Prayer vigil for the three missing Israeli teens / Getty Images
(JTA) — Four days into the search for three kidnapped Israeli teens, I attended a group prayer session dedicated to their safe return.
Dozens of women gathered together to read responsively psalms seeking God’s mercy and intervention before the start of our morning Jewish studies classes. Our voices broke as we prayed for the boys’ safe return, though most of us do not know the families personally.
I returned home to find my teenage daughter, who is about the same age as two of the boys and should be studying for finals, preparing to perform special mitzvot to help bring them home. My teenage son returned home from school and immediately ran off to participate with the community’s youth in special prayers on behalf of the captives.
It is amazing how quickly the rhythm of our lives and our daily schedules has begun to revolve around the three teens, including one dual Israeli-American citizen, who were kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists while trying to get rides home from a junction in Gush Etzion, a bloc of settlements located south of Jerusalem.
Since the abduction of Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frenkel, we are all checking news sources from the Web earlier and more often on our computers at work or on our phones. Even my younger children have been coming home from school and turning on the television news instead of their usual Nickelodeon. Not that some SpongeBob wouldn’t do us all some good.
I have not slept well since the boys were discovered kidnapped, and it is clear to me that none of my neighbors and friends here in Israel have either, if the times stamped on their Facebook posts are any indication. We ask each other for updates at the supermarket, at exercise class, at school pickup. We talk about our fears for the boys around the Shabbat table and at the “makolet,” or corner store. We curse their kidnappers as we pick up the kids from the pool and at the library.
A picture tweeted from Matisyahu’s Twitter feed
In writing about the decision to adapt #BringBackOurBoys as the virtual call to action for the three kidnapped Israeli students — Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frankel — Sigal Samuel expresses her regret that the hashtag appropriates the call to action for the 200 Nigerian school girls captured by Boko Haram.
While I do not know Samuel personally, her presence online has struck me as one of a person with at least her fair share of Internet savvy.
When searching for a hashtag, those activists looking to raise awareness for the three captured teens must have found the current hashtag had a lot to offer: It has instant recall in the mind of the public, playing off of a rallying call we are already familiar with, and is helped with an extra dose of alliteration to boot.
What’s more, to those creating the hashtag at least, the comparison of kidnapping students by a terrorist group seemed to be a common theme between the two hashtags.
One must ask Samuel, aren’t cross-appropriation and meta-reference the lifeblood of any meme?
Members of the Presbyterian Church in Ohio attend a service in 2012 / Getty Images
Since the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly convened in Detroit on June 14, attendees have been preparing to vote on a resolution to divest from Israel-related investments. If we can assume the goal of the Presbyterian Church is to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians, attendees should consider a better alternative: Rather than divesting from Israel, they should invest in ways that can improve the situation.
Historically, divestment has been used by socially responsible investors, but it is not effective in promoting compromise between two parties. Instead, a popular new approach called “impact investing” holds much more promise. Impact investors see a challenge in the world, such as climate change or poverty, and proactively pursue investments that attempt to remedy the problem — for example, clean energy or microfinance.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an enormous challenge, but so far investors have had very little positive impact on efforts to reach a peaceful solution. The divestment resolutions sponsored by the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) campaign damage any real prospects for peace. This one-sided approach targets Israel alone, despite the fact that both sides play a role in the prolonged conflict. BDS does nothing but exacerbate tensions, and creates a new avenue for non-military warfare between the parties instead of creating new avenues for cooperation.
Many BDS proponents are not peace activists seeking a negotiated agreement, but rather anti-Israel activists seeking the elimination of the Jewish homeland. Unfortunately some investors who genuinely want peace have become beguiled by the BDS campaign’s rhetoric.
Jewish divestment advocates at the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly in 2012 / JVP
A few years ago I was walking in the woods with a friend, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church in Cape Town, South Africa. The Dutch Reformed Church was the leading promulgator of apartheid in South Africa, and they upheld the odious doctrine both politically and religiously almost to its end. I asked my friend what, with two decades’ hindsight, he wished his church had done differently during the apartheid years.
