Comedian Sarah Silverman has been called many things, but never a prophetess. Until yesterday, when she was given prophetic credentials in the magazine section of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot.
The accolade comes from an interview with her sister, Jerusalem-based Reform rabbi (and one of the Forward 50 list of important Jews) Susan Silverman, which is the cover item and a two-page feature in yesterday’s edition.
“I didn’t say she’s a Biblical prophet but she continues that path,” said Susan Silverman, suggesting that her perceptiveness about society and powers of observation make her, in a sense, prophetic. The prophecy theme provided the headline for the article: “Sister of the prophetess.”
As the controversy rages over Hillel’s Israel guidelines — which delineate which groups it will partner with or allow to participate in Hillel-sponsored events — observers have started to wonder what effect all this will have on American Jewish identity and Israel advocacy. The issue, though, is about more than just defining Hillel; it’s also about defining the issue itself.
We use language not just to describe things, but to give ideas emotional meanings. People, including policymakers, respond to specific discursive cues. When these cues are associated with a particular meaning or emotional state that matters to the listeners, they are more likely to respond in the way the speaker intends.
So, for example, part of the reason Jewish groups advocating for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship (think AIPAC) have become successful is because of the rhetoric they use in their public statements and private conversations. The U.S. sees itself as a superior form of democracy, a beacon of light and a “good” country. Lobbyists who can tie into those feelings — by using key words like “shared values,” “democracy,” “individual rights,” “common Judeo-Christian heritage,” and “common strategic interests” — can make a stronger case for their demands.
Similarly, when it comes to Hillel, the fight is really about how to define what “pro-Israel” means, a controversy that has flared up in recent years, spurred by the battle over Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense and questions about whether the U.S. Jewish community should pressure Israel on peace talks or not. But in this case, Hillel’s own guidelines have left the door open to multiple interpretations of what “pro-Israel” means.
Palestinians protest on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in 2013. / Getty Images
In 2014, commemoration of the First World War on the one-hundredth anniversary of its commencement will be inescapable. So, too, will the debate over the merits of the miserable and bloody conflict that took the lives of over 16 million soldiers and civilians, crippled an entire generation of Europeans, and begat the infamous Treaty of Versailles.
In the United Kingdom, this conversation has already begun and has spiralled off so as to encompass another product of the Great War: the Balfour Declaration. At the end of last year, the Palestine Return Centre launched in Parliament a campaign called, “Britain, It’s Time To Apologize,” requesting an international voice to call on Her Majesty’s Government “to apologize to the Palestinian people, for either wilfully or carelessly failing to protect their human and political rights, while under British protection.”
Leaving aside the Palestinians for a moment, in the first instance any campaign against the Balfour Declaration must be treated with great suspicion. After all, that declaration was more than a government memorandum. It was the first declaration of its kind from a world power in support of the Zionist idea of Jewish autonomy and self-rule in Palestine.
More importantly, it was a legal instrument, incorporated into the Mandate for Palestine ratified by the League of Nations in July 1922, in which it was stated that Britain as overseer would be responsible for fostering political, administrative, and economic conditions that would secure “the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people.”
(JTA) — The Rabbinical Council of America is standing behind Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y., in his dispute with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate — sort of.
Last week, the Rabbinate for the first time offered its reasons for deciding several months ago that Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi and RCA member, wasn’t kosher enough to affirm that a Diaspora Jew seeking to marry in Israel was indeed Jewish (Israel requires that such people provide a letter from their local Orthodox rabbi affirming they are Jewish and single).
The reason? Well-known American Orthodox rabbis, including members of the RCA, had told the Rabbinate that Weiss — spiritual leader of the Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, founder of the liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and founder of Yeshivat Maharat, a yeshiva that ordains Orthodox female clergy — had a “questionable” commitment to Jewish law, or halachah.
Last Friday, the RCA – America’s main Modern Orthodox rabbinical group — issued a statement saying it wasn’t the RCA that had cast aspersions on Weiss: “Recent assertions that the Rabbinical Council of America advised the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to reject the testimony of RCA member Rabbi Avi Weiss are categorically untrue.”
