I get the impression that a lot of folks are feeling lost and helpless right now as we watch the tragedy unfolding in Israel and Gaza. Especially with Tisha b’Av approaching, people are looking for some way to express what they’re feeling in a manner that joins them with others in a community of spirit, of longing and grief and hope. I gather, too, that many of us are tired of the rancor that divides us when what we really want is to feel the bond of kinship that transcends political differences.
For what it’s worth, my own feeling is that the best way to reach across that empty space and fold myself into the spirit of the Jewish community, transcending the rancor and reaching back over the generations, is by prayer. Not the close-your-eyes-and-listen-to-the-universe sort of prayer — not that there’s anything wrong with that if it works for you — but I’m talking about reciting Hebrew prayers as Jews are reciting them around the world and have been for years. When we speak together in unison, we become joined in spirit in a way that transcends differences of the moment. (Yes, even gigantic moral differences can be transcended. If we let them.)
Right now I’m thinking about the Prayer for the State of Israel. Basically the one composed in 1949 by the chief rabbis of Israel, Yitzhak Halevi Herzog (yup, grandfather of) and Ben-Zion Uziel, though some say it was composed for them by the future Nobel laureate author Shmuel Yosef Agnon. The original been adapted and rewritten dozens of times to express the feelings and beliefs of our diverse communities around the world, which is in itself a very honored tradition in Jewish prayer (that’s why even in Orthodoxy there are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Hasidic and other prayerbooks). The Union for Reform Judaism has a nice selection of prayers for Israel on its website (find it here). Conservative congregations traditionally recite just the first two paragraphs. A favorite among Reconstructionists and other progressives is based on the one developed by Congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem (here), which elegantly gets around patriarchal language.
My own absolute favorite, though, happens to be the one used in my own minyan, which comes from Rabbi Ben-Zion Bokser’s 1983 prayerbook. To my mind it finds a beautiful middle ground between the triumphalism of the chief rabbis’ original and the universalism of many newer versions:
Prayer for the State of Israel
Our father in heaven, rock and redeemer of Israel, bless the State of Israel, [that it may be] the first flowering of our redemption. Guard over it with your lovingkindness, envelop it in your peace, and cast your light and truth upon its leaders, ministers and advisers, and bolster them with good counsel before you.
Yuval Diskin, who served as director of Israel’s Shin Bet security service from 2005 to 2011, posted some rather blunt observations on his Facebook page this morning regarding the tit-for-tat murders of teenagers, the Palestinian rioting in East Jerusalem and the Triangle (the Arab population center south of Haifa) and what he fears is coming down the pike.
It strikes me that he’s probably saying a lot of what IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz was thinking at this week’s security cabinet meeting, when Gantz’s far more restrained comments led to a tongue-lashing from Naftali Bennett. In other words, this is how the current meltdown looks to much of the top Israeli military and intelligence brass. It’s what they’ve been saying privately while in uniform and publicly after retiring (and occasionally even while still in uniform). I’ve taken the liberty of translating Diskin’s Hebrew into English.
Dear friends: Take a few moments to read the following words and share them with others. I see the severe and rapid deterioration of the security situation in the territories, Jerusalem and the Triangle and I’m not surprised. Don’t be confused for a moment. This is the result of the policy conducted by the current government, whose essence is: Let’s frighten the public over everything that’s happening around us in the Middle East, let’s prove that there’s no Palestinian partner, let’s build more and more settlements and create a reality that can’t be changed, let’s continue not dealing with the severe problems of the Arab sector in Israel, let’s continue not solving the severe social gaps in Israeli society. This illusion worked wonderfully as long as the security establishment was able to provide impressive calm on the security front over the last few years as a result of the high-quality, dedicated work of the people of the Shin Bet, the IDF and the Israel Police as well as the Palestinians whose significant contribution to the relative calm in the West Bank should not be taken lightly.
However, the rapid deterioration we’re experiencing in the security situation did not come because of the vile murder of Naftali, Eyal and Gil-Ad, may their memories be blessed. The deterioration is first and foremost a result of the illusion that the government’s inaction on every front can actually freeze the situation in place, the illusion that “price tag” is simply a few slogans on the wall and not pure racism, the illusion that everything can be solved with a little more force, the illusion that the Palestinians will accept everything that’s done in the West Bank and won’t respond despite the rage and frustration and the worsening economic situation, the illusion that the international community won’t impose sanctions on us, that the Arab citizens of Israel won’t take to the streets at the end of the day because of the lack of care for their problems, and that the Israeli public will continue submissively to accept the government’s helplessness in dealing with the social gaps that its policies have created and are worsening, while corruption continues to poison everything good, and so on and so on.