He replied sorrowfully, with a shake of his head: He wished his church had been willing to heed the words of rebuke of other religious communities around the world. But, he said regretfully, it was so very difficult to listen to these messages of chastisement when they felt so alone in the world.
As a rabbi who has studied in Israel and spent extended time in Israel and the West Bank over the past thirty years, witnessing first-hand some of the cruel details of Israel’s occupation, I was powerfully challenged by my friend’s words.
This week the Presbyterian Church-USA will be voting on an “overture” — their term — which is really a culmination of ten years of corporate engagement calling out three multinational corporations that manufacture equipment making it possible for the government of Israel to subjugate the people of Palestine: Hewlett-Packard, Motorola Solutions and Caterpillar.
The three kidnapped Israelis / Twitter
The kidnapping of three Israeli teens from the Gush Etzion area is especially poignant for us now as it (and please God, their safe return) is the lead story in the weeks leading up to my family’s aliyah in 12 days.
My obsession over the past six months — since we announced to our congregation that we are moving to Israel — has been quotidian: shrinking our possessions to fit into a Jerusalem apartment, finding schools and camps for our three kids, transitioning the work that we have done in Sag Harbor to the new rabbinical team and deciding which of my children’s artistic creations from nursery and kindergarten should be framed.
The existential reasons for moving — “being a part of the most important Jewish project of the 21st century,” the fact that in Israel “Jewish holidays are just the holidays” and that my children will be fluent in Hebrew after months — are part of the greater narrative of our decision to make aliyah that we tell our congregants and ourselves. That Israel is a dangerous place to live and raise a family is the darker underside of the story, which we barely mention.
Natan Sharansky holds up a #BringBackOurBoys sign on behalf of the Jewish Agency / Twitter
What’s in a hashtag?
Soon after news broke about the three kidnapped Israeli teens who went missing in the West Bank on Thursday night, Israel supporters began using #BringBackOurBoys to signal their desire to see the students safely returned to their homes. That hashtag made the Internet rounds with amazing speed. It filled first my Twitter feed, then my Facebook feed, and finally my email inbox.
I wish it hadn’t.
Not because #BringBackOurBoys was quickly appropriated by pro-Palestinian activists who used it to highlight the plight of Palestinian boys detained or killed by Israel — that was predictable enough — but because the Israeli use of the hashtag was itself an appropriation.
I’m talking, of course, about the #BringBackOurGirls campaign launched to help find Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by radical terrorist group Boko Haram in April.
Phil Getz, center, relaxes with fellow yeshiva students in Gush Etzion several years ago
Like many students and graduates of Israeli yeshiva, I have been refreshing my computer browser non-stop since Friday morning looking for any sign of hope for the three Israeli teenage boys who were kidnapped on Thursday evening.
For those of us who studied at any of the yeshivas or seminaries in Gush Etzion, the news has particular resonance. According to Haaretz, the teens “disappeared late Thursday night between Kfar Etzion and the settlement Alon Shvut” apparently while hitchhiking near the Gush Etzion junction.
I must have hitchhiked from that very spot several hundred times, not infrequently on Thursday nights, which is a popular night to travel. And so has every other yeshiva student in the area.
We all knew, as I’m sure these teens did, which cars to enter and which to avoid as they approached on the hilly road. Sometimes there were Israeli security forces in the area, sometimes not.
Samer Bisharat, star of Oscar-nominated “Omar,” in Project X / YouTube
If you’ve ever seen the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” you’ll immediately be reminded of it after watching the newly released short film “Project X.” The basic plot is the same. Except instead of Jim Carrey trying to erase Kate Winslet from his memory, you get an 18-year-old Palestinian who’s having the memory of his girlfriend forcefully taken from him — by a team of Israeli doctors.
Why are the docs trying to rid the Palestinian protagonist of this girl? Because the memory of her keeps him from doing what they so desperately want him to do: enlist in the Israeli army.
The teen is approached earlier on by an Israeli army recruiter (trying really, really hard to sound like a native Arabic speaker — and failing), who tries to sell him on military service by promising it’ll “open a million doors.” In return for his service, he’ll get “a backbone that no one will mess with.” Also: “Land — land that you’ll own.” Imagine!
