Birthright’s worried. Registrations are dwindling and young Jews are growing disinterested in the free 10-day trip to Israel.
Over a period of three years, applications have dropped more than 17%. To compensate for the downturn, the group has started to ease its “Jewish” definition and dig into its years-old wait lists. It’s also hired a marketing firm to help with outreach.
As one of those former Jewish day school students who opted against taking the trip, I can probably help Birthright save a lot of money by offering a little friendly advice — no marketing firm needed.
Israeli psychic Uri Geller poses with a spoon that he bent in 2008 / Haaretz
Really, can you blame them? Faced with ongoing rocket fire on the citizens it’s meant to protect, Israel’s military has done the only truly reasonable thing it could do: It hired a spoon-bending mentalist named Uri Geller.
More than two decades after the first time the PLO agreed to recognize Israel in exchange for peace; a decade and a half since the PLO reaffirmed that decision three times in the space of a few months; 11 years since Israel and the PLO signed on to the U.S.-backed Roadmap to Peace; nine years since Israel pulled up stakes in Gaza and locked the door; eight years since the mini-war on Gaza (launched in a failed attempt to free Gilad Shalit) that no one remembers; five and a half years since Operation Cast Lead, launched to end rocket attacks; a year and a half since Operation Pillar of Defense, launched toward the same end — Israel has neither achieved peace nor pounded the Palestinians of Gaza into submission.
And so the rockets continue. And, of course, the Israeli military remains charged with protecting the civilian population, a thing that is genuinely very hard in the face of this particular threat, because the rockets fall sporadically, are ill-aimed, and arrive within seconds of being fired. All the military can really do, via its Home Front Command, is try to educate people how best to protect themselves.
Cue Uri Geller.
Celebrity psychic Uri Geller is the beaming new face of Israeli disaster-readiness, starring in army-sponsored TV and Internet advertisements on how to take shelter from missile attacks or earthquakes.
…[The campaign] aims to keep Israelis vigilant, though public fears of any imminent war with Iran, Syria or Lebanese and Palestinian guerrillas have receded.
…In the ads, Israelis are invited to submit their location at the military’s Home Front Command website, where pre-recordings of Geller will “telepathically” inform them where and how quickly to seek cover if air-raid sirens sound.
Tanya Hoffman is the daughter of Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman. / Haaretz
“How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.”
That’s the title of an upcoming film by Tanya Hoffman, the 26-year-old daughter of firebrand feminist and Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman. The summer release is already arousing a certain amount of interest in Israel — but will it be worth seeing? That depends on how well the filmmaker can use her personal story to shed light on a larger question — the question of why many young people, and not just her, are less than enchanted with Women of the Wall these days.
The documentary is as much about Tanya’s conflict-laden relationship with her mother as it is about Anat’s liberal prayer group, which pushes for equal ritual rights for women at the Western Wall. In a Haaretz interview, Tanya explained that she couldn’t be more different from her super opinionated “bulldozer” of a mom, and that no one else in the family ever understood what Anat was after. “None of us ever joined her at the Women of the Wall services. None of us really got it. We were, like, why are you doing this?”
Israel is making another push to join the U.S. visa waiver program, which would allow Israelis to enter the U.S. for 90 days without a visa. Last year, another effort to enlist Israel in the program stalled amid criticisms of Israel’s discrimination against Americans of Arab and Muslim origins at its border.
In the latest push, which was reported today in Haaretz, Israeli officials said they planned on ending discrimination against Palestinian-Americans entering Israel through Ben Gurion Airport, the country’s main international hub. But this pledge falls short in several ways.
Though discrimination against Palestinian-Americans is particularly acute — and, because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly fraught — it does not constitute the totality of Israel’s discrimination against American citizens. The U.S. State Department, after all, warns that “U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin” face difficulties entering.
Indeed, confronted with a specific question today on Americans of Middle Eastern and Muslim extraction, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki acknowledged that narrowly easing discrimination against only Palestinian-Americans would not be enough to satisfy the reciprocity requirements for consideration in the visa waiver program. So while Israel seeks piecemeal fixes to the problem, the U.S. — correctly — won’t readily compromise the equal rights of any of its citizens.
What’s more, Ben Gurion Airport isn’t the only point of entry to Israeli-controlled areas where these demographic groups may encounter discrimination. Last year, my colleague George Hale and I reported on the case of Nour Joudah, an American of Palestinian descent teaching in the Palestinian territories who was denied entry to Israel twice — in the first instance at the Allenby Bridge, a crossing between the Israeli-controlled West Bank and Jordan where Israeli officials now claim Palestinian-Americans were supposed to enter in the first place.
