a measure that would force New York businesses to offer paid sick leave to their employees. Jewish groups backed the bill, including a long list of prominent New York City rabbis. Many of Quinn’s Democratic opponents support the paid sick leave measure.
Netanyahu is almost there. As Israeli politicians took a pause in their discussions for the Shabbat break, all sides expressed optimism that a new coalition could be announced within days.
Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party is close to finalizing a deal with its two major coalition partners: Yesh Atid and HaBayit HaYehudi. According to press reports, in meetings that took place on Friday, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid agreed to give up his previous demand to become foreign minister and instead will take the treasury portfolio. This will leave the foreign ministry open, a position Netanyahu wishes to keep for Avigdor Lieberman, if and when he is cleared on the corruption-related trial. As part of the emerging deal, Naftali Bennet, leader of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi party will get the commerce portfolio with some added-on areas of responsibility.
This coalition deal will provide Netanyahu with a stable government that, for the first time in over a decade, will not include members of the ultra-Orthodox parties. Such a coalition will allow Lapid to move forward with his plan to increase the military draft for Haredi men, many of whom are currently exempt of military service.
On the Israeli-Palestinian front, however, the emerging coalition does not carry much promise for change. According to some reports, Netanyahu will agree to drop any mention of support for a two-state solution from the new government’s guidelines in order to ease Bennet’s way into his government. He may also re-negotiate the coalition agreement reached with Tzipi Livni to limit her responsibilities relating to the peace process.
Lapid, in his way into Netanyahu’s coalition, is also willing to make some concessions. His demand to limit the number of cabinet ministers to 18 was only partially accepted and the next government will have 24 ministers, instead of 28 who currently serve in cabinet-level positions. Lapid, according to the Israeli media, will also have to forgo his early demand to include in the government’s platform support for gay marriage and for allowing public transportation on Saturday.
Coalition talks are scheduled to resume on Saturday night with a possible agreement signed toward the middle of the Week. Netanyahu has until the end of next week to form a new government.
There’s a telling moment in David Brooks’ New York Times column today about the growth, and attraction, of Orthodox Jewry. He describes the educational background of Layaliza Soloveichik, the wife of Meir Soloveichik (Brooks’ “tour guide” around Haredi Brooklyn) in this way: Layaliza was admitted to Harvard but went to what Brooks describes as a “religious college, Yeshiva, instead.”
I don’t know the Soloveichiks, but I’m guessing that Layaliza didn’t exactly go to Yeshiva as an undergraduate because, as a woman, she couldn’t go to Yeshiva. She went instead to Stern College for Women. It’s a subtle distinction, I know, but an important one, signaling that the education of girls and boys, women and men, is treated differently in this community and meant for different outcomes. Nowhere in Brooks’ column does he acknowledge the gender disparities in Orthodox Jewish life, which have grown ever more distinct in the last few decades.
There’s more that he doesn’t say.
If it were a movie, Israel’s real-life nightmare would be a cross between “The Birds” and “The Ten Commandments.”
Just in time for Passover, the Holy Land has been plagued by millions of locusts swarming in from across the Egyptian border.
Hysterical news reports warned Israelis in the southern part of the country to stay inside and close all doors and windows to protect against the Biblical calamity, said to be the worst to descend upon the Holy Land in decades.
But at the same time, some were searching out the pests in hopes of hauling in a tasty — and arguably kosher! — treat.
The skies across southern Israel were blackened this week by the flying insects. Some fields were damaged before the Agriculture Ministry was able to send out crop-dusters to battle the tiny beasts. Fortunately, the pesticide application to 1,865 acres that began early Wednesday morning and extended throughout the day managed to prevent the locusts from doing more damage and moving on to the country’s central regions. Also, a cold front is expected to come in and knock out any remaining swarms.
“It’s like an insect cemetery down here,” Omri Eytana, a farmer from Moshav Kmehin the Nitzana area, told Army Radio as he inspected his fields after the crop-dusting was over. He reported that his tomato plants, which were protected by nets were in good shape, but that there was extensive damage to potato crops.
It may sound farfetched to Americans. But some Israelis are hoping Barack Obama will free Jonathan Pollard as a goodwill gesture ahead of the president’s upcoming visit to the Middle East
Activists and even members of Knesset are pressing for the release of the convicted Israeli spy and some have even suggested that Obama bring Pollard with him on Air Force One.