Still, the Palestinian resists. And because he resists, he ends up on an operating table, where Israeli doctors who specialize in “brain programming” are tasked with making him more amenable to the state’s demands. They succeed: Stripped of the memory of his girlfriend, who was always telling him that “this is not the way for us,” he ends up a soldier in uniform — with his own people’s blood on his hands.
Newly elected Israeli President Reuven Rivlin with Benjamin Netanyahu / Getty Images
Is Reuven Rivlin’s ascendancy to the post of president good news for left-wing Israelis?
Progressives should cheer Rivlin’s election not because he supports equal rights for Israeli Arabs or because he wants to give Palestinians the vote in an Israeli-annexed West Bank, but because his new position in the limelight will help to clarify what should already be abundantly clear: that official Israel’s support for a two-state solution is a farce, and has been for a long time.
It’s true that as president of Israel Rivlin will hold a mostly ceremonial, symbolic position. But figureheads are important in their own way. They telegraph to the world what a country (putatively) stands for — its most cherished values and ideals. When Shimon Peres held the top spot, he made clear the value of the two-state solution. Rivlin, by contrast, will signal the exact opposite message: an undivided Greater Israel is, to him, the supreme and ultimate value.
Immediately upon being elected president, Rivlin swore he’d represent all Israelis — not just the right-wing annexationist Jew crew of which he is a part. But that kind of assurance is completely beside the point. Everyone knows what Rivlin really stands for: a State of Israel in which Palestinians get the right to vote, but give up on the dream of national self-determination in the form of a sovereign Palestinian state.
Israel’s newly elected president Reuven Rivlin / Getty Images
For some reason, whenever a Palestinian (or an Arab American, for that matter) expresses one-state views, he’s accused of threatening Israel’s existence. When an Israeli voices the exact same view, he’s labeled a hawk, a Zionist hard-liner. That’s precisely what happened when Reuven Rivlin, the former speaker of the Knesset and a seasoned Likudnik politician, was elected on Tuesday as the new president of Israel.
Liberal Zionists and progressive commentators were quick to describe his election as bad news, a threat to the peace process and to Israeli-Palestinian relations. But if we take a closer look at Israeli politics and Rivlin’s personal views, we get a different picture.
Rivlin is definitely a vocal opponent of the Oslo accords. He rejects the very idea of giving the occupied territories away. But, on the other hand, he also proposed giving Palestinians Israeli citizenship, full civil rights and the right to vote in a much-discussed Haaretz interview back in 2010.
Just like Netanyahu, Rivlin would like Israel to keep the West Bank. But unlike Netanyahu — whose agenda works to maintain the status quo, making the occupation permanent — Rivlin suggests making the West Bank into part of Israel and its inhabitants into full Israeli citizens. That’s not a minor deviation.
Gender-segregated elevator in Jerusalem / Walla
Apparently, gender-segregated classrooms, playgrounds, buses, sidewalks and healthcare centers aren’t enough. Now Israel has gender-segregated elevators.
Yosef Cohen, the owner of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox event venue Armonot Chen, has started divvying up elevator space using a nylon mechitza, with stickers inside and outside the elevator directing men to one side and women to the other.
“There are people who want to guard their eyes on the wedding day,” Cohen explained in an interview with Walla news. “If four men and four women enter the elevator, how will they behave? This way there is a mechitza and this solves the problem.”
Phew! Finally, we can rest easy knowing that Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox couples aren’t going to be canoodling — in groups of eight, no less — on their way up to their friends’ wedding ceremonies! I was really worried about that one for a while, you guys.
An Israeli observes the Iron Dome system in action / Getty Images
Almost one in two Jewish Israelis think that their country could withstand a substantial decrease in American support.
In a new poll by the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, conducted in the light of U.S.-Israel tensions over the end of the peace process, 44% of Jewish respondents took this view. This is remarkable in itself, given the massive funding that the U.S. provides, and the fact that the most admired defense innovation of recent years, the Iron Dome missile defense system, was made possible by the United States. But it’s particularly remarkable given the domestic political tensions.