A woman consoles a fellow Rwandan at a genocide commemoration ceremony / Getty Images
I am no Shmuley Boteach, God knows. But I have recently learned from the Forward that Boteach and I have one thing in common – we are both rabbis who have visited Rwanda.
This February, on the eve of Rwanda’s commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Tutsi genocide, I joined a 10-day “witnessing” tour hosted by the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. We heard stories of horror, and stories of heroism, rescue, reconciliation and – unimaginably, miraculously – stories of forgiveness.
While I am delighted to hear that the governments and entrepreneurs of Rwanda and Israel are now interested in one another, I find myself dreaming of a different sort of connection: What if the people of Israel and Palestine could learn from the Rwandan people how to do the difficult and necessary work of trauma healing and reconciliation?
The blossoming of Rwanda today defies facile explanation, just as it defies facile criticism. I went on this journey with the intention of not-knowing, of bearing witness without judgment. Throughout the ten days, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s expression “radical amazement” kept coming to mind – a theologian’s way of saying “mind-blowing.” How to process, for example, the experience of meeting 60+ convicted genocide perpetrators in matching blue outfits, dancing and singing joyfully to welcome you as they take a break from their community service work building homes for survivors?
In the fall of 2010, I had recently arrived in Tel Aviv and had started my New Israel Fund Fellowship at ASSAF, a humanitarian aid organization helping asylum seekers and refugees in Israel. I met Guy around then at the ASSAF offices. He spoke English, so I explained to him that I was researching the refugee community. He quickly agreed to advise me, help me meet community leaders and translate interviews.
One evening we walked around south Tel Aviv together, discussing his future goals and desire to go to college and help his people. We entered an ad-hoc shelter where at least 100 Sudanese men slept each night. The shelter was the basement of a building that the Sudanese community had rented out. Guy and I sat there for hours, conducting a group interview with around 10 men. Guy translated for me with astounding patience and care. From the beginning, it was obvious to me that he was dedicated to helping his people.
Guy was an asylum seeker himself. During the genocide in Darfur, he fled while his village was burning down, ran for his life and left his family behind. Through a mix of luck, a friendly personality and survival skills, Guy made his way through Sudan and Egypt to Israel, where he felt he would be safe from harm. He arrived in Israel in 2008.
Young British Jews stake out a liberal stance on Israel. / YouTube
American and British Jewish communal institutions alike are presently grappling with the question of what to do with the “evil son” — he who, in the words of the Passover Haggadah, “by divorcing himself from the community…denies our very essence.”
In the United Kingdom, students are debating the place of Israel in Jewish life on campus, where political, cultural, and religious activities center around a confederation of Jewish societies (J-Socs) under the umbrella of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).
Since the last UJS conference in November, it is the clear policy of the UJS that the Union should defend Israel’s right to exist regardless of whether individual members support the Israeli government. Individual J-Socs are expected to have a conversation about Israel — not only the modern state, but Israel over 3000 years of Jewish history — and J-Socs are encouraged and advised to effectively counter the BDS movement on campus where necessary.
But Gabriel Webber — a member of Brighton & Sussex J-Soc — recently wrote in defense of a motion that failed at that conference, one that called for a wall of separation between Israel advocacy and the activities of J-Socs. While “all Jewish students want to go to a J-Soc where they can hang out with fellow Jewish students, to eat Jewish food and to be an active member of their religion or culture,” there remains a minority that don’t “want to wave flags and engage in an active campus-based fight against BDS.”
For the settlement movement, there is poignancy in the fact that the Hebron Jewish community has branched out into a previously Palestinian neighborhood just before Passover. It was Passover 1968 when settlers first got their foothold in Hebron, after renting out a hotel and refusing to leave.
For critics of the settlement movement, the echo of 1968 is also relevant. When the Israeli government decided yesterday that settlers could move into a building surrounded by Palestinians, it was a reminder of just how much Hebron settlers have increased their holdings over the years.
In ’68 they left the hotel in exchange for the promise of a settlement next to Hebron. Today, they have this adjacent settlement as well as four (or, as of yesterday, five) enclaves in Hebron itself.
The big story in Israel is no normal decision to build a few extra settlement homes; it is a highly unusual development for the occupied West Bank.
According to an as-yet unconfirmed report, the state is setting the wheels in motion for an appropriation of nearly 250 acres of territory in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc near Jerusalem.
Israeli settlement announcements in recent years have generally focused on building within the existing borders of settlements. In fact, one of the defenses of settlement announcements in government circles has been that building isn’t even settlement expansion, because it’s just a matter of increasing the housing density within settlements. The argument has often been that given the footprint of settlements isn’t growing, Palestinians should stop worrying about settlements.