“I pray to that on the day we welcome the President of the United States, we will get to see Pollard walk on the land of Israel,” said Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a Labor Party lawmaker during a special discussion held on the Knesset floor Wednesday about the Pollard case.
Other lawmakers were equally forceful in their pleas to Obama. They are pressing him, at the least, to discuss Pollard’s fate during his visit to Jerusalem.
“Many Israelis view Pollard as a Prisoner of Zion,” said Likud MK Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin. “The Americans should know that Pollard’s case cannot be considered simply another point of disagreement that both countries can live with.”
Just about everybody who follows Israeli affairs with any seriousness these days agrees that the peace process is dead, that the two sides are too far apart for any deal and besides there’s nobody to talk to. The one big exception is the Israeli intelligence and defense establishment, which remains a stronghold of optimism that a deal can be reached in the near term. Which is weird, because they’re the ones who presumably know the inner workings and thinking of the two sides better than anyone.
When you bring this up to people who care about Israel, the usual response begins something like, “But don’t they realize that Israel’s minimum security needs require…” or “… that the Palestinians are dedicated to…” And you’re left wondering: What does this person know that Israeli intelligence doesn’t? And: Can’t you hear what you sound like?
Still, it’s understandable that the concerned observer would wonder how a peace process is supposed to square with Hamas’s refusal to accept Israel and the growing turmoil in the broader Arab world. Conveniently enough, former Mossad director Efraim Halevy (appointed by Bibi Netanyahu, 1998; succeeded by Meir Dagan, 2002) answers those questions and sketches the broad contours of a possible peace process in an important piece posted today at The New Republic, “The (Very) Quiet Peace Talks Between Israel and Hamas: The Middle East’s storm clouds have a silver lining.” His bottom line: Given enough pragmatism on both sides, the confluence of Hamas’s interest in stability, Egypt’s quiet mediation and the still-alive Saudi/Arab Peace Initiative make for “a very promising moment to forge durable agreements between Israel and Palestine.” Not a permanent end of conflict, but a viable modus vivendi.
“As Obama prepares to travel to the region,” Halevy writes, “one can fairly hope that he recognizes the value of the cards in his possession. He may not have any aces up his sleeve, but kings and queens should suffice for the moment.”
One of Barack Obama’s hopes for his Israel visit is to address the Israeli public. Some commentators, such as Yoram Meital interviewed for a Forward article, have expressed the view that this lies at the crux of his trip, with him hoping to talk to Israelis about Iran over their Prime Minister’s head.
But anybody who knows Israel knows how complex the notion of addressing “Israelis” can be, with the country divided by so many religious, ethnic, geographical and class divisions. If fact, one of the least “typical” areas, if such a thing exists, is Jerusalem, often referred to within Israel as a kind of bubble inside the country. It is far more religious and far more Arab than most other areas, and has a mentality and culture all of its own.
All indications, however — including the leaked itinerary — are that Obama’s sole speech to the Israeli public will be in Jerusalem. This is despite a campaign by Israelis and invitation by Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai for him to talk to a huge crowd in the iconic Rabin Square, where the pro-peace rallies of the 1990s took place. Oh, and a tempting invitation to the settlement of Efrat where mayor Oded Revivi offered to help him “realize that the declaration of two states for two peoples is not realistic.”
A large Tel Aviv event — not large enough for him to be obviously talking over Netanyahu — would be a more natural choice than a small-ish event in Jerusalem of around 1,000 people, which is what is being discussed. This city would welcome him more, and most likely be more enthusiastic about his message. So why Jerusalem?
One explanation is logistical. It’s where his meetings are and the time and security operation for him to travel is unnecessary.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s death in Caracas today will likely amplify turbulence that’s characterized life in the South American nation since his ascension to power in 1999. Friends I met during a visit to Caracas last month tell me everything – the economy, social stability, livelihoods, diplomatic relations – could be ripe for upheaval.
I’m also wondering what this means for Venezuela’s Jews, most of whom — if they haven’t fled to Miami — live in the capital of Caracas. The Jewish community has fallen to about 10,000 from a peak of 20,000 just before Chavez came to power in 1999.