The defense establishment is facing large budget cuts, and claiming that this will impact on its ability to perform. And so, the confidence of such a large proportion of the Israeli population at this time that loss of U.S. funding could be sustained is highly odd.
What’s more, if you look only at Israeli Jews who define themselves as right wing, this belief that Israel could dispense with U.S. funding is very dominant. Some 70% of those rightists think Israel could withstand a substantial diminution of American funding.
Yet it’s always the political right that is most emphatic that defense spending can’t decrease — and it’s no different with the current budget cuts. Unfortunately, the poll didn’t ask respondents for names and addresses of those who they reckon will fill the gaping hole that a U.S. funding cut would leave.
An Israeli lesbian dressed up as an ultra-Orthodox Jew at the annual Gay Pride event / Getty Images
What do you do if you’re ultra-Orthodox and gay? You almost certainly hide.
On Thursday, Israeli daily Yediot reported new figures released by religious-gay support group Hod indicating that “two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox homosexuals [in Israel] have chosen to marry women despite their sexual inclination”; almost all of the more than 1,100 men included in Hod’s report admitted to having sex with other men at least once a month.
According to Hod founder Ron Yosef, an Orthodox rabbi and gay activist:
The situation of homosexuals in the Haredi society is much more difficult because of the social isolation they live in. A gay Haredi man cannot share his situation with his friends in the community or the yeshiva, his family members or rabbis, and “coming out of the closet” is definitely inconceivable.
It should be noted that Hod’s statistics are based on information received from gay ultra-Orthodox men who turned to the organization for help — which is to say: They reflect a self-selecting population, men who have heard of the group and reached a level of stress, or degree of openness, that would allow them to reach out. It’s hard to know how much the two-thirds figure actually tells us about the lived reality of gay Haredi men, but then, that’s a community about which it would be particularly hard to produce solid polling results.
An image from the “Invisible” exhibit in Ottawa, Canada / Mira Sucharov
An art exhibit in a quiet gallery inside Ottawa’s City Hall has caused an international stir. Accusing the exhibit of “glorifying terror,” the Israeli ambassador to Canada met with the mayor to express his concerns. And dubbing it a “monument to terror” and a “travesty,” the Jewish Federation of Ottawa called on the City — unsuccessfully — to remove it.
Titled “Invisible,” the exhibit, by Canadian-based and Palestinian-born artist Rehab Nazzal, is comprised of a series of multi-media experiences. One is a series of colors accompanied by audio from protestors being teargassed in the weekly demonstrations at the West Bank village of Bil’in; another is audio feed from an IDF training exercise-turned-fatal in a Negev prison, with a series of abstract-looking stills on a nearby wall. Most controversial, though, is a digital slideshow called “Target.” In it, a series of names, dates and sepia portraits flash by, each encased in a circle of light. These individuals are Palestinian activists who were assassinated by Israel.
On the day I saw the exhibit, the room was empty, before one or two others wandered in. I flipped through the comments book. The ping-pong nature of the discourse wasn’t surprising. Some thanked the City for bringing the Palestinian experience to light. Others complained of “taxpayer money” funding what surely isn’t “art.” Some pointed to the omission of the fact that those assassinated by Israel were themselves responsible for many murders, and others invoked the “glorification of terrorism” accusation. To that, some responded that surely Israel and its supporters would have no problem featuring Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir in a similar exhibit.
At least three questions strike me from all this. Those who find themselves offended by the political message inherent in the artwork are demanding context, balance and objectivity. They seem to want to insert footnotes, to proclaim that there is another side to the story. But art isn’t meant to serve the same purpose as a newspaper article, a history textbook or an encyclopedia entry. By its nature, art flows from the experience of the artist. It is necessarily and inherently incomplete, a fragment of expression.
Man walks by rocket shelter in Israeli town of Sderot / Getty Images
Responding to the new Palestinian unity government yesterday, Israel decided that it will start holding the Palestinian Authority responsible for rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
The security cabinet resolved unanimously to “hold the Palestinian Authority responsible for all actions that harm the security of Israel which originate in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.” In other words, all terror from the West Bank and Gaza will be blamed on the Palestinian Authority.