However, if today’s report is correct, the government will actually be increasing the settlement footprint. An outpost which is currently illegal in state eyes will be legalized, in a sense creating a new settlement, and the rest of the land to be appropriated would be available for zoning for brand new settlements.
As well as the appropriation report, today has been party day in the Jewish community of Hebron, which received go-ahead from the Ministry of Defense to move in to a new enclave in the city.
In early 2007 some Jewish Hebron families lived in the four-storey building where the ceremony took place. However, after 18 months the Israeli government ordered them to leave. While they claimed that they were entitled to live there, because one of their supporters in America, Morris Abraham, purchased the property, the original Palestinian owners claimed the purchase was fabricated.
Last month, an Israeli court ruled that Abraham does own the building, and now the Ministry of Defense has said that the Jewish community can move back in.
If the peace process doesn’t get back on track, today may well be remembered as the day when Israel threw caution to the wind and backed settlements with a whole new gusto.
Photo credit: Getty Images
This week is prime time for Passover shopping and cleaning. But in Jerusalem, hundreds of people will be engaged in a very different type of preparation for the festival — witnessing the slaughter of a lamb, just like in the olden days.
The Seder has its origins in ancient times, when the Israelites slaughtered, roasted and ate lambs — Paschal lambs.
According to the Torah, the Children of Israel were commanded “in perpetuity” to sacrifice a young lamb or goat on the anniversary of the Exodus. But this sacrifice was to be conducted in the Temple, and was therefore suspended after the Temple’s destruction nearly two millennia ago. With some innovation from rabbis the Seder morphed in to the more domestic affair we know today.
Contemporary Seders, with their many commemorations of the sacrifice, such as the shank bone on the Seder plate, are largely a tribute to the offering. But some Israelis want to go a step further.
In a few hours, in a yeshiva in the neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe, a religious non-profit will give a demonstration of the original Paschal service. Their slaughterer will kill a lamb as a choir sings of praise, and as a state veterinary inspector looks on. He will then sprinkle the blood as-per Biblical instruction. The lamb will be roasted and, as-per the Biblical procedure, everyone in attendance — men and women — will get a portion. The diners will include rabbis from a broad ideological spectrum within Orthodoxy.
“Passover is not about matzo ball soup; it’s about the Passover offering,” Chaim Richman, International Director of the Temple Institute which is running the event, commented to Forward Thinking.
Referring to the reams of rabbinic texts written on the Paschal sacrifice he said that is important, educationally, to give a more vivid insight in to what it looked like. “The logistics is a Jewish art discussed and clarified throughout the generations,” he said.
He said that the slaughter is poignant, as lambs were considered sacred in the ancient world when the sacrifice was instituted. The ceremony is “literally to slaughter all of the idolatry in the entire world and stand up for what we believe in, namely one God,” said Richman.
While the Temple Institute has been known to stray from religious education to politics, in its quest to increase Jewish rights on Temple Mount, it didn’t attempt to hold this even on or near Temple Mount, where it may have increased Jewish-Arab tensions. However, as the Forward has reported,, in previous years right-wing activist has tried to organize a sacrifice there, but was stopped by Israeli authorities.
Jewish charity goes largely to Israel-related groups. Our readers think that’s a bad idea.
The results, embedded below, suggest that Forward respondents think that education-related Jewish charities should get the largest share of contributions, followed by health care and social service-related charities. Israel-related charities rank fourth.
These poll results are far from scientific. Still, they shed light on the opinions of Forward readers, as Jane Eisner wrote in her editorial this week.
Close readers confused by the disparity between the “How They Spend It” figures reported below and the numbers reported in our story on this two weeks ago, take note: We excluded two categories from the poll for the sake of clarity, which resulted in tweaked figures.
Israel’s Naftali Bennett / Getty Images
On Wednesday, the multi-portfolioed Naftali Bennett – Israel’s Minister of the Economy, Minister of Religious Services, and Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs – sent a letter to his Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
In that letter, according to Israeli Army Radio, Bennett called for a cabinet meeting “to begin the process of imposing Israeli sovereignty on the areas of [the West Bank] that are under Israeli control.” This he called “Plan B,” saying Plan B is necessary because negotiations with the Palestinians have failed – because “the Palestinians have broken new records of extortion and rejectionism.”
Now. It must be acknowledged that this is some phenomenally well-honed and impressively brazen Orwellian doublespeak. Truly.