But anyone who thinks the situation can tread water over the long run is making a mistake, and a big one. What’s been happening in the last few days can get much worse — even if things calm down momentarily. Don’t be fooled for a moment, because the enormous internal pressure will still be there, the combustible fumes in the air won’t diminish and if we don’t learn to lessen them the situation will get much worse. I’m reprinting here a portion of my speech at the tenth anniversary of the Geneva Initiative in December 2013, which was based on several articles I’ve written in the last few years. The words are based on my experience in the security arena in general, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in the schism between Jews and Arabs in the state of Israel in particular. It’s important to read in order to understand where we’re headed, because under the existing circumstances there aren’t too many other possibilities:
Hamas fighters testing a Gaza-made M-75 long-range missile, November 2013 / Getty Images
Maariv’s Eli Bardenstein offered a stunningly clear and disturbing report (in Hebrew, my translation below) on Friday that illustrates the vexing complications introduced into the triangular Jerusalem-Cairo-Gaza relationship by political turmoil in all three places. It makes a very useful companion piece to today’s front-page New York Times report by Jodi Rudoren on Israeli jitters over instability on its eastern front.
In both cases, as Bardenstein notes and Rudoren sort of hints, the Netanyahu government is ignoring the intelligence supplied by its own security establishment, which shows jihadi organizations making life difficult for both Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. The jihadis are creating turmoil, launching pinprick attacks on Israel that violate cease-fire agreements between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. Hamas and Hezbollah are both besieged — Hamas by the new, anti-Islamist Egyptian military government, Hezbollah by jihadi spillover from the Syrian civil war (as well as political blowback from the Rafiq Hariri murder trial now underway in The Hague) — and are finding it increasingly difficult to enforce their respective cease-fires with Israel. Israel — meaning principally defense minister Moshe Yaalon — chooses to ignore the intelligence, blame Hamas and Hezbollah and launch military responses that only further weaken Hamas and Hezbollah and strengthen the jihadis.
I’ve translated Bardenstein’s piece below, but here’s the gist: Israel is alarmed at the unraveling of the November 2012 Pillar of Defense cease-fire “understandings” and the increasing rocket fire from Gaza — 17 rockets fired in January alone as of Friday (and more since then). It wants Egypt, which acts as mediator between Israel and Hamas, to pressure Hamas to stop the rocket fire. But Egypt has lost influence over Hamas since the military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi last July. The military government’s approach is not to work with Hamas as Morsi did but to crack down on it.
Hamas, in turn, complains that the Egyptian crackdown — particularly the mass destruction of smuggling tunnels, which squeezes the Gaza economy — weakens Hamas rule and reduces its ability to control the jihadi organizations that are doing the firing. And both Cairo and Hamas complain that Israel has been making the situation worse by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s insistence on responding to every single rocket launching, no matter how ineffectual, with aerial bombardment.
Ultra-Orthodox Holocaust survivors at Zeilsheim DP camp in Germany, preparing to settle at Hafetz Haim, the first Haredi kibbutz, circa 1947 (Yad Vashem)
On the eve of Hanukkah, while the eyes of the world were fixed on the impending demise of one human rights champion, Nelson Mandela, and the sudden, unexpected emergence of another, Pope Francis, one the last century’s lesser-known workers’ rights leaders quietly slipped away in a Jerusalem hospital: Rabbi Avraham Verdiger, the last Knesset representative of the erstwhile Haredi-progressive party Poalei Agudat Yisrael.
Verdiger was born in May 1921 to a prominent Ger Hasidic family in Lodz, Poland, and died on November 27 at age 92. In between he obtained rabbinic ordination at the Mir yeshiva, the Harvard of anti-Hasidic, Lithuanian-style academies; organized ultra-Orthodox refugee aid in postwar Paris; settled in Israel in 1947 and fought in Jewish state’s 1948 war of independence; studied political science in Jerusalem; worked to encourage ultra-Orthodox participation in the military and the workforce; and served the Poalei Agudat Yisrael party as general secretary, Knesset leader and deputy minister from 1951 until 1996, when the party was swept away, a victim of the growing extremism of Haredi politics.