Jerusalem’s perspective is that this is a logical position now that there’s a Hamas-backed government in the Palestinian Authority. Until now, it blamed Hamas for all terror emanating from Gaza, even if it didn’t launch the rockets.
This Israeli position sounds dramatic, but it is unclear where its real significance lies. Is this just a declarative position, meaning that Israel will point its finger at Ramallah each time a rocket lands near Sderot? Currently, Israel’s response to rockets is standard — it hits terror infrastructure in Gaza with air strikes. It is hardly going to start striking sites in the West Bank in response, and is hardly going to remove the deterrent of strikes in Gaza. The bottom line is that Israel’s reaction to rocket attacks will be exactly the same.
But perhaps the security cabinet declaration constitutes a veiled morsel of optimism from Israel regarding the unity deal — that perhaps the formation of the unity government could actually lead to restraint in the Gaza Strip and could lead to the quieting of rocket launchers. This is against every ideological inclination of the Israeli government, but could represent its practical thinking.
Russian immigrants to Israel / Courtesy of Alona Sibuk
Her story is well known. She came from a foreign land where she lived like a princess. Despite a very questionable connection to Judaism, she chose to follow her mother-in-law to Israel. There, she lived in abject poverty, getting by only by taking charity. Even when she found a kind stranger to help her, there were those who continued to doubt whether she belonged in Israel, and tried to prevent her from getting married.
Her name is Irina, Svetlana or Marissa, and you don’t have to read the Book of Ruth — as Jews around the world will do this week for Shavuot — to know her story and feel for her, her family, and the literally hundreds of thousands of other Russians of Jewish descent who are living in limbo in Israel.
Since Israel’s last general election a year and a half ago, the country’s two most powerful party leaders have exhibited surprisingly good relations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman united their parties, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, before the election and have surprised observers by keeping them together and getting along relatively well. Netanyahu loyally kept the Foreign Minister post open for him until his legal troubles ended in November.
But all is no longer rosy in paradise. Netanyahu has angered Liberman by backing Likud’s Reuven Rivlin for president. Netanyahu made the move reluctantly, after failing to recruit a candidate he deemed more suitable. His coolness towards Rivlin even prompted him to take the highly unusual step of trying to bring a president from New York, namely Elie Wiesel.
While Rivlin is a staunch rightist, both Netanyahu and Liberman dislike him for various reasons, including his refusal to back certain measures aimed against Israel’s Arab minority. But Netanyahu gave in to pressures from within is party, while Liberman remains opposed — and is left angry at Netanyahu for breaking what he said was an agreement not to back Rivlin.
Under the surface of the Netanyahu-Liberman relationship, they are two men jostling for prominence and fighting for the title of king of the Israeli right. And if Liberman can get ahead by generating a crisis based on Netanyahu’s presidential choices, capitalizing on an accusation that he acted in bad faith, Israel may be in for some political turbulence.
Rabbi Yaakov Perlow speaks at the Agudath Isael annual gala / YouTube
On Wednesday we learned that, while speaking at a fundraising gala for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, head of that organization, slandered virtually every Jew on the planet, down to and including a bunch of plain-old-Orthodox folks. We were told that attendees of the event were “stunned.”
“The Torah must be guarded from the secular forces that seek to corrupt its values and the lives of [Jews], from intruders who sometimes in the name of Judaism completely subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people,” Perlow said. And also: “[The Reform and Conservative Movements] have disintegrated themselves, become oblivious, fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation. They have no future, they almost have no present.” And furthermore, the Open Orthodoxy movement is “steeped in apikorsos [heresy].”
It was quite the little speech. But stunned? Really? Attendees were stunned? Do they not get out much?
Perlow heads an organization that is, by definition, extremist. They believe themselves to be upholding the strictest, and thus most correct, interpretation of God’s own Divine law; they believe that the existence of the Jewish people, the coming of Messiah, and quite possibly the world itself depends on the painstaking observance of that interpretation — which is not, in their understanding, an interpretation at all, but simply Jewish law, halakhah.