But the RCA statement did not contain any expression of support for Weiss or endorsement of his commitment to halachah.
So on Monday I phoned up RCA’s executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch, to ask him whether or not the RCA stands by Weiss.
“We stand by his letters,” Dratch said.
But do you stand by him? I asked.
“He is a person who is committed to halachah, although there are many within the RCA that do not support every halachic position that he takes,” Dratch said. “Rabbi Weiss has done many wonderful things and continues to do many wonderful things for the Jewish people, but not everything he does is agreed to by members of the Rabbinical Council of America and so this is an ongoing discussion and debate.”
The debates, he said, concern Weiss’ ordination of women, among other things.
“There’s no official RCA position with regard to some of these matters,” Dratch said. “A majority of RCA members feel that some of his decisions are pushing the halachic red line or beyond that.”
Dratch called Weiss a “person of integrity.”
As for the dispute with the Israeli Rabbinate — which involves about a dozen other Orthodox rabbis who over the last few months have had their letters suddenly rejected by the Rabbinate — Dratch said his office is in constant contact with the Israelis.
“We are hopeful that we will be able to come to an understanding in the very near future about how to process these letters,” Dratch said. “Our goal is to be able to support the rabbis of the RCA, to be able to make sure that their letters are accepted by the Chief Rabbinate’s office.”
A nephew of a murdered Israeli soldier protests a Palestinian prisoner release. / Getty Images
For 26 Palestinians, this weekend will be the first one in decades spent at home with their families. They were released on Monday as part of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The discourse over prisoner releases tends to be dominated by the big questions about their desirability, morality, wisdom, and also the aftermath. Israel is understandably perturbed that the prisoners, many of whom were involved in serious acts of terrorism, were greeted as heroes by its negotiating partner, the Palestinian Authority.
But this release also raises a more basic question. All of those released were imprisoned before the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, and for a clear reason. Releasing prisoners from before the major change that Oslo brought about in Palestinian politics is less emotionally charged than releasing terrorists from a later period. The Second Intifada, for example, is far more raw in the Israeli psyche than the First Intifada.
Pro-Israel marchers walk along Fifth Avenue on May 5, 2002 in New York City. / Getty Images
While Americans continue to hold long-time allies like Great Britain and Canada in high esteem, they are pretty divided as to how they feel about some of the government’s other key allies — like Israel.
A recently published Pew Research Center poll reveals that 61% of Americans view Israel favorably, which puts it on par with Brazil in terms of likability, but lagging behind Germany (67%), Japan (70%), Great Britain (79%) and Canada (81%) among the 12 countries surveyed.
That level of support is not incredibly low, though perhaps disconcerting for Israel’s more zealous advocates. Just over a quarter of those surveyed (26%) said that they view Israel unfavorably, and presumably the jury was still out for the rest of those surveyed.
But when accounting for political affiliation, the Pew research reveals just how starkly the partisan divide plays into the issue. Only a little over half of Democrats (55%) said that they view Israel favorably, compared to nearly three quarters of Republicans (74%). Eighty-six percent of Republicans who lean toward supporting the Tea Party said they felt favorably about Israel.
A doctor performs a sonogram on a pregnant woman on November 9, 2011. / Getty Images
It’s not every day that progressives get to see encouraging policy changes coming out of Israel, so we should celebrate them when they do come along — even if they don’t go quite as far as we might like.
Starting next year, Israel will pay for all abortions for women between the ages of 20 and 33, health officials announced Monday. Currently, women under 20 or over 40 can receive subsidized abortions for personal reasons, but women in between those ages are only eligible in cases of medical emergency or forbidden relations like rape, incest or adultery — elective abortions aren’t covered. The new funding, which will cover elective abortions, is part of Israel’s state-subsidized “health basket” for 2014, and will go into effect pending approval by the Health Ministry and the Cabinet.
Contraception isn’t included under the new policy, but officials say that’s just due to budgetary constraints. They have indicated that they plan to expand coverage in the future, eventually offering subsidized abortions to women of all ages. In the meantime, this is a pretty good start.