Because imposing Israeli sovereignty on huge chunks of the West Bank has never been Bennett’s “Plan B.” Unlike Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (who – whatever else his faults – has publicly advocated a two-state solution since 1977), Bennett has never aspired to a two-state peace. Ever. Indeed, one might say that Bennett’s entire political career has been one of rejectionism and extortion. How do I come to this conclusion? By reading his words.
Young Jews discuss Israel at a ‘Resetting the Table’ event in Brooklyn. / Ezra Weinberg
This past Sunday, in the high-beamed, chilly Brooklyn Lyceum, a group of 20- and 30-somethings tried to talk about Israel — no small feat.
The program, called “Resetting the Table,” was designed to allow young people to get together and go really deep, really fast. Guided through the rough waters of this conversation by Eyal Rabinovitch and a team of Facilitation Fellows trained by him and Daniel Silberbusch, the 50 or so young people who showed up were held to communication guidelines that asked, among other things, that they honor confidentiality, listen with resilience, speak with respect and avoid generalizations. Essentially, it asked them to be civil.
And it’s no wonder: this iteration of “Resetting the Table” was funded by the UJA Federation of New York, and is generally part of a broader initiative at the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA)’s “Civility Initiative.” The model includes two organizing cadres: a group of “Facilitation Fellows” and a group of “conveners.” The Facilitation Fellows, who facilitated Sunday’s conversations, are trained over a period of months to hold these kinds of sessions. The “conveners” are the organizers on the ground, and, coached over many months, are meant to gather their associates at various institutions (from Yeshiva University to Hazon) with the goal of holding facilitated conversation on Israel internally.
The event unfolded unhurriedly: folks trickled in, picked at the marvelous display food from Brooklyn’s new kosher eatery Mason & Mug, heard an introduction from Rabinovitch, participated in an icebreaker, and only then chose their discussion topics, which ranged from “What is the responsibility of American Jews towards Israel?” to “Should there be red lines around who speaks in Hillel, JCCs, and other Jewish institutions?” Then they sat down in sectioned-off corners of the room for facilitated conversation that would last an hour and a half.
Breaking the Silence
Despite the concept of the occupation being an oddly contested one in some American political circles of late, there is much to decry about Israel’s military rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank. And while some security-minded observers focus on the need for an IDF military presence to widen Israel’s narrow territorial waistline, and others see the settlement blocs as a likely eventual permanent addition to Israel anyway, many would agree that there is one place where the crimes of the occupation are particularly egregious. Many would cite Hebron, the city which, in these pages, Letty Cottin Pogrebin called a straight-out example of apartheid, as being the eye of the militarized-settler-colonial tiger.
I, too, had been looking forward, in a way that righteously indignant liberal Zionists are wont to do, to a trip to Hebron with the anti-occupation Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence a few summers ago, until our plans were stymied. The military didn’t grant us the required travel permit.
So it was with some anticipation that I arranged to speak to three American rabbinical students who attended the Breaking the Silence tour to Hebron last week under the auspices of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Each one drew an alarming picture of the hardships Palestinians in Hebron face living among Israeli settlers and under IDF rule. “Stark. Shocking. Ghost town. Cages around the (Palestinians’) windows,” were the words they used. Their tour wasn’t whitewashed. Their first stop was the grave of Baruch Goldstein, the notorious murderer of 29 Muslim worshippers 20 years ago.
Yet all three surprised me with the politically nuanced conclusions they drew.
As the debate over whether to pardon convicted spy Jonathan Pollard continues, the most vocal support for his release is coming from the conservative side: AIPAC, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, most recently, families of Israeli terror victims. Meanwhile, outlets like the Forward are arguing against the release, unwilling to send the message that espionage should be punished more leniently when performed by an ally.
But the Free Pollard campaign shouldn’t be left to conservatives alone. There are several good reasons why a liberal — a liberal Zionist, a liberal Jew, or just a liberal human being — should want to see Pollard pardoned. Here are the top five.
1. It would be a basic humanitarian act.
Jonathan Pollard has already spent nearly 30 years behind bars. His health is so poor that his ex-wife fears this is the last chance to have him freed. This alone should be enough to make the case for his release on humanitarian grounds.
It has been argued that pardoning him is not the same thing as releasing him on humanitarian grounds, and that it would send the message that he did no wrong and is excused. It should be noted, however, that the act of pardon, albeit different from prison release for health reasons, does not in any way imply the prisoner’s innocence. It is an act of clemency toward an individual who is guilty. And an act of clemency is exactly what Pollard deserves.
2. Pollard shouldn’t keep paying the price for Israel’s decisions.
Pollard was not some crazy guy sneaking out NCIS classified material for the sake of it. He passed such material on to Israeli intelligence. In other words, he was part of an Israeli intelligence scheme. This is no justification whatsoever, of course. But the fact is that Pollard is now the only individual paying for a crime that involved many others, including Israeli officials.
