J.J. Goldberg

Settlements, Snub Cause Latest U.S.-Israel Strain

By J.J. Goldberg

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning a massive new wave of construction in the West Bank, according to a report Sunday night on Israel’s Channel 2 News. It’s part of a deal to calm his restive allies in the settler-backed Jewish Home party. The Channel 2 report has since been confirmed independently by Haaretz, Walla News and other news outlets.

The plans reportedly include some 2,000 new homes, mostly but not all in the so-called settlement blocs that Israel expects to keep permanently. Also included are 12 new roads, infrastructure projects, a park, student housing and the legalization of several illegal settlement outposts. The deal also includes a renovation of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a plan that’s likely to cause new flare-ups at the site, a constant flashpoint that’s holy to both Jews and Muslims.

The plans are to be finalized at a meeting Wednesday between Netanyahu, economics minister Naftali Bennett and housing minister Uri Ariel, both of Jewish Home, transportation minister Yisrael Katz of Likud and finance minister Yair Lapid. Haaretz reported that Netanyahu had not yet approved the 2,000 housing units, which he fears will increase tensions with Washington and Europe, and is trying to appease the rightists with the transportation and infrastructure projects. Lapid issued a statement following the Channel 2 report that he opposed construction outside the settlement blocs, and that the timing of the overall deal “will cause harm to Israel.” He said the plan “will lead to a serious crisis in Israel-U.S. relations and will harm Israel’s standing in the world.”

The decision comes at an explosive moment in U.S.-Israel relations. Just this past Friday analysts across the Israeli political spectrum were describing the relationship as having plunged to a historic low point in the wake of defense minister Moshe Yaalon’s visit to Washington last week. Shortly after departing Washington, Yaalon was dealt a humiliating slap when unnamed administration officials told Yediot Ahronot that the minister had been refused permission to meet with senior administration officials including Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and national security adviser Susan Rice.

The refusals come in apparent retaliation for a series of recent incidents in which Yaalon attacked administration policy and personally insulted Kerry.

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Avraham Verdiger, 92, Was Haredi Labor's Last Leader

By J.J. Goldberg

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.

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Top U.S. General: We Pay a Price for Backing Israel

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
General James Mattis during Senate confirmation hearings, 2010.

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:

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The Israel Project to N.Y. Times: Expose Anti-Israel NGOs, Too — Like the New Israel Fund

By J.J. Goldberg

A little before midnight on Monday, July 5, the New York Times posted on its website its lengthy, deeply reported investigative piece on U.S. tax-exempt donations that go to fund settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the right-wing American charities that channel those donations, including some that seemed in the Times piece to flirt with or outright violate IRS rules.

At 7:55 a.m. Eastern time, an action alert was e-mailed out by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi of The Israel Project, the Washington-based non-profit that helps clarify Israel’s dilemmas to the world media, supposedly without taking sides in Israel’s internal politics. She complained that if the Times wants “to do a story on groups that use tax status to do work in Israel, they should show BOTH sides.” And she offered a list of “just SOME of the Anti-Israel groups that use the same tax status” but “were not mentioned in the NYT piece.” In a place of honor at the bottom of the list: the New Israel Fund.

I don’t recall Laszlo complaining when Maariv gave front page coverage to Im Tirtzu’s sliming of the New Israel Fund and other “anti-Israel” NGOs that they should have included Irving Moskowitz or the friends of Ateret Cohanim in order to give both sides.

In her memo Laszlo urged her network to contact “the expert on this topic,” Gerald Steinberg of the Israel-based NGO Monitor.

And sure enough, Gerald Steinberg put out a release at 10:28 a.m., reproducing Laszlo’s list of Anti-Israel NGOs but moving the New Israel Fund from the bottom of the list to a prominent place at the top.

Here’s Laszlo’s memo, followed by Steinberg’s release:

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An Israeli General Explains Why Stopping Iran Requires a Real Settlement Freeze

By J.J. Goldberg

Why should Israel have to freeze new Jewish housing construction in East Jerusalem, when it has already conceded so much and the Palestinians and their Arab patrons have given up so little?