And yet, it bears noting that women seeking state-funded abortions will still need to appear before a government committee to make their case and obtain approval. Even though the committees approve nearly all requests, this requirement is problematic because, as Roni Piso of the Isha l’Isha (Woman to Woman) organization has noted, “there are women who are afraid to approach the committees in the first place because they fear they are going to be turned down.”
Has Israel just eased the housing crisis — or issued an invitation for wanton wastage of natural resources?
From the start of 2014 on Wednesday, municipal taxes on second homes will double. Or to be accurate, taxes on all homes that are occupied for less than nine months a year will be double taxed.
This represents a new year’s resolution by the government to deal with so-called phantom apartments that are normally empty, many of them owned by Diaspora Jews and inhabited only during the big religious holidays and a few weeks in the summer. It is also directed against investors who purchased property to take advantage of Israel’s real estate boom and are waiting — with the property empty — for the right time to sell.
Israelis call for the release of Jonathan Pollard on March 19, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel.
“Hypocritical.” “Illegitimate.” “Unacceptable.” All these words and more are being used in Israeli political circles to describe Friday’s revelation that the NSA spied on former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former defense minister Ehud Barak in 2009.
And how does the Israeli right wing believe its government should respond to this revelation? Well, it should demand that the U.S. release Israeli-American spy Jonathan Pollard, a man sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of spying for Israel, pronto. Because, obviously, right?
This reaction is so absurd that not even Netanyahu — a longtime Pollard advocate — can assent to it. He agrees that the NSA espionage constitutes an egregious breach of trust between allies — as he made clear in a statement Monday. And he agrees that Pollard should be freed — as he reiterated Sunday in a renewed request for Pollard’s release. But even he is too embarrassed to suggest there’s any sort of causal link between the NSA espionage and the case for clemency where Pollard is concerned. In fact, he went out of his way to clarify that his request “is neither conditional on, nor related to, recent events, even though we have given our opinion on these developments.”
A Palestinian worker passes near the Aida refugee camp on December 21, 2005. / Getty Images
A friend and I lived and volunteered in the Aida refugee camp, just outside Bethlehem, for several months after graduating high school. It was a great and memorable experience for both of us, but living in tense regions of the world has more downsides than just poor resources and facilities, which are to be expected. There is also the almost constant fear that your own friends might be suspicious of you.
One night there was a loud thump on the front door of our home, as if someone had thrown a large stone or possibly a brick. It was followed by a louder thump, another bang and then a few seconds of calm. My friend and I quickly, almost instinctively, grabbed the largest kitchen knives we could find and ran, knives in hand, to the front door.
Peace Now members call for an Israel-Hamas ceasefire on January 10, 2009. / Getty Images
Former Knesset member Dr. Einat Wilf was recently invited and then uninvited by the influential Israeli NGO Peace Now to participate in its annual “Conference of the Left” meeting. In attempting to justify the abrupt reversal, Yariv Oppenheimer, the organization’s head, blamed Wilf’s membership in the International Advisory Council of NGO Monitor. Wilf, who entered the Knesset in 2010 as a member of the Labor Party, replied, “If the Israeli Left has no place for those who support a two-state solution and who also wage battle against those who seek to delegitimize Israel, it will not return to lead the country.”
This example of political blacklisting highlights the self-destructive ideological purity and conformity that has come to characterize many “progressive, liberal” Zionist NGOs and their supporters. Instead of engaging on the substance of criticism offered by NGO Monitor, which points to the exploitation of liberal values in the political warfare against Israel, groups like Peace Now have worked overtime to silence the messengers.
While Oppenheimer did not offer details regarding NGO Monitor’s violation of Peace Now’s litmus test, others filled in the charge sheet. Writing in The Forward, J.J. Goldberg supported the decision to disinvite Wilf due to her links to NGO Monitor. His justification cited a “quick search of the organization’s website,” which yielded “271 postings that discuss Peace Now, nearly all of them negatively.” If he had gone beyond Google stats, Goldberg would have discovered that nearly all the references to Peace Now are parenthetical or appear on European government lists of NGOs that they fund. Peace Now does not appear on NGO Monitor’s Index of over 100 NGOs, many (but not all) of which exploit human rights and humanitarian aid principles to demonize Israel.