During my visit, I sought to interview some Jewish Caraquenos about life under Chavez amid reports of rising anti-Semitism. While I was there, JTA reported Chavez had been accused of spying on local Jewish groups.
During last year’s elections, the late president derided opponent Henrique Capriles, whose grandparents were Polish Holocaust survivors, as “imperialist,” a “capitalist,” a “little bourgeois,” and “Zionist”. And a campaign-related article in state media – headlined “The Enemy Is Zionism” – said Capriles “represents Israeli ideology covertly,” according to CNN.
Oberlin College is not the first place that comes to mind as a hotbed of racism and anti-Semitism.
Yet as an unsettling wave of hate has thrust the Ohio liberal arts school into the national spotlight, its Jewish community has spoken out and sought to use the incidents to build bridges across the campus.
Jews, who make up about a quarter of Oberlin’s student population, were stunned when swastikas appeared on campus building. But some saw an even greater physical threat to black and other minority students when a person dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit was allegedly sighted outside college’s Afrikan Heritage House.
“As a Jew, to see a swastika plastered across a building on campus is an incredibly traumatic moment,” Zachary Pekarsky, 22, former leader of the college’s Hillel group, told a campus rally this week. But it’s more complicated than that, he continued. “The vast majority of Jews have incredible privilege, and come from an incredible place of entitlement. I don’t want these two truths to contradict each other.”
The packed audience hollered and cheered.
The sighting of the alleged KKK figure was the latest in what the historically-liberal Ohio college has called “hate-related incidents.” They have included graffiti swastikas and the N-word as well as the phrase “whites only” written above water fountains. ATwitter feed was set up depicting college president Marvin Krislov dressed as Adolf Hitler.
With barely two weeks to go before President Obama’s scheduled visit to Jerusalem, the Israeli right seems to be gearing up to prepare as hostile a welcome as possible.
Round one is a dubious claim that received considerable coverage Monday in the Israeli media, according to which Obama is demanding that Prime Minister Netanyahu give him a detailed “timetable for Israel withdrawal from the West Bank” when he arrives March 20.
The claim was first reported in a right-wing Washington news outlet, the World Tribune, which based it on anonymous “sources” in Jerusalem. The Tribune report was then widely re-reported in the Israeli media, including such mainstream outlets as the Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post and Ynet.
The World Tribune quoted its sources as saying that the Israeli plan “would be considered in what could be an imminent U.S. initiative to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank in 2014.” The report said Obama had indicated to Netanyahu (given an “implication,” the report said) that “if Israel won’t give him something he can work with, then he’ll act on his own.”
Why does Chabad want the Schneerson Library back so badly?
While researching this week’s story recounting the latest twists in Chabad’s decades-long struggle for the library, several people offered various explanations. Somehow, they seemed too speculative to include in the story — but interesting enough to raise here.
Rabbi Berel Levin, the chief librarian of the Chabad Library in Brooklyn, told me that Chabad has 250,000 books at its HQ in Crown Heights. But the thousands of books held in Moscow are, according to Levin, the “core of our library, gathered by the Rebbes of the generations.”
Levin said the books in Moscow are written mainly in Hebrew, and deal mostly in Torah, Gemara and Kabbalah. But because the Soviets and Russians never catalogued the library no one really knows for sure. Even the total number of books in the library is disputed. Russia claims there are about 4,000 volumes, Chabad says the number is closer to 10,000 volumes.
Pinchas Goldschmidt, a Moscow rabbi who has a contentious history with Chabad, said that for the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the battle for the library was about much more than ownership and theology. It was about politics and, perhaps, about something more.
“Maimonides spoke of the Messiah as king,” Goldschmidt said. And Schneerson, who died in 1994, wanted to show the world that he had fought like a king and “won against Communism.”
With the Festival of Freedom fast approaching, it’s time to take another look at Jon Stewart’s Passover midrash from Nisan 5772 (April 2012). Think of this a followup to last month’s “War on Purim” segment. This time, though, I’d argue that there’s a serious argument behind the humor. To quote him: “Mishpoche, we gotta take it up a notch.”
p style=”text-align:left;background-color:#FFFFFF;padding:4px;margin-top:4px;margin-bottom:0px;font-family:Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;font-size:12px;”>The Daily Show with Jon Stewart