Well, for one thing, that Israel-gave-lots/Arabs-gave-little equation is not as cut and dry as it seems. But that’s a separate discussion for another day. The essential question is this: America says it needs the freeze for reasons of American security. Does Israel owe it to America to answer American security needs as America answers Israel’s security needs? And if it doesn’t, what are the consequences?

Haaretz has two opinion essays right now arguing that Israel should freeze construction because it needs to stop Iran’s nuclear project and it needs America to lead the effort. One piece is by Ari Shavit, the prolific and unpredictable center-left interviewer/essayist. Its bottom line is that Bibi Netanyahu has boxed himself into a corner through a series of missteps over the past year and he needs to do something dramatic to get himself out of it:

The road to Iran also passes through Palestine. The price of stopping the centrifuges is giving up settlements. Only if Netanyahu acts with determination in this spirit can he right the great injustice he has done to himself over the past year. Only Netanyahu can save Netanyahu from destruction.

The other piece is considerably more substantive and compelling. It’s by Ephraim Sneh, a reserve brigadier general, former West Bank civil administration head (military governor), former deputy defense minister, former transportation minister, former health minister (he’s also an MD). Unlike Shavit he stays away from personal issues of Netanyahu versus Obama and sticks to a cold analysis of Israeli strategic interest.

Sneh lays out 10 “assumptions” that he says must be taken into account when attempting to unravel the current “fundamental and serious” crisis in U.S.-Israel relations. I won’t try to summarize them, because Sneh presents them in a terse, compelling flow. Here’s how he puts it:

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Religion Wars: Bishops vs. Congress, Rabbis vs. Israel Defense Force

By J.J. Goldberg

Confrontations between religious authority and electoral democracy continued to simmer on a number of sensitive fronts today (Sunday, November 22). Wherever you looked, no one was showing any sign of backing down.

Item: In Rhode Island, the Providence Journal reported a claim by Representative Patrick Kennedy that he had been barred from receiving communion by the Catholic bishop of Providence, Thomas Tobin, because of his position on abortion. Later in the day the bishop told the Associated Press that he had only “asked” Kennedy not to receive communion, way back in 2007, because his views were out of step with church teaching. Patrick Kennedy is the last of his famous family, the best-known family in American Catholicism, to hold public office. The new flare-up came on the 46th anniversary of his uncle John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

According to the Web site Catholic Online (catholic.org),

This letter was in response to Kennedy’s public defiance against the truth revealed in the Natural Law, confirmed by science, affirmed in Scripture and the Tradition and taught infallibly by the Magisterium (teaching office) of the Catholic Church concerning the fundamental Human Right to Life. This matter recently surfaced when Kennedy publicly contended with the Church over the US Bishops’ heroic insistence that the proposed “Health Care Reform” which recently cleared the House not provide funding for abortion.

Item: Outside Tel Aviv, Israeli military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi welcomed new inductees to the Golani infantry brigade on Sunday with a tough speech warning against refusal to obey orders. He was alluding to a spate of recent incidents in another infantry brigade, Kfir, in which soldiers held up banners vowing to refuse orders to dismantle settlements. “This is my message to the religious leadership: soldiers answer to one authority only, and that is their commanding officers,” Ashkenazi told the soldiers, according to the Jerusalem Post. Golani is one of several infantry brigades with a high proportion of religious-nationalist soldiers.

Item: Thirty-five prominent rabbis gathered in Jerusalem on Sunday for a public display of support for military yeshivas accused of encouraging insubordination, according to a Hebrew-language report in Maariv. Several participating rabbis directly endorsed disobeying orders to dismantle, citing rulings by the late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira that rabbinic law forbids “expelling Jews” from the land of Israel.