After the scheme was revealed, there was a period of tension between the U.S. and Israel, with Washington even threatening to cut economic aid. Since then, however, the relationship between the two allies has been mended. So, if the U.S. has de facto “pardoned” Israel, why shouldn’t it pardon Pollard?
Protesters call for the release of Jonathan Pollard / Getty Images
So I check the homepage of the New York Times on Thursday afternoon, as I regularly do several times a day, to see a prominent story proclaiming that all the talk of freeing convicted spy Jonathan J. Pollard is dividing American Jews. “More and more American Jews say Jonathan J. Pollard should be freed, but they are unsure whether he should be used as a chit in a diplomatic transaction with Israel,” said the tout on Mark Landler’s story.
Gee, I think, maybe my editorial on this subject — which was pointed and, to some degree, contrarian — might be mentioned.
Wrong. Evidently, in the Times and in so many other venues, only men get to speak for “American Jews.”
The Tamar drilling natural gas production platform near Israel / Getty Images
It’s now a week since the scheduled start of one of the most important energy deals in Israeli history. But the signing was called off, hasn’t been rescheduled since, and now, uncertainty hangs over the future of the deal.
Australia-based Woodside Petroleum was due to sign in Jerusalem on a 25% stake in Israel’s Leviathan natural gas field, for $2.7 billion. But Woodside clashed with the Israeli government over money, and the signing didn’t take place.
The dispute between Woodside and Israel centers around the complicated formula that will determine how much the company pays in taxes, and how quickly it will start to profit from its investment. There are further elements to the dispute, including guarantees and infrastructure.
The Israeli legal system just got its teeth back.
Much has been written about the conviction this week of Israel’s Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a bribery trial. The reverberations of the ruling are felt far and wide.
In the political sphere, this seems to be the end of the dream which continued to linger among some Israelis that Olmert would make a political comeback soon and complete the peace deal with the Palestinians, which some say was tantalizingly close when scandal forced him from office.
But one of the most important ramifications is in the legal, not political, realm. Israel’s state prosecution was humiliated at the end of last year, when it lost its much-anticipated corruption case against politician Avigdor Lieberman.
The Jerusalem Post’s latest editorial wades into the Israel-U.S. debate over travel visas — and comes to some absurd conclusions.
The government of Israel has been trying for a while to reach an agreement with the American authorities allowing Israeli tourists to visit the U.S. for a short time without a visa. The U.S. has always refused to grant Israel such an agreement, despite the fact that most Western nations, including European countries, Australia and New Zealand, already enjoy it as participants in the Visa Waiver Program.
The American government recently explained why Israel’s request was denied: “The Department of Homeland Security and State remain concerned with the unequal treatment that Palestinian Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern origin experience at Israel’s border and checkpoints, and reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program,” State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said March 21.
Protestors call for Jonathan Pollard to be released from prison. / Getty Images
Jonathan Pollard — the man who stole huge amounts of intelligence and gave it to Israel and has been sitting in an American prison for 30 years — has become a chip to be traded in order keep Israeli-Palestinian talks going.
Pollard is a very divisive figure: he has staunch supporters who believe that, for humanitarian reasons and because he helped beleaguered Israel, the three decades he’s spent in jail is enough. Others believe that because he was traitor who, allegedly, also tried selling intelligence to other states, he isn’t even an Israeli patriot; he was simply greedy.
Pollard has taken on a larger role in the drama of Israeli-Palestinian talks. In return for extending negotiations, according to reports, the U.S. will release Pollard and Israel will release 400 Palestinian prisoners and quietly freeze (some?) settlement building (excluding in Jerusalem). There is, rightly, a lot of disbelief about this plan. Jeffrey Goldberg thinks it means the talks are close to collapse and won’t do much in the end, anyway. Michael Cohen thinks releasing Pollard to extend talks is just stupid. I share their skepticism, but wonder if there is something more going on here. Perhaps it’s not a sign of the breakdown in talks, but a sign of their seriousness.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s not at all clear things are going well. The reported deal extends talks into 2015 — another nine months from now. Who knows what new international crisis might develop in that time to distract the Obama Administration from the Israeli-Palestinian arena. John Kerry might simply be too exhausted to keep up the pace. Spoilers in Israel or in Palestine could undermine popular support and political will. Meanwhile, the American rush to placate Benjamin Netanyahu on every issue has led to such an imbalance in talks that it wouldn’t be a surprise if the whole edifice fell over by then.