Poalei Agudat Yisrael (“Agudath Israel Workers’ Party”) was formed in Lodz in 1922 to defend the rights of ultra-Orthodox textile and garment workers facing discrimination and harassment from Orthodox Jewish business owners. The party began organizing Orthodox workers in Palestine beginning in 1923. Starting in the the 1930s, under the leadership of Verdiger’s cousin Binyamin Mintz, it built its own network of agricultural communities, including the ultra-Orthodox kibbutzim Hafetz Haim and Shaalavim, to pursue farming according to biblical rules. Its trade union division became an autonomous unit within the Histadrut labor federation in the mid-1950s.
The party won seats in every Knesset election from 1948 to 1992, sometimes independently, sometimes in a joint bloc with the larger Agudat Yisrael party. Its electoral base was about half the size of Agudat Yisrael’s—that is, it represented about one-third of the Haredi voter base. The two factions, Agudat Yisrael and Poalei Agudat Yisrael, were bitterly divided over the decision by Poalei Agudat Yisrael in 1960 to join the Labor-led coalition under David Ben-Gurion and accept a Cabinet ministry for party leader Mintz, in defiance of Agudat Yisrael’s ruling Council of Torah Sages, which has since 1949 forbidden Haredi lawmakers under its control from sitting around the Cabinet table of the Zionist government. To this day the Haredi party’s leaders accept only deputy ministerships, which permit them to run ministries without voting in the Cabinet.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed some 1,500 leaders of the top North American Jewish philanthropies to Jerusalem for their annual assembly with an angry denunciation of the Iranian nuclear negotiations that their government is leading in Geneva.
In a rambling, repetitive, hour-long speech that was by turns impassioned, sarcastic and bitter, Netanyahu attacked the deal that he said had been reached between Iran and the six Western powers that are negotiating over Iran’s nuclear program. He said the international community had imposed crippling sanctions on Iran in order to force an end to its uranium enrichment, a surrender of its enriched nuclear material and dismantling its centrifuges, but “now there is a deal” that eases the sanctions in return for virtually no Iranian concessions.
“Iran does not give up anything,” he said. “None of the demands that the Security Council adopted are met.”
The Sunday evening speech came a day after the negotiators in Geneva announced that no deal had been reached and the talks had been suspended after coming to an impasse. It was Netanyahu’s third major appearance of the day in which he denounced the nuclear negotiations, though in his earlier appearances—an interview on CBS News “Face the Nation” and remarks at his weekly Cabinet meeting—he acknowledged more clearly that a deal had in fact not been reached.
He has been denouncing the direction of the Geneva negotiations in extreme terms several times a day for the better part of a week. The campaign began just in time to greet Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest visit, his sixth visit to the region since taking office, to push Israeli-Palestinian negotiations forward. The Kerry visit came at a moment of crisis, as the secretary of state appeared to have been caught by surprise by Netanyahu’s hardline stance on the Palestinian issue when the two met in Rome in mid-October. Kerry came to Israel last week prepared to push hard for new flexibility. Netanyahu’s pushback on both issues, Iran and Palestine, is said to be causing severe strain in relations between the two countries.
Netanyahu repeatedly described the Iran deal in present-tense terms, though it had collapsed very publicly just the day before. His speech was framed to give the effect of depicting the allies’ proposal as a done deal and exaggerating its imbalance, saying Iran was giving away “nothing” when in fact it is called on to destroy its most highly fissile material, stop certain enrichment and idle its fastest centrifuges. His evident intention was to get Jewish activists to put pressure on Washington to harden its terms in advance of renewed talks later in the month.
Washington’s challenge, by contrast, is to pursue a strategy that can maximize pressure on Iran while minimizing the odds that the extraordinary coalition President Obama has carefully assembled, which includes China and Russia along with the traditional Western European allies, will collapse.
Faced with front-page news reports that countered his exaggerated message, Netanyahu implied that he was giving inside information: “What is being offered now—and I am being constantly updated in detail—is a deal in which Iran retains all of that capacity” (to prepare bomb-making materials).