Of course he thinks you’re a bad Jew — no, I’m sorry, not a “bad Jew.” He thinks that you’re a literal danger to Judaism itself. You have come — yes, you! — to “subvert and destroy the eternal values” of the Jewish people. You! (Unless you happen to be Haredi, and Perlow’s kind of Haredi at that, in which case, welcome to Forward Thinking, we try to be a very welcoming blog).
The crowd enters Jerusalem’s Old City singing racist chants / A. Daniel Roth Photography
As I made my way out of the Muslim Quarter, the dark alleyways suddenly seemed too quiet. Just moments before, crowds of ultranationalist Jewish celebrants had marched through this same space shouting “Death to Arabs.” Children had banged against shuttered Palestinian homes with wooden sticks and Israeli police had stood by as teenagers chanted “Muhammad is dead.” Now, all that remained were eerie remnants of their presence: “Kahane Tzadak” (Kahane was right) stickers plastered over closed Palestinian shops and the ground littered with anti-Muslim flyers. As Israeli police and soldiers began to unblock closures, Palestinian residents of the Muslim Quarter cautiously ventured outside. This is the only time I cried.
Jerusalem Day marks the anniversary of the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967. The March of Flags has become an annual tradition in which thousands of ultranationalist Jewish celebrants parade through the city waving Israeli flags. It culminates in a dramatic march through the Muslim Quarter, generally accompanied by racist slogans and incitement to violence. Israeli police arrive in the area earlier in the day, sealing off entry to Palestinian residents “for their own safety.” Those Palestinians who live in the Muslim Quarter are encouraged to close their shops and stay indoors, while any Palestinian counter-protest is quickly dispersed.
Growing up at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Long Island, I have fond memories of Jerusalem Day. We celebrated every year with school-wide assemblies and dances, singing “Sisu et Yerushalayim” (Rejoice in Jerusalem) and “Jerusalem of Gold” with pride. Even in high school, I never knew the political significance of the day or imagined that my joy might be at someone else’s expense. Today, I know better.
Paul Hansen’s 2013 World Press Photo winning picture “Gaza Burial”
In college I had a Palestinian friend who, due to her ethnically ambiguous appearance, was often asked about her heritage. She would sometimes answer the invasive question by stating “I’m 95% Palestinian and I think about 5% squirrel or perhaps raccoon.” After hearing that line three or four times I decided to ask her why she kept using it. She responded: “Because, being Palestinian, I know that many people will never consider me fully human.”
I thought her line, albeit clever and poetic, was pure hyperbole. I didn’t fully grasp the extent to which Palestinians, not just as a people but as individual human beings, have been dehumanized by much of the Jewish community — until this past week when I began looking into the “Pallywood” meme.
“Pallywood,” a portmanteau of “Palestine” and “Hollywood,” is the belief among some Israelis and their American Jewish supporters that most footage of Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israelis is faked. The meme came back to the forefront last week when many questioned the veracity of security-cam footage of the May 15 deaths of Palestinian teenagers Nadim Nawarah and Muhammad Salameh during a demonstration in the West Bank town of Bitunya. In a previous post, I examined the claim of Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen, the director of the religious pro-peace organization, the Vine and Fig Tree Project, that the way the boys fell on camera was “inconsistent” with their having been shot. Explaining that from my own experience watching films of wartime executions I know this claim to be false, I concluded that such statements are an attempt to control the narrative surrounding controversial events before a proper investigation can be conducted.
Since then, the Pallywood meme has continued in both social media and on one of America’s most prestigious TV news networks. Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen on May 27 tweeted an article alleging that Paul Hansen’s 2013 World Press Photo winning picture “Gaza Burial,” which captures the funeral procession of two Palestinian brothers killed in a 2012 Israeli airstrike, was faked. As you can see in Rabbi Cohen’s tweet itself, this allegation was swiftly debunked by the very media outlets that initially reported it.
There is lots of this, regrettably:”Award winning” Palestinian photo faked http://t.co/9TBhjul5BK— Kenneth L. Cohen (@RabbiKenCohen) May 27, 2014