On Sunday, the American Studies Association, of which I am a member, voted to support the academic boycott of Israel called for by Palestinian civil society. Included in their announcement of the vote are the statements of 13 scholars in support of the vote, among which I am included. Here is my statement:
I am a Jew with a daughter and three grandchildren who are citizens of Israel. I am a scholar of American Indian and Indigenous studies, who has in published word and action opposed settler colonialism wherever it exists, including of course the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It is worth noting in this respect that just as the myth of American exceptionalism seeks to erase the genocide and ongoing settler colonialism of Indigenous peoples here in the United States, so the myth of Israeli exceptionalism seeks to erase Israeli colonialism in Palestine and claim original rights to Palestinian lands. It is from these personal and professional positions that I applaud the decision of the NC to support the Academic boycott of Israel, which I support, and urge ASA members to affirm that support with their votes.
I offer the personal information in this statement so that people will know that I have an immediate interest in a just outcome for the Palestinian people, which would also be a just outcome for the state of Israel. Simply put, I want my grandchildren to grow up in a democracy, not in a state that proclaims itself a democracy while denying human rights to a population under its control — a population that has the right to a sovereign state of its own on territory currently under the colonial domination of Israel. We should remember that Palestinians on the West Bank live under Israeli martial law. I also believe that in the long run Israel cannot survive caught in the vice of this political contradiction. And I want Israel to survive.
Professionally, I have my investments as well, to which the statement alludes. As a professor of Native American and Indigenous studies, I am acutely aware of how the agendas of settler colonialism — land grab being the primary one as it is in Palestine — actively decimated the Indigenous population of the United States from an initial estimate of four to five million in 1492 in what would become the lower 48 states to 250,000 by the end of the nineteenth century. While the Native population has been growing since then and since 1924 Native peoples are citizens of the U.S., nevertheless the lasting effects and ongoing forms of settler colonialism are instrumental in making Native peoples the poorest of the poor in the U.S.
Well, I certainly never had that happen before. In years of moderating sometimes heated public conversations, never has a panelist just walked off the stage. But that’s what Commentary editor John Podhoretz did Monday night. And I’m still trying to figure out why.
Of course, I expected a feisty evening when the venerable 92nd Street Y asked me to moderate a panel about what it means to be “pro-Israel” (their words), with Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street; David Harris, executive director of American Jewish Committee, and Podhoretz. And from the outset, it was clear that Ben-Ami and Podhoretz were going to disagree about everything, with Harris positioning himself — literally and figuratively — in the middle.
We talked about the latest controversy at the Swarthmore College Hillel, and who should or should not be invited to speak at a Jewish institution.
Yesterday, an Ethiopian-born lawmaker was told at a Knesset blood drive that the state doesn’t want her blood because of her origins. I know how she feels.
There is widespread outrage following the news that Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian born Knesset member, was told not to donate (or that she could donate but the blood probably wouldn’t be used). Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein threw the blood collection stand out of parliament, President Shimon Peres has condemned the decision, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has voiced concern.
The shunning of Tamano-Shata stems from a policy that generated much publicity in the past but long ago fell off the public agenda. Since 1997, the Israeli Ministry of Health has prohibited donations from people who were born or who lived in a country with high HIV incidence.
Israeli rules also make me persona-non-grata at blood donation stands. On my most recent attempted donation, I was in a hospital, killing time as my wife underwent a procedure, thinking that it would be fitting to do a good deed as she was on the receiving end of medical care. But no, I still wasn’t welcome, and given that blood donation is an honored tradition in my family — my father has given many times his body weight — it’s an unhappy feeling.