Those who read my Friday blog post about the Israel-Diaspora deliberations going on in Jerusalem this week might have noticed that I mentioned a paradox in the way the discussions are going, but I never detailed the substance of the paradox. The sun was setting over the Mediterranean before I had a chance to finish my thought. So let’s try it again.
There are two main topics on minds of delegates attending the governing council meetings of the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Federations of North America. One is Jewish religious pluralism in Israel—the monopoly of the Orthodox rabbinate over Jewish religious life and the limits and hurdles placed before non-Orthodox denominations. The other is the Pew survey of Jewish Americans released October 1, with its stark intimations of a steady dilution in the strength of non-Orthodox Judaism. News summary], full survey report.
The first, religious pluralism, tops the agenda of Reform, Conservative and other liberal delegates to the various meetings. They make up a majority of the American delegations at all the major gatherings. True, Americans aren’t a majority at these events; Americans make up about 40% of world Jewry, Israelis another 40% and the rest of the world about 20%, and the non-Orthodox denominations are weak outside America. But the liberal denominations have formed an alliance with the left-wing Zionist delegations from Labor and Meretz, partly to counter the longstanding alliance between Likud and Orthodox. The result is that the liberals dominate wherever you look.
Marine Corps General James Mattis, who retired May 22 as chief of the U.S. Central Command, in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said in a speech at the prestigious Aspen Security Forum in Colorado last Saturday (July 20) that America needs to work “with a sense of urgency” to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because resentment of U.S. support for Israel hurts America militarily throughout the region.
He said the “current situation is unsustainable” and that America must act “with a sense of urgency” toward a two-state solution, because the chances “are starting to ebb because of the settlements and where they’re at.” If it fails, he said, the result will be “apartheid.” And then this bombshell:
I paid a military-security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.
Mattis’ predecessor as chief of CentCom, General David Petraeus, made much the same point in a briefing paper he submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2010, shortly before he handed CentCom over to Mattis. The passage on Israel (on Page 12) caused an explosive reaction (here is what the ADL had to say), though his actual testimony was far more equivocal than his written report. Commentary had a good rundown of the flap a few days later with both the written and spoken remarks in full. Petraeus tried to clear up the mess—some called it backtracking to cover his butt—in an ABC interview a week later.
Here’s a video of Mattis’ talk in Aspen (66 minutes in all). His comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict start at 41:22, and he returns to the subject in response to an audience question at 47:28.
Here’s the full text of Mattis’ Aspen comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped a bombshell today in a speech at the Plaza Hotel to about 500 people gathered by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations: Israel might accept a peace agreement in which parts of Jerusalem are handed over to a Palestinian state.
He said it backwards, but the message was unmistakable. Here are his words:
You all know that there are many Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that will remain in Israel regardless of any agreement that is reached.
Translation: It’s possible that an agreement (that is, something on which the parties agree) could be reached in which some Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem will not remain in Israel. I couldn’t get any Israelis to comment afterward.
It didn’t come as part of the prepared speech, but as part of his answer to one of the two written questions from the audience read to him afterward by Malcolm Hoenlein. (Did they arrange it in advance so he could slip the bombshell into an afterthought? Dunno yet.)
A new blog post by John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, routinely described as the most authoritative English-language journalist covering the Vatican, reports on a seldom-discussed irritant in Catholic-Jewish relations: Haredi youth spitting on robed Catholic clerics on the streets of Jerusalem. Here’s an excerpt:
Jews move to halt spitting at Christians in Jerusalem
Globally speaking, the most serious new tension dividing Jews and Catholics is Pope Benedict XVI’s decision just before Christmas to advance the sainthood cause of Pius XII, the wartime pontiff whose alleged “silence” on the Holocaust has long been a subject of polarizing historical debate.
On the ground in Jerusalem, however, Jewish/Christian animus has a much more prosaic cause: spitting.
Recently, the Jerusalem Post carried a piece quoting Rabbi David Rosen, a veteran of Catholic/Jewish dialogue, acknowledging that incidents of ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting at priests, nuns and other Christian clergy is “a part of life” in Jerusalem. Such incidents have been occurring for the last twenty years and are now on the rise, according to the story, although they appear to be limited to Jerusalem.
The piece quoted a Texas-born Franciscan, Fr. Athanasius Macora, who heads the Christian Information Center inside the Jaffa Gate, who said that he’s been spat upon by ultra-Orthodox Jews as much as fifteen times in the last six months — not only in the Old City, but also outside his Franciscan friary.