Item: A coalition of leading Christian conservatives from a variety of denominations released a manifesto on Friday, November 20, The Manhattan Declaration, reaffirming “fundamental truths about justice and the common good” and calling for a stepped-up public campaign to defend those truths. The truths include:

  1. the sanctity of life
  2. the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
  3. the rights of conscience and religious liberty.

Item 3 might seem contradictory, since items 1 and 2 call for denying access to abortion and same-sex marriage even for those whose religions permit them (or, in Judaism’s view of some pregnancies, require them). The way the document explains it, however, what’s at issue is actually the right to refuse to perform abortions and to deny recognition of same-sex marriage, not the other way around.

The 4,700-word Manhattan Declaration is signed by 125 Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical leaders. They include such familiar names as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Gary Bauer of American Families and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. Also included are the Catholic archbishops of Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Washington, D.C.; a gaggle of bishops from the conservative wing of the Episcopal Church, plus Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Watergate felon-turned-evangelist Chuck Colson.

One of the document’s critical arguments concerns the rule of law and and the right – or duty – of civil disobedience:

As Christians, we take seriously the Biblical admonition to respect and obey those in authority. We believe in law and in the rule of law. We recognize the duty to comply with laws whether we happen to like them or not, unless the laws are gravely unjust or require those subject to them to do something unjust or otherwise immoral. The biblical purpose of law is to preserve order and serve justice and the common good; yet laws that are unjust – and especially laws that purport to compel citizens to do what is unjust - undermine the common good, rather than serve it.

Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.

Replace words like “abortions,” “embryo-destructive research” and “marriage and the family” with “expelling Jews” and “evacuating portions of the Land of Israel” and further replace “preserve order and serve justice” with “seek peace and avoid bloodshed” – and you’ve got precisely the doctrine that the Land of Israel rabbis have in mind.

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Settlements Aren’t the Problem? Tell the Troops

By J.J. Goldberg

Israel’s military brass is mildly frantic over a spreading phenomenon of political protest within the infantry ranks by soldiers threatening to disobey if ordered to dismantle settlement structures. Efforts to stem the threats are generating tensions between the military command and a network of army-linked yeshivas.

Twice in the past month soldiers in the West Bank-based Kfir Brigade have unfurled large banners declaring that their battalions would not “expel Jews.” Both incidents followed battalion operations to demolish illegal buildings in settlements.

A third banner was discovered today (November 19) at the Kfir training base in the Jordan Valley. Base commanders were uncertain who made it or when it was to be displayed, according to Ynetnews.com.

The first incident occurred October 22 at an induction ceremony at the Western Wall for recruits to the Shimshon Battalion, which had recently dismantled illegal buildings at Homesh, one of four settlements in the northern West Bank evacuated during the 2005 disengagement and now off-limits to Israeli civilians. The second incident occurred November 16 in the Nahshon Battalion, which had dismantled two illegal buildings at Neguhot, south of Hebron.

In all, six soldiers from the two units have been court-martialed and handed jail sentences ranging from 14 to 30 days. Four of them were demoted and permanently barred from combat units.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on November 17, the day after the second incident, that if “refusal” to follow orders gains ground, “it will bring about the collapse of the state.” Other leaders have issued similar warnings in recent weeks.

Within the army’s general command, particular attention is focused on yeshivot hesder, 41 military-linked rabbinical academies housing special army units that divide their army service between active duty and Talmud study. The deans of several Hesder yeshivas are said to have taught that soldiers must disobey commands contrary to religious law. The chief of the Israel Defense Force’s Manpower Division, General Avi Zamir, met with the five-man executive committee of the Union of Hesder Yeshivas November 17 and demanded that the union issue a clear statement condemning insubordination, according to various Orthodox and secular news outlets.

Unnamed army sources told Ynet that particular scrutiny was focused on the Elon Moreh yeshiva, headed by Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, and the Har Bracha yeshiva under Rabbi Eliezer Melamed.

According to a Ynet report that was only partially translated into English, Zamir warned that yeshivas that had not begun taking firm, explicit action against insubordination within a week would have their ties with the army reexamined.

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