The reason for my rejection? Remember 1986 and the start of Britain’s “mad cow disease crisis? Well it’s because of that. I’m British, and anyone who lived in Britain for more than six months between 1980 and 1996 still can’t donate blood in Israel because of “mad cow disease.” I get the same kind of response from the blood stand staff as I saw on the video of Tamano-Shata’s attempted donation — an embarrassed statement of the rules with a tacit understanding between us that they are outdated.
In recent years, the Israeli left has argued strongly for freedom of expression and open debate, often in the face of calls from the right for the silencing of such-and-such an NGO, conference, or political event. But it seems that open-mindedness isn’t universal across the left.
Einat Wilf, a former lawmaker for the Labor and Independence parties, says that she has just been uninvited from an upcoming Peace Now conference on the grounds that she serves on the International Advisory Council of NGO Monitor.
NGO Monitor is a self-appointed watchdog group that looks in to the operation of Israel’s non-profits, mainly those on the left. It is highly critical of many of the groups, including Yesh Din and B’Tselem, close allies of Peace Now, and constantly criticizes the fact that they receive funding from foreign governments.
Some of NGO Monitor’s supporters are strongly right wing. Others, such as the American law professor Alan Dershowitz who serves alongside Wilf on the International Advisory Council, embrace call for a two-state solution. But seemingly as far as Peace Now is concerned, membership of a group that locks horns with its allies puts even a left-leaning politician beyond the pale.
“If the Israeli Left has no place for those who support a two-state solution and who also wage battle against those who seek to delegitimize Israel, it will not return to lead the country,” Wilf said.
Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now, told the Forward that leadership of NGO Monitor is a “red flag” for Peace Now. He denied that this is because of “ideological dispute” and said it is rather because the group “tries to silence human rights organizations and civil society organizations.”
I recently interviewed Yehudah Glick for the Forward. He’s, an Israeli Jewish activist who went on a hunger strike after being banned from the Temple Mount.
While writing the introduction for the Q&A, I tried to dot all my i’s and cross my t’s, making sure to mention that the Haram al-Sharif (as the Temple Mount is known to Muslims) is administered by the Muslim Waqf. I explained that although Israeli law enshrines free access to religious sites, the Israeli police are given discretion to control that access, and also why the Waqf is wary of people like Glick, who want Jews to be able to worship on the Temple Mount.
I was pleased with myself for covering all bases—providing context and avoiding one-sided or loaded language. However, that feel good moment was short-lived, as I realized that I have probably been less careful when writing other pieces dealing with matters related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One read through “Use With Care: A Reporter’s Glossary of Loaded Language in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” confirmed so.
The glossary, put out by the Vienna-based International Press Institute, is a useful tool and reminder to journalists to make sure they say what they mean and mean what they say. Although the guide aims for clarity, the identities of its authors have been obscured. Because of the political sensitivity of working together on this project, the six contributing Israeli and Palestinian journalists and media experts opted to remain anonymous.
There are many nuances behind common expressions associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, partisan writers deliberately choose to use loaded language. But journalists aiming to be as even handed as possible would be advised to keep this 60-page booklet handy. This is especially so for foreign reporters who might not have spent a lot of time on the ground in the region, or followed the conflict closely over the decades.
To borrow a phrase from Don McLean, here in Israel, yesterday was the day the music died.
Just as Buddy Holly, who McLean was singing about, was an American icon, Arik Einstein, who passed away aged 74, was an Israeli icon. He was the man who moved on the ideologically earnest music of the Zionist pioneers to create the modern genre of Hebrew music.
Einstein merged the folksy Hebrew style with mainstream rock and roll, and in so doing created Israel’s soundtrack to the 1960s — and to every decade since.
From the moment that news of his hospitalization broke yesterday afternoon until now, his has been the only music playing on the main radio stations here. DJs and news commentators are struggling to find words to communicate the magnitude of his passing. They are comparing him to every great singer, including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.
But the comparisons are in vain. Yes, he had an echo of all these stars, but he was very much his own man, and a quintessentially Israeli star. In fact, as the quintessentially Israeli musical star, there’s nobody who preceded him to compare him to.