Aside from being disgusting, how serious a problem is this? On one hand, the victims quoted in the post say it’s an annoyance and they’re used to it. On the other hand, Allen mentions it in the same breath as the Pius XII sainthood feud; coming from someone like Allen, that’s a pretty strong hint that the Vatican is peeved. Indeed, the fact that Allen is reporting this means it’s on the minds of Vatican players.
All of which brings up two troubling thoughts:
The New York Times touched off a lively little debate Wednesday morning, probably unwittingly, with an article from its Jerusalem bureau that was headlined “Jewish Nationalists Clash With Palestinians.” You don’t see the term “Jewish nationalist” very often these days, except in historical discussions of Zionism and its attempt to rebuild the Jewish nation. Suddenly, here it is in the newspaper of record, describing a group of people who probably wouldn’t get much sympathy from most Times readers. It seems that more than a few New Yorkers woke up Wednesday morning, scanned the paper over a cup of coffee, came to Page A-12 and suddenly found themselves wondering if the Grey Lady was now using Zionism as a term of abuse, equating the movement for Jewish liberation with its most extreme wing.
I heard about the buzz before I checked the paper that morning when I found an email from my friend Andy Silow-Carroll, the editor of the New Jersey Jewish News. He had heard from an anxious reader who was wondering what to make of that headline. Then I heard about other people talking and emailing each other, trying to figure out what sort of insult was intended. The debate hit the media when the Huffington Post covered the clash in question, generating a thread of readers’ comments arguing the meaning and moral valence of the Times’ phrasing. Why would a distinguished newspaper with a large Jewish readership even think of using such charged language?
The answer is to be found, I think, in the ever-growing gap of incomprehension that divides Israelis and American Jews.
To begin with, the Hebrew word for “nationalist” is le’umi, from the word le’om meaning “nation.” (Le’umi also means simply “national,” as in Bank Leumi Le-Yisrael, or Israel National Bank.) It doesn’t particularly carry the emotional charge to Israeli ears that “nationalist” carries to Americans.
But there’s also a more subtle cultural message at work here.
The Nobel committee may not have done President Obama much of a favor in awarding him the Peace Prize. At best it’s a double-edged sword. As Yediot Ahronot’s Washington correspondent Yitzhak Ben-Horin points out in a smart news analysis on the paper’s Ynet Web site (in Hebrew — not yet translated into English as I post this), the prize is apparently intended to encourage Obama’s efforts on the international scene. But it could very well boomerang on him back home by sparking ridicule and deepening public skepticism toward him.
Most of the ridicule of the prize is off-base. As admirers and critics alike are pointing out, the peace prize has been used over time in two different ways, sometimes to honor achievements and sometimes to recognize efforts in hopes of encouraging them and moving them along. The mere fact of Obama’s winning the presidency on a platform of multilateralism abroad and a stronger welfare state at home has changed the nature of discussion around the world. America came to be viewed during the Bush years as an obstacle to human progress in countless areas where it very much counts, particularly reducing tensions between the West and Islam and addressing climate change. America is now part of the game. There’s hope once again for progress on basic global crises. That itself is an accomplishment.
Still, it’s at home that his legacy will ultimately be determined. The American right tends to take the Nobel Peace Prize as a badge of shame, in line with its general views of Europe, the United Nations, multilateralism and the rest. Will ridicule of Obama’s prize hurt him politically and slow his legislative agenda? That’s the core question right now. He needs to pass credible health reform or he’ll lose momentum and credibility on every other front. He needs to find a way to get the economy moving on the ground, where it counts, in employment and access to credit. He needs to pass climate change legislation, or the whole Kyoto-Copenhagen will stall once again.
Speaking of Obama’s credibility, it’s worth checking out this essential analysis of the current moment in Israeli-Palestinian relations by Haaretz’s Aluf Benn. Among other things, Benn argues that the administration’s efforts to deflect the Goldstone report effectively touched off the latest rioting in Jerusalem. The administration bluntly pressured Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority not to push for action on the report in the U.N. Human Rights Council. That badly weakened Abbas politically. The Jerusalem riots are the response, the Palestinian Authority’s way of showing its public that it still knows how to stand up to Israel.