His are the songs that characterized the slightly idealistic and very emotional style of music that became the Israeli mainstream. His “You and I Will Change the World” is the song that countless couples in Israel have dreamed to and got engaged to. His “Fly Away Chick” is the song that hundreds of thousands of kindergarten children have graduated to.
The list goes on. His songs are the soundtrack to Independence Day barbecues, youth group campfires, and long summer evenings in Tel Aviv cafes. They provided solace to the young Israelis who sat in the streets with candles in 1995 after Yitzhak Rabin was shot.
Generations of foreign Jews on summer trips and Birthright programs have heard his music, courtesy of their Israeli guides, on coaches and end-of-holiday parties. Many of them may not even know the name Einstein, but have the music etched on their minds as their own “sound of Israel.”
Israel’s musical scene today is lively. But there isn’t another star of Einstein’s stature.
(JTA) — Amid the grief over the passing of iconic Israeli singer Arik Einstein, the internet has given us a gem: Bibi Netanyahu and Shimon Peres — together, in the nineties — singing one of Einstein’s best-known songs, “Ani v’Ata” (You and I).
The clip starts with Israeli celebrities Ofra Haza and Dan Shilon singing the song on stage, but at about 1:30 they descend to Bibi and Peres, who stand and somewhat awkwardly sing along. Bibi — who wrote not one but two Facebook posts mourning Einstein yesterday — adds his confident baritone to the melody.
Peres, though, doesn’t appear to know the words to one of Israel’s most famous songs. After joining in for the opening line, his mouth hardly moves and we can barely hear his voice. I guess, unlike me, Peres was not forced to sing “Ani v’Ata” over and over at Jewish summer camp as a child.
The video’s description says it was shot in 1995 and calls Bibi the prime minister and Peres former prime minister.
But in 1995, Bibi led the Knesset opposition while Peres served as foreign minister under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. One year later, Bibi would edge Peres out in an upset election victory. Now, of course, Bibi is prime minister and Peres is Israel’s president.
See the video below:
Israel’s High Court of Justice struck down Israel’s practice of indefinitely detaining many non-Jewish African asylum seekers without due process in September. The unanimous court ruled that this detention policy violated Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and ordered the government to assess the individual cases of the 1,750 detained asylum seekers for release by December 15.
High Court Justice Arbel wrote in his court opinion that prolonged detention was inconsistent with Jewish values.
“We cannot deprive people of basic rights, using a heavy hand to impact their freedom and dignity, as part of a solution to a problem that demands a suitable, systemic and national solution,” he wrote. “We cannot forget our basic values, drawn from the Declaration of Independence, as well as our moral duty towards every human being, as inscribed in the country’s basic principles as a Jewish and democratic state.”
The judge even quoted Deuteronomy:
You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your gates which is beneficial for him; you shall not mistreat him.
One would have thought the Israeli government would have read the ruling and taken a different path. Whether one wants Israel to be more Jewish, more democratic, equally Democratic and Jewish, or neither for that matter, Justice Arbel summed up the legal and ethical laws and reasons why the detention policy was wrong and would now be outlawed.
Unfortunately, Israel has ignored the spirit of the ruling.
The Forward is partnering with other Jewish newspapers to offer our readers a peek at some of the best stories from around the country, as selected by the editors at those papers. We will offer a selection of unedited links with brief introductions from the editors of the papers.
By Jonah Lowenfeld
On Rosh Hashanah 2012, just a few weeks before the presidential election, Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe offered his congregants a sermon titled “The Most Important Question in the World Today.” In it, he told his congregation he was, at that moment, a single-issue voter: “I will vote for whichever candidate seems likelier to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Wolpe said.
With that election long past, whom Wolpe voted for may now be immaterial, but the issue he pointed to continues to be of vital concern to Americans and, in particular, American Jewry. This week, as negotiators from the United States and five other world powers (known as the P5+1) come together in Geneva for a new round of talks with their Iranian counterparts, American Jews concerned about Israel face an even more urgent — and perhaps more uncomfortable — variation on that question: Can Jews trust the Obama administration with Israel’s future?
Read the complete story at The Jewish Journal